01: Alexandra Kleeman
Alexandra Kleeman is a NYC-based writer of fiction and nonfiction, and the 2016 winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her fiction has been published in The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Gulf Coast, among others. Nonfiction essays and reportage have appeared in Harper's, Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Her work has received scholarships and grants from Bread Loaf, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, and ArtFarm Nebraska. She is the author of the debut novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine (Harper, 2015) and Intimations (Harper, 2016), a short story collection.
Elvis Blu Lawther studies photography at The New School and specializes in alternatively processed film.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on August 12, 2016, in Alexandra's Staten Island apartment. Elvis Blu Lawther photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
ALEXANDRA: I was always technically a girl, but I feel like I wasn't really treated like a girl by the world until I was older. Like I was always a really awkward kid. Glasses, only wore animal tee shirts, wouldn't let my mom brush my hair. I was sort of like a creature in the world. [I didn’t] embrace “cute young female.” So I feel like I kind of missed out on some of what that story would've been because if you don't have the conceptual or narrative structure [of femininity] built to organize all the stimuli, then you don't necessarily tell that story. So I'm kind of missing that.
My story is like, when I was this age I saw this underneath a rock, and then I moved here and I saw I Know What You Did Last Summer. [laughs] But when I was in 8th grade I remember a moment when someone had taken a photo for photo class of me and three of my friends, and I was just sitting on a desk, and someone else pointed at that photo, not even knowing I was listening, and said, “Oh, she's beautiful.” And I was like "What?" I had never thought about that, and now this is like, some new avenue I'm supposed to start trying to excel in. So it felt very external, and it felt like an avenue that opened up in real time. Like, I saw it happen, and I saw my brain start to refocus things and go like, “Well, do I want to do that? What do I want to do? Should I try to do this?” But I think because of that, all of the rituals of trying to shape and sculpt yourself for aesthetic purposes, those all seem sort of strange to me. Like they're all something that require conscious thought.
SOPHIA: Did your parents treat you as a creature in the world? Because some parents have very specific ideas of what their girl-child should be, and you didn't have siblings or anything, so what was that like?
ALEXANDRA: I was definitely allowed to choose what I was interested in, with some exceptions. I was really interested in Legos, I liked model animals. I liked molding clays and stuff like that. I liked pens that had spy functions built into them.
ALEXANDRA: But I remember my dad denied me watching Clarissa Explains It All. He hadn't even watched the show, but he was like "I can tell she's a bad role model for you.”
ALEXANDRA: But then like, a full year later, he was like "Actually I watched that show and I think she's a great model for you. You should watch it." And at that point I was just like, "Now I'm not going to do what you say." [laughs] “Because I don't understand what you want me to be, but I'm pretty sure I don’t just like, want to be that.” He also didn't really want me to listen to The Beatles because he thought they were overrated. Not a coherent ideology, just some random things that I was barred from doing. And I think it sounds strange, but when I was a girl, one of the number one things that my gender meant to me was this recurring thought: "Oh, I'm like a stronger body than a male body because if someone kicked me in my crotch I would be fine."
ALEXANDRA: I’ve got a bone there, and that makes so much sense design-wise. But I never shared these thoughts with other people, so I never got them like, critically assessed.
SOPHIA: Did you have female friends? And if so, what were they like?
ALEXANDRA: When I was a girl I had female friends by default because of the amount of effort it would take to establish a friendship with a boy, unless you were direct neighbors or placed together constantly by your parents. I was always friends with sort of charismatic girls who taught me a lot of stuff about the adult world that I wouldn't have learned on my own. There's something really special about being a young girl and being willing to misbehave that I always admired even though I didn't do it. It just always looked like a lot of fun to me.
When I got older and I kind of took more part in the world, partially by occupying what felt like a new position as like, a female romantic protagonist. I occupied more space in the world and I felt more engaged, because when I walked around in it I would just meet strangers all the time, and I would always be surprised by our interactions. I would always learn things about them, and it was a really good way for me to be an observer but still be interacting with people. Like, it was a comfortable position for me to be in. But then also lots of strange things about being the "quirky girl" to other people at that age, too?
SOPHIA: At what age would that be, and what did that mean to other people?
ALEXANDRA: Age seventeen to twenty-four or something? That was a time when it was easy to go through the world and meet guys who were older than you and interested in things you were interested in, and who you could learn some new things to read from, but who also wanted to teach you things. [laughs] So for a while almost all my friends were male, and all my close friends were male. I had close female friends, too, but those were relationships that were much more likely to implode, and it's only in the last maybe four years that I've had really strong, stable, fulfilling female friendships that are the structure of my friendship life. Which I think had to do with ironing out some kinks in my mood landscape, too? [laughs] Like not indulging the impulse to disappear or flee. That's like one of my things. I'm not likely to get angry too much, but I am likely to flee. That's not the sole cause, but part of a chain reaction that causes relationships to implode. Also if you feel like you want to flee a friendship, there's probably something wrong there.
