Most in the Berkeley English department know Professor Grace Lavery in some way or another. She always provides a fresh voice for whatever project she’s working on, whether that be creating exciting new classes, standing up for trans rights, or giving unique perspectives on contemporary media (I’d have to agree to disagree on her thoughts on how good The Matrix movies are). She also just released her new book Please Miss yesterday, a memoir-ish text about transness, addiction, and way too many other things to list. For all those interested (and to sate my own curiosity!), I sat down with her over Zoom to talk about all of this. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
BERKELEY FICTION REVIEW: So we’re here to talk about you and your new book and everything that’s going on with that. To start off with, you have your new book, Please Miss, which is coming out this February. When did you first conceive of writing something like this? Did that change through the writing process?
Grace Lavery: You know, I think there are so many different origin points for Please Miss that it’s difficult to pick which beginning is the real beginning. In a sense, it’s my first memoir. And therefore, it’s a book I’ve been writing for, as long as I’ve been thinking that I might want to write a memoir. And on my best day, I can be rather self centered. And I have, frankly, had a sort of self-aggrandizing sense of my own importance since I was a young child. So I’ve been writing this book all my fucking life.
But one more concrete origin point is that, shortly after I began to transition publicly in 2018, which was also the year when I went up for tenure in the English department at Berkeley, I found that these two things were happening at the same time—tenure and transition—that were totally transforming my relationship to the world.
It sounds ridiculous, two of them together in some ways, because one of those just sounds like a promotion. And the other is obviously hugely transformative. But the thing about tenure is that when one is the assistant professor, that is to say, a pre-tenure professor, one is working for the institution in a very peculiar way, the peculiarities of which aren’t entirely obvious until you’re among the elect. You’re sort of finally let into the executive bathroom. You can sort of see how everything is—I mean, there’s not literally an executive bathroom—but it’s this very odd feeling. I’ve been in universities my entire life trying to get these people to be impressed with me. And now they are. And now what happens next?
One of the things that happens to people when they get tenure—it sort of fits into the category of Cadillac problems, because 70% of the instructional labor at Berkeley is done by people who aren’t on the tenure track and so to be tenured is a very fortunate position to be in—but one of the things that happens frequently when people get tenure, is that they start feeling tremendous anger at any number of things, where they can see how the institution has really damaged them, what has really damaged us, how it continues to damage other people how, how broken parts of the university really are. And when you can see that working, you feel tremendously grateful. I have always felt so moved by the work that my departmental colleagues have always done on my behalf.
So it’s a curious mixture of excitement and a desire to change things that was happening to me in 2018. When I started trying to write this stuff out and just trying to think through, “How do I respond to this moment in time, the moment of transition, the moment of tenure,” a lot of it actually had to do with some of the consequences of Trumpism as a political movement or as a system of governmentality, and the ways in which that movement depends on on a particular theory of what it sometimes calls “free speech,” or “freedom of articulation.” I find the ways in which Trump and Trumpists think about the relationship between language and freedom to be really interesting. And I found that a lot of people who were on my side of these questions—which is to say, I’ve been involved in anti-fascist organizing my whole life, I was and remain deeply committed to resisting the rise of Donald Trump. At the same time, I felt that there was something there that people on our side of this question were missing that had to do with what freedom might mean in relation to language.
So that was part of the origin of this book, as well as trying to think about, “What would it mean for me to speak freely? If I were to simply say the things that I want to say? What would happen? How would I say that? What words would come out? What if I assumed something to be possible? And can we take the language of expression and expressionism back from the fascists who have this totally warped understanding of it?” So some of the book is really trying to find new ways of experiencing license in language.
BFR: You just mentioned America and the fascism there, but then I think it’s really interesting because in the book you go into a lot about America but then also England, and the intersections between those. In America with regards to your transness, you have the experiences of living in heavily queer places in both the Bay Area in New York, as well as having come out when you were in America, but then also there’s the fascism here. Then there’s also the very vitriolic anti-trans rhetoric in the UK with the gender critical TERF movement. What are your thoughts on how you see your transness in relation to those two different locations?
