Peggy Munson, Censored Author, Origami Striptease

Contributed by Rachel Kramer Bussel
38-year-old writer Peggy Munson lives in “the wilds of western Massachusetts,� where she’s been penning lusty stories that are frequently featured in annual anthologies like Best Lesbian Erotica and Best American Erotica as well as other types of fiction and poetry. She’s also the editor of the 2000 anthology Stricken: Voices from the Hidden Epidemic of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Haworth Press), and her disability plays a large role in her work, affecting everything her writing schedule to her writing style. Her first novel, Origami Striptease, a “lyrical love story between a writer and an enigmatic wanderer named Jack,� was published in 2006 by San Francisco queer indie publisher Suspect Thoughts Press, after winning the 2004 Project Queerlit prize. Here, Munson explains via email just what “iambic meter� is, the connection between identity and language, why she’s been “buoyed� by the queer writing community in the wake of having a video of her reading from her novel (which you can see, and salivate over, at censored from a Lambda Literary Award finalist reading (Origami is up for Best Lesbian Debut Fiction), and pushing the edges of the queer literary canon “to its breaking point.�

Let’s go back to the beginning, at least of this book. When and how did you get the idea for Origami Striptease? When did you start writing it and when was it completed?
Origami Striptease started as two loosely-connected chapters, but then I became mesmerized by the character of Jack. Since I’m a Sagittarius, I have commitment issues, and the idea of committing to a whole novel had been repugnant to me before that: but for lust of a good character, I’ll go to Greenland and beyond, which I did in this book. I wrote the rest very fast, challenging myself to write a certain number of words each day, so that I could submit it to Project Queerlit. The contest was largely my motivation for finishing the book.
Can you give us a synopsis of the book?
It’s a love story that goes through a meat grinder, ice chipper, and paper shredder. An erotica writer falls in love with a character named Jack: they have ridiculously hot sex until then Jack unravels once he becomes obsessed with ice cubes, Greenland, and Zamboni ice resurfacing machines. Both of them have illnesses, and when Jack runs off to chase his demons, the writer invites a maniacal pseudo rock star into her life as a caregiver: then things just get weird. Everything is shredded–language, love, reality, narrative–and redemption is not an easy road.
I’ll freely admit that I don’t really know what the word “iambic” means, but the book was written in iambic meter, as a “trick” to keep your brain functioning. Can you elaborate on how that structure aided your writing process?
Iambic meter is just a simple beat⎯bah-BUM. When I first got sick with CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome), my brain was rendered fairly useless. I had intended to go to graduate school to get an MFA, and took the GREs, but my brain was so damaged by this illness that I couldn’t even remember what the “Go to the Next Page” symbol meant on the GRE test, and kept thinking I was done with sections when I wasn’t and staring into space. Although the bodily symptoms of CFIDS are horrific⎯I’m almost totally bedridden, and have been for many years⎯the cognitive impairment is wretched. One study found that CFIDS brains look remarkably similar, on SPECT scans, as those of patients with AIDS dementia.
In the early years, writing was all but impossible, and I still can only squeeze out little bits here and there. At some point, I began to hear words as their underlying rhythms, and I started writing strange, Dr. Suess-like pieces. Some guy who read Origami Striptease e-mailed me and asked if I was a synaesthete, and now that I think about it maybe this is similar to synaesthesia (the phenomenon that some people have where they will see a color with a letter, that type of thing). My brain operates like a movie where the tracking is off, and I’m watching the lips move but the sound has splintered off. Rhythm helps me to get to the words I have lost, as if the sound helps pull me back to the lips that uttered it. Aphasia, malapropism, all types of language abnormalities accompany CFIDS. When I think of words as rhythm, I can sometimes write longer sections without finding myself feeling like the Alzheimer’s patient in the grocery aisle, confused about where I am. The rhythm stitches the words together even when meanings become slippery and elusive.
One review wrote that “there were times when it wasn’t clear what was going on, but Munson’s writing kept me glued to the page.” Is this deliberate? Are there parts of the novel that you wanted readers to fill in with their imaginations?
