Tuesday 21 January 2014

Interview with Roz Kaveney

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Roz Kaveney, a prolific British novelist, poet, critic, transgender activist, editor of Reading the Vampire Slayer, member of the Midnight Rose collective, and author of Rhapsody of Blood: vol. 1: Rituals and vol. 2: Reflections, and the poetry collection Dialectic of the Flesh. She is a Londoner, sentimentalist, radical, “somewhat disliked by various silly people”. Hello Roz!
Roz: Hello Monika!
Monika: While preparing for the interview with you, I was amazed by the number of initiatives and projects you took part in: a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship (FAC), a former deputy chair of Liberty, deputy editor of the transgender-related magazine META, a core member of the Midnight Rose collective. How do you find energy and time to cover so many activities?
Roz: Well, I didn’t do all of those things at the same time. I learned when I was quite young that I have limited energy and it’s all been a matter of prioritizing and forgiving myself when I need to walk away from something. For example, when I was elected to the Executive Committee of Liberty, I stepped down as Secretary of FAC, because there were plenty of other people capable of doing the work I had been doing.
When my health declined – I had some bad times with gall-bladder surgery – I resigned from Liberty to concentrate on my writing again which is why there is considerable hiatus between the Midnight Rose period of my work and the work I’ve done over the last decade.

Monika: The Feminists Against Censorship was formed in 1989 by a group of long-time feminist academics and campaigners who wished to fight censorship from a feminist perspective. How successful have you been with your agenda?
Roz: In terms of the agenda we originally set ourselves, very successful. Which is to say, we argued successfully, as feminists, against particular proposed legislation which large parts of the Labour Movement had accepted as crucial to promoting feminism. I have nothing but respect for the late Andrea Dworkin but the likely consequences of the laws she proposed were the suppression of important sexual information and major works of art.
We demanded that discussion of censorship and pornography be evidence-based and criticized the tendency of our pro-censorship sisters to be naive about the provenance of studies – there was, in the 90s, a tendency to be uncritical of studies which seemed to demonstrate particular levels of harm but which were based on bad methodology, and were often scare tactics by the political Right. The conversation needed and needs to be had, but it needed to be a genuine dialogue between feminists.
Monika: During the 70s, many influential women accepted lesbianism and bisexuality as part of feminism. As a result, a substantial number of feminists favored this view whereas some feminists considered sexuality irrelevant to the achievement of other goals. What would be your view in this respect?
Roz: I’d say that what is, and ought to be, part of feminism is the acknowledgment that lesbianism and bisexuality exist, and that suppression of sexual freedom is a significant part of patriarchy.
Clearly the links between the politics of sexuality and, say, workplace rights are not immediate or obvious, yet one of the fundamental goals of feminist struggle has to be to increase the freedom of women to be themselves on their own terms – sexual exploration is both a part of that and a consequence of it. The mistake made by some seventies feminists was the idea that it was useful or desirable to regard lesbianism as intrinsic to being a good feminist.

Monika: You came out both as lesbian and trans. What was the hardest thing about it?
Roz: When I was in my teens and twenties, I made a clear distinction between my romantic friendships with women and my sexual adventures with men, only regarding the latter as specifically related to my sexuality. This remained the case even after my one and only sexual relationship with a woman while still presenting as male – my best friend was in love with me and wanted to offer me an alternative to transition.
Some years later, after my transition and my surgery, I found myself considerably less drawn to men and they to me and fell in love with a woman. The eighties were not a good time to be both trans and lesbian; there was a lot of prejudice around in lesbian circles. Nonetheless, I found true love and also got laid quite a lot while waiting for it to come along…
Monika: At that time of transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Roz: I always had role models – the trans sex workers who took me in and looked after me when I was a teenager; the brilliant Rachel Pollack from whom I learned that you could be trans and still have a career as a writer; my braver contemporaries like Adele Anderson who were my support system during the transition as I hope I was for theirs.
Most of my trans role models aren’t especially famous – just men and women pursuing their dreams and being kind to those like them. That is what community is.
Monika: You gave up poetry in your twenties, not resuming it until you reached your sixties. Why?
Roz: A number of reasons – part of it was the fact that I didn’t think, in my twenties, that I was especially good. I was part of a circle of writers that included at least one major poet and several others who subsequently became famous and I compared myself negatively with them. I was also going through a period of being in denial about my need to transition and that essential dishonesty was not good for my writing; I had not found a language in which I could speak honestly about my life.

