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Interview with Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You has won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Edmund White describes ‘American literature [as] richer by one masterpiece’; Damon Galgut praises the beauty of Greenwell’s language, while James Wood writes, ‘In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension.’

 

Greenwell’s writing celebrates queer spaces and behaviours. His short story ‘Gospodar’, published in The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from the Paris Review, describes a hook-up that turns violent – the threat of violence is ever-present in his work, and so too is shame. The story’s protagonist struggles between a desire for sexual debasement and the requirement that his denigration be consensual. Here, as in the novel, shame and desire are bedfellows.

 

What Belongs to You was published following the passage of equal marriage legislation in the UK and US. Greenwell has spoken eloquently about the significance of marriage being available as a way of life for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. However, he, like many queer activists, has expressed concern about a creeping homonormativity, and the erasure of different, queer models of living. It remains unclear what the novel’s narrator and Mitko, the Bulgarian hustler at its heart, truly want or need from each other. Their relationship remains transactional. However, there is also a sense that hooks-ups, cruising spots – queer spaces – provide moments of fleeting intimacy unavailable to those confined to the norms of straight society. Just as the novel describes the lasting damage done to queer people by their difference, by the withholding of ‘a measure of the world’s beneficence’ that straight people take for granted, it appeals for tolerance, for grace, for those struggling in the face of systemic rejection. The conflicting demands of a desire to simply be, uninhibited, and for acceptance manifests itself in a desire that is, in some sense, strange and unknown even to its subject. His novel holds these conflicting forces in balance.

 

Yet the novel remains defiantly queer, with a moral undertone that castigates the failings of those parts of the LGBTQ movement that sees its work as done. Just as Mitko covets the American’s material possessions – his laptop, his iPod, ‘things he coveted and that I neglected and (no doubt he felt) didn’t deserve’ – so too there is a sense that we are too ready to see gay equality as a battle won, neglecting that the root of oppression remains unaddressed and that these victories have been bought with conformity to those norms demanded by the oppressor.

 

I met with Greenwell at the end of August to discuss the importance of gay identities and an anxiety that they can sometimes efface the subtleties of human desire and lived experience. Ultimately, can the layers of nuance of a novel like What Belongs to You ever be replicated in our politics, or are those on the fringes always mandated to talk about themselves in a manner that is politically expedient, at the sake of their lived reality?

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  At the novel’s London launch you said that the middle section was very personal, that you’d written it on scraps of paper. Is that something you still do, or you think would work again?

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  I do think that could be useful again. In fact, one of the projects I’m anxious to get back to is this very formless jungle of notes I made quite recently, that is kind of written in the same way. After finishing the novel, especially after going through edits, it was very difficult to get into a mode of creating again. Because that editing voice was so powerful. I learned a great deal about myself as a writer through that process. But, in order to get back into a composing mode, I need to turn that off. I found that writing in a notebook felt too formal. Even though I wrote in very cheap spiral bound notebooks, it still felt too formal. So I’d take pieces of paper and rip them up, and I found I could write on them in that way. It takes away any anxiety about making something good; it turns it into scrawling notes on sheets of paper. I felt like I needed to be able to break through that impasse of having spent so much time, working so intensely, to perfect sentences. And I needed to write really crappy sentences again to produce anything. So writing on scraps of paper is a powerful thing. It’s helpful for me.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  And how, when drawing on personal experience, do you know when to jump off, to avoid getting sucked down the hole of memoir?

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  To me, the difference between fiction and non-fiction, to the extent I think there is a difference, and of course it’s a very recent difference, and maybe not a very durable one, is a question of allegiance. Even the strictest non-fiction is filled with invention, deliberate or otherwise. The question of whether something is fiction or non-fiction depends to what extent one’s allegiance is to the truth, and to what extent one’s allegiance is to beauty or some other aesthetic effect. So in the middle section, where the external events hue fairly closely to autobiography, I still feel I was inventing all over the place. Where I feel like I wasn’t inventing, where I was using something true to life, it was because it seemed to me at that moment aesthetically useful, it was entirely opportunistic. It was not out of any allegiance to the truth, and I do think that’s an important distinction. Because even if we can never get fully away from invention, it still does seem to me important that a book that declares itself to be non-fiction has an allegiance to the truth, and to a verifiable or commonly held truth, not just the kind of truth that fiction can be after.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—   Coetzee repeatedly denies truth in interviews and essays, but no one I read seems to set such a high bar for what truth means, be it in a poetic or more everyday sense.

