Sunday, May 8, 2011

The End of San Francisco

Interview Excerpt:

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Sure, sure. Well, I believe that probably the most important thing, you know, in developing a politic is, you know, to have a critical engagement. And I do think that without critical engagement, then what’s the point of anything? That is what I thought when I first, you know, started coming into my own politic, and that is what I think now. Um...BUT I also think that in that--as part of that critical engagement, you know, I think I believe in, you know, a politic of accountability, of mutuality, of negotiation, of creating like, you know, deep forms of like intimacy and trust, um, and you know, through that--being able to articulate what’s important. And I mean sometimes what’s important is where your ideas are failing.

Katrina Lamb: Sure.

MBS: And so, you know, not holding up some sort of absolute as, like, here’s the abso--‘Here we are, we’ve reached the, you know, absolute pinnacle of political achievement, and now we can just stop.

KL: Sure.

MBS: And so that for me is where critical engagement really comes into play, you know....Um, like say, let’s talk about, um, you know, um, say hipster culture. And you know, in the book I talk a lot about hipster--well, since it is called The End of San Francisco, {laughs} a lot of it is about San Francisco of course. And I think that one of the problems about hipster culture is that this sort of identity becomes and end point, so it becomes, like--we’ve arrived, you know, we have the coolest parties, we have, you know, we grow our own food, we--you know--shop at the right stores....You know, we support co-ops, you know, we--you know all this stuff. And some of the things are great and some of the things are silly, um, but--it should never be an endpoint, you know, I mean--and I feel like in a way that’s similar sort of in a way to what’s happened in mainstream gay politics, where, like, gay identity has become like an end point, so it’s like--‘Oh now that we’re gay, we can bomb people abroad and we can, you know, fight to join the military, and kill people and get away with it like everyone else....instead of, like, ‘Oh let’s go there from a starting point, you know, where do we go from these places that we emerged, I mean, we all start Somewhere, and most of us probably don’t like it, you know, in these places that we were born and in these families that are, in various ways, oppressive, um, and coming out of that, um...I guess what I believe is that we should try to articulate some alternative, but also to always be questioning that alternative.

KL: Sure.

MBS: AND articulating the places that we fail one another, and where we fail ourselves, and where we fail at Everything. {laughs}.

KL: I really got that from The End of San Francisco is the problem you have with hipster culture, or mainstream gay culture, is, um, not so much the identity as the end point but relying on the sort of imitative aesthetics that are wrapped up with identity, and having some of the ...ideals...that you strived for get lost in that, um...You mention, like, mainstream gay dudes wearing Doc Martins at one point, or the sort of hipster--hipster Manic Panic craze as sort of, you know, proceeding a more authentic quest for, of, what those identity issues were about.

MBS: Mm-hm, mm-hmm, um, Yeah, I think that a lot of the part of the book that you read was about, you know, the early 90s in San Francisco, and for me, you know, I moved there when I was 19, and that was, like, my most formative time. That’s where I learned my politic, that’s where I learned queerness, that’s where I learned, you know, my...pretty much everything. I mean, you know--And I mean, and was involved in what I believed where radical alternatives to status quo normalcy, and whether that be, like, mainstream fashion, or mainstream gay identity, or, you know, mainstream radical aesthetics....right?

KL: Right. I’d be interested to hear you talk a little bit about what your feelings are now about San Francisco, which is such a large, um, area, you know, compared to, like, Providence or , u, Santa Fe, or Seattle, which are--you know, smaller areas, um, in relation to, you know, more liminal community structures.

MBS: Sure. I mean I guess I have to say, um, you know that, like I was saying before, San Francisco had been my most formative place, and it is where--I moved there when I was 19, and I was able to find, you know, like, you know--a bunch of queers and outcasts and, you know, misfits and anarchists and vegans, and freaks, and you know--hookers, and drug addicts, and you know--people like, really trying to live on the outskirts of normalcy. And, um, it’s also the place that’s let me down the most. And the letting down--I mean, it started right when I got there. So--I mean {laughs}, it wasn’t like--it’s funny, actually, one of the people--one of my friends and a writer who articulated--who critiqued me--who was giving me critique on The End of San Francisco....She really wanted me to have this arc of ‘So I move to San Francisco, I find everything I want, and then I realize it’s....flawed,’ you know, and, you know, it’s the undoing of that. But I mean, that was happening the whole time, you know, And I don’t think--I know my life doesn’t follow such an easy arc, and...

KL: Sure.

MBS: And so, I wanted to show, um, you know--here was this time of incredible possibility, in my life, and I think in the lives of a lot of people who, you know, fled abusive families and places where they couldn’t express themselves in order to try to figure out a way to cope, and--but I also think--even in those--even in that initial moment, that, of--being there and finding activism, and finding a culture that meant something to me, and finding relationships, and finding people to love and trust, and, you know, hate and date...{laughs}

KL: Sure.

