“ There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.”
Tonight, I’ll be reading with Jenny Zhang at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. Jenny and I first met last summer for a lunch that lasted at least three hours and, after we parted, manifested as a furious text exchange with all the urgency and effusiveness of a long-distance love affair. I sincerely feel so #blessed to know her! She’s an ASME-nominated essayist, performer, poet, and epic babe who just sold her first collection of short stories to Random House, and below, she talks about how women’s writing about intimacy is minimized, mischaracterized, and dismissed.
Charlotte: When I saw you read for the first time last year, I was very encouraged by your vulgarity. Or more specifically, the way you could fold explicit words and images into your poems and have the end result be so cohesive and not necessarily “about” sex but about something sex brings to the surface or highlights as a contrast. You are a vulgarity success story! But do you feel like the way you write about sex or genitals or bodies in general determines your audience at all?
Jenny: That was a such a special night — the first bloom of our courtship [insert blushing-pleased emoji]! Intimacy in my writing is important to me and it’s difficult for me to articulate why vulgarity and explicit language is part of that project except to say that what might be bad manners at a formal dinner is a sincere attempt at intimacy in my writing. I never quite know who will be repelled and who will egg me on, and sometimes my expectations are off. When I was in school — both undergrad and grad school — and taking creative writing workshops in fiction, I noticed more men than women responded positively to my writing and it wasn’t always prurient interest, although sometimes it was. But often women would more quickly move past the obscenities and get right to the emotional questions and that always made me feel so very seen. These days for both poetry and essays, it’s split pretty evenly.
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a woman’s brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
Charlotte: I primarily get feedback from female readers, so I’ve started to think of my writing as “for” them in a way it’s not for men. That’s suspiciously complimentary to how I am in life generally, though; I almost only read writing by women, and pay attention to women in terms of culture-making. So I don’t really trust that impression and wonder if it’s just my own selective thinking. I can recall quite a few guys who were invested in and responsive to the letters early on. Like on the mornings after I’d sent a letter, there were three guys who almost always said something to me about the most recent one, and I really looked forward to their responses. The breakdown of kickstarter backers and purchasers of the books from my website seems pretty evenly split between men and women, to the extent names give it away. Anyway, I feel touched and impressed by the men who are most outspoken about their enthusiasm for the letters and the book.
I think my writing is so emotionally dense that if you’re reading it only with prurient interest, you’ll be disappointed. Though the Vice profile that came out recently mentioned something about there being a lot of explicit sex and like 10 guys ordered the book right after that came out.
Jenny: Do you ever feel aware of when your writing might “titillate” a man? Is that gross to ask?
Charlotte: No, I like that question! I feel like my personal writing is so grounded in a female experience (which is an icky phrase, maybe just too co-opted by capitalism — like I’m discussing a douche or something) that I almost imagine men having a hard time getting turned on while reading it. Women have commented to me that it aroused them more often than men have, but I think most readers are almost studious with me about avoiding articulating that response at all, maybe because the sex work angle makes them more self-conscious about “objectifying” or diminishing me or something.
When you read, do you sometimes get the sense that there are guys in the audience starting to get semis? Or do they talk to you after in a way that feels like they’re salivating?
Jenny: That’s interesting because I have gotten turned on reading your Tiny Letters but almost in this way where I’m turned on wondering if other people reading it — both men and women — are turned on.
Yes, I think performing my poems invites men to come up to me and tell me things like, “that was a very sexual energy you put out there.” And it’s like sometimes I’m literally reading poems about loving my mom and to me what they are really saying is: “I want to believe that you are an extremely sexual person because only an extremely sexual woman would stand in front of strangers and friends and talk about her cunt and not show a trace of shame.”
Charlotte: What do you say to those guys?!
Jenny: I just nod and smile and back away… Haha.
Charlotte: That sounds stressful and discouraging. Not because you’re fragile or they’re intimidating but because it would be tiresome and obnoxious.
Jenny: I often wonder if my being a fairly small Asian woman with a high-pitched quietish voice plays a role in how often men feel entitled to come up to me and tell me, “you have this doll act” or whatever. I don’t “look” like someone who runs into a room and flashes my pussy but sometimes I am. And when I say I don’t “look” like that woman, I just mean how it’s assumed only a sloppy woman or a drunk woman would ever be that kind of exhibitionist or confessionalist. There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves. No one thinks a man who shows his dick or his nipples is a sex maniac. There’s a long legacy (constructed and imposed by via colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy) of how the female Asian body is just supposed to be available, you know?
Charlotte: Or even if a guy is showing his dick and nipples all the time—I don’t know, I’m thinking of Terry Richardson though I have no idea how often he actually does show his dick, and I don’t care to find out—he gets to pass it off fun and crazy and wild, not a character defect. It becomes part of a cheerful sex maniac/pervert/lech persona and everyone allows it—if he’s white, anyway. Like, “oh, that’s just so-and-so, being spontaneous and whacky and harmless.” Now that I’m thinking of it, I can imagine plenty of white women being excused similarly too, if they’re young and very aesthetically pleasing.