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  There is a kind of special power or efficacy in fiction and in imaginative art precisely because it so staunchly and uncompromisingly defends itself from the claims of truth, from its responsibility and usefulness. It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve travelled with the novel, because I’ve been surprised at how often I talk about politics, or how often I’ve been asked to address political issues around queer life, which is not a role I’m particularly comfortable with.

 

I recently heard somebody say that viewing works of art through a political lens is wonderful for the classroom, because it gives you so much to talk about, it makes art remarkably voluble to be forced to express a political opinion. But I feel deeply that art should be protected from any responsibility along those lines. It is precisely that freedom, created by that protection, which allows art to have whatever political efficacy it may have. Art that has a sort of overt, deliberate political bent is often really ineffective both as art and as politicking; because the difference between art and propaganda is that propaganda aims to have a single effect on the reader. Art never wants to provoke a single response. I buy into Yeats’s notion that art comes out of contraries, and that’s what creates a kind of aesthetic force. That makes art really ineffective as propaganda, even though it can be very powerful in the deeper political effect which is the kind of education and empathy that genuine art can enable. I say things as an activist that the artistic side of me immediately questions. The certainty with which one has to speak in the political realm of activism is the opposite of the realm of art, which is the realm of ambivalence and uncertainty and doubt.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  Yet the discourse around sexuality doesn’t acknowledge that sense of doubt. A recent poll in the UK found 43% of 18–24 year olds identify as neither gay nor straight. That is a problem from an activist point of view, which wants to posit sexuality as a truth, to be revealed and understood.

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  I find myself attached, in ways that I think are probably quite problematic, to sexual identity. The importance of gay or queer, as a public identity, allows for some kind of political efficacy in questions that are essential to day-to-day life. Then there is also a private sense to a tradition around this identity, a conversation across generations, languages, other kinds of identity, that the identity ‘gay’ allows.

 

One of the reason queer art has been so challenging, cosmopolitan and on the vanguard, is because of the quite magical way in which, when I was a 14-year-old in Kentucky, and could go to my local bookstore, where there was a lesbian and gay section, and pull off the shelf Yukio Mishima or James Baldwin or Edmund White and feel this sense of identification and kinship. Someone like Mishima, writing in a culture so different from my own, was still telling me the truth about myself. That in itself is problematic in all sorts of ways, and that identification feels complicated, but it still feels true. I do feel an attachment to that. Even as I welcome a greater sense of freedom around questions of sexual identification. I understand the resentment against that freedom, against the ease with which people can move or declare movement between categories now that the hard battles have been fought in certain very privileged parts of the world. I do think that the poll you mention would be very different if it were outside of the United Kingdom or the United States.

 

Hanya Yanagihara and I just did a conversation for Hello Mr. in the US, which brands itself as the ‘post-gay’ magazine. One of the questions that we asked ourselves was: do we believe in post-gay? And neither of us really do. But Yanagihara and I are of a similar age, and it’s fine for us to say we don’t believe in post-gay, but if people 20 years younger than us do, then it’s obviously a thing. I would certainly never claim that this is always or even often the case, but it seems to me that various kinds of homophobia parade under the banner of post-gay. For a while in my Twitter feed, there was a horrible app, an app for men who aren’t gay but have sex with men. So it was called Bros or something. Bros who know they’re not gay. It enraged me. There is something deeply homophobic in the ‘masc for masc’, ‘bro for bro’ culture that wants to say, we can fuck each other all we want but we’re not gay, we’re bros, we’re something else. That does seem to me dangerous. It perpetuates myths of masculinity that continue to do great harm.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  Recently, I picked up a book of gay histories, Robert Aldrich’s Gay Lives, and there was a section on Thomas Mann, another on Carson McCullers. It described her two marriages to Reeves McCullers, her liaisons with many men, yet described her as a lesbian. Is there a problem with the need for how those things have become talked about – when we could step back and say: well there is a certain aspect of same sex desire that is universal, something which many people feel to differing degrees?

