In Tomboyland, Melissa Faliveno, who grew up in Mount Horeb, a “small, God-fearing town in southern Wisconsin,” explores gender, sexuality, and class through an outsider’s lens. This method works because it’s honest; she isn’t playing at being an author who doesn’t have all of the answers. It’s her truth: “Where I come from, we’re not raised to talk about ourselves—let alone our sexual proclivities or gender identities. I had never even heard the term gender identity until late in college when I took a bold leap and enrolled in a women’s studies class. It hadn’t occurred to me a person had a gender identity, let alone that it might be in conflict with their biological sex.” And this is the crux of Tomboyland: In a world where physical labor is a means of survival and massive, striking tornadoes threaten safety, where do we find space to think about ourselves? Where do we find answers to our questions about sex, gender, sexuality and, ultimately, the self?
“Sometimes, I call myself a woman, but sometimes I avoid the word,” Faliveno writes. “Uncertainty is hardly unique among those of us born into female bodies, but as my own body moves through the world, it is marked by one common question: What are you? And the honest answer is—I don’t really know.” Given Faliveno’s commitment to honesty, there isn’t a moment in Tomboyland that feels chastising or heavy-handed. This isn’t a treatise about how cis, straight readers are supposed to think about queer people or a mission-driven piece of work fighting to combat stereotypes about the Midwest. Rather, it’s a ruminative narrative based in research, with Faliveno’s original reporting adding texture to her personal stories.
This doesn’t mean that Tomboyland avoids talking about power and the way it shapes our identity. In one of the most painful essays, “Switch-Hitter,” Faliveno writes about power, abuse, and her time as a star softball player in high school. While training to get stronger for her games, she writes, “I made my body a weapon, I made my body a war.” The following paragraph switches to a second-person point of view and details an inappropriate relationship with a coach—a shift that, through narrative distancing, reveals just how painful the memory is. In the same essay, the narrator continues experiencing predatory relationships with adult men, which eventually results in her being raped. Faliveno’s expert use of point of view and pacing prevents the reader from tripping over shifts from first person to second person to third person within the same essay.
Tomboyland shines in its symbolism. In “The Finger of God,” the introductory essay, Faliveno uses tornados to explore loss of control: “Adolescence had become its own kind of storm system, volatile and unpredictable: My body’s boyish build had begun to shift course, budding breasts and bleeding, and I began to realize that even the sturdiest structures, like family and home, could be blown away in an instance.” Later, in “Of a Moth,” Faliveno uses a moth infestation as a vehicle to reflect on solitude and self in the aftermath of a breakup. “Unsurprisingly, I deemed my moth he. I did what it is we always do when we speak of creatures whose sex is uncertain … Of humans like me,” Faliveno writes, “for whom it’s simply hard to tell; creatures who may be one thing or another, who may be both; whose bodies, regardless, we assume the power to name—like we know them, like they’re ours to possess.” Bitch spoke to Faliveno about the importance of these symbols, writing through fear, and what it means to be an essayist who is asking the questions rather than providing the answers.
I was surprised by your first essay: Though the book is ostensibly about identity and gender, this essay focused on a storm and the landscape. Why did it feel important to use that initial essay to lock in the setting?
This book, as much as it is about identity, is also about place, land and [the] idea of land, and the Midwest. It was important for me to set that scene from the very beginning—to really paint this landscape for a reader who has never been there. I wanted anyone who entered the book to feel immersed in this place and get a visceral [sense] of what it’s like (not least because the Midwest gets [unfairly] described with such broad strokes). I wanted to create this very specific scene, which is this working class, rural part of Wisconsin. I also just wanted this particular place where I was born and raised to feel almost like a character throughout the book—[a] kind of touchstone we return to. While after that first essay we dive into questions about the body and violence, I really wanted the sense of place to be established. My hope was that readers [would feel] like they were there and [feel] the volatility and strangeness of it. I think of that place as my origin story.
In “Of A Moth,”moths act as a stand-in for solitude following the end of a long-term relationship. You seem to have a very defined style in that you use symbols like the moths, or tornados, as entrypoints to examine your own experiences.
Writing an essay is so much about those pairings: taking things that might otherwise seem disparate or unconnected and trying to dig into those connections and [figure out] why they exist in my brain. Usually when I’m writing an essay, I start with a question or an image I’m thinking about. For that essay, for example, I was thinking about this moth infestation. I was battling it when I wrote it; I was in the process of trying to exterminate moths, and I started feeling all of this grief. I was like, well that’s interesting. I’ve killed insects before and not felt grief. I wanted to [explore] the relationship between the moths, this infestation, and this idea of being invaded with loneliness, solitude, and grief. They just came together so clearly in my mind because I was experiencing [all of these things] at the time; I wanted to see if I could get [those] connections to live on the page.
In “Gun Country,” you question masculinity, while providing research and conversation about gun violence and mass shootings. You elected to pair two hot topics, gun rights and masculinity, together. How did you decide to approach this topic?