I knew guys like that in high school who, full disclosure, I loved and still love dearly and found very fun, got naked regularly at parties as part of their usual antics. And everyone else at the party, mainly women but a few clothed male holdouts, would be like, “oh, there’s Brandon running around naked…again.” There’s actually a line in one of my teenage journals about seeing these guys’ flaccid penises more times than I can count.
You’re making me curious about if men are going to approach me after readings and want to pervily discuss some aspect of what I’ve written. (I doubt it because, like I’ve told you before, I radiate boner-killing vibes in person! My greatest talent.)
Jenny: Do you ever worry about writing about sex in a way that might alienate certain women? I remember a few years ago for Rookie, we were having a discussion in a private FB group for staffers about street harassment that was so open and cathartic and spurred by one of our teen writers being followed and harassed and made to feel unsafe. Everyone was chiming in about their own experiences of feeling both angry and powerless and fearful when being followed or catcalled, and then someone was like, “I almost never get catcalled… and I used to think that was a good thing. But now I suddenly feel insecure about it?” and when we published this roundtable discussion on Rookie, a few of our teen readers echoed similar sentiments like, “Well no one ever tells me I’m a hot piece of ass, does that mean I’m undesirable?”
Charlotte: Aw, my heart! I grew up in a small town where no one really walked anywhere, and people usually knew who you were, and I was never leered at or harassed (at least not in a way I recognized) and the first time I came to New York and had men constantly saying things to me, I was sooooo flattered. It was very affirming, which I know is the worst possible message to send to people re: street harassment. But I so get where those girls were coming from.
Jenny: As a reader sometimes when I read about women writing about sex, there’s a part of me that is like yes yes yes go on I hear you I’m listening, but sometimes this ugly side of me creeps out — the side that hasn’t shaken off whatever patriarchal indoctrination that makes women think there are such limited quantities of love and pleasure and affection in this world that we have to claw for it while putting other women down for seeking it too openly or too insistently — and that side of me sometimes will read women writing about sex and think, Please. C’mon. You’re glorifying, you’re bragging, you aren’t self-aware.
Charlotte: Yeah, I do worry about that! I talk about it in the letters a few times, definitely with regard to blowjobs, how I feel like there’s no way I can describe how much I like doing it without sounding like a self-deluded tool of the patriarchy who just wants brownie points from men. Even I myself roll my eyes when reading writing by women who make a big show about how much they enjoy sex — but I think that’s because there’s a certain tone of hedonism and decadence that can creep in, and it’s somehow influenced strongly by class, where I just imagine the author laying back on velvet and, like, luxuriating in a man servicing her “sex” and it’s just corny as hell to me. I don’t know, all I can think of is “Renaissance Faire.”
Jenny: It’s a certain kind of decadence! Also I guess I should note that women — always white women — also have felt comfortable coming up to me and asking me about my “deliberate provocations” — which implies that there’s no sincerity, my writing about sex or whatever, is just a desire to get a reaction, to attention-whore or whatever. I mean most people don’t come up to me and intentionally insult me, but when they do, that’s the form it usually takes.
Do you have any trepidation or hesitation in going on this book tour and no longer having anonymity to some extent?
Charlotte: “Deliberate provocations” is such a gross way to characterize your work, because it’s so degrading to the work, so dismissive. Not like I think being provocative is fundamentally wrong but it seems so obvious to me that you’re working with much more nuanced motivations and objectives than that! That makes it sound like you’re a first year performance art student pooping on stage.
I think what keeps me from being nervous about the anonymity issue is that I feel so comfortable with and trusting of my audience, because it’s comprised of people I know and love. Even when they’re strangers, I feel like I trust them. It’s something to do with my experience of Prostitute Laundry as a cooperative project that evolved and developed through this (often silent) participation of others. And also, sex work has prepared me for everything. I feel pretty unflappable or at the very least, not easily shaken.
Jenny: Something that’s interesting about PL is because from the very outset you set the terms. It’s not like you’re some mousy girl who no one would believe could be a high end escort, because 1) you’re anonymous and 2) you make what is usually the sensational part of a sex worker’s tale completely ordinary and what you make sensational is the stuff that is “ordinary” — loneliness, wanting human connection, falling in love, falling out of love, crushes, little and big hopes and dreams.
Charlotte: I’m glad you brought up women, by the way — I have a few female fans who I would call obsessive, in that their type and degree of attention makes me uncomfortable even from afar. But that’s died down recently. I think it was at a higher pitch when I seemed more protective of my anonymity because I was still working as an escort. And now I tweet pictures of my torso in a cat sweatshirt and my hand on my bf’s boner and it probably…neutralizes some of that?
