Honey Mine and the New Narrative Form: An Interview with Camille Roy
Author: Jamie Townsend
March 24, 2022
One of the central figures of New Narrative – a form of narrative writing pioneered in the Bay Area which combines autobiography, fiction, literary theory, and a variety of experimental interventions to explore subjectivity – Camille Roy is a San Francisco-based writer of prose poetry, plays, and cross-genre works. Over the course of several weeks during the summer of 2021, Jamie Townsend got a chance to speak with Camille about the recent publication of a collection of her select narrative works, Honey Mine (Nightboat Books), as well as her overlapping lives as a dyke activist and experimental writer.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First of Camille, congratulations on this new collection! It’s a joy to see all of this work living together in one place. I’d like to start this conversation by asking you about the process of putting it all together. Honey Mine collects more than 40 years of your narrative writing, much of it woefully out of print and some never before published. As you and your editors made decisions about what to include in this book, what through-lines did you see develop between the pieces? Do you see them in dialogue?
In my earlier books, such as Sherwood Forest or Rosy Medallions, I have found that individual pieces came together in book form in an unanticipated and satisfying way. This book was like that, but more so. With Honey Mine, I realized something about my whole project. It emerged in the selecting and editing process that the character Camille is a fictional character whom I have been developing for decades. Honey Mine contains the arc of the development of that protagonist and in many respects is a queer coming-of-age novel.
Some of the pieces that were unpublished (and in one case unfinished) provided pivotal substance to the overall narrative. Working with Lauren Levin and Eric Sneathen fostered a supportive context in which to explore and realize those possibilities. This editorial process was a return to my writing which I had to abandon a decade earlier for financial reasons. Coming back to writing via this editorial process was very nurturing and it engaged my work in the best way.
Several pieces in this collection deal with the complex romantic relationships between sex workers and working-class lesbian narrators. I’m interested in your personal perspective on these relationships. Can you talk about the importance of these voices in your literature, as well as in your own formative years as a writer?
The sex worker activism part of my life was my early 20’s. I remember that time as a blaze of fun. The bars we hung out in were a mix of dykes and gay men, drag queens and prostitutes. I went to countless drag shows.
After my partner, Angie, was busted for prostitution, the dyke community mounted a big organizing effort to get her off. There was lots of dyke involvement in transit union organizing and against an FBI frame-up of WOC. What strikes me in retrospect was how successful it all was. Unions were stronger then. Working for unions was a cool thing to do (and lots of people did it). What we used to call the women’s community was radical and cohesive.
We still have sex worker activism and all kinds of queer and feminist activism. What has fallen away is the union part. People who today would identify as queer were often involved in union work at that time. The character Karen in the story “Agatha Letters” is based on Carol Ernst who was a successful union organizer. Before my time my partner was part of unionizing one of the town’s massage parlors.
It was a different time. You can’t take it apart; it was different for a million reasons. The economy for working people was more generous. The power of the working class has greatly diminished.
After growing up on the South Side of Chicago and working within activist communities in Ann Arbor in the mid-70s you write about your transition to the Bay Area in 1980 as a culture shock. You describe spending “years in a state of cognitive dissonance.” In your short story “The Faggot” you write: “Perhaps, during that moment in the mirror, I realized that I was in fact a lucky girl, to have lived in a neighborhood so rough and distracted by racial tensions that there was more room than usual for junior homosexuals.” Can you talk a little bit about this relocation and how it affected your life?
It’s challenging to be precise about these conditions which are both specific and largely hidden, but I’ll try. My parents and many of their friends were ex-Communists. They, like most of their friends, left the Party after Stalin’s crimes became known in the mid-1950’ss. Having been a Communist at the time was highly fraught and not something people were open about. The McCarthy hearings seriously impacted my parents’ circle. There were troubling incidents that were whispered about. It was quite different than having, for example, parents who were hippies. It was a shared culture, but much about it was obscure or implicit.
A childhood friend described the neighborhood in a way I found helpful. (Her father had also been a Communist and was an old friend of my parents.) In a city where segregation was the norm and violently enforced, my neighborhood was the one where racially mixed couples usually chose to live. That said, the racial composition varied block by block. This was also true of social class.
These details reflect the complexity of the city. When I grew up there I felt it as a complex and painful map in which I had a specific place. After I left, these understandings had no context or resonance. I did not expect to feel such persistent dislocation after leaving a city which I had been ready to leave.
It’s hard to explain that sort of dissonance so I will explore it indirectly.