Grace Lavery: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I feel so far away from the UK right now, I haven’t lived in the UK since 2006. So I’ve been away for a while. But I think up until Brexit in 2016, I felt like I kind of understood what was happening. And then suddenly, this cascade of bizarre things happens.
You know, when I was a teenager, there were a couple of years where, for whatever reason—and I genuinely am not sure to this day—every newspaper would have a story about fox hunting every day, because there was a movement to ban fox hunting. As it happens, I think on balance, they were right to ban fox hunting. Which they did in the end, not because, like, “who gives a fuck about fox hunting?” but because of ways that it makes trespass law difficult to enforce. There’s no world in which this is a major issue; but somehow, it really took on the sense of being a major issue. And until the march against the Iraq war in 2003, the march in favor of fox hunting was the largest march in British political history.
And it feels a little bit like that to me, it’s like, “Why is this happening? Why is J. K. Rowling doing this? Why are these people in the papers every day?” I understand some of it. I understand that they have concerns about sports. But it never really sticks to just the policy issues.
There’s this constant interest in the trans women as a figure of sexual violence, sexual predatoryness, pedophilia. And it’s actually just horrifying. And I try not to think about it too much. But it’s hard because I get a lot of hate mail. I’ve had death threats. And I’m planning to go to the UK for a tour for this book. I have to have all kinds of conversations about in-person security, because these threats are scary. I’m a scholar of British literature and culture, and I’m also a trans studies scholar, and I’m also a cultural historian. People often ask me, “Why do you think there are so many anti trans activists in the UK?” and I feel like I should be able to answer this.
The closest that I’ve been able to work out is that it has something to do with [unintelligible]. And it has something to do with the way that a certain kind of maybe conservative, maybe not convservative, second wave feminist movement got institutionalized in the UK in a way it didn’t in the US. These individuals became incredibly successful at using institutional control to achieve political goals. What that looks like is organizing letter writing campaigns, knowing your legal rights, and being assertive about these kinds of things. And it’s like all of that has gotten warped into this weird situation now where most of these people are professionally secure and well-off. And all they’re trying to do is use the same institutional tactics to exclude people and shut people up. As a result, they’ve been able to consolidate a large movement without really ever having to answer any questions about why they think the things they think.
It all seems very odd to me. The category women has never been intended to be a kind of conceptually watertight framework. In fact, feminism has always been the movement that has resisted the construction of women as a conceptual framework, especially a conceptual framework grounded in the natural. But now, it seems like that idea has totally turned on a dime. And now you have these feminist groups that have become a part of this movement, and now they’re arguing that in fact, the word woman is a self evident, naturally occurring type. And it’s based on reproductive roles. And these people are thinking of themselves as feminists and to me that feels just so out of whack.
BFR: Following up with the way that you’re saying that the category of woman isn’t perfect, I saw that you not only challenged a lot of anti-trans rhetoric in your book, but you also started to challenge neoliberal ideas of trying to put transition into neat little categories. I think it is very brave to say a lot of these different things and challenge it from both sides! But in the book you say, “Oh, what’s the point of being worried about all these people.”
The narrator outright rejects any possibility of getting worked up over anti-trans trolls looking for a single misstep to be called out by. She explains that “the idea that my transition…will be undermined by the hallucinations of a group of antagonists, worries me a good deal less than the idea that my transition has already been undermined by the actions of a drunken delinquent who has shared my body for three decades.” Where this gets interesting is that this mirroring of the two groups undermining the narrator is reflected in a set of letters delivered to her through the novel. The letter writers vary in each iteration, but there are two common threads: that of a group of anti-trans antagonists, and that of a Grace before transition, before coming out.
