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Maggie Nelson
Maggie NelsonPhotography Tom Atwood

Exploring the cult appeal of Maggie Nelson with the writer herself

From a relative’s murder, to textured queer love, and 20th century avant-garde art – the author, poet, and critic approaches sprawling subjects with nuance

People didn’t expect Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts to take on the cult status it did, especially not among straight and queer people alike. It’s a small, genre-crossing book that places memoir – mostly Maggie’s relationship with her trans, gender fluid partner, the artist Harry Dodge, as well as her pregnancy with their child – alongside theory on desire and attachment. As ‘autofiction’, it shows the collapsable boundaries between thinking and feeling, and counts Roxane Gay, Olivia Laing, and Miranda July among its fans. 

While Nelson is most famous for The Argonauts, it’s just one book from a two-decade career. Published in 2015, it came after Jane: A Murder (2005) and The Red Parts (2007) – two books inspired by her aunt’s brutal murder – Nelson’s incredible poetry collection Bluets (2009), about the colour blue, and The Art of Cruelty (2011), a book on violence and trauma in the arts. During a recent talk at London’s Southbank Centre, she joked about how, when she was younger, she dreamed of becoming Susan Sontag; in some ways – drifting between genres, high and low culture – she has. “I guess people think I’m pretentious,” she laughs when this comes up at the talk, “but I’m not quoting Judith Butler while I cook my breakfast”.

When I meet Nelson before her talk, she is self-aware, confident, and unapologetic – perhaps because she’s aware of how unlikely it would be for people to lobby the same criticisms of pretentiousness against a male writer. We’re meeting mostly because Jane: A Murder – a poetry collection piecing together fragments of her aunt Jane’s journals with Nelson’s own poems – is being re-issued in the UK this year. Jane was murdered in 1969, two years before Nelson was born; growing up, the murder hung heavily over her family life. Just as the Jane collection was published, the murder case was reopened and Maggie became consumed with following it, an obsession that led to the spectacularly brilliant memoir/true crime book The Red Parts

Here, Nelson talks to Dazed about her strange career, how The Argonauts made her famous, and how odd it is to see books she wrote 10 years ago finally getting the attention they deserve.

Your books are so different to each other – The Argonauts feels almost like a diary – do you feel like you have a specific writing process?

Maggie Nelson: I’ve written for a long time – my whole life – so I guess the larger writing process is just ongoing. But yes, individual books have been very different from one another. It’s like anything in life, some take a lot of research, some don’t; some take years, some have been written very quickly. It’s very specific to the project. The Argonauts, strangely, was kind of an accidental book in that I was working on something else (at the time). While I was pregnant, I was asked to give a tribute talk to (queer theorist) Eve Sedgwick so I wrote a long piece on Eve, and at the same time wrote an art essay for my friend, the artist A.L. Steiner, about her work Puppies and Babies. (I began thinking) it might be interesting to put some of this together – there were maternity things over here, and queer things over here, and I was curious as to what they would look like if they were put in proximity as one book. It definitely wasn’t a planned book, whereas other works of mine have been more self-conscious, like, ’I would like to write a book about the colour blue’ or ’I would like to write about violence’.

When people talk about The Argonauts they find it radical that it’s about motherhood and pregnancy alongside queerness, as if these things are incompatible. I’ve always been interested in why we see heteronormativity and queerness as such binary poles, and the kind of assimilationist guilt that comes with that as a queer person. Is that something that you have felt? Particularly in reference to the part in the book where your friend calls your mug with a photo of your kids on, “the most heteronormative thing I’ve ever seen”.

Maggie Nelson: I don’t have any assimilationist guilt; (in the book) the narrator is fine about all that, but is more analysing things that are coming at her from different places. It’s more deflective than it is actively anguished about (this binary). In all my work, especially The Art of Cruelty – which is about the legacy of the avant-garde in early 20th century art – I’m always an interrogator of concepts more than I am somebody who buys into them, whether it’s radicality and the avant-garde, or normativity and assimilation.

“If the ultimate goal is for society to do less policing of others for being who they want to be, it would be preposterous for us to become a queer police force” – Maggie Nelson

Yes, like when you describe the situation of being viewed as a straight cis couple when you’re in a restaurant with your partner. 

Maggie Nelson: Yes, I mean, I’m just describing it. I’m sketching the contours; sketching the thing with bemusement. It’s my friend who says ‘this is a heteronormative mug’, not me. I think my interest is that if the ultimate goal is for society to do less policing of others for being who they want to be, it would be preposterous for us to become a queer police force that disciplines other people for their choices. I don’t think in ‘queer versus not queer’, it’s more like those categories are made in reaction to a disciplinary norm, so I try and keep my focus on the question of: how do we resist policing as an attitude towards the world? 

There’s that story about your professor and all her younger students who are upset that she won’t write her pronouns onto a label. What has your relationship been like with labels over your life? Have you ever found them helpful? 

Maggie Nelson: No, not really. I think labels are of tremendous help to some people, and they can be wielded in a movement very powerfully, but that anecdote about my professor was about how putting pressure on someone to identify as something goes against the spirit of self-identification. It’s doesn’t seem productive to me! I’ve never really fitted comfortably (under a label) so I don’t really have a view. This will sound really pretentious, but I guess I identify as someone who thinks and/or writes. That’s the most comfortable thing.

