In the heart of Hollywood, down the trashed and scraggly hilltop where the letters of the Hollywood sign lean together drunkenly, I wait for Felicia Luna Lemus. For so much of Lemus’s debut novel Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties (published this September by FSG) the main character is hopping between those lesbo gender expressions butch (girls who look like boys) and femme (girls who look like girls), I didn’t know if I was scanning the coffee shop for a suited-up boydyke or a cherry-lipped ladygirl. Then Lemus appears, adorable. Her hair is inky black like a Hernandez Brothers comic, her dress is a flouncy thrifted thing, her ankles are anchored in giant army boots. She has a teensy, darling bouquet of flowers plucked from her garden—a yellow daisy, spindly stem sprouting fuzzy purple nubs, a stalk of stinky rosemary—and wrapped in tinfoil.
Rambling and sugary, Trace Elements is the story of Leticia, a latina queer girl with a fluid gender thing going on. It’s a first-person tale of punk rock Los Angeles dykedom, and family—Leticia’s birth family, featuring a cranky, loving Nana, dramatically deceased parents and macho street-corner boy cousins; Leticia’s hand-selected family of truck-driving, graffiti-tagging butch girls, glamorous, femmed-up rich girls pretending to be from the hood, and swaggering, strapping older dykes. Then there’s Weeping Woman, the folkloric spirit-vixen who haunts the text. Leticia prays to Weeping Woman, receives her nighttime visits, and is ultimately abandoned by her when families natal and chosen collapse. The book presents a magical, candy-colored vision of southern California that brings to mind Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. Like Block, Lemus summons a bright new language, with occasional sentences composed of practically nothing but adjectives, clanking together playfully on the page like gaudy faux jewels strung on tinsel: “My girl Edith: smarty-pants Mission District glamour homegrrrl moved down to Los Angeles on her leopard-print motorcycle…. When she entered a room, sweet thick crisp green lilac perfume sharpened the air.”
It was Lemus who suggested we brazenly stroll onto the grounds of the mammoth Scientology Celebrity Center across the street. The Scientologists stared at us, knowing we were not of their people. The possibility of being kicked out for trespassing infused our interview with a sense of urgency which manifested in much giggling. And so we sat amidst the cult’s million-dollar landscape job—waterfalls! bubbling brooks! gazebos twined with blooming vines!—to talk about stuff like gender and class, and to keep an eye out for John Travolta.
“IT’S A NATURAL TENDENCY TO BE SUSPICIOUS OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE MONEY”
THE BELIEVER: [Laughing] When I lived in Boston, when I was a teenager, we would get drunk and the Scientologists would always try to lure us back to their compound to take personality tests. Have you ever done that?
FELICIA LUNA LEMUS: No. I think I almost did once, but I thought better of it.
BLVR: It’s fun if you’re sixteen and drunk with your friends. Do butch dykes exist in Los Angeles?
FLL: Yeah. They do. [Laughs]
BLVR: I really like the gender identity stuff that’s going on in your book.At the very beginning Leticia is going out with Edith who is super femme. Then she’s going out with all these butch girls and she’s really girly and I was trying to orient myself to her gender expressions. I felt like “Why I am I trying to figure out if she’s butch or femme; who cares?” Later in the book she talks about identifying as kiki and I loved that. Nobody uses that expression. Did you read Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers? It’s by Lillian Faderman, who’s like a dyke historian, and it’s a history of lesbianism in America.
FLL: Is it about the fifties bar scene? It was working class dykes, right?
BLVR: Yeah, and they were really intensely butch/femme and then somebody who was a bit more androgynous would come in and they would all call her “kiki” and make her flip a coin to figure out who she’d be that night—butch or femme—so everyone would understand how to relate to her.