Do you ever feel angry or disappointed after reading because of those confrontations you mention? You read so often, I assume it’s overall a positive experience, but I feel like those sort of bigoted or aggressive responses would get old quick.
Jenny: I’m more surprised that more people don’t respond to me by thinking I’m just an empty provocateur, a stupid girl who wants to flash her pussy! So it doesn’t really bother me but it is important when I read that I’m actually performing, because otherwise I would be too vulnerable, too exposed, and it would hurt me far more if I was completely myself and open and honest. There are clear boundaries in writing because the reader can’t touch the person who wrote about her pussy, but when I’m standing in front of actual bodies, when my body is right there talking about my body, I feel very keenly that someone can reach out and violate me. So I have to be protective of myself. It’s okay if someone is disgusted or offended by my performance. It’s just a performance. The person I am still belongs to me, it’s not readily available for anyone who wants to reject it or cozy up to it, and I very much need that.
I used to apologize a lot, like I would say, “If you want to scream or walk out or say ‘STOP NO I HATE THIS’ please feel free.” I wanted people to know that I had already anticipated their reactions, that it will never surprise me if someone is offended or bored by me saying “cunt” twenty times in ten minutes, and even though I’ve never screamed when someone has said something violently racist or misogynist in my presence, I still want to offer the right to protest to other people who might not wish to hear my poems.
Whenever women write about their bodies and sex and stuff that is usually considered “taboo” or “obscene” or “gross”, people tend to fixate on that aspect of the writing and sideline the other stuff — I’m wondering if that might not be true for you? Because of, like I said before, how you make it clear from the beginning you aren’t going to glamorize or make sordid what we expect to be glamorous or sordid.
Charlotte: Yes, when a woman writes about sex, particularly a lot, it gives everyone a handy way to dismiss her writing as a whole. I think I exist in such a curated social environment that I have the luxury of being shocked and secondhand embarrassed when someone gets weird about my sex work past or the usual topics of my writing. (Yeah, I said “curated” there, sorry, I’m gross!) I’m surrounded by so many people who are wayyyyyy beyond that particularly boring, lazy, hateful strain of ignorance, it’s hard for me to recognize it when I encounter it. But when I do, it’s sort of like if I’d tried to talk to someone and they started cawing or barking at me. Like, we’re not operating with comparable minds! I’m not going to be mad or offended, I’m just going to make this face:
I love what one agent suggested to me about why an editor said there was too much sex in the book: that he was disturbed not by the amount, but more by the fact that all the sex is personal instead of in the context of work. I think about that a lot, because her saying that was articulating something I’d intimated but not bothered to say for myself.
Jenny: The relationship your readers have to your writing must be different from the relationship that people in the writing biz have when they encounter your writing — there’s such a HUNGER for narratives about sex workers and most of those narratives, when landed in the hands of mainstream publishing or Hollywood, become so violated, warped, ruined, humorless… How do you feel about trying to get your work out there to a larger audience without relinquishing the wonderful complexity and nuance of your writing and your perspective?
I’m curious because I definitely had to go through years of agents telling me “I love immigrant stories of struggle and hardship” and me thinking, “No, no, no, I can’t, this person doesn’t see me at all.”
Charlotte: I’m so, so happy to have self-published. For exactly the reason you get at, the degree of control I had and continue to have. At first it just seemed expedient to me and I really didn’t think about it much in terms of how it would come across to other writers, or people in publishing — when now, of course, in trying to get the book in stores and set up readings and promote it in general, I’m reminded that “self-publishing” is still synonymous for some people with “godawful.” A lot of folks seem very confused and almost concerned that I didn’t try to find a mainstream publisher for it. But I’m happier with that choice by the day. It suits my hooker mind, too, where you have to do everything yourself because it’s all clandestine. It’s either figure it out on your own or fork over half of what you make to someone else. Or usually both, ha.
I want to hear about how you’ve managed to keep doing the writing you want to do — because it feels like you don’t compromise at all, in the best possible way: that you commit to your own vision and are completely absorbed in seeing it through that particular piece of writing. Do you feel like you’ve encountered more publishing professionals who don’t get it (i.e. “immigrant stories” people) than those who do? We’ve talked about it a little before (in the Claire Vaye Watkins sense of neither of us feeling that we’ve written “for” white guys) but; did looking for outside endorsement or promotion of your writing always seem separate to you from the writing itself? It seems to me that for a lot of writers, the approval/public reception and the writing itself are inextricable, but I wonder if we both see them as entirely separate.