To go back to writing, how do you feel about The Argonauts’ success? Why do you think it’s so popular?

Maggie Nelson: I’m very grateful that people are interested in The Argonauts for its own sake, but more selfishly, it’s just one of many books I’ve published and I stand behind them all. I didn’t think that one was any better or worse than any of the others. People in France are publishing my books backwards – I was recently there promoting Bluets, and everyone kept asking me, ‘why are you here 10 years later?’ I just said, ‘well you need to have some reason for your work to become interesting or be translated’. The Argonauts is that for me. You have to wait for these whims. (In America and England) it was the fact that issues of queer family and gender fluidity became popular, but I don’t know why it was so popular. I like to think that in part what people liked was that during a moment of frequent opinion pages, it was a different genre – a literary book, not a work of journalism. It played a different role in the conversation (of gender and sex). 

Are you still writing poetry?

Maggie Nelson: I haven’t written poetry in a very long time. I’m still grateful for my friends in the writing world who were, and are, poets. I have a lot of kinship with writers in poetry, but I’ve also done many other pieces of writing so it wasn’t a massive surprise (that I stopped writing poetry). It was a very social milieu in my twenties – poetry to me was more akin to music.

What was your scene?

Maggie Nelson: New York in the early 90s. I met a lot of musicians like Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, and other people who published off the same press as me (Soft Skull Press). There were a lot of people who did both poetry and rock and roll – it was a lot of fun.

I really loved The Red Parts. How did your family feel about you writing about the rape and murder of your aunt Jane? 

Maggie Nelson: I kind of write about it in the books, but I mostly cared about my mum. I’m not very close to her family in Michigan, so when I came to write it, it was only Jane’s father and brother who were the most vocal figures. One of the good things about my books getting the most traction later on in their lifespans was that I wasn’t particularly worried about exposure because I was used to working in a subcultural space with about 500 readers. I suppose I was more worried about being accused of using a tragedy that wasn’t mine as a literary piece, or asking them (Jane’s family) questions that gave them pain to talk or think about. 

After I wrote Jane – which was when I was most worried about those issues – it was vindicating to have the police reopen the case and arrest the suspect, because it meant I wasn’t the only one drudging this up. It was a much bigger thing, and newspapers were running the trial. Later on I realised that I wasn’t really writing about Jane, I was writing about violence and how trauma moves through generations, and how women inherit stories of sexual violence which affect their lives. I was in my twenties when I wrote Jane: A Murder, I didn’t know who my aunt was, so it was like a research project. It ended up being a lot about my father’s death, my childhood, masculinity, and a whole host of other things, so I wasn’t feeling exceptionally anguished. I’ve said no to film deals because I wouldn’t want the exposure to be more than it already is for my family.

“Later on I realised that I wasn’t really writing about Jane, I was writing about violence and how trauma moves through generations” – Maggie Nelson

I remember reading it and thinking how it would lend itself to film, but I’d also just entered into a relationship with someone who had been raped, and it was interesting to realise vicariously how much stuff that we watch contains violent sex scenes, which is something you discuss. 

Maggie Nelson: I go through this with my own children – they’re both little boys who are interested in guns, and my mother, being from the United States but also given what happened with Jane, is affected by gun violence in a massive way. It does trigger something that’s difficult, seeing my mum shake so much, hyperventilate and barricade doors. I suppose The Art of Cruelty was really my big attempt to take up this topic because that book is about the various effects and reasons for reinvigorating violence. A lot of the art I was writing about was very traumatising and was made as a coping mechanism. There are many different reactions to brutality – some people really need to go into the eye of the storm. Some people find that cathartic, others not. 

Do you think writing about something from a more critical or theoretical perspective can be cathartic?

Maggie Nelson: I’m very interested in restorative justice projects. We started this conversation with ’how do you position yourself to be a non-policing human?’, and something restorative justice people will say a lot is that you can’t legislate from emotion. You can’t be like ‘I’m so fucking mad at this person so I’m going to slit his throat and hang him up on a lampost’ even though you might like to, but you also can’t just erase this emotion either. It’s not that the theoretical or critical can erase the emotional, but you can make a space for both of them to exist. That’s not just an interesting literary project, but also a way of understanding that can help us move towards another way of being. My aunt Jane was interested in becoming a civil rights lawyer, and yet this book is about the criminal justice system, and there was this whole host of police who kept telling us, ‘we’ll do justice for your aunt!’ I was interested in how the term justice doesn’t travel between those two realms. That book was getting at what it’s like to undergo this experience in the criminal justice system while remaining alive to all these other currents and emotions that are running through it.

Is it difficult to have to keep talking about Jane?

Maggie Nelson: They’re literary projects, so if they work as literature it means that the self that wrote it and what she was undergoing was somehow transmuted into this aesthetic form that lives, and I feel very intimate with the thing that I made.

What are you working on at the moment?

Maggie Nelson: I’m writing a more The Art of Cruelty-type book that is sort of a critical project. I think that will disappoint a lot of people who are after another more personal work, but my pieces do alternate between the two. This is about notions of liberation after the 60s and how the word ‘freedom’ – not just political freedom – is understood in different cultural arenas, like #MeToo, and climate conversations, and drug literature. I was born in 1973 and in retrospect a lot of my interests have been about the fate of certain notions of liberation, or what people call the post-liberatory era, and this book takes that question more head-on. 

Jane: A Murder is out with ZED Books now