Kristen Arnett on the Loneliness of Queer Parenting in Red States
This Week from the Reading Women Podcast
In this week’s episode, Kendra talks with Kristen Arnett about her most recent novel, With Teeth, out now from Riverhead.
From the episode:
Kendra: Sammie was very interesting to sit with, because part of you just wants to be like, what are you doing? Like, you’re screaming at the book. Or you’re like, why do you think this is okay? I don’t think it’s a spoiler early on to mention that Sampson, their son, ends up biting Sammie. And she bites him back. And then that becomes this thing that he almost can blackmail her with, and she has this whole moment where she’s terrified that Sampson is going to tell Monica what happened and all this. Then the scar kind of reminds her of her own struggles in parenting. And I feel like that really set the tone for the book and Sammie’s struggle with being a queer parent. I imagine that must have been an immense topic to jump into; I don’t think I’ve seen that many people write on this very fraught-dynamic part of it that you cover in the book, which is part of what I think makes it so engrossing.
Kristen: Yeah, it was very important to me because the impulse for this book came from really thinking about queer communities specifically in central Florida. Like, you know what kind of community there is there. And even just in terms of queer community spaces and places that are specifically LGBTQ+, there’s just really not any, which is completely at odds with the idea . . . like Florida is very much a destination spot for tourism. So we have all the theme parks. I’m from Orlando; we have everybody coming there to work for Disney or Universal or any of the big theme parks. And a lot of those people are queer, who are coming in to work and live there. And we have a lot of people locally that are queer. And there’s not a corresponding amount of queer spaces for them. So it’s this idea of the queer community that is there is large, but there’s not spaces for them. And it’s not this way in which anything is defined other than being like, there’s some gay people I know.
And so I was like, okay, what if this is your queer community? And then, what you’re a mom? Or you and your partner get married and you have this heteronormative kind of traditional relationship where you decided to raise a child. And what does that look like in the queer space where really the only things that are there for you are a couple of nightclubs and a bar? And the group of friends you have would not be a community space for you anymore. And what would that be like to feel that your community is steadily decreasing to the point where you feel very alone and also like you don’t know what you’re doing because there’s no model or frame of reference?
The secondary part was that I was talking on the phone, in the beginning stages of writing this book, to an editor friend, and they live in Brooklyn; I was describing what I was thinking about this in terms of plot. And they were like, well, why wouldn’t Sammie just join a gay mom group? And I was like, in Orlando? That’s just not a thing. Florida is like a red, conservative state. And plenty of states in the south, the southeast, are also. And along with that stuff comes with this idea of like moral responsibility—and that meaning that there’s not spaces that are necessarily queer friendly or even just queer. So what does that look like when it’s in terms of the structure of being the only spaces to me, mom groups or parenting groups, are ones that don’t really want me there? I feel like I have to model myself over, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere, and I don’t know what I’m doing. And, hey, maybe I’m really bad at this. And I don’t like it. And I don’t have support from anybody. And I feel completely isolated.
And so it became a book for me that felt—and I wanted it to feel—very claustrophobic. Mostly Dead Things, my last book, was a book that feels very open and very outdoors and very escaping into the wild—or the wild coming into your own home even. And With Teeth is a different kind of thing because I was like, this is through the eyes of a person whose world has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk to the point where her entire life is her wife, who she feels like doesn’t listen or see her anymore, her son, who she feels like she doesn’t have this kind of connection with. She is at home. She kind of has a work-from-home job, but not really. The majority of her life is moving this child from one thing to the next. So it’s like her in the house getting him ready to go somewhere. They’re in the car. She sees the outside world only through the window as it’s smearing past the glass as she’s driving her son either to school or to therapy or to some kind of sports thing. And then it’s like to a grocery and then maybe home. And that’s it. And so the world is really closing in in a way that every option starts to feel less and less. I don’t have enough people. I don’t have anyone to talk to. Nobody understands what I’m going through. Even though this character exacerbates the worst qualities of her, I think, which is deeply human and the kind of thing I’m very interested in—like the messy ways that we behave and choose to react.
When she and Sampson get into that thing where they bite each other, right? That could have gone a number of ways. I used to do story time at the public library for like eight years. And you would see these moms with their kids when the kids would be at their most—I wouldn’t even say “worst” but just being a lot. I don’t think necessarily they’re being bad; I just think they’re like chaos embodied in a little flesh suit. So, they’ll be a lot. And you can see the mom have this look on their face where it’s like on the cusp of breaking. And the kid hits them or screams in their face or does something, like some kind of spitting or biting. And the look on like a parent’s face being like, “Man, I wish I could bite you. Like, I feel upset and mad right now.” And obviously, they don’t. But what does that impulse to be like, well, I’m going to do it to you. I’m doing it back to you.
And then having that happen. And then her impulse not to tell her wife, “This thing happened. Pull over. We had this interaction, this really weird struggle, and let’s talk about this. There’s some shit going on, obviously. I just bit our kid, who bit me. Let’s figure out what’s going on with this.” But instead her impulse—because she’s so constricted in her mind and has let all of her worst ways she can behave push to the forefront—is to take on this idea that she’s in a constant power struggle with an elementary-school-aged child. There’s a little bit of neurosis there that’s happening with that, her choosing to be like, okay, I’m going to engage in this in a kind of way that pits us against each other or in a constant power struggle and not like I’m a parent. And I am overwhelmed. And what is happening here, I feel like it’s veering out of control, and I need to reach out and talk to somebody. And I was like, what if it is just internalized, internalized, internalized, internalized, to a point where it’s impossible to claw out of that? I hope that sounds fun for readers.