As part of the Town Crier’s ongoing exploration of place in Canadian Writing, Phoebe Wang conducted an email interview with Lucas Crawford, the 2015 Critic-In-Residence for the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Lucas Crawford is a poet, performer and scholar who has written on transgender and literature, fat studies, and queer identity politics. His book, Transgendered Architectonics, will appear in 2015 with Ashgate Press.
Phoebe Wang: How do you see the role of Critic-In-Residence as a continuation of the many projects that you are working on, from writing about architecture to critiquing gender and sexual identity?
Lucas Crawford: Academia, poetry, teaching, and organizing are all different genres of activity, each with drawbacks and strengths. One of the special things about the Critic-In-Residence role is that it combines these things in a way that lets me combine love of literature with desire for change. So, the role is a continuation, but I expect I might find new challenges to love in this genre of writing and thinking.
Phoebe Wang: In an interview with Quill and Quire, you mention that your desires as a Critic-in-Residence are “contradictory,” because you wish both “to highlight transgender and genderqueer literature” and “to shake up the stories of transgender that are starting to settle and cohere in the minds of the public.” Do these contradictions exist only in literature, or do you see them operating in the wider culture and perception of trans and genderqueer people?
Lucas Crawford: I think these settling conceptions of what it means to be transsexual, what it means to be transgender, and what it means to be genderqueer are actually more likely to be found in popular culture and social media-based conversations than in literature. Whether a trans or genderqueer person wants to or can remain flexible with regards to their gender is their business, of course—but the social definition of these categories should remain flexible so as not to become disciplinary, constraining, and stifling to new ideas and experiences of the body. In my view, literature is often the way in which new, uncomfortable, and seemingly impractical ideas about bodies can be imagined—and so I hope to support trans and genderqueer writers who want to write in that direction, even though I hope that such literature imagines new ideas about what transgender or genderqueer might be. That is what I meant by the contradiction: the desire to help make literary scenes accessible to trans and genderqueer folks, but to also suspend any notion that we know in advance, with razor precision, what kind of life, body, feeling, or story might be described by these words.
Phoebe Wang: Can you talk a little about some of the stereotypes about transgender and genderqueer that you think particularly need to be challenged, and what types of stories need to be reimagined?
Lucas Crawford: Gosh, there are so many. It is somewhat of a neoliberal notion that we need to challenge stereotypes. I suppose I am more of the type to question what value judgments make the stereotyped quality seem like a bad thing in the first place. For instance, there is a stereotype that genderqueer people are “merely playing” with gender, and so do not experience violence or exclusion. The “fighting the stereotype” response would have us say, “no, we’re not playing, I AM this or that, and I have no choice, and I’ll never change!” The tack I would take is to breathe new life into the insult by querying its own assumptions. I might respond, “Playfulness is how children learn to do everything, so it’s a pretty important developmental tool.” Or, “why do we want to police the mood with which non-normative genders are created? Do we want to accept the notion that only solemnity matters—that playfulness necessarily means a lack of urgency? What if playfulness is pursued out of urgency, out of pain, out of a crucial surfeit of pleasure, or out of something we can’t even understand?”
Another stereotype, which attaches most clearly to transsexual people, is that of mental illness. Again, the liberal approach would be to say, “Hey, we’re not crazy!” But the other approach, and here I should underline that this is a conversation that is not new to trans folks, would be to say, “What conception of mental illness are you working with here? Hey, if we study the history of mental illness—from hysteria straight up to gender dysphoria—we might just see that definitions of mental illness are in fact based on gender norms. What is this idea of mental health that you’re assuming, does it exist, and if so, is it defined according to norms of class, race, gender, etc.?” In the first instance, hysteria (a precursor to depression in some ways) was absolutely a women’s disease: did your wife cause “trouble,” did she like sex too much (according to you), did not like sex enough (according to you)? She must be mentally disturbed! This happens today, too. Give yourself a needle of testosterone now and then? You “have” a psychiatric disorder! Pour hot wax on your genitals so that no hairs are seen by your lovers? Totally expected—in fact, people might think you’re “crazy” not to! So, there’s another stereotype that we’d do well to investigate and historicize rather than fight per se.
