At New Delta Review, Danielle Lea Buchanan conducts a brilliant interview with Aaron Apps, author of Intersex: A Memoir (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2015), about “time, violence, bathroom narratives, transcendence, and death in Intersex.”
Here’s an excerpt (with Danielle Lea in bold):
“Barbeque Catharsis” [the opening essay in Intersex] is the one of the most powerful essays I’ve read in so long. It was included as a 2014 notable essay in Best American Essays, and featured in &NOW Awards: Best Innovative Writing Anthology. It hit the stomach before the mind. I craved meat. I remember standing over a soap dispenser in a Baton Rouge laundromat, carnal and stained, a sauced face like (in your words) “we are wounds,” devouring pork ribs next to rows of washing machines. I thought of you, Aaron, and so many Intersex lines.
Retrospectively, it’s the closest I may be to understanding your gripping narrative—which isn’t close at all. It’s a narrative told unflinchingly, with a bravery I admire, a reminder of why I write. Do you want to provide a brief synopsis of your narrative?
Given where the essay goes (towards the scatological) I wonder if you were actually desiring excrement? The part of me that reads Bataille, that thinks we’re all excrement spewed out of the solar anus, thinks maybe that’s true.
Half-kidding aside, there’s something about bathrooms as sites of confusion and conflict that is pretty ubiquitous in queer literature. There is something almost cliché about bathroom narratives: there are so many of them, they sprout up like weeds in all books that approach the subject positions of people with non-normative genders. But I think they’re cliché within queer literature for a reason. Right now conservative legislators are trying to pass a law in Florida that would legalize discrimination against trans people for using bathrooms not aligned with assigned sex at birth.
I wanted to do something different with my attempt at the bathroom narrative. In many ways, it is about eating the very thing that one becomes or is made to become: animal. There’s lots of poop, bathrooms, and viscera in the story. That’s not exactly a summary, but I think it gives a hint about the essay’s contents.
“Barbeque Catharsis” begins with animals “foaming in the guts”: meat strands, hacked carcasses, butterfluid pigs, silver fat, wooden meat smoke, grey pink animal. The animal then stains lips, fingers, soils napkins, and drips on the shirt. In “Barbeque Catharsis,” the animal is consumed and becomes a part of the self. A boy sticks pins in a frog heart, squeezes plop and splooge out of a cow eye, cuts through a crunchy fetal pig ribcage, marks veins of an embalmed cat in a notebook. There’s the wonderful line: “I, a violence done, doing violence.”
You present violence as many things but also a form of sustenance, both repulsive and seemingly necessary, for not only the self but for ‘science.’ You quote Georges Bataille: “Animals are the absence of transcendence. The animal is in the world like water in water.” The conflation of the animal and human is a reoccurring motif throughout Intersex.
What, in your opinion, does our human relationship to animal say about humanity’s transcendence? Is it separate from that of the animal? What, to you, does transcendence mean? In a utopic Apps world, what would it look like?
With regards to human transcendence: recently I’ve been circling back to a short essay by Levinas about a dog named “Bobby” who approached Levinas in a concentration camp and acknowledged his face as being the same sort of face any other human might have. Levinas describes Bobby as the being the last Kantian in Germany, except he lacks the mind to universalize concepts. Bobby, like Bataille’s animals, lacks transcendence, but so does Levinas as a dehumanized body in the camps: all of Levinas’s words are, in the face of a dehumanizing murder-machine, “monkey talk.”
There’s something about occupying this flickering space, this space that puts an immovable version of the category of the human into question, that has value in the shared carno-phallo-logocentric swell of violence we all occupy. My work often tries to straddle the line between the human space that allows for the ethical spaces and categories we all occupy as given, while simultaneously asking: ait, how human are any of us anyway? Why are we using the category of the human to claim privileged positions? I’m in no way perfect in acting on, or even thinking about these things, but I am invested in a practice that moves toward more equal treatment of all bodies.
You beautifully state: “There’s a grammar to the body.” One of my favorite aspects of Intersex is its constantly flickering form. ‘Androgynous’ text is the best literary term I’ve heard in years. Intersex is so textually dynamic—in both surface and depth. What’s next? Will it still be as ruthless in its rummaging? You make me think deeply about what it means to ‘modify’ a text. Did Intersex go through any editorial modifications? I’m reminded of your Heraclitus reference: “Changing, it rests.”
At best, “hybrid” forms are an attempt to present a text in a form that speaks to it being broken of necessity: a book that speaks to its inability to occupy the space of the novel or prose manuscript, or even the sonnet or villanelle, because something else is at stake. Gender is part of it, bodily metabolism is maybe another part—but I also think class plays a large role too. My father was a janitor and farmer, and my mother has a one-year LPN degree, and something about attempting to occupy certain revered voices or forms feels very impossible to me. This might sound ridiculous coming from a doctoral student, but becoming capable as a writer and thinker is still a slow process for me. It’s a process where I attempt to remake myself in the wake of what I’ve encountered and learned. It’s quite possible that my tendency toward broken forms is a result of feeling caught in this politicized and recursive space: too much needs remaking, so how can I let it settle?