44.2 Feature: An Interview with John Stintzi
John Stintzi is a non-binary writer who grew up on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. John is a recipient of a Research and Create grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and their work can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, Humber Literary Review, PRISM international, The Puritan, and their poetry chapbook The Machete Tourist (knife | fork | book, 2018). John currently lives in Kansas City with their girlfriend, and may be found online at www.johnstintzi.com or @stintzi on Twitter.
Interview by EMRYS DONALDSON
Black Warrior Review: In “Going Toward Gadd”, the Dungeons & Dragons world that Hu inhabits in character intersects with the ‘real world’, particularly near the end of the story. When writing this story, how did you think about the nature of constructed reality? What is reality?
John Stintzi: I’m so happy we are starting with the small questions! What is reality? Well, in Gadd I was really interested in stacking several different layers of reality a person can live in (and perform living in). I was interested in having a character who existed in these different layers, namely the constructed reality of D&D and the ‘virtual’ reality of social media, but not hir own day-to-day life. In terms of what reality is, maybe I would define it simply as your experience living, or maybe as anything that affects you. I don’t think it’s less ‘real’ to experience life in D&D than it is to experience life in ~the real world~. The intensity of immersion into the experience is different, even just on a sensory level (it’s nigh impossible to fully escape physical reality), which probably accounts for it seeming ‘less real,’ because we often assume realness is synonymous with the concrete, but I think that experience is still a valid segment of one’s life. I think we all live in different (though sometimes similar) realities, and often in several different layers at once. We’re sort of just dancing through our own, strange venn diagrams—which is what I think I find so exciting about writing fiction. I like to two-step around on other people’s worlds, and also control them. We don’t really get to do that in ~real life.~
BWR: As a follow-up question: how did you envision the physicality of Kansas City—Hu’s work, the grocery store, Liam’s house—as intersecting with this fictional world?
JS: Kansas City is a strange place, and I can’t deny that a big factor of placing the story here was simply that. As a Canadian, who recently transplanted to Kansas City via New York, I instantly fell in love with the idea of a grocery store that is 24-hour and that sells beer and wine. The weird evocativeness of Kansas City being a city sprawling across state lines with such nonchalance, the fact of its so many fountains, the surprising non-flatness (for being in both Missouri and Kansas), and its going all-in on identifying with the image of the shuttlecock—it’s a little magical here, a little unreal.
But I also wanted Kansas City to feel very tangible because all these places you mention are where ze is, for all intents-and-purposes, invisible—more a conduit for an identity (be that hir character in D&D or hir Instagram skeleton) than present hirself. Ze doesn’t really exist in Kansas City, despite living and working there. I wanted Kansas City to be a tangible anchor that I could exclude hir from.
BWR: A significant thread in the story is queer social media, especially queer Instagram. What are your favorite related social media accounts? Were there any that inspired the story in particular? As a follow-up: what are the online spaces where you feel most seen and connected?
JS: Oh gosh, I don’t know. I definitely have to give a shoutout to @omgliterallydead on Instagram, which I reference in the story (and take a few cheeky jabs at, out of love) and which was where I was inspired for the idea of Hu’s Instagram presence. I don’t know that I have many others to list, but I do think the careful constructedness of the reality of @omgliterallydead as being a literal living skeleton’s Instagram got me thinking about what it would be like to run an account for a persona like that. What would it be like dragging a skeleton around town? To be behind the scenes? What would be the motivation to do that? I wanted to play there.
This said, I don’t know that I feel ‘included’ or ‘seen’ in any social media sphere (or anywhere, honestly). I’m not good at showing myself. Also, each John is different. John on Twitter is more queer than John on Instagram, and John in real life is rather quiet about everything. Twitter is a place where I mainly go to listen, namely to dialogue on queer issues, so that I can try and be a less-shit person. But I don’t participate much, because I worry that my thoughts don’t belong there. That my voice isn’t welcome. I think I’m afraid of people thinking I’m a fraud. So I stay back. Between those two—I got rid of Facebook years ago—I really like the lack of physicality on Twitter. It allows me to be messier in my performance in a way that feels more honest.
BWR: I’ve been thinking about the production and distribution of human hormones quite a lot the past few months, especially after reading Paul Preciado’s “Testo Junkie”, which considers gatekeeping with regards to human use of testosterone in great detail. How does The Cult of the Water Bringers play into this discourse, particularly as a threat in the D&D sections of the story?
