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DUALITIES: an Interview with Jason Phoebe Rusch photo

I found Dualities in the SF/LD slush pile a year ago. At that time, the collection was titled, “Two in One Flesh.” I’d never heard of Jason (or Phoebe, the name he used for earlier publications). Immediately, I was drawn into his world, which began as the world of an adolescent female, with all the remembered complexities and anxieties and vulnerabilities of that age – the sexual confusion, and issues regarding body image and gender and identity, and ended in the world of an adult man who is still sometimes viewed as a woman. I was deeply engrossed. I read the entire manuscript that evening and read it again the following morning. I knew immediately I wanted to publish it. I identified with so many of Jason’s agonies and insecurities and stumblings toward being a sexual person, while navigating and attempting to mitigate feelings of self-loathing and shame.

There was also so much I didn't know, still don't know. 

-e.e

[Buy DUALITIES, available now!]

 

First, I have to ask you about your education thus far. You went to Princeton for undergrad, correct? And were a History major? And that’s where Colson Whitehead was your thesis advisor? Why History? Were you always planning to be a writer or had you envisioned a different career path at that point? Secondly, you went to Michigan (University of) for fiction, yes? And yet, here we have, I believe, your first full length book, a collection of poems. J What inspired to write this book, Dualities (about coming of age in a female body, being attracted to both genders, and ultimately transitioning into malehood - is that an accurate summary/description of the book’s arc/themes?), as poetry, rather than fiction or even nonfiction? I think you have said you’re working on a novel, also?

Yes. I’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. Creative writing was available as a certificate program but not a major, and I love learning about history. It’s important to understand history in order to contextualize the present.

I started working on Dualities the summer after my MFA ended, partly to avoid my novel, partly to process feelings about gender that I’d been avoiding, and partly because the person I was dating at the time was a poet and his love of poetry inspired me.

The novel has mutated into, or maybe always has been, a collection of linked short stories revolving around the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While the family who own the hotel have more or less given the project their blessing, it’s still hard to write (albeit with artistic license) about people who I care about and admire. I don’t want to fuck it up and some level of failure is inevitable. After Michigan I felt burned out on and incapable of writing fiction. I’m trying to get back into it and believe in myself more, while also remembering that it’s okay if I finish this story collection and realize that it’s better to hang onto it than put it out into the world. Also, I’m researching the Polish regiment that defected from Napoleon to serve under Dessalines during the Haitian revolution, in the hopes of writing a novel about it.

Gender and bodies and the language we use to think and talk about them are undergoing an important series of evolutions. A lot of people would take issue with ascribing labels like ‘male’ or ‘female’ to bodies themselves rather than the people who inhabit them. However, my life experience would certainly be different if I’d been born in a different body, so I wouldn’t say I have definitive answers to these questions. One thing I do feel pretty sure of though is that a spectrum of genders exists and isn’t limited to just two opposites. For me personally, I do identify as a trans man, but also as non-binary, because my friendships with femmes have been so formative, and because the binary ultimately inhibits most people’s ability to express their humanity fully.

 

Were you familiar with SF/LD books when you submitted your manuscript? What went into your decision-making process regarding where you submitted/wanted to be published?

I was aware of Women by Chloe Caldwell, which I hadn’t read at the time but now have and loved, and also a poet from my program whose work I admire (H.R. Webster) had recently published work in Hobart.  

