'My Whole Life is Kind of a Feminist Directive'

The acclaimed writer and critical thinker Maggie Nelson talks to Portland Monthly about gender fluidity, motherhood, and why the notion of a book about family is “super bleugh”

By Fiona McCann July 16, 2015

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Maggie Nelson, by Harry Dodge

Maggie Nelson is a generous conversationalist. Open and engaging, she makes space for her interlocutor, her speech an appealing mash-up of intellectual discourse with teenage-style jargon. Take this example, when she’s asked how she feels when people refer to The Argonauts as being “about family”, given how fraught the word can be, particularly when paired with words like “nuclear” or “values”.

“If you’d ever said to me before: ‘One day you’ll write a book that people would say is about family’, I would have been just ‘Bleugh. Super bleugh’.” She sticks her tongue out to convey her disgust, then goes on to explain: “It ’s the kind of word that travels. When someone says ‘It’s a book about family,’ I’m never sure their use of family is my use of the word family. It’s a term that gets away from one very quickly.”

Trying to pin down what The Argonauts is “about” may also do the book a disservice. Even for Nelson herself, its unifying principle was not necessarily clear until she’d finished the book, which is presented as a series of short pieces, many only  a single paragraph long, that range from examinations of feminist theory to memories of giving birth. “At some point you go on instinct,” she says of the process. “You have a lot of anecdotes or ideas that you suspect are all related but you’re not quite sure how or why.”

Yet the finished project is a complete and compelling literary work, at once extremely personal and extremely relevant. It covers her early relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, her attempts to get pregnant, her partner’s testosterone injections, her body changing through pregnancy while Dodge’s is altered by a mastectomy, the birth of their son Iggy and the death of Dodge’s mother.

For Nelson, the two main subjects of the book, “which, bluntly put, would be queer questions around homo- and hetero- normativity on the one hand, and then this series of anecdotes or experiences about baby-making,” had to come together to make The Argonauts. “It’s the weaving of them and the insisting that they be in the same book that is the political raison d’etre of the book.” 

But Nelson leads an examined life, and questions it all as she goes, invoking theoreticians, child psychologists, feminist philosophers and writers to help her make sense of her experiences. Not, you might guess, an obvious bestseller formula. Yet it’s been embraced by the New York Times, the Guardian, the A.V. Club, and the Huffington Post, among countless other publications. “This book has been very strange that it’s had so much mainstream attention, because when I was writing the book I was giving myself permission to think through things using theory, imagining it would guarantee an esoteric audience for it.”

In part The Argonauts’s appeal lies in the careful juxtaposition of the deeply personal with the theoretical. “I don’t think of it as more personal than things I’ve written before,” says Nelson though she admits the subject matter may make it feel more so, given ideas about “the privatized family”.

But the personal, as second wave feminists argued, is political, and Nelson doesn’t reject that interpretation. “With all these decisions about marriage equality, literally our family’s status was changing every year, so I knew when I was writing it was going to be a time capsule of a particular moment, 2007 to 2014 and that it would represent whatever was going on at that moment. In that way it felt like a cultural document.”

 Whether the decision to make her personal life so public stemmed from a feminist directive is another matter. “My whole life is kind of a feminist directive so of course it would come from that!”

It all gets examined within a tightly edited, yet somehow expansive 143 pages, with Nelson at one stage even second-guessing her decision to talk about her son’s birth and infancy in such a public form.

“I’m glad that that moment’s in there, of rehearsing that fleeting thought,” she says, but immediately ties it to “strictures about women not being able to write about being mothers or having children...If you’re going to write about something coming out of you, you can’t not write about your child. Is it you or is it not you? How can you tell?”

Such questions about separation and unity, about two-in-oneness, form much of the book’s dialectic. And Nelson won’t stand for the sexism she finds among such queries about how much of her child’s experience is fair game as a writer. “I don’t hear Karl Ove Knausgaard fielding a lot of questions about the ethics of writing about children! Mothers are supposed to be these unambivalent protectors. I believe in protecting children but that does not mean that you take a vow of silence about your life.”

 And for all her affability, Maggie Nelson is irritated by such attitudes to motherhood, by  the silencing of women’s stories, and also by questions she fields about why, given the book’s examination of gender and the binaries around it, she even decided to find out her son’s gender in utero, a moment documented in The Argonauts. “My interest in gender fluidity and non disciplinary gender conformity does not extend to being uninterested in the materiality as bodies such as they exist,” she says.

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But such questions allow her to point up the problem in shooting for some kind of gender blindness in the world. “It relates to this naïve idea of having a post-gendered future, where nobody would play with gender and nobody would care about their genitalia,” she says. “What we’re looking for is a non disciplinary state within which people can be excited about any aspect of their bodies.”

The Argonauts is excited about body, about the corporeal and the visceral as much as it is about the cerebral, in a sense destroying that dichotomy in the process. The male/female dichotomy also comes under fire, and Nelson is excited about the cultural shift around it.

“I think it’s an exciting moment,” she says. “I remember my stepson coming home from school saying ‘My friends say there are only boys and girls’ and us saying ‘Well, your Papa is neither, so they’re wrong.’” Before, she posits, positions taken at home would be unsupported in society at large, and therefore ultimately quashed. “But we’re at the incipient age where there’s more backup for that position, there are more people in the world going ‘Oh, you’re right, that’s true, you can be an in-betweener.’”

In between is in many ways where The Argonauts sits: at once memoir and critical work, both things and neither. And Nelson is very much at the helm, and ready to defend her decisions, whether they be about parenting, or about children as literary subject. “The point is that the woman as mother and the woman as author gets to make those ethical decisions,” she says. “You may agree or disagree, but it seems very important that they remain at the helm of those decisions, you know?”

 Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is published by Graywolf. She will be reading with
Victor LaValle and Tony Hoagland as part of the Tin House reading series at
Reed College’s Cerf Amphitheater at 8 pm on Saturday. Admission is free. 


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