Seth Fischer’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Joyland, Gargoyle, PANK, Best Sex Writing, and other journals and anthologies. His essay work was also selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has attended residencies at Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Woodstock Byrdcliffe, and elsewhere. He was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus, and he is also a professional developmental editor of novels and memoirs. He teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Find him at www.seth-fischer.com
ROAR: Who is a feminist you wish the world knew more about?
SETH: Minnie Bruce Pratt. She was a teacher of mine, at Syracuse, when I was a hopelessly lost political science PhD student. Aside from inspiring me to leave that awful world and go into writing, her writing and the way she moved through the world inspired me to live a life of activism.
But I will let her speak for herself, from one of my favorite essays from her, Identity: Skin Blood Heart:
“…In this city where I am no longer of the majority by race or culture, I tell myself every day: In this world you aren’t the majority race or culture, and never were, whatever you were raised to think; and are you getting ready to be in this world?
And I answer myself back: I’m trying to learn how to live, to have the speaking-to extend beyond the moment’s word, to act so as to change the unjust circumstances that keep us from being able to speak to each other; I’m trying to get a little closer to the longer-for but unrealized world, where we each are able to live, but not by trying to make someone less than us, not by someone else’s blood or pain. Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do with my living now.”
ROAR: You do freelance book editing and book coaching. Can you talk about the most challenging aspect when you come across “Problematic” writing?
SETH: What I’ve really learned by being a book editor and a coach is how to give people bad news in a good way. That’s really the job. And sometimes, that bad news is, “Um, your writing is racist.” Or sexist. Or transphobic. Or homophobic. Or biphobic. Or ableist. Or intersectionally fucked.
And if you say that, or if you tell them without any other context that their work is problematic, it is a very good way to lose a client.
First, though, I have to check myself. Is this really sexist, or is it just challenging me in some other way? I have made that mistake a few times.
But usually my gut is right. Usually if I think something is messed up, it’s messed up. But I also know that the cause of problematic writing is the same cause as most bad writing: there has been a failure of empathy at some level. Every writer in the world, myself included, has had that failure. So, sometimes after I have a little freak out, I usually do my best to put myself in that writer’s shoes and ask myself, “What led them to write this?” And once I have done my best to figure that out, and as long as I come at it from that way, authors are usually open to that kind of criticism, and the writing is almost always much, much better for it.
In other words, the root of the problem is usually that the author is not seeing the character as a human. Rather, they are seeing the character as a woman. Or a bi person. And yes, these characters are these things, and that is not to be ignored. But this isn’t the entirety of that person. This is not the only reason they are interesting.
I wrote an essay once about a time my cousin, who was a part-Samoan neo-Nazi, pulled a compound bow on an African American man in front of me. It is a fucked up story on many, many levels, but also one that I think needed to be told. In graduate school, I turned in a very early draft of that essay. My advisor sent it back to me and said, “This essay makes you look worse than your cousin.” And what is awful is how right she was. What I had done is try to write him as a part-Samoan neo-Nazi and not a human. Believe it or not, it’s the same principal, I think. Do not forget that your characters are human, and you probably won’t have problematic writing.
In the same way, I try not to forget that my authors are human.
ROAR: How does your writing intersect with the causes you are passionate about?
SETH: One of the things that bothers me aesthetically about so much in activism is the concept of talking points. I hate talking points. I think they are the worst thing in the world. They take all individual thought out of the activist experience and turn us all into robots, spouting pre-approved messaging that was developed in focus groups. Maybe it’s effective, but it takes all thought out of the political process. It makes my blood boil.
So what I try to do, when I write my nonfiction, is to write the opposite of talking points. I try to make the things I care about matter in human stories in a way that encourages me to think, and hopefully encourages other people to, as well.
In my fiction, I kind of actively try not to think in terms of causes. But of course they come through because it’s such a part of who I am. I think they come through stronger that way.
Ursula le Guin has a great mini-essay in Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer called “A Message about Messages.” In it, she says, “a work of art is understood not by the mind only, but by the emotions and by the body itself.” If you can connect to people with emotions and the body, you have done more for your cause than any talking point. I guess I have to forget about my causes sometimes to really serve them.
ROAR: What does feminism mean to you?
