Author Sara Jaffe Challenges Queer Teen Fiction Clichés
By Amanda Davidson
“Do you mind if I eat breakfast while we Skype?” Sara Jaffe asks from a bright room in Portland, Oregon at 8:32 a.m. She’s finishing a piece for nymag.com, and her almost-11-month-old baby has been up since the “wee hours.”
We have an hour to finish a conversation that started this November in a crowded noodle bar following the Brooklyn launch of Dryland, Sara’s first novel. Or maybe we’re still having the first conversation, the one that started in San Francisco circa 2002, when Sara was retiring from a star turn as guitarist for the queercore band Erase Erratta and turning fully toward writing. Sara and I shared a writing mentor then, and every month, while we all sat together on a velvet couch, she would bring in these meticulous drafts, revising like she’d swallowed a metronome and was compelled to shift the words around until they syncopated.
Suspension, displacement, a tendency to slip off the downbeat: such are the rhythms of Dryland’s teenage narrator, Julie. On Skype, Sara and I talk about blind spots and queer affinity and style as a way into character, until the sun cuts in at a new angle and flares across the screen. Sara gets up to see how her partner, Nadia, and their baby, Noah, are doing in the next room. She returns holding a toddler in grey-and-pink-striped pajamas. Noah points and waves as Nadia lifts him out of the frame. Sara accedes to another round. When we sign off, Skype tells me our conversation lasted one hour, 30 minutes, and 31 seconds.
Amanda Davidson: Your son was born last March, and Dryland came out in September. From here, how is your perspective shifting?
Sara Jaffe: The kid and the book are significant events that happened, but they’re not the same. If they are related, it has to do with forms of attention I get from other people now that these things are in the world. Both shift my sense of self. The most surprising thing overall has been how having a kid changes my sense of time. I have to be more flexible with my work routines, which I’ve always been pretty rigid about. When I’m with the baby, I have to be fully present. I can’t be thinking about or working on a million projects at once.
Right now, Noah’s personality is just starting to show up. That’s cool and fun. He makes speech-sounding sounds all the time. Mamamama means “Nadia” but also sometimes “milk.” It has a general association with the maternal.
Amanda: What’s your handle, as a parent?
Sara: I’m mom, and Nadia’s mama. I feel pretty into mom. I can’t really explain why, but to me it feels properly gendered, somehow, similar to how I wish my students could call me “Teach.”
Amanda: How do you navigate teaching, writing, and childcare?
Sara: Nadia and I are able to share a good portion of the childcare between us — I’m adjuncting and working freelance, and she does her work as an elementary school administrator partly from home. We also have around 20 hours a week of babysitting. Who knows if that’s the model we’ll continue, for financial and other reasons.
It really is such a relief whenever I hear of makers and people in our community parenting, especially without a ton of money. It makes me feel like it will be possible to keep making stuff, to figure out schedules, priorities, and all that.
Amanda: Have you experienced different kinds of recognition (or misrecognition) as a butch mom?
Sara: Nadia recently said that at work, her identity as a parent is foregrounded because she carried Noah and works at an elementary school alongside many other women who are parents. It’s just not at the surface of my public identity in the same way.
Amanda: Are there any representations of butch or non-gestational parents in books, movies, etc. that you find relatable?
Sara: I can’t think of any off the top of my head. There’s The Kids Are All Right, which I can’t say I related to, and a book called Tales of the Other Mother, but I don’t remember it resonating that much. One book I found encouraging featured profiles of different artists with children. Dorothy Allison and maybe one other queer person were included.
My identity as a queer person is totally interwoven with my identity as an artist, and iconic images of both of those things have not included parent. My support and modeling has come much more from friends and from my community than from books.
Amanda: I love how central queer friendship is in your book.
Sara: I really wanted to think about chosen family and queer mentorship. I’ve been thinking recently about how when I was a teenager, I was friends with older dudes who taught me about music. They weren’t queer, and I wanted to reimagine that. What if there was a queer person there instead?
Amanda: It allows the book to fire on a lot of levels — affinity comes from music as much as from Julie’s emergent queerness.
Sara: It felt important not to have this crisis of identity take over. To me, the coming out story is so limiting. It puts a conventional shape on the narrative, so that we’re moving toward this moment of reveal. It has become a way of making a queer narrative legible to a non-queer audience. It sets up a narrative argument that queerness is a problem that has to be overcome in a certain way, even if by affirmation. That wasn’t the narrative shape or the story I wanted to tell.
Amanda: You subvert the identity-crisis narrative really delicately in Julie’s family-of-origin.
Sara: Julie’s big secret is: I can’t let my parents know I’m swimming. For her brother, swimming functions as an analogue to gayness. The brother felt alien in his family because he was so into this thing that no one understood. The creepy coach was his chosen family.
Amanda: It’s not clear whether the parents know they hatched two young queers. This feels like new terrain.
Sara: I have a lot of queer friends with queer siblings, and I hadn’t seen that represented in fiction before. I wondered if I’d get pushback for it — like, can they really both be gay? — but none has come.
I think the parents know and don’t know. It’s so easy to turn parents into clichés, especially in books with teenage narrators. I had to think a lot about what their relationship was to Julie, and what their relationship had been to her brother, and get at that with a very light touch.
I tried to write dialogue from the parents’ point of view, rather than as Julie might perceive them. The moment at the end when her father pulls over near Taco Bell and cries, I wanted that to feel surprising. This person has been having this experience the whole time, but Julie and the reader didn’t know.
Amanda: Julie teeters between knowing and not-knowing on so many levels. How did you sustain this uneasy balance?
Sara: Characters, relationships, and a basic idea of plot came early on. But I knew that wasn’t where the story was really going to reside for me. Harry Matthews spoke at the &now Conference in Paris in 2012, and one thing he said was voice comes last. Maybe it meant something particular to him as an OULIPO writer, but it really resonated with me.
Although it’s in the first-person, I imagined a reader who would be able to read between the lines of Julie’s defensiveness or deflection. I wanted to create an absence that points to a presence.