An Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

by Lara Mimosa Montes
January 14th, 2021
Photo of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Jesse Mann

My entire life, I’ve been preoccupied with the feeling that something’s missing. Today, I miss having long hair; the day before: I missed people watching, and the feeling I get from gossiping with friends in diners and public squares. I get so lost in all the missing that I miss out on “the here and now.” “Read more fiction,” offers one of my doctors, “it always helps me disconnect…”

The problem is: I want to feel more connected, not less. I want to be in the world, not on Twitter. Enter Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door (Semiotexte, 2020): “There’s nothing like the policing of language to make you feel speechless.” To which I respond enthusiastically, and in commiseration, “Yes!” I’ll be frank: I loved this book. I loved it because it reminded me of every single one of my friends, which is to say, it reminded me of my favorite parts of being alive—the sense of spontaneity, and openness to chance. In Mattilda’s words, “So there were limitations in trying to think beyond limitations, but does this mean we should stop trying?” I keep returning to this question, whenever I feel, in my despair, like turning away from the present, my problems, the most mundane errands. So, as one does, I reached out, and wrote Mattilda. We discussed via e-mail the relationship between feeling and form, desire and estrangement, and, “searching for connection in a world that refuses it.”

Catch Mattilda at any one of her upcoming virtual events, listed here, in the New Year.

—Lara Mimosa Montes

THE BELIEVER: How does memory inform your relationship to writing about and around touch?

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: In The Freezer Door, I’m searching for touch in everyday experience, touch as a way of conjuring safety, of inhabiting a body without pain. Desire as a way of inhabiting the world in the fullest sense, beyond borders or walls or the deadening impact of social norms. I think that desire changes the language, it breaks the form, it creates the elliptical structure, the search for language to convey what language cannot convey. The way the text flips around to touch itself. The reversal of memory as a technique for opening up feeling. The rhythm of words, the flow creating its own intimacy, in and out of the spaces and places that create their own forms, our bodies in these rooms, making room.

In my body there is always the memory of my father breaking me open as a child, and will I ever survive. Touch is what will heal me, but it has always been the hardest thing for me to find, in that healing way. But also there is dancing, which is a way to touch the world, I think, a way to fly, to fall, to flail, to bend, to mend, to feel everything in a way that the feeling touches memory itself.

BLVR: Yes, I think the relationship between desire and form is so deep. I love that The Freezer Door is a book that considers the need to dream, while still making space for frustration and disappointment—can you speak a bit more about this?

MBS: I think The Freezer Door is about searching for connection in a world that refuses it. The dream of the city is that you will find everything that you never imagined, but does this possibility even exist anymore, in our gentrified, whitewashed cities where the tyranny of the suburban imagination overwhelms the possibilities for everyday connection? But I am still searching for that sudden moment that might change everything. Because I need it in order to stay alive.

BLVR: I hear you about searching for “the moment”—is this a narrative preoccupation for you? For example, I feel my quest for life-altering moments, “connection,” is compulsive, never-ending, and it really shapes the way I relate to form, order, process, arc. There’s always this sense of urgency, and I often feel like my desire for a certain kind of literature shapes my expectations for the kind of experiences I can and cannot tolerate in “real” life.

MBS: I don’t know if I have a narrative preoccupation, other than to figure out how to stay alive in the fullest sense. I need these moments in the world so that I can continue to exist, I think, the way the light turns on in your eyes and you’re awake in a different way. Like tonight when I went outside and when I was walking uphill I suddenly looked up at the sky and there was the moon so bright, so sharp and pulsating. Or that tree growing diagonally out of the side of the hill and the gaps of sky between the branches, the clouds and the spaces without clouds, all that light in the dark sky.

When I was writing The Freezer Door I didn’t realize the role the trees would play in the urban imagination, and yet there they were, towering between buildings. So I can still rely on the trees for these moments of connection when people let me down—trees are more reliable than people, for the most part. Maybe that’s why people are always chopping them down? So for me I think life shapes literature, not the other way around.

BLVR: I was reminded while reading The Freezer Door that the ways people convene with one another really are determined in a lot of ways by the public spaces that are made available to them. That said, I really appreciated the queer and feminist social histories, hierarchies, and communities you’re describing throughout the book—what’s at stake for you in writing about community?

MBS: I think I’m writing through the failure of queer dreams to live up to their potential. The way there’s this incredible rhetoric in oppositional queer worlds about accountability, mutuality, respect, negotiation, transformation, and fluidity, but often the rhetoric camouflages hypocrisy and violence and that has made it so that I no longer believe in these worlds. I don’t want new hierarchies, I want an end to all hierarchies. I don’t want to become the police, I want to end policing in all its forms. So I want the dream of queer to live up to its potential. And I think part of this is to honestly describe, in the most embodied way possible, the betrayal as well as the possibility. So that we can get somewhere else.

BLVR: I think experiences of betrayal and disillusionment are the basic prerequisites for cultivating a sense of belief, if not identity. Is that too bleak? To slightly pivot: One of the thoughts I considered while reading The Freezer Door is that there is no hope for art, or revolution, without some openness to possibility. Can you speak a bit more about the role possibility plays in your writing process?

MBS: When I start writing a new book, I write without any intention of structure, I just write. Because I want the form to come through the writing itself, and not the other way around. So in this case I wrote for several years until I felt like I had something to take a look at as a whole, to mold or meld the themes and texture and structure and sensibility. In creating this book, even though I edited the manuscript ten or fifteen times I edited to preserve the spontaneity because I want the reader to feel the form taking shape, collapsing and reemerging and shifting, the gaps where language no longer works, the sensations of everyday experience. In a sense, I think it’s language itself that offers the most possibility in this book. But maybe that’s what every writer thinks.

BLVR: OK, so on my bookshelf, my copy of The Freezer Door is currently nestled between Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory and Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble. Indulge me: I love organizing my library by vibe, rather than alphabetically, or by genre. What books do you imagine The Freezer Door sandwiched between on the bookshelf?

MBS: How about Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine? And Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann.

BLVR: I think you’ve inspired me to rearrange my bookshelf. Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through is an amazing work, also full of possibility. I remember when I heard T read from it a few years ago in Chicago at Women & Children First, I was similarly entranced. One last question: what hopes are you holding close, for literature, for language?

MBS: One thing I realized while writing The Freezer Door is that the process of writing can be a form of embodiment. The way shaping the text changes the way you breathe or dream or imagine possibilities in the gaps where language stops. That’s what I’m after. Language as a way to create more possibilities for feeling. For feeling everything.

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