An Interview with Melissa Febos
I first became aware of Melissa Febos while listening to her Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in 2010. The next day I picked up her memoir, Whip Smart, and was blown away. Febos is an extremely gifted writer with deep empathy and a boundless drive for personal truth. The writing in Whip Smart is razor-sharp, corporeal, and self-scrutinizing. I studied her prose, how deftly she crafted the narrative.
Here is my interview with Melissa Febos:
Melissa Febos: Well, I was born in a small Massachusetts town in 1980. Kidding! Though this book is, in many ways, about my beginning, how I had a version of that story, and at the age of 32, I decided to reopen the case.
In 2013, I was in the midst of a harrowing love affair, and decided to go find the birth father whom I'd never known. The idea that I would write a book about these experiences occurred to me in a clear way, like a knock on the door of my consciousness. I had the title before I had any idea what the book would look like, before I knew that the strange and insistent essays that I was writing would be a part of that book. It came for me, the way my first book did, which is to say by surprise and with urgency, with an integrity far beyond my own early vision for it.
RB: Abandon Me is an amazing combination of personal narrative and reportage. To make sense of your internal world at times you seem to turn to the external—children’s books, literature, philosophers, psychologists, poets. Can you talk about how you used the marriage of the observed and the personal in crafting Abandon Me?
MF: The book is very much a reflection and an enactment of my own way of understanding, of thinking, of living. That is, in my efforts to understand my personal experiences, and the world as I inhabit it, I have always turned to texts for companions in my search, for input and acknowledgement, for clues and answers. Most of the other sources that appear in the book are those with whom I've had an ongoing conversation for many years. I don't think it would have felt as organic to let them intrude on the personal narratives this way, if consultation with them hadn’t been a part of my own story-building.
RB: We’ve talked in the past about how the story that needs you to write it comes calling, invited or not. Were there essays in Abandon Me that hijacked the book when you discovered the importance of writing them?
MF: Every single one! Writing these essays completely changed my process. I wrote my way into understanding them, and I did so through form and image and sound, rather than narrative. I arrived at the narratives through the phonics, sometimes. They were like poems in that respect, perhaps. I had to devise bizarre ways of working my way into their logic, which included making literal maps, mobiles, cutting them up and taping them to walls, interviewing my family members, re-reading a lot of books, and many hours of therapy and running long distances around Brooklyn.
The last essay, the title essay, is the best example of this. I saved it for last, because I knew so little of what it would entail. I knew that I wanted to answer some of the questions that the earlier essays had posed, and that it would include my meeting my birth father, but little else. I imagined that it would be about forty pages. When I passed the hundred-page mark I understood that it had a lot more to say. That I had a lot more to say. The story was bigger than I had known, or than I had been able to face before I was ready to write it.
RB: One of the many things that impressed me about Abandon Me was how you were able to take intensely personal stories and make them feel universal. I think that is the true gift of masterfully crafted personal narrative. Memoirists and creative nonfiction writers still face accusations of “navel-gazing” and being nothing more than diarists. Writing the self, intellectual and emotional self-examination, gets characterized as narcissistic. Recently in an essay you wrote, “I am done agreeing when my peers spit on the idea of writing as transformation, as catharsis, as—dare I say it—therapy. Tell me, who is writing in their therapeutic diary and then dashing it off to be published? I don’t know who these supposedly self-indulgent (and extravagantly well-connected) narcissists are. But I suspect that when people denigrate them in the abstract, they are picturing women. I’m finished referring to stories of body and sex and gender and violence and joy and childhood and family as “navel-gazing.” How do you address this topic with the student who is drawn to write personal narrative but is stymied by the fear her work will be minimized for being “confessional” and therefore, in the eyes of the literati, without merit?
MF: Unfortunately, I am confronted with this opportunity a lot. I gently point out that that idea of personal narrative as indulgent or irrelevant is an argument that was embedded in her by a patriarchal culture that is invested in a false binary between the emotional and the intellectual, the female and male, and meant to keep her quiet. I ask her what she likes to read. If she finds personal narratives tedious. Invariable, she doesn’t. I tell her that she is writing her story for people like her, who are hungry for stories like their own, writers who are willing to name the things we are encouraged to keep secret. And that it is her duty to place that story in the context of other such stories and the culture that creates them. It is her duty to make it the best and most honest and bravest piece of art that she is capable of. I tell her that she cannot write the way Cormac McCarthy or James Baldwin or Karl Ove Knausgard or even Maggie Nelson do. Nor should she. Her obligation is to tell the story that only she can tell, and to do it justice with all the skill and work at her command.
RB: Abandon Me is an exquisitely crafted meditation on love, loss, identity, possession, and the generational trauma of abandonment, of erasure as a Native American descendent. Your use of metaphor throughout the book is breathtaking. Can you speak about the metaphor of colonization and how you came to use it?
MF: I came to it organically. I did not set out to write a book about historical legacy. I set out to write about my own relationship to my name, to language, to addiction, to narrative, to love and sex. I wanted to dissect the idea of abandonment, and the word itself. What happened is what will always happen if you burrow into a language, or a behavior, or a family: those will lead you into the structures and institutions and histories that created them. Unpack the etymology of a single word and it will tell you the story of the people whose mouths built it and passed it on through centuries to us. Our history is a history of colonization. That is no metaphor. Colonization built me, as patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism built me. Often, we recreate these structures in the micro-aspects of our lives. We occupy lovers and try to force our language and ritual upon them. We get power and hunger for more power. We become willing to commit cruelty in the name of our own integrity, our own fear and pride. I mean, ideally, we don’t do this, but to some degree, it is unavoidable, at least as a culture, and a culture is made up of people.
The thing is, I was built by other things, too. By parents who understood how to love. By feminism and queerness, the ocean, and books. If the book has a thesis, it is a call to acknowledge all of this, all the things that make us. We are full of tensions and contradictions. We are these beautiful mongrels of nature and history and selfhood, and I don’t believe in exiling any of it. We cannot fully become, or change, unless we are willing to look at and reckon with every piece of us.
RB: The coming years will be unlike anything this country has faced before. Because the new administration is now dismantling the progress we've made together, the work of queer American writers seems to have taken on a renewed importance and urgency. Stories of marginalized or oppressed folks are often erased by people in power. Personal narrative can be seen as a corrective to history, a way to resist erasure. How has the current state of this country reshaped the way you think about writing and what you’re writing now?
MF: It hasn’t reshaped what I write or how I think about it. It has increased the urgency and the focus of my work as a writer, and as a teacher. I have always seen writing and teaching as activism, and now, it is more important than ever. I tell my students that we are not simply writing memoir or personal essay, we are writing history. We are writing the stories that some people would like to draw a curtain around, or snuff out. It is our privilege and our obligation to tell queer stories, to tell female stories, to tell black and brown stories, to tell immigrant stories, to set that curtain afire with our brightest truths.
RB: On a lighter note, you’ll be in the Twin Cities for a few days. Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing in your spare time while you’re here?
MF: I’m really excited to give long, hard hugs to my friends, and to work with some writers at the Loft!
Ryan Berg is a writer, activist and program manager for the ConneQT Host Home Program of Avenues for Homeless Youth. His debut book, No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions, won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction, the 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award and was listed as a Top 10 LGBTQ Book of 2016 by the American Library Association. He’s received the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant and was a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writer’s Retreat Fellow. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Slate, The Advocate, Salon, Local Knowledge, The Rumpus and The Sun. Ryan has been awarded artist residencies from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He lives in Minneapolis.