When I was younger, my idea was that one of the benefits that you got as a man that enabled you to get a head start on other people was that you weren't expected to pay much attention to your gender; you could just go ahead and do whatever work you wanted to do, assuming it would be recognized for its own merits. And I thought, “I'm going to just adopt that. And by saving the energy on worrying about how I'm presenting myself, I'll get more done and I'll close that gap.” But in the last four years, I have become really interested in the way that my life is structured as a woman, the ways that I can modify that structure, and just the sort of texture of that life.
SOPHIA: What are practical or just theoretical ideas that come to you about modifying [a feminine] life?
ALEXANDRA: I think part of it is monitoring my impulses as I'm going through my writing and my writing career —recognizing what things I feel the impulse to do that I don't feel I should do, and then asking myself whether I think that that's gendered at all. For example, in the last few years I've begun writing and pitching nonfiction, which is not something I ever did before. And that's maybe intimidating for anyone trying to enter it without any prior experience, but I also knew that I was feeling a lot of things about politeness? About how I would come off to the person I was pitching to because I was an inexperienced woman, and the urges I felt to quit writing an email and quit bugging someone. And I know that I read that men are much less likely to take “no” for an answer, and I thought that like, even if I don't feel like it's my right to not take “no” for an answer, I'm just going to act as though I do and see how that feels. Because when I get interested in a story, whether it's a fictional story or a story that exists in the world, I get these really excited, anxious feelings and I don't feel better until I know that I'm on the path to writing it. So I just consciously choose to honor this other impulse, this impulse that I feel is pretty basic to my personality, and give myself permission to do [the socially “masculine” thing]. I feel that by reflecting on what is expected of me as a woman and then taking it apart, I have the freedom to incorporate new things into [my concept of womanhood].
Like, I was surprised when I moved here, because I think I had lived a sheltered life. I was in college and then I was in academia and a grad program, and for some reason all of my professional relationships were very unsexualized and very wholesome. Sometimes maybe there was a paternalism in the relationship, but it was like the better flavor of paternalism, you know? And when I came here I found that the publishing world is very sexualized. Like it was the first time that I ever had a teacher put his hand on my leg, and things like that. And I felt myself carrying my body around more, and I think maybe that's part of what made me interested in it. I think before then, even though I wouldn't like, ascribe to the theoretical proposition, I would think that “My body matters in my extracurricular life, but it doesn't matter in my academic life or my thought life.” But it does.
SOPHIA: I may or may not freak you out by this, but can you talk about technicolor.org?
ALEXANDRA: Oh man!
SOPHIA: I couldn't really find anything on it, but I'm asking this because you had mentioned growing up on the Internet as a formative-ish thing. So what was that like?
ALEXANDRA: [laughs] One thing that’s really personal to me is growing up in what I think of as the “old Internet.” The Internet now is still useful and interesting to me, but on the old Internet, it was possible to be anonymous. You can't even comment on articles now without having an account that's linked to all these verifiable and actually identity-connected things —like your Facebook profile actually reflects you, and it's difficult to get it not to reflect you. And this makes people overall more polite, but it makes it less intimate to me There's something really exciting about writing for the Internet at that time. Anyone could read it, you could read anyone's things, you could reach out to them because it was a smaller group of people. It still felt like it said something about your identity that you were writing on the Internet. And now it's like, if you don't write on the Internet, what's wrong with you?
Like I think about this Turing test and one of the examples he uses: if you have two people in separate rooms producing text output, you can play a game where one person tries to make you believe you're the gender of the other or whatever. The gender is undecidable. Sorry, that’s not the exact way of saying it. But like, gender was kind of a program that you could run. Or simulate. And that simulation in a text-based setting was basically the same thing as the real thing. It was indistinguishable. And I felt that way about the Internet then, too. You could kind of be anyone. You felt less tied to who you appeared to be to others in the real world.
So I wrote for that for years and then I stopped, I guess because I didn't really have anything else to say. I usually wrote about like, what I did that day, or why I was frustrated with my parents, or something I thought I had learned about the world from watching my dog. [laughs] I can't even read it now when I go back to it. It really rubs on me the wrong way. [laughs] There's something about looking back at text that you wrote a long time ago that makes the text feel kind of dinky and flimsy and gaudy. It's like it doesn't correspond with the feeling that you feel you had at that time. Unless you do a better and more careful job of writing your diary entries than I did.
