By Jackie DesForges
Somehow my conversation with Melissa Febos has drifted from cuddle parties to crime fiction. Febos is one of my feminist icons, and crime fiction hasn’t had the most progressive track record as far as fiction genres are concerned, so I’m surprised we’ve ended up here—and besides, we are supposed to be talking about Girlhood, her new collection of essays. But when the topic naturally begins to shift, I tell her—nervously—that I’m writing a crime novel. She tells me—excitedly—that crime is one of her favorite genres to read, but there is a caveat: “I need the writing to be decent, and it can’t be all male characters, and it can’t be this tired trope of the murdered beautiful girl and then men who are solving it.”
It’s one of the many, many times during our conversation that she is able to articulate something that I feared I might be alone in feeling.
I was long familiar with her writing before we spoke. Her first book, Whip Smart, published in 2010, details her time working as a dominatrix while she attended The New School and hid a drug addiction from most of the people in her life. A series of fellowships and artist residencies followed: MacDowell Artist Residency, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and many more. Her second book, Abandon Me, was released in 2017 and went on to become one of the best reviewed essay collections that year. Written as a memoir in essays, it examines formative relationships in Febos’s life, from a long-distance love affair with a woman to the non-biological sea captain father who raised her, all of this interspersed with references and observations from other texts, popular culture, mythology, and psychology.
Girlhood, her new essay collection to be released in March 2021, looks out even further into the world, and perhaps demands even more from it. One of the hallmarks of Febos’s writing is her ability—and her desire—to expand the lexicons of the female experience and the queer experience. She’s given her readers a vocabulary to apply to situations and emotions that our culture hasn’t necessarily made any room to talk about. Look at the title of this book, for instance: she has chosen Girlhood, rather than the more generic Childhood or Personhood, because she knows—as anyone who identifies as a woman knows—that something shifts when you bring gender into the equation. “It is a darker time for many than we are often willing to acknowledge,” Febos writes in the first few pages. “During it, we learn to adopt a story about ourselves—what our value is, what beauty is, what is harmful and what is normal—and to privilege the feelings, comfort, perceptions, and power of others over our own.”
Febos writes about a lot of things that are often darker than people are willing to acknowledge: consent, emotional violations, our own perceptions of our bodies, and our perceptions of other people’s perceptions. She examines the way we talk around these things rather than directly about them. This is not to say that Girlhood will leave its readers bereft or devastated. Far from it. These essays are safe spaces, full of both darkness and joy and, most notably, the acute relief that comes from seeing yourself in someone else’s art. It’s impossible to accurately summarize the scope of everything covered in these essays, but in this interview we try to at least scratch the surface.
TCR: Many of your essays deal with heavier subject matter in some way—consent, assault, addiction, turbulent relationships, the patriarchy—and yet I never leave one of your essays feeling depressed. I always have a sense of optimism or comfort, maybe because I feel seen when I read them. Do you have a sense of optimism as you write about difficult subject matter?
MF: First of all, thank you for telling me that you don’t finish my work feeling depressed!
I will say that not only do I bring a sense of optimism to the page when I come to write, but I also try to bring it to my life in general. Like, I am a fundamentally cheerful person and I wake up happy most mornings. I’ve never actually really thought about whether that equips me to talk about dark subjects, but I feel like probably it does. And I do think particularly with this book, one of the main goals was to articulate the very ordinary qualities of these subjects, which is to say the complexity of consent and assault and addiction and the patriarchy; that these aren’t exceptional experiences for most female-identified folks. And I think to bring optimism to those subjects is to bring optimism to a life inside of an identity that pretty much guarantees that we will encounter some if not all of those challenges. My hope is not to be like, keep a good attitude and it won’t be that bad that–we all experience trauma! It’s more like, if we are going to find joy in this life, it is going to be amidst all of those sorrows and forms of suffering.
TCR: And in spite of it, maybe.
MF: And in some ways I think actually through it. It is through my negotiations with those subjects and recovery from them and companionship I’ve found with other women through articulating them that many forms of joy are found.
