Expanding and Dissolving: A Conversation with Chelsea Hodson / by Peter LaBerge

BY AYDEN LEROUX

 Chelsea Hodson, author of  Tonight I'm Someone Else  (Henry Holt and Co., 2018). Photo credit: Ryan Lowry.

Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I'm Someone Else (Henry Holt and Co., 2018). Photo credit: Ryan Lowry.

Chelsea Hodson is the author of the book of essays Tonight I'm Someone Else and the chapbook Pity the Animal. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Bennington College and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell Colony and PEN Center USA Emerging Voices. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineFrieze Magazine, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Catapult in New York and at Mors Tua Vita Mea in Sezze Romano, Italy. 

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One steamy summer, in the swamp that was an apartment in downtown Brooklyn sans air conditioning, my friend Ceilidh and I were chatting about books in the doorway of our kitchen. Like playing catch in the park, we slung recommendations back and forth. Maggie Nelson. Sarah Manguso. Heidi Julavits. These were women who dealt with the self, with desire, with record-making. And then she threw me a name I’d never heard: Chelsea Hodson.

That night, Ceilidh sent me a digital copy of Hodson’s Pity the Animal, a chapbook published by Future Tense Books in 2014. I recall lying on my stomach under the yellowed overhead light, in my underwear and hoping to dent the heat. I never read books digitally because my attention can’t fix on the screen, but here I was, scrolling through Hodson’s exquisite long-form essay meditating on what a body can endure. Hodson deftly braided small paragraphs on the ways her own body is used, valued, objectified, and desired. But these weren’t just fragments, they were beautifully portioned sentences. I was deep in the process of writing my own first book and was feeling the rush of absorption, as the right texts were finding their way into my hands precisely when I needed them. This was, indeed, one of them.

One the occasion of her highly anticipated full-length collection of essays, Tonight I’m Someone Else, I interviewed Hodson about her exacting treatment of the body as a locality that entangles labor, desire, and identity. As a nod to the title of her book, I chose to interview her three times over the course of two months in order to tease out precisely who she was in each conversation.

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APRIL 9, 2018

Ayden LeRoux: Because your book is titled Tonight I’m Someone Else, I wanted to start by asking who are you tonight, or I guess technically, this afternoon?

Chelsea Hodson: The title mainly comes from the element of persona my writing takes on. It’s this very curated version of myself and a very specific part of myself. It’s like a way of isolating parts of myself in order to examine them and really figure out what made a memory particularly memorable or what made a person particularly memorable. I have to isolate things in order to understand them. So that’s a big part of how I live, too. I’m always compartmentalizing. Today I’m in full work-mode, and I’m longing to get back to art mode, where I can turn off my email and get back to my own work, but you know, that’s just part of being a writer and a teacher. Like today, it’s all manuscripts and all critical eye. I find editing very creative, but for me, that’s a very different part of myself than the part that makes work.

AL: I was thinking about an interesting tension I found between different essays in the book:

“All characters appearing in this work are you. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely you.” (58)

“I love them not for who they are but for the ways in which they altered me. In this way, my love for them becomes a love for my own deterioration.” (135)

“The mystery of myself grows larger the more I try to solve it.” (169)

With those three in tandem, I see this idea that the self is both constantly expanding and dissolving. It’s simultaneously a sense of being undone and constructing the self. Especially because the self that is described in this book is defined so much by others and the longing for the Other. I would love to hear you talk about what you feel dissolves your sense of self and how it simultaneously is constructed through desire.

CH: Wow, that’s a really good question…. You’re tuning into a lot of things. I love what you said about it expanding and dissolving, and that, to me, informs a sense of a whole new thing being created. In my deterioration, I construct something brand new. In America, the idea is that the thing would always be improved. I’m not sure that it is, I like to think that it could be, but there’s this idea that in shedding your old self that you’re automatically presented with a better self or a better version. I definitely don’t think that’s always true. I think that, often, one is confronted with a worse part of oneself. A lot of times that’s what I’m writing about: what do you do with yourself when you’re really just not sure of what’s right and what’s wrong, or what you really want?

