C. Riley Snorton and T Fleischmann Talk Gender, Freedom, and Transitivity
With Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, scholar and author C. Riley Snorton and author T Fleischmann discuss intersections of gender, race, and their own writing with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell.
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Readings for this episode:
Nobody is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low by C. Riley Snorton · Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton · Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay by T. Fleischmann · Time is the Thing the Body Moves Through by T. Fleischmann · Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick · Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction by Claire Colebrook · Scenes of Subjection by Saidiya V. Hartman · Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book by H.J. Spillers · Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs · Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom by William and Ellen Craft · “What people fail to realize is…” A Twitter Thread by Nikole Hannah Jones · Felix Gonzalez-Torres · Histories of the Transgender Child by Julian Gill-Peterson · “Why Does Obama Scold Black Boys?” by Derecka Purnell
C. Riley Snorton
Whitney Terrell: So your book considers how blackness accentuates or informs trans identity, and vice versa, as you were just talking about there. In your introduction you quote Claire Colebrook’s idea that the term “trans” “expresses the primordial being from which differences formed,” and then you connect this to blackness. Could you talk about how you came to that connection?
C. Riley Snorton: My interest in Claire Colebrook’s notion of trans has a lot to do with what she is describing in this essay as “transitivity,” and for Colebrook, she’s interested in thinking about trans as a way of thinking across the register of species. So, thinking across human, animal, vegetal, mineral distinction. And so we might say, a spatial metaphor might be something like Pangaea, or perhaps even a better way of thinking about what is at stake for Colebrook there is a kinda notion of the plenum, right—all matter, and I find that to be useful, in terms of thinking about trans-ness as not only marking a kind of transgender experience, but I also wanted to think transitivity in terms of its grammatical function, and I’m also someone who is deeply in conversation with and thinking with Hortense Spillers, a black feminist literary critic and theorist—who, in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” is talking about how the consequence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade for black people is or was ungendering.
And so if we think about the transitive use of verb in grammar, it refers to a verb that requires a direct object to fix its meaning, so while on one hand, trans often invokes a form of movement from one thing—from one place to the next, passing into a different kind of condition—but I also was very invested in thinking about when we look at trans, what needs to be put in place, in order for us to understand that something trans is happening, and that’s how I was really thinking about blackness and trans-ness as working together. Namely that the kind of ungendering of blackness, and the antebellum period of the U.S. gives us a sense of this lack of anatomical and symbolic coherence. It also gives us a sense of the mutability of gender. Chapter two of the book really explores how people are changing their gender as part of their fugitive passages out of slavery—
WT: Yeah, maybe—tell us more about, could you just stop for a moment and let us, maybe expand on that idea of how that ungendering happened, ’cause you do write quite a bit about that in the book. I think that’s really interesting.
CRS: Yeah. So, my approach to concretizing Spillers’ theory of ungendering happens across the first part of the book. In one sense, Spillers talks about how the ungendering of blackness creates a living laboratory, and in that sense, I look at the archives of J. Marion Sims, who was lionized as the father of American gynecology, and think about the three and a half years of experiments conducted on captive black women towards a cure for vesicovaginal fistula, and in looking at that archive, part of what I was interested in highlighting is that the model of sex as being divided according to male and female is deeply related to, perhaps even patterned after, a model of a completely bifurcated race system of white and black. And so I start there as a way of thinking through the notion of biological sex as being constructed.
And constructed in relation to race. Race, at a moment in which whiteness and blackness not only was supposed to mark racial difference, but there were some really heated debates about whether racial difference also indicated special difference. The second chapter in that first part of the book looks at ungendering as a way of resisting a dominant way of reading fugitive slave narratives according to passing. And my pet peeve with that, with the reading of people changing their gender and calling it passing, is that it holds on to an essential notion of gender. Rather, I was interested in saying, what does it mean if we read this as thinking about ungendering as not only something that can be put to work for the founding of a field, or that is experience, in terms of a kind of total brutalizing institutional knowledge and racial capitalism, but also what if people are making use of their ungendered status in order to move out of spaces of captivity?
