Maggie Nelson interview: ‘Women are dying. Arguing over terms won’t save them’

Maggie Nelson in Los Angeles, California
Maggie Nelson in Los Angeles, California - Dan Tuffs 2024

Bluets, a beguiling work of prose poetry in celebration of the colour blue, might not be the most obvious choice for the stage. But, as adapted by the ­playwright Margaret Perry, the 2009 book by the American writer and critic Maggie Nelson is appear­ing at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Nelson is no stranger to performance herself. She cut her teeth on the avant-garde poetry scene, reading her work aloud in crowded bars. But in this instance, she says she was happy to leave everything in the “very capable hands” of the director Katie Mitchell and actors Emma D’Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw. Nelson has seen the script a couple of times, initially to approve the project, and then to make some notes – but that’s it. She’s just as intrigued as the rest of us to see the result.

As my description of Bluets might suggest, Nelson’s books are hard to categorise. She combines elements of memoir with cultural criticism, philosophical thought and prose poetry. It’s a cocktail that doesn’t readily lend itself to either stage or screen adaptation.

Jane: A Murder (2005), for instance, takes as its subject the death of Nelson’s maternal aunt, who was killed in 1969 while a first-year law student at the University of Michigan. Nelson, who was born in 1973, never met Jane, but like the rest of the family, she was haunted by her absence. The book is something of a literary collage, bringing together a miscellany of material, from documentary sources to extracts from Jane’s own diary, even accounts of Nelson’s own dreams. Her follow-up, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial (2007), takes the shape of more orthodox reportage – recounting the trial of Jane’s killer, 35 years after the murder, which Nelson and her mother attended – yet Nelson braids this first-person narrative with interrogations of the ethics and aesthetics involved.

Published years before the more recent explosion in “true crime”, one can imagine a Netflix producer today eagerly picking up these books, looking for inspiration for their next hit series, only to find themselves reading something entirely unexpected – “a bunch of weird philosophical and personal things about me”, as Nelson puts it. She was ahead of the curve both in terms of contributing to the genre, and to its critique: “The question of how and why we want to look at harmed women.”

Feeling blue: Ben Whishaw, Emma D'Arcy and Kayla Meikle in the Royal Court's Bluets, based on a 2009 book by Maggie Nelson
Feeling blue: Ben Whishaw, Emma D'Arcy and Kayla Meikle in the Royal Court's Bluets, based on a 2009 book by Maggie Nelson - Camilla Greenwood

We’re speaking via Zoom. It’s early morning in Los Angeles, where Nelson is in her study at home, but it’s 5pm in London. “How was the day?” she asks me. “Tell me what I’m to expect, now you’re at the end of it.” Her warmth takes me slightly by surprise. It isn’t that I thought she would be unfriendly; more that her writing displays a roving and voracious intellect that can leave you humbled. See her new book, Like Love: Essays and Conversations, which contains pieces that have been gleaned from the past two decades of her writing life.

“A long time ago, I decided that I wasn’t particularly interested in being an arbiter in the cultural realm,” she says, distancing herself from the more mainstream reviewing beat. “I was more interested in bringing my powers of attention to work that I thought was really worthwhile, and that I thought was worth having more people look at. Not that you’re blowing sunshine. It’s more that it has to move you. You have to want to say something about it.”

The gut reaction that initially draws Nelson to the subject in question – be it a piece of art, a novel, or an artist’s wider vision – is never entirely filtered out. “Generous” is the word that springs to mind when I think of how best to describe her critical voice. To read Like Love is to watch her circling issues of gender and sexuality, but refracted through a variety of different prisms, so that the end result is a constellation of ideas that seem to be expanding outwards.

Although every piece has been previously published elsewhere, I suspect much here will be new for readers, since it’s only in the past decade that Nelson’s work has found a more mainstream readership, especially in Britain. Her breakout title was The Argonauts (2015). A memoir about queer family-making, it documented and drew on her experience of IVF treatments, pregnancy and early motherhood, while her spouse, the fluidly gendered ­artist Harry Dodge, underwent bodily transformations of his own in the form of top surgery and ­testosterone injections.