FLL: It’s still that way. I’ve gone back and forth between being very boy and very femme. I’m sure people think I have multiple personalities or something because one day they’ll see me and I’ll be very boyish. Yesterday I was dressed up high femme (punk drag queen meets Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly dolled up for a night on the town. Little black dress, lots of leg, heels, up-do, red lipstick—always discretely touched up and, miracle of miracles, not to be found on my teeth once that night—and super-sparkle audacious earrings the size of a small child). People do have a very hard time with it still. Our peers do. This is something that’s still an issue.
BLVR: I liked that I just didn’t understand what Leticia’s gender identity necessarily was. I thought it was cool.
FLL: It was important to me also in terms of being Chicana. I don’t know many androgynous Chicanas or anyone who plays that line quite like I see people of different ethnicities play it. People who are still very much in touch with their culture, who aren’t more assimilated, they still play by the kind of old school rules of butch/femme. And I respect that. There’s something about it culturally that works. I did literally have my grandmother say to me once, “Ay! Dios mios, is that a boy or is that a girl?”And loud. I mean, the whole neighborhood just kind of stopped for a second. [Laughs] I had a tight fade—my hair was shaped and shaved clean with a straight-edge at the nape of my neck, very short hairs tapered up with clippers to about half-inch at crown, alfalfa sprigs sticking up at my crown, slightly longer bangs either parted and slicked down geek-delicious style or fanned up into a little wave, sideburns shaved into tight little points, lots of pomade—up the back and a suit and the whole deal. It was such a huge issue. It was such an intense moment to realize that a woman who otherwise could be so open-minded, even of her generation she could be so open-minded about so many things, but that was where she drew the line. So I was really curious what would happen if I tried to have a main character who’s Chicana, who identifies so much with Weeping Woman and wants to be respectful of her family but still is a part of a larger, more eclectic L.A. scene. And what the impact is of that kind of exploring. There’s still a lot that needs to be thought about and talked about with the butch/femme dynamic. It can serve a purpose. It can be transgressive and quite fierce to appropriate those roles for a time being. There have been times where my girlfriend is clearly getting harassed for being as androg/boy as she is and if I’m looking more girly that night somehow my presence can smooth things out. It’s gendered and it’s creepy but it’s kind of survival at the same time.
BLVR: When people talk about butch/femme roles it can end up feeling a bit frustrating, because they are just people’s natures. I can’t look or dress like a boy. I just feel totally uncomfortable like that. I am a girl and girl-gendered. So it’s hard when you come up against those very academic arguments about if they’re roles.
FLL: If someone wants to be girly and they choose to date someone who is more boy, why is this somehow anti-feminist? It doesn’t make sense.
BLVR: I feel it’s ultimately a devaluing of femininity. Why is femininity in feminist communities and queer communities seen as not radical or not strong? If you really want to talk about subconscious patriarchal influences at work, I mean, why is that scary to you? Why is a girly girl scary to you?
FLL: Why do you need to be dismissive of it?
BLVR: Yeah. And why is neutralizing your gender expression or having a masculine gender expression better? There’s a writer out of Seattle, Tara Hardy, who is really great. She’s a performance poet and a writer, and she is femme and working class. She writes great stuff about the working-class tradition of femininity, how it’s loud and very girly and very in-your-face. And that becomes a really sharp target for women who are uncomfortable with femininity, and it ends up being a class thing at times. You have middle-class women and middle-class academic feminists who have a very toned down, proper femininity that goes with their class background judging this louder working-class femininity expression and no one talks about the fact that there’s a class dynamic going on. I love the part in your book where it comes out that the Edith character is rich, or her family is rich, and she had been fronting. I feel like that happens a lot in the dyke communities, like it’s really prized to be as oppressed as possible, which includes your economic background. It sucks because it makes dealing with class almost impossible, you can’t have an honest conversation about it.
FLL: When you’re choosing to not be a part of mainstream, corporate society, everyone tries to slum it even harder. Especially since so many people who have the opportunity to get to the point where they have the ability to express their creative minds, to have that as an option, to not just have to work to put a roof over your head.… So many people who are in that position are privileged. It is something I’ve seen a lot. If you do come from a working-class or poor background, I think it’s a natural tendency to be suspicious of people who have money because they abuse it. It’s that simple. And I think that’s where the shame comes in, too. It’s like white guilt and slavery. You don’t want to be associated with something that your ancestors did that you possibly don’t agree with, but it sure as hell has gotten you to where you are historically.
