Invaded Life Forms: Talking with Calvin Gimpelevich

I once read a very woo book that said our spirits were fifty feet tall and part of the awkwardness of being a baby is that we are crammed into these tiny bodies. Readers can feel the immensity of Calvin Gimpelevich’s spirit unfurl in his writing as he captures the absurdity of being in a body on this planet in a society that continually attempts to restrict our possibilities.

Calvin has been organizing art shows and performances in Seattle with the queer art collective Lion’s Main for years, and his debut collection of stories has been a long time coming. Invasions (Instar Books, October 2018) brings the lens of queer and trans fiction and flips the script on the "real world." The stories in this collection capture the isolation of being in a body in a world where what you appear as determines the limits of who you are. A six-year-old girl wakes up as a middle-aged man; a narrator becomes trapped in the minds of other people; other characters swap bodies only to long for their own somatic memory.

In a time when toxic masculinity is under speculation, and the #MeToo movement is embroiled in who gets to claim it, the gender outlaws in Invasions lead us into the deeper explorations of these power dynamics through a different collateral of social power and powerlessness.

In preparation for his book release at Elliott Bay Book Company on October 28, we spent some time discussing speculative fiction, structure, and the possibility of the body. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

These stories exist at the intersection of speculative fiction and realism. It’s almost as if you’ve warped which is which. We are invaders in these bodies and trying to sort out how to make the shape connect more and are trapped in how other people see us. Is this accurate in your experience of writing these stories? Can you talk about your process of blending realism and speculative fiction?

I lived for many years with my grandmother, who was schizophrenic (my mother being her legal guardian). I remember so many instances of failed communication in which we were unable to move beyond fundamental disagreement of fact. This failure seeped into my adult life, where — both professionally and personally — I've been around many people whose sense of reality doesn't match mine, and where I've realized that my own reality is not necessarily objectively true. I feel best about an interaction, not when I've managed to convince someone that my perspective is right, but when multiple perspectives are allowed to exist, showing what is unseen in our own. The traditional concerns of literary fiction (which I tend to think of as focusing on internal, as opposed to external, action) are almost always more interesting to me, but I've found it natural to dip into speculative work to explore those concerns.

So is it almost like speculative fiction makes it possible for multiple perspectives to exist. Who are some of the writers who helped form this craft approach for you?

Rushdie talks about magical realism as being as legitimate (or accurate — I don't remember the specific wording) as realism, that there is a tyranny in only one accepted perception of fact. I've gotten a lot out of surrealists and magical realists: Allende, Calvino, Morrison, Kafka, Bolaño. Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being is still one of the most beautiful perspectives on multiple realities that I've read.

Something the stories truly captured for me was dysphoria I don’t think I had seen my own experience of it manipulated so well in literature. Particularly the strangeness of being in these heaps of flesh. In "Transmogrification," a story told in the second person, a six-year-old girl wakes up as a middle-aged man. The stories and the narrations get inside my body and take over. How do you see POV at work in your stories to create this effect?

“Transmogrification” is the first short story I wrote (after an attempted novel in high school). I was eighteen — two years from realizing I was trans. At that point, I was so alienated from (and confused by) my own body, that second person — the disorientation of it — seemed better.

You mentioned, earlier, being trapped in how other people see us. Personally, that was as large a piece of my own dysphoria as the physical reality of my body before hormones.

Your stories often seem to start and end in the middle, which I think is a more accurate experience of storytelling. It's also true in the way we think about transitioning in the body. I think a cis audience might think that there is a narrative: gender discovery, hormones, surgery, FIN but it never or very rarely ties up that way. The narrator in your story "Runaways" wonders what's next when he's finally done saving for surgery. How do you find endings in situations and stories where it is philosophically impossible to locate them?

I got obsessively interested in narrative structure in my early twenties, which led to a lot of research, and a drafting process for my own work involving diagrams, numbers, and graphs. I've calmed down (until I teach or edit for other people, which always turns into a rant about five-act structure and kishotenketsu and other things you probably don't need to know, but that I can't stop fixating on). The boring answer is that the endings come out of my personal understanding of narrative and what the central conflict or story is.

