Read Local: The End of San Francisco
New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore was barely legal when she sought refuge in San Francisco, but the now-infamous radical queer troublemaker was disappointed with what she found. In The End of San Francisco, a new book that is part memoir, part social history, Mattilda casts a critical eye on her time in the Bay Area. Over the last couple of weeks, we emailed about her new book, published by City Lights Bookstore.
This is a memoir written in the moment of tragedy, rather than at a safe distance. Traditionally, there's usually a good deal of seemingly necessary space between the actual life event and the process of committing it to the page. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes. I'm not interested in a safe distance, or in massaging the reader's allegedly fragile world view, like most memoirs insist on doing. I think this weakens the potential for honesty and depth of feeling. Memoir is an incredibly tired genre, taking the wildest, messiest, and most creative lives and turning them into laminated timelines. I wanted to create something more layered and intimate and explosive.
To borrow a question from Chapter 3, asked by a man you spoke to on the free sex phone line, "why couldn't you stay in the town where you came from and stick it out?"
Ha! Well, first of all, telling an abused kid to stay at home and take it is not exactly the best advice, although this is the advice the larger culture gives most of us. Similarly, telling a queer person to stay in a homophobic or transphobic home environment is basically telling someone to suffocate. I think we all need to get away from where we started, even if that place was wonderful. How the hell else can we figure out something defiant and flamboyant and transformative?
You arrived in San Francisco at just 19-years-old, seeking out a place of queer refuge, but you didn't find it. Is there another city doing it better, or does the geographical location simply not exist?
I first moved to San Francisco in 1992. I was searching for direct action activists, freaks, and outsiders, queers and other maniacs trying to undo the violence of the world around us. San Francisco is where I learned how to create my own culture, how to challenge the lies and hypocrisy so central to straight and gay normalcy, it's where I learned how to imagine alternatives to giving up. Yes, San Francisco has also let me down more than anywhere else. Yes, there is a certain kind of corruption intrinsic to queer world-making in San Francisco, a "we have arrived" mentality that often shelters viciousness masked by radical rhetoric. We all have our dreams of self-invention and communal care, we all have our moments of imagining what we need and may only find in moments -- in San Francisco, and everywhere else. Oh, how I have believed!
But you don't anymore?
That's one of the things I realized in writing The End of San Francisco -- I keep believing in very similar cultures, because I still believe in the ideals of accountability and mutuality, intimacy and negotiation, relationships forged through direct action and critical engagement, a vision of desire connecting pleasure to politics. Some people have called this belief hopeful, but often I wonder if it's just delusional. And yes, I am talking literally about this city called San Francisco that has been the most formative place for me, but I also mean to ask a broader question about these stories we tell ourselves about creating a home for the fringe, a queer autonomous space, are these just creation myths or can they be actualized?
How do you negotiate those moments, when you see this belief as "delusional?"
We all need a little bit of delusion. As a queer kid, learning to project invulnerability to the outside world that wanted me dead is what saved me. Like someone could shoot me in the face and I would say "oh, honey, please." But now I'm drawn towards expressing the contradictions, the places where mythologies of success end up camouflaging violence. In The End of San Francisco, I'm drawn towards vulnerability. That's what will save me now.
You've called this book an exorcism, your goodbye to San Francisco. Have you really left, and if so, where have you gone?
Good question. I lived in San Francisco at three different times, so I guess I can't say for sure that I won't move back. I know that I'm glad I left, even if I moved to Santa Fe in a desperate quest to see if living somewhere with dry air in the mountains would alleviate some of my endless chronic health overwhelm. But everything got worse. So I moved to Seattle.
You may have already, through research or theories, have a good idea of who will buy this book, but who do you wish would buy the book?
Everyone, of course -- isn't that what every author wants?
You know what else authors want? You, at their readings. Mattilda will be making appearances throughout the Bay Area this month and next. Catch her at the following readings:
Tuesday, April 30th, 7:00 pm
San Francisco, CA: City Lights Bookstore
Thursday, May 2nd, 7:30pm
Berkeley, CA: Pegasus Bookstore
Thursday, May 9th, 7-9 PM
San Francisco, CA: GLBT Museum
Saturday, May 11th, 7:30 PM
San Francisco, CA: Writers with Drinks