Ryan Ruff Smith
Interviewed by David Leavitt
You’re principally a fiction writer. How did you find the transition from writing about (and from the point of view of) people who were not yourself to writing as yourself?
Reluctantly. Until very near the end of the revision process, I was considering this a work of fiction, even though I was using my own name and other clues meant to encourage the reader to see it as autobiographical. I think that fooling myself in this way allowed me to look at it first and foremost as a piece of writing, and to work on it with the necessary degree of detachment. When I first sat down to write it, I wasn’t sure that I would stick to what actually happened, but the further into the narrative I got, the more the actual events started to seem more interesting to me than anything I could have made up.
I think there was also a point at which the personal project behind this essay dovetailed with the aesthetic project—it’s very much a story about self-discovery, or self-accounting. To a certain extent, we’re all narrating ourselves to ourselves all the time. But at the time that I experienced and wrote this, I was at a particular narrative juncture in my life—moving to a new city, entering a long-distance phase of an important relationship, and then suddenly experiencing this jarring shift in how the outside world identified or perceived me. A lot of distinct but related questions suddenly came to a head: Who am I? Who do you think that I am? Do I sound like me? What am I doing in Cincinnati? “Finding one’s voice” is such a cliché, but I think that, on a literal level, that was the project I was undertaking here. I sent a draft to a good friend back home who’s known me for a long time, and she told me that it sounded like me. That was more comforting than she probably realized.
The other thing that made me leery about nonfiction was the question of representing others. I took a certain satisfaction in putting Mike in his place, as it were, but how could I hope to capture someone as wonderful and distinct and important to me as RL? The obvious answer was that I couldn’t, so was it wrong to try? Representation is also a traditionally fraught issue in transgender narratives—the question of who gets to represent whom. So I had a lot ambivalence about trying to claim any of this as definitive or true, in the sense that nonfiction tends to claim. In the end, the only story I could hope to tell was my own, and so that’s the one I tried to stick to telling.
In the literature of gender politics, New Neighbors breaks new ground by exploring the question of whether, in a couple, one partner’s change of gender identity affects or alters the other partner’s sexual identity. Do you feel that your relationship with RL has changed your own sense of yourself as a sexual being?
Unquestionably yes, but also kind of no. I appreciate that you phrased the question in terms of my sense of myself, because I would resist the idea that I have been changed in some fundamental or essential way—that is, into something which is not me. What has changed is my sense of sexuality as something that is necessarily preordained, inflexible, and uncapacious. The sensations of falling in love and of sexual attraction are forms of affective knowledge, aren’t they, which serve as the grounds for determining one’s sexuality? I suppose if you’re getting signals that don’t compute with your preexisting sense of what your sexuality is (or should be), you could interpret that as faulty data, “false positives,” and try your level best to disregard it, but that seems to me to be counterintuitive, incurious, and potentially toxic. (Perhaps that’s how you wind up like Mike.) And anyway, it was never really a choice for me—the signals were too clear.
It is true that we started dating before RL started medically to transition, but I knew from the beginning that he identified as trans. I will admit that, even knowing this, it took me a while to fully get it. Intellectually, I understood, but we would both be able to pinpoint a very specific moment at which the lightbulb went on for me, when I started to fully see RL as RL. My attraction from there only grew.
But knowing how you feel and coming to terms with how the world perceives you are—as I struggled to come to grips with through this piece of writing—two very different things.
In your short stories, you often write from the point of view of characters entirely different from you, in particular men who find themselves, fairly or not, regarded with distrust and suspicion or perceived as in some way creepy. “New Neighbors” reverses this formula by giving us a narrator who feels victimized and a “creepy” character who bears more than a passing resemblance to the narrators of some of your stories. Do you think you could write a story from Mike’s perspective?
I don’t know why my fictional narrators tend to turn out so creepy. I think it has less to do with an authorial intention to write about creepy people than it does with the way I tend to write—a little evasive, indirect, withholding, somewhere between a confession and a self-defense. When your characters start speaking like that, it doesn’t take long to realize that they’re hiding something, and then it becomes your job to figure out what that is, to corner them and keep them talking.