TCR: Completely. You do convey the ordinariness of these things extremely well; you put words to feelings and experiences that I have a hard time articulating myself, and I feel very comforted, very recognized and validated when I read your work.
MF: That makes me so happy! Probably the most important feeling that I have—insofar as thinking about what my reader will feel as I write—the thing I hope for most is recognition, over any other feeling. That feeling of comfort, of being recognized, or finding commonness between us is what I find most comforting as a reader, and probably what made me want to be a writer.
TCR: It’s very powerful to feel seen in something. I think a lot of people will feel that when they read “Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself,” which is the essay about the cuddle party and skin hunger, which is what happens when you’re devoid of human touch for too long.
MF: It hits a bit differently now than when I first wrote it!
TCR: Do you think that this past year and being separated more than we’re used to is going to have a lasting effect on the way we approach relationships, either those that already existed or those we have yet to make?
MF: That’s a big question. I’ll answer through the scope of that [cuddle party] essay, which is about the sort of intricacies of giving affirmative consent to touch and the repercussions of doing that. We’re encouraged from a very early age to accept brushes or touches or pats or penetrations that we don’t actually want, just to be agreeable, to avoid conflict, to avoid assault. And I think probably plenty of people have a lot to say about how being isolated from other people and their touch is difficult and maybe even harmful in some ways. Like I definitely feel deprived of hugging my friends. But maybe less talked about—and more relevant to this particular essay—is the freedom that this time might be giving to certain people in certain kinds of bodies. I’m thinking, you know, folks who encounter forms of touch that they aren’t interested in on a regular basis might be enjoying a reprieve from that. And also the ways that being… how do I articulate this…[It’s] sort of like when you have an allergy to something but you don’t know what it is. A helpful way to figure it out is to go on an elimination diet and slowly add things back in to see what you have a bad reaction to. And I’m wondering if there will be a lot of people, myself included, who have a correlative experience in terms of social interaction and forms of touch. We’ve had a break from the casual forms of touch that happen in crowded bars and workplaces and public transportation. Now, when we go back to those spaces, in a sense we might get reset, and be more awake to what our actual comfort level is with certain kinds of touch. Like I imagine now being in a social situation where someone I don’t really know goes in for the hug and I’ll probably be more in touch with my aversion to that. Or a man walking by in a crowded restaurant and putting his hand in the small of my back, that always feels weird and bad to me—
TCR: YES. The hand on the back. I don’t miss it.
MF: But I imagine now that will be even more pronounced. I already had that experience in the process of writing this essay where I became much more attuned to the kinds of touch that I accept but that I don’t actually or enthusiastically consent to.
TCR: Absolutely. I love the elimination diet metaphor. I’m single at the moment, and I actually haven’t really missed dating. It’s been nice to not have to perform for someone, to have to feel like I’m trying to be something all the time. But I ache for my friends.
MF: You know, as I was writing Girlhood I was voluntarily celibate for about a year. My definition of “celibate” included any kind of flirting, seduction, dating. It wasn’t really about sex, it was more about that kind of performative interaction and the self-consciousness that being in romantic or sexually charged situations incurs in us. And it was the best year of my life up until that point.
I had full contact with my friends–I was touched, giving hugs, just never where there was an element of seduction or intrigue. And it was like the whole world opened up. And so I wonder, albeit with some loneliness or deprivation happening, I imagine there’s a lot of people, maybe women, who aren’t missing that, who feel liberated. It was incredibly liberating to me to not be preoccupied with that type of performance or expectations of other people.
TCR: Preoccupation is a great word for it. I was sometimes doing it because I felt like I had to. It’s definitely been a weird year, but I think also a good reset for a lot of people. And that kind of segues nicely into my next question: obviously all of your work starts from a very personal place. Your previous two books were not necessarily more personal than Girlhood, but they more closely followed the formula of memoir or memoir in essays, whereas I feel like this book is more outward-facing, less linear, and draws on more outside sources, like popular culture, history, conversations with other women, and such. Was that intentional, or did it just happen naturally?
