Messing with Truth: A Conversation with Emerson Whitney

Emerson Whitney is the author of HEAVEN (McSweeney’s, 2020) and Ghost Box (Timeless Infinite Light, 2014). Emerson’s work has recently appeared in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, Bombay Gin, Jupiter 88, ENTER>text: 3 years, &NOW AWARDS 3: The Best Innovative Writing, Drunken Boat: Romani IssueCream City Review, Agápē Journal, and Hold: A Journal. Emerson was named a kari edwards fellow, PLAYA fellow, REEF resident, and holds a PhD from the European Graduate School. Emerson teaches in the BFA creative writing program at Goddard College and is a Dana and David Dornsife Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. To contact Emerson, email: emerson w at USC dot edu.


Michelle Tea: In that your book is a hybrid of memoir and theory, I wonder if you dealt with double the problems the writer of a more conventional work would face. What was biggest challenge about incorporating theory into the work? What was the biggest challenge in writing the personal narrative?

Emerson Whitney: Thank you for asking me this!

I struggle to write anything that isn’t hybridized, so I don’t know if it makes double the writing problems, but I’m kind of into problems, so that would make sense!

The hardest part of making the narrative was editing—not the actual editing process but my internal one. In writing the book, I tried to completely toss out the editor in my brain who was concerned with what other folks were going to think: everybody, my family. All of it. Then, when it was time for prepping for publication and considering my family particularly, that got so hard. My editor, Claire Boyle, was extremely generous with me in navigating this. I’m still super scared of what my mom and grandmother are going to think when it comes out (they both didn’t want to read it in advance despite my pleas), but I know I wrote an honest book. I wanted to render them beautifully in it, and I hope that aim comes across. That’s the best I can do, I think.

The biggest challenge about incorporating theory was that basic concern that I “get it right,” or whatever. Like, I’m not a student of Lacan, for example, and that shit is complicated. He’s using little math-looking formulas to prove his points, and I definitely have a lot of imposter syndrome stuff around being “right” in this way. I did ask for help from a bunch of awesome academic folks I admire to double check what I was saying. But honestly, one of the things I hope to do with my work is to contribute to the wealth of voices who cheer for theory as a tool for world-building (like, to make up a theory is something anybody can do, and it’s a really powerful thing to do because we can posit new modes of being, which then become new realities—like, really). I want to shake up the idea of “theory” as canonical and a white/wealthy/cis/het man thing to do. I like to lay it against “story” and see what happens, messing with “truth” this way. I was a journalist for a number of years, and it was abundantly clear that there’s really no such thing as objectivity. Autobiography, this story of mine, is hugely subjective and misremembered and narrativized. It’s “true” for me, but what even is that? Same with theory. Many of the theories and theorists I bring up in Heaven are doing muddy, malleable word-play (cough, Freud), and that word-play sometimes masquerades as “truth.” At least, that’s how I see it.

MT: Were there any hybrid works (or any works) you looked towards for inspiration or permission? To add your work to the conversation?

EW: Definitely! I am so grateful to my mentor Maggie Nelson for all of her work, all she’s taught me about writing like this, and the way she’s inspired an appreciation of auto-theory with The Argonauts. I’ve always been into by Avital Ronell’s playfulness with form (see: Crack Wars), all of Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid autobiography and theory, Fred Moten’s tremendous mix of scholarship and creative writing, Barthes on Barthes, and Lucille Clifton’s gorgeous, poetic Generations: A Memoir.

MT: What was your writing process like for Heaven? In a very practical way, where were you, how and when did you work, what sort of superstitions did you employ?

EW: OMG. Such a good question. Basically, I was at this for a long time. An abstracted version of this book was published in Troubling The Line in 2014. It was a long poem and totally trippy with, like, little spaces instead of words ( _ _  _ _ _ _ ), but it’s what I had with me when Maggie was like, Um, you should maybe try this in prose. I started writing the poem-version on the weird carpeted floor of my place in Maine when I was working as a sports and Maritimes (!) reporter for a small weekly newspaper. The rest of my time writing it was spent in exactly six different living situations in L.A. Basically, my superstitions are relative. I just try to work for 3+ hours a day on whatever project I’m working on. It doesn’t always happen, but mostly, I get itchy when I don’t, and it kind of doesn’t matter where I am or what’s going on around me or anything. I just do it because it’s my favorite thing to do.