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  It’s that distinction between activism and artistry; being torn between the political efficacy – necessity – of affirming these artists whose same sex attraction has been so vociferously denied, so it cuts through the noise of that denial, but at the expense of nuance. Artistry and deep thinking about literature and human beings requires a kind of nuance that gets lost in the noise of public discussion. I think queer is a very useful word along these lines. It doesn’t seem for me to be at all controversial to talk about Thomas Mann as a queer writer, but it does seem controversial to talk about him as a gay writer. Also it seems in other ways that gay is the only choice, like when we’re talking about very heteronormative models of life, it seems to me to talk about that as queer is odd – like gay men or lesbians with a child. But queer is useful for that reason, it’s a term that cuts through cultural noise and allows room for nuance. When I talk about writing in a queer tradition, I think it’s important I do relate to Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf and people for whom ‘gay’ is too limited a label. It is important for me to claim them in that tradition.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  Do you think there’s a potential to claim apparently straight writers as queer writers? For example, I find something queer about the writing of Arthur Miller. Many of his plays are concerned with male intimacies, some are infused with homoeroticism, but he is also interested in challenging structures and systems, the effect of being other-ed.

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  I’m sympathetic to that argument to a degree, and then find I’m not! I want to insist that queerness can’t be applied to just anything, and that it does have to do with sexual acts and sexual bodies. One of the reasons Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is so brilliant is it gives you so many things to argue with. The line in that book I argue with most vociferously is when she talks about herself being a pregnant woman, and she talks about her pregnant body, and she says, ‘what could be more queer than that?’ And I think: lots of things are more queer than that! I think that child raising is part of the queer narrative – queer people have been getting pregnant and having children with each other for a long time – so I don’t think it’s radically queer to have a child. Of course, when she is in a relationship with a trans man, then that does seem a queer family. But the idea that just the transformation, that pregnancy is queer, because it radically transforms the body, seems to me deeply wrong. No, queerness does have something to do with subverting. Not the biological function itself but the cultural narratives that are associated with it. They are queering the narratives of marriage and child raising. So it really is that one line, taken out of context, that I found myself rebelling against. I think there is a specificity to the term queer. I’m not very sympathetic to straight people who say, we’re queer because of x, y, and z. I’m not really sure that’s true, because queer is a lived experience. But ultimately it is a fundamental principle of my life that people can identify however they want. It’s not that I would ever want to strip somebody of their queer card.

 

One thing that the term queer does that lesbian and gay doesn’t do any more, is that it does align you, even if only implicitly, with that aspect of the queer movement, that has espoused more radical social aims, and a deeper solidarity with other oppressed people. I think there is something horrifying that with marriage equality, there are these ‘LGBT activist organisations’ that are disbanding, saying, our work is done, and they’re saying this despite the fact that self-identifying LGBT people still make up 40 per cent of homeless teens in the US; and that black men who have sex with men are at extraordinary risk for new HIV transmission in the US. How can we claim as queer people that our work is done when that is the case? Identifying yourself as queer is claiming that part of LGBT history, which is the part of LGBT history which got covered-over in the marriage equality campaign.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  The novel succeeds in holding in tension a desire for an urgent radicalism and, at the same time, the profoundly moving, exhausted line delivered by Mitko: ‘I want to lead a normal life.’

