Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, his poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, cream city review and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.
Cam Awkward-Rich, along with Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Devon Llywelyn Jones, H. Melt, and TC Tolbert, contributed as guest editors to The Offing‘s Trans Issue 2015, which ran from November 16-26, 2015.
Interview questions by The Offing Poetry reader, C. Russell Price.
C. RUSSELL PRICE: You’re currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford. What is the current climate like in the academy for trans and gender nonconforming people?
CAM AWKWARD-RICH: Like everywhere, it’s a deeply contradictory climate. On the surface of it, things are looking up. There are more trans/gnc people doing work in the academy than ever before, there are a bunch of really great books in the pipeline, two years ago (?) the University of Arizona hired a bunch of folks to form the first ever Transgender Studies cluster/program, etc. But these are pockets of the academy, you know? Many students are still having to do the work of pressing for institutional change so that they can live in safe housing, have their correct names on student IDs, take classes from people who have a basic level of trans literacy and/or who have at least tried to integrate trans scholarship into their gender/sexuality studies courses, and have campus resources that aren’t gendered in exclusionary ways (e.g. sexual violence resources that don’t assume a cis, heterosexual framework; university insurance that covers trans healthcare; etc.). Also, unsurprisingly, most of the trans/gnc folks in the academy (at least of those that I’ve met) are white and FAAB. On and on.
A lot of your writing deals with the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. What is your advice to a writer who is timid about interacting with their own intersectionality of identity in their writing?
I’m not sure how you can write without something like intersectionality. Usually when we say “intersectionality,” though, we’re referring to something like a theory of oppression, how it is that marginalized identities combine to both make us and constrain us. But we all live at the “intersections” of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, on and on, and not recognizing that and not writing from that place means that one is, generally, either denying the messiness of their own subjectivity or someone else’s. Does that make sense? Is that advice? I don’t think so. It’s never useful to say, simply, don’t be afraid, but in this case I’ll say that you are interacting with your own identity always-already, whether or not that’s explicit, implicit, or through some kind of evasion. So, you know, if something is ultimately impossible to avoid, best to do it on your own terms.
What are some great critical works one should check out on trans identity?
Like academic books? Right now I’m a really big fan of Gayle Salamon’s Assuming A Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality and Clare Sear’s Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Susan Stryker’s Transgender History is useful. Uh. Dean Spade’s Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law.
Like I said before, though, I think — as with so many other realms — we’re poised on the threshold of a huge wave of great critical work in and around trans studies, and a lot of it is great because it’s less concerned with trans identity and more about what a trans theoretical project might actually be. For instance: C. Riley Snorton is writing a book about the trans in trans-atlantic, using a trans theoretical framework to think about the strangeness of gender in the making of blackness; Toby Beauchamp has a forthcoming book that uses trans to think through post-9/11 surveillance technologies; on and on.
Also, though, all of this work that is really exciting to me couldn’t have been done without the work of people like Julie Serano, Sandy Stone, Leslie Feinberg, Susan Stryker, Vivian Namaste, Kate Bornstein, Henry Rubin, etc. etc., who did and still do the hard work of allowing trans people to be seen as legit producers of knowledge about trans lives. But, also, there’s so much great critical work that’s happening (thank goodness) outside of the academy — pretty much everything DarkMatter (Alok Vaid-Menon & Janani Balasubramanian) puts out, for starters.
Finally, because it’s Trans Day of Remembrance right now, here’s a link to an essay by Sarah Lamble called “Retelling Racialized Violence, Remaking White Innocence: The Politics of Interlocking Oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance.”
(Sorry, never ask me for book recommendations. I’m a library, not a person).
Your dissertation is on the politics and poetics of negativity in transgender narratives. Can you speak a bit about that?
