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What's a Better Fiction?

Jordan Kisner talks with McKenzie Wark about writing, raving, and transitioning as a way of life.

McKenzie Wark by Clémence Polès, 2023.

Courtesy of the photographer

“You don't have to break a form,” McKenzie Wark writes in her new memoir Love and Money, Sex and Death. "You can play with it instead. Play with the forms as given until they expand our possibilities and meet our needs." Wark is an exemplar of this kind of playfulness and formal flexibility: her writing and thinking span academic works like A Hacker Manifesto and Capital Is Dead, trans autofiction like Reverse Cowgirl and Raving, and recently, a column for Document Journal. She is a professor of culture and media at the New School, where she teaches media theory and transgender studies, and a steady presence in the queer rave scene in New York.

We sat down on a Second Sunday at Pioneer Works this past fall for a live recording of my podcast, Thresholds. We talked about her new epistolary memoir, which she'd been trying to write in one form or another since the ’90s. We also spoke about the "rave continuum," and Wark’s experience of transition, which she thinks of not as a discrete period of hormonal change, but an ongoing practice of composition. "We are always fictions that we create for ourselves and others,” she told me. “So that gives you a different way of thinking: Like, what's a better fiction?"

Jordan Kisner

You’ve had two books come out this year—Love and Money, Sex and Death, and Raving—which form a beautiful diptych. I’d like to discuss them separately and together, but I thought I’d begin where I normally start conversations for Thresholds: can you tell me about a threshold you've encountered in your life that has shown up in or shaped your work somehow? “Threshold” being a term that you can interpret as widely and weirdly as you want to.

McKenzie Wark

I mean, the obvious one would be transition. I just crossed a gender threshold. Really it's a threshold of the body’s sex because I decided it was time to change with chemical and physical means. It was a threshold I was on for a very long time before finally stepping over it in my fifties.

JK

I like the idea that you're gesturing to the threshold as being long or deep. How do you draw brackets around that period in your life?

MW

I mean, I have a date that I celebrate, but it's all arbitrary because it's hard to tell where the threshold begins or ends. You know you're stepping into the thresh, but you don't know where the hold comes at the end.

JK

Right, right. Or where the hold lets you go.

MW

If ever.

JK

Why did you choose the date you chose?

MW

It was the date I had my orchiectomy, when a surgeon cut my testicles off. It was a very finite moment.

JK

Maybe what I want to ask you about is the long period before that, or the slow coming, the thresh part. What was that period of between-ness like for you as a person and also as a writer?

MW

It was something I wanted to write about for a long time, but I had to actually come out for that to be possible. I wrote Reverse Cowgirl before I went on hormones because I figured they might mess with my ability to write, which they really did for years. So that's sort of like a a bookend that marks the end of a previous life. And there were three years where I couldn't really write, and then Raving just happened very quickly and signaled my “new voice” in a way.

JK

I wanted to ask you about that period where you were struggling to write and the rush of Raving that followed. Were you worried you’d have trouble writing? Did it feel like there was something that you wanted to be working on that writing was not able to touch, or was it that you felt like you didn't have access to writing in the way that you had before?

MW

I mean, I'm always writing, but it was just bad. And there are just files and files of failed projects, and trying different voices and different approaches and stuff. I knew what to expect from my elders. Most humans have gone through puberty and remember it as a period of emotional instability. And I was going to do that again, basically. Though as an adult, there aren’t affordances for having puberty-level emotional meltdowns. I see writing as a bit of a finely tuned instrument, and I knew it would go out of tune in a sense.

For three years, I really couldn't get anything done. I mean, I did commissioned articles but that's like my second day job. The real work wasn't happening. I was just going dancing all the time. I thought, fuck it, I'll just enjoy being in my body and dancing helps in a lot of ways.

Raving came about because I was asked to contribute to the series Practices that Margret Grebowicz is editing for Duke [University Press]. Someone had dropped out, so Margret asked me to do something on short notice. I was like, "Yeah. This could be raving because that's all I do," but she wasn’t sure if it fit at first. There was nothing else I could write about; it was the only practice I had. So I sent Margret a sample and she was immediately like, "Oh, yeah. Okay, great. It's on."

JK

What did it feel like to return to the rave after being away from that space for years? What was it like to be embodied in that space, in a different body than before?

MW

It was a little overwhelming at first, and it took me a while to get comfortable again. And I always loved dancing, but I was very sensitive about being bugged by other people around me. Now I just don't care. I was getting knocked over this morning. I'm like, “All right, I'll bounce back.”

And it’s a common experience among ravers that it can take a good hour or even three to get into the zone of it. And it did take most of that morning to sort of physically grind off the sharp edges of subjectivity and just be a body. And find one that I liked finally. It's like, “Oh, I like her. This feels good.”

There's no such thing as a true self. We're always fictions that we create for ourselves and others.
JK

Did you know at that point that it was going to need to be a new practice for you?

