DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?
SM: That which crosses boundaries, refuses discretion, negates habitual distinction, goes beyond limits in a way that calls the values of those limits themselves into question. I’ve always especially enjoyed the fact that the word’s etymology (sharing a tasty prefix with transcendent) works both with and against its theologico-historical meaning.
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?
SM: There have been many, too numerous to list. But the first was, probably, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Max’s transgression against his mother’s rules leads to his literal crossing of boundaries, his passage into another world, just as the book’s transgression of the imposed morality which characterizes too many children’s books led me to a new sense of my own unruly, indefinable childness. That book blew me away when I was little, and it still does today. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Sendak was a Melville lover. They share a kind of joyfully incisive skepticism.
Of course, I think the power of a transgressive text to inspire, grant insight, or motivate action is linked to particular experiential moments, temporal thresholds. If I’d read Sendak’s book for the first time in a university children’s lit course, for example, it likely wouldn’t have had the same effect on me. By that point in my life, it was Bataille’s novel Story of the Eye, followed a year or two later by Lautreamont’s Maldoror, followed by a seven-year-itch of obsession with William Burroughs and Kathy Acker. When I was in my tweens, it was reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God It’s Me Margaret? alongside Stephen King’s Carrie. I was made keenly aware that the former was the more transgressive selection for one of my age and gender when I was “outed” reading Blume during lunch break by a number of my classmates, who then spent the next few weeks mockingly asking me if I was getting my period (apparently reading about menstrual blood from a supernaturally-inflected male authorial viewpoint failed to merit such mockery.)
Still, I think none of these books left anything like the formative crater in me that Sendak’s book did.
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.
SM: More recent examples include any of the films I’ve seen by Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat (may I soon see many more.) The former for the way she integrates violence with visual lyricism (especially in Trouble Every Day) and the latter for her utterly frank and a-puritanical depictions of sexuality, especially women’s sexuality.
Tony Burgess’s books Pontypool Changes Everything and People Live Still in Cashtown Corners have also recently shoved a spike in my proverbial third eye with their synthesis of pataphysical play and all-too-familiar anxieties grounded in compulsions, addictions, and habitual patterning. Any writer who can simultaneously cause me intense anxiety and giddy pleasure is doing something right, in the sense of doing something righteously wrong.
I also very recently read Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, which brilliantly plays with the visual conventions of the form in an exploration of youth, sexual anxiety, and body-horror that hit a lot of emotional and intellectual triggers for me. It manages to temper transgression with a rare tenderness and restraint.
What really matters to me is that the work, in whatever medium or genre, goes beyond and against the expectations associated with its form in a way which makes it something more than, say, shock-rock, or torture-porn, or taboo-trampling for the sake of taboo-trampling. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with any of these things (aside from their being such vague and troubled terms) but they don’t, in and of themselves, make the kind of lasting, unsettling, un-repressible impression I associate with transgression, as defined above.
DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?
SM: With Postscripts to Darkness, my co-editors and I strive to showcase work that defies expectation and explanation, that flirts, and fucks, with fictional conventions, and especially generic conventions, in ways which can create intensification, rather than cancellation, of emotional and intellectual engagement. There still seems to be a pervasive mindset that links speculative fiction with a kind of anti-literary populism that does not allow for provocative, challenging, even difficult writing. My mind is not of said set. With all due respect to classic King (and that is considerable!), in my current threshold, gimme Kafka or Kavan any day.