DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?
JM: For me the term “transgressive,” or its verb form, “transgress,” is to violate some perceived static boundary. For example, when my cat gets outside and goes onto my neighbour’s balcony, for me he is transgressing against my neighbours and myself and the boundary that is a manifestation of unspoken mutual respect for each other’s property and privacy.
Transgressive writing or other forms of art are nearly entirely always illocutionary. The act of speech or representation speaks into existence new possibilities that were previously incomprehensible. When we are conditioned to accept terms as implicit and then those terms are compromised through artistic representation, or even violent linguistic annihilation, it speaks an entirely new realm of possibility into the consciousness of the reader, viewer, listener, or whatever.
The most common example of illocution is a wedding wherein the priest says “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” and in so doing plants the reality of marriage into the collective consciousness of everyone witnessing the ceremony. Nothing concrete has changed but through the announcement of marriage, the idea of marriage is breathed into us as a reality, a term we accept and respect, something happens even though nothing has solidified or melted or metamorphosed or whatever.
This is how I believe art is transgressive. It represents a new perspective and boundaries fall and we so we are forced to shift our ideology, affectively expanding the scope of our collective imagination, there is more room for possibility.
DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?
JM: I grew up in a small town called Fonthill, Ontario. I went to Catholic school and my uncle delivered evangelical sermons at retirement homes. It was very conservative there. It was also very remote so I didn’t have access to many people with other kinds of lived experiences. This, at the time and still to this day, created a very biased lens through which I saw and see the world (though I am ever trying to educate and move beyond my own predispositions). I believe I was born with a strange desire to continuously question authority—I don’t want to get too psychoanalytic as it is pretty useless for this conversation, maybe one can argue I have some kind of mental disorder that drives me to be confrontational but the act of asking questions as a girl was for whatever reason very transgressive in that place. It was almost as though other students and teachers and even my own parents thought something was fundamentally wrong with me that I had such a desire to speak and question. I was being unpretty in my aggression (I am still deeply unpretty and very proud to say so).
As a result, I found I turned to stories of young girls who felt a similar desire for speech and discourse. Girls, who despite frequent reprimands from those in their community, sought to engage in intense intellectual debate, to create art, to defy their community in search of transcendental and universal meaning. Anne of Green Gables was one of these stories. Little Women’s Josephine March was another protagonist who was a young girl in an insular community who was desirous of a role within intellectual discourse.
An example from television would probably be the sitcom Roseanne which I became positively obsessed with early on, as most of the main female characters are strong women who actively reject the archetype of the typical, soft-spoken, vapid female personalities they are constantly pressured to fit into.
As a youth, and even still now, it is excruciatingly difficult to face a crossroads and choose to transgress against society through engagement with discourse and at the expense of my own attractiveness to many others. It is obviously nice to feel desirable, however these protagonists ultimately led full lives, not in spite of, but because of their transgressive role within their communities. They broke down my perceived boundaries of femaleness and instead evoked a world of possibility where I could be uncompromisingly vocal about my ideas and fearless of the possible ramifications of such socially violent speech acts. I learned to be brave. When I look back I can see myself as a 12-year-old girl who is absolutely lionhearted.
DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.
JM: “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler is always what comes to mind. When I read that book for the first time I was 18-years-old and in my first year at McGill University. It redefined gender in such a violent way for me that it forced me to renegotiate my entire way of engaging with people in the world, history, literature, the whole big shebang that makes everything everything. It also forced me to painfully turn a difficult inwards eye towards my own identity. The realm of possibility for whom I desired, the framework through which I had interacted with people and the categorization of Other and Self needed to be entirely renegotiated. I felt dizzy and sick. It took me a few years before I could really feel like I knew who I was within this radical re-contextualization of my entire existence and all of the knowledge I’d ever held as uncompromising truth. When I finally exited the intense existential crises that probably lasted two years, I was queer. I just was queer. I’ve known myself as queer ever since but I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I’m not entirely comfortable with the categorization because of the way I perform my gender, because I am a cis-woman who very much presents as hetero. I guess I’m just trying to place myself in a role that is congruent within our society right now, now as it is, while recognizing that it is forever evolving.
DHP: Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.