MF: More so the latter. I was conscious of it, but it did happen organically. The arc of my writing career from a more straightforward memoir to a memoir in essays that engages in outside things but is still more about me, to this book now…. I see it as a slow outward turning of the narrative gaze of my work. And some of that has to do with my interest in the aesthetics and the challenge of doing something different. As soon as I feel comfortable with a certain form of writing I get restless and become interested in something else. But I also think that in my first two books I wrote about the parts of certain experiences that I most needed to make sense of. And having done that, it doesn’t mean I won’t write about those things again, but there isn’t a great big event that I’m trying to untangle in the same way. So my personal experience functions as a sort of nexus or jumping off point in a larger social context. So yes, your perception is both my intention and my observation of my work.
TCR: Which was the most challenging essay to put together?
MF: Let me grab my copy and look, I have to remind myself what they all are! It depends how you define challenging. I would definitely say that the long one (“Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself”) was the most difficult in a sense because I could not see very far ahead of myself as I was writing it. I went to the cuddle party and had that experience and had some questions, and I had an idea that I might write something about it, but not any idea what that might be, and it certainly wasn’t what I ended up writing. And really, in some ways it’s an essayistic detective story, because I went to the party and had a question about it, and the thrust of the essay is trying to answer that question through my own history and moving through conversations with other people and texts and other ways of thinking to answer that question, which was basically: why did I do that?
(we both laugh)
Which I guess is the question behind most of my essays, in a sense. I definitely did not have an outline that included Foucault and all of these personal interviews. I had no idea that I would be using any of that or that it would be as long as it is. It really is a document that in one sense transcribes my thought process of sort of moving through my experience to an understanding of it in a pretty transparent way. I wrote it over a period of years and felt pretty hopeless about it for a lot of that time. Whereas other essays—like with “Wild America,” I wrote a shorter, much breezier essay many years ago for Salon about how I hated my hands, and there are little scraps of that essay in this one and I went through different phases of opening it up and then making it bigger and then making it smaller, and it was one of those essays I carried with me for years. It morphed into different shapes until it found this one. So if “difficult” means the conjuring of patience for an essay to show me its form, then that was one of the more difficult.
TCR: It makes me feel a lot better about my own writing that some of these took you years to write.
MF: I would say that the way I write essays is the way you’d cook a big complex meal. It doesn’t necessarily happen simultaneously; like the rice cooking over here, and letting this dough rise for six months, and marinating the tofu in the fridge overnight. “Scarification,” the prologue of this book – I drafted that in 2011, or 2012? And then let it sit for a few years, rewrote it, then let it sit another year, published it, then edited it again before it went into this book. I wrote “The Mirror Test” in a month, in the summer of 2018. Most of them have taken some time, over the course of a few years. And then some of them come out in one shot, like “Les Calanques.” I wrote it when I was in France, while I was in the setting where it takes place over the course of a few days. But mostly they take years.
TCR: I think that’s also a testament to the timelessness or even the deep-rootedness of many of the things you write about it. You can let the essay form itself over many years because the essay’s central question is something that is woven into the fabric of our culture, or into your personal history, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.
MF: Yes, and I think it’s important for younger writers to know that there are events in our early lives that we carry with us that can take forty years to be really ready. Which isn’t necessarily a comment on the gravity of a trauma but just, you know, some confluence of factors that just makes us ready to really do justice to something. And I’m thinking here of “The Mirror Test,” which is about how I was slut-shamed really badly for a year or two in junior high. It’s something that I’ve written about before obliquely. I’ve referred to it in many essays I’ve written before because it is so fundamental to my understanding of my relationship to my body and my relationship to sex. I’ve never written about it directly [until now], and I think one of the reasons I could just start typing and write that whole essay in one go is because I had sort of been circling it for years and years and years. When I was younger I thought, oh I already wrote about that in this essay, and I had this weird hang-up about not repeating things, which actually doesn’t hold any truth for me. All of the writers that I love are constantly circling certain events or subjects. Actually, one of my favorite things as a reader is to watch a writer be haunted by a subject through multiple books and then finally face it. It’s so satisfying for me.
