This is an interview I recently conducted with Katherine Scott Nelson, author of Have You Seen Me, KSN’s debut novella. It’s available via an awesome ‘pay what you can’ system at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, and I highly recommend you check it out. In addition to getting consistently positive reviews, it’s a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Check out KSN’s website and, once again, download Have You seen Me. Hir bio is online here.
REBECCA KLING: How long have you been writing?
KATHERINE SCOTT NELSON: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing, and I decided I was going to be a writer when I was pretty young – probably grade school, if not earlier. I also grew up in an unusual household – my parents ran a home-based graphic design business, back in the early 1980s, when nobody did this – and the house was always full of papers and inks and adhesives and stencils. So my sister and I grew up making our own picture books from scraps of material and old art supplies that were lying around. One of our grandparents was a working artist, and we watched our parents spend all day writing and drawing and making things, so “I want to be a writer when I grow up” didn’t seem that abstract or unattainable to me.
(It would as I got older, though. I’m still kind of stunned that all these things are actually happening.)
RK: How has growing up in/around Chicago impacted your experience as a queer person and/or as an author?
KSN: Being queer in and around Chicago is completely different now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in the semi-rural northern suburbs, I was really suffocating. I kind of wrote off the entire Midwest when I moved out to San Francisco. But every time I came back to visit, there’d be more visibly queer folks, more local advances in LGBT rights, and finally things reached a point where I started to wonder “Why am I in San Francisco again? What could I be doing there that I can’t do here?”
As an author, it’s a bit hard to tell what has come from Chicago that wouldn’t have come from another city. I will say, though, that Chicago LOVES its underdogs and its local kids who make good, and so it’s been an extremely encouraging city to write in. In SF I had people lined up around the block to tell me why it’d never work.
RK: Have your works always involved LGBT themes?
KSN: I started putting LGBT characters and themes in my work when I was a teenager, and first started to understand that LGBT people existed. Some of my work has LGBT-specific content, some doesn’t.
RK: Do you like “Have You Seen Me?” being classified as an LGBT book? Why or why not?
KSN: On one level, I think it’s completely accurate to describe Have You Seen Me as an LGBT book – it’s about the experiences of two queer teenagers who are very much marked as “queer” in their community, and about the narrator’s fumbling search for self-definition and self-acceptance as a queer man, and as a sexual being.
But I also get the sense that you may be asking about the cultural dynamic in which this same story, if it starred two straight teenagers, would be considered a “universal” coming-of-age story. Rather than trying to remove the “other-ness” that’s projected onto stories by and about LGBT people, I think that “default” or “unmarked” state that’s attached to cisgender heterosexuality needs to go away.
RK: That’s something I’ve thought a lot about in my own work. I’m very much a trans performer (and I market myself as such) but it’s also really important to me that my work be artistically valid . I think we’ve all seen or read or heard overly self-indulgent performance or prose or music that may be emotionally cathartic for the creator, but ultimately isn’t good. One of the things I loved about HYSM was that it felt first and foremost like a good story, and the characters (though I hate this cliche phrasing) “happened” to be queer.
KSN: Believe me, I’ve got four drafts of a full-length memoir, sitting in a drawer, that I’ve since reread and decided “Uh… no.” Though I think there’s something to be said for the transformative potential of bad cathartic art, I know exactly what you mean.
And I hear you on “just happened to be queer.” A lot of people have expressed the exact same sentiment to me – they don’t want to use dismissive language like “just happened to be queer,” but they also feel that I haven’t written Chris and Vyv according to a laundry list called “Things Queer Youth Think/Feel/Say/Do.” I think we desperately need different ways of talking about art made by and about LGBT people – ways that don’t keep trying to locate it in relation to “normal.”
Let me see what I can do…
When I was Chris’s and Vyv’s age, I felt very insulted and caricatured by the stories that were supposed to speak for me.
