andrea bennett is associate editor at Maisonneuve, a columnist at This magazine, and the designer for PRISM.
Kim Fu is the author of the novel For Today I Am a Boy and the poetry collection How Festive the Ambulance. andrea bennett is a National Magazine Award-winning nonfiction writer and the author of Canoodlers (prose poetry). They met in 2009 at the University of British Columbia Creative Writing MFA program, and frequently collaborate on longform features for outlets including The Atlantic, Hazlitt and Maisonneuve. This is the first instalment of a two-part conversation.
Kim Fu: What instance of writing the body was the most difficult for you? Was there a specific poem or piece? Was it the actual composition, or was it the idea of people reading and reacting to it?
andrea bennett: I’m not great at writing nonfiction that comes anywhere close to my body. About a third of the way through our first year in the MFA program, I was assaulted by an ex of mine when I went home for Christmas break, and when I came back to Vancouver I found a giant hoodie someone had abandoned at the bike shop where I worked—I wore it every day for almost a year afterwards. That hoodie is a good metaphor for personal, body-related nonfiction for me: I’ve put up a giant shield, and underneath that shield, things are a fuckin’ mess. Three parts hope, seven parts pain.
I’m currently working on a series of essays about gender—my gender—and I’m trying to learn how to apply the skills I’ve gained writing more journalistic nonfiction to myself. I wrote a piece for This magazine (you were my editor!) about getting married. Well, particularly about getting wed. I’m a masculine person, and I wanted to wear a masculine, slim-cut suit, but I’m actually quite curvy. On a day-to-day basis, I deal with that essential tension by avoiding it (sweatpants!). For my wedding, I had to face it head-on. There was other stuff that getting married brought up, too, like the realization that I didn’t identify with “wife” and needed to find gender-neutral ways of expressing love and commitment. I knew I wanted to write about it, but it was really hard to produce something linear. That difficulty came from fear, and also the aforementioned messy feelings.
I was afraid, on one hand, of the type of people who comment hatefully at the bottom of every trans and genderqueer news article. I was also afraid that maybe I was claiming something that wasn’t mine to claim, because while non-binary gender (or female masculinity, a term that is maybe not as en vogue now as it was awhile ago?) deep down fits the best for me, I married a cis man and from the outside it looks like maybe we’re just another hetero couple where the woman has short hair. I had a deep fear that I’d write something personal and honest and it’d piss everyone off and I’d feel really quite alone.
So, to answer your third question, it was both things. The idea of people reading and reacting to the column made it a nightmare to write. I don’t regret writing it, but I really want to get better at writing personal nonfiction, both in openness and quality.
KF: There are some people who would say “three parts hope, seven parts pain” is the recipe for a great essay. I recently heard someone argue against the idea of writerly distance. She was all for writing personal nonfiction while in the thick of it, that truth lies in that raw and freshly injured place, rather than in retrospect. It sounds like you disagree.
ab: You know, I think some writers are great at writing from that place of in-the-thick-of-it pain: taking that pain and writing an essay that simultaneously, miraculously, looks inwards and outwards. I’m not one of those writers. I can never quite figure out what’s necessary to the story, what’s extraneous, and how best to present it.
The other thing that makes me wary about writing from the core of an emotion is that my emotional life tends to be outsized. That’s not necessarily something I want to share with the whole wide world—being inside my head sometimes feels like coming down from a bad mushroom trip. It’s just not that interesting.
What about you? I feel like you’ve been frequently asked to speak about your gender and ethnic identity in interviews for For Today I Am a Boy. But when I think of your embodied writing, I think first of your essays, in particular, “Other Words for Cancer.” I’m curious: does writing the body feel different to you if you’re writing fiction, or nonfiction? Does one come easier than the other?
KF: At the time, fiction was easier. Promoting the book was so gruelling that it’s hard to remember that writing the book wasn’t so bad! In a recent interview, Alexander Chee said, “you write [fiction] to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.” My novel is in some ways the most deeply personal, revealing thing I’ve ever written, but the “fiction” label and the overt differences between me and my characters allowed for a certain candidness and freedom.
“Other Words for Cancer” is one of two essays I wrote about my father’s death and illness. “Other Words” is about language, and the other one, “The Year of the Tiger,” is about denial, two topics that allowed me to skirt the ugly, physical realities of that period.
ab: It’s interesting to me that those essays were a way for you to avoid writing the body itself. I feel like they form a type of body. You write the edges so well that I can see where the centre goes, and I feel like I can connect with it.
KF: Yes, exactly. I needed to talk about the bodily horrors I’d witnessed, those intrinsic to cancer and death, but I was uncomfortable doing it with even my closest friends. It felt like a betrayal of my father’s memory and an invasion of my family’s privacy. Publishing something about it would have been unfathomable. I dealt with my feelings by writing around the body.
I did see a psychologist about a year after my father passed away. He diagnosed me with “secondary PTSD,” common to caregivers, a diagnosis I still feel dubious about, but therapy helped a lot.
ab: Why did secondary PTSD feel “dubious” to you?
Kim Fu’s debut novel For Today I Am a Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) won the Edmund White Award.
KF: I suppose because PTSD is such a loaded term. People get harassed on the internet for “using it wrong,” accused of putting other forms of trauma on par with combat and sexual assault. And the way it was explained to me, secondary PTSD is usually applied to people who work in health care, who experience PTSD symptoms as a result of witnessing the death and suffering of others on a much more prolonged and regular basis.
It’s kind of like what you just said about identifying as non-binary, but worrying that people will see you as just a cis/hetero woman with short hair: I’m afraid of claiming something that isn’t mine to claim or seeming like I’m diminishing other people’s experiences.
ab: I’m curious about what you think about the sort of storytelling approach to dealing with trauma—processing by writing, by talking, by piecing together a narrative.
KF: Writing about my father’s death did help me put a shape to the chaos, like there might be some meaning and value to all this loss. I was grateful to be an artist, and that that was an option for me.
Recently, since having a little bit of professional success, I want so much to be “productive” all the time, to write only things I can sell, to meet all my commitments and deadlines, I’ve almost lost my ability to write to self-soothe, to process, to remember. It’s hard for writing to be everything in your life—your career and your livelihood, but also your escape and salvation.
Kim Fu and andrea bennett are contributors to a month long series on writing the body.