What are your pronouns?
Where do you work?
I am an Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College, and I also write books. Well, book singular so far, but working on the next one.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
Well I think I’m in the position that many writers find themselves in, which is that I took my hobby and I made it my job. Whoops. So – hobbies used to be reading and writing. Those are, yes, things that bring me great pleasure and enjoyment, [but] there’s this funny relationship to it, where it’s the love and the thing that drives me, and also it’s the job, which is wonderful, but I would no longer classify it as a hobby. So number one hobby right now would be playing with the enormous puppy that is currently lying near my feet. Generally trying to tire her out. Endless games of fetch. [laughs]
What do you do for fun?
I like being outside. I like going hiking. I like snowshoeing in the winter. I like camping. I like going dancing, that definitely always brings me fun and joy (provided the music is in fact good). I sometimes like to cook or bake – as you can see the remnants of around the apartment. There was a cookie party last night. I enjoyed making cookies for that. And I recently realized that I really enjoy gathering people – for whatever, and that this is a thing that I do. And I never thought of myself as a very social person. Instead it’s been that the people around me have informed me that I am social person. [laughs] Which is interesting; I always think of myself as an extroverted introvert, and maybe that’s true, but I do really like a lot of alone time but then I also really like gathering people. Another hobby is lifting heavy things. Crossfit. Trying not to get hurt at Crossfit. It’s so fun, is the problem.
I really love trying out ridiculously impossible things, because I think as an artist, you have to learn how to fail. And you have to learn how to be comfortable with failure. The first essay I ever wrote to a level that was ready to be sent out for publication, I sat on for three years because I was so afraid of what was going to happen when I sent it out into the world. And I have gotten accustomed to sending things out, certainly, but if I’m not writing every day, I still have that fear of the blank page and stuff like that. I noticed that I always have to keep an eye on that anxiety. And Crossfit teaches you to fail. Like one day the workout was 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats. I can’t do 100 pull-ups or 200 push-ups. That’s so wonderfully ridiculous that there’s no way, and so you’re going to fail. Failure is built in. At first I was like, Why are they planning workouts that maybe one person in the gym can do and everybody else is gonna fail? But I have found that it has made failing fun, and sort of made me more comfortable with it.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
So I began using gender neutral pronouns only in my intimate relationships about 7 years ago…and did not feel safe in all of those relationships to do that. So it was this very private thing, and I’m someone who was in the closet about being queer for a fairly long time, 10 years. I’ve now been out longer than I was in the closet, but I think that process got me through the idea in a dangerous way. Got me used to the idea of there being a sort of hidden truer self. So for a long time I didn’t feel like I would ever be honest about pronouns. And then after my last book came out, when I was meeting so many new people and some of them I started to become open about pronouns with as well as going by a different name than the book was published under… The book was published under Alexandria, and I noticed that I am more comfortable socially with Alex. I reached this point where it was hard to keep track of who knew what. And I don’t like that feeling. I already came out once. [I thought], I can’t handle this. I can’t be in the closet about this anymore. So it’s relatively new to me to be public about it. It was last Spring. At first I thought, oh no big deal if strangers couldn’t get it right. After all, it had taken me so long, why would I assume that people would be adept at picking that up or remember? But I was surprised at how quickly it began to really hurt.
I’ve thought a lot about this and I think it’s because to me it took so much courage to finally say it – I was so afraid of saying it for so long – and it took so much courage to think about having a public relationship to my identity that was true. Because I can remember, going back to childhood, feeling [that] the word “girl” [didn’t] fit. The word “female” [didn’t] fit. Every time throughout my life that someone has said “woman” or “female,” it has felt like someone calling me the wrong name, or when a clothing item is too tight or too itchy. It just felt wrong. So what I realized was that the reason I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal if people got it wrong, was that I was so used to being misgendered, I didn’t even think that there was a possibility of being correctly gendered. That once that became a possibility, it actually really became quite painful to have it disregarded. So I would say that I have different relationships to it. Sometimes it makes me feel quite hopeless.
