My Body Is Yours: In conversation with Michael V. Smith
What does it mean to be a man? How does the experience of intimacy between men–the terror and rawness of emotional and physical vulnerability, and the possibility of shared tenderness–figure into our understandings of masculinity at this particular moment in time?
These are questions at the heart of Michael V. Smith’s fabulous, fantastic, and heartbreaking new memoir, My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015). The book traces Smith’s trajectory from a “fey kid growing up in a small town amid a blue-collar family” into an award-winning novelist, poet, improv comic, filmmaker, drag queen, and performance artist. In tender, clear, deeply honest prose, the author explores a complicated relationship with a distant and absent father, his growth as a celebrated artist, the complex emotional landscape of sexual compulsion and addiction, and his ongoing engagement with masculinity.
This is easily one of my favourite reads of the past few years. It’s a celebration of identity and forgiveness, yes–but also of the rawness, messiness, and terrifying beauty of the human heart. Smith taps into what many of us feel deep inside–our fierce desire for intimacy, the shame of loneliness, our fear of vulnerability, and the stubbornly tender hope that we can make peace with the patterns and habits that keep us stuck in harmful emotional holding patterns. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Michael V. Smith is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, performance artist and occasional clown teaching creative writing in the interdisciplinary program of the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, British Columbia. His new memoir, My Body Is Yours, out with Arsenal Pulp Press in Spring 2015, explores his relationship to his body, masculinity, and a challenging past.
Fear is often a great motivator for writers—but also, for many, a reason to self-censor. It feels like you went in the opposite direction, peeling back layers and layers until you arrived at some version of the truth. What was at stake for you in writing this book? What made you most afraid, and how did you stare down your own fear?
Because I came of age as a homo when Queer Nation was chanting “Silence = Death” and “Action = Life”, I’ve really kept those slogans close. It was important to me to not hide any of my life in this book. So much of our queer lives—especially as kids, especially those moments that we feel ashamed about—are left unspoken. We hide our shame in silence. We’re twisted up with self-loathing, or some other torturous baggage. But silence is not a tool we use to grow as a people. Culture moves forward by discussing things; we learn by sharing. So many great people raised me by setting an example—by telling me what they’d learned from when they’d messed up—so now I’m paying it forward. This book is a testament to the brave people who have spoken up and made space for me, who’ve made my life easier by doing the hard work of being honest and vulnerable.
The scariest parts of My Body Is Yours have to do with my sexual compulsion. It’s one thing to say publicly that you’re OCD and you shop too much, or drink too much, or gamble too much, but sex is already taboo, so a behavioural addiction involving sex is like adding insult to injury. We know that sex isn’t going away, right? Straight sex is so ever-present in our culture we don’t even notice how it’s being used to sell nail clippers or garbage bags. On the other hand, queer sex is so invisible it still kind of blinds us when it shows up. Homophobes and reviewers can only see that, despite everything else going on in a show, or a text or what-have-you. So the first rule for me in writing this book was: be honest, be clear, be specific. Let folks know exactly what I’m talking about, because it might be the first time someone has seen a personal story of compulsive sexual practices in print. The first time somebody has read about the personal thrill, shame, and risk in barebacking. The first time someone has read about intimate sex between two men.
You mentioned that the memoir we’re reading was not the book you set out to write. How and why did the project evolve?
The book just took shape as I wrote it. My answer is kinda boring.
You write wonderfully and clearly about masculinity in its many forms and guises. I find it ironic (and disheartening) that masculinity is policed just as fiercely in gay spaces as in the wider world. There’s a veneration of a certain kind of rigid masculinity that traps and implicates both the desired and desirer. Both your writing and performance work offer a way to re-negotiate that space, to re-articulate what it is to be a man. I know it’s a big-ass topic, but can you talk more about masculinity in gay or queer spaces, and how you see it evolving?
My sense is that masculinity isn’t evolving that quickly in gay spaces. Fags are very invested in masculinity, which is another way of saying their cultural privilege. We are very invested in the binaries, because, I think, we’ve gone so long without any cultural male power, or in fear of losing it, that when we come out, we’re eager to snap up masculinity and own it. Muscle queens, gym bunnies, leather and denim wearers, button-down collar types, they’re all in the business of fitting into the tropes of masculinity. It’s irksome. I came out so I could be a sissy and be proud of that. I came out so that the girly ways I didn’t fit in could be more common, which in turn would make room for me to fit in. But male power is terrified of femininity, because it’s seen as a threat, rather than an asset. Male power presumes that it’s the only power, and squashes any sense that it isn’t.
That said, I think our work with trans people is helping to evolve masculinity in queer spaces. Specifically, those trans folks who are out about being trans, who are mixed-gendered, if you’ll let me invent a phrase, meaning they borrow from masculine and feminine identities, living in-between genders. Knowing people who live as neither man or woman is definitely helping to point out that gender binary, and its limits and artificial constructions. Welcoming trans men into gay male circles is also terrific, challenging our sense of who we are, or rigidly pretend to be.
Your father looms large throughout the memoir. The fraught relationship between father and son is common for many queer men, but your story moves back and forth through time, eventually arriving at place where you and your father are able to mutually acknowledge your love for one another, and to share spaces of vulnerability and tenderness. You never sugarcoat the past, but the act of writing seems to provide new insight into the difficulties of your father’s own life. What do you think he would make of the book?