A final one is this: trans and genderqueer people are often thought to be confused about gender—to have misinterpreted their feelings. While I do think that bodily affect is far more mysterious than we might realize, I do think this stereotype is also one worth investigating. In the mode of fighting the stereotype, I’d point out that most trans and genderqueer people have thought about gender exponentially more than your average person; if it were a matter of a simple misunderstanding, believe me, we’d know. However, in the manner of breathing new air into the stereotype, I’d ask: what is wrong with confusion? What is our culture if it’s one where value is accorded to certainty above all? How has this desperate thirst for (gendered) certainty kept people from experiencing the true capacities of their body? Has this desperate thirst in fact developed out of one’s fear of one’s own transgender or genderqueer potentials? Is certainty a pose? Is it a method of shutting off from the body? Why and how did gender become so thoroughly a matter of knowledge? Could it become something else? Can we develop a new notion of critical gender confusion?
Phoebe Wang: What suggestions would you give to a reviewer or literary critic when they approach the creative work of a queer or transgendered writer?
Lucas Crawford: I can’t prescribe exactly how a reviewer or critic might read trans or genderqueer work, but I can say that a life lived with a high level of awareness of one’s own bodily changes, emotional investments, and gender trajectories will probably create a reader who is better able to appreciate literature that operates on gender in interesting ways. Perhaps a starting point for this would be to ask how one reads cisgendered literature (non-trans literature) and why? Perhaps we could flip the question around and start tracing how cisgender informs reading practice and one’s emotional connections to literature.
These pancakes know more about physics than most writers ever will
Phoebe Wang: Your poem “Your Fat Daughter Remembers What You Said,” in Rattle, is especially moving for how it politicizes the personal. Do you find there’s more room to do this in poetry than in other kinds of writing for you?
Lucas Crawford: This is a difficult question. There is certainly more openness to using the personal perspective as a tool in poetry than there is in academic writing, for instance. But I also think that genres that appear to be totally impersonal, such as scholarship, are often deeply personal—even or especially when they work so hard at feigning a lack of personality/personal quality. I do, however, think there is something importantly mysterious about the translation of writer’s body to text to reader’s body; where precisely is the “person” of “personal” literature located?
Phoebe Wang: The “Academic Breakfast” Tumblr you began with images of what academics, researchers, and grad students eat for breakfast connects food, domestic space, and intellectual pursuits in a very visceral way. Internet projects like this can make issues and causes much more immediate and shareable. Do you have more thoughts on the ability of social media to facilitate conversation, awareness, and activism?
Lucas Crawford: That was such a fun project; thank you for bringing it up! This project made me understand just how wide an audience one can earn with a little online project—we had 16,000 followers in one week, which was very surprising! (I’d put it together for myself and for those interested in food studies, food security, academic class issues, etc.)
The speed and access that are the strengths of social media activism are also its drawbacks, I think. Quick and easy to digest points need to be made and shared sometimes, but I strongly believe that slow, deliberate, careful thought is crucial. I also think that it may be easier to say unpopular things in non-internet genres, as they afford one a length of time to speak that is not based on “info-tainment” attention spans or on getting “Likes” or “Shares.” Sometimes one’s very practical point about, say, activism, requires a number of back stories and background arguments; complex ideas sometimes need complex forms. I’m not sure that the internet is somehow more democratic or free than other genres; it, too, distributes voice and validation according to cultural norms and what is profitable (not always, of course).
Phoebe Wang: While activism can take many forms (campaigning, lobbying, fundraising, protests, storytelling) perhaps what they all do is create presence. How do you hope to create a presence through your work this year?
Lucas Crawford: I hope that I can be present as a reviewer and editor, but also hope that I can be present-as-absent in the sense that it’s others’ voices that will be featured through my work.