Like if I walk into a restaurant and someone [says], “Hey ladies,” – I mean, yes, it’s possible that we want to be called ladies, but we don’t look like this accidentally. This took some doing. And it’s always a little surprising to me – but we’re all just in that cultural moment where we’re all still learning – that the social signifiers aren’t being read, to at least say, “Pause for a second, we don’t know what this person wants, so try something else.” It takes a fair amount of effort, I have found, to dress or look in a way that doesn’t correlate with the generalized binary. I mean, ya gotta find some clothes. You gotta put in the time. [laughs] It takes a fair amount of effort. [So] I’ve always felt that feeling of, This is not accidental. This is constructed, and you’re trying to tell me something. So I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s read and what’s not read. And in what settings. At work, because I am a professor and work with a lot of college students and have a lot of colleagues, I uniformly across the board gently correct people about my pronouns. Always. And I try to do it in a way that feels non-confrontational, and affirming to the other person, because I think we’re all in a moment where we’re learning how to use this language. But I think it’s important because we have a lot of students who identify in non-binary ways. And I think for many of them it feels quite risky. So that feels necessary.
In social settings I am sometimes a bit more hands-off with it. I am thinking of this party that I threw last night, and long-time friends of my family came who I actually don’t know very well. But it was so sweet that they came, and they were trying so hard to fit in in this environment, and they were the oldest people at the party by far. And they kept saying “she” in reference to me, and I just didn’t want to put them on the spot in that instance. I have found that people apologize profusely, and often feel really bad about it. And that’s not what I want to cause. I wish we could say, “Hey, actually, let’s all agree that culturally we’re in a weird moment, where it’s this weird transitional moment where we’re all trying to learn, and different communities have different levels of comfort, and I don’t need you to apologize for not having this down.” All I need is us to try, and fail, and try, and fail. You know? It feels, I think, touchy for a lot of people. For me too, at times. But for people who aren’t accustomed to the language, and are maybe struggling to understand it, and to borrow a friend’s language for this – have maybe heard that they should know this container language, but don’t really know what the content is. I found that people feel a little bit defensive and raw sometimes and on the spot if corrected, and I don’t think that’s serving anybody. Guilt is not supposed to be the thing. Let’s just try together.
Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?
It’s been interesting. It is unclear to me what I am going to do about publishing. Because I get really wonderful and well-intentioned questions from people who do the intro at a bookstore, or at a university, or people doing print interviews of me, around the book. And what they say is, “What do I call you in the interview?” Or my friend who [said], “I’m putting you in the acknowledgments in my book. What name do you want me to write?” And my first response was, “I have no idea. I don’t know how this works.” I put out a book with one name, and I’m more comfortable using another – it’s just a shortened version, but in an era of Google searches and stuff like that, it’s a thing. So yeah, I think I’m still sorting that out. And I feel quite protective of the name Alexandria. I feel very protective of that person. And it feels like they wrote the last book. I still am figuring out, trying to understand how much that feels like – I mean I feel like I wrote the book, but how much that name feels like me, or how much it feels like a part of my identity that sort of needed to be expressed in the form of the last book, and now can do this other thing that has also been there all along.
So the name thing; on the one hand it’s a shortened form and it’s the nickname I went by my entire childhood, and refused to be called Alexandria. And yet I feel actual grief if I contemplate completely losing the name Alexandria. [But] when somebody calls me it now, I don’t really feel comfortable. So I would say I’m still sorting that out in a big way. And I will have to make a decision when it comes time to publish the next book. For shorter pieces I’ve just been going with Alexandria. I don’t quite know what else to do when you’re trying to build under one name. So I think I’m still sorting that out.
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
I really like genderqueer. I like the idea of queering gender. I like the idea of queering the binary. I like “non-binary.” I do identify with “dyke.” I don’t know quite why that feels less feminine to me than “lesbian,” but it deeply does. I sometimes find myself using “gay.” Writer. Human. The next word that comes to mind is “friend.” Community has become really important.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
Yeah. I tend to wear neckties and bowties a lot. It’s a signifier. I was shocked at how much more comfortable I instantly felt in my own skin cutting my hair off. I had long hair always. I cut my hair off last March. It took me going to Australia to do it. My book came out the prior May – May 2017. Even though I was teaching at Harvard before that and I had been wearing a tie almost every day for years, and that was a very intentional signifier that was intended to be a signifier. To the point where – this changed over the years – but when I started there, a lot of my students were international, many from countries that have difficult relationships to homosexuality, and I would always need to plan the day that I first wore a tie.
Because I knew that I would lose some of my students for a little while, while they figured out that they were being taught by someone whose identity they might have some issues with. So it was always day two. It wasn’t day one, because I needed to impart the syllabus information. It wasn’t day three or day four because by then it would’ve been jarring. But day two I could always pack in a bit that wasn’t as critical. And my Chair would kind of tease me about it, but it was a thing. Because it just was inevitable. And sometimes people would end up writing about going through their complicated feelings about it, even in the course of writing assignments that they did in class. Which was weird. Though I appreciated their honesty about it. I was already conscious of the signifiers before then, and wanting to be read, wanting to be understood – I think like many writers I actually do secretly want to be understood [laughs] – and so the signifiers are my marker.