TCR: You said something just now that reminded me of your “Intrusions” essay. You used the word “events” in that essay to describe your experience with a peeping Tom, and how we don’t really have a word for that type of experience. Like it’s not an assault, but it’s definitely a violation, but we don’t have the word for it.
MF: It’s interesting that you say that, because it’s actually in the cuddle party essay that I talk about “events,” but I love that you thought about it in conjunction with “Intrusions,” because it absolutely applies. That’s exactly the type of experience that we need another word for, because it’s not an assault, but it is a thing! A thing that can gravely affect us in some way for the rest of our lives. The fact that it isn’t named in some way is part of the mechanism by which our culture erases those types of things and so ultimately condones them.
TCR: Exactly. I’ve had an experience with a peeping Tom and I’ve had so much trouble trying to explain what it was. Like, when I darkly joke about it with close friends, I will say that I had a peeping Tom. Like how you’d have a rat in the pipes.
MF: That’s why it was so shocking to me talking to other women about these experiences because up to that point I never really spoke about it, partly because I felt gross and weird and ashamed of it, and partly because we don’t really have language to talk about it. I didn’t know how many people had had that experience until I started talking to women about it. It made me realize the connection between the things that we acknowledge, and the things that we give name to. I mean it’s really hard for us to acknowledge them if we don’t have the lexicon to do so.
TCR: Yes, and part of the problem with the lexicon, I think, is that in the essay you mention all of these movies and stories where peeping on women or watching women without their consent is actually romanticized in a problematic way. This is fascinating to me as a person writing a novel that falls into the crime category, where I’m trying to break out of the tradition of woman-as-object in those stories. Do you think there’s a place for telling stories about the real violence women face without continuing the legacy of romanticizing it?
MF: I think absolutely yes, and part of that is my own hopefulness because it’s a genre that I really enjoy. I love noir, mysteries. I definitely think there is room and there are writers who are doing it. There’s a lot of space for us to be figuring this out and there isn’t a perfect way of measuring how we are reiterating or perpetuating harmful tropes about murdered white women and the men who step over them on their hero’s journey versus when we’re reiterating them in order to interrogate them and intervene in how they affect the culture. If you read mysteries and you’re a feminist and you bring your beliefs and standards into the genre, it actually narrows it so dramatically that it’s actually really hard to find books that don’t feel problematic. So I pay attention to books in this genre that are written by women, that feature female detectives or private eyes, and also queer folks and people of color.
TCR: I don’t have a segue for this one so it will be a bit of a left turn. I was immediately drawn to the illustrations at the start of each chapter, and I wanted to know why you decided to include artwork in this book and how you chose an artist to collaborate with, and what the process was for that, because they’re really beautiful.
MF: Thank you, I love them! I met Forsyth Harmon, the artist, at the paperback launch for Abandon Me, and we had a good conversation and we became pals. Then we collaborated on an illustration for the essay “Intrusions,” which was first published in Tin House. It was so fun to send my work to someone and work together in that way, which I’ve never done. When I was in the middle of writing the rest of the essays for Girlhood, I asked my editor about doing it, and she said sure, so I went back to Forsyth and we started working together. For inspiration she used William Morris, the arts and crafts artist who illustrated Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the style of illuminated manuscripts where you have these elaborate borders and a bit of text. I love the idea of bringing the grandiosity of that to Girlhood and the story of my own girlhood. These scrappy, queer girlhood stories seem like the exact opposite of the very male, serious works of literary import. And, you know, I’ve always loved the way that writing is really solitary and no one watches me do it, and I have no one to blame but myself if I’m not happy with it in the end, and I’ve always felt safe in that, but it was so fun to collaborate with someone. It really changed the way that I think about making work and I think I’m more open to different ways of collaborating in the future. Her first novel is coming out from Tin House about a month before Girlhood; it’s called Justine and she also illustrated it. Her book and mine share one of the same illustrations, which kind of makes them feel like sisters.
