Interview with Leslie Feinberg
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
Published just 12 years ago, Leslie Feinberg's first novel, Stone Butch Blues, is already a transgenre classic, blurring and crisscrossing the lines of butch and trans identities in order to challenge both mainstream and subcultural gender norms. Feinberg's new novel, Drag King Dreams (Carroll & Graf), depicts the trials and travails of a radical, multi-generational, multi-cultural, gender-defiant chosen family in post-9/11 New York City. As the characters struggle to develop ways of responding to the dangers, complexities and shifting allegiances in their daily lives, they must also face the effects of US military aggression, gentrification and police violence.
SFBG: Drag King Dreams begins dramatically, with a bashing and a betrayal. Then, within a few pages, you’re able to de-center gender, the daytime world and Manhattan. I was wondering if you could talk about these choices.
LF: It wasn’t so much about making a decision to start that way, as it is that I had lived with these characters in my head a long, long time and I had a sense of who they were and who they were in the world, and then I found them at the train station together in the pre-dawn hours on this cold winter morning, and I just started from there.
SFBG: The politics of the characters come up in touching ways. Towards the beginning of the book, there’s a scene where Max, the narrator, is shaving hir friend Ruby’s face while she’s in the hospital, hooked up to tubes in order to stay alive after collapsing due to an AIDS-related infection. This type of caregiving has, for the most part, disappeared from public images of queer lives, and so I wonder about your decision to make both the care and the illness visible.
LF: It wasn’t some kind of cold, calculated device. I mean, sometimes writers do that—they say, “Okay I have a character that does this, and I’ll have another…”—you know. It was more that this is the third-shift world of drag life. People have AIDS, people are HIV-positive, and they’re trying to help each other get through. It would be hard to be in any setting like that and not have somebody be sick, or get sick, or get hurt. And AIDS is just like you said. It’s not being so much represented in the LGBT presses sometimes, or the representations of the cultures, but it sure is ever-present in our lives. And for those who have the least money and the least access to healthcare, and don’t have insurance, it’s a very real crisis.
SFBG: This chosen family that you create consists of many people who work at an East Village bar. And this is the East Village of current times, which is mostly a destination for partying suburbanites and yuppies, and kind of the definition of a status-driven, consumerist, apolitical culture, and so I wonder about why these characters are in such a preposterous locale.
LF: Well, I think they are left over as the locale is changing around them, and they’re trying to hang on. There are two worlds co-existing, and not peacefully. One is growing at the expense of the other. And one is an older Lower East Side, an older East Village that these characters represent, and those clubs are being closed down, or are under pressure economically. So Drag King Dreams sort of capturing a moment of time right now in New York City, too—where it’s not that they dropped into this situation, the situation is growing around them and limiting their own choices, economically, and in terms of where they can live and how they’re going to cobble together a living.
SFBG: At your reading in San Francisco, you mentioned that Drag King Dreams might just be the most pro-Palestinian novel in print by a Jewish American author. And, in reading the book I noticed that not only is the narrator pro-Palestinian, but ze also speaks Yiddish and feels very strong ties to Jewish history and culture. And I think in many ways this is a double challenge to the violence of Zionism, in the sense that “the only true Jew is the one bulldozing Palestinian homes.”
LF: What I think is interesting about Drag King Dreams is how much support I’ve gotten, how many comments, emails, letters, messages I’ve gotten from people who’ve said that it’s really helped them think about how to get out of this quagmire of the occupation of Palestine in a different way. It’s a moment in which people are looking for an answer to Zionism, and that was not necessarily true in earlier decades in which is was possible to say, as my grandmother did, “If there’s Palestinians, how come you’re the only one who knows about them?” Literally, this is what she said to me as I was growing up.
SFBG: There's a conversation towards the end where Max, who lives across the street from a corner store in Jersey City, and the store-owner who is Egyptian, tells Max, “We are cousins.” I think that’s another way that you challenge the violence of Zionism, by revealing how completely absurd it is, this divide-and-conquer strategy.
LF: Of pitting peoples against one another. Yes. For example, here are two Jewish characters -- one is Heshie, who grew up in a very religious family on the Lower East Side, and looked to Israel as the creation of the homeland for Jewish people; then there's Max, who grew up in the Bronx in the secular Communist tradition, who saw this as a terrible, terrible historic crime that was being carried out against the Palestinian people in the name of all Jewish people. As they argue, and as they talk, and as they are fearful of what is happening, and their own powerlessness in it, they are developing their own consciousness. So for Heshie and Max, this question of the occupation of Palestine goes to the heart of what it means to live an authentic life in a period in which this really historical crime is taking place in their name.
SFBG: And I notice that you don’t resolve that conflict.
LF: No. I’ve been very aware of both novels in that they’re really like a snapshot in time. They’re not those thirty minute sitcoms where it opens with a “Gee—who’s gonna take who to the prom?,” then at the end it all gets resolved in thirty minutes or whatever, because that's not really the way life is. It just keeps unfolding.
SFBG: And one of the constants in the book that all of the characters face is the threat of violence—whether it's anti-queer or anti-trans violence, anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish violence, anti-activist violence or the violence of an able-bodied mainstream. Towards the end of the book, because it is taking place in this post-9/11 New York City, people are starting to disappear—especially South Asians or people targeted as Muslim.
LF: Yes, people are disappearing on the way home from work, on their way to pick up their kids from school -- one minute, someone’s living in Jersey City, the next minute they’ve been deported and their families don’t know where they are. And the fact that we don’t know how many people is just a sign of how serious it is for us to act.
SFBG: You describe a protest happening on the day that the bombs officially started dropping in the latest war on Iraq, where many activists are struggling to get into the barricades that the police have installed to fence off the only place where they’re legally allowed to protest. I think that’s a really telling description of this police state, where even the people who are visibly articulating their resistance are forced to do these completely counter-intuitive things.
LF: Before the war, and just as the war began, we saw hundreds of thousands of people together with millions around the world come out against it. And I think it was a body blow to people who thought that if they came out in large enough numbers and told the government that they didn’t want a war, that the government would not make a war. At this time of military expansion, and the reach of capitalist globalization around the world and the use of the Pentagon to just try to crush and be a boot heel on the necks of anybody who tries to assert their right to self-determination or sovereignty, and at the same time starving the cities, and cutbacks in programs, and people who have to work a couple of lousy jobs and not have healthcare and the repression growing greater and the lack of social liberties—I think that it creates the conditions for a social explosion.
Mattilda, Bernstein Sycamore is the editor, most recently, of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.
For more information about Leslie Feinberg, visit www.transgenderwarrior.org