Maggie Nelson is the author of The Argonauts and Bluets
Maggie Nelson is the author of The Argonauts and Bluets

In America, The Argonauts was a New York Times bestseller, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, while here in Britain, it was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. It won Nelson praise across the board for both the dexterity of her critical thought, and for what many readers described as the bravery of her candid writing about sex, love and desire.

But the latter is something against which she pushes back, and strongly. “I’ve been in the business since I was 15 years old. Standing up and talking about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It’s not a new rodeo for me. I was more like, ‘Welcome to the party!’, not ‘Here I come!’”

As far as Nelson is concerned, the issue is one of expectation and conventionality. “For people who don’t necessarily read what [her friend the artist and poet] Wayne Koestenbaum calls ‘philosophically smeared literature about the body’ – which is what I generally perceive myself as having been involved with for the past 30-plus years – this may come as a shock or a revelation, or I may seem brave. But this wasn’t something new to me.”

As she’s keen to remind me, there’s a whole canon of this work out there, and they’re the writers and artists who’ve shaped her thinking. Like Love is bookended by interviews with two of the most important: the aforementioned Koestenbaum, and the poet Eileen Myles. But it’s also a subject on which Nelson touches in an essay about the work of the French writer Hervé Guibert, a pioneer of auto­fiction who wrote about the ravages of Aids. “People read him,” she says, “and they say, ‘Wow! You really wrote to shock the bourgeoisie!’ No – he’s telling you about a culture that’s his life. You think it’s this other thing because that’s the only way you can see it.”

'Since I was 15, I've been standing up and talking about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll'
'Since I was 15, I've been standing up and talking about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' - Dan Tuffs 2024

One might argue that a similar tunnel vision lies at the heart of today’s fraught discussions of sexuality and gender. The Argonauts tackled questions about identity, change and the embodied experience, so I’m keen to hear Nelson’s thoughts on the divisions in current feminist thinking. She’s thoughtful in her response, refusing, it seems, to get drawn into discussions of individuals who’ve been described as gender-critical feminists – perhaps because her outlook is surprisingly optimistic. Nor, she argues, are such conflicts new. The specifics might be different, but the feminist movement has always been beset by divergent opinion.

“The good thing about being a student of feminist history is that you’re aware that there’s a long history of problematics around who’s included, whether regarding the category of woman, or who has had access to the movement.”

Someone she does mention by name, though, is the gender-­studies scholar and activist Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble (1990) was a touchstone of third-wave feminism, redefining the ways in which people thought about sex and gender. Earlier this year, ­Butler sallied back into the fray with a follow-up volume, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, an impassioned polemic about the ways in which today’s gender wars are fuelling reactionary politics.

Bluets is at the Royal Court Theatre until June 29
Bluets is at the Royal Court Theatre until June 29

Nelson says she has been struck by the book’s reflections, in particular on gender-critical feminism. Butler refrains from saying, as some opponents do, that it isn’t a form of feminism at all; instead, the philosopher suggests that it “shouldn’t” be one. “Put most generously,” ­Nelson explains, “what I hear in [Butler’s] statement is a call to come together and think about what the movement should be. And if it’s about dignity, human rights, reduced violence, and ways of moving around the world that afford everyone a measure of acceptance, safety and belonging, then I see a lot of possibilities for solidarity.”

It’s easy, she continues, to point out what’s not working, or things we don’t like, or why and what we hate about each other. It’s much harder to think about what we want the world to be, and to actually think through how we might work together to make this happen. This, she says, is why she admires ­Butler’s work so much.

“There are many good-faith ­conversations to be had, and always will need to be had, about feminism and the category of woman, about identity, ontology and biology. But look, here in America we lost [the longstanding pro-abortion-rights judgment] Roe v Wade. Women are bleeding out. They’re dying. ­Arguing about the terms that are used in a hos­pital is not saving ­people, and that’s something we all need to agree upon. And the same forces that have made that come to pass are the ones who are trans­phobic.”

She interrupts herself, apologising for getting on her soapbox, but her passion is evident. “It’s not notional. It’s real, and it’s actual. It’s a very urgent time.”

Like Love: Essays and ­Conversations (Fern, £20) is published on ­Thursday. Bluets is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, until June 29;