One of the most powerful books I’ve read this year has been Scott Esposito‘s The Surrender. Broken into three parts, it covers questions of gender, identity, and language. Esposito describes it as a “‘collection of facts’ concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.” What emerges from it is a complex and intellectually rigorous examination of questions that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. Along the way, Esposito also touches on a host of other creative works, making unexpected and resonant connection between them and his own experiences. I talked with Esposito via email about the book, his experiences with translated literature, and what future projects might hold.
The first time I encountered part of The Surrender was when “The Last Redoubt” appeared in The White Review. It’s located in the middle of the book here, and I’m curious – when you wrote it, did you already know that it was part of a larger whole?
No, I had no idea! When I originally wrote “The Last Redoubt,” I thought this would be all that I wanted to say in writing on the matter of my gender, crossdressing, etc. But then, after I finished the essay and published it, I found that it had enabled me to think about new questions that had never been possible before for me. So as I began working through these new questions that “The Last Redoubt” had opened up, I realized that this essay was actually the hinge of a much larger set of questions that I could investigate about myself. Thus, I began writing The Surrender.
And, in fact, now that The Surrender has been published I am finding that the same thing is happening all over again. Having accounted for more or less my entire genderfluid life, and having put these facts out into the world, I am seeing that even more fundamental questions and observations have become possible for me. I am already beginning to think that the book really now needs a fourth essay to examine the terrain that its own publication has opened up for me.
And all of this is very, very true to my experience of my gender, and of life, really. Every time I think I have made some definitive declaration about myself, I find that this is really not the case. I think that this is very appropriate: this is my life after all—a living thing—so it would not make sense for it to reach some resolution after which there is no further potential for growth or development.
In terms of a fourth part to The Surrender, are you thinking of putting together a revised edition, or do you think it’s more likely that this might show up in a different book of yours?
I’m not sure, both options sound appealing to me. I like the idea of seeing this book continue to grow and develop, just as what I currently have emerged from the writing of “The Last Redoubt.” There’s a certain kind of consistency there that feels right, to see this project continue to take on new trajectories as the writing of it enables me to live it more fully, and vice versa.
But on the other hand, there’s something very intriguing about embedding some of this discourse into a future project, because I don’t like to segment off parts of my identity. I do think this stuff all flows together, so my experiences in gender speak to my experiences with film, which play in to what I have to say about the Oulipo, and so on. Perhaps ultimately I’d just have to start writing it and see where it seemed to be moving toward.
How did The Surrender evolve over the course of your writing and editing it?
I knew that The Surrender was going to be a relatively short book (about 30,000 words), and I knew that it would have to cover some very broad territory, so right at the start I knew I would have to find a form that could encompass my whole life in a fairly succinct manner. This was when I hit upon the idea of orienting it around a series of firsts—recounting moments when I broke new ground in this journey, when I did something for the first time.
This approach had some definite advantages—these tended to be very dramatic, vivid moments that took very well to being depicted on the page—but as I wrote I realized that I would need to have more than just this series of recollections if the book was to have a satisfying rhythm to it. And also, I wanted to explore the philosophical underpinnings of this journey, as this has been a very crucial part of my self-understanding and self-acceptance. So I began to build in these interludes that were less narrative in nature and more abstract/philosophical.
Once I had managed to sketch out a pretty good framework and account for more or less everything that I wanted to put into the book, I had to turn my attention to the book’s voice. This was maybe the hardest part. Getting everything to be consistently on tone, and figuring out how to articulate the things I wanted to articulate in that particular voice, took so many revisions, so many painstaking hours of listening and revising, listening and revising. I also had to cut out a lot of things—a lot of little thoughts and moments that I really loved and would have liked to have found a place for—that just didn’t fit in aesthetically.
Has writing so thoroughly about your own body and concept of gender had any effect on the writing you’ve done since then?
I think that it must—I find it had to believe I could spend so much time wrestling with these questions and recollections and not have it affect my subsequent writing—but I think that these effects must remain obscure to me for the most part. Still, some of them are not quite so obscure: right now I’m working on a book on film, and I’m consciously fighting to avoid writing in the voice of The Surrender or structuring this book as I did that one.
