I’m so thrilled to have interviewed the incredible Imogen Binnie. A long time trans activist and general all round amazing person, she’s just published her first book, Nevada. I had the fabulous fortune of being at her Toronto reading, which was really moving. Imogen read alongside the awesomeness of Trish Salah, Kiley May and Morgan M Page, followed by a conversation between the four of them about trans women, writing, politics and life in general. I’m half way through reading Nevada – which I’ve pretty much devoured in two sittings, finding it very difficult to put the book down!).
Sunny: What was the most surprising or joyful thing about writing Nevada?
Imogen: The most surprising thing, I think, was how confident I felt about writing the ending the way I did. Like I had the idea to take a specific kind of narrative risk with the ending, aware that it wasn’t going to work for everyone who read the book, but also aware that the people who appreciated it were going to really appreciate it. Once I was like, this ending is going to close the loop of the book emotionally if not necessarily in terms of plot, I was surprised at how easy that decision was to make.
As for the most joyful thing, a lot of the writing was joyful, because it felt kind of like, whether or not anybody was going to publish it, I still got to write all these things that were kind of bratty and confrontational toward the old Standard Trans Woman Narrative Tropes that are so continually frustrating.
Sunny: Were there any times you felt like quitting? If so, how did you get through them?
Imogen: Probably the time that I most felt ready to quit on it was after I thought I was done with it, sent it out to Soft Skull, who I’d hoped would publish it since I first started seriously editing the manuscript, and they rejected it. I’d been working on it for a few years and had had editors read and re-read it and felt pretty done with it, and when I got that rejection letter I was like, okay, that was a really useful exercise in learning to write a novel, I’m going to put this one aside and get to work on another one with the knowledge I’ve gained from this experience.
So I did, I quit on this particular novel. Then over a year later Tom from Topside really like my story in The Collection and pretty much demanded that I send Nevada to him. He gave me a lot of really useful editorial suggestions, I did some major revising and editing, and then it ended up being a much better novel.
Sunny: Did you have any structures for helping you write, like writing groups, or people to be accountable to?
Imogen: Not really! Which may be the reason it took so long to write. I mean, initially, I wrote the first draft for National Novel Writing Month, which is another reason it took so long to edit it into something publishable. But otherwise I made my girlfriend read it a lot of times, and she did a ton of really important editorial work, and there were a couple other folks I showed drafts to. But no, I didn’t have a writing group or anything.
Sunny: Do you have any advice for other first time novel writers?
Imogen: It’s the most boring advice, but: write. Get humble instead of getting wrapped up in the narratives our culture loves to perpetuate about divine inspiration and art as anything other than work. Just write. My experience was that there wasn’t even much for me to do with the novel until I had a first draft. So like, my advice would be, the worst first draft in the world is a lot better than the best idea in the world.
And relatedly, there’s no such thing as perfection. The way we learn to write in the culture of the cult of the author is often to be like “look how flawless every sentence is,” which is weird. Most sentences are flawless. Just write. Then when you do a second draft, awkward things or things that don’t work or tonal inconsistencies will (hopefully) jump out at you.
So like, yeah, just write.
Sunny: Who are your heroes or mentors or role models?
Imogen: Oh man so many! And at the same time, fuck hero worship culture, right, our heroes are all as imperfect as we are. That said, though, I have a framed picture of Kathy Acker hanging over my bed; I collect hardcover Dennis Cooper novels. In really different ways I think both of those two have very clear ideas of what they want to write about and do a really effective job of writing the worlds they want to live in: Acker’s books are confrontationally honest and mean-spirited about what it is like to be a woman and live in a world that is beyond hope, and Cooper’s do two things. The first is that most of them demonstrate, beautifully, what it’s like to live a life that you’re checked out of, where it feels like you have no agency and things just happen to you, where you might have desires but you have no tools to name them. That’s an amazing trick to pull off. And the second is that he just turns off the filter. I feel like I keep coming back to this idea of being confrontational but like, his work also does the opposite of the dazed-and-inarticulate thing I just mentioned by creating a space where the author can just write about his own obsessions, no matter how intense or impolite or brutal they are.
