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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the difficult queer '90s Boston of her novel 'Sketchtasy'

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the difficult queer '90s Boston of her novel 'Sketchtasy'
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's new book is the novel "Sketchtasy." (Jesse Mann)

“I think about how sometimes I feel so lonely talking to the people I love, and sometimes I feel so lonely talking to the people I hate,” thinks Alexa, the young, queer narrator of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new novel. “And sometimes I just feel so lonely.”

“Sketchtasy,” published today by Arsenal Pulp Press, follows Alexa and her friends as they navigate the Boston gay nightclub scene in the 1990s. Their lives are focused on drinking and doing just about every drug in the book; they’re all trying desperately to forget their own traumas, and the pain of being queer in a city that’s hostile to their very existence.

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Sycamore is a longtime activist who has worked with groups like ACT UP and Fed Up Queers. She’s also the author of two previous novels, “Pulling Taffy” and “So Many Ways to Sleep Badly,” as well as a memoir, “The End of San Francisco.”

Sycamore, who lives in Seattle, spoke to The Times via telephone from Baltimore, where she’s researching her next book. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you talk about the origins of "Sketchtasy," set in the queer scene in Boston in the 1990s?

I lived in Boston the same time that the novel takes place. I was really living inside gay culture, in terms of all of the hypocrisy, and all of the mimicry of the worst aspects of straight, normative culture. In the past, I had lived in queer radical culture. It was a formative moment for me, and I had these stories of that time of Boston gay club culture in all of its grandeur and also its suffocation. But I didn't know what I wanted to do with them. And then I was done with “The End of San Francisco,” and I thought, “Well, let me just start and see what happens.” In a way, it started from my own personal memories of that time period in Boston. I started with these over-the-top stories of late-night club culture, but what came through for me was the trauma: the trauma of living in a city, Boston, that was rabidly afraid of difference; the trauma of growing up in an abusive family and trying to escape; and the trauma of a gay culture that doesn't really do anything to nurture. And then also the trauma of growing up with AIDS defusing your desires, and not being able to imagine a way out.

The ’90s were kind of an odd time in gay culture, because there was this greater acceptance by the mainstream community, but it was still very much a homophobic time.

Definitely. There's always been, within gay culture, a kind of struggle between a more liberationist kind of politics, and a more assimilationist politics. I think the '90s really marked the time when the assimilationist politics triumphed. And that did allow for more visibility, but it also put a clampdown on all of the radical, challenging and transformative aspects of gay and queer culture.

There's a scene in the book where the characters talk about the red AIDS awareness ribbons. Do you think of those ribbons as emblematic of a kind of shallow, performative empathy on the part of non-queer people?

Absolutely. I think the red ribbon is kind of the ultimate symbol of charade pity, a kind of emblem of alleged liberal compassion, but it's really just symbolic with nothing behind it. Especially in that moment, like any of these things, I think a lot of gay people swallowed that myth of tolerance. So at that time, you'd have, like, Cybill Shepherd with the red ribbon, and everyone was like, "Oh, my God, I love Cybill Shepherd! She's my hero!" [Laughs] So it became a currency for straight people to gain fans through, in some ways, this death and disappearance of queer lives.

A book cover for Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's "Sketchtasy." Credit: Arsenal Pulp Press
A book cover for Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's "Sketchtasy." Credit: Arsenal Pulp Press (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Do you think there's a possibility that queer culture in America, as we knew it in the ’80s and ’90s and before, is in danger of getting erased by assimilation into the broader culture?

Yes, absolutely. I think in many ways it already has been erased in favor of this smiley, happy, "We're just like you" myth of acceptance at any cost. We have this centrality of marriage and military inclusion as a central dominant focus of the mainstream gay movement, and what could be more conservative than becoming part of the military, the dominant institution of oppression in the world? And marriage is the central symbol of straight conformity. So if marriage and military inclusion are the center of the movement, then there's really nothing behind it. And simultaneously, gay people of power and privilege have really pushed aside anyone who isn't willing or able to conform to these tacky, outdated straight, middle-class norms.

Alexa and some of the other characters in the book are unapologetic in their queerness, and the ’90s were a time when a lot of gay men put a premium on being "straight-acting." Do you think that emphasis on acting masculine is a form of self-hatred for some gay men, something that Alexa and her friends were maybe rebelling against?

I think everyone in the book, in many ways, especially the queens in the book, are intensely damaged by the insistence on adhering to backward norms of masculinity. And they all either resist or fall into that, in whatever ways possible. Part of that is the lure of gay club culture, because you go out, you're up when everyone else is asleep, you’re putting on elaborate outfits and living in your own world. And it is a world almost entirely bonded by drugs, but the drugs offer an escape from all the pressures of conformity, and unfortunately, mainstream gay culture is very insistent on those norms. So queers and queens and transfeminine people really take the brunt of violence both inside gay culture and outside in the dominant world.

