Writing into the World: Memoir, History and Private Life, Part Four

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I feel a little out of place on a panel about memoir, since I’ve almost exclusively published my work in prose as fiction. But it’s true that I write a kind of fiction that hints at, or more than hints at, autobiography, and it’s also true that the lines between genres seem in large part arbitrary to me, or at least I don’t really care about them.


Here is a paragraph from a story of mine called “Gospodar,” which appeared in the Paris Review in summer 2014. The title is the Bulgarian word for “master” or “lord,” and there’s another Bulgarian word that appears twice in the passage—kuchko, which means “bitch.” The narrator is American; the man he is with is Bulgarian. At this point in the story, both of the men are naked, and the narrator is on his knees.

He let go of my hair once this was done, freeing his hand to move down the side of my face, almost stroking it before he cupped it in his palm. It was a gesture of tenderness, and his voice was tender too as he said kuchko, addressing me as if solicitously and tilting my head so that for a moment we gazed at each other face to face, and his fingers flexed against my cheek, almost in a caress. I leaned my face into him, resting it on his palm as he spoke again in that tone of tenderness or solicitude, tell me, kuchko, tell me what you want. And I did tell him, at first slowly and with the usual words, reciting the script that both does and does not express my desires; and then I spoke more quickly and more searchingly, drawn forward by the tone of his voice, what seemed like tenderness although it was not tenderness, until I found myself suddenly in some recess or depth where I had never been. Because I spoke it poorly, there were things I could say in his language without self-consciousness or shame, as if there were something in me unreachable in my own language, something I could reach only with that blunter instrument by which I too was made a blunter instrument, so that I found myself at last at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing. Good, the man said, good, speaking with the same tenderness and smiling a little as he cupped my face in his palm and bent forward, bringing his own face to mine, as if to kiss me, I thought, which surprised me though I would have welcomed it. Good, he said a third time, his hand letting go of my cheek and taking hold of my hair again, tightening and forcing my neck further back, and then suddenly and with great force he spat into my face.


One difficulty I have in trying to think about how history enters autobiographical writing is that I feel fairly sure that history enters all writing, necessarily. “Our knowledge is historical,” Elizabeth Bishop says; consciousness is historical. And that sense of the historical is evident, I think, in all good writing, by which I mean writing that is attentive, that is committed to the representation of whole persons, to characters conceived not as instruments for whatever narrative or didactic convenience but instead as ends, making their own claims upon us and the narratives we construct.

As I thought about the questions raised at the beginning of this panel session, I was surprised to find that I kept pondering them in relation to what might at first glance seem the least historical or political kind of text: sex scenes. What could be more private, more intimate, more sealed off from the larger concerns of history than scenes in which immediate, physical experience is paramount—when, however interior a narrative voice may be, it has to be concerned with the deployment of bodies in space?

I know that many writers hate sex scenes, and see them as aspects of a text to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, gestured toward or avoided altogether. I love them. It’s not that I think they’re easy to write—they aren’t—but that they present occasions when everything in a scene can be tuned to the highest possible pitch. They’re moments, I think, when a first-person narrator is at once as fully and carefully focused on another as possible, and, it seems to me, thrust back into his or her own interiority with an intensity few other kinds of experience allow. And the narrator is at his or her most vulnerable as well, seen by another stripped of the usual defenses; few things are as terrifying as revealing our desires. By which I mean that such scenes seem to me like lyric moments, moments of expansion that allow for the intensest possible attentiveness.

And, of course, these moments aren’t in any way sealed off from history. Sex is as much determined by culture and historical chance as any other human activity. This is always true, though it may be more visible for queer people, the shapes of whose sexual encounters have often been different from those mapped out by a dominant culture, more obviously, because more painfully, determined by forces larger than individual desire. It may be more visible when the acts engaged in are nonnormative, as in the kind of sadomasochistic scene I dramatize in my story “Gospodar”; it may also be more visible when the participants in such a scene come from different cultures, shaped by different norms and horizons of possibility.

In “Gospodar,” a sexual encounter occurs between two men in Sofia, Bulgaria, in a room on the middle floor of a Soviet-style apartment block, architecture that makes painfully clear the intrusion of a historically specific ideology into the forms of private life. These men come from different languages—and language is surely another way that history is ever-present in our internal lives; the narrator finds that speaking a language not his own leads him to new discoveries about what he thought he knew about what he wanted. By the simple chance of being American, the narrator has assumptions about the world and his place in it—a sense of possibility, mobility, material privilege—that can’t be shared by the man he’s with, who came of age under communism and is a citizen of the poorest country in Europe. They have profoundly different ideas about what being a gay man can mean, about how it does and doesn’t limit a life; and yet for all these differences, they have both internalized assumptions about how their desires devalue their lives, assumptions with consequences that may be mitigated or lessened but may finally be also irreparable. 

All of history comes to bear upon their encounter, as it would upon any encounter, I think, so that the question for me is less how history enters a text than how an author would have to limit or deform his or her vision in any attempt to exclude it. What I’m most interested to explore are spaces like the one I hope this scene inhabits—spaces where the pressure of history is visible in the exercise of self and in the relations between selves, but where those selves, with their griefs and hopes and pleasures, with their individual agency, are not exhausted by that pressure.