So when I went to do the photograph for the last book, I noticed that all my complicated feelings about being read came back. All my feelings from years of being in the closet, and from years of being told that the fact that I was queer couldn’t be in the book, because it would make it impossible to sell and people wouldn’t read it, and all that. And it is in the book, and it did sell, and people do read it. [laughs] But it was still kind of doing this dance in my psyche, or this dance with that discomfort. So the author photo for the book is very intentionally stripped of all signifiers in that realm. I have curly hair, and they sort of blow-dried it straight and then re-curled every curl individually, and put on a lot of makeup that was on one hand close to my skin tones, but very clearly makeup. And I’m dressed in a way that, yes, the jacket at least I wear, but – I brought ties to the photoshoot, and I couldn’t bring myself to use one of those photos on the book. In part because I think I had internalized this idea that, “Well, are Midwestern book clubs gonna read it?” Not to pick on the Midwest, though they are almost uniformly who I get the mail from. I get a lot of mail that says, “I was so enjoying your book until the gratuitous lesbian sex scene in the middle of the book.” But you’re not complaining about the heterosexual sex scene that was earlier? Too bad, guys. I don’t want to pick on the Midwest though. [laughs] This happens everywhere. So I did that for the book. Which is strange, because it’s essentially a portrait on something that is in some ways very personal – intimate, anyway. It’s a portrait that doesn’t look like me. To the point that now when I show up at book clubs and whatnot, on multiple occasions, people have just chatted for a long time and then been like, “Where is the author? When is the author gonna show up?” And I was like, Oh, I forgot that I have to tell you that I’m the author because you don’t see it or notice it. Sorry. I look different. [laughs] A couple of times, the person next to me has turned to me and started talking to me about how they feel about the book, and I’m like, “Hi. I’m glad you feel that way, I wrote it.” So it’s been interesting.
It’s like there was a portrait of a person who was the author of the book, who was stripped of these gender signifiers intentionally, or has binary gender signifiers. So after the book had been out a while, and I felt safe, without consciously thinking about it this way, I noticed that when I was traveling… I was in Cambodia for a month doing research, and then I was in Australia for the book, and I noticed that that was when I finally felt comfortable to cut off my hair. It was like, All right, I feel safe, and now I can exhale and be myself. I notice that whenever I’m making a big move around gender, it’s far away from home. I used to dress very feminine. I always wore heels, I always wore a skirt, I always wore big dangly earrings – and then I moved to New Orleans, and my first day there stopped. I just bought a bunch of men’s clothing and was like, All right, now we’re done. So I think there’s something about going far away to become yourself. It’s funny that I cut my hair, and I was a little bit shocked at how immediate the signifier was. I got read differently immediately, which was wonderful. Because I did want to be read differently. It definitely seems to help me being read in a non-binary way. I find it enjoyable when I’m “sir”ed and “ma’am”ed within the space of 10 minutes.