And so even as I’m looking at fugitive slave narratives like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or William and Ellen Kraft, and their narrative, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” that’s also something that echoes throughout the book, that I’m interested in thinking about how people, particularly black folks, make use of their gender, as a way to resist control. And that’s something that also comes up even after the emergence of the clinic, when a number of black folks, often based on class considerations, and not having the money to be able to transition in the way that a figure like Christine Jorgensen can, are making use of their gender in order to escape the police, or in order to find employment.
And so looking at the archives of the black press as a way of also being very deliberate, to say that even when we imagine that trans is a medicalized form of identity, that there are folks who, for many reasons, are barred from that medicalization, and are living trans lives.
T Fleischmann: One of the reasons I’m interested in writing about visual art is because I never had a chance to so much as take an art history 101 course. I have no visual arts training to speak of, in the making of it, or the writing of it, and for such a long time it felt impossible to me to try to comment on art—the discourse in the art world being so intimidating, and confusing, and all these things, but eventually, and through Syzygy, I got to the point where I felt like the lack of training that I had allowed me this other form of engagement, and that became interesting, and also terrifying to me to try to write into that conversation, but compelling anyway.
Whitney Terrell: When you were mentioning other modes of thought, or schools of ideas in the book, I wanted to ask you about this discussion where you say, not even an apple and an apple can be each other, this idea of metaphor, which makes me think of Derrida, and his idea of De France, and postmodern thought about what’s the sign, and all the meanings that a sign brings with it, that it can’t be necessarily located in the world in a simple way. Is that stuff that you’re working with here?
TF: Yeah, and I won’t make any claims about Derrida, but I will say—
WT: He’s an interesting guy. I’m not bringing him up to insult him, as many writers do.
TF: No, I just wouldn’t be able to comment in a way where I felt good about that, but similar with the art criticism stuff, stuff in the theory-criticism world, all that is always engaging to me, and then I always feel deeply self-conscious about trying to pull from it directly, so definitely that’s in the background, and definitely that is bouncing through my head, but also in that section with the metaphor, one of the things I’m thinking about is how identity functions, right, and how identity is often, I think, placed in this kind of metaphorical category, so when we’re thinking about trans people in particular, people often hear the idea of a trans woman, and think that it’s like a metaphorical woman, right, as opposed to just accepting that trans people are who they say they are. That there’s some sort of metaphorical distance, or something like this between them—one of the things that the book’s really trying to work through, often, is to get beyond the ways that language might obscure, and to get beyond the ways that our ideas prevent us from seeing the reality, and get to the truth of a situation, right, and seeing things for what they are. So there’s a distrust of metaphor that comes in and really into that, also.
WT: I see. What I was thinking about is that postmodernism, including Derrida, and maybe somebody like Foucault, would talk about using words and calling things by a name—man, or woman—as a way of exercising power, right, and that power is exercised by whoever is in power, right, and the only way to break that power up is to complicate identity, to fracture it, to break it up, and that is where writers who are writing about complicated ways of gender are very interesting to somebody coming in that particular way – it’s a way of fracturing the dominant ideology through fracturing terms, you know, and making sure that they’re destabilized in a way that I think is useful.
TF: Yeah, definitely. And I think the book is always trying to be distrustful of anything that tries to be stable, and the thing about these shifting of forms, that I’m playing with and the way the book is functioning is resistant of a kind of transition narrative that moves from one stable identity to another stable identity, right, so from man to woman, or from woman to nonbinary, or whatever the case is. And I’m far more interested in a kind of change that can continue, right, so a continual unfolding, a continual churning of personal change, identity change, change in politics, and that we don’t get to a place where we’re stuck, and can no longer see the possibility for that, and that that doesn’t have to make, necessarily an identity that we claim, at some point illegitimate, or wrong, we don’t have to look back and say that past identities—we can discount them, and say that wasn’t right for me, but we also can say that, you know, how we identify at one point can change, and we can become something else, and we can change how we talk about ourselves, how we act in the world, all those types of things.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: This was really interesting, ’cause, there are specific parts in the book where you narrate fondness towards past selves. One thing about the book that struck me as really radical is it feels to me like a very specific kind of happy book, like a purposefully politically, radically happy book—would you agree with that characterization?