MW

Yeah, my trans mom was also my rave mom, and she's hardcore and well connected. She would tell me where to go, which group chats to join, and after a while, I just knew where to go. And I got clocked. People knew who I was, which quite frankly helped. And I definitely played that card because I'm considerably older and not interested in waiting in line anymore.

JK

I'm sure it would help to be recognized in those spaces.

MW

I get recognized a lot more since Raving, and sometimes people want to talk about it on the dance floor. I love people saying hello but I'm busy there. You have to catch me in the chill out, in the moment that I step off the floor after a while and go get water or whatever. I'm out not just as a transsexual but as a recreational drug user, so I might also be high. It's not really the time for a theoretical discussion, or if it is, it might be silly.

JK

It makes so much sense to me that someone would come up to you at a rave or on a dance floor to talk about theory, because one of the things that's exciting about your work—not just in this book, but across your career—is this desire to collide theory and autofiction and the self. So I think it's very funny and natural that then people encounter you live and think, well, I want to talk about the theory of what we're doing, instead of just being at the rave.

MW

Not everybody wants to have a space of reflection attached to those spaces and experiences, but many people do. I also co-curated a series called Writing on Raving, and we'll do an edited collection of that. It's sort of a project for which I'm still doing the field work. I didn't stop even though the book's been out for months.

JK

It seems like the rave is such a fertile space for theory and for queer theory because, at least as you write it, it is this space that is full of portals, whether it is music as a portal, drugs as a portal, movement as a portal. I was so amazed by the term “the rave continuum”: that every rave can achieve access to the party that is outside time, which every rave might touch. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that idea and the technical, formal choices you made to bring us to the rave continuum in the book.

MW

I wanted the book not to be a description or representation of the world, but to be extruding out of it a little bit. The idea of the rave continuum—that there's a stream of time that every good party is part of—became a writing conceit because I put scenes from different parties together. And also, so I could just cut to the good stories.

JK

How did it feel to be writing (and writing fast) after a couple years of feeling like maybe you were writing but it didn't feel like it was hitting?

MW

I think being pushed to write quickly allowed the writing to return. I had something to write about and with and through. And then that enabled Love and Money, Sex and Death in a way, too.

The thing that takes the longest for me is to find the form of the book. It's sort of distinctive for each one, although some have been a little similar. What are the constraints? What's the tone? How is it chunked out? What genre does it play with? And usually that takes forever to figure out. And then once I've got that, the writing's really quick and easy. The rewriting will take forever. But once I figured those formal things out, and once I figured out Love and Money, Sex and Death was not just letters but those letters, the rest of it came really easily.

JK

What did the epistolary enable for this book?

MW

I wanted to write in the letter form for years. It's a minor form in literature compared to first person or third person, but it's the dominant form of pop songs. Hip hop's an interesting example, because it’s telling heroic tales in the first person. But second person is this very common form of address.

Originally [Love and Money, Sex and Death] was 12 letters. And my editor, Leo Hollis, was just like, "Look, the ones that get too abstract don't work." And so I dropped three that were in process. So it's essentially nine letters and it's three groups of three, and that's mothers, lovers, and others.

JK

There's a moment in the second letter, which is to your mother. Forgive me, I'm going to quote it back to you: "When I started transition and went on hormones, the past all came back to me, came out of its nothingness. All the loss, all the pain, and with it an understanding of this compulsion to write. This refuge in writing. When I am writing, I am always writing to you."

I wanted to ask, was that a moment? This idea of the past rushing back to you, did that happen on a day or was it sort of more of a slow rushing in writing?

MK

Oh, God, that still happens. It did seem to be related to the fact that you run your entire body, nervous system, and brain on different hormones. My memories really felt reorganized. I don't have an endocrinological explanation for that because my mother died when I was six and I thought I'd dealt with that in some way, but transition ripped the scab off the whole thing. I was in therapy at the time and I'd just be bawling for the full time about it. It all came undone.

It was this whole resettling of my own past, and writing to some of those figures made sense, starting with my mother. I found this postcard that she wrote me when I was very little that I forgot I had, which is also weird. And I realized, oh, I've been writing back. I never got to write back when I was little so I feel like I'm doing that all the time. And it's a story I tell myself that makes sense of how I became a writer.

I’ve been trying to write this book for like 20 years—I even had a contract with Verso in ’92 or something—but it didn't work until I came out. So there were versions of selves buried in writing that never saw the light of day, or occasionally I’d try to get published and was always rejected. Editors sometimes make very good decisions when they refuse to let you make your mistakes in public.

I think that may be how I feel about writers too. Who needs it? Among the writers that I know, it's like some of you bitches could be doing something else, you really could.
JK

What wasn't there in the early ’90 that later came into focus?

