Holding Hands with the Archive: A Conversation with Julian Carter

By Selby Wynn SchwartzJune 6, 2024

Holding Hands with the Archive: A Conversation with Julian Carter

Dances of Time and Tenderness by Julian Carter

JULIAN CARTER is the kind of person who will pick up a stranger at dawn on a seedy street corner in San Francisco. I know this because it is how we met—in that bleak hour before coffee—and it is why, years later, we are still talking about dancing, historiography, fairy tales, queer community, literary marginalia, nereids, nasturtiums, transfeminist activism, and whether a list can be liberatory. I have learned to have coffee beforehand.

In one of our recent conversations, when we discovered that the Italian word for lace (merletto) comes from the crenellations in castle walls (merlons), I was reminded of Julian’s twin gifts for finding interconnection and queerly reimagining forms. In other words, he is the kind of writer who will pick up a stray word on some back alley of the English language and cherish it. To me, Dances of Time and Tenderness, his new book, is an act of public cherishing, an embrace of words and histories that might otherwise go ungathered. This is a book in which story cycles are concatenated like circle dances. The depth of its craft is apparent from the opening page, where Julian writes of “linked arcs, partnered bodies, dangling stories, turning and turning in the round and shining dance. A circle made of bones and lightning.”

These literary interludes are held together by drawings of chains that give depth to the book’s metaphors. As Julian writes: “The names we give each other twine past and present with here and there, into ropes and chains of meaning that knot and coil and cable; fold and ply, link and fray and splice and split until they arrive at last, in you, with all their storied lineage aboard.” The “you” and the “we” of this book are full of this knowing intimacy—of care. At the same time, the first-person “I” refuses to deflate into any neat or flatly imposed truth; while Dances of Time and Tenderness generously displays Julian’s talent for grafting story onto history, it counters many assumptions around autobiography. One thing I have learned from Julian’s book is “the venerable trans interrogative: who needs to know?”

This interview is a glimpse of what it is like to talk with Julian after one of us has stayed up too late reading. I will not say which of us, because who needs to know?

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SELBY WYNN SCHWARTZ: The first line of your author bio states, “Julian Carter has been thinking with his body for a very long time,” and your book opens with dancing, with what it feels like to dance. The first conversation we had was about our shared fascination with queer swans in ballet, and we have created some embodied workshops together as part of our experimental collective, PolySensorium. Can you elaborate on what it means—or what it feels like—to “think with your body”?

JULIAN CARTER: Taking in your question, I am sitting up a little taller, more intentionally relaxed, head alert on a balanced spine. There’s a passage in my book where I say, “I’d rather dance than theorize, but who’s to say we have to choose?” There’s a whole field of study on embodied cognition, and granulated protocols for evaluating art practice as serious research. My experience is more that thinking with the body engages forms of sentience that are neither primarily cognitive nor purely affective.

Once, at a dance studies symposium, I heard an academic reading from her smart, sexy book about bodies. She made a witty aside about the idea of a well-organized pelvis: “That sounds like something you do to a paragraph.” This captures the intentional practice of craft in body-thinking; what it overlooks is that words (and linguistic structures more generally) direct us to some kinds of perception and not others. A sentence—however ravishingly punctuated—collects your attention differently from a touch on the small of your back, or the smell of rain, or grief. Sometimes when I’m drawing, I know that a line is where it needs to be by a particular quality of the liquid under my tongue. Sometimes when I’m writing, I feel a false turn as an uneasy sense of physical lightness or a hollowness in my chest. Cognition is useful for composition and proportion; sensation is how I feel that my work is true.

I imagine that this book is going to elude easy categorization. It has drawings; it has dances; it has histories; it has intimate portraits; it has theoretical explorations; it has fabulous elements, in every sense of the word. How would you describe the form or genre you have created?

Undisciplined? Promiscuous? Ecumenical? I’d be flattered if people received this mode of writing as akin to Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” or your own approach in After Sappho (2022), which one reviewer called “vitally fictionalized fact.” We’re all working out ways to write faithful nonfiction about lives we imagine. Aurora Levins Morales once described “the historian as curandera”—a healer for the historically traumatized, someone who prescribes myth and fact in proportions necessary to the task of restoring bodily and spiritual integrity.

The genre I most resist is memoir. Many of the book’s episodes and insights reflect aspects of my life and my relationships—but the fact that it’s written in first person doesn’t make it true! I don’t play fast and loose with other people’s lives, but I don’t let the dead tell me what to think either. I’d like people to understand my work as holding hands with the archive.

One way this book works wryly against that easy conflation of first-person perspective and memoir is through the phrase “This is not a …” I found this iteration especially poignant: “This is not a memoir, it’s collective memory.” Where did this mutable refrain come from, and what would you like it to do?

That’s a great example, because that line is where the refrain started. The book was originally solicited for a series through an academic press, who assigned it to a social science editor because I’m a historian. Said editor kept pushing me to admit that Dances was really just a memoir with pretensions. “This is not a memoir, it’s collective memory” was my exasperated blurt! Then I realized that this construction could work in many places, calling attention both to a reading that the text can be taken to justify and to an alternative, less evident reading I want the reader to try on. For instance, “This is not testimony. This is a murder ballad” acknowledges that I’m quoting court records—these events really took place, and the state certifies them as having happened this way—but also draws your attention to mourning, to minor keys, to a structure of repetition and persistence. You don’t have to know anything about murder ballads to comprehend that this is not only about the dykes in this particular bar on this particular night; it’s also about a tradition of violent tragedy. And if you do happen to know something about murder ballads, naming those ballads can summon you to recall how they mingle desire, aggression, and loss—maybe even to recognize the way that the victim tends to disappear behind the narrative of the killer who meets retribution.

