Sarah Schulman

[Writer]

“To remember that you can actually write a book that can change people’s lives is something I had forgotten.”
Consequences of America’s sexual regression:
Diminished lesbian content in fiction
False naturalization of people with AIDS
Guys smoking cigars

In the spring of 2012, Sarah Schulman invited me to her partner’s Toronto home on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The partnership being somewhat new and long-distance, she moved about the space a bit awkwardly, claiming she had never spent much time in a house before, having lived in Manhattan for fifty-three years, and in the same sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village for the past thirty. “In New York City, if you want privacy, you just sit in the same room and don’t talk. This house thing is very new to me.” She made me a cup of tea and we sat in the living room with my iPhone recorder between us on the ottoman.

At the time, her fifth nonfiction book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, was the forthcoming lead title from Duke University Press, and she was in Toronto for the launch of The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Her documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, had just premiered in New York City. But while Schulman is many things—an accomplished political activist, a distinguished professor, filmmaker, playwright, and general cultural agitator—her primary love is writing fiction. When we met, she had just finished writing her tenth literary novel, The Cosmopolitans, which she described to me as “an answer book to Baldwin’s Another Country and a response to Balzac’s Cousin Bette,” set in New York City in 1958.

A gifted storyteller, Schulman has spent much of her career chronicling queer lives. She approaches fiction with a fearlessness regarding both form and content, and possesses an unflinching ability to create nuanced, emotional characters while simultaneously crafting stories that embody the political and cultural complexity of America at its most unrepresented. Her versatility as a writer is proven with each new story she puts out, whether she’s embracing her own imaginative take on literary realism or jumping into satirical speculative fiction, as she did with her latest novel, The Mere Future. She is best known for her widely praised, groundbreaking 1995 novel, Rat Bohemia, which was set in the swirl of the AIDS crisis in New York City.

While many writers of her generation are content to stay coyly closeted—too many prominent best-selling American writers to mention—Schulman has steadfastly refused. As a result, her status as a cultural pioneer and icon to aspiring queer writers has been cemented, while her literary career has, on occasion, suffered. As the publishing industry has grown more conservative, her last two novels were difficult to place. When recounting the plot of her latest literary manuscript, The Cosmopolitans, she acknowledges: “It’s an opportunity for me to return to mainstream publishing, if they’ll have me.”

—Zoe Whittall

THE BELIEVER: Tell me about the group of young writers that you host in your apartment.

SARAH SCHULMAN: I did a reading at Bluestockings in New York City about four years ago, and there was a big discussion afterward about how frustrated I was that younger lesbian writers are not having lesbian content in their work. I know why they’re not doing it: because you can’t have a career if you have it. But unless people keep submitting that material, it’s never going to change. What we see is really bad-quality work, because the most talented writers are escaping the content. The literature gets destroyed. I was talking about how MFA programs are a really obstructive force in the development of lesbian fiction, because most of them don’t have faculty who actually understand how it works and who can actually give informed support to their students. I mean, you know this. There are all kinds of representational and aesthetic questions in writing lesbian fiction that are very specific. The English language is constructed around a male-female dichotomy, so just having two shes in one sentence is something that has to be finessed, right? Then there is the balance of characters. When I wrote People in Trouble, I had a straight male protagonist and I had a lesbian protagonist. Balancing them was almost impossible, because anything she did, she would be seen as pathological, but anything he did, the reader could excuse. Having them in the same scene was so hard because he could do anything and she couldn’t do anything. All that stuff—you need people who can understand that. MFA programs don’t provide that. Lesbian writers who go into them end up producing material that doesn’t have any primary lesbian content. Ellis Avery was my graduate student. You can actually trace who the exceptions are, and see who they studied with.

So I was talking about that, how upsetting it was, and the audience was quite young. Someone said, “You should start a group!” or, “Put your money where your mouth is!” I said OK. I passed around a sign-up sheet and I called everyone who signed up and invited them over to my house. I live in a very small apartment. About ten girls came over to my apartment. I didn’t know any of these people. They crammed into my living room. I didn’t do any screening. It’s turned out to be a wonderful experience for me.

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Zoe Whittall is the author of the novels Holding Still for as Long as Possible (House of Anansi) and Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant). Her third and latest poetry collection is Precordial Thump. Her writing has appeared in the Walrus, the Globe and Mail, and other publications.

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