Short, sharp shock, like three bullets from Valerie Solanas’s gun, is the resounding effect of what the critic Andrea Long Chu writes. That’s how her high school English teacher phrased it—“after a lyric from a Pink Floyd song,” says Chu with a laugh, “which at the time I took great pleasure in knowing was itself after the lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’sThe Mikado”—and, like most high school English teachers, she was right. Luckily, most readers are happy to be shocked if it’s for a good cause. Chu’s cause? Females, by which she means everyone. In the brief and blazing treatise that is her debut non-fiction book, Females, the 26-year-old polemicist considers the work of Solanas, Gigi Gorgeous, the Wachowskis, anti-pornography feminists, and more in service of her notion that “femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels.”
In anticipation of the book’s release, we convene in the backyard of Brooklyn’s Cafe Erzulie, where we met for the first time a few winters ago following the publication of her essay “On Liking Women” in the Winter 2018 issue of n+1. The essay was the first introduction for many to Chu as a writer as well as the beginning of her public engagement with the work of Solanas, whose unfrequented 1965 play Up Your Ass she organizes her debut book around.“I try to give as much of a live experience of language as I can,” Chu tells me of the theatrical zingers in her own writing, with a hint of restlessness that suggests her view of her own latitude. “I do remain a performer in my heart.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thora Siemsen: Are you nervous about having written polemics before publishing your first book?
Andrea Long Chu: As someone known a bit for writing scathing negative reviews of things, I think I would be impressed if someone did that to me. I don’t think I would be angry. I would be angry at limp dismissal. To be taken down, I’m sure, would be an honor. If it were a different kind of book I might be more worried about that, but I think this is kind of a weird book to review. The book contradicts itself a lot. It will be interesting to see how resistant it turns out to be.
I’m certainly nervous about being reviewed. I think that’s probably just normal. But it’ll be exciting. It’ll also be an occasion for people to respond to other things I’ve written. But a truly scathing takedown? I’m sure it could hurt, but that’s not the worst that could happen.
TS: What do you see as the worst?
ALC: The worst would be the feeling of just being misread or misunderstood. I suppose I could feel that way with a takedown piece, but even with a positive review one runs that risk. I despise the idea of being humored. I can handle someone telling me my ideas are wrong, because then I’ve still set the terms of the conversation. I do sort of dread a bad-faith reading that expects the book to be speaking for all trans people. I think I set myself up for misreading, so to some extent I should own that, but it will be interesting to see what happens.
TS: How often are you consciously courting disagreement in your writing?
ALC: I like to joke that, as someone who is always right, the last thing I want is to be agreed with. [Laughs] I think the true narcissist probably wants to be hated in order to know that she’s superior. I absolutely do court disagreement in that sense. But what I like even better are arguments that bring about a shift in terms along an axis that wasn’t previously evident. So it’s not just that other people are wrong; it’s that their wrongness exists within a system of evaluation which itself is irrelevant. Telling other people their views are irrelevant is far more satisfying than telling them that their views are wrong. In order to tell someone that they’re wrong, you implicitly agree with them about the terms on which you think they’re wrong.
That was the gamble of my op-ed about access to surgery in The New York Times. What if, instead of insisting that trans medicine is universally life-saving and enriching, we just grant that negative outcomes are possible, but we stop assuming that that’s relevant in determining who deserves access to care in the first place? That’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, I suppose.
TS: Lines from Valerie Solanas’s play Up Your Ass open each chapter of Females. How did this choice help determine the book’s structure?
ALC: Verso had initially approached me about doing an introduction to Up Your Ass, which they were thinking about publishing. Eventually that idea morphed, and we decided I would just write a short book—but I still wanted Up Your Ass to be essential to it. I also wanted the book to be more experimental in form. I was thinking brief, numbered axioms, like Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. That [idea] was a disaster. While it was freeing to be able to jump around from idea to idea, it was also painful and exhausting. I ended up with all these fragments and no coherent book, and I still hadn’t worked Up Your Ass into it. So I turned in the draft, came back to revise it after my surgery, and realized that the play could serve as the spine of the book. I more or less follow the whole play from start to finish. That transformed the book from this bad archipelago of thoughts into a single whole. The play was the answer.
