Today on the site we welcome new contributor Annie Mok, who interviews Liz Suburbia, author of the the book Sacred Heart. Here's a bit:
MOK: There’s also [gender] stuff going on with Otto. There’s this scene where Otto offers to take Ben to the dance, and he says he’ll dress up, too. Then [when Ben comes to get him] he shows up to the door in a prom dress and a cute flower barrette and makeup, and he’s like, “Pretty hilarious, huh!” And she’s like, “Yeah, uh, it’s nice, it’s a nice dress.” He quickly realizes that it’s not “Ha-ha, weird thing,” and it gets real for him very quickly. They go and get booze and ice cream, and Otto’s eating this crappy 7-11 ice cream cone, and smiling with lipstick on. And then that’s the moment when they hook up for real. They’re sitting next to each other [on the car hood], and Ben stares at his cleavage-ish poking out of his dress, and Ben kisses his shoulder. Then there’s this moment later in the story when they’re sort of breaking up. Otto’s sitting at home watching the end of the second Kill Bill, and he sees this vision of this male-assigned person in lingerie, and the person looks like him. Can you tell me about that scene?
SUBURBIA: Well, some background on Otto’s gender identity first… Otto’s a character I identify with, and I put a lot of myself in. In the course of the story, we see him kind of cast a wide net as far as sexual and gender exploration goes, and doing some things that are kinda creepy, like hanging out under the bleachers to look at girls’ shoes and legs. He’s got something inside him that he doesn’t understand yet, which is something that I relate to. I’m assigned female at birth, and I’m married to a cis man, and we walk down the street and it looks… When you’re growing up in a religious environment and a narrow cisnormative and heteronormative world, you just think of yourself as the default even though the signs are all there. Like you said, that point of view shot from Ben, she thinks of herself as straight, but maybe she’s a little more queer than she realizes. None of these characters are aware of this stuff yet. They’ve all got bigger things on their mind. I guess this is a spoiler, that Otto survives the book.
SUBURBIA: I didn’t conceive of him as a closeted trans woman, but I’m still thinking about where the character’s gonna go. He’s a fluid person, and I guess we’ll see how that solidifies as his life goes on.
MOK: “Closeted” is such insufficient language sometimes, right? In this case, and as was the case for me, it wasn’t so much that I was closeted growing up as I just did not realize what was going on. I never really had a period of being closeted, because as soon as I identified as trans, I told the people I was close to. The way that this vision of a person that looks like him appears to Otto, free of context and in a high stress moment, a moment of loss, mirrors my experience. It points out how nonverbal, how elemental and primal this experience is for Otto.
SUBURBIA: It goes back to the horror references, where it’s kind of a ghost moment: he sees this apparition. I’m very aware of the kind of privileges I have, as someone who’s female assigned at birth, who considers themselves gender neutral but doesn’t present in any kind of way that trips anybody’s alarms. So I wanna be really careful with the gender stuff in Sacred Heart.
MOK: Can I ask what pronouns you use?
SUBURBIA: “She,” “her.” It’s as good as any. [laughs] I use “she” for my dog, too. She probably feels as much like a girl as I do. It’s something I wanna treat sensitively. And I have a lot of fears about doing it wrong, because I come from such a place of privilege in relation to existing power structures. But it’s also really important to me not to pretend it doesn’t exist.
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