TF: Yeah, definitely. I think that I’m very interested in joy, and very interested in what joy and pleasure can bring, and especially as political tools, as tools for change, as tools for upsetting the status quo, whatever the case is.
VVG: And one of the ways in which I was so struck by this early on was that you called me really early on in the book on how I associated gender nonconformity, or queerness, or both, with urban spaces, and I’m watching, or listening to you, move through different spaces, and talk about transience as well as a way of being, which just as someone who has moved a lot, it felt very familiar to me. And then I realized, as I was reading, the ways in which I had always associated gender nonconformity with urban spaces as though that was the only place where it existed, where obviously I should know that that’s not the case. And it seemed like one of many quiet ways, or ways associated with form, where the book is really successfully calling me, at least, on my assumptions. Also, specifically, you position yourself as radical, which was—I don’t know, just, it gave me a lot of food for thought. There was one passage—it’s a different one than the one you read, but you wrote, “It seemed urgent that I resist the mainstreaming of queerness and sustain a more radical tradition, assimilation being a form of death.”
And as someone who—I often write about immigrants, and people from ethnic minority backgrounds, et cetera, people of color, and to think about assimilation as a form of death, of course the corollary of that is that to be yourself is such a specific joyous choice, and I just really loved that about that book.
TF: Yeah, thank you. You know, I was born in 1983. In a very small town, rural Michigan, land stolen from the Ottawa and Ojibwe people, so 1983, right, it’s a reality where queer sexuality, transness, and these things, were, from my experience, pretty much totally erased, even though I was raised by my mother, who is very loving, and encouraging, and accepting of who I am, and has always been. In the cultural moment where I was, pretty much the only mention I would hear of any sort of form of queerness would be through mentions of the AIDS crisis. Death, sometimes hate crimes, the extreme homophobia of the culture that I was in, and those kinds of things.
And then I see, you know, I’ve been through the changes that we go through, or eventually there’s marriage equality, and hate crime laws, and media representation, things that some of them I reject, and some of them that I see value in, but going through this kind of big arc of change, right there, right? And similarly, even though I understood myself to be not male from a very young age, for pretty much my earliest memories, I can understand myself in that way, it wasn’t until my early twenties, when I first started to encounter any sort of mention of transness, or gender variant culture, right, in a way that I understood that I actually could be real, that this could be who I actually was. So there’s these arcs, right, these arcs that are supposedly progress, and these arcs that are supposedly movements towards a better world, but at the same time we see within those a real risk.
So the hate crime laws, right, for example, that get passed—I don’t believe in incarceration, I think incarceration is bad, and we can’t have that. I don’t believe that incarceration offers us a solution to these problems. The visibility of the trans moment that we’re in, where suddenly people are pretending to see transness for the first time, although that’s not accurate. It comes with a lot of backlash, a lot of increases in personal violence and structural violence, and legislation against us as trans people, and not necessarily for political or material gains. So these motions, I don’t believe in marriage. I don’t believe in corporate gay pride.
These are the things that I really resist, so the movement to the book is interested in trying to preserve and embrace these other traditions that were so important to me as I was coming into my understanding. And again, several very different moments of queer culture, trans culture, mass culture—whatever the case is. So things like the AIDS coalition to unleash power, the work of trans artists and activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, groups like Gay Shame, all these different radical moments that sought to upset the status quo that were so important to me are the things that I’m really trying to align myself with and continue, and refuse to let go of, even as we see these really dangerous ideas of “progress” that can prevent us from actually continuing the work that’s already underway.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Damian Johansson.