Queer Potentiality in Lived Experience: A Conversation With Melissa Febos

"Being an artist necessitates that we'd be much, much, much more selfish than women are socialized to be."

Melissa Febos Beowulf Sheehan

Melissa Febos has been overhauling the memoir and queer writing canon over the course of the last decade. In her latest book Girlhood, which was released this past spring, Febos recounts her adolescence while growing up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. At the crux of Girlhood, Febos traces out her personal history and the ways that patriarchal and misogynistic cultural tropes and ways of being have led to a larger epidemic of young girls and women feeling disempowered. This group of essays is an examination into the ways in which Febos’ past traumas, childhood, and struggles helped her forge her own path against a larger patriarchal narrative of the social and sexual expectations and explorations of girls and women. 

Girlhood is a brilliant combination of memoir, investigative reporting, and academic research about Febos coming into her own as a queer woman and as an intellectual. Through a newly formed lexicon and engagement with feminist queer scholarship, Girlhood is about creating space and time for herself that Febos was not able to do as a child. It is also about creating a dialogue around many of the things that happened to her growing up that many do not speak about openly. The book is thinking about other modes of being and is trying to offer a reparative effort, or ways of seeing the queer potentiality of the future, which can be found across queer scholarship in the work of scholars such as José Esteban Muñoz  and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The writing is gorgeous and politically engaged and is what many of Febos’ readers have come to expect. I recently spoke to Febos about her writing process, queer writers, this sociocultural moment and what her next project entails. 

Observer: I’m really excited to talk to you about Girlhood today and your other projects. I wanted to first ask you how writing this book, in particular, differed from your other two books of essays?

MELISSA FEBOS: I think with this book, I tend to write autobiographically from pretty close to the experience that I’m writing about and in, particularly in Abandon Me. I was really kind of writing my way out of an experience, trying to grope my way through it by writing, and Girlhood is concerned with things that happened quite a long time ago and sort of spanning a lot of my history. But a lot of it has adolescence as a kind of touchstone and so it was less about examining the moment that I was in by then looking at sort of the stories that I had about the past and thinking about how I might revise them to be more accurate or even revise them in the ways that I’m living as an adult. So it was a much more sort of retrospective kind of exercise. 

My process on the page and structuring a book and the way I write essays to read with every book to my sort of great exhaustion. And so with my last book, I think because I didn’t have any sort of retrospective perspective, I didn’t have much distance from it, I had to do all sorts of weird arts and crafts projects in order to figure out what my book was about. And with this one, it was different. It was like digging through old journals and lots of conversations with other people and some really deep kind of remembering. 

Girlhood in particular has gotten a lot of critical acclaim since it was published this spring. And you’ve been writing for almost a decade, over a decade now, give or take. What do you think it is about this book in particular that people are really reacting to? 

I think that people, and by people I mostly mean women, are fucking pissed off and have had it, because what I’m writing about is kind of a lot of the same stuff I’ve been writing about my whole life and that feminists have been writing about for centuries. There’s not really, and I’m not trying to undermine my own work, but there’s nothing about the subject matter that is new. And I think it’s just that people were hesitant to have a conversation about these kinds of, really sort of granular, insidious, wide-ranging, deeply-internalized harms. People were resistant to talking about them are now ready to have that conversation. And I think, honestly, it’s a confluence of factors, but I do think the previous presidency had something to do with it and the ways that that prompted sort of what we’re calling the Me Too movement, which is constituted by the same things that feminism has always been constituted by, but it has a particular name. But I think that readers were ready to look at that and see themselves in it because it’s been so impossible to ignore. 

And I’m curious how this affected your perspective on sex work. Looking back, just in terms of what you’ve been saying about that introspectiveness and especially now even in the news of what happened with OnlyFans last week and Craigslist shutting down the casual encounters section last year. I just wanted to get your take. 

What I think politically about sex work is almost, I mean it’s not entirely separate from my experience with sex work, has always been definitely pro the decriminalization of sex work and sex workers rights. The same thing that has happened with my perspective on everything that happened when I was younger, has grown more generous and more precise and more complex. It was a really complex experience and there were some really negative consequences for me psychologically, and there were some really positive consequences for me psychologically. 

And those are really more of the ones that I think of that are high topography for me now in my memory is, and particularly writing Girlhood, thinking about where I first learned a vocabulary for consent, and it was as a sex worker. It was the first time I was ever invited to have a conversation about what my boundaries were, and therefore in some ways, to even consider what they were, to ask myself what they were, and I am profoundly grateful to sex work for that and so many other things. And it’s also a really complex space where I really honed my skills at disassociating from my body and what I was actually feeling because there was no way for me to do that job without being really, really good at that. 

That makes a lot of sense. So I’m going to change gears again and ask you what you think about the state of LGBTQ+ writers today and their larger place within the Western canon of writing. 

Well, I don’t know that I have the objectivity to say anything about the state of LGBTQ writers in terms of the literary landscape today because I have always been reading them. A huge percentage of the writers that I have been reading my whole life have been queer writers, and so my perception of literature is really informed by that. My experience of literature is far more queer than literature is as a whole. And that said, I’m also obviously aware of the fact that writing as clear as mine could not previously have been as successful as this book in particular was. 