Talking about this really brings me to the letters. From the first one I went into it assuming that it would be a parallel to all of the prejudiced people that hound you. But then after reading the first one, I was like, “Oh, this sounds more like a parallel to transness.” And then later it actually references your dead name in some of them. All this leads me to asking, do you see any parallels between your past self as someone that wasn’t sober or hadn’t come out yet, and the prejudiced trolls that you encounter now?
Grace Lavery: Yeah. It’s interesting. The term homophobia emerged in psychoanalysis as a term to describe a condition of people who are disgusted by their own sexual desires towards people of their own gender. It’s only much later that the term came to mean a kind of generalized social antagonism towards homosexual people. So I think that’s interesting. And I do tend to think—and I’ve written about this in a scholarly framework as well—that transsexual ideation or transsexual desire structures consciousnesses such that I don’t think it’s a solely minoritizable phenomenon. So I definitely think that when people hate transsexuals, they are hating themselves in certain ways.
But in the book, one of the ways that the letters work is that I had become fascinated and I remain fascinated by the difference between a memoir where one speaks to the world, “This is what I learned, I’m telling you my story,” and a situation like the ones that I’ve experienced in my own life, where I felt like I was receiving messages rather than transmitting them. So the question for me is, how do I write a book in which I am both able to tell the story in an active way, and also to focus on moments where I felt like I wasn’t actually talking, I was listening. So that’s sort of what the letters are supposed to do.
Of course, there’s also this driving hostility that one senses in them. Even though that hostility is kind of ambiguous, and in some ways, is even loving. And towards the end, I think it becomes genuinely quite tender. I think that final letter is quite sweet, almost. I hope people find it sweet.
But it isn’t supposed to be as straightforward as, “These letters are coming from people who hate me,” even though I think the narrator, who is me, thinks that’s true at the start. But then it becomes, maybe it’s the Juggalos. Or maybe it’s a sort of cult eventually, like maybe it’s the Masons. It’s a way of thinking about, who do we listen to when we listen to the world? What does it mean for us to have a voice that speaks to us in our own voice? What does it mean to make ourselves the address rather than the addressee of our own consciousness?
BFR: That’s really fascinating. Zooming out to talking about it as a memoir in general—and even throughout the interview how you’ve described it as a memoir—but then there’s so much more than just memoir in the book.
There’s a socratic dialogue-style disclaimer about it being a memoir at the beginning of the book, argued between Grace and her beau Danny. At one point, Danny explains that, “I guess my biggest worry is just that you’re once again turning to memoir to try to access the truth of trans life.” As the book continues, its opens from more regular memoir to pop culture analysis, short stories, plays, detective narratives, and more. To speculate at the reasoning behind this, it makes sense to return to Danny’s complaint at the beginning: does she actually just turn to memoir? How do all these writing styles access the truth of trans life?
With all these other types of genres, do you see these as another type of memoir, or are they something else? Do they provide something that memoir doesn’t?
Grace Lavery: Yeah, that’s a lovely question. On the one hand I think, as a lot of people do, that we tell stories because that’s the way that we have for making sense of the world and making sense of what we’ve experienced. So that’s what memoir is: I tell the story of what happened to me, and then I can understand it. The problem is that in addition to just telling the story of me, the moment I started telling that story, I started falling into the patterns that have been told a million times before. And all of a sudden, I’m not really telling what’s happened to me, I’m telling what happened to Jan Morris. So one has to resist that.
If one wants to externalize and make sense of one’s experience, genre is something that one has to be incredibly aware of. If we lose sight of it, it just grabs us. All of a sudden, we’re telling the antihero prequel version of our lives, or we’re telling the conversion narrative version of our lives.