JM: Dr. Vaginal “Creme” Davis is the first that comes to mind. She was and is an intersex-born genderqueer performance artist who also wrote and published zines and underground independent magazines that called attention to the intersectionality between race, gender, sexuality, and class identities…as well as other identities…all possible identities. I guess what amazes me about her is how much she accomplished in the ‘80s, in a socio-political environment that not only excluded her from mainstream narratives but actually sought to silence such lived truths through both direct and systemic violence. Perhaps it is fearlessness again that I most admire, perhaps I haven’t changed at all in what makes me value transgressiveness in the role models I hold close. However, Dr. Vaginal “Creme” Davis was (and is) also charismatic and deeply well educated in her critiques of representation. She constantly revolts against normative moulds but does so by employing extremely intellectually savvy mediums. I’m in awe of her as a person, performer, artists, academic and author. She doesn’t simply shock. She simply is and, by virtue of being, any shock simply holds up a mirror to her observer. She’s cool. I like her.
DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.
JM: It is because I am the creator of my own works I feel unable to answer this question. Sometimes I am conscious that representations I create may perhaps transgress against a certain audience if they have x and y beliefs but I do not go into writing for the sake of transgressing. If my work has been transgressive then that has been for my readership to decide. Once some undergraduate girls decided that I (or maybe my work?) made poetry readings not a safe space and attempted to boycott me. I guess I was pretty transgressive that time but I mostly thought they were being silly.
Poetry isn’t a safe space. Words aren’t safe. Words are dangerous and it isn’t really my job as a writer or artist to cuddle my audience. If someone meets me at a show then they will most likely encounter a very different person then, say, me at a dinner party. When I am an artist I am not nice. I don’t have to be nice. It is important to me to be ethical or moral as a human being at all times but we seem to have this weird idea of the woman poet as a nice, soft girl who will quietly whisper poems about her grandmother’s hands after profusely apologizing for taking up too much time and too much space. I don’t do that. I won’t do that. I think that was maybe why they tried to boycott me.
Maybe they just didn’t like my blowjob jokes (I have a kind of sick sense of humour). Anyways their stupid boycott didn’t catch on and I still had packed crowds in Montreal. What bothered me about it is that the girls who were trying to silence me came from upper-middle class backgrounds, academic backgrounds, blah blah blah pretty girls in expensive scarves with defeated looking boyfriends who wrote weak poems (both them and their boyfriends wrote weak poems).
I come from a class background where political correctness isn’t in the lexicon. When I write in the dialectic of Welland or Fonthill, when I speak in the English of where I grew up, I am representing a culture that was permissive of gendered, homophobic, and racist violence, specifically linguistic violence. To wash over that with some imagined PC imperative is to do a disservice to the communities that have been and continue to be disenfranchised in that place. While I get that maybe they took a woman studies class or read a blog and thought they were doing a service in the name of feminism, I feel that their actions were emblematic of the very kinds of discrimination they were purporting to fight against and therefore logically false. Simply put, their feminism isn’t my feminism. Still, though, that’s okay. There is lots of room in feminism for all kinds of feminism. I just don’t prescribe to their mantra and I believe censorship is always violent.
DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?
JM: I think I answered that question in the above question. I don’t seek to transgress really. I find valuable paradoxes in ethical codes of individuals, individuals being characters, and then I try to represent those characters accurately. My characters aren’t me. Even in poetry, the narrative voice isn’t me, it’s someone else. My life as a writer is lived as a body that is a one-way mirror. I suck things in, I valourize discourse through what I know, what I’ve read, what interests me, and then I pop it back out through my imagination which creates fictional renderings of reality as a series of sounds, words, characters, narratives, and images. When you look at it do you consider it transgressive? Ask yourself, “why?” Perhaps I am good at asking the questions that people haven’t thought to ask and that is why my work has been valourized. Maybe it is transgressive because it opens a boundary. I find solace in the fact that people have written me and told me that my work changed them. I’m happy to make space in reality. For it to be conscious would be for my work to be politically motivated though. I don’t go into it with a political or combatant frame of mind. When I enter into my work I do it with an empathetic spirit. Empathy is the soul force that has driven every letter on every page that has run through my brain and my body and into my hand for my entire life. I live to speak people. I live other people. There is no self. There is no Julie Mannell. It disappears from me and sneaks into you and then it is yours and I am gone, probably at the bar making an ass of myself again. Oops.