In the opening pages of The Red Parts Maggie Nelson describes her previously published Jane: A Murder, a sister book to this, as being “about how one might live—or, rather, how my family lived, how I lived—under the shadow of the death of a family member who had clearly died horribly and fearfully, but under circumstances that would always remain unknown, unknowable.” The Red Parts is centered around a murder, but threads out in Nelson-style to stories which connect family generations of quiet grief and anxiety; and the expression and repression of her own trauma as a child and as a growing girl. And there is always that dogged “Unknown”—the innate curiosity of it, and often the dark desperation to know it.
It was a real treat for me to talk about this latest work with Nelson, a writer whose explosive and transforming verse, prose and personal and political conversation have meant a great deal to me. I am forever a blue fangirl.
12TH STREET: In the preface you explain that “the importance of allowing oneself to stay in [the] grip for some real time” of the cerebral space, where “the events of the trial…my childhood…Jane’s murder, and the act of writing” intermingled at once, “has not receded from me.” All of your books seem centered around a subject that grips you, or onto which you grip. I, too, often write from here, but can find it hard to do so—it can feel too powerful for words, or that the words I finally put down are amateur and trite. What is the importance of this grip to you? And how do you remain in it and still function and create in a satisfying way?
MAGGIE NELSON: That’s the rub, right? There’s the imagined words, the imagined book, and then there’s just the lowly thing that’s the actual words, the actual book. You can get used to preferring the latter, over time. I think one has to write where one feels the heat. It’s too hard to write about something when you’re bored, you’ll be boring yourself from the get-go. One risks boredom even when one’s hot on the trail of something, so one really has to be on the right trail to make it through.
STREET: There has always been a fascination in society and art with “the dead and beautiful (and white) girl,” usually created through and for the male gaze, i.e. Ophelia, Snow White, etc. The more current obsession, it seems, is with the dead-like girl; the vampire, the immortal, prompting entirely new literary genres like “Teen Paranormal Romance.” You address this fascination many times in The Red Parts: the media’s endless glorification of murdered young white girls, and the particularly sexualized photographs and descriptions of these girls released to the public.
What exactly is this fascination, and is it male-only?
NELSON: I can’t say the obsession with pretty dead white girls is all one thing. Sometimes it’s the fantasy of getting to do what you want to someone who no longer has a say in it; sometimes it’s the gothic fantasia of early/tragic death, a la Victorian women swooning from TB; sometimes it’s a mainstream TV network’s excuse to show more T & A (you can show more flesh if the body in question is dead); sometimes it’s the continuation of a racist tradition that fetishizes white women in peril or weakness; sometimes it’s pure sadism; and so on. I’d have to look at each case on its own terms. It would be foolhardy I think to call something “male-only,” but certainly I think we learn a lot about certain strands of heterosexual male pathology by examining the tenacity and virulence of the trope.
STREET: This also reminded me of a recent episode of the “Here Be Monsters” podcast, in which a woman attempts to reconcile her high school years when she pretended to be dying to attract boys. She attributes this to the many movies coming out around that time featuring a dying, young (and white) girl, and the boy who falls in love with her despite (or because of?) her expiration date, i.e. A Walk to Remember, Moulin Rouge. There are undoubtedly similar effects on the psyche of a young female audience, made by the media’s veneration of “the dead and beautiful girl.” Did you ever, as a young girl, romanticize this archetype?
NELSON: You know, I never really romanticized this archetype. I didn’t recognize myself in it—I’ve always been too much of an agent, an irrepressible big talker, and not very invested in my looks or my mortality as sites of my attractiveness. I wanted to live, and luckily even as an adolescent I was already onto the yuckiness of someone who’d be happiest devoting themself to someone dead, dying, in peril, or quintessentially weak. I definitely had my own gothic phase though, which was heavy. But the women I idolized in this period, like Siouxsie Sioux, seemed to me quite fierce—scary in their own right, great performers and poets. As far as vampires go, I loved The Hunger, and thought Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve were incredibly hot. Neither is exactly a damsel in distress.
STREET: That the glorified “dead and beautiful girl” has also always been a white girl comes up a few times in the book. Though you, understandably, do not go deeper in this book into the horrible disparities between black and white in our country, it’s still a topic that heavily moves you. Have you considered dedicating more time to this?
NELSON: Moved is one way of putting it. Outraged and committed is another. I guess what I’ve been thinking about and working on lately is more squarely in that ballpark, so we’ll see.
STREET: The book is proceeded by a note: “This book is a memoir, which is to say that it relies on my memory and consists primarily of my personal interpretations of events and, where indicated, my imaginative recreation of them…”
Why include this here, and not in your other works of memoir/personal essay?
NELSON: That was in there because the original publisher, Free Press, wanted it to be there. The James Frey thing had just happened and people were feeling nervous. (In my experience big trade publishers are more nervous than smaller presses, likely because they’re expecting a brighter light on the material.) But I don’t mind it so much, because in The Red Parts I write about a larger cast of characters than usual for me, many of whom I don’t know, and it seemed OK to me to underscore the fallible and subjective nature of my report.
STREET: I’m really interested in your (sweet) moments of empathy in the book for the man on trial for Jane’s murder—they come up but you get off of them quickly. At one point you pose the question of what it may mean for you to not believe in the death penalty altogether—“Was I denying the fact that ‘we live in a society in which there really are fearful and awful people?’” What were you afraid it might mean—to yourself, to your family—that you held compassion for the man possibly responsible for your aunt’s death? Do you still wrestle with your feelings on the death penalty in general?
NELSON: I take seriously the charge of feeling compassion for all living creatures. So I wasn’t afraid of what that might mean, more generally speaking; my quibble on that account in the book is with one person’s testimony that the way Jane’s body was arranged post-mortem showed that her killer felt “compassion toward his victim.” That seemed twisted to me, and a separate question from whether all beings, no matter how heinous their actions, merit compassion. I have never wrestled with my feelings about the death penalty; I’ve been adamantly against it my entire life.
STREET: You talk about both your mother and your grandfather’s lifelong attempts at gaining and maintaining control, much of this trickling back to the murder of Jane:
Was the creation of this book your own attempt at taking control of, what you felt to be, an uncontrolled narrative—within your own mind or within the larger story told by your family? “More clarifying than creative” as you say. Or did it come from the instinct to express that which could not be controlled?
NELSON: That’s a smart question. I think it was likely both—to gain control, and to express what cannot be controlled. That’s a pretty good description of the whole project.