SOPHIA: Your work has meant a great deal to me because it's like, gross and depressing and bizarre in a way that women are so rarely understood to be —of course by other people, but definitely within themselves, and that's the more significant of the two to me. Have you always felt this innate strangeness or was there a process during which you had to choose whether to integrate or reject it? And were there particular women who impacted that process at all?
ALEXANDRA: That's a really good question. I think that when I first looked at what it culturally seemed to mean to be a woman, it seemed very narrow compared to all of the things that I felt and experienced throughout the day. Being a woman was this bullseye that should feel powerful but in this very like, "slimmed" way, and clean and shiny with a little bit of personality in this one axis. And I was still carrying the baggage that all these “rituals of womanification” seemed strange to me. I always felt like there was a grossness to them, too. A dual beauty and grossness. So when I saw like, Marilyn Minter's photographs, that was a big moment to me because it was like, "Oh, you're allowed to articulate that. It isn't just some strange feeling in me that no one else shares."
I really liked reading about performance artists, like Eleanor Antin. It always felt like male performance artists were pushing against the boundaries of what was ok to do with a body in public, but assuming that the body was only male, and that there were no other possibilities in it that are exclusive to the female body. So with Eleanor Antin, just seeing that there were things you could do in art that you could only do if you paid attention to, acknowledged, and used the femaleness of your body was really exciting to me. And I think in a lot of ways I saw that happening more when I'd see and read about art than when I looked for it in literature, because the kinds of people that were held up to me as transgressive women writers like Djuna Barnes, or Anaïs Nin —they weren't really kindred spirits with me. My kindred spirits would be more like Thalia Field or Yoko Tawada. There’s something more analytical or alienated in the way that they occupy their gender, and I identify with that. And now I don't remember what the question was....
SOPHIA: It was more or less about to what extent was strangeness a decision to live out? And what did that feel like?
ALEXANDRA: Just being alive is strange. Like, I’d say that our everyday way of thinking about life is sort of like a script, and if you go off-script, then you find a million strange things about it. So I think that it's more likely that the strange is the reality than the strange is an exception to reality.
SOPHIA: So I know a lot of people have compared you to like, Pynchon and Delillo and other canonical Postmodernism dudes. And did you, in both your first experience and then your more studied experience in that literature, feel like it was particularly “dudely”? If so, did you try to intentionally go against that? Or do you even feel like a genre can be gendered at all?
ALEXANDRA: [laughs] I think it would be helpful if people did more work to bring what I think are ambitious, intellectually hungry novels actively into the same group as those, because there are so many that deserve to be compared to those books but haven't penetrated the canon in the same way —or when they have penetrated the canon, they're sorted into a different category. Like, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. That's canonical, but it gets sorted into like, South African fiction, or it's just not brought into the same conversation that those books are. And I love Don Delillo. I love Pynchon less. I don't know if I love Pynchon.
ALEXANDRA: I see why they compared my book to The Crying of Lot 49, but I don't identify very much with his other books. I think that [penetrating that canon] was a conscious decision at least. One thing I always liked about books like that was: look how much permission the author is giving themselves to put whatever they want into their world. Like, look how much they're letting themselves bite off, or at least try to chew on, you know? And I wanted to do that. It sounded like both more fun for the whole process of writing it, because it would make me happier and engage me more, but I also wanted to try to borrow some of that scope, but turn the focus on the things I felt like were completely left out of those sorts of books. Like, there's a deep symbol-system, a deep strangeness, and a heightened sensitivity around issues of identity and appearance that goes along with performing female gender. And I think that that's just as epic as the territories marked out by these other books. So I really wanted to go there.
SOPHIA: You told Vogue that "You have to find some way of engaging with the world around you, however it’s constituted. The engagement is necessarily going to be flawed. But if you do it on your own terms, you’ll be able to extract some pleasure from the world." With that said, what are "girl things" that are pleasurable to experience to you?
ALEXANDRA: [laughs] Yeah, well when I was a kid I always liked making things, painting things, doing things like that, and in a time when I don't really have time to paint or whatever, I like applying black stuff to my eyebrows.
ALEXANDRA: It's like painting a little model airplane.
