Queerness and Process: A Conversation with Nathan Xie
Alex Romero: Hi Nathan! First off, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us at Surging Tide Magazine. We’re really excited to have you. How’ve you been since the Lambda Retreat? I can’t believe it’s already been a week!
Nathan Xie: Hi Alex! Thank you so much for this opportunity! I love the work Surging Tide does, and it’s a pleasure and honor to connect. As for the Lambda Retreat, well, for readers who don’t know, it’s a weeklong writing conference and workshop across several different kinds of writing disciplines for LGBTQ+ writers. Basically, it’s queer writing camp. I was telling my boyfriend he should seriously get into writing just so he has a chance to attend the Lambda Retreat. I don’t like to get too sentimental, so suffice it to say the retreat is magical, and it made me understand why people are so emotional and earnest about writing conferences in general. Since returning to the sad, real world, I haven’t cried yet. Alex, I hope you’ve been well too. Ha!
AR: I’m doing pretty good, thanks! And funny you say that, about returning to the sad, real world. I’ve definitely been feeling something akin to post-concert depression since coming back. I mean, it was just so electrifying to be surrounded by all these fierce, queer and trans writers! Some nights I found myself, legitimately, rushing to my room to write after the fellows’ readings. Which I feel sort of segues into my next question: is there a certain time of the day (or night) you typically write, and why?
NX: On weekdays I usually write at night. I prefer to read during the day, then write at night when I feel inspired by whichever book is on my desk. You’ll often see me writing around midnight, when my boyfriend has fallen asleep. On weekends I might write more during the day, but I’m erratic. Outside of my technically regular job, I like to think my schedule has a kind of bohemian spirit. I only write when I want to, when writing brings me joy, and I recognize how fortunate I am to have enough leisure time to work this way.
AR: So how do you combat creative blocks when they arrive?
NX: I don’t. If I can’t write, I don’t write. I read. Unfortunately, I don’t have much advice on this front, but something I believe is that the most important aspect of being a writer isn’t craft or endurance, but rather understanding and developing what a healthy relationship to writing looks like for you. For me, I write because it brings me joy. When writing doesn’t bring me joy, I don’t write. Or, I work on a different story that does bring me joy. Or, I read (or do anything else) which consistently brings me joy too. Much of this philosophy is inspired by my Periplus Collective mentor, A.E. Osworth, who is so brilliant and wise. I will also say, joy and inspiration are often linked for me. Sorry for repeating the j-word so often. I’m reminded of the quip “Are we having fun yet?”
AR: I’d love if you could walk us through your writing process. In the early drafting stages, would you say you’re more of a “pantser” (someone who writes without an outline) or a “plotter” (someone who uses an outline as a guide while writing?)
NX: It depends. For flash fiction, I often don’t outline, but no matter what I write, I have x number of questions I want to explore, or an “organizing principle” in mind before I begin. Without one of those two things (and the j-word), I won’t start a new project. For short stories and novels, I always attempt to write a very loose outline. For short stories, I write down at least a one-sentence summary of the short story in addition to questions I have. For novels, I go a little further with one-sentence summaries for each chapter. Then I write whenever I feel the j-word.
Once the first draft is spat out, I let it stew, and eventually hand the draft off to fellow writers I trust to give me feedback. My favorite part of writing is revision. I like to think of every piece I write as a new apartment, house, mansion. In the first draft, I don’t know the most efficient path from A to B, which objects and rooms exist, or where the bathroom is. I give myself permission to explore and get lost. During revisions, I have a clearer sense of the map, and I try to be a guide, showing a potential visitor through the rooms in some organized way while I point out which objects are of note. I love discovering and fleshing out new rooms and objects during the revision process when I’m not overwhelmed by the white wilderness of the incomplete first draft. I might go through two to ten drafts before I submit a piece for the first time. Even flash fiction.
AR: That’s awesome! And on what you said about writing when you feel the “j-word,” haha! Now, aside from the j-word, I’m eager to know what else has had a significant influence on your writing. Who are you reading these days?
NX: I write more autofiction than I like to admit. Annie Ernaux is a queen. I’m guilty of being obsessed with many of the same contemporary gay writers everyone else obsesses over: Alexander Chee, Garth Greenwell, Brandon Taylor, and Ocean Vuong.
Recently, I’ve been loving Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun and Ada Zhang’s The Sorrow of Others. Also big love to Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, and Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. I recently bought James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. translated by Idra Novey. As for short fiction, I’ve been enthusiastically following and reading so many awesome writers, but I’ll stick to five for brevity’s sake: David Yourdon, Grace Shuyi Liew, Glenn Orgias, N.S. Ahmed, and aureleo sans, the prose judge of Surging Tide’s Annual Summer Contest this year!
AR: Thanks for such an awesome list! Honestly, I’m a big fan of your three flash fictions recently published in The Rumpus: “Sprezzatura,” “An Attempt to Explain Myself,” and “The Last Norwegian Wolf.” Hearing you read at the Lambda Retreat was a truly immersive, spellbinding experience… What inspired these pieces and how did they come about?
NX: Wow, thank you! I’m not blushing at all!
“Sprezzatura” and “The Last Norwegian Wolf” were written in workshops run by SmokeLong Quarterly. All three of these pieces could be considered alternate versions of myself trying to navigate the world. I was twenty-four when I started living as an openly queer person, and I’m still figuring out what that means. I joke about suffering from executive dysfunction, but it’s true my desires often elude articulation. These stories were part of my confronting this unknown.