One of the weird things about publishing a memoir is that so much of my life now I feel like, Okay, yes, I guess I can say this publicly, because it’s already out there. I had a really strong eating disorder for 15 years, and it didn’t leave until I stopped wearing feminine clothing. I had thought that that feeling of wanting to rip my own skin off, or wanting to destroy my body, was just going to stay with me forever. And then I was surprised to discover it wasn’t going to stay with me forever, I just had to not wear feminine clothing. And it’s interesting to me that there’s no such thing as appearing too masculine for me to be comfortable, there’s no such thing. I like clothes to fit a certain way, I do like that stuff. I’m very particular. But my subconscious does not appear to allow me to think about things as choosing to move around on a gender spectrum. There’s just such a strong dysphoria that it doesn’t allow me to do that. I admire people’s ability to do that. I have friends who I think perceive gender more as play, and I don’t relate to that sense of lightness around it that some people have. It is very personal. One of the things that I find interesting about gender is that everybody has such a different idea of it, and language around non-binary identities, and narrative of their own identity, which is kind of exciting, and cool, and occasionally make the language difficult, as it should be.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
I very vividly remember a moment at 8 years old. [But] I’m realizing that I’m talking about a lot of the things I’m writing about, and I’m worried that I’m squelching the impulse to write. I have to be careful with that. So I’ll leave it as 8, and I’ll add though, given the last question, that I had known that memory, I’ve related to that memory, I’ve tried to write about that memory a number of times over the years and have only recently been able to do that in a way that I want other people to see. But a new colleague asked [this question] when I decided to cut my hair, and without thinking about it, I said when I was 8.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
I grew up in a very, very, very binary-driven family. To the point that I think certainly neither my mother nor my sisters nor I growing up in the house ever changed a lightbulb. Ryan Van Meter has an amazing essay in which he comments on being a child and says, “I have recently observed that when mothers and fathers are in the car together” – he’s thinking about the mind of a 5-year-old, right – “that the father always drives.” I think that’s true in many families, and certainly was true in mine. My sister is a lawyer, and so is my brother-in-law. But one day when they were out walking along the water looking at these big grand houses, their daughter said, “Maybe some day I can live in a house like that,” and her father said, “Well maybe if you marry well you can.” So some of it’s very, very, very binary. And I’ve always been a good student. I have absorbed that really well. So I was in college before I understood that you could leave the house without makeup.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
I haven’t dealt with many misconceptions that I’m aware of, mostly because people don’t seem to have conceptions. It’s like the coach at my Crossfit [gym] who kept referring to me as one of the “ladies,” and he would show me “this is what the ladies do,” and all this. And very early on, like the first day that he started doing this, I [said], “I just wanna talk to you about this, I identify as genderqueer, so the term ‘ladies’ is not really a thing,” and it was like his mind was blown. One nice thing about publishing a book that had a fair amount of intimate material in it, and getting used to talking about it, and getting used to the “oh my god” questions that some people ask, is that it’s made me more comfortable about just saying things that make other people uncomfortable. Sometimes to my detriment; I don’t always realize when there’s a cost associated with it until later. I don’t always realize when something gets under my skin or is upsetting until later. But in this case, it wasn’t hard to say it.
I mean he’s a nice guy, but he just doesn’t have any exposure, and it’s a very heteronormative environment, and a very binary environment, and he literally often says things to me like, “I still don’t understand how this is possible. People are either men or women, and there are just physical realities in their bodies, and what do you want me to do? This is the ladies’ part, and this is the guys’ part,” you know. And I’m like, it’s a thing. You can’t see it, you don’t understand it, and I think you literally can’t see it. I think you literally aren’t able to read those signals we were talking about earlier, those signifiers. I can’t figure out what box he thinks he’s putting me into… There’s somebody who shows up at his gym very frequently always wearing men’s stuff with short hair, and refuses to go into the ladies’ room. So what box – how is he – he [says], “This is impossible!” But the possibility of it is actually happening right in front of him. And that’s why I think projects like this are so important. Necessary, necessary, necessary. There’s a need.
In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?
I don’t know. I’m sort of struggling with that, actually. It’s not the same. It’s not the same at all. And – I have trouble with the way it’s being taught right now in university settings as being completely unaligned and removing any idea of sex, basically, from gender identity. Which mirrors in some ways the way that I think homosexuality became publicly acceptable by taking the sex out, essentially. Taking the sex out of the public idea of it. So I’ve been wrestling with both of those ideas a lot lately. It can be different from sexual orientation, and it cannot be, and I sort of want both of those possibilities to exist. For many people, I think the expression of [being genderqueer] shows up, in part, in what they do in bed. And that’s the part that feels, right now, like people are trying really earnestly to get language for all of this on the table, and [they] take that out because that makes the language harder.
And man, those well-meaning explanations of gender identity and sexual orientation and gender expression that are happening in some college spaces – which is great, thank god we’ve got that – but the ones I’ve been exposed to at least for teaching have just been totally separate. And that doesn’t quite, for me anyway, match the experience of a lot of queer people I know. It’s tricky because we talk about non-binary identities, and the body, and sexual activity, [but] we don’t want to invite voyeurism, because that’s been done for so long, and the idea of the spectacle and whatnot, but also we can’t totally take it out.
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
I don’t. Full stop.
What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?
Oh for god’s sake, I would love for us all to just talk about what’s actually happening. And that could be everything from climate change to the political situation to the multiplicity of gender identities and expressions that actually exists in the world to our relationships to our pasts. I just wish we would all just talk about what’s actually happening. It’s a big change, but I’d like to see it happen at all levels.