MT: There is a particularly harrowing scene in Heaven, that you mention had been critiqued by a reader as a sort of trauma porn. I am so interested in that moment—first, because you brought the process of writing a book—having readers, metabolizing feedback—into the work, which is rare and cool, and then also, you seem to shrug off the critique and just go for it. And I wonder first about the decision to write about the writing, and second, this idea of trauma porn, it suggests that when writing about trauma, our aim should be different than it is for the rest of the work. Generally, a writer is trying to create something gripping/uncomfortable/provocative/entertaining/beautiful/descriptive/transporting, but when we apply these aims to something traumatic, there is a sense that it’s unseemly. You seemed to blow off that comment, or at least not be stopped by it, but I wonder if you have anything to say about it, and about writing about personal trauma generally.

EW: First, I wrote about that critique because it did stress me out and I wanted to perform (like ritualize, even?) burning past that label by naming it in the book. In Heaven, I’m regularly asking about what it’s like to engage these thematics (gender, sex, selfhood, childhood) without the anxiety of causality. I think by naming this critique, the anxiety about readers reducing the book to something like “trauma porn” is punctured a bit. I’m sort of saying, I know.

I notice that in talking about trauma in general, the word and its meaning either ends up getting flattened—like, ugh, she’s traumatized right now ‘cause her chihuahua walked through its own poop and then licked its feet and then licked her face, or whatever; or it becomes a hierarchical thing—like well, the DSM defines a “traumatic event” as “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” The dictionary also defines it (one of the meanings at least) as just straight-up “an injury.” I guess I always like to call in the complexity of this term whenever it comes up. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that isn’t about some kind of “injury,” so I’m wondering if we’re all just writing about “trauma,” and if only certain writers (BIPOC, queer, femme, trans, disabled, etc.) get labeled as doing “trauma porn” as a devaluation of the craft aspects of our work.

MT: Do you have a sense of what your next project might be?

EW: OMG. Yes! I’m working on two books right now, one is about unpacking “diagnosis” in general… When I was a kid, I was tested with the Wechsler Scale of Intelligence for Children, and I failed it! Which landed me in Special Ed. I’ve been really curious about that test and its lineage (check out Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People for more on this!) that’s based in white supremacy, xenophobia, and ableism (to name only some of it) and the history of diagnosis in general that often enacts this same fucked-up-ness. I’m connecting that with my desire to get diagnosed for something. I have this thing called Ehlers Danlos —it’s a random, rare, genetic, degenerative disorder (Lena Dunham has it and so does the drag queen Yvie Oddly—it’s actually an integral part of Yvie’s act because the type we have often makes us sideshow-level bendy). I’m pretty debilitated by it regularly, increasingly as I get older. I want that diagnosis because I have a placard and want to keep renewing it. But I’m deeply curious about what it means to be participating in this system of classification via diagnosis and how it relates to consent.

The other book I’m working on is about going on a tornado chasing tour (yes, people—mostly people from the U.K., weirdly—pay like $4K to go one one of these for two weeks!). I got to go for free on one of the only queer-owned tours in the U.S. I went because I was curious about tourism that looks like this. The book takes on themes of humanism/animism (check out Mel Chen’s work!). Like, why do we think we should “catch” a tornado? And what does it say about masculinity (this is typically a very “bro” heavy activity) and white masculinity’s fixation on human (mostly defined as European-descended and cis) dominance over everything, when we fail at “catching” one? It’s also about what it meant to be traveling around the South in the summertime with a group of oddballs wanting a storm to hit them real bad.

Thanks for asking me these questions Michelle, and thanks for loving Heaven!!

Emerson Whitney photo credit: Emerson Whitney.
Michelle Tea photo credit: Amos Mac.


Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea is the author of over a dozen works for adults and children, most recently the kids' book 'Tabitha and Magoo Dress Up Too,' which was inspired by the international phenomena Drag Queen Story Hour, which she founded in 2015. Tea's essay collection, 'Against Memoir,' was honored with the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She is the author of the popular how-to 'Modern Tarot,' and lives in Los Angeles, where she hosts Your Magic Live!, a monthly mystical talk show.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply