As primarily nonfiction readers, your faithful co-founder Emily Colucci and contributor Jessica Caroline have been making an effort to overcome our general reluctance to engage more in contemporary fiction. We gave Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby a whirl. However, it’s not like authors at larger publishing houses are in dire need of more attention and it’s safe to assume we were both ultimately more taken with Camille Roy’s collected stories, Honey Mine, which will be published later this month by Nightboat Books. So we decided to have a chat about it:
Jessica Caroline: Roy employs her characters as aggregates, composites, offshoots of herself and her neighbors, friends, antagonists, former lovers, fleeting acquaintances. She often switches from first to third person and early on describes her thoughts about her past as “pieces of brain chemistry.” The first story, Agatha Letters, unfolds as a sequence of letters, which includes the story of Sara and Sand and their act of self-righteous and devotional martyrdom by setting themselves alight in rolls of toilet paper. This reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s granddaughter Lucy who in 1975 doused herself in paraffin and painfully burned to death in her clothing, in spite of a failed attempt to rescue her from her agony. This was, of course, in the context of the Vietnam War’s back end, where the spectacle of self-immolation had penetrated collective consciousness and “left its residue” among the other horrors of the war. What Roy does here, though, is render the act as desperate and darkly absurdist, and she quickly shifts this tragicomic story to first person after describing Sara’s death and Sand’s recuperation from her burn wounds in the home of her alcoholic parents:
“The war at home. It was luxurious, all that anger. It sprang forth everywhere like the weeds of a wet hot summer in Mississippi dirt. I still miss it. I believed in that anger, in its promises.”
What did you make of this story?
Emily Colucci: Self-immolation in toilet paper–what a way to go! It’s such transcendently absurd and horrific imagery. And something John Waters would approve of I’m sure (He’s previously written about his love of Saint Catherine of Siena who drank pus for God). Speaking of other flammable martyrs, your reference to Bertrand Russell’s granddaughter reminds me of another representation of self-immolation I’ve encountered recently: Rose Glass’ film Saint Maud. In some ways, Maud came to a similar end as Sara and Sand (spoiler alert!), cloaked in worn bedsheets as if she was draped in robes from a Medieval painting. But while Saint Maud makes us empathize with Maud as she, through mental illness and isolation, unravels to her fiery grand finale of religious fervor, Roy doesn’t give us that insight into Sara and Sand. She only provides brief statements about the couple (“Sara was political, in the paranoid style of the times, and Sand was younger, impressionable.”). In this way, it reads as a fable and some sort of cautionary tale about anger gone out of control. The part I found the most interesting comes right after the segment you quoted:
“I got through everything, any grueling adventure, because I was waiting for that anger to finally and completely arrive–a moment when the daily world would shimmer and crack into pieces, a broken mirror, and we would all run into the street, barking like dogs. Free at last.”
It makes me think of the anger that’s so prevalent in our culture now–on all political sides. I think it might be easier and more comfortable to connect this desire to Black Lives Matter, Free Palestine, or any of the other social justice protests coming from the left. But in some ways, the Capitol insurrection was exactly the arriving explosion of anger that she describes. And that moment, with all those “low-class” insurrectionists in Viking horn cosplay and goofy Q T-shirts, was exactly as absurd, trashy, and essentially meaningless as self-immolation in toilet paper.
What did you make of her description of this righteous anger and missing it? And I’m also curious what you thought of the form of the story, as a series of letters to Agatha?
JC: Letters allow her to dart around the past and present conversationally. As for anger, it’s perhaps more useful to this writer than, say, melancholy. A lot of the stories don’t really make time for dwelling, it’s already reaching for the next encounter. I found this exhilarating, the way the prose moves swiftly from a nostalgic sigh into another memory. I loved the closing vignette in The Faggot, where she and her comrades are pushing the trees of a rotten forest over. I wonder what you make of the way Roy’s narrators tend to flourish through micro revelations, like a first sexual encounter with Isabelle:
“She gripped the mattress with both hands, arched her back, and it hit me: I could be anyone. What a blast, what a fucking relief.”
And then in Isher House, this insight here:
“A crime is an intimate form of knowledge. It breaks you, then remains present, like the water running in the sewers. When I’m lonely, the faint background gurgling seems to turn into a whisper–Your history is unbearable. But whose history, I want to know.”
She often returns to crime in the book, a marker of class, but more on that later. Were there any standout images or moments for you?
EC: One of the images that really stood out for me in The Faggot was the description of Camille scratching Isabelle’s hot spot rashes as some sort of revolting eroticism and also strangely sweet care:
“She had those rashes. She’d sit on the edge of the mattress and we’d watch it grow outward from one tiny spot, stopping when it got to be about the size of a quarter. Sometimes it crept down her thigh like a brush stroke, and I’d follow, with my finger or tongue. It was boredom, scraping from the inside against her skin, trying to get out.”
I like the thought that a rash is some sort of bored ennui trying to get out. And scratching a rash as sexy–blurgh! That’s certainly not lesbian corn as she was trying to avoid in Agatha Letters, but it is memorable!
It also dovetails nicely with her other articulation of Isabelle as “a dressy girl. It was like she wore herself, and then slipped some simple dress over that.” And that speaks to another theme that transverses a few of the stories, which is girlhood and Camille’s awkward place within it as both kind of a mess (she references her messy hair quite a number of times) and a budding dyke. In The Faggot she writes, “Being a dyke. It helps you get over being a girl, but so does whoring, or professional sports.” And in Agatha Letters:
“Mostly, it’s boring to be a girl. You are a prisoner of your girlish appearance. You can’t get outside. You are either with all the other girls studying themselves in mirrors as they dream of devouring meat, their own excess flesh, anything to get rid of it permanently, or someone is trying to stuff something weird between your legs. It’s one or the other. I was clear on this. Being a mess gave me a kind of immunity, but it didn’t make me stupid.”
Do you find scratching rashes sexy? Does being a mess give you immunity? What are your thoughts?
JC: Just about anything can turn erotic on the right person. They were also laying across on a particularly scuzzy old mattress from memory. I did find that titillating. That story was particularly odd as they were there at the invitation of poet Mina Loy, who becomes a banal kind of apparition, described as a “fairy godmother.” She comes across as an old matriarch, stuck in a town where nobody knows her work, except for Roy and her mother who happen to have her poetry on chintzy display in their bathroom. There was an awkward dynamic of reserve and ridicule going on there (“What the fuck did she mean by fondant nun?”). Roy is feigning agreeableness and vague comprehension just to pass through an awkward social situation. On the other hand, Loy is tender to her, she is there as a facilitator of sorts for Roy’s burgeoning sexuality to flourish. What did you make of that exchange?
EC: First, I just want to say that I find saran-wrapped poetry plastered to bathroom walls to be such a great decorating idea. Seems very Grey Gardens or interior design that says “days before the electroshock therapy.”
But to your question, what was interesting about that exchange between Mina Loy and Camille is that it thwarted expectations of a kind of nurturing mentorship. In the beginning of the story, Camille’s mother prefaces that she might meet Mina Loy when she travels to Ruby Ridge (I’m curious if this story was written before or after Ruby Ridge became synonymous with white separatists, militias, and standoffs with the US government) and there’s a sense of anticipation. So when she finally does, it’s somewhat ambivalent for both Mina and Camille. Not that either of them are especially disappointed, but Mina seems a bit taken aback that anyone knows her poetry and is quite sweet, and Camille seems more excited to prowl around an old house and scratch rashes than talk about poetry more than parroting Mina’s back to her. I like the realism and there’s something refreshing in it, especially between two queer women of different generations (though she didn’t identify as a lesbian, Mina Loy’s interactions with her companion Pussy are certainly at least “queer”). There’s so much emphasis, especially for anyone who is outside the dominant culture, about the importance of mentors and finding some sort of lineage. And sometimes, it’s just not some life-changing moment or lifelong influential relationship. What did you think?
JC: It seemed like an incidental match, these two writers are linked by a similar sounding name but that’s about it given the vast differences in age, era, geography, class position, sexual orientation, and their stylistic choices. This is probably a convenient moment to get into the elements of class in Roy’s work, too. Roy’s Craquer: An Essay On Class Struggle is a deviation from the essay form to a haphazard account of family reunions, from cosmology to Communism to psychoanalysis to Pentecostal faith, to secrets between the ruling class and the servants who know everything. I thought she posed some provoking questions here, such as:
“And what does the ruling class want from everybody else? What’s the emotional hook?”
What did you make of this essay?