One thing I can say definitively: I have learned how fragile one’s original memories are. When you write about certain memories over and over and over, you begin to affect them, to the point that they cease to be what they originally were and instead become your reconstruction of them. It’s like Borges once said: when I remember something, I’m not remembering the event, I’m remembering my memory of it, and each time I remember the memory, I get one step farther removed from whatever actually occurred. So I think writing The Surrender has made me more careful when drawing on my own memories in subsequent essays—I’m a little more aware of how precious these untouched memories are and the sacrifice I’m making if I want to disturb them in order to write about them.
Much of your critical writing has focused on literature in translation, and you’re also the co-author of a book on the Oulipo. What first drew you to literature from around the world?
I think it’s just my natural inclination—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “translation” and “transgender” both begin with the same five letters. I’ve long loved traveling—I once discovered something I wrote when I was really, really young, like 10 years old or something, where I said that my two biggest ambitions were to write and to travel the world. This was long before I ever actually did any traveling, so I feel like these desires must run very deep. And now that I have done so much traveling, I can see how that urge to see the world really comes from the same place as my urges toward exploring other ways of inhabiting my gender and to read the writings of other cultures.
In 2006 I went abroad and ended up living throughout Latin America for about 2 years, and I can say that this is when my interest in world literature went from a faint spark to a full-on inferno. I think the process of actually living among other cultures, learning and speaking a second language every day, exploring entirely new landscapes—these must have played a crucial part in letting this interest in translation really come alive. But then again—as I document in The Surrender—the process of beginning to seriously explore how I could look and be like a woman began to push my reading into new directions that it had never taken before. So in all cases it must be true to an extent that the way you live your life determines the kinds of books you are going to read.
The events you describe in the book have a deeply cathartic aspect to them. What was your process like as far as finding the right way to evoke your state of mind while still maintaining some temporal distance from these events?
Going back to what I was saying earlier about memory, I’m very suspicious of the idea that there are these untapped reservoirs of experience just sitting around in our heads waiting to be accessed. I feel that whenever we are accessing our memories, we’re always putting something of our current selves into them. And in addition, these memories have probably been subtly changing all throughout our life, so they’re not as pristine as we may thing. So when I wrote The Surrender I wanted to be as careful as I could to be as true as possible to my actual past experiences, while also recognizing that perfect objectivity would not be possible.
One thing I did for the childhood parts of the book were to try and find little pieces of “evidence” that could help me be more objective about myself. Like when I talk about the first time I purged my women’s clothing—that was a very clear thing that definitely happened, I remember that particular day very, very well. And I know that it had to have been precipitated by certain feelings, and it required a certain chain of events to carry out, so I could begin to reconstruct the scene around that fact, working outward from a place of greater certainty toward areas of fuzzier recollection. At a certain point, when I felt that recollection was giving way to invention, I began to make that evident in the text, and eventually I stopped pushing any further because I knew I had reached the limits of my memory.
I also relied a lot on the mass culture that I associated with childhood events. For instance, I remember the exact episode of Ducktales that I watched the afternoon I first wore a bra, so I looked back and I found Ducktales on YouTube and examined it to get me closer to how I must have felt. I did this with all sorts of things—pop music, TV sit-coms, a Stephen King book I read—and it helped me to access those feelings and get back into the mind state of who I was back then.
In the third part of The Surrender, you chronicle very specifically the books you were reading over the course of several years, and end the book with such a section. What led to that as a structural component?
Quite simply, I could not have accepted my gender without those books. Reading those books was an essential part in seeing that I had a right to be who I wanted to be. They let me see that there were other people like me, and that I would be welcomed not just by other genderqueer people but also by those people who loved me for who I am. And in addition to that, so many of those books also helped me discover the kind of woman that I should be, as well as the kind of man that I should become. They hoped to make my imagination big enough that it could encompass this new reality that I wanted for myself.
So my feeling is that the things I was reading at any given point in my journey were—in a very deep and important way—a crucial part of determining the trajectory of my journey. I wanted a way of letting everyone see these books I was indebted to, so I hit on this idea of concluding each year that I recount in the third essay by listing the books I read during that year.
And this continues right up through 2015, which was also the year in which I was writing The Surrender. So those books that I list for 2015 were not only affecting my journey but also the composition of the book itself. This is why I reserve pride of place for Thomas Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence: it was the key aesthetic influence on this book, and so it is right that it inspire the book’s last line, as well as its title.