Lol, sure. The short answer is that trans studies is, in an important way, founded on a split from disability. It’s a split that works both ways, but within trans discourse it derives from the need to distance trans people from psychiatric characterizations in order to allow trans/gnc people to emerge as authoritative producers of knowledge about our own lives. So, you know, “we’re not crazy.” It’s a split that’s had a lot of politically important effects, but also a lot of theoretically and politically limiting ones, as you can imagine. One of which is this huge, strange, enduring silence around the bad/pathologized forms of feelings that tend to travel with trans/gnc identity in both psychiatric discourse and trans cultural production itself — depression, sexual trauma, feeling haunted, “split” personality, etc. etc. So rather than continuing this untenable (not to mention ableist) split of trans from madness, my dissertation project attempts to think with these forms of feeling in order to think about what else trans theory might do or be. In particular, I use this method of “thinking with” bad feelings in order rethink the terms of key impasses between trans, queer, and feminist thought.
In your essay “Essay On The Awkward Black Object,” you write: “We haven’t made it to the punch line. Everyone is waiting. Everyone wants resolution, for the poem to click shut…” What do you want from poetry?
Well, all kinds of things. Accurate language for the experience of being alive, mostly. Which, in truth, involves very little resolution. Also, a good poem often makes it possible to comprehend taken-for-granted relations (between people, language, power, bodies, etc.) in new ways. Though if I’m being wholly honest, I mostly just want a poem to elicit a bodily response. We live at a time where people are constantly awash in all kind of terrible information/images, like someone thinks we need more and more (and more and more visceral) bad news in order to be moved by it. But when a poem makes me laugh manically or throw my hands up because of how exquisite or true or whatever it is … well, how great, that language can do that.
My favorite aspect of queer lit is codeswitching, and there’s this beautiful moment in your piece, “Essay On The Awkward Black Object,” in which an intense daily confrontation for trans/gnc people is undercut with “someone chuckles & lets you pass.” What is your advice to anyone who is struggling to “pass” let alone exist as trans/gnc?
So that moment in that piece is precisely how you’re reading it — that everyday experience of being caught by some “mismatch” between what you look like and what the state says you are, of seeming like some kind of impossible person — but it’s also legit just about my name. The number of times someone has insisted that I must have forged my ID because of the absurdity of having the last name “Awkward” is kind of unfathomable. Which is, of course, another kind of mismatch, between being obviously human on the one hand, but then still being legible as having once been property/a thing to be named. In moments like this, blackness reveals itself as underpinning another kind of impossible personhood, you know?
Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m really not someone to ask for advice about how to “thrive” or “exist,” though I wish sometimes that I were. I have this incredible life and I’d like to be able to spread the wealth. Mostly, though, I just stay in my room with my cat. Or sit at the coffee shop that is pretty much an extension of my room. Also, I’m basically writing a dissertation on transmasculinity and sorrow, and I’m 75% sure my next collection of poems will be called Against Hope, which I think says a lot about my relationship to the world. But. One thing I have been practicing is externalizing my discomfort. So in moments like the one in the poem, whoever is looking at my ID is also caught in this moment with me, and I’m totally fine being illegible; they’re the one who doesn’t know what to do, and so I’ve been practicing letting other people bear the discomfort rather than trying to bend myself into a recognizable shape. Certainly that only works sometimes in some places, though, and depends on the situation being one that won’t become a violent confrontation, which is often hard to predict. So. Best to just stay home. Other people are much better at occupying the world while being eccentric to it than I am — see, again, DarkMatter.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a part of the trans/gnc literary scene
Am I a part of the trans/gnc lit scene? Does that exist to be a part of? Sorry, I’m not trying to be evasive or self-deprecating, but I think if there is a trans lit scene and if I am a part of it, it’s too early to tell what the rewards will be. Though, the reward of being inside of any “identity based” scene tends to be a kind of freedom to push the work, since whatever in-group narratives, languages, and habits of thought don’t have to be perpetually defended or explained. So if there’s a party going on somewhere, I’d love to be invited.