This one came about after the 2016 election. I’ve always been pretty firmly anti-gun and felt increasingly horrified and enraged at the culture of mass shootings. But then, as things started happening in the media—I’m in Brooklyn, New York, in this bubble of across-the-board liberal folks, queer folks, people of color—I kept hearing these oversimplified stories about Midwesterners and the “Midwestern gun owner.” Hearing a people described in a simplified, derogatory way started to bother me. I wanted to [explore] this [issue] of Midwestern gun owners, and I wanted to also [explore] the relationship between guns, rage, and masculinity.
While writing [about] gun violence, I had this experience on the family farm: My partner’s father and uncle (who are big into guns) wanted to take me out shooting. I was resistant, but it was something I’d secretly always wanted to do. I went on the farm, learned to shoot a handgun, and loved the experience—and then hated that I loved the experience. I started thinking about how [having and holding this gun] made me feel strong and powerful; these masculine characteristics I have were sort of puffed up in the [same] way they get puffed up when I’m competing in a sport. I started thinking about people who identify so closely with gun ownership and how that’s wrapped up in masculinity. Those things were suddenly [coming] up for me. I wanted to look at my own masculinity and fear. The hardest part was [questioning my own fear around] my masculinity.
How did you decide to organize these essays?
I’ve been writing these essays for 10 years. I thought I was just writing a book about the Midwest, and as I kept writing and [getting] closer to the point where I was able to get an agent and sell it, all of these threads started to arise. I got my agent, who is just awesome and very perceptive, and [when] I gave her four or five essays, she was like, Okay, this is a book about class, gender, and the Midwest. What are the organizing principles that are most important to you? We tried to narrow the focus of the essays that were explicitly about class and work; some of those got cut for hopefully a later collection (because I will never tire of writing about class). [Laughs.]
You mention Rebecca Solnit and Virginia Woolf multiple times throughout the collection. What other writers are at the core of this book?
Audre Lorde for sure (Sister Outsider was really important to me, especially the essay “Tomboy”). Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth was biblical to me. She was my graduate thesis advisor. I look at her writing as this beautiful meditation on rural Midwesterness and childhood. Ada Limón, the poet, [has a] book, The Carrying, [which] was always on my desk while I wrote this. [It] really inspired my essay, “Motherland.” Also Annie Dillard—there’s a collection called Holy the Firm, which is this spiritual meditation on nature and land.
In “The Finger of God,” you write, “Talking about your problems, I think, is something reserved for the upper classes, the educated classes, for households where a life of the mind is more important than a life of work, and of the body, and of the land.” How did you reckon with this line of thinking as you decided to write this essay collection?
I don’t know if I’ve ever actually reconciled this. [Laughs.] I’m still filled with terror [when it comes to] saying things out loud. Even though intellectually I know that I have tools and the ability to do it, there’s still a part of me that feels like I should keep my head down, do my work, and shut my mouth because that’s what I grew up believing. [These things] weren’t explicitly said, but they were there. I was the first [person] in my immediate family to go to college, and I come from a long line of blue-collar [workers]; we never grew up talking about any of these things. Even the term “intellectual” wasn’t something I had access to until I went to college. Articulating ideas out loud [is] scary. It feels vulnerable, and I have imposter syndrome: I feel like, Who am I to talk about these things? It’s the same feeling I get when I’m in a room of very educated people talking about politics; I kind of shut down. Part of the process of deciding to write and publish this was, in a way, trying to liberate myself from that feeling. It worked in some ways. I’ve gotten over some of those deep-seated fears. But a lot of them are still there.
“I have imposter syndrome: I feel like, Who am I to talk about these things? Part of the process of deciding to write and publish this was, in a way, trying to liberate myself from that feeling.”
Tomboyland asks more questions than it answers. The narrator is still figuring things out and doesn’t seem certain that there are answers to their questions about gender, sexuality, and self. This feels like an interesting move, especially because queer writers are so often expected to teach straight, cis readers something. But you’re not teaching, you’re asking.
When I’m writing I feel very strongly that I don’t have the answers. I think most people [don’t]. There’s no right or wrong way to answer these questions. I do feel like writing today is very manifesto-like. There’s use for that, for sure, but personally I’ve never felt like I’m the one who holds the answer. What’s more interesting to me is inhabiting a question [and] trying to live in the darkness a little bit. [When] I was in graduate school, I read A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. She talks a lot about living in [uncertainty] and allowing yourself to inhabit this place of mystery. I felt like that’s my job as an essayist: not to give people answers, but to try to ask better questions that help [the reader] form their own opinions. I just want to ask the question.
Point of view does a lot of work in this collection. In “Switch-Hitter,” for example, you go from telling the story in first person to second, then back to first, and then to third. How do you use POV as a tool for storytelling, especially when it comes to the painful stories?
I definitely switched the point of view in that piece in order to navigate one really traumatic circumstance (and then another circumstance that informs the trauma I wrote about later). For me it was about being continually uncomfortable writing the story in the “I.” If I put this down in the “I,” it means I am 100 percent accepting that it happened. I wanted to write about how a part of me is really resistant to writing that it happened. I wanted to write into that resistance. Trauma has [caused me to] dissociate, and my body separates itself from the experience. I wanted to create that on the page: remove this “I” who is your reliable narrator and flip it on its head, [so that] you as a reader feel sort of shaken out of your body. It should feel unsettling. Part of it is self-preservation. The other part is a hope [that I’m] able to capture that experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.