JS: I love this question but I don’t know that I have a good answer. I’ll say upfront that I don’t want to presume I have anything to add to conversation of hormones since I’m not a participant in that world (I’m going to look into that book, though!). I feel like adding the hormone-farming the cult to Sacalia was a wrench I wanted to throw into the piece, to play around with how hormones are contextualized in a queer/trans narrative. I think since Liam (the Dungeon Master) is not queer, it makes perfect sense to have the stress the hormones have in the D&D world displaced onto all humanity. I was trying to try and stretch the risk of violence that trans people experience onto the entire human population of that world. I thought that was an interesting thing to do, and making it about hormones specifically added an interesting and possibly problematic tinge to it. I wanted to make the ungendered ‘human’ label to be the only one that mattered in Sacalia. Because being human is a treacherous thing.
BWR: How do we talk about trans identity while being in the murky, questioning, unclear space that Hu is? (I’m thinking here of Maggie Nelson’s recent interview with The Fader, where she says: “My experience with The Argonauts was really gratifying because, in a world which acts like we can’t have solidarity or sociality without fixed identity, I’ve only met people through that book [who were] excited about all the space they felt, about unfixed identity. Many people will say that that’s how they experience their life, that’s how they live — [they] perform strategic identifications, but mostly they’re in flight.”) How do you find yourself in stasis? In flux?
JS: I don’t think I’ve ever felt as at home with my own messy and indefinite identity than I am when I’m thinking about how Maggie Nelson discusses fluidity, particularly in The Argonauts. Fluidity makes the most sense to me, these days, and increasingly so as I’ve become more gender-woke these last few years. I think part of having Hu get stuck in this questioning flux is that I think it’s much easier to describe—and possibly place yourself—in binary (trans and otherwise) identities than non-binary ones. The binary is still very much a useful reference point for a lot of people, and I think Hu’s particular questioning (which is both a hyperbolized and simplified version of my own) is restricted by the binary, which I think makes it slipperier for hir to find an ‘answer’ to the questioning (if that’s ever possible). There’s a lot less language to describe non-binary experience, I’ve found—and at the same time it feels like there are so many more ‘identities’/‘labels’ to pick from, which I personally find incredibly intimidating and surprisingly unhelpful.
I feel like I have to find peace in there not being any stable ground for me, but that the fluidity—which I think if you pressed many binary people, they’d agree that it’s better to feel like you have more space to move around and be in, as Nelson mentions—does feel more inclusive. I think—for me—the gender binary feels like one of those cages they keep pigs in, though I of course don’t begrudge others for finding comfort in it. My problem arises when one tries to use the gender binary to limit other people. I’d just rather be out in the woods, sniffing for truffles.
BWR: What went into the decision to use the ze/hir pronoun set for Hu’s character? How can we have a discussion about non-binary pronouns that moves beyond the fact of their existence and grammatical correctness?
JS: At first, it was an exercise to see if I could do it, since I don’t experience ze/hir pronouns much/ever in my life, and I’d never read more than maybe one story that used them (a fault of my own). I was interested—at first—in using the story as an excuse to see how hard it was to train my brain to use these pronouns, which definitely feel foreign to the tongue/ear at first. The good news is, it isn’t that hard. It’s definitely an intimidating choice, and it’s hard to get used to reading and saying and hearing them, but it doesn’t take too long. I think everyone should write at least one story with a character that uses a pronoun they’ve never used/heard of before. If you can learn how to pronounce the names in Game Of Thrones characters, you can get used to using pronouns like ze/hir.
A grammatical stance against non-binary pronouns is, of course, idiotic. There are so many people who are such fascists about language and grammar (the term ‘Grammar Nazi’ does not exist in a vacuum), which adds more skeptics to the discussion of the legitimacy of pronouns beyond the insidiously transphobic. Lots of these people are ‘learned’ folk, I find, who are also often ‘progressive’ (and often, also, older) like academics or editors who think that language is a thing that needs to be cherished. Fuck cherishing. I mean, look, language has certainly gotten wackier in the last few decades, but it has been getting wackier and wackier since the first word was invented. It’s natural for things to change, and ze/hir or—especially—the singular they should make more sense in the OED than lol.
I also chose to use that pronoun in the story because there’s no reason why someone who uses ze/hir pronouns shouldn’t be in any old story. I wasn’t planning to make hir identity a huge deal when I started the story, not exactly, and I think even at the end it’s not really so much about the struggle with a queer identity as it is about finding escape and comfort in a scary world. Which I think is the wider narrative of a lot of queer writing. We’re all just trying to find the place where we can be the most ourself.
BWR: What are you working on now? Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell our readers about?
JS: A lot, kinda? Not much that’ll be out anytime soon. I’m trying to finish up revisions on my opus-of-a-first-novel for another round of submission, starting to ramp up drafting my second, and trying to find a forever-home for a manuscript of poetry called Junebat. (The title of which is a deliberate language attack—fuck the fascists!) A chapbook of poems from that, titled The Machete Tourist, will be coming out from k | f | b (out of Toronto) this spring, so that’s something to watch out for, and in November I’ll be heading out to Long Island to be an artist in residence for a few weeks at The Watermill Center in Water Mill, NY.