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
Teaching. I think it’s always been really impactful for me to be seen and recognized and embraced – beyond accepted, embraced – for who I actually am. And that was unfortunately just so not my experience growing up, which I think is true for a lot of people. For many years I wouldn’t show anyone who I was because of that.
I don’t want to entirely place it on growing up, but I definitely read a lot of different messages. It goes back also to that question of representation. If you’re growing up and you hear all these heteronormative love songs and you [think], Oh, there’s probably no place for me actually. I don’t think there’s a place for me, in my relationship, my family, things like that. That was so profoundly the lesson of growing up that in many ways my life has been a process of becoming ever more myself, and learning to trust that people will accept.
One of the first big experiences of that that was very impactful was that I had the chance to teach this year-long class in Memoir at Boston’s Grub Street that I ended up teaching for four years. It was a program I developed called the Memoir Incubator. It’s still going on, though someone else teaches it now. And that first year, I was terrified because I was going to be in a classroom with these 10 people for a year, talking about really emotional things, as well as craft. And it quickly became apparent that I was going to have to show up as every part of me. That I was going to have to show up as myself. And it’s a funny quirk in my life that it’s in teaching that I learned that I would be accepted. That I learned that it is possible to show up and accept another person’s full presence, and bringing my full presence, and that it wasn’t necessary to hide behind this protective veil or whatnot. So going on an emotional and intellectual journey with 10 people for a year who were trusting me, and who were trusting me with, in many cases, stories that they had either told no one or told very few people in their lives – that trust, and the trust with which I was greeted by them, profoundly changed my life.
Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
Well, I wrote this book. [laughs] Yeah. Like a lot of people in the queer community – unfortunately a much higher percentage than overall – I was molested as a child, and that was difficult, and the way that that was handled by the people around me was also very difficult. In retrospect, I guess how I dealt with it was writing a book about it, because I think a lot of memoirs are written in response to enforced silence. I mean certainly there were other reasons for writing the book – testimony is important, but it’s not just an act of testimony. It’s a lot of other things, and involved a lot of research and art and craft and all that – but I think narratizing one’s life in some fashion is a part of living. Who we are is a story we tell ourselves. So I think I dealt with it by learning how to create that story that involved dealing with it. Very similar to thinking about gender now, it’s like telling oneself a story; how do I make sense of my own non-binary identity when I live in a culture that predominantly has a binary gender narrative?
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
Well you photographed two of them today. [laughs] It was interesting to me to move to this place where I knew one person, and not well. I’ve lived here four months to the day yesterday. Everything in my life is currently brand new. Even the puppy. Certainly there are lots of people in Boston, there are lots of people elsewhere that I can count on, but I’m going to shout out to the Consortium. It’s what we’ve been nicknaming ourselves [here in Portland] as a genderqueer consortium that has found itself. There are four of us. The other person did not want to be photographed. And I can definitely say I can rely on them, which is really beautiful.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
No idea, because I really avoid doctors. Remains to be seen.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
I would say it’s come back, actually, to my view of myself when I was much younger. That there was a long period of losing that and having trouble getting back to it. And then it’s kind of come back.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Keep going. Not to take on other people’s judgments as my own pain. Not to buy into them and take them on. That took me a long time to move away from that. And also that they’re doing great. I would tell them that. For sure. Oh, and they do get a giant fluffy dog eventually.
What are your concerns for the future?
I believe we mentioned climate change. I mean there are so many.
What do you look forward to in the future?
Moving. I’d like to keep doing that. I really enjoy it. It’s really interesting.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
Learning to be comfortable with putting myself out there, taking risks, and sometimes failing. Or not being recognized or seen, is what I’m really going for. Being a writer is just basically constantly putting yourself out there, and constantly being rejected. I always tell my students, Your number one skill as a writer [should be] Ass In Chair. Getting comfortable with sitting with the unknown, and facing the blank page, and just putting in the time, and riding out the emotions and all that, and showing up. Then the number two skill is surviving rejection. I always like to point out that the list of people who win the Pulitzer for Fiction and the list of finalists for the National Book Award are almost never the same people. Which means that they got rejected from the other person’s category. Everybody gets rejected. So in a way, getting comfortable with that in writing has made me more comfortable with putting myself out there in life, and taking risks, and being more fully myself, and showing up more fully. And getting more comfortable with that in life has made it more possible for me to get comfortable with that as an artist. And Crossfit has helped. [laughs]
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
Show up. Maybe that’s it. I feel like I have many. I don’t know what the “one” is. But that’s one.
Read more at http://alex-marzano-lesnevich.com