After I left Chicago I occasionally found myself in job contexts in which I met people also from Chicago. They were always white, and they were always from the suburbs (which at the time were all white). We would exchange ‘Chicago notes’ about aspects of our experience. There (inevitably!) was the moment when they would ask where exactly I was from and when I told them, “South side, in the city,” they would look away with a slightly dazed look, brow furrowed in puzzlement. It looked like they were experiencing a moment of cognitive dysfunction. (This was before tech professionals thought living in cities was cool.)
That dislocated moment, which emerged as a gap in mutual understanding, provoked me. It implied that “no one” really lived in the city “anymore.” It’s quite likely that these people were the children of parents who fled the city in what was called white flight or blockbusting (as this was a big part of how the suburbs were populated after World War II).
These practices (never covered in the municipal papers) were raging across the South Side of Chicago when I was growing up. It was yet another example of the brutal and racist ordering of society which was simultaneously enacted and erased. Those moments of cognitive dysfunction I experienced were moments when that suppressed reality was dimly sensed. This created discomfort.
Much of what constructs our social reality is hiding in plain sight. The processes are unexamined and in urban milieus, the social wreckage that results is often blamed on Black people. Some of these processes were visible, on display, grinding communities down where I grew up, so perhaps it was easier for me to see these processes at work elsewhere. In San Francisco, I recognized that the Black business district in the Western Addition had been demolished because of racism and had never recovered. Hunter’s Point lost its economic base, and that community never recovered. This is the American story. I’ve been in a bitter argument with it in my head for my entire life.
Did you also feel this dissonance in the new writing communities that you participated in after the relocation?
San Francisco, despite the fact that it shares in the political sins of Chicago against its Black communities, has a gentle atmosphere that perhaps it does not deserve. When I came here I was thrilled to be able to walk freely. There were few invisible lines where, if you crossed them, you were fairly likely to end up beaten or worse. I felt I could breathe freely here. You could also breathe freely as a queer person, as a lesbian, as whatever and whomever you wanted to be. The diversity was a blessing that came in with the fog and Pacific breeze. (Of course, gentrification has changed the city a lot.)
The diversity of the poetry world was unfamiliar and exciting. There was a strong presence of Chinese American women poets (such as Kitty Tsui, Canyon Sam, and Nellie Wong). Karen Brodine was a white poet with a labor and class consciousness. Gloria Anzaldúa was active here and I was fortunate to have found her workshop early on (‘El Mundo Surdo’). These poets were all or mostly lesbian and that was the world in which I first circulated.
The feminist aesthetic of the time emphasized political virtues for poetry: usefulness, transparency, accessibility, political relevance. (Jan Clausen wrote an engaging essay on this, “A Movement of Poets: Thoughts on Poetry and Feminism,” Long Haul Press 1981.) I could not write this way (though I tried). It suited neither my experience nor my temperament. It did not suit my sentences or my paragraphs. There is a straightforwardness to that aesthetic that didn’t fit my experience (which was disjointed, dissonant, dissatisfied, and interested in sex).
I appreciate how you play with this sense of disjointedness to also craft startling images that function as both a visual anchor and commentary for your thinking, like when you note: “Writing a story is a little like dragging a tree out of a dark wood and then wrapping it with strings of starry lights.” Often the experience of another physical presence—for instance, “her cigarette makes a red spot in the dark,” in “My X Story”—cuts through the scene’s obscurity. Can you talk a little bit about how your writing engages with the inadequacy or slipperiness of language?
My writing is fiction not memoir, but I use my whole field of experience as a sort of raw data. Somehow this raw data moves into words. And the particular arrangement of words will cause them to ‘fire,’ delivering a shimmer or a thud or a smell. This is archeological as language comes to us through so many layers of history. The words themselves also have sensory qualities. Furthermore, I imagine that language (sentences, phrases) activates neural networks—like a flare—and this can be pleasurable. Writing, in this model, is a plan for a sort of neural fireworks display.
At the same time, you are laying the groundwork for interpretation – this is where politics comes in. For me, this is a method of writing that generates a politics that has its own experiential credibility. (This is especially useful for marginalized people because writing grounded in our experiences can complicate or resist our dehumanization.)
The mapping between words, memory, and experience is loose and ungovernable. I wonder how often people understand a line or a phrase in fundamentally incompatible ways. There is commonality, but if you look hard for specifics, you are likely to slip into the territory of mystery, of obscurity.
