Gina Frangello is the author of the novel My Sister’s Continent and the story collection Slut Lullabies. She is one of the most bold, fearless, unhindered writers I’ve ever read. After reading the manuscript of My Sister’s Continent, one editor was quoted as having said, “I couldn’t explain this book to a marketing rep without blushing or breaking down.” Here are six sex questions for the inimitable and amazing Gina Frangello.
Much of your writing deals with illness, disease and pain running concurrent with themes of sexuality. How do you see the two intertwining?
I love that you’ve asked this question, because I think this was such a recurring kernel in my earlier fiction that I kept returning to, approaching, interrogating, yet never quite going as deeply as I wanted to go with it until my most recent novel, A Life in Men, coming from Algonquin in February 2014. That book centers on a woman traveler with Cystic Fibrosis, a life-shortening illness, and really the connection between living fully—which of course includes living as a sexual being—while navigating illness, is at the very core of everything the novel tries to explore. It’s interesting, though, because sex and illness in tandem has existed in much of my work, and I think this comes from a variety of influences. For starters, I grew up with an older and chronically ill father, who was in and out of the hospital and not infrequently on the verge of death (a death that still never arrived for him—he’s now 91!) throughout my childhood, so illness and the shadow of mortality kind of hung over our house—my father was the youngest of seven brothers, and all but he and one other brother died early, between childhood and their sixties, and between that and the fact that I had another uncle on my mother’s side who was murdered in a robbery—two murdered maternal uncles, actually—and then later a cousin who was murdered in gang violence, and several kids I went to elementary school with were murdered during our teen years, mainly gang-related but also just truly randomly sad shit like being beaten to death by an upstairs neighbor…I mean, some kids don’t know a lot of people who have died except maybe their grandparents, but in retrospect I lived a life where people were often dropping like flies, people of various ages. And yet unlike someone who, say, loses their mother during childhood, I was just far enough removed from most of these deaths to look at them with some amount of distance, to be able to think about them with that freakishly analytical writerly lens, you know? They impacted me, but they weren’t the singularly defining events of my personal life, like losing a parent or a sibling might be. By the time I started college, I had…I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about this before, Jessica, but I had just literally been through dozens—like, dozens—of deaths. I had been to dozens of wakes and funerals. I had touched plenty of dead bodies. So I guess I have always been kind of preoccupied with mortality, both as it concerns acts of violence and as it concerns illness and powerlessness over the body.
Yet another thing that preoccupied me as I was coming of age was the eroticization of fragility, damage and death in young, sexualized women. I began to notice that the French films of the 80s and 90s—Betty Blue, Camille Claudel, The Hairdresser’s Husband, wow, there were so many, I wrote a story riffing on them once—often ended in the death of the female protagonist, usually by suicide but any means would do, explosions, euthanasia…and I had an eating disorder and so did so many of my friends, and there was this strange tightrope wherein we were all flirting with self-mutilation in various forms, addiction and starvation and purging and cutting, and somehow it seemed “sexy” in the culture—from Hollywood blockbusters to foreign art films, the young, damaged woman is eroticized. And yet this only was true to a point, right? Like, you didn’t see disabled women in those films. You didn’t see women slowly suffocating on their own mucus like with Cystic Fibrosis, women missing limbs, women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who couldn’t spend all their time prettily snorting coke up their delicate noses like the young Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, because they were too busy shitting 20 times a day…I was sort of fascinated with the type of tightly-controlled damage that was portrayed as sexy, vs. the kind of raw, real-life, impossible-to-control damage that was invisible in media, that was seen as asexual. Like, all the models and celebrities were just thin enough that they obviously had some borderline eating disorder, but if they got so skinny that they were hospitalized with feeding tubes, and they didn’t “look good,” then they just…disappeared from the public eye, unless they actually died like Karen Carpenter, where they could be exploited again as Oh So Tragic. For young women in the 80s and 90s, both in the mainstream culture and in the punk/Goth/grunge movements, there was this certain message that it was sexy to be messed up, to be borderline sick, heroin chic. But if you, god forbid, were really fucking sick, then you were invisible and erased, outside the bounds of sex. So I think the overlap of that… the fact that I was kind of obsessed with death, and I was kind of sick, and like so many young women I’d mainly brought my sickness on myself in various ways…I was fascinated by the interplay between the visible and the invisible in terms of the feminine body. I got obsessed with the body writers of the generation before me, with French feminism and l’écriture féminine and American writers like Mary Gaitskill and Dorothy Allison, women who were trying to get the body on the page—an absolutely impossible goal, and one that seems worthy of giving everything to artistically.