 

You grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a wealthy subdivision of Chicago. The same wealthy subdivision of Chicago in which Dave Eggers grew up, I believe. You tell us in your poems that your parents divorced when you were young and I believe you were an only child and both of your parents worked blue collar jobs? You write about your father, for example, delivering pizzas. Was this his sole job at that time or was it a night job? You also write about the people in Lake Forest as being mostly white and mostly prejudiced/racist toward black people and Muslim people and basically people who aren’t upwardly mobile white people, and, consequently, many of your poems speak of guilt you carry about being raised in this area of the country, with privilege, surrounded by unapologetic racism. I find it interesting that so many people in northern states, and ‘mostly white’ cities in states like Oregon and Ohio and Wisconsin and Idaho, villainize ‘the South’ as racist, because from what I’ve witnessed, growing up in small towns in Ohio and moving around the Midwest, people in the north are just as racist and ignorant and possibly more so do to the white isolation. Have you found that to be true? And have you found Lake Forest and other cities like it are ‘getting better’ or worse, meaning, is there any awareness now of the problems of racism and prejudice and attempting to educate people there and diversify? And how or why did your parents end up in Lake Forest to begin with? And how have you evolved out of that environment?

My dad repaired violin bows for a while (my grandfather was a jazz musician and instrument repairman) but delivering pizzas paid more. I’ve only lived in the Midwest and on the East Coast but I think it’s an unfortunate human tendency to point the finger at other people before pointing it at themselves, and also to have a short historical memory / limited awareness of the present. Lake Forest was very racially homogenous during my childhood and probably still is, although I haven’t spent much time there since my freshman year of high school. Chicago is deeply segregated and most white people in the Chicago area above a certain age, who are less inclined to care about cultivating a social justice ethos, don’t know about red-lining and the history of divestment from and police torture in black and brown communities on the South and West side. I’m not entirely sure how my paternal grandparents settled on Lake Forest; probably because of my grandmother’s job as a speech therapist in the Lake Bluff school system. My mother lives in Highland Park, a neighboring suburb. As for the last question, probably like most people with some sort of myopia born of privilege evolve: by being a blundering asshole, getting checked by someone/ multiple someones who care enough to be honest, trying to listen and self-educate, and never perfectly or completely.

 

What sort of books did you read as a kid? Were there any YA books that dealt with being queer or being trans or non-binary or gender nonconforming? I’ve often had the thought, “I wish Judy Blume had written anything about being gay or bisexual when I was coming of age.” I don’t think she ever has, has she? I think Deenie, for sure, could have been bisexual. Judy wrote so honestly about other aspects of teen life and puberty and adolescent about which I was ignorant: masturbation, menstruation, sex, scoliosis… I just wish she could have tackled bisexuality, homosexuality, being trans. Have you ever thought about writing a YA book?

I was really into R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and Fear Street series, the Sweet Valley High series, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and also Stephen King. Kai Cheng Thom has a YA book called Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, and it seems like representation in YA is improving, although I’m not very knowledgeable about the subject. In my early twenties I started writing a YA novel but my boyfriend at the time told me it was derivative and discouraged me from continuing. Maybe I’ll go back to it eventually.

 

Many of your poems are about the time you spent in Haiti. What drew you to Haiti, how long were you there and do you plan to go back?

I took time off from undergrad because of mental health issues. During that time I attended massage therapy school. I wanted to travel and figured working as a massage therapist at hotels could be a way to afford to see more of the world. The Dominican Republic travel guide I picked up had a section on Haiti. After reading the description of the Hotel Oloffson I contacted Richard Morse, the owner, and asked if they had a massage therapist. The plan was to work at the Oloffson for the remainder of my time off while finding volunteer opportunities and learning about Haiti. Honestly my only prior knowledge was from reading Edwidge Danticat, who is one of my favorite writers. The afternoon after I got into Port-au-Prince, a friend of the Morse family’s took me sight-seeing downtown. We were several hundred feet away from the National Palace when it collapsed. I stayed for a couple of months afterwards trying to make myself useful but was mostly just in the way of skilled responders.