I think my father would shit his pants if he were alive today and would dare read this book. He’s a big part of the reason I wrote it, which I guess explains why he’s threaded throughout. I wanted to write a book that would help make it easier to be a man in world, that would create some social space for different kinds of masculinity, for a broader masculinity, which includes tenderness, vulnerability, softness, all of which my dad couldn’t handle without feeling ashamed. But Dad never read a book in my lifetime, so if he were around, My Body Is Yours wouldn’t be the first he’d choose.
Your writing—the strong, supple prose style and the intimate, confessional tone—mirror the vulnerability you examine and work towards, in yourself and others. You re-claim the ability for a man to be nakedly vulnerable, both to himself and to other men, as the ultimate sign of strength. Do you feel that in your own life you’ve made peace with your own vulnerability? How do we create that vulnerable space in ourselves and support it in other men?
Such a lovely question, how do we support vulnerability in other men? I’m going to carry that question into the future.
I don’t think I was ever at war with vulnerability. ‘Making peace’ is a metaphor that is kind of the antithesis of the book—a metaphor that speaks to the masculine ideals of conquering and colonising. Which are false successes that don’t lead to happiness. If I was at odds with anything, it was with social pressures to change. I never wanted to be less vulnerable, that wasn’t my conflict, so it wasn’t my triumph. I wanted to be less hurt by folks who disliked my vulnerability, who interpreted honesty and sensitivity as weakness, rather than strengths. I was hurt by people who wanted me to be “a man”, whose terms they set. I used to wish aloud to myself, Where are the other people like me? Not so much, Why can’t I be like everyone else? So rather than making peace with vulnerability, I’ve become more clear on what behaviour I value as a man, and I pursue those ideals in practice. I fuck up. I get it wrong. But I’m working at being a better, fuller version of a human person.
I think we nurture better, more vulnerable men by allowing them to make mistakes, by inviting them to be sensitive without mockery or judgment, and by living the example ourselves.
The memoir also explores and mines your own rich and varied sexual history. At one point you say you lost count of the number of men you slept with after 1500. One of the things that struck me though is how vividly you remember so many of these experiences, and how compassionately you write about so many of these men. In another section you question why moments of tenderness are not seen in gay porn, why sex is so often reduced to two-dimensional mechanics, body parts meeting other body parts. It seems that through your history there’s a kind of transcendence to a lot of the intimacy you’ve shared. Is that too idealistic a reading? Can you talk about the connection between sex and intimacy for you?
At its best sex is a kind of communion, whereas my worst lovers thought we were having a meeting of genitals. Sex for me is often transcendent. I love the sense of co-mingling with someone, where you become hyper-aware of another body, the small subtle reactions someone has to your touch, and you to theirs. Through my anonymous sex life, I learned how intimate strangers can be together—how generous we can be, how much we can care for each other, how much affection we can have. Those kinds of shared intimacies were complicated for me—at once, a great gift in my lonely, isolated emotional life, and at the same time, a bit of a trap, because I spent a lot of time hunting temporary intimacy, rather than nurturing it in my daytime life. There is a safety opening yourself to someone unknown because you aren’t accountable to them after the fact, they can’t call you up and ask for a favour, say. Or ask for emotional support. For a time, that anonymity was amazing for me, because I was a terrified man, so being a stranger allowed me a chance to open up and feel safe. I could be seen, but not known. As I got older and smarter, the goal became finding someone that I could be vulnerable with and still have sexy times, on repeat. The goal was to invest in people who would be around to return the honour.
Have you been surprised so far to the response the book has received? Were you worried about how anyone in particular might react—your family, lovers, friends, colleagues?
I’ve asked family not to read this book, mostly because I don’t think we need to share my sex life with family. Especially not the mistakes. That’s better left to friendships. I don’t know, maybe I’m denying my family and I a great chance for better understanding. Maybe it’s more of my own shame at play. I’m surprised so many people like the book. It’s hard to have perspective on your own writing—you do the best job you know how at the time, but when it’s done, I’m always, like, “I have no idea if this works.” And given the superlatively confessional nature of the content, the fear in me thought, Why would anyone care? But I’ve learned over and again, so I know rationally, that when you share yourself generously, people are grateful, because we all have common experiences. Common fears and fuck-ups. And that’s the response I think I’m seeing with My Body Is Yours. Gratitude for voicing some clusterpoos and ideas often left unsaid, or unconsidered.
One of my mottos is “Pleasure Over Fear”, so I’ve been putting that in play a lot. Do the thing that will reward you—put yourself in the path of joy—despite the fact it might scare the crap out of you.
To wrap this baby up, what are your plans for taking the book on the road?
I’m reading in a whack of cities. I’ve already done a few, Kelowna and Ottawa, but next I’m heading to New York City for a reading at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division and then to Toronto, for Glad Day. I’m doing a bunch of USA bookstores, in Seattle, Portland, San Fran, and LA. Super stoked, though, to be preparing dynamic readings, which are more like stand-up improv events, performing as Miss Cookie LaWhore, for a bunch of venues: two solo shows at Videofag in Toronto, then Montreal’s Stock Bar (with Alexis O’Hara, David McGimpsey, and Christopher Diraddo), plus a big launch in Vancouver at Pat’s Pub. (If you want venue dates check out http://www.michaelvsmith).
(Author photo: David Ellingsen)