The life of an activist.

What changed was that, in my late 50s, the deaths of a number of my friends brought me face to face with the need to find a language in which I could express grief; poetry became my preferred outlet and I find, from time to time, that I can use it to look backwards, effectively, over my entire life and come to terms with my past.
I ended up discovering that the discipline of very formal structures was a part of that, as was the acceptance that all poetry is to some extent a game, a dance of words, a brittle artifice through which we nonetheless find our way to truth.
The other reason for my obsession with form is that I regard it as terribly important to occupy a space within the Canon and force it to acknowledge all the things that it has traditionally omitted.
Much post-modernism seeks to render the canon irrelevant or even destroy it; I would much rather subvert it and force it to honor its claims of inclusion and justice.
Monika: You are the author of acclaimed books on popular culture and literature such as Reading The Vampire Slayer; From Alien To The Matrix; Teen Dreams; and Superheroes. Is there anything like transgender literature?
Roz: Not yet – applying a cold eye, and perceptions that come in part from my gender history to the creations of mass culture is one step in that direction. Trans people who write and create are helping build a language.
Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender writer, poet, or artist?
Roz: I don’t think we have an obligation to provide the community with poster children, or idealized representations to aspire to, though I can see how a desire to do that might be a source of inspiration. Most trans people have had to be extraordinarily honest with themselves to pursue and get through transition – that’s a good starting point for art, which is why there is a slightly disproportionately high proportion of active artists etc. in the trans community.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Roz: The vast majority of them have been –at best – attempts to understand trans people from a cis perspective or honor friends. That’s not an ignoble goal and some of the work is fine, while a lot of it is clueless and some of it deeply malicious and traducing. I would generally say ‘must try harder’.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in British society in general?
Roz: Trans people – not just men and women but the genderqueer, non-gendered and neutrois – are gaining recognition. It’s a slow process – a decade ago we got limited success on change of civil status but we are still fighting prejudice.
It would have been desirable for the Equal Marriage act to reinstate ‘lost marriages’ – ongoing pre-transition partnerships that had to end in divorce or annulment and then reinstate themselves as civil partnerships – and not to introduce the spousal veto on gender recognition certificates – we argued for the one and against the other and no one listened. Things have improved no end, but it is still two steps forward and one back – open transphobia is far less respectable than it used to be.

Monika: It is inspiring to see the growing number of transgender women on The IoS Pink List, an annual Independent on Sunday Pink List of Britain’s most influential LGBT people. Every year you are ranked higher and higher: 85th (in 2011), 65th (in 2012), and 61st (in 2013)…
Roz: I stand on the shoulders of giants.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Roz: I have been active in the past – Liberty is an across-the-board campaigning organization and I was involved in making policy on the future of the security services and the balancing of civil liberties and human rights as central principles. These days I bitch from the sidelines except when asked to participate in study groups, focus groups, and so on. Participating in politics, whether the mainstream or protest is something we should all do – trans people have a lot to give.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Roz: It’s central but I’m not going to talk about it directly because it’s a private thing. But then there is ‘love’ which is central to my poetry – a cultural construct around which I work – and that has a role too.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Roz: Yes, but my memoirs are only partly about being trans – much more about being part of quite an interesting generation at Oxford, about the club scene of the late seventies, about artists and writers I’ve known, about the struggle within the early '90s mainstream progressive politics against the manipulations of Blairite New Labour and so on. I wrote a bunch of chapters some years ago and will doubtless write more at some point.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Roz: I’m working on four things – the third and fourth volumes of the large-scale fantasy novel RHAPSODY OF BLOOD, revision of my unpublished 1987 novel about trans hustlers in Chicago TINY PIECES OF SKULL; a critical study of a fantasy film; and a larger collection of my poetry than the two excellent selections published by Lawrence Schimel at Midsummer Night’s Press DIALECTIC OF THE FLESH and WHAT IF WHAT’S IMAGINED WERE ALL TRUE.
Monika: Roz, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Roz Kaveney.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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