2016 Contest: An Interview with Nonfiction Winner Rocket Caleshu
Rocket Caleshu (b. 1984) is a writer based in Los Angeles. He holds a BA in Africana Studies from Brown University and an MFA in Creative Writing/Critical Studies from the California Institute of the Arts, where he was the inaugural Truman Capote Literary Fellow.
Interview by KAYLEB RAE CANDRILLI
Black Warrior Review: “Whatever” is a gorgeous essay, one whose tone is measured with incredible care. While crafting, how were you able to moderate and control your tone when writing such a deeply personal essay on identity?
Rocket Caleshu: Thank you. It was important to me that the language hit delicately. These are just a couple ideas I’ve had about this stuff over the past thirteen years. I wanted to offer them up with an open hand, here, this is for you, if you want it. I wanted to convey, through the writing, how unfixed experience is. I’m very moved by Maurice Blanchot’s writing:
“This self is merely a formal necessity: it simply serves to allow the infinite relation of Self to Other. Whence the temptation (the sole temptation) to become a subject again, instead of being exposed to subjectivity without any subject, the nudity of dying space.” (from The Writing of the Disaster)
Using one’s exposure to subjectivity to express some strands of “infinite relation” to the Other is an irresistible task to me. I want the term “whatever” to convey a paradox: whatever, in its ambivalence, right alongside standing in expressions of agency. I was resistant not only to taking testosterone, but to writing about it, because part of me wanted to keep the fantasy of what might come with those experiences off in a future place, not a present (and thus necessarily past) place. The deferral of arriving as a Being is all bound up in writing’s inherent incompleteness- as soon as I claim a stationary Being, it slips away; as soon as I write something down, my relationship to it morphs. I see a relation between the provisionality of inhabiting a trans identity and the provisionality of writing as critical practice, and I wanted to convey that in the essay.
BWR: Your piece begins with the Giorgio Agamben quote “Thus, whatever singularity…is never the intelligence of some thing, of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility.” Can you expound upon your decision to start your essay in this fashion?
RC: Most of the wonderful people who helped me with this essay suggested I cut the Agamben, but I just couldn’t. I love the way he fashions thoughts on the page. His ideas in The Coming Community seduce me into new imaginaries. Perhaps through the fault of my own incomplete understanding, the ideas are susceptible of falling into tautology, or the outer limits of sense-making, but that’s partially why I love them. I figured trying to muscle his ideas into my framework would be a useful exercise for me. When I was in undergrad, I wrote a thesis paper about the proliferation of private security forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I used his texts Homo Sacer and State of Exception mercilessly to undergird that writing. So it felt right to come back to him in this space, to use him to help express some of my enthusiasms and ambivalences about trans identity. I was struck by how resonant and timely his formulation of the “intelligence of an intelligibility” felt to how I am trying to think about affect and trans identity.
A lot of current representation of trans identity is visual representation. While this is important, I wanted to take up the idea of affective transition, as a opposed to “visual” transition, in the writing. How can betweenness be an ending? How can deferral be its own form of recognition? How can I foreground what happens “on the inside” of my body with testosterone? These kinds of questions that aren’t specifically related to the visuality of trans identity, or transitioning. I want to interrogate visibility politics, to question the assumption that they are somehow universally welcomed, or not also intimately linked to the kinds of incorporation that destroy us. Like many, I am wary of heralding the arrival of the age of acceptance of transgender identity. If this arrival is deployed in ways that are not expressly linked to the decolonization of the United States, and the abolition of the systemic incarceration and murder faced by our black and brown siblings, I do not want anything to do with it.
BWR: If you had to compare your writing to another artist’s work (one working in a different medium from your own) who might you pick?
RC: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes?
BWR: What advice would you give to young queer writers starting their careers? Are there any texts or resources you continually turn to, or would consider formative for your life as a writer?
RC: Like so many, I am indebted to innumerable texts and writers. Foundational texts include Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, Fred Moten’s Hughson’s Tavern, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, The Cantos of Ezra Pound.
BWR: Tailing off the last question, what advice or resource would you want to share with queer youths, especially to deal with this tumultuous time?
RC: The words “queer” and “trans” act as umbrella terms for a zillion different ideas, ways of being. I am interested in them as terms of mobilization and herstorical grounding. There is so much destructive discourse that attempts to single out queerness, or transness, as a contemporary construction of identity, as opposed to being connected to way(s) of being that are as old as humanity. As queer people, we have the resources of all our queer ancestors (this can be defined however is useful to you), and that is something we can tap into infinitely. I think sharing discursive space, spiritual space, party space, imaginative space are all resources to cultivate. Feeling connected to struggles and experiences of those who came before us, in addition to those we hold in community here & now, is a natural and critical form of solidarity that defines my investment in “queerness” as a tool we can harness.
BWR: What type of self-care do you practice? How do you cultivate your joy?
RC: Noise music, dancing in sweaty dark rooms, driving around LA visiting with friends, fucking around on projects and ideas. I practice Ashtanga yoga every day.
BWR: What is the strangest thing you collect? i.e. porcelain cats, tin type photos, hummingbird magnets.
RC: I prefer to make things and give them away. Not so much a collector. Except books.
BWR: What are you working on now? Is there something you’d like to get us excited for?
RC: I am working on a collection of poems, tentatively titled FEYE. The poems are trying to excavate stuff about desire and are generally going for a messier angle than the prose. My dear friend Tim Reid, a clown/philosopher, and I have been trying to get a collaborative book project about love going. I’m pretty excited for that, even though it doesn’t exist yet.