In this interview, Alanna Duncan spoke to writer Cyrus Grace Dunham about queer bodies, naming, memory, and his new book, A Year Without A Name. The book, Dunham’s first – a memoir – is out from publishing company Little, Brown this month. A member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, he lives in Los Angeles.
I have an obsession with the idea of queer form—thinking about the way that stories by queer/gender non-conforming (GNC)/trans writers subvert narrative norms and expectations. One of the subversive forms I saw in your book is the progression of time. Could you tell me about your decision to jump around in time? What did your structure enable you to do with the story?
I didn’t plan on writing about my childhood or adolescence. I really intended the book to unfold over a discrete period of time, a year or two. That only premise for the book was to write through, rather than about, my experience. But a few months into writing, it became obvious that there was no way I could write about the present without writing about the past. Every moment is a portal to infinite other moments, whether through a smell, a sound, a feeling, a color. It’s like meditating. No matter how much I try and focus on the repetition of my breath, my heartbeat, or the pulse in my wrist, I end up tumbling through a stream of associations that takes me through language, the world, and my own life. So I tried to honor that in the writing itself, and show how we are our own archives. And doing that archival work, writing into all the moments or memories of moments that shape my perceptions…. it was really healing for me!
Do you have thoughts about the idea of queer form?
Formally, I wanted to trouble the linearity of the trans memoir. But that’s not just a formal conceit, because it’s also my experience. So it was a decision but it also had to be that way, in order for me to try and honestly communicate certain things.
The book is also very focused on the idea of your own name and the way that a name represents an identity both to the self and to others. That’s an idea that I think is also central to writing well—how do you pick or find the right word or description for what you want to convey? Did the process of writing this book illuminate anything new to you about naming—of people, places, objects, memories?
I love this question. It’s so hard to describe things without naming them, but I think it’s important work. It’s a challenge I sometimes task myself with when writing. Just describe a scene, a walk through the city or the woods, without ever relying on the given name of the thing, on the symbolic placeholder. So, for example, birch leaves on the ground become “yellow, ovular sheets of plant matter, with a pointed tip, and visible membranes coming out from a central line.” That’s not very good writing. I definitely sound like an alien. But, I think it’s a helpful prompt, at least for me. And it also helps me feel just how much information is contained in simple words like “birch” and “leaf.” Sometimes it’s easy to forget how many tools for detailed description we have, and I don’t mean long complex words. I mean really short, simple ones. I think they’re really helpful when we’re trying to address peoples’ specific, innate and utterly unique ways of being, without relying on non-descriptive language like “masculine” and “feminine,” though those words have their purpose, too. Names blur our ability to comprehend, but they also communicate so much.
Do you think there’s a connection between occupying space and naming when building a queer world (both on the page and in life)?
I believe that’s a personal decision. A name can be sacred and a name can also be a joke. And it can be both. Some people choose a new name and it stays with them for the rest of their life. I know other people who seem to change names every year, which I also really admire. So maybe the way we do or don’t name ourselves is connected to the ways we do or don’t want to take up space in the world. What fascinates me is how many people accept the name they were given, even if they despise it. I wonder what that says about loyalty—who and what we are loyal to, who and what we are trying to protect.
And, of course, what it means to occupy space is dependent on so many factors, like what we’ve been told we deserve to have and take because of different ancestral legacies. It means something very specific for a person like me, a white person from class privilege, to demand to be seen and heard. I hope this book is not a demand. I hope it’s an offering, a reckoning with a process. And in that process I wanted to not only address “gender,” which truthfully isn’t a thing that exists on its own, but also whiteness and class and what it means to benefit from and inherit a world that my very own ancestors shaped through force and taking. It is important to name-check these identity markers, so we understand there’s no gender that isn’t marked by these other factors: White and Rich and trans. Those words are useful, but also these systems exist as feelings, and those feelings (shame, complicity, desire, entitlement, fear, to name a few) perpetuate these systems. And I want to—I need to—write into those feelings. We can’t just wave power away by naming it.
Among the brave moves in this book is the openness with which you talk about sex and your body as a sexual being. I remember how shocked and delighted people were with the opening of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts: “Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad.” Could you talk about your choice to graphically describe sex and queer sex, and the physical bodies in your book?
I was one of the shocked and delighted people when I read that line. I read it over and over again, for sure and try to hold it in my mind. It resonated with me because of the anal and I love you dyad.
There’s obviously a lot of anal sex in my book. I can’t speak for Nelson’s choices, but for me, including anal to such an extreme degree was really important because that’s a part of my body that hasn’t been burdened by the anatomical, gendered assumptions that other parts of my body have. So there was always some freedom there.