MBS: You know, even in those moments, you know, there was always the failure of those dreams, and I think the thing that happens to me over and over again, is that I believe in the dream. I believe that I’m creating something, you know--it’s not like finding, you know, a readymade community or culture, which I would think is a flaw--you know, it’s not going to do something for you, you have to do your own thing....And, but--I keep getting to this place where I keep thinking that I’m creating something that’s really going somewhere, something that’s really building into, um, greater intimacy, deeper trust, greater challenge to the status quo, and then it always ends up letting me down, or it always ends up being some sort of surface...Um....I mean, not that there isn’t some degree of intimacy underneath that, but there’s also such a facade that really mimics the grossest aspects of, like, dominant cultural norms.

KL: Sure. I was really struck by your, um--You started your, um, the chapter that you sent me by talking about how you got married, um, to Laurie in order to avoid the student housing policies, and then that transitioned into a, um, real relationship that, um, mimicked so many of the norms that you were working so hard to avoid.

MBS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean that’s right, I mean it’s funny, right, here I am--we are talking about, it’s this place of emergence, you know, and so it’s just after--this is when I was like 19, you know, and just after getting away from, you know, a hideous, abusive, upper middle class, um family, and, you know, and in Washington D.C., and, you know, what could be a worse kind of claim to any kind of possibility, you know, right? And, um--you know, this is my closest friend, and we got married to get out of campus housing and ended up moving to San Francisco, and we were really....Laurie was really the 1st person who I trusted, you know, and, you know, it was the deepest relationship that I had had. And we were both, you know, really committed to seeing it as a permanent part of our lives. But we also had not--we had suddenly unlearned everything in our lives, and--you know what I mean?! {laughs}. And....I think there is that tendency to, like, when you’re coming into your politic, or your identity, to suddenly think--‘Oh, well I’ve arrived!’ You know what I mean? And not to notice, Oh well here are these other ways that we haven’t really figured out how to create a relationship that isn’t--that IS completely separate from the norms that we’re trying to escape.

KL: Sure, I’m curious what your--how you feel it’s possible, or what possibilities you see for, um, organization when so much of the root of your rage is around personal betrayals.

MBS: Sure. Um....wait, say that again... “The possibility that I feel outraged”?

KL: Um. How to organize groups of people when, um, when so much--when the root of your rage is based in, around personal betrayals--um, a lot of which you go into depth about with the various, um, sort of personal relationships that, um, that unfolded during your time of activism, um, in San Francisco.

MBS: Sure, sure. I mean, you know, it’s a tricky I think because, you know, I think that’s a hard question because, you know, I think at the heart of all activism are our relationships. And you know, not just our relationships to other people, but I mean, to the world, you know, how we want to articulate ourselves to other people in the world. You know, and, um, you know, you can’t have direct--rad--I mean, you know, well I mean queer direct action, collective process, without people. Ha. {laughs}. Um... SO I don’t know, I think, okay, so it’s interesting, so the section you read, you know, I’m sort of talking mostly about the early nineties?

KL: Yes.

MBS: And in later sections, I also talk about--cause I lived in San Francisco three different times, and, um, certain patterns sort of repeated themselves in very different ways, and, um, and, you know, a more recent incarnation of my activism was Gay Shame, in San Francisco, which is, you know--from like 2000 on, and, um--actually 2001, and, you know--Gay Shame was/is about, you know, creating, um--about exposing the hypocrisy of the gay mainstream, and creating, like, a forum for flamboyance and accountability in order to sort of undo the, you know, the violence around us. And, ah, so you know, sometimes the violence is something more distant, you know, and sometimes that violence comes right from inside the center, and so....I think that’s a good question, you know, what does it mean, like, you know, and I think we have to challenge the whole--All of it. Most people don’t want to---

KL: Yeah--

MBS: And I think even people, I would say on the fringe, but I might even say especially people on the fringe, who want to think they’ve finally created something that isn’t that. And I don’t know that we ever can. Um...I know that it’s never happened in may life. It doesn’t mean I’m not gonna still try, um, but I think, um, I think part of the violence is, um, when you pretend that, um, --that the violence isn’t there.

KL: Yeah.

MBS: You know what I mean?

KL: In the 1st chapter that you sent that describes the narrative as being about crying. Um. I think it’s on the--I think it’s in the 1st few pages. And really, through all the--through all the different stories, um, you do reach this sort of--I appreciate the way the way you way this sort of loss of being able to describe a clear outcome of what you are trying to achieve.

MBS: ............{silence}.........

[SHIT. Never mind].

KL: But I’m curious if you would care to respond to that?