That first quote that you mentioned is a play on the disclaimer that books use. It’s a joke, first of all. I think that I’m getting away with a lot in a book that’s classified as essay/nonfiction. I always naturally bring in this frantic id voice of passion and imagining impossible things. To me, the idea of the “you” being everyone is a part of that. It changes. In parts of the book, the person being addressed doesn’t even seem to be that singular to me. Sometimes people are bringing things out of me that would have been brought out no matter who I was with. I’m rambling a little bit, but the idea of one face replacing another is interesting to me. I’m interested in the series of people one meets throughout their life.

AL: Circling back to this idea of American-ness and identity. Maybe this is what’s most bold and what stands out to me about this book, the unceasing desire and desire for others to define the self that’s talked about in this book. As Americans, we’re expected to be these incredibly individualistic people. Going back to this dissolving of the self, what feels really unusual is you giving yourself permission to write a book that’s almost saying there is no self that exists, except all these longings for other things. That is something that’s frowned upon by a lot of people in our society. They want you to find yourself. That’s the ultimate goal of living in America, and especially New York. You better know who you are and what you want to do in this world. There’s so much desire, which is a very American thing, but then so little assertion of the self.

CH: I’m interested in the ambiguities of the self and one’s own weakness, especially as a woman. I think there’s this tendency to want to project or portray oneself as invincible and super strong at all times. I think that’s the reductive version of what I see on the internet sometimes and to me, something is only interesting when it has multiple dimensions. I’m really interested in this idea of portraying myself as I am, which is often full of sadness and absence and longing.

AL: Something else I was thinking about while reading your book was that sense of feminism. How does this project relate to being a feminist project, if you feel it is? I was thinking particularly about “Swollen and Victorious.” There’s a lot of privilege in that essay: what does it mean to ask for it, to ask for pain because life doesn’t have meaning and has been so normal and even-keeled? The desire in that essay is to feel remarkable or special in some way. I’m curious, how does that relate to being a young woman?

CH: That essay is an attempt to discover that. There’s a line in it, where it’s like, “Girls like me get to choose when and where to look. That’s the real privilege.” And that’s, in summary, what it’s about. What I’ve seen is very curated and a specific point of view, and it’s privileged, but that doesn’t mean that, in my opinion, I shouldn’t write it. That essay is an attempt to understand something outside of myself, no matter how misguided. It’s a progression of violence—a misguided look at it, and then perhaps a step in a different direction. Trying to understand something as big as a border patrol officer murdering someone trying to cross the border illegally, to having touched someone that later was shot in the head. That essay came from a real sincere effort in trying to understand what a hand is capable of, and to me it’s capable of everything because of the degrees of violence that we see now. Even though I’m not on the front lines as a war journalist, that essay is my attempt at understanding violence, and to me it started with something “troubling,” [...] this real attraction to violence, and what do you do with that? It’s more common than people think. That death-drive is in all of us. When people say that reading something like that is troubling, I’m like, Wow you’ve never felt that? It’s hard to imagine not relating to that at all, even just a little. It’s just fascinating when people say about my book, It’s so sad. And I’m like, Yeah, isn’t life so sad? I don’t necessarily equate sadness with badness, or any sense of negative feeling. It is what it is.

AL: We’ve been talking about longing and desire and yearning. Often times people use this metaphor of hunger or thirst. I’m wondering if you think this book feels more like hunger or more like thirst? And what is the difference for you?

CH: That’s a really good question, but I can’t separate “thirst” from the internet definition of it. [Chuckles]

AL: What do you mean?

CH: Like a thirst trap. [Laughs] It’s like, an Instagram photo for a guy would be, like, posting a shirtless photo of yourself. That’s a thirst trap. For me, it’s hard to call my book thirst because I don’t want my book to be a thirst trap. I think hunger is definitely the better word for it even outside of that. It’s a hunger for knowledge in a lot of ways, for How can I be better? How can the speaker be better? How can I better serve other people in my life? It’s this real hunger for knowledge of all these different things. That’s why I felt like it was valid to write the book at this point in my life. It’s become more accepted to write a memoir or personal essays when you’re 30 or so, but in previous generations it would have been frowned upon. It would have been, What do you know? For me, I’m not sure I’ll know that much more when I’m 60 or 80. I’ll be a different version of myself, but what I know now is maybe worth exploring. That has to do with a hunger to know myself.