One thing I like about the term “obscurity” is that it leaves room for the durable presence of the unresolved. It is a form of spaciousness that has the potential to provide room for oneself and others, without judgment.
I think this method of writing appeals to me because it is how I built up, over time, the ability to recognize my life. I had trouble recognizing the events of my own life because they had slipped outside of what I understood to be possible. I had little in the way of a framework. There was feminism (which was essential) but it had its own set of prohibitions and values which did not always fit with my life. Of course, queer theory provides a framework, but much of my queer life predates it.
Honey Mine is a collection of what you called “narrative works,” which I think is such a nuanced distinction of writing which often skirts the legibility of a single genre. How do you distinguish the pieces included in this book from your other writings?
The complexity of experience is rendered at different scales in poetry as compared to fiction. This is a generality of course, but fiction simplifies interior experience which allows the form to handle more complex interpersonal and broadly social experiences over time.
Some political insights are easier to generate from fiction because it supports modeling a social world. This is especially true when the characters have large-scale differences from one another in experience, whether that is due to class or gender or whatever. If the intent of the writing is to work with and build understanding in the reader (to generate political insights), then to make diverse characters comprehensible requires careful description, consistency, and meaningful cause and effect. Poetic techniques like disjunction or distortion (even if used sparingly) can undermine understanding for this larger scale representation of social experience.
Obviously, I use poetic language in my fiction. This is challenging for some readers. Generally, my goal is to move from writing which is descriptive of experience to writing which is itself an experience. Description can become more intimate with the reader’s consciousness at the moment in which this move occurs. This is a powerful technique to shift the reader from passive absorption into praxis. It may be startling, but it is intended to intensify rather than disrupt the experience. It can even heighten focus as the reader has to ‘hold on tight’ to keep track of what is going on.
As for how I distinguish between my poetry and fiction… My poems tend to be distilled. The intensity has been moved into the language (sound, image, meaning) and out of character and situation. I often fiddle with poems for years (with long breaks) so that the writing becomes more like pure intensity and not so much about anything at all.
This movement between levels of description and lived experience also seems linked to your understanding of queerness. In “Under Grid” you write, “Before I was an experimental writer I was a lesbian.” When did you first start writing and how did the discovery of experimental literature shape or change your understanding of yourself?
This is an interesting question. How do identities emerge in an individual’s life, particularly when the person is alienated from the identity norms? In my generation (I wonder if this has changed) identity was brought up from the depths after you submerged yourself in “experiences.” It was charged with a feeling, perhaps a feeling of mysterious encounter. I suspect that when queer life was so often underground this type of identity formation was common, perhaps typical. Queer theory provided another route, and so did assimilation.
Before I discovered experimental practices I was frustrated by the literalism of my own writing. My writing projects would mysteriously run out of steam, or I found the resulting work uninteresting. If I had not been a lesbian, not been a child of communists, not had parents of diverse class backgrounds, if I had had the “normal life” of a white person of the time, etc., I might have recognized more of myself in mainstream narratives and literary structures.
But I needed to break things: forms, sentences, narrative structures, sense. By breaking them, I came closer to my own fragmented consciousness and subcultural context. Then I could assemble a writing which was flexible enough to push through obstacles to something interesting.
The insights and practices of New Narrative writers (Robert Gluck, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Michael Amnasan), as well as fellow travelers like Kathy Acker, Carla Harryman, and Eileen Myles, were a necessary tonic. I absolutely needed experimental writing to develop my writing projects. These tools allowed me to leave the map of normative identities, experiences, and feelings without losing my way. They were navigational aids as well as sources of inspiration.
Camille Roy’s new book, Honey Mine, was published by Nightboat on June 29th, 2021. She is also the author of Sherwood Forest, from Futurepoem. Other books include Cheap Speech, a play from Leroy Chapbooks, and Craquer, a fictional autobiography from 2nd Story Books, as well as Swarm (fiction, from Black Star Series). She co-edited Biting The Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House 2005, re-issued 2010). Earlier books include The Rosy Medallions (poetry and prose, from Kelsey St. Press) and Cold Heaven (plays, from Leslie Scalapino’s O Books). Recent work has been published in Amerarcana and Open Space (SFMoma blog).
Jamie Townsend is a genderqueer/transfemme poet and editor living in Oakland, CA. They are the author of Shade (Elis Press) and Sex Machines (speCt!). They are also the editor of Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader (Nightboat) and Libertines in the Ante-Room of Love: Poets on Punk (Jet Tone). With Nick DeBoer they curate Elderly.