TS: Do you see theater and theory as tangled up in you?
ALC: Yeah, absolutely. I got into theory because I was upset with theater. I was studying theater, doing acting. I was exposed very early in college to Augusto Boal, the Theater of the Oppressed, these explicitly political forms of theater, and as a result I became more and more frustrated with traditional models—even Brecht. In epic theatre, you’re supposed to use all these dialectical techniques to constantly remind the audience that what they’re seeing is a play, the fatal flaw being that audiences never actually forget that they’re seeing plays. So I just kept pushing further and further into avant-garde stuff, most of it completely unwatchable. I was reading Jerzy Grotowski and Richard Foreman, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater… I really believed in my heart that art could actually do something.
Then that belief broke. I was doing all this reading about art, and I suddenly realized I preferred doing the reading to doing the art. Then that became reading philosophy and theory. Over the course of the next several years, I came to the same conclusion about theory, which was that it had the same sort of structural impotence. The thing about theater is that when you keep pushing it further and further, eventually what you get is everyday life. At the most extreme edges of performance art, you’re just going through your life, and that is the art. Theory, I think, ends up at the same place. The point at which theory becomes capable of accomplishing something is the point at which it has abolished itself.
Now, I’m actually quite interested in impotence and the performance of impotence. I am on Team Castration—literally. So I’ve come to expect that from a text, from my writing, from theory. It makes it a lot easier to enjoy things. It makes it a lot easier to enjoy the theater, to which I’ve been able to return, my expectations are so lowered.
TS: How do you feel when you write?
ALC: When I’m actually writing, it is an experience second only to live performance. It tends to be very fast. Everything I have written for n+1 I wrote in a week. That can come at the expense of other things. To an extent, my writing process is dependent on my ability to convert depression into anxiety and then channel the anxiety productively. That means I will often not eat when I should be eating. I’ll get obsessed; I’ll go to sleep super amped up; it’s all I can think about. It’s very absorbing.
I say “second to performance” because I’m a very shy person, very socially stunted. I don’t know how to make conversation with people. I don’t know how to be in public spaces. I’m extremely underdeveloped. But onstage I can do anything and not feel guilt about it, not feel anxiety about it. It’s the only time I’m not self-conscious. I think I get a version of that in writing too. It becomes possible to really say anything and do anything.
I listen to the same music over and over and over again—lots of show tunes. These are things that I have listened to enough that they have worn smooth, like pebbles at the bottom of a river, so they don’t distract me. I can literally be singing along under my breath to something and typing words at the same time. The meaning of the songs has totally worn off over time, and there’s just pure, empty narrative momentum. It’s just a feeling of going somewhere and that’s all. I kind of get encapsulated in these empty narrative bursts and feel carried along. I can write and write and write.
TS: Can you write music?
ALC: I can, though I haven’t lately. I wrote music in high school and in college. I’m a pianist. I’ve written a couple of short musicals, which are pretty derivative and not very good. But I mess around on the piano now. I taught myself jazz improvisation in college. Every so often I get the urge to actually write something, but I don’t have an occasion. It’s something I would love to do. I would love to write a musical. I would have to have a really good idea, but I’m certainly confident that I could.
TS: What about fiction?
ALC: It would be such a relief to do fiction. Maybe that’s the naïveté of a nonfiction writer. Perhaps not at the level of the sentence, but it feels like so much less to be responsible for. You don’t have to get your ideas nitpicked; you can just write beautiful sentences. How long have I been in the writing game at this point? Not even two years. And I’m already like, “I just want to pivot to aesthetic pleasure. [Laughs] Can I just write something that is fun to read?” I have absolute faith in my ability as a stylist. Why am I fucking around with things people are going to get mad at on Twitter? Why don’t I just blow glass with words? It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished—to just be focused on pleasure. I hope that’s not insulting to fiction writers. It would be a very much sought-after form of self-abolition.