You’ve written about sex in every form without ever plummeting into the Shades of Grey territory. How do you balance writing to tantalize versus writing to reveal character or plot?
You know, I’m often surprised by the fact that…well, that people think of my work as being so out there sexually. My first novel was about 330 pages long and it had maybe 3 actual sex scenes (as opposed to references to sex) in it. My work has been compared to Anais Nin’s in the past, and while I love Nin I don’t think it’s an accurate comparison. The work of someone like Nin, or Erica Jong, takes sex as the central subject. And it’s a worthy, deeply complex central subject. I think, however, that my central subjects exist elsewhere and that sex is one vehicle for accessing and interrogating them. Power dynamics. Gender roles. Class issues. Illness, mortality, even spirituality, which plays a pretty large role in my work despite the fact that I am an atheist…I’m interested in the way religion and its dogmas and historical legacies shape identity. Nin’s work is erotica—very smart erotica—and of course so is Fifty Shades, whereas I don’t think I have ever written anything that could be labeled that way. In fact, one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me about my writing was when an old grad school friend told me that the sex in one of my stories made him never want to have sex again. I loved that. I write sex in the hopes of making people think. Sometimes it can do that and tantalize. Other times, thinking leads to the opposite of titillation, and I’m more than okay with that. I’ve been turned on and repulsed and angered and saddened by sexual scenes I’ve written. Sometimes things can be erotic and sad at the same time, of course. That’s where complexity lies. I’m not sure I see any point—I don’t mean for other writers but for me personally—in writing a sex scene that does nothing but tantalize. There’s plenty of porn on the market that aims to comfort and arouse people who either don’t have access to sex or whose sexual realities don’t line up with their desires. I don’t think trying to serve that purpose is the domain of literary fiction or novelists. It’s great if a reader finds something I’ve written genuinely arousing, but if I felt like the only purpose of a scene was to arouse, I would cut it. Or better yet, complicate the fuck out of it. I mean, just like the saying “happy families are all alike,” it’s also probably true that in fiction, good, conflict free, healthy, physically and emotionally satisfying sex doesn’t need much description. That’s great to live, but in fiction, only trouble is interesting.
Is anything off limits for you? After reading through your work I’m trying to come up with something you wouldn’t write about. I mean, Frangello fans even know about your husband’s enormous penis.
This is kind of a funny question. I mean, in our current, memoir-glutted culture, I have actually written very little about my own sex life in my nonfiction. Yes, I outed my husband David as “the Tommy Lee of TNB,” but (as a friend of mine recently pointed out to me), probably telling the world that your husband has a big dick is the one kind of “confession” where you can be flat-out guaranteed that the person whose secrets you’re revealing isn’t going to get pissed. I have never, in any forum that I can recall, written in serious depth about my own sex life—certainly not in comparison to writers who keep entire blogs about their personal lives, or who write memoirs about their sexual excesses or inorgasmia or years as a dominatrix or what have you. So I guess my answer is pretty much a resounding yes: there is a lot that’s off limits for me. Mainly, my personal sexual life, for the most part. I mean, I’m not Victorian about it, and I will write a little about it here and there, but among my body of nonfiction writing, sex would be a very minor, not major, theme.