Two years later I came back and did a voluntouring-type stint at an organization where I met and became friends with Sahadia Auguste, the founder and executive director of Bisou Bisou Haiti, a youth resource center based out of her grandparents’ former bakery. Since then I’ve been back a number of times to visit friends and facilitate creative writing workshops with Bisou Bisou. Most recently, in 2015, I worked briefly at a school run by evangelical missionaries, which obviously was not an ideal fit so I ended up returning to Michigan. If money were no object I’d devote all my time to Bisou Bisou and writing. Unfortunately managing money is not my strong suit; prior to transitioning I often dealt with emotional instability by spending excessively, and I still tend to fall into those patterns. Once I am in a better financial position or can get grant money, I’m eager to return to Port-au-Prince. The artistic community there and in Jacmel is really incredible. Atis Rezistans (an intergenerational recycled art collective) and Jean Appolon Expressions (a Haitian dance company that runs free summer intensives for young people) are particularly amazing.

 

One of your poems is titled, “Scientologist Family Counseling,” and in it you talk about your dad being a Scientologist. Was he a Scientologist when he and your mother were married? Is he still a Scientologist today? And what was your general experience with Scientology? Were there any aspects of the religion you found beneficial to you and/or to your father? (You speak in the poem to the not-beneficial aspects but there are usually pros as well as cons with regard to most things.)

He became a Scientologist in college, although I think when he and my mom married he wasn’t as outspoken about his beliefs or as alienating to other people. My general opinion of Scientology, based on my experiences, is that it preys upon and psychologically manipulates vulnerable people such as recovering drug addicts and those who, like my father, struggle to succeed in life for whatever reason. One concept in Scientology that’s interesting and applicable is the notion of ‘suppressive’ people, those who seek to shore up self-esteem or social standing by overtly or subtly diminishing others. Of course to simply label someone ‘suppressive’ is reductive, since we’ve all probably been both guilty of and hurt by such behavior in our lives.

You were told (more than once?) by boys/young men, that you were masculine or like a boy/man, because of what they viewed as your hyper-sexuality. And your poem, “First Boyfriend,” reminded me of Susan Minot’s Lust in its “brave” listing (because it’s brave as a woman to be unashamed of having multiple sexual partners and because you identified as female during those encounters, I believe) of males with whom you had sexual encounters. Because we know now you are transitioning or have transitioned into being a man, do you see any truth to the belief that it’s a ‘masculine’ quality to be very sexual or to be… viewed as the ‘aggressor’ in a sexual encounter?

It always pissed me off that women with a “count” above, like, two (because if you’re abstinent or have only had one partner then you’re judged as a prude) are viewed as somehow broken or pathological or as not being relationship material, while (hetero)sexual exploration is held as natural and healthy for men. People of all genders can have a large libido or no libido and all of that is within the range of natural human behavior.

That said, a lot of the experiences I had earlier in my twenties were driven by my own lack of self-esteem and need for validation as much as by desire, and that’s something I’m still grappling with.

It’s also worth mentioning here that a lot of trans and GNC people would object to the language of “transitioning into” or “becoming” a gender, rather than modifying aspects of their presentation and/or bodies to more closely align with who they’ve always been. For me, I think I always did have some consciousness that I was repressing an aspect of myself, but also, I did identify as a girl/woman for most of my life and that’s important to who I am.

 

In your poem, “No Reflection,” you say, “I’m a man who knows men are monsters.” I’d love for you to expand on this thought. As someone who grew up as a girl, already having the thought, “men are monsters,” were you conflicted, then, about yourself potentially becoming a monster? As you transitioned from female to male? That’s also a very, very broad statement to make. Do you believe in general men are monsters? And what do you really mean, specifically, by that word: monster? And, finally, do you believe females are incapable of being monsters, or of monster-like behavior? [I am asking all these questions very earnestly, so I hope they don’t seem sarcastic.]

People of all genders are capable of being predators and abusers. The amount of asymmetrical power men have been able to systemically abuse, and the violations women and gender non-conforming people have been conditioned to accept as normal, are a necessary starting place for conversation, but hopefully the conversation will evolve to encompass consent across gender. I don’t think cis (or trans) men are inherently monstrous, just as I don’t believe that white people are inherently monstrous, but unearned, unexamined advantage breeds monstrous behavior.