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  I think that’s also true of many of us as individuals. That schism has existed in the LGBT movement from the very beginning, from that aspect of the movement that says, ‘We are the same as you, love is love, we’re not different at all.’ And that version that says, ‘No we’re quite different from you and we have distinct models of life and community and expression that are valuable in and of themselves.’ Those two differences, between a desire to assimilate and a desire to assert a radical difference, are also a schism within many queer people. That is the kind of contrary energy that can be very productive when it comes to works of art, and when it comes to life as a work of art. In politics it is much harder to sustain. In art I don’t feel a need to resolve that kind of contradiction, it feels like an animated contradiction. Politically, it doesn’t seem to me necessary to resolve that contradiction either, so much as assert a political position that allows for the greatest possible variety of models of life to be seen as legitimate – that seems to me what any political liberation movement has to mean.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  I was moved by the juxtaposition in the novel between the happy, almost Edenic scene, of the father and little girl by a waterfall, and then the memory of the time the narrator is rejected by his father. In the final section we watch the small boy on the train, confident of the love and approbation of adults; yet there is a sense in which queer children are excluded from this before they even understand why – I think of Mitko ‘accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence, even as so clearly it had been withheld him.’

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  It does seem to me plausible. That almost all queer kids grow up in an environment where the model they are presented for normal life is not a self-image. I don’t want to say it’s a traumatic entrance into selfhood, but I do think it’s a distinctive one, a kind of durable difference. I’m not at all sympathetic to essentialist ideas about what might go along with the fact a man has sex with a man, or a woman has sex with a woman. But the closest I would come might be a shared experience among queer people – if not universally shared then very broadly shared – it would be that experience of an entry into selfhood that is not frictionless. Maybe no entry into selfhood is frictionless – certainly psychoanalytic models suggest that that’s true – but maybe it is marked by friction of a particular sort. It is the reason I think gay as an identity is more durable than the conditions of a particular oppression. But I feel some writer sitting in his study and imagining things is not really the tool for answering those questions in any kind of acceptable way.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room is equally subtle and nuanced about desire and longing, without having to label it or laying any particular claim. Yet, that sense of difference and the particular problems associated with gay longing, were very clear at the same time.

 

A

Garth Greenwell

—  I owe that book so much, it’s so brilliant. I think this is the value of labelling certain writing art. Maybe that is the more important distinction between fiction and non-fiction: between writing that intends to be art, and writing that has some other intention. Calling your writing art opens up a space that declares a certain relationship or non-relationship to assertion. It protects you, and there’s a very powerful kind of thinking that can happen when you don’t have to assert something. In a series of lectures, published after his death in The Neutral, Barthes calls for the creation of a space for thinking that is entirely free from argument; free from the anxiety of assertion and defense. I think the figure Barthes uses is jousting. He wants the opposite of politics. One of the really valuable things art offers to human life is the space for that kind of thinking, and for the work that that thinking can do, which is a kind of more variegate and more profound seeing too, than the kind of thinking that is in the service of an argument. Galgut’s novel engages with and explores these questions in a way that doesn’t demand an answer, or doesn’t demand a singular answer.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

—  I wouldn’t want In a Strange Room to be a manifesto, but I’m not sure why In a Strange Room or What Belongs to You should be any less of an answer than a political standpoint. That’s problematic, clearly, but I would like to live in a world where art could be a higher form of answer than activism and politics.
A

Garth Greenwell

—  I think that’s what I mean. Art allows for an engagement with others that is sufficiently empathetic to not require winners and losers. Politics is the realm of winners and losers. Art is the realm in which contradictions can be held and not resolved, but held in a kind of beneficent stasis. Politics is Barthes’s figure of the joust. Someone is knocked off the horse, the way you know which idea wins is that somebody is on the ground. Art doesn’t require that, so in some ways I do think it’s a higher answer. I also think that it’s not very effective when it comes to getting marriage equality. But I do think it’s effective in terms of trying to understand the experience of life as it’s lived by another. That is the unique capability of literature as a technology. It’s the best technology we’ve developed for communicating the experience of consciousness – not in idea, not in argument, but the experience of consciousness as it’s lived by someone else. I don’t think any technology does it better than literature. I don’t think film does, or television does, I think literature is still that. And that is a higher answer to all those mysteries.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a writer and critic. He is a graduate of the UEA creative writing MA and is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.