Get nerdy! How are five-act structures and kishotenketsu at work in your thinking with Invasions?

Five-act structure is something I've seen discussed more in film and theater than literature, but I've found it helpful in pacing, character motion, and decisions about events. I use it is to imagine the short story as a single act in a larger five-act piece — like pulling a short film out of a longer movie. Vonnegut talks about something similar, and I think it helps make a short seem like part of a larger dynamic world. The best concise overview that I've found of five-act structure is "The Myth of the 3 Act Structure" by Film Critic Hulk. I make all my students read it.

Kishokentetsu is the Japanese name for an East Asian narrative (and argumentative) structure that places the emphasis on contrast as a means of interest, versus conflict (which is often seen as the only legitimate motion in Western narrative tradition — going back to Greek theater). I've read as much as I could about this structure in an attempt to deconstruct the three- and five-act models I've so thoroughly internalized. I haven't drafted anything purely along the lines of this structure (and doubt I grasp it well enough to succeed), but thinking about it has helped bring certain pieces more depth.

Can you talk about the process of writing "The Sweetness" — about a man whose consciousness can enter into the minds of others through their eyes, and ultimately enters into a cop during a gay bathhouse raid? What is your relationship as a writer to entering into other bodies and experiences? How often do you find softness there?

Empathy! This seems like the whole point of being a writer (or a fiction writer), to step into other people with as much softness and suspended judgment as you can. If I were actually psychic, I wouldn't need to write. But I'm not, so I have to construct other internal realities of my own.

I need to shout out my editor Jeanne who invested a lot in this story, and worked particularly closely with me in the editing process. I drafted "The Sweetness" during a painful breakup, which maybe accounts for the tone. See how melodramatic I am? To express my grief at a relationship ending, I wrote a story where everyone dies. It takes place during "Operation Soap," the actual 1980s Toronto bath raids. Here I was also melodramatic — no one died in any fires in the accounts that I read.

That's so interesting, because the fact of everyone dying really highlighted what's at stake in terms of connection, shame, and human frailty. Especially in the present day, when HIV is still an opportunity for criminalization and of course the criminalization of trans bodies, especially the bodies of trans people of color.

Anything set in the 1980s, especially concerning queer people, makes me think about AIDS. It was hovering in my mind in this story — that the epidemic had such a frighteningly deadly rate, so little understanding, and how hard people were fighting to make their governments care. That Operation Soap–like raids were happening in the midst of this, and that the virus is still used as a means of criminalization, is upsetting. I was just reading Samuel R. Delany's letters from 1986. He talks about AIDS so rarely, but it's always hovering. There is a beautiful letter, toward the end, where he talks about moving out of that fear.

While reading I really felt the isolation of the body and the radical potential of it. In “Eternal Boy” the narrator says “I have emotions I just don’t like to feel them.” Characters continually experience the disconnect between what the body is capable of feeling and what they (their spirit, their psyche, whatever it is that fills these forms) are willing to attempt within those limitations. The stories seem to demand, of course you love, but how much are you willing to feel?

Before writing, I studied psychology, and my patchy professional background centers around social work. What you've just said — the disconnect between what the body is capable of feeling and what they are willing to attempt within those limitations — is one of the best summations of what interested me in that field. Trauma is given, but how does a person respond?

In your stories, they seem to respond through isolation or finding connection. Your stories really capture what's at stake in our loneliness.

Yes — isolation and connection not only in relation to other people, but in themselves.

The conflict in many of these stories is the absence of communal care or the desire for it. What is your relationship to communal care in trans and queer lives and TQ literature? Where do you see possibility, and how can fiction take us there?

It's been interesting to see the response to Invasions, which is overwhelmingly focused on the book as a piece of trans literature. I wrote these stories through my transition, living primarily in queer world. To me, I was writing fiction about people, and the people I was around were queer, so it made sense to explore larger topics through them. I understand that I am writing queer lit, but that's not what I'm thinking about when I work.

I suppose that's what any kind of "fill in the blank" literature is — writing about the worlds that we live in.

Who you are will come through.