EC: I’ll admit I found a lot of Craquer and the coy “I’m not going to tell you what monuments hold my family’s name” to be a bit annoying and self-aggrandizing (but then again, what semi-autobiographical writing isn’t?). Part of it may be that the twist of “actually some of my family is wealthy” is not appealing to me as we watch our society further stratify economically. However, beyond the kind of/not really class breakdown, what the essay is successful at doing is showing the blurred line between fact and fiction in a lot of family stories. At least I also come from a family whose stories are all a little suspect. For instance, when I was in elementary school, my grandfather wrote a story about a goldfinch for a class assignment I had. It was really sweet and my mother said so to my father who responded: “Sure, if it was true.” But who cares? If it’s a good story, why not believe it’s true anyway? Like the potential interaction (brief love affair?) between Camille’s estranged grandfather Raymond and Pentecostal legend Aimee Semple McPherson. As Roy writes, “I don’t care what the truth is–not enough to pursue it, anyway.” And later, “Who hasn’t been lied to, constantly?”
Another part of the essay that intrigued me was Camille’s wrestling with whether writers have to be, as her cousin charges, “ruthless.” At the end of the essay, she asks:
“Given the alternatives of silence or fantasy, ruthlessness becomes the middle way, inescapable, if not always truthful. What do you think? Where would you draw the line…What part of your life belongs to you, and what part belongs to me, should I happen to find out about it?”
Do you think writers have to be ruthless?
JC: I’m inclined to say yes, but then again it’s context dependent, and the way she has formulated it in terms of a middle ground between silence and fantasy is perhaps too much of a generalization. Some of these musings were a little confounding. At times, Roy’s “asides” are too unruly and clumsy for me, for example, in Fetish: “An ideal sniffs my rust. An idea surfs crust.”
Sorry, but that does need an edit. I couldn’t get into the rhythm of that chapter at all.
What do you think, do writers have to be ruthless?
EC: I’m inclined to say yes on the ruthlessness too. I look at it similar to comedians–if you’re around either a writer or a comic, you may find yourself represented in a way you don’t particularly enjoy whether it’s truth, half-truth, or fantasy. That’s just sort of how it works. But if we’re talking about parts of the book we disliked like your rust/crust pairing, I viscerally disliked the stories such as Lynette #1 that became a Maggie Nelson-like exercise in dropping in quotes from other writers. I understand this was such a part of that era of New Narrative/experimental fiction with writers like Kathy Acker stealing whole sections of Charles Dickens or rewriting The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School. But like Maggie and unlike Kathy who reveled in being a thief, Roy lists her sources at the end of the book. That level of professionalism irks me. Just steal it! But as I’m thinking about this, I’m wondering whether that was a decision made by the publisher or Roy herself…
Nevertheless, I had trouble with those stories and couldn’t find more meaning in the dropped-in segments than just an annoying and exhausting exercise in academic prowess. We get it, you read. Not all experimental fiction has to be a punishing experience.
Did you have a better time with them?
JC: I’m with you on good old fashioned theft, or at least fanciful paraphrasing. I could follow Lynette #1 up to a point, the way she’s incorporating boring theoretical frameworks to circumvent libidinal energies (“My erratic motion toward the ‘sexual fringe’ means the characters fall off before we get to see them fuck.”) Nice line. Roy is more effective when she’s running rampant with her prose, without too much meta commentary, as in the opening passages of Tanya that contemplate narrative authority. Sex Talk, on the other hand, as an exchange, felt slightly more tangible and spontaneous. I had issues with Experimentalism, where Roy likens experimental writers using genre forms to drag artists. She is all in on camp, pornography, and extremity, but in a way this chapter is at odds with her using her own writing to elucidate her points. I’m all for the forms of ego annihilation she advocates earlier:
“What is so interesting about pornography is that losing it is the point. People want to be taken apart so that ego control (resistance to pleasure) is subverted.”
She follows this with a reasonably straightforward account of her walking through her whiteness in crime riddled housing projects a block away from her home in San Francisco, she concludes:
“As a narrative writer I improvise recognition. It’s like a location from which mutant beings emerge. This feels true, in life they never stop emerging. Look—they even swarm through this text. I allow it because I’m terrified and seduced. To encounter them via narrative is to formalize a moment of surrender.”
Improvisation and sounds about right, however, her writing seems more measured or tempered than discernibly camp. I tend to think there’s a problem in general with writers interpreting their own work within their own book. Thoughts?