Sybil Lamb, who has run tr*nnypunk.com and sicknessandfilth.com for like the last ten years has also been a major influence on me and a whole generation- maybe even two generations now, at this point- of punk-skewing trans women. She has written about being a trans woman in an honest and brilliant-pretending-to-be-stupid way since, like, the late nineties, and she’s a brilliant visual artist.
Lots of other folks. Daphne Gottlieb keeps doing amazing stuff, Ryka Aoki, Colson Whitehead does a brilliant job of writing about oppression while writing about other things and not necessarily, like, Writing About Oppression. Roland Barthes did an elegant job of telling complicated truths about the ways that we understand each other. I’m forgetting a ton of people.
Sunny: I remember your kind firmness when years ago you sent me an email educating me about some problematic language that I was using. I really appreciated you taking the time to share your learning and perspectives with me, and my politics strengthened as a result. What have been the key ways you’ve learned your trans, queer and other politics?
Imogen: Oh god that’s really good to hear! I feel like I used to be a lot more yelly about that stuff so I’m glad that was productive for you. As for ways I’ve learned about those things? I don’t know if I could write a straightforward narrative about it. Like a lot of white trans women from middle class backgrounds, I didn’t really have a community while I was coming out and transitioning, so intellectually and politically I pretty much grew up on the internet. It’ll date me to say livejournal was central to that. Strap-on.org. I got involved with Camp Trans in 2006 and that was where I first started to have a queer community irl.
But also? The writings of feminist and womanist women of color. This Bridge Called My Back was the book that connected all the dots for me. bell hooks pretty much laid out how oppression works for me. On the Nevada tour I read Toni Morrison’s Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in which she describes ways in which white supremacy is, like, a central discourse in the American novel. I feel so grateful to those women for laying it out so clearly.
Sunny: do you ever feel a struggle between your politics and your creative impulses? If so, how do you deal with that? Like how do you make sure you convey your politics creatively without it ending up being preachy or writing a political essay?
Imogen: Y’know it’s funny, I don’t feel like it’s a perfect solution to this question, but it’s to be kind of selfish about it. Like, I’m not trying to make a living from writing fiction, which means I don’t have to stress about writing books that are gonna blow up at Barnes & Noble. But at the same time, I’m not really interested in writing brain-dead wish fulfilment or, y’know, nice stories about nice people. What I said about authors being kind of confrontational in their fiction is relevant to my on fiction too: it’s hard for me to stay interested unless I’m confronting my own shit in my writing. It’s hard to keep working on something that doesn’t make me feel kind of emotionally messed up while I’m writing it. Like something is at stake?
And honestly, I feel really lucky that that worked out with Nevada, that the stuff I was confronting in myself turned out to be stuff that resonated with other people. The reception of that novel has been way more positive than I ever let myself imagine it would be. But that doesn’t mean I need for that to happen with the next one, or that I expect other people to respond the same way to everything I do.
Also right now I’m most interested in novels, but there’s nothing stopping me from writing a political essay and sending it to Pretty Queer or Autostraddle or somewhere. So I guess the short answer is that the political things I feel most able to confront in my work are deeply relevant to my personal life, so I don’t really see a conflict there.
Sunny: what’s next?!
Imogen: I don’t want to say too much until it’s way more done, but I’m working on a novel about ghosts, malls, the apocalypse and tumblr. Thank you so much for doing this interview Sunny!
Imogen Binnie is the author of the zines The Fact That It’s Funny Doesn’t Make It A Joke and Stereotype Threat. Additionally, her work has been anthologized in The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, released in Fall 2012. She is currently a monthly contributor to Maximum Rocknroll and has previously written for Aorta Magazine, The Skinny and PrettyQueer.com. She writes about books at http://www.keepyourbridgesburning.com. Nevada, her first novel, was released by Topside Press in April, 2013.
More about Imogen or to buy her book, Nevada, go to www.imogenbinnie.com
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