Candid memoir unpacks gender, sexuality

Michael V Smith is a performance artist, poet, novelist, professor, drag queen, film-maker, comic and occasional go-go dancer: he is a man whose work transcends categorization, and his memoir, My Body is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press), is no different. The memoir smartly unpacks topics like gender roles, ontology and social pressure, while telling the compelling and often provocative story of Smith’s life. Smith has published two novels: Cumberland, which won the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Prizze for Emerging LGBT Writers, and Progress; and two books of poetry: What You Can’t Have, and Body of Text. He teaches creative writing at The University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus. Cole Mash recently spoke to Michael V Smith for The Coastal Spectator.

Michael, memoir is a difficult medium. Most lives are interesting in one way or another, but one needs a storyteller’s ability to include the right moments, a gift for compelling prose and insight to tell readers why it all matters. Your book did all three so deftly. How did you negotiate between fact and subjectivity, and the limitations of memory, while still remaining true to the real story?

Oh crap, that’s a tricky question. Every time I write a book the task isn’t so much an exercise in writing but in listening. A good storyteller is first a good listener—especially listening to herself, which can be the hardest talk—so that telling the story is simply about transcribing well the information you’ve gathered. Much of this book came out differently than I had planned—my goal was to write a clever treatise, but instead I wrote a candid memoir. I followed the topic that I’d set out—to write about my complicated relationship to masculinity, and some of how I’ve unburdened myself from that, which includes my relationship to my father—and then the book sort of did what it wanted to do. I followed instinct, I wrote way more than I’d intended, I deleted a whole whack of stuff that didn’t seem necessary to the core of the story, all based on the greater thematics that evolved. I always build a whole bunch of parts and slowly fit them together, to see what sort of machine can be made, what’s capable, and then set about fine-tuning those parts so they fit together well. In that way, the book tells me what sort of machine it is. There’s equal parts chance, subconscious, and intention.

The range of this memoir makes for an incredible reading experience. In one chapter I would be brought nearly to tears by the more sad parts of your life like dealing with an aging, alcoholic father, then in another chapter there would be a fisting scene. You balance humor, guilt, sex and tragedy while still having the awareness to tie it back to important social topics like gender, class and sexuality. How did you achieve balance throughout?

Years ago, I heard David Adams Richards say at a reading that he was trying to stuff as much as he could into his novels, all the life he knew, jam full. And I approached this book in much the same way, with breadth. I wanted to look as broadly across my life as I could, looking at how my relationship to masculinity—like how I inhabit my body, and how I came to understand my gender—has played out in all the different aspects of my life. Some of that, of course, involves sex, involves family, involves a lot of embarrassment and shame, and successes and celebrations. Writing, for me, is about getting at the things other people can’t talk about. It’s my job to articulate what we can’t or haven’t or refuse to or are too terrified to say.

So the book goes everywhere, because I’ve gone everywhere. Writing My Body Is Yours has simply been an exercise in candour, or honesty. If the memoir touches on broader themes, it’s because I see those patterns at play in the breadth of my life. Some patterns I knew before starting the book—some were an impulse to writing it, like how frustrating it was to be a genderfreaky child, or how my compulsion has been a key motivator in my life—and some insights only came to me through the process of writing—like the mirror my life made with my father, how much I’d never noticed [what] we had in common—which is always the best material, because the writer, in a way, is discovering in time with the reader. If there’s balance in the book, it’s because I looked across the field of my life without harbouring secrets, without silences. I’d suffered too long in silence as a child. This book is hopefully an antidote to secrecy, whether the secrets be from shame or manipulation. Like I quote Alan Downs in the book: “It’s never a bad idea to be completely honest about the facts.”

For the most part, the memoir follows a linear narrative, but each chapter occasionally jumps in time to employ your current perspective, to link similar events from your life, and to cultivate a different aspect of your corporeal identity. The first chapter for instance seems to open a dialogue on shame and silence, whereas later chapters contribute a sense of sexual agency and liberation. Was this shape conscious or was it organic to the writing process?

The shape was very much organic. Although I love stories that are super clever, and freshly structured, it’s just not what I write most often. I’m working through the heart more than the mind—my ideas are in service to an emotional intelligence, rather than the other way around. My work tends to have classic structures—like linearity, as you pointed out—but with transgressive content. My newness is more in the subject than the form. I know form and subject work together, of course; they’re really the same thing. What I’m trying to do is take the topic of what I write about, which can often seem very foreign for someone on the outside of that experience, and put it in a classic form, as a kind of recognizable container to hold the foreign subject. Aesthetic innovation comes out more in my performance, which is easier for me, because it’s personalized in my performed body sharing space. With books, I’m always interested in reaching a broad audience, and those familiar forms help when you’re writing about topics that might seem, on the surface, to be sensational.

You state numerous times the influence of John Berger on your work. The book is even prefaced with an epigraph from Berger: “There’s nothing but the dumb touch of our fingers. / And our deeds”.  What has been his influence as a novelist and poet on your creative work?

Berger’s prose is amazing. He has this enviable ability to pull back the lens in a particular moment—within some intimacy—and speak about the world in broader terms. He’ll give you a description of a tender touch of a hand on an ankle in a love scene, and then zoom out to discuss the different ways in which men and women are socialized to respond to touch, or how love works, or what the human heart can know from a gesture. The personal, for Berger, is always political—like the touch of our fingers—because the personal is always universal, it always has impact. We are changing the world in each small moment of our day. We are creating it, with each insignificant decision, how we say hello the woman at the checkout stand. If we say hello. He has many aspects to his genius, but that’s the one I hold most dearly, his love of the small touch, and the enormity of its consequence.

You write about haptic perception, the recognition of an object through touch. This seems to be such an important focus of your book. Reading My Body is Yours is a tactile experience: as readers we understand the history of your body, the failures, successes and fears that you have experienced, through physically holding the book. Can you reflect on writing something so personal and then having it packaged and distributed as an object? How have people reacted so far?

I’ve been dreaming about my father for the last couple of weeks. He died more than two years ago, so it’s been nice to see him in my dreams. Even if it’s only there. I’ll run the risk of sounding woowoo and say that I think my subconscious is preparing me for this book’s debut in the world, for strangers to read about my complicated relationship to Dad, to masculinity, and to my father’s death. Those dreams are offering me intimate comfort, pending a general public that doesn’t know me, who’ll read about my private life. Not that I’m worried, especially, not any more than I am for any book. For years now I’ve been exploring topics that frighten and shame me, so I’m familiar with the drill. I know that fear—which is really just a combination of shame and anxiety—are nothing compared to the reward of being vulnerable. People are loving. Readers are loving. As much as they are lonely and isolated. Every time I write something that scares the crap out of me to share, readers are grateful to have found some company in the work. I don’t know myself better by articulating what haunts me, but by hearing its echo when other people respond with their own stories. Books are a means of sharing all that. Every book is a generosity—the writer to the reader with a story, the reader to the writer with her time. I’m blessed to have so many secrets in print. Beyond my reductive fear of being poorly judged or misunderstood, I have a kind of proven faith that I’ll be blessed to have readers who say, “Oh, here’s a bit of truth I haven’t looked at before. Here’s me, too.” That is a gift that gives both ways.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.