My sexual writing has been almost entirely in the domain of fiction. And I think the best and most interesting answer for me, when it comes to fiction, is that nothing is ever “off limits” just on principle: we write what compels us, and the story or the novel moves largely of its own volition at times, so that the experience is more like taking dictation than straining our brains to come up with ideas. I’ve definitely never purposely censored myself in terms of some topic or act being off-limits. That said, I’m not exactly Dennis Cooper or Jerzy Kosinski either. No one is shitting in anyone’s mouth or fucking any tigers in my fiction. There is a fair amount of sex in my writing, sometimes with a dose of kink, but not more so than in, say, the work of Mary Gaitskill or Philip Roth, who are, in the end, “mainstream” literary writers, not people working out on the fringe and pushing boundaries beyond what most people find palatable. A lot of acclaimed, accessible writers have gone far further “out there” in their work than I have—look at Less Than Zero, the snuff film scene. My spring author at Other Voices Books, Rob Roberge, once wrote a great, extreme sex scene where a woman gets repeated enemas in a kiddie pool until the water is spouting out of her mouth, and if I’m recalling this correctly a British reviewer hilariously implored him in a review of the book, “Why, Mr. Roberge, why?”—I mean, I love that a lot of literary writers have forayed into that kind of terrain; the woman in the kiddie pool, she thinks of herself as a sexual adventurer and says sex is her “Mount Everest.” It’s vital to have writers who can take us to those places without flinching. Then you have those writers who are volitionally more avant-garde or fringe, the Ackers, the Bob Flanagans, and it’s important that there are documenters in artistic culture who do push boundaries and who can take us to the edge of the sexual abyss. But I tend to think we must live in a pretty repressed culture where the sex I write would be considered that shocking.
It seems that many people, and maybe Americans in particular, have a sort of cultural Madonna/Whore Syndrome. Are people surprised to hear that you have kids and are a very involved and doting mother? Do you feel like you’re living two separate lives with your writing and your mothering?
Well, in truth I was about to point this thing out above—this Madonna/Whore thing—but I didn’t want to be didactic, so I’m glad you brought it up! My personal belief is that the people most “shocked” by my fiction are the people who actually know me, either in person or online, because it doesn’t jive with the personal “image” I project as, I guess, a nice, middle-aged Midwestern woman who has been married for 20something years and has three young children…or, like, this Italian daughter whose elderly parents live downstairs. I think there is an extreme schism in American psychology between mothering and sexuality—perhaps between family and sexuality even. Sexiness is thought of (oddly) almost as a solitary, lonely thing: those who are “sexy” are supposed to be phobic of commitment, i.e. Samantha on Sex and the City, or be “players” and accumulate a wide array of partners and have little interest in things like small children or the elderly, or being domestic or maternal. This is true for both women and men, but most dominantly for women, who are often seen with our children as the primary caregivers, whereas more men may know scads of people—say professionally—who have never even seen their kids.
I absolutely do live two separate lives regarding my writing and my mothering, but not in a way that has anything to do with sex. Writing is a solitary space—I can only write, generally speaking, when physically alone. Parenting, on the other hand, is the most highly relational space a person can inhabit. My writing also, whether running a writing program in Mexico or traveling for a book tour, literally takes me away from home at times. And my literary tribe—TNBers, people from the Rumpus, my fellow Other Voices Books editors and writers—live all over the country and exist largely in a virtual space that doesn’t overlap much with my family life. So there is a schism, yes. But not for sexual reasons, other than the obvious fact that since I write for adults, my kids don’t read my work yet. They have, however, accompanied me on many writing-related gigs, such as being interviewed on the radio—in fact, my twin daughters fell asleep in a chair once while I was being interviewed for WBEZ, which goes to show how impressed and enraptured they are by my career. I mean, clearly to them, I’m just their mom. As it should be at this stage.
You lived for a time in Amsterdam. Do you think the culture of that city and the openness of the Dutch (I was once told that the reason no one has curtains on their windows in Amsterdam is because they believe that nothing in a person’s life needs to be hidden) has had an impact on your writing and the dominant sexual themes in your writing?
