Wednesday 14 February 2024

Interview with Lucy Sante

Monika: Lucy Sante is a well-known Belgian-born American writer, critic, and artist. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of several books, including “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York” (1991) and “The Other Paris” (2015). Until her retirement in 2023, she was also a professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College. In 2024, she published her transition memoir “I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition”. Hello Lucy! Thank you for accepting my invitation.
Lucy: Thanks for inviting me! I’ve dipped into your blog many times over the past five or ten years, and it has helped me see the great variety of transgender experiences.
Monika: Thank you so much! I am always happy to help my sisters. You are a very prolific writer. What makes someone a good writer?
Lucy: Close attention to language and its nuances; a sense of adventure and exploration about writing itself, quite apart from the subject matter.
Monika: How do you come up with ideas for books? Are you easily inspired by your own experience and instincts?
Lucy: Yes, always. I write strictly about things that interest me - I have earned that luxury because I have been doing it for more than forty years.
Monika: Your family emigrated to the United States several times between 1959 and 1963, facing endless financial challenges.
Lucy: We emigrated twice, in 1959 and 1960; then my mother and I went back twice to take care of dying grandparents, and those visits were so long that I felt as if I were emigrating all over again when I came back. My teenage years weren’t as dramatic, although I did get kicked out of my first high school.
Monika: Were you anxious to leave Europe behind?
Lucy: Not at all! I was a child and up for adventure of any kind. The US was a big, unreal mystery until I got there, and maybe afterward too.
Monika: Once you settled down in the US, you started to work in the mailroom and then as assistant to editor Barbara Epstein at The New York Review of Books and became a regular contributor there, writing about film, art, photography, and miscellaneous cultural phenomena, as well as book reviews. How do you recollect working with Barbara and your work there?
Lucy: Barbara changed my life and probably saved it. She taught me how to be an adult, and she taught me how to assume authority in my writing - how to have self-confidence there even if I was lacking it in every other part of my life. I sometimes think of her as my real mother.

"I was obsessed, and also paranoid
and at war with myself."

Monika: In 1998 you published your first autobiographical book “The Factory of Facts”. I guess there is not any direct reference to your transness in the book or you managed to hide it well.
Lucy: No, I was very far from being able to claim my transness there - and that also accounts for a certain impersonality in the writing. I described all the cultural forces that molded me while evading self-depiction, and my transness was a leading factor in that evasion (the fact that my parents were still alive then was another).
Monika: By the way, how did you get on with your mother? Do you think she would accept you as her daughter now?
Lucy: My mother and I, beginning when I was 9 or 10, fought relentlessly for the rest of her life. We hated each other. I had a stillborn older sister with whom she seemed to have conflated me when I was small, and the troubles began on the outskirts of puberty, when as I suspect one of the problems was that I seemed to be male. Despite this, she would never have accepted me as her daughter. She was an uneducated voodoo-Catholic peasant who never adapted to the US or the modern world at all.
Monika: Is “I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition” (2024) a natural continuation of your life described in “The Factory of Facts” or you have rewritten your life story from a female perspective?
Lucy: I haven’t rewritten my life from a female perspective exactly - not sure just what that would entail - but I have reexamined my life from an emotional perspective, rather than a historical or sociological point of view.
Monika: Which elements of your story, described in “I Heard Her Call My Name”, could be useful for other trans ladies?
Lucy: I think there could be many, both for the older trans woman, who will certainly identify with many parts, and for the younger, who will see how knowledge of trans nature does not go away, no matter how strenuous the efforts or how long the struggle.
Monika: You are a well-known writer. Your story reminds me of the transition of Jan Morris, a famous Welsh historian, author, and travel writer. Is the fact that someone is famous more difficult to come out? Is it so because you have more to lose?
Lucy: I did worry briefly about how it would affect my career - but only briefly. What being semi-well-known did was to ensure that my transition would be a public matter from the start. If I had been more obscure nobody would care.
Monika: You came out first on Instagram in 2021 and made it even more public by talking to Vanity Fair in 2022. Were you satisfied with the response from the media and your readers?
Lucy: Yes, I heard from tons of people from my past, and someone changed my Wikipedia entry within half an hour of my coming out on Instagram. It was very satisfying.

Lucy as generated by the Epik
AI photo editor.