Looking back, there are definitely times when I pressured male partners into having sex (when I still presented/identified as a woman) or disrespected their boundaries in unacceptable ways.

I think honestly I always felt “monster-like”, from a very young age, like there was something “wrong” with me. Those feelings are difficult to parse because it’s hard to tell how much of that was internalized homophobia and transphobia and how much of that was me checking my own misogyny in a perhaps unproductively harsh or self-loathing manner.

 

There seems to be a current ‘okayness’ with shaming persons ‘of age.’ By which I mean, I have noticed people in their twenties and thirties writing essays and poems about having had sexual encounters they regret with persons a decade or decades older than themselves, and in writing of the older person’s body being disgusting in a way I don’t think would be ‘permissible,’ say, to write about a trans body or a disabled person’s body or a younger woman’s body. You have the poem “Waking Up in a Sixty Year Old Man’s Bed” and parts of it reminded me of the story “Cat Person” in its … negative depiction of older male body parts: “The age spots on his forearms scrape, husk like, against your skin.” I guess I’m curious your thoughts on what constitutes “shaming,” and if I should worry that, at age forty-eight, with a husband nine years my junior, and subtle yet noticeable age spots appearing on the backs of my hands and a softening of the flesh around my middle, that I might be or be becoming physically repulsive to him. [This last question is, admittedly, at least half sarcastic. But I would like your thoughts on the more general question of shaming older persons for their aging bodies.]

That’s a good point that I wouldn’t have otherwise been sensitive to, particularly in terms of the gender reversal. Within the context of the poem and my own experience, there’s a lot of male entitlement on sites like seeking arrangement, because it’s all these wealthy older men looking for 18-25 year old women (ideally both physically ‘flawless’ and well-educated) to successfully pretend that there is no ulterior motive to their encounters besides a genuine desire for intimacy, despite the obvious burdens of debt and rent. But you are right that older men do not deserve to be body shamed any more than older women do.

 

Your father is a very dominant person in your poems. You come back to him over and over again, while your mother is barely mentioned aside from the initial poem, “Single Mother.” Did you grow up spending equal time with both parents? Did either of your parents date after their divorce? Did either parent speak with you in an educational, rational or explanatory manner about puberty and sex? Why do you think your mother is not more present in your poems?

I grew up going between their houses. My dad briefly dated my kindergarten best friend’s mom, and my mom had a long-term boyfriend. I haven’t been in contact with my dad for several years, by choice. I used to feel guilty about that because he did care about me and want to be involved in my life, but ultimately I have to prioritize my own emotional health. My mother and I are very close and she has always spoken to me in a frank and forthright manner. Writing about my dad is maybe easier because he isn’t a part of my life anymore.

 

Finally, my overriding feeling, each time I read Dualities in a sitting, which is how I always read it, in a single, uninterrupted moment, is a remembrance of and empathy for myself in my teens and 20s, and an awareness and empathy for you in your teens and twenties, struggling with identity and feelings of low self-worth and extreme self-judgments. One of my favorite poems in the collection is, “My Twenties Spent Striving for 135 Pounds,” of which this is an excerpt:

            Fucks on the first date and cums first girl, sorry
            girl                       daddy issues girl  hates  herself so
                  much it’s annoying, annoying girl

            spills her alcohol at the party girl
            cries in public girl

            fragile girl weak girl
            innocent girl

            needy girl
            too much             girl

What would you say to a young female just entering adolescence that you wish someone had said to you, to assuage your feelings of panic and self-doubt, your need for constant apology?

That men aren’t more rational or capable of intellectual objectivity than women or non-binary people, femininity isn’t frivolous and intuition is an incredibly important and undervalued aspect of intelligence. Also that friendship is just as important if not more important (certainly more sustainable and sustaining across the course of a life) than romance, that you don’t need a romantic partner to make your life worthwhile, that your worth isn’t tied to your physical appearance no matter how much our society conflates the two and that you don’t owe it to men to salve their hurt feelings at the expense of your own well-being or safety.

 

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