AL: It’s interesting—as you’re talking about absorbing knowledge, or wanting to learn things, hunger is so much about solids and being filled by solids. Whereas thirst is just hydration and lubrication and keeping things running smoothly but not taking in new things.

CH: I’m going to be thinking about that tonight. When I go to the gym I’m going to be thinking, Hunger or thirst? Hunger or thirst?

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MAY 17, 2018

AL:  Who are you tonight?

CH: Tonight, I’ve been packing for a trip and cleaning my room, which used to be all white, but I’m transitioning into all blue. My room is very small, so it gets messy easily, but I’m thinking tonight about how pleasing it is to be in my room when it’s quiet and tidy. I can hear my neighbor’s bird, Spike, singing through the wall, which he does every night. The song is very sweet and cheerful, and I like hearing it. I often think about the fact that Spike is older than me.

AL:  As we've already discussed, your book is filled with so much longing and lust. On page 147, we finally feel the release of all the desire and tension that has built up when you write, "Tyler rubbed his jeans against my jeans like someone lighting a hundred matches in a row. I closed my eyes and came." When I read that sentence, I felt so much relief—that, at last, the wave of desire had broken. I couldn't help but wonder which you think is more important and interesting to explore as a writer: the potency of that build-up of energy, or the release of it?

CH: The anticipation of anything—a trip to a foreign place, a career accomplishment, a romantic rendezvous—is almost always more pleasurable to me than the end result. I like that heat of uncertainty, of not knowing exactly how something will play out. Even after something desirable has been attained, I always feel a tinge of sadness. For example, I felt extremely sad when my book was done. That made no sense to me at first, since I’d been working for years towards this exact thing—shouldn’t I be happy? I was, in a way, but I could see how attached I’d become to this feeling of being in the middle of a problem. Anticipation had become a sort of hobby for me, a place to put my desire.

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MAY 24, 2018

AL: Who, or what, are you tonight?

CH: I’ve just returned home from a work trip to Los Angeles, which felt surreal and dreamlike in its cloudy atmosphere and Hollywood proximity. Some things I saw: a snarling coyote, Angelyne in her iconic pink Corvette (the fourth time I’ve seen her in my life), Joanna Newsom walking with her baby (while I was being interviewed), Ryan Seacrest at a restaurant (but not eating), and a crowd of people applauding a particularly beautiful sunset. I used to live in Los Angeles, and I appreciate its unique Hollywood brand of magic, especially now that I’m reading Eve Babitz again, but I’m happy to go elsewhere for now. I’m tired—perhaps from walking most places instead of taking cars. I walked 32 miles in four days, simply because I had the time.

AL: Your wide array of jobs is speckled throughout your book. You've worked at NASA, for Marina Abramovic, and as a model. I love looking at that list because it dismantles a lot of romantic visions of what it means to be a writer and speaks to the contemporary world we live in, which often creates these fractures in identity as writers take on a odd jobs and "hustle," for a lack of a better word. How do these jobs inform your written work (beyond merely appearing in them)? How is work or labor connected to desire for you?

CH: Yes, this word “hustle” has come up a lot for me lately, especially in conversation with other writers. Everyone is curious about how other people make money—how they manage to both work and write, since writing so rarely provides any kind of substantial money. I accept the “hustle” and multi-tasking as part of American life—it’s a privilege to be able to write at all, and I’ll take what I can get. I talk about work a lot in the book because it would be a weird absence if I didn’t—my jobs were where I spent so much of the years that I wrote about in the book. And usually my jobs provided an interesting juxtaposition to something going on in my personal life—studying another planet while longing for someone unreachable, working retail while considering my own body as a commodity, working as a model while interrogating the idea of a body as an art object. These connections are everywhere if we pay attention, and I think part of the essayist’s role can be to document and investigate how certain parts of life connect with other parts, and to begin piecing them together.

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Ayden LeRoux is an artist and the author of Isolation and Amazement (Samsara Press, 2013) and Odyssey Works (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016). Her writing has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, edibleManhattan, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She has had solo exhibitions of her work at IDIO Gallery, Flux Factory, and the Institute for American Art (IFAA). She is an MFA candidate at UCSD.