I did have a strange sense that Mike had emerged from one of my stories (I’d also been writing a lot about homes, houses, and especially apartments), but I don’t know if I could write a story directly from Mike’s perspective, or if I would want to. But I do often try to imagine myself in his position, as I did when I invented the night terrors as an explanation for his behavior and then admitted that I’d made them up. In the essay, I detail the last three times I saw Mike, and those were the last three times for several months, until recently, when I spotted him twice more. Once he was in the lobby of the local movie theater, talking on his cell phone, and once he was coming out of the old apartment building carrying a hammer, and he passed right in front of me as I was jogging by. The hammer, in particular, startled me, but he was just on his way to work, and he didn’t seem to have noticed me either time. I couldn’t tell whether he’d seen me and was avoiding my gaze, or whether he simply hadn’t seen me at all, but I had the strange impression that perhaps he was afraid of me. I guess that makes sense, if what I thought might be at the root of his verbal harassment of me was true—that is, some strain of virulent repression.
It occurs to me only now that the two short stories I’ve written since “New Neighbors” are entirely different from the work that preceded it—they’re in a somewhat knowing third-person voice, with no creepy central characters, and maybe even a little funny. (One hopes.) Perhaps writing my way into my own voice freed me up from the evasive confessional mode—perhaps I’ve put those creepy men behind me, at least for a time.
I’m sure you’re aware of the recent brouhaha over the publication of Daniel Harris’s essay on “TGs” in The Antioch Review. My own feeling is that a glacial and contemptuous silence would have been a more appropriate response to this mean-spirited essay than an online petition that ended up, ironically, calling even more attention to it. On the other hand, it could be argued that the petition provided an opportunity for transgender people and their allies to express solidarity. Do you have a view on this?
Oh dear, yes. I do think it’s a shame that such a silly, mendacious, unthoughtful piece of writing should get so much attention, so I appreciate your suggestion of an icy silence. Then again, silence is easy to misinterpret—how would we signal that our nonresponse was a contemptuous one, and not simply the product of indifference or, worse, assent?
What seems absurd to me—on top of everything else—is the idea that any opinion someone happens to hold should be considered a reasoned position in an ongoing “debate,” and therefore worthy of a platform. I joked with RL about looking forward to seeing some hot takes on the “miscegenation debate” in their next issue.
What the piece also signals to me (and Jacqueline Rose touched on this in her recent piece about trans narratives in the London Review of Books) is how personally invested some cisgender people (that is, not trans) seem to be in maintaining traditional conceptions of gender for everyone. North Carolina’s trans-targeting bathroom bill is another recent example of this. If it’s true that gender is to some degree socially constructed (and I certainly think that it is), then I suppose they’re not wrong, exactly, in fearing that they will be in some way affected. But isn’t that vulnerability fundamental to all human relationships, the possibility of being affected? (I think of those beautiful lines from Judith Butler—“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”) In that way, I suppose the outcome of my encounter is these people’s worst nightmare—an apparently straight person who has become undone, falling prey to a sort of queer-love contagion. I imagine reaching a consensus would be a lot easier if everyone could simply meet and more or less immediately fall in love with a transgender person, as I was lucky enough to do. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone meeting RL without more or less immediately falling in love with him, but then, he has other things to do.
Now a writerly question. In “New Neighbors” you use footnotes in an innovative way. What led you to decide to incorporate footnotes into the piece?
Is it innovative? At any rate, I had fun with them. The first one I put in was based on a comment RL made on an early draft of the manuscript, responding to my assertion that we were both very particular (that is, fussy) by suggesting that perhaps one of us was more particular than the other. It seemed to capture something of our relationship—our shared sense of humor, the nature of our repartee—that I hadn’t been able to capture through dialogue, so I wanted to put that in there. I wasn’t sure footnotes were right for the piece, and I thought that I would probably cut them later, as soon as someone told me it was a dumb idea, but as I started adding more, I realized that it was a way of highlighting one of the things the essay was about—the idea of constructing narratives, of the truth as something that needs to be edited, revised, and qualified in order to get right. Now that I think of it, the sense of self that I come to terms with in the essay, and that I’ve been trying to describe here, is itself defined, in part, by being open to revision.