BLVR: Right. You’re still standing on the shoulders of all that racism.Your book is a really working-class book. I appreciated that Leticia is really in touch with where she comes from and it’s not a very moneyed place.
FLL: What was the name of that one book… a butch dyke wrote it of her experiences in the fifties growing up?
BLVR: Stone Butch Blues?
FLL:Yes! Thank you.
BLVR: Leslie Fienberg. She’s amazing.
FLL: Yeah, yeah.When I read her book, it made me cry I was so happy. It was the first time I had read something where there was a working-class girl literally struggling to keep herself a place to sleep at night.The issues are so real then. If someone doesn’t like you and wants to fire you as a result, it matters. It amplified everything. I was inspired by that. My family took a lot of pride in working hard. It was something I identified with.
WEARING PRISTINE VICTORIAN DRESSES, CLIMBING TREES
BLVR: How did Trace Elements come together?
FLL: I started writing it in bits and pieces. I just started writing little vignettes mostly. I was obsessed with this one historical figure named Nawee Olean, who’s from the 1920s avante garde, and she’s really amazing. She has these very spooky eyes. If you were to see a photo of her she looks as if she could easily be a contemporary punk rock girl, but she’s from the twenties. She painted and she wrote poetry and she wrote these pseudo-scientific books that were kind of these explorations of the world around her but in this very poetic way, incorporating all those kinds of modern science. She’s really amazing. So I became obsessed with her and then somehow those vignettes became the beginning of this book. She in some ways inspired Weeping Woman, the way I used Weeping Woman in this story. I have a friend who just took my rambling, babbling, hypermanic, freak [manuscript] and said “OK. You need to have structure. Why would someone want to keep reading this? It might be interesting for a couple pages but you need to kind of ease them along and invite them in and this kind of thing. You’ve offered people these truffles but now they need a glass of water. Give them water.” [Laughs] I think he was kind of saying I was killing my reader. It’s like they’re dying. [Laughs]
BLVR: I think it’s OK to write something that doesn’t have this traditional arc like you need in a movie. You can just have people who are living these really interesting lives and things happen or don’t happen and there’s not necessarily this huge resolution at the end where everything’s OK.
FLL: Yeah. Happy endings are overrated.
BLVR: Your book makes Los Angeles seem really romantic. Do you like living here?
FLL: There are lots of things I like about it. I like the old movie houses. I’ve been going to a lot of estate sales [Laughs] which I’ve really been enjoying.There are these awesome, beautiful houses from the early 1900s, which I know doesn’t seem very old to certain parts of the country but here they’re like relics.They’re beautiful and they’re kind of crumbling a little bit. There’s basically this generation that bought those homes in the twenties that is now dying, and their families aren’t interested in keeping the houses. So these people literally put tags on everything in the drawers and put up tables to sell all the family photos and all these different sorts of things. Basically you can walk into their house and rummage through their things. It’s very bizarre. It feels like being a grave robber. But it is allowed so it’s kind of perverse. You have permission to do it. It’s either just recycling or it’s this kind of leeching process, I don’t know which. But I’ve been enjoying that.
BLVR: Have you found good things?
FLL: Yeah. Jewelry and photos. I’m obsessed with old photos, especially young women, these ones who look like they’re very clearly dykes. [Laughs] There’s these ones of really rowdy looking girls who always have messed-up hair even though they’re wearing very pristine Victorian dresses, climbing trees.They’re just these hot images. I found one where there’s this girl propped up in a tree and giving this very surly look to whoever is taking the picture. It’s so hot. Things like that make me happy. And photo booth photos, also. Often if they’re ones that have two women in them, it seems like this romantic friendship.
