Interview by Carolina Meurkens
I had the pleasure of sitting down with two incredibly talented writers, L Scully and Mayah Lovell, on the heels of their debut publications. The pair met in 2017 in Washington, D.C, and instantly connected around poetry, queerness, and the intersection of both. We dive deep to talk about what its like to pen and publish subversive literature, memoir as archive, and the activist roots present in both of their work.
dykes day, a holigay co-curated by Mayah Lovell and Fabiola Ching is a multimedia and multi-sensory anthology about a surrealist holiday for lesbians. Based on an original manuscript by six lesbian writers who come together to create and curate a collection of manuscripts, resulting in a full anthology exploring what a holiday for lesbians can look, sound, feel, taste and smell like. dykes day incorporates poetry, lyricism, fiction, research, sculpture, photography and sound to iterate on the ecology of enjoyment for lesbians.
Fuck Me: A Memoir by L Scully offers an honest look at sex addiction and grappling with identity. L Scully has laid bare their most intimate scars and dared the reader to trace the outlines. With personal essays, photographs and journal entries, Scully invites us to examine our own motives and question the lies we often tell ourselves.
C: Thank you both for joining me today to talk about your recently published books, the writing and publishing process, and what it’s like to be badass queer literary babes!
Honesty and vulnerability are at the core of both of your texts. I want to start off by talking about truth-telling from a craft perspective. Looking at the space between the writing and the self, in your writing process, has there been a separation? Does there need to be separation? How do you put forth honest work that has enough distance between the self and the work, while giving yourself the flexibility to evolve as you put these personal stories down onto the page?
L: I’m coming at this from a nonfiction and hybrid standpoint, so my perspective might sound a little different from Mayah’s, who primarily writes auto-fiction, poetry, and other surrealist work. But as you mentioned– the self is always evolving. And because of that, it’s hard to know when an essay, a chapter, or even a book is done, because the text is also always evolving. Whatever the end goal of your text is, it can feel like the goal post is always moving. Every time I read my work out loud at a reading, I’m like, oh, fuck, I should have done this or that differently. Even after publication, the work is a living, breathing document because I myself, and the people bringing their experiences to the text, don’t remain stagnant. The chapters in my book are also chapters of my life. In a way, I’m living in another chapter now, reflecting on work that I made when I was living in those previous chapters. My evolving self and my evolving texts are constantly at odds with each other. And part of the process is being okay with that, to know that writing the most raw, vulnerable parts of my life makes it so those previous versions of me are forever living on the page, even if I no longer exist as that version of myself.
C: Often when I’m writing memoir as a queer, multiracial person, I feel this internal pressure to put forth a definitive idea of who I am, when it comes to my relationship to sexuality, or to race and gender, or even my relationships to the important people in my life. How am I supposed to have a decisive view on how I feel about all of this when I’m still evolving and will probably always be in some state of flux? You could argue that it means I’m not ready to write a book, but I would argue that writing is part of that exploration. To me, it’s an integral part of how I come to learn myself. As queer and BIPOC writers, it feels like we have to prove that our experience is valid. When the story comes from the very essence of you, it can feel like your personhood is being judged. I find it interesting that both of you have stepped outside the traditional realm of publishing to get your books out into the world, and I would love to hear the thought process behind those decisions.
M: I had to do that for dykes day because I kept sending my manuscript to all sorts of publication contests, places that would say they’re looking for the “weirdest content, like super queer, experimental, calling for Queer BIPOC writers to put forth their deepest, darkest, most heart wrenching stories.” But then I’d put it out for submission, and nothing. So I decided to tap into my community and connected with a good friend Fabiola Ching, who is a Black, dark-skinned Cameroonian lesbian, with parallel identities to mine. She started Hermetic State, which is an experimental literary hub for Black lesbians. I sent her three pages of my personal manuscript to start, and soon it blew up into a ninety page book with contributions from writers and artists across our networks. The experimental, multimedia form the book began to take felt really exciting. We’ve also been working on a companion EP, adding to the vision we all have for this sensory, surrealist multidimensional celebration of dykehood.
Adding Fabiola as a collaborator helped to create a separation between myself and the writing.
Fabiola had the idea to expand the vision of the project to include more sensory elements and other writers. And for my work personally, because it isn’t nonfiction, I create separation through use of the poetic, imaginative elements of storytelling.
C: That makes all the sense! I’m so interested in this idea of writing being an archive. For both of you, what does your work say about the current moment? If future generations were to read dykes day or Fuck Me in ten, or twenty, or one hundred years, what do you think they’ll take from it?
M: dykes day isn’t just a book, it’s also an anthology of enjoyment for lesbians. Place and time play a huge role. Many of our contributors have roots in the DC area. Art created in the DMV has this experimental, DIY nature to it. Outside of the big name fine-art museums like the Smithsonian, DC has a lot of artists who work in the intersection of art and political activism. A lot of my friends are underground and experimental, and I wanted dykes day to represent our community.
We did a ton of research to understand the context and history of this area, going back to the first Dyke March in D.C. back in 1993 to looking up all the different types of clubs and lesbian spots that were popular in the 90s and early 2000s. Fabiola has a piece in dykes day that is four vignettes set in the 2000s and 90s of D.C. The fictional stories take place in settings like Michigan Avenue, and neighborhoods in Northeast, D.C. A lot of archival research went into creating these stories that are at the same time imaginative and experimental, while also representing an iconic time and place in lesbian history.