SETH: This is such an impossible question because it means so many things to me. So I’ll say, here’s a thing that feminism means to me. (Added bonus because you’re my boo, and I’ve always wanted to tell you this.)
The first time I dated a man, I felt a great weight lift. It took some figuring out, but eventually I realized that this weight wasn’t the stereotypical weight that comes from the traditional coming out story. It wasn’t the story where I had finally found my true self. My true self also loved women, and I knew that, at some level, then, though I think I wished I could be just gay—it would have been so much simpler, I thought.
But what it was was this: as I looked at straight couples all around me, I couldn’t help but notice something awful— at some basic level, so many men and women who purported to love each other actually loathed one another. And so much of this hatred stemmed from the misogyny that is everywhere. In its most extreme form, everywhere I looked, women were pissed because they were reluctantly in love with men they knew didn’t think of them as people. And men were walking around angry and confused because they’d been taught their whole lives to think of women as belongings, and belongings were supposed to behave, and if they didn’t, well, then it brought everything they had ever been taught into question, which is something that tends to make people irritable.
bell hooks captures this better than I ever could: “the wounded child inside many males is a boy who, when he first spoke his truths, was silenced by paternal sadism, by a patriarchal world that did not want him to claim his true feelings. The wounded child inside many females is a girl who was taught from early childhood that she must become something other than herself, deny her true feelings, in order to attract and please others. When men and women punish each other for truth telling, we reinforce the notion that lies are better.”
There are problems in gay relationships, for sure, but when I first dated a man, all this bullshit suddenly wasn’t there. And before I could date a woman again, I had to figure out how to bring this new knowledge with me. I tried to make it work with straight women, but I just couldn’t, because very often I found that they expected some level of the broken relationship I talked about above. But I also knew I probably leaned a little more towards women, so it was very frustrating.
It took a lot of work in me, really, to learn to undo this twisted kind of hetero connection that had been ingrained in me since I was a kid, and to stop, as hooks says, lying. I still haven’t escaped it entirely. And I don’t know if I ever would have if I was straight. But I had to meet people who do their best to live their lives outside of these lies. And you, Ashley, you do this better than most anyone I’ve ever seen. And I love you for it.
So to me, part of feminism is trying to live outside of relationships that are based in misogyny, as I think most straight relationships, at least at some level, are. Because those relationships destroy everyone, and I think they’re destroying the earth.
ROAR: What does activism look like to you?
SETH: I’m on the board at BiNet USA, I am on the steering committee for the Lambda Lit Fest (happening this week in Los Angeles), I teach, I write, I edit. But I think where activism is most effective is in our relationships, like I said above. I try to live my ideals. I don’t always succeed. Usually I don’t. But I think the most powerful activism I do is outside the workplace, outside the picket line, outside the march. Not to say that’s not important! But for me, the biggest changes I make in the world and in myself come from non-work loving interaction with my family and my friends and my students and my community.
Another big part of it comes from looking at myself and my privilege. I’m white and a guy and I’m poor but I’m no longer paycheck to paycheck. I have so much privilege it’s crazy! The thing I try to keep in mind is that privilege makes people suck. I mean, it’s made me suck in a lot of important ways. But if I look at it, and I try to see how it encourages me to act, I can make even more of a difference.
I guess what I’m saying is that to me, activism is as much looking inwards as fighting outwards.
ROAR: What next?
SETH: I’m very close to finishing my novel, The Mabel File, and a couple chapters from it will be coming out in Joyland and in Gargoyle later this year. I’ll be sending it out to agents by May, so if you’re an agent and you like me, HI! IT’S NICE TO MEET YOU!
I have a couple essays I’m working on about my trip to the White House as part of the Bisexual Community Briefing last year. I will finish them soon, too!
I also am teaching a class called Make America Write Again for Writing Workshops LA, as well as a whole bunch of creative writing classes throughout LA. I also teach high school two days a week, and I just started, and I really am loving it way more than I thought I would. Kids give me hope.
But hopefully, most importantly, it’ll be spending time with you and my fam and our community, and also, lots of hugs.
Ashley Perez lives, writes, and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She runs the literary site Arts Collide and does work of all varieties for Women Who Submit, Jaded Ibis Press, Midnight Breakfast, ROAR, and Why There Are Words. Her work can be found at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, Red Light Lit, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.