Jenny: Part of it for me — and I’m sure you can relate to this — was having a financial independence outside of writing for money. This was achieved by a mixture of just being extremely privileged to have parents who always bailed me out financially, sometimes without me even having to ask (they would just sense that I was in trouble) and by supporting myself with jobs that didn’t have anything to do with writing. I hadn’t ever worked with an “editor” until I was 26 — although that could be partly chalked up to the MFA vs. NYC thing, where I came up through institutions that encouraged writers to write privately for a long, long time, and not sully themselves with concerns about audience or the business side of writing. Even though I don’t agree there’s a special honor or purity in hiding away, it was the mindset many of my teachers and cohorts encouraged me to have. But anyway, because of all that, I always just figured I’d write something and I would be the first and final person to say if it was good or ready or acceptable or whatever. Once I decided I was happy with something, I’d try to send it off into the world and either someone would want it exactly as it was, or it would remain in my notebook/laptop and no one would ever see it. This is probably why I didn’t work with an editor until I was 26…. THE SOLIPSISM!
But also because as an immigrant woman of color growing up the way I did, I always felt like I’d either have to give in to seeing myself the way other people saw me or I would have to be really stubborn about protecting my own vision of myself. At some point I became doggedly the latter — and that involves a not unhealthy amount of ego, you know? But without it, I would be trying to write the kind of stories that almost every agent, editor, and writing teacher wanted to see from me. It would have felt odd, empty, and disloyal to real desires and interests.
Charlotte: I’m so excited that you brought up ego, because I wonder a lot where mine came from. (Parenting? White entitlement? Genetic predilection? All?) I think in terms of writing, it didn’t even really occur to me that I wouldn’t be a writer, because I was doing it from such a young age. It know it’s melodramatic to equate it with a bodily function but I wrote so often and so instinctively that asking me something like “did you always want to be a writer?” really would be pretty close to asking me something like, “did you grow up wanting to be an eater?” It’s an innate understanding of there being no alternative, so much so that even the idea of “alternative” is kind of silly, and consequently feeling relatively blasé about writing, not actually stressing that much over who would want to read it or how it would get out into the larger word. Just trusting I would always be doing it; writing would happen no matter what.
Did I tell you about this review I found of N.B.? The book of my blog before Prostitute Laundry?
Jenny: No, tell me!
Charlotte: A week or so ago I found a tumblr review of the book that kept reiterating how glad they were that the book was over, and how much they’d wished an editor had worked with it. But then they quoted lots of passages they loved or at least liked a lot. (So…. I felt like the ultimate verdict was unclear.)
Anyway in addition to knowing this was a powerful lesson about vanity googling, it made me think about how happy I am that there wasn’t an editor involved in either book, not because I think my writing is flawless but because I really like the products of writers that are more direct and unmediated, like the Grisélidis Réal book we talked about once, or those Kathy Acker emails, or anyone’s journals, and so on. And in the perfect situations, an editor makes the book better (duh) but in plenty of situations the editor makes the book worse.
I just read a book where the intro and conclusion felt forced and tacked on, and the meat of the book was strong but when shoehorned between these two chapters that were all wrong…the whole book became really frustrating. And that was the editor. I bet all my cats on it, an editor said, “you need to make your book more relevant to X” because then, presumably, the book would be easier to market. But the book wasn’t relevant to X. And trying to position it as such really fucked it up. That’s not a perfectly analogous situation, but still.
Jenny: Yes, during my second year at Iowa, a couple of us had this fellowship where we had to read the writing samples of prospective fiction students. We were the first readers and were encouraged to read sensitively and thoroughly. For anyone thinking of applying to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction, you should know that you’re permitted to submit up to ONE HUNDRED PAGES of fiction. And there were thousands of submissions, and every submission had to be read by at least two people. So we were reading like maniacs. And our tastes were so nakedly revealed because we had to rate the applications and justify our ratings and then send the story off to the next reader who had a choice of either reading the submission blind or looking at what the previous reader had said. It was such a personal and emotional process. I felt like such an intruder getting to see what made other people tingly as a reader, and what made other people downright angry.
For me, one of the things I realized I LOVED was messiness. I loved especially when a manuscript was imperfect but there was this feeling like this person had so much to give and was only at the beginning of their potential. What left me cold was when something was perfect, to the point where it’s hard to even say anything about it because every hair is in place, every nail filed. It left me feeling almost too healthy. There’s no lingering obsession, no frustration, no wildness. I hate the feeling of a piece completely fulfilling its potential, because then it feels like there’s nothing to look forward to. Not that I totally romanticize sloppiness but there’s a real pleasure in excess, in not trimming off the fat.
Charlotte: I’m a very big believer in not wasting the time of your audience in any medium. Meaning: put in the work required to make it as good as you can, including self-editing and listening to the recommendations and reactions of people you trust — which I did with both manuscripts many times, btw! But I’m also a big believer in readers being able to sift through and discern the moments (sentences, passages, etc.) that are most important to them. So yeah, a little extra might be safer than erring on the side of a little less.