To return to your earlier question: One thing I’d like the refrain to accomplish is to keep the question of genre open. Generic attribution tends to satisfy the classificatory urge, the “what exactly is this thing?” reaction. I’m not an Enlightenment encyclopedist. I’m more drawn to the indescribably mysterious ways the numinous and the material cocreate. Probably that’s why I write so much about sex and death. Coming of age in the midst of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s must have something to do with that too.

This is a book that dedicates so much care and insight to honoring trans ancestors, a.k.a. “transcestors,” and we know how important that is in the world right now, especially for younger generations. When you reconceive lineage in this way—as a gift, as a tool, as a form of elevation rather than determinant descent—you also shift the language around genealogy. In fact, you changed my mind about the verb “begat,” which I had previously discounted as a dangerously heteronormative, but also very dull, obsession with bloodlines. Can you explain how you see the word’s potential?

I feel quite flattered to have shifted the valence of the term for you! That said, I understand your previous dislike. “Begats” represent history as a flow of semen. Nonetheless, I like “begats” because they remind me of the lists of names some trans people make for themselves as they experiment with ways of marking their changed presence in the world. In that sense, they are incantations, maybe even spellswords that shift reality.

Another potential of “begat” is that it means “procreate,” or “bring into being.” What if we consider begetting as creating or instigating? We are all begotten. We’re set in motion by other beings, none of whom knows what the future holds. I very much want to beget oddities I can’t possibly anticipate.

If “begat” contains this creative, generative generosity, it also sets up a kind of repetition: there is never just one “begat.” Especially since your book explores intimacy through the image of a chain—a structure which you show us exists only as a series of connections—I wonder how you think of other forms that work through ordered interlinking, like lists and indices?

Yes! I love a good index—at their best, they both construct and reflect conceptual and imagistic convergences we might not catch when we’re reading a text from beginning to end. But even more linear lists hold considerable potential. As a compositional strategy, repetition can construct a frame of expectation, within which variation acquires disproportionate force. The longer and more repetitive the list, the greater its dramatic power. This is one of the reasons intentional repetition can make people uncomfortable; it sets up the conditions for its own disruption. To bring this back to queer and trans themes, some early 20th-century sexologists went so far as to conflate list-making with perverse sexuality as symptoms of an underlying cultural decadence! To my mind, the perverse richness of lists and indices more than offsets their conservative or just plain uninteresting uses. There’s no reason we should limit our understanding and deployment of these forms because other people have used it differently from the way we will.

And yet your book also testifies to the uncanny experience of repetitive cycles of injustice. For example, just when we thought we had worked through the bad essentialism of some 1970s feminism, now we have TERFs rampaging on the internet. In fact, you write about the realization that Queer Nation stickers might still be relevant after 30 years—a testament to the foresight of creative queer activists, certainly, but also quite discouraging. How do you reconcile these aspects of repetition?

I don’t, except in one of the book’s refrains: things circle back around. There’s not going to be a time when we don’t have something to fight and to grieve. That’s why we need to use repetition’s capacity for breakthrough dreaming. For instance, minimalist composer Julius Eastman’s 1974 Femenine is a marvelous work anchored by a short, simple, two-note phrase that repeats in layers for 75 minutes. I loved it even before I found out that he wrote and performed it in drag in the context of an all-white, male-dominant ensemble (Eastman was a Black gay man). It’s just gloriously queer in its ecstatic excess. It’s profoundly trans in the way it wedges “men” into “feminine,” and the way it sustains its basic integrity as it transfers an improvised melody from bells to strings to piano to sax, building layer on layer of movement to show us the simultaneity of persistence and transformation. And it is an extraordinary assertion of Black freedom emergent in and through the structures of constraint.

To return to the “begats,” their aesthetic structure does something similar to Eastman’s layering. As they reappear at intervals throughout the Hebrew Bible, they perform the ancient Jewish story of persistence despite persecution. Speaking back against millennia of dispossession and exile, the begats insist on the legitimacy of their claim to be a people. And in our present historical moment precisely that biblical story is being used to justify genocide in Palestine.

Repetition is not inherently liberatory or safe or innocent. But it can contain the seeds of transformation, and it’s certainly not dull.

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Julian Carter has been thinking with his body for a very long time. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1940 (2007), as well as numerous critical essays exploring how embodied identities are developed, communicated, contested, and lived in cultural productions ranging from vintage public health pamphlets to postmodern dance performances. He teaches at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

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Featured image: Illustration by Julian Carter, courtesy of Julian Carter.

LARB Contributor

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the recipient of the 2025 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize in Literature at the American Academy in Rome and a 2024 Fellowship from La Maison Dora Maar. She is the author of After Sappho (2022), which was long-listed for the Booker Prize and short-listed for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, the James Tait Black Prize in Fiction, and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. Her other two books are A Life in Chameleons (2023) and The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives (2019).

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