TCR: I love that you mention The Canterbury Tales, because these do feel to me like a series of tales that stand separately but also clearly intersect in so many ways. Some of the drawings also gave me a bit of a tattoo vibe, and so I thought maybe you were doing that because so much of these essays is about being in a body, and tattoos are obviously art that goes on your body.
MF: It was really interesting because when we started working together, the illustrations were actually these little drawings that were integrated into the text, and after Forsyth read most of the book, she started over because she said the essays were too complex. They’re not like stars, they’re like constellations. They’re working with a whole system of images. Which feels like the illustrations in an illuminated manuscript; the way they represent the whole text and its multiplicities, which seemed more fitting for this book. And it also feels analogous to my relationship to my tattoos. I like that you saw that, too.
TCR: In terms of talking about these different mediums or disciplines in art, I switch between writing fiction, nonfiction, and making visual art. They serve as creative outlets for each other. I was wondering if you have another creative outlet besides writing?
MF: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Writing is really my main outlet. I guess the other outlets that I have are more physical—dancing, and I run long distance. But those aren’t creative in the same way. I have had this longing to have a different creative practice that doesn’t include any of the pressures or muddiness that comes with the way my writing is entangled with my professional life now. I need a creative practice that I don’t have to be good at, that is more process rather than product, something where it’s really just for the experience of it, and not with any kind of audience in mind. My partner actually bought me a guitar a couple of months ago for my birthday and I’ve started lessons, so that will be my other side project.
TCR: That’s fun! It’s a great feeling to flex a creative muscle in a different way.
MF: I do sort of [find an outlet] within writing. If I’m working on a bigger or longer project, I’ll take a break from it and write a short silly thing, and of course there inevitably ends up being some sort of tributary that leads it back to the bigger project. I’m always working on multiple things at one time.
TCR: Speaking of escapes: I want to talk about the last essay of the book, “Les Calanques,” which is about two trips you took to France. It’s a very hopeful essay and ends the book on such a high note. I know a lot of people are using travel plans as a way to maintain hope and look forward once the pandemic is behind us. Where’s the first place you want to travel once it’s safe? Back to France?
MF: I miss it so much!
TCR: Me too!
MF: It’s like when you’re really hungry and you just want to fantasize about food and talk about food. There are so many places that have a shine for me right now because I have such intense wanderlust and I’m used to traveling a lot over the course of the year. I have wanted to go back to Paris, because in that essay I was in the south of France while I was writing it, and I was writing about Paris but I never actually went back on that trip, so I’ve wanted to go back as the “now” version of myself.
TCR: Is there any place that has been particularly inspiring for your work?
MF: Well, not exactly an answer to your question, but I’ve done a huge amount of writing in airports and airplanes, and I think the liminality of that space, being in between, feels like a very fertile place for me creatively. Once I’m in a place, I feel the pull of things I want to do or need to do, but when I’m in an in-between space, there is very little pressure for me to be doing anything because I am in motion, I am doing the thing. It feels like stolen or free time. There’s something about that quality that makes me write a lot.
TCR: I used to do the same. Coffee shops also. Weirdly, when I’m working in a public space, I feel like other people are holding me accountable, even though logically I know that no one actually cares what I am doing.
MF: I wrote huge amounts of my first two books in coffee shops because of that pressure, where it felt like I was in the office where everyone else was typing away on their computers or reading with a highlighter in their hand. It felt easier to yield to my internal pressure when I was surrounded by other people who were doing it. I definitely identify as an extrovert, and I do get energy from being around other people, and in a public space there’s no pressure to interact but I can feed off the energy of everyone around me.
TCR: I have faith that we’re slowly getting closer to all being together working on our laptops in coffee shops again.
MF: Yes! I think we are.
Jackie DesForges is based in Los Angeles and is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Exposition Review, Matador Network, and more. She is currently working on her first novel and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jackie__writes.