MW

I mean, I wasn't there. I hadn't fabricated the voice that could write it. I have so many failed projects, like folders and folders of things that crashed and burned. I just really wanted this one to work. In retrospect, transition made it possible. Morgan M. Page, who is like a trans godmother to us all whether she wants to be or not, has two rules. One is to never speak ill of other trans women in public. And the other is to wait five years before you shoot your mouth off about all of it. I sort of cheated on that one a little bit. But I felt that the really crazy emotional period where I was crying in coffee shops for hours was over. I kind of know who I am now.

JK

And this voice has come through?

MW

Yeah. I learned from Torrey Peters that the moment of transition is just a moment in your life. You have to live with the rest of your fucking life. As a transsexual, how do you do that? Cis people are interested in the transition bit as spectators of it, but we have to live like this for as long as we've got. And helping each other do that is more difficult than helping people through the actual roughly 18 months of hormonal transition.

JK

You wrote something that I thought was so beautifully articulated about how most trans memoirs are supposed to have asserted a final and complete self in order to have begun the story. There's got to be a finality of embodiment and a finality of the internal self as a barrier to entry for the form at all. That's something that you have actively resisted, because the idea of denying someone ongoingness in order to be able to tell their own story is such a paradox, such a contradiction in terms.

MW

If it works for someone to think that they have a true self that they have to discover, then great, but I think that's nonsense. There's no such thing as a true self. We're always fictions that we create for ourselves and others. I was cosplaying masculinity for years, sometimes pretty well frankly, but the suit literally never fit. So that gives you a different way of thinking, like what's a better fiction? This is not my true self. This is a better fiction that I would so much rather play.

So it's sort of like an art of both life and an art of art; it’s an improvised play with the given. It's not, "You can be anything." There are constraints, but art's better if you work with constraints anyway, and it's better if you try to work with the constraints of the kind of body you have, the kind of health you have, the kind of ability (or disability) you have. You work with that and see it as something that can be affirmed rather than entirely in the negative.

I felt I was finally able to frame the aesthetics, the politics, and the every day in the same book. I've done bits of that in different places and in the last few books those things actually sort of came together sometimes in the same sentence.

JK

What does that practice of nudging against or playing with form look like for you now?

MW

My whole life I was a U-Hauler. I've spent only a few months in my entire life not in a relationship. And I've also always had a relationship with a project. I was forced to have a pause and be by myself in my personal life a couple of years ago. And I think I should just intentionally do that with the work. I'm not going to sign a contract or formulate a thing. I'll just fuck around for a bit and find out. And that's hard for me. I'm just one of those people who needs to be working on something or I don't feel like I exist.

JK

You've written in many places about how writing is an essential survival act of association when you need it. And obviously it sounds like you're still writing, but to be writing without the horizon point of a project must be new.

MW

Pretty much the first thing I look for at the rave is: who needs it? There are people you meet at the party who are sort of passing through and that's fine, but I'm drawn to the personalities that need to do this to their body, for whom managing that actually becomes the problem. I think that may be how I feel about writers too. Who needs it? Among the writers that I know, it's like some of you bitches could be doing something else, you really could. And if you're looking for glamor or money or fame, you picked the wrong lane.

JK

Right. It sounds like you've always identified as somebody who needs it.

MW

Yeah, and for most writers, it's sort of like you have to do it. It's a thing that is sustaining the possibility of the rest of your being. Though I'm a little resistant to the mythology around writing. This might contradict some things I said ten minutes ago, but it's work. It's a fricking job. You sit down, and you don't get to have an existential fucking crisis. My background is in journalism, where you get your assignment at 9:00 am and it's going to copy edit at 4:00 pm. So you do it. There's something very freeing about that training. Musicians practice their instruments. I feel that way about the keyboard. I pick it up, I work it.

I think I learned more about writing from jazz than from literature. I really admire those players. Give them a tune and they've got an idea. Like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is all first and second takes. I'm not claiming to have pulled that off, but that's the thing to aspire to, that fluidity with improvising.

Jazz is also all about taking instruments from a marching band, and asking what they can do that they weren’t meant to do. What happens if you play them with love? Techno, to my mind, is the contemporary equivalent, which asks: what can a machine do that it wasn’t meant for? And it's much more about layering; it has a different relation to time and so on. Minimal technois interesting because it’s an avant-garde that people actually like. As John Cage said, "If it's boring for eight minutes, try it for 16," or whatever. That's exactly what a rave is.

JK

I love the idea that boredom is the prelude to a change that you sort of miss as it's happening. And the way that you wind up registering it is as disorientation or confusion.

MW

Yeah, it's interesting watching people rave; after you've done it for a while, you take this for granted. But seeing people used to dancing to pop songs kind of like, "What do you do with this?" And it's like, yeah, you just get so unbelievably bored with it that you lose all sense of time, place and subjectivity. That's kind of the point.

JK

That's the goal.

MW

But you’ve got to work it. ♦

This conversation took place on November 12th, 2023, during the Second Sundays Broadcast Live Hour for Thresholds.

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