One of the good things that I found about transition was that it made me conspicuously aware of the ways in which I was shifting genres. Like, I said this in the book, one of the things that happened with an incredible facility was like, if I was friends with a straight couple—which wasn’t often I mean, but I have straight couple friends—it was almost immediate that as soon as I changed my name, came out, changed my hormonal system, I was passed from the domain of the male partner to the domain of the female partner. If anyone was gonna reach out and call me, it wouldn’t be the man, it would be the woman. And that would mean that the conversations that I was having were different. Not that I would ever have blokey or masculine conversations exactly, but like, conversations about TV or something. It would just be different kinds of movies that people would want to talk about, or people would be more prepared to share emotional disclosures with me, and so I was keyed into the ways in which those genre changes were happening. And again, I didn’t feel like that was me, exactly. That was stuff that was happening to me, rather than stuff that I was doing.
So genre really became one of the main devices of Please Miss, and thinking about how we move through different genres in our lives, and how genres dictate different kinds of experiences. There are so many different genres in the book; there’s a spy thriller, there’s an Oxford memoir, there’s a dark antihero prequel, there’s a porn parody of a game show, there’s a queer short story from circa 2011. There’s, what else…
In one section, the narrator finds a FAQ leaflet from the grocery store about an odd new fruit called a “finger lime.” The reality of this leaflet is brought into question with the first sentence of it, which describes the finger lime as a “small, long California clitoris of a lime.” It continues from there, giving a sexy, suggestive, and silly account of this fruit. A penchant for playing with food seems to permeate the writing, with lines such as “Chicken: chick, hen, egg, hatch, girl, not a rooster, not a cock.” Writing like this had a distinctly Tender Buttons-esque sensibility to me, partly because the one class I took from Grace actually included that in the syllabus. I couldn’t help but see mirrors of other topics we had broached on as well: epistemological concerns à la Middlemarch, musings on Batman and the Joker, each different refractions of texts she herself had taught me about.
BFR: My favorite part is the grocery cards about the lime.
Grace Lavery: Which you related to Tender Buttons, which I hadn’t even thought of, but I love that. I hope Gertrude Stein would like that.
BFR: Going off of that, even if you weren’t even necessarily thinking about Tender Buttons, you directly mentioned Middlemarch. And I know that’s such a big novel for you. And then there was the whole thing with clowns and the Joker. I know for myself personally, I’ve taught decals, and I’ve found lots of connections in the way that they end up coming through in my writing. When you teach, I’m curious for you how that interacts with your own writing?
Grace Lavery: Yeah, I love that question too. I think the truth of the matter is that when I teach, I am often gravitating towards things that I don’t know as well as I would like to, so that I can get to know them better. I got hired at UC Berkeley out of grad school as a Victorianist, despite not really having any training in the field of Victorian studies. So I had to spend the first few years just teaching myself the Victorian canon by teaching survey class after survey class until I had done all of Eliot and all of Dickens, a substantial amount of Trollope, and a lot of the shorter texts. And now I know the Victorian canon—I mean, as well as one can, it’s enormous. So teaching is a way of furnishing the world.
When I realized that my second academic book coming out next year, and then also this creative work were taking me in directions that weren’t just in the Victorian period, I’ve done a lot of work to try to accredit myself. I’ve trained myself in contemporary comics, and modernist poetry, and these kinds of things where, again, I’m not formally trained, but then I’m also not really formally trained in anything. I’ve been making up grounds everywhere since the start of it.
I was hired as a British modernist, hired as a British Victorianist, and now I’m doing everything since 1800, more or less. I have this extraordinarily broad remit. I try not to assert expertise where it’s not warranted, but there’s so much that happened in the periods that interests me. So what I do when I teach is that I’m just trying to learn stuff.
BFR: That’s exciting, to be able to learn so much while you’re also getting to help other people learn too. Every time I finish a book I have so many questions about it and I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to ask some of those here.
Grace Lavery: Did you like it?
BFR: I did. I mean, there are parts where sometimes I’d be a little lost in some of the different writing styles. But other parts, it was a pleasure to read it, and just laugh.
Grace Lavery: Well, if it’s funny, that’s good.
Please Miss can be purchased here.