CLASSES ON JOINT ROLLING AND WICCA
BLVR: Everyone has really great, interesting jobs in your book. K works painting murals on vans and Leticia is painting dogs’ toenails. So I’m wondering what jobs you’ve had.
FLL: Well I’ve had the predictable and boring coffeehouse job [laughs] which served me well. I can still make really good espresso drinks but it’s so cliché. It’s so bad. I was shift lead. I was very responsible. I actually was in a teaching credential program for a little bit but I had a shaved head and they didn’t like me. The kids liked me a lot. [Laughs]
BLVR: Did they love your shaved head?
FLL: Oh yeah. The funny thing is when I had the shaved head a lot of adults would look at me and think, “Oh dear. Maybe she’s going through chemo. I won’t talk about it.” And I understand that, but it went with the rest of my look so it wasn’t like this disjointed conservative dress, right? So anyway, I did that. That was fun because I really liked the little kids, but I hated the system. Acculturating them to be good little Americans… teaching the Pledge of Allegiance was something I could not do. Teaching them to sit and listen and behave and be prepared for their corporate, secretarial positions in the future, it was making me depressed so I stopped. What else have I done? I taught English classes. That’s the problem. I wish I’d done things like painting poodles’ toenails, but I haven’t.
BLVR: You went through the whole school system and you went to grad school. Did you have to unlearn what they taught you, because I feel like your voice is incredibly unique and you do run-on adjectives and I love that. And you’re making up words. It doesn’t sound like any kind of a voice that came out of an academic institution.
FLL: I went to UC Irvine for undergrad and that was wonderful because I had a mentor who was just incredible. He was so supportive and he just really wanted me to develop my critical mind. He kept pushing me. I’d think I’d be done with a paper and he’d say, “Oh, you could work on this” and I would just hate him for a second and then adore him years later, realizing that he made me go that extra step to research my point more and make it more solid and strong. For graduate school, I know some writers that I really respect that came out of Irvine. Like Aimee Bender I think is really fun and quirky and she’s so smart and has her own voice and she went there. So that worked. For me, I went to Cal Arts, which is incredibly bizarre. Their historical reputation is that they used to have classes on joint rolling and Wicca and you could get credit for these classes. They have a swimming pool that used to be clothing optional, but no one wore clothes. They have these Thursday night openings that are just these… they’re just out of control. No one is functional on Friday is what it comes down to, including a lot of the faculty. [Laughs]
BIG OLD HONKIN’ TRUCK
BLVR: Who do you read that inspires you?
FLL: I read all sorts of things. I get just as much inspiration from going to see art shows or reading science books. I love going to thrift stores. The books are usually twenty-five cents or so. You can stock up on these weird Time Life Science series. They’re very lowbrow. I love learning science trivia and somehow that sparks ideas for me.
BLVR: Have you ever seen a Time Life series that’s old, from the seventies I think.… It’s all about the occult and superstitions?
FLL: Oh my god, I have that one! [Laughs] I learned how to palm read. In eighth grade I could trick my friends into thinking I really knew their futures and so they would actually pay me a dollar to read their palms. They were trying to prove that palm reading was a hoax in this Time Life series so they said that basically what every palm reader does is work off of this one structure. If you memorize this one paragraph and reshape it, taking visual clues from a person’s body language or their dress or whatever, you can convince anyone that you know everything about them from reading their palm. So I memorized that one paragraph and went around and did this.
BLVR: So it taught you how to be a hoaxster. Was the cliché true for you that your characters really took on their own lives and began doing things that you didn’t think they would do?
FLL: No. I’ve heard about one woman who even says that her characters call her on the telephone. She claims that they call and tell her what to write. [Laughs] I figure if that happens to me someone needs to offer me some help. So no, I impose things on them for the most part. I just daydream a lot. I can’t change their name after a certain amount of time because it becomes their name and I start to get an idea of what they look like. They’re just imaginary friends. Same thing I did when I was a kid. I was a total loner, for the most part. I would go in and out of cliques. After school I was alone at home.… It’s just daydreaming.