L: I think what strikes me the most is the way Mayah and I both have a documentarian approach to queerness. Mayah is creating the basis for a collective anthology, which is a little different than writing a standalone memoir or collection of personal essays, but I think that both our texts serve as a living document mapping out the personal and collective histories of queer and trans people living today, and hopefully, laying the groundwork for more of those histories to exist. For me, it’s easy to feel like my work is self absorbed, because it’s about my experience, but all of my experiences are byproducts of my community. I think a lot about how the multimedia aspect of both of our books, from images, songs, magazine clippings, poetry, are all in community with the different types of media that we’re using. The end product is a patchwork of different styles and influences, all of which inform who we are as writers and who we are as people.
C: I love the concept of approaching craft with a communal lens. Writing can be such a solitary pursuit. Most of my projects have collaboration at the center. I’ve felt friction in the pursuit of writing a book, because I’m so used to creating in community with others. But then, I came to realize that the people that I write about are also instruments of community. Writing my story means I’m in active conversation with the people who exist in my memories. That’s where the line between fiction and non-fiction is much more fluid than the literary status quo lets on.
M: Not only is community and fluidity integral to the writing process, but it’s also been essential in how I approached promoting the book. I carry copies with me to give to friends, who I hope give to their friends and lovers. We’ve made T-shirts with lines of poetry on it and have sent them to friends in New York and LA. I want people to be like, well, where’s that from? And someone would say, They’re a bunch of lesbian writers in DC, you know em? Then all of a sudden, dykes day is a movement, a tangible thing. Word of mouth is huge. Because Fabiola and I both come from African and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, we have this joint understanding that speaking aloud is its own art form. Oral history and spreading the word is another aspect of the multimedia nature of it all.
L: The process of getting Fuck Me published illuminated this culture that’s happening in publishing right now where everybody wants a trauma dump. It’s like, oh, are you queer? Are you trans? Were you disowned by your family for being queer and trans? There’s a habit of asking these leading questions and making a lot of assumptions around the stories we want to tell and what will sell market wise. It seems like the industry wants to convince marginalized writers that only sob stories sell. And in actuality, it’s so much more multilayered than that. I’m so excited to be talking about this here with you at Mixed Mag, where you explore the literal nature of multidimensional identities and experiences.
And in that vein, I was thinking about how the process of word of mouth networking is similar to queer grassroots organizing. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the writers we’ve worked with do both. Grassroots organizing has always been how lesbians get anything done. That’s how queer activism started. Speaking for myself, choosing to forego the more traditional commercial publishing route has helped me reclaim some of the agency that’s taken away from us by the industry. I know the strong activist roots to the literature that I’m providing.
C: As someone who works in publishing in a marketing role, I can attest that it’s an uphill battle to undo the roadblocks that exist for queer and BIPOC writers, just because of the ways in which white supremacy is embedded into every major industry. Even when the intentions are there, it can be so challenging to disrupt notions of what books will sell and why. The work I do in multicultural marketing is all about thinking outside the box of who we think our target reader or consumer is.
L: I’m just remembering conversations I’d have with publishers about selling my book and specifically, where is this book going to go on the shelf? And it’s like, fuck the shelf. This book is supposed to be in the streets!
C: Literally! Off the shelves and into the streets. With everything that’s going on with book banning, that sentiment is so powerful. I want to briefly get into the specifics of the writing, in particular, your perspective on writing a memoir with hybrid elements of craft. In Fuck Me, your narrator faces a lot of conflict, namely, sex addiction and mental illness. Did you feel pressured to have it be resolved by the last page? And if not, what anchored the story?
L: One of the later chapters in the book is called “Redemption Arc”. The narrator is basically like, I don’t know where the fuck any of this is going. And I also don’t owe you that as the writer. That was me taking some agency over the fact that this is an evolution. I felt pretty resistant to the concept of a narrative arc, with a traditional beginning, middle, and end, because I didn’t feel like it was honest to the story. The focus in my work is more on the central conflict, which ebbs and flows, pushes and pulls the narrator in different directions. There was never going to be a “happy ending”. First of all, I’m not dead, and I’m not retrospectively writing this at the end of my life. The best I could do was to identify the central conflict that is underlying in all of my work and base this book around it. I’m also a confrontational person and I didn’t hold back when writing this book. Being in conversation with myself was essentially the plot.
C: For you Mayah, how do you queer your language and form? Do you also take a non-traditional approach to narrative structure?
M: In dykes day, we play a lot with the fluidity of time. Both by placing pieces next to each other out of chronological order, jumping around between time periods and seasons, all of which we hoped would contribute to this feeling of asynchronicity of celebrating an imagined lesbian holiday at different points in time. I also have a book coming up called Phantom and it’s being printed by New Oil Press in August. Phantom looks at my growing up as a closeted gay kid in an Afro-Caribbean family. I intentionally wrote the story in English, Nigerian Pidgin, and Patois to bring Caribbean ghosts, and Caribbean memories into the mix. I wanted the language to reflect the mood of the book, of haunted heartbreaks and the double consciousness of living two lives (one where I was out and one where I was closeted).
L: I love that. The idea of queering language is really interesting to me. I think both of you do that so well. But I also just wanted to say that I queer language by being queer. My memoir is queer, because I’m queer. Telling the truth is queer. We’re conditioned into lying to ourselves and to others about who we are, and to others about who they are all of the time. Writing your truth pen to paper, or Google Docs, or whatever the fuck it is like, and saying, this is my truth is one of the most liberating things you can do.