TS: Which characteristics are integral to you sounding like yourself as a writer?
ALC: I do a lot of cleft sentences. I tend to lean a lot on subordination. Starting a sentence with a noun clause which can sound very fusty—oh, I love that. Bipartite metaphors, where two parts of one thing are being compared to two parts of another thing: I like that form where the first half of the metaphor sets you up and satisfies by the end. I like to do something that I call a “new chestnut,” where you take an existing idiom and rephrase it in such a way that the latent metaphor of the idiom becomes revived. You take a fossilized metaphor, the old chestnut, and move the pieces around and change parts of speech and play it again. Suddenly the original metaphor comes back to life: “The devil had enough advocates to hang a shingle.”
TS: Which aspects of femaleness are you optimistic about?
ALC: Optimistic? [Laughs] I’m not optimistic. Maybe that’s a lie that I tell myself to cope with my optimism. I love Lauren Berlant’s work, and I will be pretty doctrinaire about the point that it is impossible not to be optimistic, that optimism is just the name of the relation to the world. That being said, certainly on a personal level my optimism has gone down since I began transition.
But even pessimism is just optimism in reverse. Pessimism is optimism in the writer’s capacity to think. The more pessimistic you are, the more you can congratulate yourself about how good you are at describing the world. I would like to think—and I suppose that “like” expresses an optimism, too—that I’m a weak pessimist. I’m pessimistic about pessimism. The glass is half-empty, but I’m here to get drunk.
TS: Would you say your work is interested in troubling the social contracts between trans and cis people?
ALC: Absolutely! Do you want to tell me more of what you mean? [Laughs]
TS: What do you hope to accomplish by agreeing with TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] to a certain degree? Also, can you say more about what you’ve called the “respectability that undergirds a lot of trans discourses”?
ALC: I’m reminded of this recent drama where Natalie Wynn just left Twitter. She’s this popular trans YouTuber who makes philosophy videos under the name ContraPoints, and she tweeted something about feeling uncomfortable when she was asked her pronouns in spaces where asking people’s pronouns is part of a conscious effort to be hospitable to trans people. There ensued a lot of brouhaha about whether or not she was “erasing” non-binary people, whether she was complaining from a position of privilege. Of course, I know what she’s talking about. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not pleasant to be asked my pronouns when I’m over here taking deliberate steps to obviate the need for asking.
But the thing that really interests me is the assumption that there is a correct answer to questions like this. Natalie’s critics seemed to read her as saying, “I’m uncomfortable with this, and therefore we shouldn’t do it.” They assumed she was asserting a moral principle because they had their own moral principle they wanted to defend: “Well, we should always ask what pronouns people prefer.” As if there could be a single moral principle that would actually work in all cases. But there isn’t.
The fact is that gender is inherently risky. If it weren’t risky, it wouldn’t be gender. Making a rule out of asking people their pronouns is about minimizing the risks that can be minimized as opposed to taking responsibility for the risks that can’t be. Above all, you minimize the risks to yourself, so that you never have to run the risk of being the asshole who misgendered someone. There’s your social contract: “How can we cis and trans people deal with each other in as painless a way as possible?” Which is a terrible goal. Where’s the joy, or interest, or pleasure? Being tolerated is not a big win for anybody. There’s a real impoverishment of the relation.
I think my work is interested in how people can learn to hold each other’s pain. We assume that to be ethical toward someone, to care for someone, means to prevent them from feeling pain. Whereas I think if you care for someone, that means you have to care for their pain. There’s a responsibility to harbor each other’s pains. To look after them, as you would someone’s house plant. To do that for each other as trans people.