EC: Yes, her comparison to experimental writers using genre as camp didn’t quite click for me. In some ways, I think she was making a point about how marginal experimental writing is and of course, camp is a tool of those on the margins. And it’s also a rejection of the seriousness with which a lot of experimental writing is taken. But, I don’t see her writing as camp at all. Perhaps there are elements of camp–certainly toilet paper self-immolation like a politically radical child’s mummy Halloween costume is camp in some ways.
In general, though, I agree that it’s a bad idea for writers to interpret their own writing in their own book or perhaps at all. Some of Roy’s strongest arguments in her writing are for obscurity and evading full recognition or visibility. What is analyzing your own work other than bringing it out of obscurity? That being said, I did enjoy her contrast of literature and popular music’s use of obscurity in Under Grid: An Obscure Manifesto through referencing Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics.
JC: Yeah, that piece talks about recognition as “extractive” and “coercive.” These are ideas she returns to in the Afterword when she writes about and around gender and interruptions to subjectivity:
“We played with butch and femme with more expressive freedom because we got to be meaningless: a freedom which can’t be bought. We were at the intersection of nothing and gender.”
And then in The X Story:
“When I learned
about gender I was very surprised
The proceedings slid from a folder,
there were loose papers all over the floor.
Before that, I had only
experienced animals. It’s not impossible,
Anyone who likes to be fucked is a
anyone who only likes to be fucked is a
She is relaying to us a time when essentialism was irrelevant, where one could exist in more sensually felt and undetectable flow states that partake in a certain fondness for the implosion of recognition. What resonated for you here?
EC: “Anyone who likes to be fucked is a girl, anyone who only likes to be fucked is a woman.” That line stood out to me too. I also like, as you said, “the implosion of recognition” or as Lauren Levin and Eric Sneathen write in the introduction, celebrating “the liberatory potential of opacity.” Evading visibility in dominant culture isn’t just subversive, it’s a survival strategy, a point she makes in her Afterword. In her Afterword, Roy writes about her late partner Angie as a “badass super athlete butch dyke who spent at least a decade hauling the word butch out of the trash, so that she and younger lesbians could feel comfortable with it.” It’s an essay that’s filled with grief at the loss of her partner, lesbian erasure, and how the disappearance of people like Angie “is more profound because the rules they broke in life reformulate in their absence, as if they never lived.”
It seems like in particular Roy is pushing back against those who seem to want to misgender (re-gender?) Angie as a he. And I’ll say it’s not just Angie or other butches. I recently saw a battle between Wikipedia editors who were trying to change Quentin Crisp’s pronouns to she. Though Quentin certainly played with gender, I don’t recall ever seeing Quentin use “she/her” pronouns. There’s a lot of other examples of people posthumously imposing 2021 gender politics onto late figures that no longer have the ability to define themselves. On one hand, I understand the impulse to drag historical figures into the present to create a genealogy, but on the other hand, how much are we losing by being obsessed with categorizing everything with the ever-hardening identity standards of today?
For Roy, whose Afterword I’m sure is going to ruffle a few feathers (But what doesn’t these days?), is it such a surprise that a writer who is so heavily invested in opacity pushes back against the visibility and label fever we seem to now have in our culture? Ironically, at least in my mind, those who seem to want to avoid labels have made the biggest ones and those who want to be outside binaries have solidified binaries more than ever before. And perhaps because of this, I think Roy’s embrace of the slipperiness of subjectivity, desire, sexuality, etc., as well as enjoying the transformational possibilities of being at the margins, is what makes her writing essential.
What did you think of the Afterword?
JC: I was moved by it. The story from the memorial painted a scene of Angie’s hyper-sociality as a means to diffuse tension. Got a bit teary over that one! Through her grief, Roy expresses a need for resignation from the discourse du jour. A couple of key sections for me were:
“Sometimes I feel that the truest respect one can show towards the past is to allow it to be something other than a predecessor of the present…”
“My intent is to create silence around myself on these matters, not discourse. I think this creates a nourishing emptiness which is a part of how I want to live now.”
There’s a sense of spiritual enrichment and dignity in creating quietude around oneself. It takes a lot of experience to get to a place of comfort with one’s own, hmm, how can I put it, maybe acquiescence. I like how she put it in an earlier story:
“I’m not in the habit of revealing my thoughts. Privacy is a service I perform; it’s arbitrary what I reveal and what I don’t. I say, ‘Silence is drainage.’“
If people are ruffled by Roy, I don’t think they’re paying enough attention to the subtler kinds of vulnerabilities laid bare. Any final remarks from your end?
EC: Only that more discourse is sometimes not the answer!