MBS: Sure. I mean, I think in my work I’m really trying to aim for vulnerability. So that’s....that’s in my written work, but it’s also just in my work in life. Cuz I think...I think in some the book, The End of San Francisco, begins with visiting my father before he dies. And he was dying of terminal cancer, and in the--So I hadn’t spoken to him since confronting him about sexually abusing me, 11 years before, and in the process of trying to decide whether to visit him, I found myself at this event asking him, ‘What are you most afraid of,’ and I started crying, you know--At the microphone, crying--talking about trying to decide if I wanted to visit him. And there was something about that vulnerability that felt so empowering to me. And so that’s what I am kind of trying to portray in my writing. I want to talk about the places where I’ve failed, where all the people in my life that I’ve trusted most have failed me, all the places where the larger culture has failed me, and where all the places that the smaller cultures that are, you know, that I’m involved in that are trying to create alternatives to the larger culture, also failed me. You know. And--Lost Missing is also a very similar project, because here was basically the friendship of fifteen years, and this was someone who I met in his very first days of coming to San Francisco, when I was nineteen, and when I was forging, you know, these politics that meant so much to ourselves, but also, you know, the politic of mutual self care. And that lasted for so long, for fifteen years! You know? That’s a long time! You know, I probably lived in six different cities, we, you know, sometimes we lived across the country from each other, sometimes we lived in the same city and this was someone who, um, basically stopped talking to me when I told him that I was still angry about this 5-yr period where he lied about everything because of a does disastrous alcoholism that he had already acknowledged. And then he just stopped talking to me! And it was gone, it was like {snaps fingers} boom! The whole thing is over. And that’s where I keep coming to this question that’s like--what are we building if it can just be thrown in the trash like that. You know, here I thought, at the very least, you know, if your relationship ended we would at least talk about it, right?!

KL: Sure.

MBS: You know, we would say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working anymore.’ I mean, sixteen years is a lot to just, you know, throw in the garbage just like that, and--

KL: --The Lost Missing piece is an interesting way to--way to go about, um, some of these things that seem so specific in your own personal history. And, um, in the context of San Francisco, I’m curious how you imagine that, um, project translating to other areas--to other geographic places?

MBS: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, the idea with Lost Missing was: Well, here’s this person that’s shutting me out. And not letting me speak, right? This person who, you know, was the most important person in my life, at some point, you know? And, um, at a very recent point. Um, and what I wanted was to be able to express myself in public in a way that could connect--you know, so I could share my story of grief and loss and longing and love and in a way that I could connect with other people, you know, you--Everyone has had something like That experience. And so that it didn’t remain like only in my sort of body, you know, so it became something more communal. So what I did was I created these posters that are letters to a specific person, but they’re not for that person, you know, they’re not, and, um, I put them up in public space, and I also sent them to people, you know, in other cities, to put up, and I put them on my blog and then people would print them out, so--And then they would send me photos, um, of the photos in public spaces. So the 1st photos I actually got were from Little Rock, Arkansas. You know, I didn’t know anyone in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it was from someone who said she really related to the project and then she took these photos, and then I used these photos, you know, in the posters. And...So That’s what I mean about creating something, where--I don’t know, I mean, I think it’s interesting to see who has related and who has not related to the project, because some of the people that are closest to me don’t relate to it at all, and other people, you know, write me and say ‘I have my own Lost Missing story,’ and that’s what I wanted it to become, and even though this isn’t my experience, the Exact thing you’re talking about, I have do something that does feel like the exact same thing.

KL: Sure.

MBS: And so in some ways it’s part like, I always think that people relate when you’re most specific. I think there’s this mythology that we’re told, that in order for something to be truly universal, it has to be really general, and I think that’s a lie. You know, I think that people only really relate cause relating to something in general, you’re not really relating!

KL: Sure.

MBS: Like, you have to relate to a specific experience especially if it’s not your own, you know what I mean? It’s like--it doesn’t have to match you. And--but something in it matches you, and that is in the case of Lost Missing, or maybe in the case of a lot of work is the emotion, you know. I mean, sure, it’s also the story, the, you know, trying to create our own culture (s?)and communities(s?)

KL: Sure, yeah. Do you see that as being part of the struggle to create a radical queer identity?

MBS: Um. Do I see what as a part?

KL: The struggle to--or the part of that project that, um, is about, um, figuring out a way to communicate a way around that intimate loss that you experienced?

MBS: Um....Yes, I do. I mean, I think that part of that is about accountability, and I do see the absence of accountability over and over these cultures that identify as radical and queer. I don’t you can have anything that’s radical with no accountability! {laughs}. There’s only radically wrong, right? And um--

KL: That’s interesting, brought into the work--that more general idea of accountability, because I did notice in the letters that formed the posters you asking the person you directed the letters toward to be accountable for behavior.

MBS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I don’t know. I think--accountability has to be at the heart of any radical politic. ‘Cause if we’re not accountable to ourselves and the people we care about and the people we trust and the people we’re doing work with, whether that work is having a potluck, or whether that work is, you know, taking over a building, you know, we can’t--if we’re not accountable, we’re just doing the same thing as the people we’re supposedly challenging.

KL: Hm.


KL:......I don’t know if you would maybe want to end by just reading an excerpt?

MBS: Oh, um, sure, let’s see--I wasn’t prepared....But let me ah--let me grab it. Um, let’s see.......

{muttering and pauses, looking for excerpt, etc}.

MBS: Let’s see, what was that chapter called. That was The End of San Francisco, right?

{continued pauses and discussion re. which part of excerpt}.