I wrote “Sprezzatura” after reading and watching Call Me By Your Name. I have my gripes about Call Me By Your Name being considered representative of contemporary queer literature, but it did bring into question how queer men have inherited outdated ideas of masculinity and stoicism, and the ways these ideas manifest in relationships with others and ourselves. I wanted to explore this in a more unabashedly queer context, rather than a “love is love” context. Also, sprezzatura is such a lovely word.
I wrote “An Attempt to Explain Myself” a month after I first moved in with my boyfriend. Sharing a space with someone who truly loved me for the first time rendered many of my coping mechanisms and/or trauma responses unhelpful, and in certain cases, they were obstructions. Also, the Richard Siken bot was spamming my Twitter feed every day. (To be clear, I love that bot. I also, of course, love Richard Siken.)
I wrote “The Last Norwegian Wolf” after reading Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased as part of my quest to better understand my own religious trauma in my novel manuscript. I would be remiss not to shout out Conley’s upcoming novel All The World Beside, which I’m so excited to read, and you should be too, if pastors having gay sex is your vibe. Preorder!
AR: Oh, now that definitely sounds up my alley! Haha, and I’m so happy you mentioned the Richard Siken bot on Twitter (or I guess X now?) I was curious about the relationship between “An Attempt to Explain Myself” and Siken’s “You Are Jeff.” Would you be able to elaborate on any inspirations drawn from Siken’s work for your piece?
NX: I’m flattered that you saw a relationship between “An Attempt to Explain Myself” and “You Are Jeff.” I love that poem, and I’m crossing my fingers I’m not delusional when I say I’ve adopted some of Siken’s syntactical turns in my piece, although I was more consciously drawing inspiration from “The Torn Up Road,” especially the second stanza. In both poems, I’m inspired by Siken’s masterful use of echoes and patterns. I’m moved by how visceral his images are, even as the narrator attempts to put distance and ambiguity between the events and the narration itself. I developed dissociative tendencies as a teenager, which used to make it hard to talk about the pains in my past. Siken enlightened me to the possibility of telling a story explicitly about the self without the self (linguistically, at least). Or better put, how the self can separate, rename, and confuse our past selves and those who carry parts of our past selves.
AR: I understand that the flash fictions were published as a trio of stories, but during my first read, I also sensed they could function effectively as standalone pieces. Did these three stories initially exist independently and later come together spontaneously, or did you undertake a deliberate planning process to integrate them into a single cohesive piece?
NX: The trio wasn’t intentionally a trio, but because The Rumpus kindly accepts three flash fictions in a single submission, I sent these three together. I liked how homosexual the submission was, though never in my Wildest Dreams (Taylor’s Version) did I imagine The Rumpus accepting all three pieces together. Like you, the editor, Kelly Dignan, and the other staff at The Rumpus saw the three pieces had a chemistry together. I like to think Kelly and The Rumpus team had the tremendous vision of gay gay gay and I’m grateful to them.
AR: I think that’s wonderful! I noticed the flash fictions all employed an unnamed narrator. Would you say that was a choice?
NX: I think it’s a choice? Flash fiction values brevity, of course, so sometimes there’s no space for names. And here’s a hot take: names can be meaningless. I’m more interested in the roles characters feel forced into and/or perform, as well as the roles we aspire to occupy and/or are unreachable for XYZ reasons.
AR: Lastly, are there any thematic or stylistic elements you’re particularly eager to explore in your future writing? How do you see your work evolving while still maintaining your unique voice and narrative style?
NX: I’m obsessed with the intersection between spirituality and queerness. I’ve been contemplating going back to school for a degree in religious studies. I recently took a wonderful class with Garth Greenwell called Saying Yes to Life, and he spoke of apophasis, how the mystics of centuries past used it to great effect to approach god. Consider Meister Eckhart being “borderline” blasphemous in his Sermon 96, especially when taken out of context as I’ve done here:
I’m perpetually interested in how to materialize the abstract and the possibly profound, and I aspire to write stories that deconstruct and redefine language and ideas as radically as Meister Eckhart does.
Regarding the second question, I love Pokémon but I’m unsure my artistic progression is an evolutionary process. I don’t remember who said the artist is a thieving magpie. (Although this is a myth; magpies don’t actually steal, much as artists shouldn’t actually steal….) In any case, pretending this metaphor holds any water, it resonates with me. The artist should feel free to be inspired by anything they find shiny. Ultimately, my voice and narrative style and how they evolve are beyond my control.
My stories sometimes feel like giant parasites on my artist magpie, and they will suck whatever they need for actualization. Scary, but I encourage them to take everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve stolen, everything I’ve dreamed of, and everything that has ever happened to me. Each parasite is hopefully unique, and each will slowly figure out what it wants to eat and doesn’t want to eat. When I’ve fed all the right things, each parasite will grow a pair of wings, fly away, and live a beautiful life of its own. And hopefully some queer person will see it munching on trash somewhere and say, “Cute!”
Sorry for the very terrible and perhaps terrifying extended metaphor. I don’t know what I’m doing. The less deranged TL;DR is: in the process of pushing myself toward new language, new ideas, new stories, and new structures that can hold all this newness together, I think future Nate will naturally evolve into a cooler Pokémon. I guess I’m a Pokémon after all.
Alex Romero is the Founding Editor of Speakeasy Magazine. A second-year MFA student at Columbia University, he holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. His words have been recently published or are forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Maudlin House, Fleas on the Dog, The Coachella Review, and BULLSHIT LIT, among other places. He has been long-listed for Uncharted Magazine's Novel Excerpt Contest. His short story, “Our Little Manila,” was selected by Tia Clark as a finalist for the Plentitudes Prize in Fiction. He is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Lambda Literary, Key West Literary Seminar, the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation, Tin House, and more. A Queens native, he is a lifelong resident of New York, where he is writing his first novel.