An Interview with Author and Educator Corinne Manning
September 17, 2020
Interviewed by Sarah Neilson, TSW staff
When I first read Corinne Manning’s debut short story collection, We Had No Rules, I was struck by the way in which they were able to render characters who were so messy, who made some terrible choices sometimes, but who were all trying to love as much as they could. Manning struck a note between queer ideals and an uglier reality, and put their characters right into it.
The in-between is a place Manning is always pushing on in their work as a writer, teacher, and multidisciplinary artist. I spoke with them on the phone about the false dichotomy of before/after, queerness and complicity, and collective memory (or, in the case of George W. Bush, amnesia).
Sarah Neilson: I wanted to ask you about how the theme of before/after applies to the stories in We Had No Rules. Your characters are dealing with big shifts in their lives. What do you think is the significance of the concept of “before” and “after” in your work, or just in general?
Corinne Manning: I’m really interested in the meantime, the spaces between something. I’m interested in that space between the before and the after, like that space right before you’re really reckoning with the after. That is something that I put my characters through too, of having to really focus in on these moments just as they are in the process of reckoning with what has just happened.
Sarah: I like that, because “before after” isn’t actually a binary. We can think of it as a binary, but there is that liminal space where a reckoning is happening.
Corinne: And when is after over? Do we just stop feeling the thing that we lost or the thing that we gained?
Sarah: Yeah. Like what does after mean? Do you have any ideas about that? Are we in an after now? It does seem like there’s kind of a clear before this year, as in, before the pandemic. I wonder about what kind of “after” we’re already in, and what kind of “after” we’re heading towards. Do you have any thoughts or vision for what an “after” could look like, what you want it to look like?
Corinne: There is a wonderful op ed piece by Kaitlyn Greenidge in the New York Times. In it she talks about the phrase, “this too shall pass,” and how she finds it to be particularly dangerous. As a Black woman, she’s talking about implications of the culture of saying this too shall pass.
During this particular moment of 2020, I find that reframe of narrative so important because I think we want there to be an ending. It’s just like how we tend to move towards an ending in literature. We want there to be an after. And I don’t always know. I think the after is often the beginning of the new thing that disrupts your life or elevates your life. And then you’re in that new after, and I think we’re just never actually done with it. We just tend to revise it. We revise how we feel about it or how we want to look at it.
If I were to think what I want for an after, I want collective memory. At this point, I’m starting to witness people forgetting things that I remember so clearly from my childhood, historical things that people are remembering differently. Like how George W. Bush suddenly became kind of… a cuddly memory, when I remember being terrified during his presidency.
Sarah: Oh my gosh, yes! He’s coming out with a book of his paintings and they’re all portraits of immigrants to America. It’s being sold as this message of unity. When I saw that I was like, are we talking about George W. Bush?!
Corinne: That’s a great example. I remember being terrified, just feeling certain that my email was being opened. That my mail was being opened. I did have friends whose mail was being opened with the Patriot Act. I think now I’m starting to witness the thing that I always remember elders saying, that everyone’s remembering things wrong, or what Sarah Schulman calls the gentrification of the mind. So this time, if there’s an after where we are reckoning with everything that’s happening, I would rather there be transformation and collective memory of this moment rather than a gentrification or a nostalgia for it.
Sarah: Yes. I really agree with that. That’s such a funny thing about memory because I feel like it really does have this arc towards nostalgia. The farther away you are from something, the more nostalgic you are about it.
Corinne: Yeah, absolutely.
Sarah: I want to latch onto a word you just used, which is elder. I was really moved in your book by the exploration of queer elderdom. Several of the characters have some form of queer elder, a person that might not be much older than them but still serves as a kind of guide or model. Can you talk about the importance of queer elders, and how you approached writing that kind of relationship in some of these stories?
Corinne: Oh, that’s really beautiful. A funny thing, just as a quick aside, is that the person I’m dating said someone recently referred to her as an elder and it really freaked her out. She’s like mid-thirties, but I think that’s the thing. I’m like, oh shoot. I remember thinking people we’re elders at this age.