You know, it was a thing for a long time and it still is in many ways. I’ve spent my whole career pitching essays to more mainstream magazines and having editors telling me, like, “Oh, no, we had a queer woman write for us like six months ago so we’re not ready for it another one yet.” [I was] having to think judiciously about the places that are actually interested in my voice, and it does feel like that has changed in my lifetime. And I think that the internet and television have a lot to do with that. Activism has a lot to do with that. I’m incredibly grateful to the people I grew up reading, and because they were role models and because they were just pushing the boundaries of what was possible and showing publishers what people would read and my work would not exist without Jeanette Winterson and Audre Lorde and Rita Mae Brown and Alice Walker, all of my foremothers. 

You mentioned how your process for writing every book is different. You talked about what writing Girlhood was like, but can you talk a little bit about in general what your writing process was like for the other two book projects and also what it’s like for you when you’re writing essays for publications? 

I would say with my first book, Whip Smart, I was very much figuring out how to write a book and figuring out how something meaningful and pleasurable and esthetically sound. And for that reason, it’s a very classically structured book. You know, it’s very chronological, straightforward, like the hero’s journey and narrative arc. I mean, obviously, my protagonist is not like your classic hero, but I think, I was really figuring out how to write a memoir with that book and then with Abandon Me there was just no way that that content, the experience I was living, would submit to those narrative structures. There’s no way. So I had to find other tools, and they were a lot of poet’s tools. And in that book, I also picture my work as a slowly turning outward gaze, like a gaze turning from inward to outward, because in my second book, I start very personal still, but I start to weave in other texts and it becomes in conversation with other sources and other thinkers. 

And then with Girlhood there’s a bunch of investigative journalism in there, along with the lyrical parts and the memoir and that kind of intertextual element, too. So I feel like I’ve been sort of dispatching with my own story and that, dispatching is maybe not the right word, but really making room to look outward in a different kind of way. And I, in my process for writing essays for publication, just always start with an impulse or a question or secret. And then I just start pulling at it, and I’m almost always writing and researching at the same time. And I’m very obsessive. When I’m working on something, It’s the only thing I can talk about. And those conversations with my students, with my wife, with my fellow writers, my friends and my mom, those are really generative conversations. And inevitably they find their way into my work, both with live people and with other sources and books and articles and philosophers and art. 

For people who don’t know your work, what is the biggest thing you want readers to know? 

The one thing I want readers to know, there is a lot of freedom in speaking what feels unspeakable, and that element is very much a part of my work in terms of content and also in terms of my relationship to it as a writer. And so I think probably my most dependable readers are people whose secrets weigh heavy on them. 

What do you think is one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome as a writer? 

I would probably say other people’s expectations. Well, let me rephrase that: my own allegiance to other people’s expectations and desires. When I was younger, it was certainly having to make a living, like having to earn a living and also devote the tremendous time required to being a writer. For whatever reason, I was kind of gifted with the hubris of believing myself an artist when I was a little kid and so that I was able to sort of bluster my way into adulthood, feeling confident in that way. But I worked a lot of weird, hard jobs before I got to be a professor. I would say now it’s very much sort of about resisting the ways that I’m conditioned to meet other people’s expectations and desires above my own. Being an artist necessitates that we’d be much, much, much more selfish than women are socialized to be. 

What advice can you give to writers who are just starting out? 

Find the joy in it, follow the joy in it. Write what feels exciting to you because it can be so tremendously hard. Something that my teachers and other artists told me when I was younger, and I didn’t really understand until after I published, is that the reward of making art is the process of making it, that is the greatest reward of it. So I think it must be driven by a deep personal investment in that process. 

What kinds of conversations about identity and sexuality are you hoping to spark as a result of Girlhood and particularly for young folks who are coming out today? 

I think, and this is really kind of simple, but I just think I want there to be such a proliferation of queer voices speaking about really common, relatable, ordinary things and weird, secret things. And I just want young queer folks to be able to not think of themselves as marginal. I want to I want to put queer experience and queer lives and queer concerns at the center of the story. 

I know your next book Body Work is due out in 2022. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that project. 

Body Work is, well we’re calling it a craft book, but it’s really about how it combines a lot of memoir about my experiences as an artist and as a writer. And then there are certain biases and argument that I’ve encountered over the years in writing circles from my students, from other writers, the foremost of which is a bias against personal writing, that it’s navel gazing or self-indulgent or not as serious as other forms of nonfiction or literature. 

And I just got so full of my own rebuttals that I had to spill them onto the page, you know? And so there’s a chapter about writing about sex, there’s a chapter about the political power of autobiographical writing, there’s a chapter about the spiritual nature of autobiographical writing, and there’s a chapter about the pitfalls and lessons I learned about implicating other people in my nonfiction. And that’s the thing, I now feel like people have been asking me to write that essay for a really long time. And I finally did. And it was stressful and great fun and I’m glad for it. But I basically think of it as, instead of arguing with the people I disagree with, I just wanted to make a case for the incredible power of memoir and personal essay and really any kind of autobiographical writing book to transform the writer, but also to transform society.  Queer Potentiality in Lived Experience: A Conversation With Melissa Febos