ALEXANDRA: I take pleasure in the meticulousness of the whole makeup thing, even if I don't enjoy the physical feeling of it. I don't enjoy being able to feel like a not-skin-ness to my skin. It weirds me out a little bit. I like that you're given permission to decorate something --in this case yourself. And I feel like that exercises a part of myself that I know I wouldn't be able to exercise in that way if I were performing maleness. I don't think this is specifically a female thing, but I enjoy dragging my body through the world, and I feel the light on it and I feel the air on it, and especially wearing a skirt is so good because you can feel even more of the air, and the only other time you're allowed to let the air into those parts of your body is when you're home alone, but in this case you can do it in the world's air. I like that. Sometimes when I'm feeling, I don't know what word to use, but like, "school spirit" about my gender, I like to think I have more options to choose from when I'm talking to a stranger? Like I have more control over the conversation, I have different positions to take up than if I were a guy. And [from what I've noticed] from male friends and people that I've dated, I feel like to be female encourages the world to interact with you, often in negative ways, but also in non-negative ways, and I sort of enjoy being open to the world in that way. I feel like I can go anywhere. There's the issue of being unsafe if you go somewhere, but I feel like I'm not treated with suspicion when I go anywhere, and that lets me like, wander around and look at things, and show more curiosity than I might be allowed to otherwise? Yeah. Because of my harmless appearance. [laughs]
SOPHIA: This is bizarre, and you don't have to answer this, but speaking about people wanting to interact with you more as a woman in space and society, you are obviously beautiful and obviously strange, and you're also obviously tokenized because of that. How do you deal with this “you-not-you” that’s a tokenization of your like, flesh-being?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah! [laughs]
SOPHIA: And have you experienced that in different ways throughout your life? Has it come to be more or less traumatic, or have you had different ideas about what the consequences of that are?
ALEXANDRA: That's such a good question, and [it's] a lot of what I think of as the story of my life that can't really be told because I don't have good events to mark it on and they don't take place in a scene, but like, a lot of my personal growth has been in looking into this whole continuum of “me, world, other people,” and coming to be able to recognize membranes between them. My appearance: there’s the inner side of it to me, which I am pretty aware and conscious of, and I can feel attached to my body, and then there's an outside to it that kind of belongs to other people because they draw these conclusions from it that I don't really understand. Now through repetition I can recognize what some of those conclusions might be, but…I file it under something else. And creating another conceptual space for that was really helpful in understanding how to move through the world.
I have a friend, Molly Young, who's also a writer, and she and I were actually friends from weblog days. But we knew each other in college, too, and she just started going to this school and was like "I don't really know that many people." I'm like "well don't you just meet people all the time on the street?" She's extremely beautiful, like different level. And she's like, "No, I don't. No one talks to me on the street." And I was like, "Well, what do you do when you're on the street?" And she was like "Well I go and do my things, I go into the store, I come out." And I was like "Do you look at people? Do you look into their faces and recognize them and like, store their faces for the future?" And she was like "No, I don't really do that, I just do what I'm doing." And I was like "Well why don't you just try to do that? Notice, people, look at them, then they'll look at you, and maybe then you'll meet them if you like that." And I saw her a week later and she was like "I tried to do what you told me to do, and it was completely overwhelming and people were invading my day all the time, and I found it so disorienting, it's not for me."
ALEXANDRA: I think that she is too beautiful, so this isn't going to work for her. You have to find your way to be given the stuff you can't control. Like, carry your package through the world, I guess.
SOPHIA: What questions do you still have about having a body?
ALEXANDRA: [laughs] One of the things I like to think about now is aging because maybe at like twenty-eight or something, aging becomes perceivable or imaginable, and you can like, point to some things on yourself that are aging. And the first reaction is to be really scared of it, but I also think about the work that I've done to figure out how to happily occupy my body now, so as it changes, what other things will I be able to do? Like, one of the things that I'm trying to own as I get older is the ability to be rude? [laughs] I always felt really intimidated when people were rude to me in public in the city or something. I would carry around this burden of bad feeling afterwards, and now for some reason I feel like I could like tell them to fuck off, and that might feel really good! And so I'm trying to remember to do that in those situations if it's the right time, you know? I don't think I've actually carried it out, but that's one of the directions I'm willing to grow in as I get older. And also in the far future, when I'm not as good for exercise but I can still do crafts and things, I hope to do lots of pottery and stuff. [laughs]
SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need from each other at this moment?
ALEXANDRA: I don't know if this answers the question very directly, but one of the biggest pleasures of my last few years is being really close and stably connected to other women, and following their lives, and learning more and more about their feelings and their experiences, and just knowing other women, including women who initially seem…"un-good" to you? I've found it surprisingly easy and extremely rewarding to do the work of relating to women who you could feel an impulse to distance yourself from. Or something like that.
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