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Q&A: Michael V. Smith on public persona, gender in memoir, and writing with vulnerability

Michael V. Smith

(photo: David Ellingsen)

Michael V. Smith’s two novels, Cumberland and Progress (Cormorant Books) both deal with small towns, sexual orientation and familial ties. In that sense, they are not unlike his new memoir, My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press). But, as the title suggests, the latter is quite graphic, honestly capturing the complicated relationships Smith has had with his father, addiction, sex, and his own body. The book spans the author’s life from childhood to his father’s passing, only a few years ago, taking readers in and out of therapy, to parks for sex and into a world of queer performers and writers, where Smith comes into his own.

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk spoke with Smith about My Body is Yours, shaking up the memoir genre, and why writing with vulnerability is sometimes the safest option.

In your memoir, you write about creating a public persona as a shield so that you get to narrate what people think of you. You admit to dealing with your own vulnerability through humour. That said, your book is also very funny. How is this humour different than the protective variety that you write about?

All narrators are selected. The narrative voice in My Body is Yours is a construction – I’m very aware of that. The humour is trying to reveal a deeper sense of myself: acknowledging the ironies I see, with reflection on the past. I learned long ago that there was performing to reveal and performing to disguise – that’s true in my stage work, my personal life, and my writing. This book is about exposure, throwing light in the dark places, so we might learn a little about what exists behind our personal and cultural silences.

Your memoir is very “all cards on the table.” It seems like you’ve included all the gory details. How did you decide what to include, or maybe a better question is: how did you decide what to keep private?

There were only two details I kept private, which were, respectively, to protect a family member and a friend. I really decided the rest was up for grabs. The parts of the book edited out – before and after writing it – were just those details that didn’t apply as well to the core questions I was investigating. Candour is easy for me, because candour has never gotten me into trouble. Kind of like in therapy, where the truth has saved me over and again.

Let’s talk about gender in memoir. There’s this contrive of women writing about failed marriages and illness, and men writing war stories and true crime. You very much shook that up in challenging who writes about what, especially in the context of bodies. How do you see your book within the landscape of memoir?

I’m glad you think this book shakes up gendered memoirs. I had an odd sense when writing it that my audience was men – I think the narrator kind of assumes he’s addressing men – but that the people who would best understand the book, those who had the most in common with it, would be women and trans people. I’m trying to give voice to a side of a man’s experience that doesn’t make much of an appearance in culture. I’m trying to broaden our range of gendered permissions and possibilities.

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s not afraid to talk about love within the context of explicit sex. There’s an idea that these things don’t go together; that a certain kind of sex happens within loving relationships and another kind of sex excludes love. What does that intersection mean for you, and why was it important to write about?

I found great comfort and care at the hands and mouths of anonymous men – a care that I wasn’t often finding in my personal life. Those slutty sexual encounters convinced me my queer body was desirable, comforted me in my deep sense of loneliness and isolation, and gave me affection and tenderness that men weren’t permitted to display on the street. Because those cultural taboos are still present, writing about my intimate sex life with strangers seemed key. To be precise about what those encounters looked like. To describe them as tender, with all my vulnerabilities. I’m trying to articulate the truth of what silences men are bred into and how I sometimes could step outside of those cultural hushes.

cover_mybodyLG Michael VSmithMy second answer to this is: I’m the kind of person who loves everybody. I have love for the cashier at the grocery store. Love for my neighbours, including the homeless guy on the street. I’ve learned from great people in my life that an inclusive approach to community is more productive than communities presumably in a kind of ghetto-ized isolation…. I have a great capacity for love because I’ve welcomed the world in. Sex is another microcosmic experience of that same principle. Anonymous sex for me had great capacity for love, tenderness, and care. Love for me had great capacity to manifest sexually because I appreciated so many different kinds of men, for so many more reasons than their body.

The queer fiction and memoir I love most refuses to explain itself to make others comfortable. But your book very much walks readers through what’s going on, what it looks like, what you look like within it, where it comes from, your thoughts at the time and reflections later – and it works. You both hold the reader’s hand and throw things at them that could be unexpected; you make no apologies but you’re also gentle with your readers. I’m wondering if it was a conscious decision to present your experience in the way that you did.

I’m keen to explain, because I always want to welcome people in. I’ve long held to the idea that my books need to make sense to my family, who live in a small town, have no post-secondary education, and don’t have much exposure to radical subculture. My experience and theirs demonstrate some of the breadth of my audience. I’m not the kind of person who tires of explaining a position, because folks have been terrifically patient with me over the years, so I’m paying that forward…. I have deep resources, I think – which really means great friends and great support –to have the capacity to keep the conversation open and inclusive. I want everyone to understand, so we can all benefit. And I want to not apologize either, for being candid and clear.

This interview has been edited and condensed.