The great thing about the rhythm (which, for the record, is not regular or constant) is that it is very lulling and very physically experiential⎯the way hearing a beat just makes people’s bodies start to move. At some disturbing points in the book, I wanted the literal realities to feel detailed and oppressive, closing in with a metronome ticking relentlessly. Other times, I wanted people to get lost in their bodies swaying through the words, so that suddenly they would feel completely ungrounded, almost terrified with the loss of comprehension or congruency. I write poetry too, and I have always thought the purpose of a good poem is to render the poem unnecessary, to take the reader into the realm of the unspeakable. And this book deals with a lot of unspeakable realities, so I wanted people to be able to go there–just catapulted by linguistic devices to some post-language conception of illness, gender, sex, abuse and other things that exist outside of the sphere of words.
Keeping in mind that I haven’t read the book yet (but I will soon, I promise!), how autobiographical is the work for you?
It’s not an autobiographical narrative, but there are a lot of pieces of me in there. The illness part is especially personal, as well as the intertwining of illness and fucked-up characters like The Sludge.
Origami Striptease won the Project QueerLit prize and was subsequently published by Suspect Thoughts Press. What made you enter this contest?
This will sound insane, but I just had a feeling that I was supposed to enter this one contest and this was the one place my book would find a home.
Who is your intended audience for Origami Striptease? Do you have an ideal reader?
I think my ideal reader is someone who just skydives right into a narrative, totally open to the ride. Of course, anyone who skydives into words is slightly unhinged and probably a language fetishist.
Okay, let’s move on to the Lammys. Firstly, congratulations on your nomination for the Lammy for Lesbian Debut Fiction. How did you feel upon first finding out about being a finalist?
Oh, totally floored and amazed and delighted.
When you were contacted about the finalist readings, what was your response? Was it your idea to make the video?
Actually, I had already put together some videos for readings of the book, and the one I submitted to the Lambda reading just happened to be the one that fit in the time constraints. I wasn’t choosing it for shock value.
You wound up making a five-minute video featuring you reading several segments from the book, with both outdoor and indoor settings. Why did you pick those passages to share? Did you enjoy putting together the DVD?
The passages are from a very surreal portion of the book, and they are like little prose poems about sex. They also were (ironically) intended as a subtle deconstruction of gender.
What was your initial reaction upon being told that your DVD wasn’t screened in San Francisco? How do you think this could have been prevented?
At first, I wasn’t even surprised: I felt totally blank. As a disabled person so often denied access in the world, I was actually surprised by people writing me and saying, “How did they think they could get away with that? Did they think nobody would notice?� People get away with shutting out disabled folks all the time, usually by forgetting to make events accessible or offer alternate means of presentation or attendance (such as speakerphone, video reading, etc). After that, I felt deeply sad and angry, then galvanized to action. It turned very quickly from a demeaning experience to one in which I was flooded with supportive words and actions, and having these incredible dialogues about exclusion of genderqueers, transpeople, bisexuals, and queer crips. My publishers, Greg Wharton and Ian Phillips (of Suspect Thoughts), were amazing: they were not going to let me (or anyone in the queer community) be invisible. So what was initially a bad experience turned into something very moving and powerful.
You called the action Lambda took dropping the “S bomb”-the accusation of straightness. How do you address that claim? Was that actually said to you or was that the sense you got from people who had attended the event?
“Straight� was one of the reasons the event organizers gave my publishers for censoring my work. It’s so bizarre: my book is a finalist in the Lesbian Debut Fiction category, I’ve published in a decade of Best Lesbian Erotica, I mean, come on. Rebecca Brown wrote me, “You certainly have been doing a good job of impersonating a queer all these years.� On the other hand, what if I did decide to run off with a Manwich-eating Texas cowboy: whose fucking business is it? I would personally love to see the queer literary canon bent to its breaking point.
In a letter you posted in the comments section of your blog, S. Naomi Finkelstein wrote, “You allowed trans sexuality there as long as it was presented from a butch point of view.” Would you agree that your identity as a femme was part of what was questioned by Katharine Forrest (host of the Lammy reading)?