Monika: Did you plan how to come out to the public or it was a spontaneous action?
Lucy: Yes, I definitely thought that I had to make it public. The offer from Vanity Fair to write my story - I wasn’t interviewed; I wrote it myself - came the same day as the Insta post, and that was just what I had been hoping for.
Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run away. You ran a lot…
Lucy: I did. I fully intended to take it to my grave.
Monika: Luckily this is not going to happen. You compared it to an “egg”, a moment when we are not yet fully aware of our transness and when the moment of revelation occurs, the egg cracks and that can happen at any time being dependent on many known and unknown factors. Was COVID the tipping point, the last trigger that made you realize that you are a woman?
Lucy: It may have had some circumstantial influence, but I don’t think it was critical. What tipped the balance was my decision to pass every earlier photo of me through FaceApp. That made it a project, since I had to search all over the house for pictures, and I’m very susceptible to projects. What I only realized recently is that the project, which took days, broke through a mechanism I wasn’t aware I had in place, which put a time limit on my fantasizing. After an hour or two my superego would stop it – I knew that without that check I would have to confront my wish to transition, and I was terrified.
Monika: When you fed in your mug-shot-style selfie into FaceApp you must have got in return a picture of an attractive woman. Did it please you?
Lucy: It did! I was amazed, and it led me to feed into FaceApp every picture of myself I could find beginning at about age 11, and that is what cracked my egg.
Monika: Before your egg cracked, did you keep up any interest in transgender matters?
Lucy: Yes, of course. I was obsessed, and also paranoid and at war with myself, so I had to conduct my research under the highest levels of cloak-and-dagger secrecy - and with the aforementioned time limit, which served to kill many impulses before they could really get started.
Monika: How did you do your research? YouTube videos? You wrote that you were scrolling through endless photos of Japanese otokonoko models. Why them?
Lucy: Luck of the draw, I guess. YouTube, Google keyword searches. In the early days of being online (late ‘90s), I would follow all 200 links on any given trans person’s GeoCities page, etc.
Monika: Did you crossdress in your teens?
Lucy: Never for more than about five minutes at a time. I knew that any gender exploration I did was going to be a one-way trip, and I was terrified.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Lucy: I lost my romantic and domestic relationship of fourteen years. We’re still very close, but my girlfriend hated that I had kept a secret this big from her, and she isn’t attracted to women. That devastated me.

Available via Amazon.

Monika: You met her as your marriage was reaching its breaking point and you were together for 14 years. Was she surprised about your transness? How did you come out to her?
Lucy: I showed her a FaceApp photo - that was my prop. She was completely unprepared.
Monika: Why did you choose Lucy for your name? Is it because it was practical to add “y” to your deadname?
Lucy: When I was 12 I won a writing contest, and a local newspaper ran a photo of the five of us who had won prizes. The others were all girls. The caption writer may not have looked at the photo, and may have assumed that “Luc” was a misprint, so I appeared as “Lucy.” It’s been my name ever since.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Lucy: Well, I’m old, and there’s nothing I can do about it. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be a young woman. And also I just have a limited time left alive. I’ll be 70 next birthday, so at best that gives me what: ten or fifteen years? So I’m going with no surgeries at all. I was on the list for vocal surgery - a proprietary glottal narrowing performed at Mount Sinai in New York–but the waiting list was long enough that I had to record my audiobook before my scheduled date, so at that point I just thought the hell with it. I’m very fortunate that HRT has been doing much of the critical work on my face all by itself, and my face is the most important thing for me. 
Monika: In Vanity Fair, you wrote that you wear little makeup and you take no interest in how you are viewed by passersby and whether you are misgendered. How do you do it? For me, I find it so difficult. I never go out without my makeup and I am always super conscious of being gaped at by men and very sensitive to being misgendered.
Lucy: In retrospect, I was doing a bit of fronting there. I did go through a period of avoiding makeup (I was being puritanical; it didn’t seem “honest”). But now I wear makeup (a five-minute routine: eyeshadow, mascara, concealer, lipstick) every time I leave the house. Obviously I care about how I’m perceived, but I have done a pretty good job of walking a straight line, out in the streets, and not taking in the side view. Sometimes people stare so hard that I notice, but mostly I don’t.


All photos: courtesy of Lucy Sante.
© 2024 - Monika Kowalska

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