I have family members who are gay, and my brother in particular was a really important figure for me because he was so much older than me. I think watching him come out and then, in turn, the way that he eventually helped me come out, were really key. As a young person confused about their sexuality in the nineties, I was really informed by people who were in their twenties who were out and were kind of showing different alternatives for ways of being and living and thinking, in particular.
I grew up on the Jersey Shore in a homophobic, Italian-American culture; even though the Jersey Shore is close to New York and close to Philadelphia, you had no sense of that. And then you go to New York and it’s this whole other world. My experience of being a 10 year old and seeing these leather dykes who were not that much older made me think, Oh, there’s this other way. That is the importance of what they have meant to me. And that’s how I wanted to approach that relationship between the younger and the “elder” in the book. But also with the critiques of each. When we put anyone on a pedestal without also honoring their humanness and their imperfection, we get disappointed pretty quickly. And then we tend to emulate the wrong things, too.
Sarah: I’m curious about how that plays into the idea of rules. The title of the book is We Had No Rules. I think even when we’re trying to reject rules, we kind of make new ones by accident. What are rules to you? How do they relate to norms, and how are they different? How do you play with the idea of rules in your work? Do you have your own rules about anything?
Corinne: I know that I get really nervous when it seems like there’s only one way to be or one way to act or a way that’s considered correct. And when I was writing the book, I wasn’t actively thinking about this, but I know subconsciously this was an issue that I was trying to figure out — how do I write myself out of the rules of mainstream fiction? If I want to have queer characters and I want to love them and not feel nervous or ashamed of what I’m doing, what do I have to overcome? What new rules do I have to create for myself in order to be able to do that?
There were these rules that I did make for myself when I was writing, which were that I had to create a story from start to finish in one sitting, and it had to move towards the things that I am most ashamed of.
Sarah: Those are some intense rules already.
Corinne: Yeah, I know. But it ended up being really freeing because then I got these stories out of them. Because I needed to write myself out of my own homophobia and shame, which maybe had come from cultural norms more than roles. I think there’s just a lot that ends up being unspoken in terms of rules and norms. And that’s what I end up responding to.
Sarah: I’m also really interested in the idea of complicity, which you explore a lot in your work. You trouble this line between queerness, which is inherently disruptive, and complicity, which is kind of inescapable, even when one is trying to queer or disrupt society and its norms. What does complicity mean to you? Can you talk about this catch-22 and how you work with it or through it in your writing?
Corinne: I think in particular for white-socialized queers…thinking for myself, when I realized the inadvertent complicity or the harm that I caused, or the thing that I thought was radical that, through the vessel of whiteness, becomes a very different thing. And that is something that I really am aiming to explore in my fiction, and in particular We Had No Rules. All the narrators are these white queers and they are all kind of struggling with this point of, are they going to embrace their own complicity or are they not? Are they going to reckon with their complicity? Or are they going to turn away from it? Because I think the complicity that may be inevitable technically can be transformed. There’s that idea that metal gets polished by flame, by fire.
I think the danger is when we deny our role in complicity and we deny the possibility that we might not even realize when it happens. Of course that’s the socialization of privilege, that we don’t always realize when it happens. And that’s a different kind of meantime. And it’s that spot that I’m trying to really work my understanding of through fiction. And then of course, how we are held accountable and the effects that has. There’s only specific instances where I feel like I really see that being played out in fiction in terms of people really reckoning with the harm or the potential harm that they cause in the face of a radical imagination.
Sarah: In addition to being a fiction writer, you’re also a multi-disciplinary artist — you’ve worked in theater, radio. What does your creative process look like for different genres of artistic expression? When do you feel drawn to the different mediums?
Corinne: All the other ones are more fun than writing. I feel like with the other mediums, I give myself a lot more room to play, and writing for me is just harder. I think I hold writing closer to my spirit, more than the other forms. But I’m so grateful for the other forms. It’s the place where I I feel like I can play the most.
Sarah: What’s inspiring you right now?
Corinne: I live with a three year old, I’m a co-parent, and I think I’d be losing my mind if I wasn’t getting to be around her, just because of the really beautiful, bizarre three year old mind and how they frame things. And the way she bosses us around, the things that she decides we can and can’t do. The other day she was like, guess what everybody! It’s smoke day! We have to stay inside! Like it was a holiday. Being so geared towards play has been really inspiring.