Oh, absolutely. I have noticed that a lot of femme writers are brilliant workaholics who can’t don’t get enough recognition: it’s latent sexism, plain and simple. How presumptuous is it that the femme character’s gender only exists in relation to her sex partner? A butch is assumed to be queer from the first glance. When are people going to get it that femme gender is totally queer?
Are you satisfied with Lambda’s response of showing your video at the New York and Boston Lammy finalist readings?
Yes primarily because there is still a dialogue going on with Lambda around accessibility, inclusion, and other issues raised by this. Charles Flowers (head of Lambda) is also working to make the awards ceremony disability accessible, and I really hope this is the rattling of change within the queer literary establishment. I think censorship in general often points a finger at cultural loathing of outsiders– i.e. the Mapplethorpe/Finley stuff in the ‘80s, when really it was about AIDS phobia and fear of a strong, loud, brainy woman talking about the body. So this incident to me is about larger issues, not about flushing out the attitudes of individuals. It’s time the queer community addressed the exclusion of queer crips, transpeople, genderqueers, and others. This incident was pretty blatant, but how often do people attend queer events and think, “Where are all the crips? Where is the wheelchair ramp? Why isn’t there a sign language interpreter? Why isn’t there a fragrance free policy?â€?
Do you think there’s a positive lesson for the queer writing community and the larger queer and writing communities about this incident?
Well, what has really buoyed me was to see that all of the writers around me are such activist/revolutionaries at heart. The outrage from a lot of people⎯many of whom had been shut out for being too trans, not trans enough, genderqueer, femme, butch, bi, whatever¬was so palpable. It’s time to make a no excuses/no apologies policy about inclusion. It’s not too hard: it’s imperative. “Accommodation� has to be the new language: let’s build ramps of all kinds and stop making excuses.
At one point in the book, your narrator gets asked, “Why do you like those odd ones who can’t check a census box?” How does your own straddling and sharing of various identities come into play with your writing? How do you see issues of identity–gender, sexuality, and otherwise–coming into play in terms of the Lammy readings?
I think for me identity is a lot like my current conception of language⎯that is, there is an overlayment of meaning (an identity politic) over the raw, animalistic beat (an essence) beneath it all. I love category-straddling and gender fucking and shifting around because it gets down to that raw beat, which is where our souls and our essential connectedness exist.
A South African once said to me, “Apartheid (the actual word) simply means ‘separateness.’� There was something in that statement that conveyed how swiftly and quietly people could be pushed to the fray, and the violence inherent in shutting people out. We don’t often talk about the violence of deprivation and exclusion, but it is violent to shut people out of the human community: it is the very definition of dehumanizing.
In another interview, you said, “Disabled folks really do live in an absurdist reality where they have to teach people a completely new language.” Do you feel it’s your responsibility to teach people about your disability (and others’)? What is the biggest misconception you tend to find the general public has about people with disabilities?
One assumption is that disabled people have choices or options they don’t have. They are victim-blamed for not leaving their oppressed, shabby reality, which is culturally imposed, cruel, and often impossible to transcend. I was fascinated by the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina: I remember this montage of images that went from a reporter speculating (in a blaming way), “Why didn’t people get out in time?� and then a picture of an amputee on a rooftop. The lack of access for people with disabilities is astonishing. While the ADA is a good thing, it is also a pandering document that says people-at best-need to provide “reasonable� accommodation to those with disabilities. But this idea shuts out anyone a committee determines to be “unreasonable,� and thus perpetuates the idea that physical limitations are unreasonable: i.e. difficult, burdensome, chosen. This puts the focus/blame on the disabled person rather than an unaccommodating society.
To me, it’s highly unreasonable that I can’t go to any hospitals even though I have a life-threatening condition because they don’t have fragrance free policies. I also think it’s\ unreasonable that sign language interpreters and wheelchair access are not common consideration. But these may not be reasonable within the daily triage of people who watch the door. Another common misconception is that disabled people can’t have hot, steamy, emotional, sex lives. This is silly. If disabled people don’t know about the ins and outs of the body, who does?
You can read an excerpt from Origami Striptease at Outside Ink.

Join the Conversation