Abi Cohen
No Fences: A Conversation with T Cooper, p.2

A:     I wanted to ask about identities, how has your identification with Judaism changed writing this book?

T:     Let me just say, the first book (Some of the Parts) was not about identity at all. There were four people who had totally different 'identities' and I use that word in quotes, because yes, one was a gay HIV positive male, one was a transgendered person, one was a bisexual person, one was a straight divorced woman, and that's a pretty big jumble and there are different ages, and classes thrown among these four people. And what I was trying to do was transcend that. Yes, Charlie's sick with HIV but it's not the 80s and he's not dying. Its about more than that. He's as whiney as everyone else, and it's not because he's HIV positive. Isaak is transgendered and sometimes that puts her in awkward situations, but she can relate to the character of Arlene who is in many ways the most normal, the most conventional of the characters. And so for me it wasn't about an 'identity'. But through going on tour and doing press it was so interesting that everyone had to glom onto "What are you? Which one are you in the book? What are you saying about the post-queer state…" All these 'post-' and 'neo-' things. I don't even know what they mean.

A:    I think the book is very much about identities, but not in the conventional use of the word. For me Charlie's identity is as a shut in, he's sealed himself off.

T:    Yeah, he's hurt, but not because he's sick, and not because he's gay, just because he's hurt.

A:     Its sophisticated. Its not about passing or blurring gender boundaries, but about creating a map of new identities based on a family identification with other people.

T:    Exactly! For me it's the notion is of creating your own family which I think they do, for better and for worse. Who knows if it's good or bad. But the individual identities transcend that family identity.

So that tour, that book was very much about me, what I was. It was nominated for a Lambda award so it had to be gay. And then it was in the transgender category so it was about transgendered people. I just resist the gay ghetto, the women's writing ghetto, it's troubling, but I also know that there's a reason why there are shelves at Barnes and Noble, why these things exist. It's heartbreaking and it's disheartening for a writer. I know this next book will be the 'Jew' book, if I'm lucky enough to have it get attention and the past stuff will be gone. I do have to think of my identity as a Jew and what that means, and that is the cultural identification I have but I've never been religious, I don't believe in god. So that sometimes presents a problem.

A:     Does it?

T:     I think it does for some folks that I talk to. It doesn't present a problem for me. There's an interesting divide among Jews. Us younger less religious people can identify as something culturally, but it's a culture based on a religion and a belief set that we don't necessarily buy into, so it's a fallacy written into the plan. The reason [my Jewish culture] is coming out is this imperative I have, this obsession with history, with photographs. Not my identity. So I do have to find out where my identity fits into it, but I do have to be true to the source. The violence of it is just astounding. And the violence perpetrated against this people for so long.

I joke about it, but any time I tell people about my book, well meaning, well educated, intelligent people, they immediately start talking about the Holocaust. But I'm not talking about the Holocaust! There's so much that we don't hear about here, with regard to Neo-Nazi groups in France and Spain and synagogues being burned down, people beaten all the time right now. I feel as though it's interconnected. I've been fascinated and repelled by violence and what it does to families, and how families are affected by devastation, by personal alienation. In the first book people were exiled from themselves as well as from other people. This book is more systematic and governmental but it's still a similar theme. I don't think I answered the identity question.

A:    I'm glad you didn't. It sounds like you get asked the same questions over and over again.

T:    That's okay, 'cause I can just give you the same answers I always give. But its okay, it's like the 'identities' thing, like the [Gay and Lesbian] shelf at Barnes and Noble. You need a little hook. You know it's more fun not to have to have a hook. But the hook is why the Koret [Jewish Book Awards] exist. Ultimately it would be great to get to a place where there wasn't a Gay and Lesbian shelf at Barnes and Noble or a Black History Month shelf or a Women's shelf…

A:     What about places like Bluestockings? [an independent Women's bookstore on the Lower East Side] Is there a place for that?

T:     I hope so! My greatest hope is that that culture doesn't die out. My sensibilities are very indie. Akashic Books, my publisher, I couldn't have done a better thing than to go with them. I learned everything about publishing a book from them. It was such a wonderful experience and it was so me.

But I also have to say that I have also benefited from multinational corporations. My book probably wouldn't have sold nearly as many copies if it hadn't been picked in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. That meant that for three months, my book was front and center, in every Barnes and Noble, and it wasn't that I just thought that, I went to every Barnes and Nobles. So there's a balance. Bluestockings, even in its most purest form is still a business that needs to operate and survive in New York City. They still need to sweep the sidewalk, they still need to pay off the guys who are picking up the trash. As long as we're living in a culture where capitalism is the way, everything is going to be tainted, so you pick the middle of the road and try to compromise yourself as little as possible. So this next book, it might be a bigger book, a larger company book that might benefit from more exposure, from hardcover release. I'm totally open. Because I believe in small publishers and small bookstores, my ideal would be to publish some books which are more indie with smaller presses, and some books which are wider scope with bigger presses. You have to pay the bills but you do have to be able to sleep at night.

For some parts of the country, the Gay and Lesbian shelf at Barnes and Noble is the only place where people who are scared to death, totally closeted, totally freaked out, can go to read about what they think they are. So I can't fault Barnes and Noble for anything, because under this current system that we're living in, that's the only way to funnel that kind of material to people like that. It's impossible to say that multinational companies are all evil. It's just where we are right now. We need to figure out how we can sleep at night, but also how we can support ourselves, economically and emotionally.

A:     Did you see the artcle on transgendered students in the New York Times Styles Section? Do you think it's suddenly chic?

T:    I know! It was in the Styles section no less! I remember lesbian chic, now it's really cool to be transgendered. I'm glad I'm 30 now and not 21. I went through my angry activist phase where I had to get mad about everything, and I feel like now I'm seeing the bigger picture. I knew the gender thing was happening because when I was performing with the Backdoor Boys, the people from Sex and the Ciy showed up at two shows. They invited us to an audition. So I knew that it was coming. Gender as the next frontier.

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May 2004

The Hamas Class of 1992
Michael Shurkin

Every City has a Soul
Jill Hammer

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Margaret Strother

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T Cooper
Abi Cohen

The Stable
Ira Stone

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From previous issues:

And the Jester Sang for the King and Queen
Bex Schwartz

Meditation and Sensuality
Jay Michaelson

They Gonna Crucify Me
Ken Applebaum