It’s funny, since what I have is the memories of the interactions I described, it doesn’t feel to me like I described them graphically. If anything, the descriptions feel really bare-bones, almost like preliminary blueprints of what the moments themselves were. But that’s writing, so much of the time, at least prose. We take what we love, what we hold most dear, and we distill these descriptive and symbolic ingredients. I guess to really answer your question though, I just only really started to feel my own body in sex. It was the first place, space, whatever you want to call it, where I clicked into a deeper form of feeling. Now I find that in all kinds of ways, like sitting in the sun or feeling water on my hands or smelling a flower, but it was very, very hard for me to access that, and strangely, I think sex was where I first felt flickers of not being disassociated.
And also, you know, there was this really important turn in theory when people started articulating that gender and sexuality are separate and different. And maybe we needed that, to push people to actually believe that transness is possible, but as with many theoretical articulations that are spread to combat violence, it overly reduced the thing. They’re separate and they’re also not always separate. For me, they are not easy to separate.
Who is this book for?
I guess what I’m learning is that I don’t get to decide. I hope some people will read it and feel less lonely. I hope some white trans people from similar backgrounds to me will read it and feel connected or pushed in their thinking around how inherited power particularly shapes aspects of transness. I hope people who are really hurt by cultures of fame and recognition will connect to it. I hope people who aren’t necessarily thinking critically about their own will for power and recognition might read it and feel some different things about those themes. I hope some parents of trans or GNC or just really weird deviant children, will read it and make more room for their children’s doubt and confusion, without discounting their deep intuitions of who they are. And then, right back to the beginning, I have to accept that I don’t get to decide. It’s an offering. I’m not sure who will pick it up and meet me there.
There is sometimes an uncomfortable intimacy with the narrator, particularly when you write about finding yourself disgusting and hard to bear. I think that as a reader, I felt uncomfortable because it was familiar—and typically the kinds of thoughts that I keep to myself. Do you worry about the potential for a stereotypical/negative conflation of queerness and mental health and your memoir?
Yes, of course, but I also believe in a deep way that we can’t limit our articulations of ourselves to best fit into the small shapes. Many brilliant writers and thinkers have both written and talked about the ways that trans people often only get access to the care they need if they can convince institutions and people with power that they are sane. Of course this is because, on a deep level (and on an empirical level) many people still believe that transness is a mental illness. And my belief about that is A) who are you to decide, doctor? and B) what’s so bad about being mentally ill? Many trans people are mentally ill. Many cis people are mentally ill. People have different beliefs about that and other people are better equipped to discuss the minutiae of how society creates abnormal subjectivities through stigmatization. What’s important to me, always, is that no one gets left behind—and if public narratives propagate this idea of the sane, sovereign trans subject who is an efficient worker and a good citizen and a handsome soldier, then all the other gender freaks who can’t or don’t want to be a citizen in that way will continue being delegitimized, which has very real material consequences. So I guess in my writing I’m always trying to do the dance between “transness is legitimate” and also “it’s powerful to be illegitimate.”
What queer/trans literature have you read lately that you feel your book is in conversation with? What trends do you see in contemporary queer literature?
I’m not sure if I’m in conversation with all the writers I love because I haven’t asked them! And they might not feel like they’re in conversation with me. I just finished Time Is a Thing That Moves Through the Body, by T Fleischman, which I loved so much. I was genuinely so sad when I finished it, because I didn’t want it to be over. It almost felt like getting broken up with. Like we had more we needed to do together.
My friend Hannah Baer wrote a book called trans girl suicide museum, which I also love so much. We’re technically “in conversation” because we’re friends and talk all the time. But, like T Fleischman’s book, it’s unresolved and kaleidoscopic and fractal in the way it utilizes “memoir” or “autobiographical writing” or whatever you want to call it, to work through gender, power, lust, shame, etc., (forces that are really important to me).
I also think “trans memoir,” this funny category, exists across a really wide array of mediums and genres. It’s most nourishing to me when it does the work of deconstructing how desire (for a new body, another body, a different world) comes to be. And that appears all over the place. In a conversation, a journal entry, a stranger we see on the street, a YouTube video. There are pieces of those stories all around us.
After reading a book I enjoy so much, I can’t help but ask: what’s next?
I wish I knew. I think I need space and time to sit with this “book.” A book is a weird and sort of tyrannical project, especially when the ingredients of it are a version of your own life. I’m writing more lately, after a period of pause. For an hour a day in my notebook, even just keeping lists of moments that matter to me. But I need to keep collecting without the constraint of a book shaping my reality, for a little while.