I’m fascinated by Dutch sexuality! I was already almost thirty when I moved there, so I don’t think it was incredibly formative in the sense that…well, I was already very interested in writing about sex even in my early short stories in college courses, so no, I mean, I don’t think it shaped the fact that sex compels me as a literary topic or an illuminator of other topics. But my time in Amsterdam definitely has made appearances in my actual fiction—in the story “Attila the There” in Slut Lullabies, and in A Life in Men there’s a whole section of the novel set in Amsterdam. I was just today talking to a friend about the sexual atmosphere of Holland. It’s in many ways antithetical to the United States…perhaps on the surface I mean. The age of consent is something like fourteen (this may be outdated), because I think the sex-positiveness of the Dutch culture wouldn’t view having sex early as something that would be “damaging” (there are, in my view, both pros and cons to that mentality). There’s also very little concept of physical modesty, which is another form of not having curtains on the window (though this is an exaggeration, and most houses have shutters—they just are open a great deal of the time—and also the homes tend to be tall, so most people don’t live on street level which also might make looking in on one’s neighbors less likely)…but yes, people are wildly casual about nudity. Women will take their tops off in a store to try on a shirt without bothering to go into the fitting room, and if you visit a spa—and I mean a mainstream spa, not with any prostitution undertones, to be clear—the locker room is likely to be co-ed, and you receive a small towel rather than a robe, so while you’re waiting for your service, you’re likely to be sitting in a lobby full of nude or mostly nude people reading magazines and talking on cell phones…then, when you’re finally called in for your massage and think you’re being put out of your misery, it turns out the door to the massage room is glass, so any passerby can watch you having your ass kneaded, basically. And of course prostitution is decriminalized. To an American, this is all very surreal. What I want to point out, however, is that this is all a bit less “liberating” for women than progressive Americans may imagine. The Dutch have fewer women working full time outside the home—by far—than we do in the United States, and almost no CEOs and such are female compared with American companies. Legalized prostitution doesn’t tend to mean it’s a viable occupation for educated Dutch girls looking for fun and easy money like some free love utopia, but rather Indonesian, Moroccan and other immigrants who have no money or job opportunities in Holland tend to overrun the sex industry, and the dominant consumers are white American and European male tourists. Still, it’s a fascinating culture. If you go to the gay pride parade in Amsterdam—which takes place on the canals—you’ll see scads of grandparents with their grandchildren, having a nice family day out by watching the parade of gyrating men in leather bondage gear. The attitude towards sex, as the joke goes, is that the Dutch treat sex much like brushing their teeth—as more fun, sure, but just as practical and utilitarian and matter-of-fact. It could be fair to say that this robs the whole endeavor of some of its mystery and romance. Or maybe that’s just American of me to say.
Can you point to a book, or an author in particular, who has influenced your writing and your willingness to write so candidly about sex and desire?
Absolutely. Long before Amsterdam, long before even self-identifying as a writer, the most formative writers—the writers whose work most compelled me—were people like Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood and Mary Gaitskill. All three, in very different ways, have dealt enormously with sexual politics, and with sexual dynamics as a window to larger power issues. These were the writers I cut my teeth on, and whose work spoke to me most deeply…oftentimes, even, writers who didn’t write dominantly about sexuality might have done so in one given work, and that piece would tend to be my favorite, such as Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, a novel that positively made my head explode and probably influenced my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, more than any other book, or like DM Thomas’ The White Hotel. Later on, avant garde women writers, from Kathy Acker to Cris Mazza—who was an early mentor of mine in grad school—continued to give me some kind of road map in my head for how ordinary, deeply personal human interactions like sexual expression served as mirrors for wide-ranging topics. I love Steve Almond’s recent “Why I Write Smut” manifesto on The Rumpus, and Steve has long been an active articulator of how and why sex is an essential literary theme. It’s probably fair to say that almost every novel I’ve been truly passionate about has dealt frankly with sex on some level, and that I tend to find literature that eschews sex entirely to be overly polite, formal and distanced from the core human experience.