Rebecca Brown Interviewed on MOSS

rebecca brownNorthwestern Queer-lit extraordinaire and author of 7 City Lights books, Rebecca Brown, has been working in Seattle since the 80’s (and rent was under $500). Since then she has made her presence in the city worthwhile, participating in multiple educational programs and accruing some notable awards along the way. Winner of the 2003 Washington book award, Lambda Literary award, and Genius award from The Stranger, Brown recently gave an in-depth interview to  MOSS, a journal that focuses on fostering Northwestern writers and their communities. The journal also features an essay by Brown, “Four Memories of Breath”

 

from “Four Memories of Breath”

In the morning Chris woke up early. She was already by the river when I got up and opened the sleeve of the tent and looked. She sat by the river and dipped her hands and then her hands and a cloth into the river and onto her. She was washing herself with the water. The sun was coming up and there was mist rising off the river. It rose from the land and other things and the rain that had fallen the night before was turned back into mist or steam or something more or less than it. I looked and saw as if, for a while, the breathing of the world.

 

Enjoy excerpts from MOSS‘s excellent interview with Rebecca as she talks about Gertrude Stein, Oreos, Catholicism, Levertov, and the West. Do follow the link to MOSS issue 1.3 to get the full dose.

 

Interviewer

In an interview you gave with the Sixers Review, you talked about the challenges of being an out lesbian writing out work in the 80s—that mainstream America would have nothing to do with you, and that your writing style didn’t meet the expectations of mainstream or lesbian publishing. You also mentioned that it was a challenge to be working away from “the big centers of queer work, like New York City or California.” I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit more. How did that difficulty manifest itself in your career, and how have things changed since then?

Brown

Well, my first story came out in an anthology with Faber and Faber, then my first book of stories came out in England in 1984 with a gay and lesbian press. My first novel came out in the UK in 1986 and here in the US with Viking in ‘87. And I don’t know if I could name another out lesbian who was published in the US mainstream then. Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle had been out with a small press and then moved up to a big press, and Patricia Highsmith had published lesbian work with a lesbian press under a pseudonym, but the mainstream work under her own name was the mysteries with no lesbian content. There was also a really big lesbian feminist writing scene going on in the 80s and 90s. Most of that work was realist stuff, it was very pro-woman, pro-lesbian, like “we’re healthy, we help each other, I’ve come out of the closet and everything is great.” Whereas my work was emotionally violent and disturbing, it was surreal, the women weren’t all heroes, and some of the nicest characters were straight guys. So my work didn’t quite fit in either place. Also I hadn’t come up through a community of writers the way, for example, some of my friends had, who were in the big centers like New York or LA or San Francisco, whether gay and lesbian or not. I didn’t actually know much about those scenes until I got back to the United States. So partly it was not quite fitting in either place, but there is also something about the advocacy of a community, or the advocacy of an agent that I didn’t have that going at that point. I wasn’t formed in those communities, so it took me a while to find people who just wanted to talk about literature in general. Then here in Seattle in the 90s—The Stranger started then—were a lot of writers, queer and not, whose work I was excited by—non-realistic, surreal, noir stuff, that was very exciting to me.

Interviewer:

What do you think the writing community is like in Seattle today?

Brown:

Seattle has a tremendous range of literary opportunities and communities. Hugo House is this tremendous place where people want to study writing, they bring in writers from out of town, and they commission new work. There’s the Bent Writing Institute that’s worked with queer kids and writers for about 20 years now, and for a while there was a group called Los Norteños for Latino and Latina writers, the University of Washington has groups, SPLAB—and the Jack Straw Writers Program, which I co-created with Joan Rabinowitz, a bunch of different groups. There’s also a lot of very successful mainstream writers up here too, like Garth Stein, who started the Seattle7Writers. There’s tons of activity and a lot of really different kinds of groups … you can go to a reading any night of the week, right? You can find an open mic, or someone reading from a new book, there’s just tons of stuff going on here. It’s a pretty exciting time. What we don’t have is the publishing scene Portland does. They have some amazing publishing houses down there. Sasquatch is fine, they do Northwesty books, and have not been a particularly literary press. Fantagraphics does the best graphic novels in the world, and they’re expanding out a little bit, but otherwise, we don’t have a Tin House or a Hawthorne Books or Publishing Studio or Future Tense. So Seattle is a little behind in that.

Interviewer:

What do you think is the significance to a writer of having a sense of community, or a sense of place?