I think also what happens is that people internalize that violence, and that's what’s happening a lot in the book. People don't have the possibility of expressing the trauma that's going on in the world, whether that's the trauma of straight bashers, or the trauma of gay people who are so self-loathing that the only status they crave is the status of inclusion in straight normalcy, or whether that's the violence of people dying everywhere from AIDS. For the people in the book, there's a lot of internalization of that trauma because there's no way to express it, because if you express the trauma, then you're more vulnerable, and they don't want to seem vulnerable, because then they succumb to the trauma. So it's kind of a catch-22 because there's no real way out, and I think in many ways, that is the narrative of the book, being increasingly trapped inside the gay culture that offers pageantry without promise, trapped in Boston at this particular time period, and trapped in this particular historical moment.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore says that "Sketchtasy's" main character Alexa "has a radical queer politic, but she's living in a world where there isn't really the possibility to actualize that."
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore says that "Sketchtasy's" main character Alexa "has a radical queer politic, but she's living in a world where there isn't really the possibility to actualize that." (Jesse Mann)

Some of the characters in the book, including Alexa, are queer people who use “she/her” pronouns. Do you think any of them would consider themselves trans women if they were in this era, when it seems like maybe people are slightly more enlightened about trans issues?

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From our point of view today, they would all be on the transfeminine spectrum somewhere. I think in this particular moment that the book is taking place, they're all queens, and I think some of them lean in different directions at different times, depending on the time of day, the mood, the drugs that are involved. I think everyone is basically trying to figure themselves out. And they don’t really have a place or space to claim femininity in a way that doesn't immediately face either scorn, violence, derision or social ostracism. They're trying to create a new world, but I think they're also failing a lot.

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What do you think made Boston queer club culture so distinct from the culture in, say, San Francisco or L.A. at the time?

Boston is a very cloistered town. It's very self-satisfied, it's very smug and there's a very old New England preppiness, and the gay culture there in particular, whatever people could use as power over one another, they'd use it, whether it's about class, about race, or AIDS [status]. I think Boston is a super segregated, super racist city, and that was mimicked in gay culture. Gay culture there was completely segregated on all levels, not just racially, but in terms of gender, in terms of sexuality, in terms of class, and everyone was striving for the most conformist attitude possible. Unfortunately, this is true in gay culture across the board, but it's more magnified in Boston, and some other cities. Ironically, I live in Seattle now, and Seattle is a very different city than Boston, but Seattle's gay culture is not that different, and not in a good way. In these days of the shiny happy people vision of gay inclusion, that type of mentality in gay culture has not really changed in most places. In San Francisco in the ’90s, there was definitely a radical queer culture that existed and had its own institutions, neighborhoods and aesthetic. And that did not exist in Boston at that time at all.

Alexa is a survivor of child sexual abuse, and she's also a prolific user of drugs and alcohol. In your mind, is there a connection between those two things?

Sure. For Alexa, she wants to live outside of both straight and gay normalcy. She has a radical queer politic, but she's living in a world where there isn't really the possibility to actualize that. And so drugs really offer a way to create that, in a sense. And the community that she's able to find and create is entirely bonded through drugs. I don't think that's only a negative thing, but it definitely has its limitations. [Laughs] I think, as a survivor of sexual abuse, she's looking for whatever escape that she can find, and drugs are the escape that is most acceptable in the culture in which she lives.

The passages where Alexa and her friends are using drugs, and there are a lot of them, you mimic through your prose what it feels like to be high, that sort of manic feeling. Was that a difficult thing to write?

No, I loved it. [Laughs] For me, basically it got me high, and I wanted to show how the drugs change the language. I wanted, through the changing of the language, to really create that disorientation, and that feeling of floating 5 feet above the ground. I think it gave a certain kind of glow to the narrative, and it shaped the prose and shifted not just the perception of the characters, but also my perceptions of what I wanted to happen in the book.

The book is so evocative not just of Boston, but of the 1990s in general.

One thing in setting the book in the ’90s and being really meticulous about all the specifics, both in terms of the music, in terms of the landscape of Boston, in terms of the experiences, in terms of the language, one thing I really wanted to work against was nostalgia. Because I think right now there is this really intense nostalgia for the ’90s but it's only kind of surface, like, Nirvana T-shirts and nothing much beyond that. For me, that kind of nostalgia creates its own violence, because it camouflages the actual lived experiences and the depth of feeling and emotion and intensity.

Schaub is a writer in Texas.

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