A portrait of Maggie Nelson

How Maggie Nelson found freedom

In the wake of The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson has exploded from the avant-garde into a vital literary voice. She tells Simran Hans about her manifesto for surviving in the now.

Simran Hans

"Right now, with you, I’m the most free I’ve ever been!" says Maggie Nelson, laughing. The American critic, memoirist and poet is half joking – she is currently trapped in my computer screen, on a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles. She is also concentrating on the present moment – ‘free’ in the Buddhist sense of the word. As both she and the French philosopher Michel Foucault would put it, freedom is a daily practice rather than a destination. Today she wears a black turtleneck, the public intellectual’s uniform. Very Foucault indeed.

Freedom and how to practice it is the subject of Nelson’s new book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. She narrows the vast project down to four areas of interest: art, sex, drugs and climate. “I thought maybe I would give a try at writing cultural criticism,” she says drolly, as if this were her first attempt. Nelson is the author of 10 books, including two volumes of experimental art criticism (Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions, and The Art of Cruelty).

Much of her work weaves criticism and theory with poetry and personal experience. Nelson wrote two books about her aunt who was murdered in 1969 (Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts), both of which marry biography, true crime, and memoir. Bluets recounts the worst heartbreak of Nelson’s life in fragmented, numbered propositions. The Argonauts is a rigorous study of queer, feminist theory, cosily tucked inside a love story about her marriage to trans artist Harry Dodge (the couple now have two children). It was a surprise smash hit. A year after its publication, in 2016, Nelson was awarded a MacArthur fellowship.

'I went to high school in the Haight Ashbury, and I was literally surrounded by the detritus of the Summer of Love experiment'

I ask about Nelson’s breakthrough, The Argonauts. “It’s rare for a writer who’s laboured in the demi-monde or the avant-garde or whatever as much as I have... It’s rare to have a moment where that work gets recast,” she says. Just a few years earlier her agent had struggled to sell Bluets. “It’s too weird, it’s too weird, it’s too weird” was the most common response. “Then suddenly something in the culture shifts where people are willing to look at it like, ‘Is it that weird?’” she explains. “That kind of lens shifting is very happy-making for me.”

Though Nelson is pleased to see the culture changing to accommodate writing like hers, she’s more ambivalent about using her work to change the culture. She quotes another poet, Gertrude Stein: I write for myself and strangers. “I don’t have any kind of sermonistic aspirations for my writing,” she says, adding that the desire “to try and not change or control other people” is a “tenet of [her] life… It’s very important to me.”

She’s more a gatherer of ideas. “I’ve been curious about putting a bunch of different things in conversation with each other,” she says. “I like resonance, and correspondence, and asking what’s different and what’s the same about what people are talking about.”

Nelson was born in 1973 in the Bay Area, and grew up in San Francisco. Her parents were in the professorial class – her father was a lawyer. They weren’t hippies. In 1969, shortly after her aunt’s murder, Nelson’s parents left Michigan and moved west. The same year, in California, Sharon Tate was killed. “I went to high school in the Haight Ashbury, and I was literally surrounded by the detritus of the Summer of Love experiment,” she remembers. “I’m bringing up those murders because they also seemed to me, as a young woman, to signify the most horrifying end. A destruction of a dream of liberation that would end in not just disappointment, but death.”

Nelson references the 1977 film Looking For Mr. Goodbar, in which Diane Keaton’s sexual awakening brings about her downfall. “I felt the weight of the post-liberation moment,” she says of her teen years. “We had all this promise. We were supposed to be so great. So why were we living in this imperialist neoliberal nightmare littered with bodies especially of women, people of colour and queers?” It’s a question that feels deeply resonant today.

'There’s a relationship between freedom and song, mostly from Black diasporic tradition and slavery'

On Freedom began as an echo – a “reverb” as Nelson puts it – that she started to hear while writing 2011’s The Art of Cruelty. She was interested in art that depicted violence, cruelty and shock, but also contained “a whiff of the free”. She thought she might write another book, focusing on five or eight artists who produced this feeling. Then the messages started arriving, from her friends and colleagues in the art world.

“I noticed every email I’d get was about care, and freedom, and rising fascism, and autocracy everywhere,” she recalls. Like most people, Nelson was worried. Her concerns weren’t just intellectual. “Certain political freedoms are foundational, like for women being able to control your reproductive freedom, but they also intersect with all these ways we feel trapped spiritually, or psychologically,” she explains. “I was really interested in that mess.” And so she started to write a manifesto, for a way to survive in the now. 

The book’s four chapters are not treatises or even essays. Nelson labels them as songs, as in the On Freedom’s title. “There’s a relationship between freedom and song, mostly from Black diasporic tradition and slavery,” she says. “Certainly in the States, because of its history, the vast amount of interesting thinking about liberation is in Black Studies, variously travelled under other names over the past 500 years.”

The word song also gestured towards something else. “I wanted to find a word that indicated flow, as opposed to something that was more in the register of the scholarly,” she says. The critic Wayne Koestenbaum has described Nelson as “a natural born trespasser”. As a reader, she’s also drawn to other writers who traverse mediums and genres. She cites the poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten as someone whose work sings rather than speaks. “Fred’s criticism is written in this very lyric idiom,” she says. I ask who else she admires, and she lists something of a vanguard. “My friends, who helped me with this book, like Ben Lerner, and Eula Biss. Sadiya Hartman, whose work hangs between archival research, and the novelistic, and memoir. Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong.” In other words, thinkers, not academics. Poets, without the waft or whimsy.

That summer, in the midst of finishing a manuscript about liberation, a series of protests erupted near her home.

The seeds that would bloom into On Freedom, then, have been percolating in Nelson’s brain for the best part of a decade. She was in the final stages of editing the book when the pandemic hit. “The pandemic has been incredibly constraining – constraining to the point of madness for many of us for the past year” she says. “This polarisation of freedom versus care that I’d been writing about just became fully technicolour.” That summer, in the midst of finishing a manuscript about liberation, a series of protests erupted near her home. She would join the Black Lives Matter marches, then resume work at her desk.

But the turbulence of the past two years has given her a fresh burst of energy. “My time is now. Every time is a good time if we know what to do with it,” she says, paraphrasing the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay Self-Reliance, 1841. “In the same essay, Emerson says something like, everyone is born into a time that feels like it’s belated. That the best had just happened.” 

I tell her I fear that the worst is yet to come, with the UN’s latest climate report declaring “a code red for humanity”. She responds with the reassuring wisdom of a mother who’s seen and fought it all before. “I think now with climate change, there’s this pumping, thrumming message to kids that we’ve ruined the future. There’s nothing for them, there’s just endless fire, pandemic, polarisation, autocracy, hell to come,” she says. “It’s not that there’s nothing to any of that, but I think it’s a terrible injustice. I wanted to write this book, maybe out of my own experience in the 70s and 80s, of living in that kind of mindset to see what else was on offer. Especially as a parent of young children. I don’t want that to be all that’s on offer for them.”

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Image: Alai Ganuza for Penguin

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