Remaking history with novelist Jordy Rosenberg
Jordy Rosenberg tells me you don’t really know how to write a novel until you do it. “I’m sure it’s been said many times before,” he concedes. He’s sitting in his book-filled study in New York, the sleeves of his brown flannel shirt rolled up, revealing heavily tattooed forearms. He shifts constantly as we talk, leaning forward and back, crossing and uncrossing his arms.
When he’s not writing fiction, Rosenberg works as a professor of 18th-century literature, gender and sexuality studies, and critical theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These academic interests frame his debut novel, Confessions of the Fox, one of the first works of fiction by a transgender author to be picked up by a major publisher. Confessions was named one of the best fiction books of 2018 by The New Yorker, Kirkus Reviews and others. On the back of the novel’s success, Rosenberg has been invited to the Sydney Writers Festival in May.
Rosenberg considers carefully whether storytelling runs in his family. He does this with all of my questions, approaching them thoughtfully, often from several angles, each annexed half-sentence edging closer to the exact thing he wants to say. His mother was “a very typical mid-century Jew from Brooklyn who told really good schtick”. Although they didn’t have a great relationship, Rosenberg thinks his mother was a “riveting narrator, really good with snappy, dramatic narration, and hysterically funny” and he would like to try to emulate her in his writing. His father on the other hand “was a very boring storyteller … a very nice guy who would just go on and on”. He says the death of his parents was likely the authorising condition for both his decision to transition gender and the writing of his debut novel.
Confessions – a novel that might have been buried under the weight of Rosenberg’s theoretical influences – has a playful, almost zany quality; a legacy, perhaps, of his mother’s sense of humour. It is a bold work of metafiction that threads together two stories, each with a transgender protagonist who is also an unreliable narrator. The first is the text of a newly discovered manuscript that purports to recount the life of Jack Sheppard, an 18th-century carpenter’s apprentice-turned-burglar and jail-breaker. The manuscript tracks Sheppard’s escapades through a bawdy London underground scene of prostitutes, thieves and queers. The second narrative is told through the contemporary footnotes of Dr R. Voth, a recently jilted and jobless academic, who is studying the manuscript to verify its authenticity. The satirical dismantling of dystopic academia in Voth’s footnotes is joyous.
The novel’s experimental form means it can be read as a genre-smashing work of historical fiction, a transgender manifesto of sorts, a kind of postmodern fairytale or a straight-up mystery novel. The New Yorker, meanwhile, described Confessions as “period erotica”, but Rosenberg wants to clarify – his academic instincts showing through – that the novel is not historically correct in this respect. He says early-18th-century erotica was “extremely lewd and body and genital related … there was no metaphor”. He instead worked within a literary constraint in Confessions, deliberately avoiding such description. By doing so, the reader’s gaze remains firmly above the waist, subverting our impulse to fetishise trans bodies. What he obscures in physical details, Rosenberg more than makes up for with an encyclopaedic vernacular to describe female genitals, my favourite being “quim”. I tell him I will try to find a way to use the word in everyday conversation; he wishes me good luck.
The novel swells with queer and trans sex scenes, which have sparked a firestorm of disagreement. “They seem to be a hot point,” Rosenberg says. He relishes the “burns” by young trans people who don’t agree with his approach to sex in the novel, finding them very funny. Someone on Twitter recently called his writing “wistful and horny” and “an old cis guy” on Amazon was outraged that he “endlessly and insistently described cunnilingus” in his novel. Rosenberg laughs: “It just put him over the edge.”
Rosenberg didn’t set out to write an ambitious novel. He just wanted to write a thriller, one that would bring readers the pleasures of that genre. “I’m sure it’s a first-time novelist problem, the way you just think, ‘I’ve got to put everything into this one book,’ ” he says. The novel conforms to thriller conventions but with introducing an experimental layer, Rosenberg was worried about maintaining narrative momentum and keeping the reader’s attention: “I kept thinking, ‘Oh God, this must be so boring to read.’ ” He kept revisiting the structure to co-ordinate the body text with the footnotes with the help of his “very exacting” editor, Victory Matsui.
