Alexa deals in the novel with the fallout that comes from being an incest survivor, something that you’ve written about as it relates to your own life in your memoir The End of San Francisco, and something I’ve written about in my memoir comics and online. How did you pull from your own experiences to craft Alexa’s struggles? Was it therapeutic, triggering, all at once? And what advice would you give to young artists who feel a need to talk about their traumas in their work, be it autobiography or fiction?
Alexa is a 21-year-old queen with a scathing political analysis—she is constantly reading everything and everyone. And there is a lot of hypocrisy to read, right? But underneath this persona, there is always trauma. I think this is true for a lot of us, right? And I needed to show that trauma, and in doing this, yes, I drew directly from my own experiences as an incest survivor. I think that to go into that trauma is always both healing and overwhelming at once. Because we wonder: Will we ever get out? And I think that one of the ways, maybe, is if we all tell our stories in all of their complications, without whitewashing or sanitizing or streamlining anything.
I think that being sexually abused by my father was the most defining event of my life–this is just a fact. I know that maybe as survivors we’re not supposed to say this, but for me it’s just true. It’s also where my critical engagement came from, because, since I knew that I would never have safety, that I could never trust, even if I didn’t have this language, I knew it, I could see through the facade, the facade of everything and everyone. And I think this is a gift, to be able to reveal the lie. This is what I try to do in my work—if we are ever going to trust again, then we have to be able to see the lies first.
Alexa talks about how she’s subjected to transphobia on the streets, be it from straights on the Boston subway system, or the cis gays and lesbians who won’t talk to her. How would you say Alexa navigates through the world, how does she weigh her personal safety with a need to stand up for herself?
I think that for Alexa, the most important thing is that no one knows they are hurting her. So when she’s on the T, Boston’s subway, and someone’s yelling “faggot faggot faggot faggot,” slamming his fist into the seat behind her, or on the street when someone says, “which one’s the man and which one’s the woman,” or when the kids in her neighborhood are chasing her down the street, or when gay men are throwing shade, these are all everyday traumas, and her strategy is never to change anything about herself in order to belong. When possible, she ignores the threats, but she also talks back, she calls the bashers honey and laughs in their faces, she refuses to allow them to silence her. This is how she survives, but of course it also takes its toll, and that’s one of the things I wanted to examine in Sketchtasy, the toll that internalizing the trauma takes. That’s what Alexa is trying at any cost not to do, and yet is this ever entirely possible?
You make use of a lot of run-on sentences that seem meant to replicate talking with Alexa’s narration. How did you come to this kind of narration, sometimes dizzying and elliptical?
Yes, this was one of my favorite things about writing the book—Alexa is always on, her mind is racing into past, present, and future at once, and I wanted the language to reflect this. Trauma changes the language, music changes the language, drugs change the language, sex changes the language, Boston changes the language—I wanted to open up the sentence structure to allow for more feeling, all of it, everything, and I wanted the feeling to change the structure, so it’s this back-and-forth pull, and for me this allows for more emotion to come through, it’s an internal push-and-pull, a churning, a burning, a yearning, a learning.
Did you have specific influences in mind when you crafted this book? Are there literary or artistic heroes you look up to?
I’m not the type of writer who looks for influences in order to craft my work, but my literary hero would definitely be David Wojnarowicz. When I first found his writing after reading about him in an obituary, when I was 19, it was like my own rage and loss were finally in print. It was like his writing was allowing me to breathe. And his sense of desire in the landscape, desire as a landscape, this gave me hope in my own desires. And for Alexa, who reads David Wojnarowicz’s Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, in Sketchtasy, and another book that also meant a lot to me, Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body, it’s as if reading these texts allows her to feel more deeply what’s going on in her own life. It’s as if reading creates a kind of queer kinship that she is unable to find in her own life, and maybe this is the greatest gift a work of art can provide.
Many of our readers are burgeoning writers and artists. What advice would you give to young people looking to make literary works? Is there advice you think back to, or advice you wish you would have gotten when you were younger?
Strangely, the best advice I ever got was repeated over and over to me by my father, and maybe my grandmother too, and that was that the best writers never got published, their work would never be seen. And so I never felt the pressure to conform in order to succeed as a writer, since I knew that attention for your work was not the true measure of success. I’m not saying that anyone in my birth family supported my choice to make my way in the world as a writer and an activist, because in fact they were against all of this, they wanted me to follow the narrow path of upward mobility, but after a year at the elite college I’d spent my whole life working towards I knew this would just make me into them, and that would mean I would never really escape. So I left college, and moved to San Francisco in search of direct action activists and freaks and outsiders and queers and anarchists and incest survivors and dropouts and druggies and sluts and whores and vegans and other wild creatures trying desperately to exist outside of status quo normalcy. So I guess my advice is simply that whatever you are most afraid of is what you need to write. It’s possible that nothing else matters except this. I’m not saying it’s an easy choice, but it’s probably the one that has been the most important for me. ♦