Brown:

I think it’s hugely important for writers to feel loved, or to have at least one other person who wants to read their work. A community is people you share interests with, or who are excited about your work. Like the APRIL group—they’re really supportive, they do readings and events and book clubs, they hang out. The idea that you can share your endeavor, which most people aren’t going to pay anything for, with somebody else, that you share that interest with someone else, is hugely, hugely important. Writing itself is so often a private, solitary, lonely thing, but to be able to have friends to talk about it with, or even just one reader, like, if I write this thing, one person is going to say, “Rebecca, can I read that story,” or “Alex, you said you were going to work on that, are you still working on it?” It’s just hugely important to not be alone. […]

Interviewer:

I actually had some specific questions about “The Priests,” the story about that obscure religious history that you just mentioned. It just spoke to something that I found really incredible about American Romances, which is your ability to see connections in seemingly disparate things—or, to put it a little more politically, your refusal to allow things to be disconnected. Like in that essay, you bring this whole hidden history of sexuality and religion to bear on the Oreo, on this everyday thing—when a piece of writing gets you to look at something like that in a new way, it’s really powerful.

American Romances: Essays (City Lights, 2009)
American Romances: Essays (City Lights, 2009)

Brown:

My mind does jump around a lot, and make ridiculous-seeming but somehow, at least to me, real connections. For that particular piece, I’ve always been fascinated by the Christian church and religious history. And I started reading Gertrude Stein in high school. Several years ago Jennifer Heath wanted to do an anthology about origin stories about food—and asked me to write something, and maybe you could do like matzo ball soup or falafel or southern greens, but I was like, “I’m a white kid from the suburbs,” so I was like, junk food? Crappy, processed, fake dessert? Oreos. And it was just one step in one direction from there to a communion wafer—one step in another direction to Alice B. Toklas’s pot brownies—there I had it—the Christian supper and Stein and Toklas, history and sex and sexual repression, and there I went. I think one of my frustrations with academia is its separation from the world. It’s like, why not talk about Hawthorne, and notions of the American West and American masculinity, and Puritanism, alongside talking about monster movies? And why not talk in terms that are … not pompous academic jargon, not just dumb, but that are actually terms we use when we talk with one another. I guess it comes out of that. I don’t know that I had any conscious political stance from whence I made that shape for an essay. When you describe it as political, I can go, “yeah, that fits,” but my process is much more amorphous and mysterious than it is concept-driven. […]

Interviewer:

Something that I thought was really exciting about your work on her [Denise Levertov] was the same thing that attracted me to the Robert Cantwell piece that we published in the previous issue. Just this idea of … I don’t want to say rediscovering, because obviously she’s not been “lost”—

Brown:

But she’s not taught much in the academy any more. When I sent notices way back about planning the festival, the universities I contacted here did not express any interest.

Interviewer:

Right. This idea that someone’s a part of our region, a part of our cultural history, but they sort of fell off the map for whatever reason. What do you think it gives a community to have these types of figures in their collective past?

Brown

I think it’s hugely important. But I also think it’s hugely important to—and I hate overusing this word—to note the diversity of it. For a while in the 90s, it was all Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe and Raymond Carver, dirty realism. I was on a panel once at some Northwest book festival thing, and the question was something like how do we get out of Raymond Carver’s shadow. But I looked around and it was like, “half the people on this panel aren’t under his shadow; open your eyes and read more widely!” Maybe two books I’ve done have that monosyllabic, bare realism, but the rest of them don’t. Too often there’s this idea that there’s one kind of writing, but actually there are many. Raymond Carver can be a patron saint for some Northwest writers, and Denise Levertov can be too, for others. August Wilson can be, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Jesse Bernstein … the idea of someone that you can look up to, and not emulate them exactly, but the fact that they did the work, did their own kind of work, and if there’s a range of these people, you don’t have to be exactly like any of them; what you have to do is work really hard like all of them.

I went to visit a number of book groups for the Levertov Festival, and I always tried to choose a couple poems that were obviously about the Northwest’s physical landscape. Like, there’s one poem that’s clearly written in St. Joseph’s, about a specific ritual that happens there, and when I read the landscape poems to people they’re like, “oh, that’s about over there, I can see that, I’ve never thought of it that way”—and it’s like they own it. Or the St. Joseph’s poem, and people are like, “Wow! I was there that time.” And you can get that sense of art not being far from you, that artists use the material of their lives, which are our lives too. It’s really… I don’t want to say it’s humbling, but, you know, art does not come down from the sky. It comes from here, from us, from the world we live in. I’m a big believer in that.

As to the regional thing, I’m like, screw New York. We don’t exist to them? We don’t need to. There actually is nothing wrong with them—except for the fact that they can’t see beyond their noses—but you don’t have to look towards there to be a real artist, you can be one anywhere.

brownsbooks
The other six Rebecca Brown books published by City Lights.

Interviewer

Absolutely. So, to get back to something you’ve touched on several times here, I wanted to ask a little about religion. There’s certainly a lot of spirituality in the Northwest, but it’s often pretty abstract. And obviously, Christianity and Catholicism’s relationship to the gay and lesbian community is historically—

Brown

Horrible. [laughs]

Interviewer

[laughs] It’s troubling, to say the least. But, you know, I also notice that the quest to know God is a significant recurring theme in your work, and you don’t shy away from the Christian framework. How do you define your religion? How did you come to it? How does it manifest in your work?