BLVR: You had imaginary friends?
FLL: I didn’t really, but I would kind of imagine these ridiculous situations for everyone that I did know. So it’s sort of the same thing except now someone is going to publish it. [Laughs] It’s really ridiculous. The family structure is similar in some ways to what I grew up with but there are huge omissions and constructions that are just completely not true. Some visual details may be true. Certain props fill scenery, certain objects that I’m just obsessed with.
BLVR: Like what?
FLL: Like K’s big cowboy truck. Her big, old, honkin’ truck. My girlfriend has a good truck. It was so sexy when I first saw her pull up in that truck I was like, [sighs] Oh, melt. It’s a total gas-guzzler and she doesn’t drive it that much because it’s just economically ridiculous.
BLVR: Especially here. I don’t even drive. My boyfriend had to take care of the car thing when we lived in L.A. He got us a ’69 Monaco. Beautiful. Enormous. It seemed always to be on the verge of dying. We were afraid to go anywhere. We couldn’t drive out of the neighborhood without having a panic attack about it just collapsing, so we didn’t really stray very far. We ended up feeling very boxed-in and frustrated that we had this big car. And weird things would happen. It would be in park and then we’d get a note from our neighbors saying, “Your car rolled into the middle of the street today. We pushed it back and shoved a rock under the tire.”
THE CULTURAL HERITAGE HERE IS ABOUT FAÇADE
BLVR: Your book is so sunny. Are you a really up person?
FLL: I can stay grounded. It’s taken me years to figure out how to be that way. I can get through anything. What I was trying to do with Leticia is [show] that the whole thing is just a learning process, you know? All your life until the day you die is just a learning process. So even if things are horrible and just dreadful and you’re feeling miserable, if you can focus on it being a learning process, most likely you’re going to wake up the next day. And if you don’t, you don’t. But chances are you will. Chances are no matter how much it hurts, you’re going to get through it.
BLVR: Weeping Woman is a supernatural character, this mystical, mythical entity who visits and protects Leticia, like a guardian angel but sexy and temperamental. Do you believe in magic personally?
FLL: It’s just the way I grew up. I was in New York and it was the first time that I felt very strongly that I needed to meet the person who agreed to be my agent. I need to see people in front of me because otherwise they’re sort of abstractions. I don’t do well on the phone. I have a really hard time having phone conversations, which no one in L.A. can understand since they have cell phones glued to their ears. I won’t do it. Let’s talk face to face or it may not happen. Anyway, I really wanted to meet him face to face so I managed to get out there.We were sitting in his apartment and we were having drinks and were going to go out to dinner, and we were kind of talking shit, not really being disrespectful but kind of just talking honestly about our families, joking around, saying things that weren’t entirely polite about our mothers. But lovingly, right? All of a sudden, the light went out. [Laughs] And he just kind of looked at me and got kind of nervous and then it flickered and it went back on. I was just calm. He looked at me and he says,“Now that was your fault, wasn’t it?” I said that it wasn’t me, it was probably my great grandma. Stuff like that happens all the time. I know it comes across as being wishy-washy or odd to a lot of people, but it’s Mexican, it’s the way I grew up. Spirits don’t just disappear when the body is dead; there’s still some sort of energy. And I’m not Christian religious, I don’t think that there are winged angels watching over me, but I do think there’s a source of energy that somehow remains present.And they can be tricky and they can have a sense of humor and all of that sort of stuff. So we were getting scolded for being disrespectful. [Laughs]
BLVR: I was struck by how Leticia’s scene is claiming a dyke sensibility in opposition to a lesbian sensibility that’s older and less fashionable or whatever. What do you think of that?