Rosenberg says fiction writing was not dissimilar to academic writing, but the fiction editing process was agonising for him. He describes it as “a process of having to explode and destroy it, turn it into rubble, take it all apart and then build it back up again”. His shift towards writing fiction was due to “hitting a wall with academic writing in terms of the political horizon”. Confessions has a “utopian thread running through it”, an emotion which, he says, is unavailable to him in academia. In the current political context of the United States, it is perhaps surprising that Confessions concludes on an optimistic note. “I wasn’t expecting it to be a hopeful novel,” Rosenberg says. He credits Matsui with steering him away from a dystopian ending: “They helped me understand some of the stakes of ending it differently; they helped me tap into a utopian impulse.”
Confessions had its origins in Rosenberg’s obsession with the central character, Jack Sheppard, a real-life figure whose criminal notoriety eventually led to both his hanging and, later, his status as a working-class folk hero. Sheppard’s legend has been revived in many plays and novels, including Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Rosenberg says the archival material on Sheppard described him as “what we would now understand as gender queer”, and this material insisted a retelling of Sheppard’s story as a trans narrative. He says, “There are many things missing from archives but sometimes even what is there can obscure more than it reveals.” Although it wasn’t his intention to write a transgender novel, Rosenberg suggests that fiction – and speculative fiction in particular – is a necessary counterbalance to fill the gap left by historical archiving practices. He quotes Jacques Derrida and Anjali Arondekar, who both illuminate the problem of mistaking archival materials for historical realities. Confessions raises important questions of whose stories get told and whose stories are withheld or erased from the record.
When Rosenberg showed his fiction manuscript to editors, they wanted a trans memoir, something they knew how to market. In the literary sphere, trans experience is often fetishised, and Rosenberg says there is a “particular thirst for the native informant” that publishers wish to satisfy. Trans fiction, on the other hand, is much harder to market because the canon isn’t visible. On the occasion that an editor was interested in Rosenberg’s book, they were distracted with the question of truth. “They kept asking, ‘Is this true?’ ‘Were there trans people then?’ ‘Did they do this?’ ‘Did they do that?’ ” he says. “It would have been much easier for them to sell it as straight-up transgender Sarah Waters but the metafictional aspect of the book kind of threw them a curve ball.” Rosenberg’s editors at One World – a Random House imprint that aims to publish subversive writers – never asked him any of these questions.
The question of truth aside, Rosenberg’s lived experience as a transgender person brings emotional honesty to the journey of gender transition as told in Confessions. It is both painful and tender, perhaps most strikingly so in Rosenberg’s bloody and brutal description of Sheppard’s “top surgery”. We never learn Sheppard’s female birth name. He is known simply as P—, not only a nod to 18th-century literary convention but also a respectful acknowledgment of the insult that is “dead-naming”, calling transgender people by their pre-transition names. Rosenberg’s novel is an ode to transgender people telling their own stories.
I ask Rosenberg about a quote from a recent Andrea Long Chu essay, in which gender dysphoria is likened to “getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You're going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane.” A great fan of Chu’s writing, Rosenberg agrees that transitioning can be fruitfully seen as a process rather than a destination, though he acknowledges that the privileges associated with white trans masculinity may have shaped his experience in some specific ways. He lived for many years as a butch lesbian before transitioning to male and now finds his experience of being in the world, and being insistently gendered male, to sometimes feel a bit “cut and dried”. He contrasts this with “that liminal feeling I associate more with my experience of butchness”, which he found “very difficult”.
There’s prescience in Rosenberg’s writing, particularly given recent moves by the US government to remove federal discrimination protections and erase recognition of trans people. “This is a complicated political question,” he says of how trans people can resist oppression by the powerful. “It’s hard for me as a person with a salary and whiteness and masculinity to claim that I feel directly targeted.” The Trump administration, he continues, is going directly after poor people, people of colour and immigrants; trans people intersect with those populations. “It’s very false and misleading to believe that you can separate out questions of transgender rights and protections from other questions of civil rights. This is one of the things I was trying to get at in the book.”
The result of not focusing on the broader picture, Rosenberg says, is a stepping-up of authoritarianism and the introduction of more conservative legislation. The current historical moment and the accompanying shift in public rhetoric is “startling and anxiety-producing”, he says. “It’s a total shit-show.”
Rosenberg knows he can’t control how the novel is read, but he has been moved by the way it has been received by trans, queer and gender non-conforming people. He also appreciates the many readers who are not trans or queer and have responded “very beautifully” to Confessions. “In my heart,” he says, “I was always writing for trans and queer readers about things that they might recognise or understand … and my hope was that form of intimate, specific address would create a universality to the book.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Remaking history". Subscribe here.