Yes, my queerness is a major influence in my life and in my writing, I went through a very intense struggle with my sexuality and my gender identity, but if you were to take a snapshot of my life at any of those points, there was always more going on. That’s what I’ve tried to bring to Have You Seen Me – a more complete picture – and I think people are responding powerfully to that.
RK: With that in mind, What was accomplished in HYSM by the inclusion of LGBT themes/characters?
KSN: In a lot of ways, Have You Seen Me is the book I didn’t have when I was growing up. When I came of
age, in the late 1990s, the “just like everyone else” narrative was really taking off, and the story I heard from the gay and lesbian mainstream was “You can still have a wedding, you can have a respectable career, you can join the army and buy a house and have kids, just like you’d always wanted.” But for a kid who’d always had this grand ambition to be a great writer, that promised future actually represented a huge step down to me.
So that’s why the narrative arc in HYSM follows something very different from the traditional teenager-coming-out story. Most of the problems that Chris and Vyv have wouldn’t be solved by them falling in love with same-gender partners, or coming out to their families, or meeting other LGBT people, or moving to a more tolerant town. At the same time, I’ve tried to crack that story open and show some of the potential power that can come from living as an LGBT person in this world. And that’s the message I want people to take away from the book, particularly the last few scenes – that you can have transformative experiences, you can make soul-deep connections with other people, you can change yourself and your world, you can inspire the people around you, and you can do it with your own unique subjectivity.
RK: Are there any biographical moments from the book?
KSN: Not moments per se – the biographical aspects of the book are mostly about feelings, themes, emotional struggles, and so on. But my high school friends had a lot of fun trying to recognize people and landmarks.
RK: In your bio you mention speaking on a panel at your high school. How has it felt going back to your high school to be an advocate and role model? That’s something I’ve thought a lot about, and am still not sure how I feel doing it, so no need to be cohesive. ::grin:: More broadly, do you consider yourself an advocate of genderqueer identity, a role model, an
activist, all of the above, none of the above, something else entirely, etc, etc, etc?
KSN: Oh, actually, it was another panelist’s high school. My high school is currently bragging that Rick Santorum graduated from there.
As for being a genderqueer advocate or activist… yeah, it’s complicated. I think I’m a terrible advocate, to say nothing of *gulp* role model – and with few exceptions, I don’t enjoy doing that work. In a better world, I’d step aside and let the people who are good at it and passionate about it take over.
But when I first made the decision to be out, in my public life as a writer, I realized very quickly that I was going to have to do at least some 101 work to bridge the gap if I wanted to appeal to an audience broader than the gender-aware LGBT world. (This is why, for example, I have a post on my site explaining why I use ze/hir pronouns and have two first names.) And in many of the circles I travel, I’m often the first non-binary person anyone has met – and I’m always
aware of that dynamic.
I also keep finding myself in these situations where I know that if I speak up, the next person who comes along will have it ten times easier – and I usually can’t resist that opportunity. So I’d say I do what I can, where I can, but it’s much more out of a sense of duty than of a true passion for the work.
P.S. I vote “yes” on going back to your old high school as a visiting speaker. I hear that the sense of closure is incredible, at the very least.
RK: On the topic of making a better world for queer youth, what do you think of things like the It Gets Better project? Putting my own cards on the table, I think they’re a great start, but worry they become a way for people to feel like they’re contributing without getting off their butt. As Chris and Vyv figure out, sometimes you have to make it better. I think this is particularly true for trans or generqueer individuals where – as you say – the narrative of “You can be normal, too!” often falls apart.
KSN: If I were a teenager right now, I would probably have a huge chip on my shoulder about the It Gets Better project. I agree with you that it’s great that people are feeling outraged about the pervasive violence that so many queer kids face, and great that they want to change those conditions. And while some people have made some excellent videos, I think the way the project is set up really centers the needs of adults, and encourages a way of thinking about queer youth – “those poor children, we have to save them” – that’s very paternalistic and disempowering. That impulse to help needs to be backed up by some hard-core commitment, self-reflection, and above all, listening.