FLL: It’s the Normandy Room.West Hollywood,on the Santa Monica strip. Smack dab in the middle of Boy Town. My friends and I used to stomp in with our ratty clothes and punk brat dyke attitudes to occupy the place and play pool and throw lots of attitude and flirt—serious flirting—and smoke inside and drink more than our fair share and go home with each other and that sort of thing on Friday nights.There was a bartender who had a sexy gold tooth. She served ridiculously huge shots and rarely charged us.The place has gone to hell now. The Normandy always had tendencies toward being, and has now irreversibly become the sort of bar that comes fully stocked with bleached lesbian fluff—big blond hair, aerobics-class bodies, fitted jeans worn high up above belly buttons. That is, if you can find any women there at all. Last time I was there, boys outnumbered girls. In L.A. I think everything is so exaggerated because it’s such a body culture here and it is so much about superficiality and surface and façade. It was agricultural to start with but soon after that it was Hollywood and so it feels that the cultural heritage here is about façade. And you feel it a lot. And you feel it a lot even when you go to clubs, even when you go to bars, there’s a lot of posturing.
ANARCHISTIC, AGITPROP-GRAFFITI, ARTIST, ECO-TERRORIST TYPE
BLVR: I really liked the part in your book where they all go to the art show and Leticia’s so pissy about being there. I liked the outsiderness.
FLL: Well my girlfriend’s a visual artist. [Laughs] We went to every opening for I don’t know how many years. It’s important to see what’s out there and, more than that, it’s important to be supportive of other artists’ work. To be a visual presence at young artists’ openings because it makes such a difference. It can be such a difficult thing to be a visual artist and to not be one of the few people who are selling their paintings for half a million. Where you’re having to work a couple of different jobs to support it. So I needed to vent, it what is comes down to.
BLVR: What’s your writing process like?
FLL: [Laughs] A total fucking mess. I need things to be visual when I’m working on them, so I actually tape sections and scenes that I’m working on up on the wall.
I have one wall that’s a good size and it’s just basically covered with paper and Post-it notes, images that I Xerox from different books and the photographs that I get at estate sales. That’s basically how things come together. But it’s a complete mess. They’re not actually taped directly to the wall, they’re little binder clips that I tape to the wall so I can push the binder clip open. I’m a total office supply junkie. It’s very neurotic and embarrassing, but it really is a fetish. So I push open the binder clip and I can shuffle things around because I never know where things go to start with. For the life of me I cannot sit down and write an outline. I’m a little bit jealous of it sometimes. [Laughs]
BLVR: What are you working on right now?
FLL: I’m working on a novel where the main character is an archivist and her job is to shred duplicates. She’s supposed to scan and shred duplicates that the library has in their holdings. She comes across a book that clearly is not of the pulp fiction,paperback category that most of the books are that she’s supposed to be processing. It turns out to be a very historic book that probably has something to do with that character Nawee Olean. It gets a bee in her bonnet so much that she becomes this anarchistic, agitprop-graffiti artist, eco-terrorist type. So she goes around doing what she calls her “public beautification or improvement” projects. She does them in the middle of the night, rides around on her bike and does all this bad stuff. So that’s the main character and she has a girlfriend. And there’s a lot of how cultural memory is constructed, the socio-political parts of it, who is included in history and who isn’t. This person Nawee Olean is basically nonexistent in history. I heard someone say once that the more strength or truth a political statement has is directly correlated to how much it will be censored. If something is actually quite dangerous to the status quo in that it’s truly transgressive and pushing boundaries, chances are that’s what’s going to be pushed down the most. I want to kind of manifest that in terms of blindness. Her girlfriend in the story is, by choice, blind. She doesn’t have the use of her eyes.
BLVR: By choice?
FLL: By choice It’s a long story. [Laughs] So it’s about blindness and about the choice of blindness and how that manifests itself in individuals as a result of larger societal choices to be blind to certain historical figures or problems. My main character is very interested in forcing these things into focus, into the foreground. But right now [the novel’s] taped up on my wall. [Laughs]
BLVR: That sounds great. More cool girl heroes. Anything you want to talk about that I haven’t asked?
FLL: I’m quite happy.
BLVR: Signing off now from the Scientology Celebrity Center in Hollywood, CA.
FLL: And we still haven’t seen John Travolta.