Brown

So I was received into the Catholic Church in 2012. But, even very early on in my work, there’s a real sense of dark and light. There’s a real sense of someone dying, and then getting to live again. One of my books, The Dogs, which I started writing in the 80s, starts with quotations from St. Augustine and Francis Thompson, a Catholic poet most well known for his poem “The Hound of Heaven.” And at the end of my book, someone is buried into the ground, and someone goes and unburies them and lifts up those bones and the bones come back together then go into the river and into the water, and they stand up and they’re clothed in flesh, and move towards the light; it’s totally a story of death and redemption. And I suppose there are parts of me that are specifically Christian because as a white westerner from Europe, that’s part of my genealogical heritage. But really the great mysteries of life and death are part of many religions. Do I become one with the cosmos? Is a bodhisattva someone who’s here to help me? All that kind of stuff, about the longing to understand lightness and dark, and the need to believe in the light when you’re in darkness—the longing for something bigger, that’s part of me in a big way.

For many years, for all the obvious reasons, I thought Catholicism was just the worst. I mean, they don’t allow female priests. The sex scandal is just—the sex scandal itself is inexcusable, and the coverup is—I don’t want to say as inexcusable, because actually tons of children and adults were physically and spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally harmed by these priests—but they’re both crimes against humanity. And there’s the Pope who is meant to be a servant who leads the way to mercy, but has as often as not been more of a dictator, though I am very hopeful about Pope Francis … so there were tons of reasons not to be Catholic, but something drew me—and keeps me drawn to it. Some longing, hunger, draw, whatever, to the mystery of incarnation, redemption, mercy. I can’t explain or justify it. But there’s so much I can’t justify. The story of the church is also a story of human darkness and desire for form. And when I think about it in an even bigger context, I could say the same negative things about being a westerner, a human. I mean, as a white person, as a type, I am, historically, an imperialist, and a slave owner, a Jew killer, a sexist. Or, a lot of feminists in the 70s were like, “men are the problem,” so like, “boom, let’s be separate from men.” Well—I suppose you could do that, but what human creation is not flawed? Humanity is flawed, institutions are more flawed, the Catholic Church is really flawed, the US is flawed. I haven’t emigrated from America, which is certainly financially the most complicit and heinous empire that’s ever been on the planet, but there’s also still good stuff in America too, and it’s where I belong. It’s all really complex. And the Church, it has this central mystery that is just profound to me, it’s a story that draws me. Like where I belong, or what I want. I can’t describe it. […]

Interviewer:

I want to loop back a bit, to the Northwest. You were born on the west coast, in California, and you talked in American Romances about how you really love what you call the West, which I would call the Old West, the Cowboy West. How do you see the Northwest in relation to all that? Is this region part of America’s ongoing Western momentum—the next step after California? Or is there something else going on here?

Brown:

When people were talking about, “go West young person,” way back when, they were talking about like, Ohio, right? And then further west, when people thought about California, they thought about lettuce and oranges, the sunny orange groves. Whereas the Northwest is dark, and green, it’s kind of the furthest away corner, a place you go when you can’t go any further. My sense is that Seattle, as a city, wasn’t really here until, like, the late 19th century. And pretty quickly, once white people were kind of established here, it became a jumping off point for Alaska, like with the gold rush of the 1890s, so there’s way it was kind of like—there’s no where else to go, then we jump to Alaska. It’s like when you sweep a room, and get all this dust trapped in the corner. It’s kind of the last place you can go and still be here. So there’s a little bit of that—is it independence, or is it dregs? Mythically, it has a different draw than the sort of sunny California.

Interviewer:

Is that atmosphere something that drew you here?

Brown:

Not particularly. My brother went to Colorado in the 70s, that’s where young people went. In the 80s, people were coming to Portland or Seattle. These places were comparatively inexpensive then, and that’s not the case any more. Now people are like, going to Idaho or somewhere, because you just can’t afford it any more.

Interviewer:

Do you think you would move here now, if you were at the equivalent stage in your life?

Brown:

That’s really hard to imagine. When my girlfriend and I came here, we were like, “oh, it’s so cheap here,” compared to the East Coast. We could rent an apartment with one and a half bedrooms and a living room and a dining room and a water view for $375, and now what’s that? $1500? Whatever, it’s very, very expensive. It’s very hard for me to imagine being a young person here, with a ‘regular job,’ and finding my way. The city’s just gotten really wealthy. It’s not going to be as conducive to the next art as long as it’s that expensive. Poor artists go to poor places.

Rebecca has released an impressive seven titles with City lights including The Haunted House, American Romances, The End of Youth, Annie Oakley’s Girls, The Dogs, The Last Time I Saw You and The Terrible Girls. Pick them up on your next trip to City Lights Bookstore, on our website, or ask for them at your favorite local bookseller.

 

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