andrea bennett identified as a tomboy growing up. In the opening essay of their debut collection, Like a Boy but Not a Boy, which is being released today, bennett acknowledges the problematic aspects of the tomboy label while also penning a love letter to it. The proximity to masculinity, they write, “provided a shortcut—albeit tenuous—to power in adulthood, and freedom in childhood.” Much of bennett’s narrative embraces the complexities of labels, of names that are, like all words, a site of simultaneous limitation and possibility.
Critique mixed with love letter is an ethos of Like a Boy but Not a Boy, which deftly explores class, mental illness, gender, and parenthood. bennett writes honestly about their experience with health professionals in various capacities, about the physicality of being pregnant and then chestfeeding their child, about creative work and physical work, and about not just navigating a cis- and heteronormative world but also creating a new one with more possibility for themself and their family.
bennett spoke with Rewire News Group about possibilities and limitations, the use of language around gender and parenthood, queerness as parenting liberation, and being present in one’s body. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Rewire News Group: You write about the possibilities and the failures of language, especially when it comes to identity and a sense of self, by exploring labels of identity—queer identity, gender identity, and parent identity. Can you talk about your relationship with language and labels as a nonbinary parent?
andrea bennett: Several years ago, for a piece that’s not in the book that I co-wrote with a friend (called “Beyond Mom and Pop”), we explored nonbinary parent identity, and people had different ways that they identified themselves as parents. “Baba” came up a lot. There were a few other examples, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I wrote that piece [in part] because it was something I was considering for myself, how I would deal with that hurdle of becoming a parent when your culture doesn’t actually have a label that’s suitable for you.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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In response to that piece, someone said, “All these labels, aren’t they divisive? Why do you need them?” I think a lot about words and etymology. So I found that comment silly, but also funny, because all nouns are labels, every single one of them. [Naming] is a natural part of human life. So I don’t actually think that it’s labels that people are uncomfortable with, but that’s how the discomfort is often expressed about queer identities or about queer kinship.
Rewire News Group: You write, “As a parent of a young kid, your ‘real self’ is more often than not necessarily tethered to your relationship with your child and the way that relationship is read in the world.” How do you conceive of your “real self” as a parent? When do you feel that your gender or other identities are important to your sense of self as a parent, and when are they not?
ab: My partner and I are both at home with my kid all the time now. She would be in preschool if there wasn’t a pandemic. We lead a pretty simple life in a rural place. In the boundaries of our home, I can just be myself, and my kid calls us by our first names. So those two things don’t knock up against each other. It’s a privilege, and it’s nice, to be able to be yourself in your own home. I haven’t always had that privilege.
That said, I think things will get trickier when she goes to school because we still live in a pretty heteronormative and gender-normative society. It’s even been difficult to find books that reflect our family structure back to us. And because she calls us by our first names, just establishing how kinship relationships work is also kind of complicated. So many books that we have just have “mom and dad” in them. It’s still hard in 2020 to seek out a full shelf of books that reflect different family structures. So I might write a kids book next.
Rewire News Group: You also write, “I’m not sure if I’m queering parenthood just by being a parent.” Is that something you want to do? What does queering parenthood look like in your mind?
ab: I think queering parenthood for the benefit of queer people is always the number one goal, just making it feel possible to be a parent if you want to be a parent as a queer person. But I think that people in heterosexual couplings also benefit from the idea of queering parenthood—just the idea of being freed from the strictures of gender roles that put people into situations that they may not actually thrive in, but are just socially expected.
Parenting can look a lot of different ways. I think when you’re a queer person, you kind of have to negotiate [a bit more], what the structure of parenting is going to look like from the ground up. How you’re going to share responsibilities, how you’re going to communicate things to your kid, how you’re going to communicate the differences that they see in your household versus what they’re sort of socially seeing and how they navigate that, how love is expressed in your household, how work works, what your values are.
A lot of queer families, we tend to have less money, so how to make that work, how do you live your politics in a way that isn’t just about you but also about a broader community. What does it mean to have chosen family? What does it mean to decide to establish familial relationships with people I love and care about who aren’t my romantic partner? Not to say I’m doing all of them or doing all of them perfectly, but I like to think of our family as being in that kind of mix of things.
Rewire News Group: Can you talk about the role of the corporeal in your writing? How do you approach writing the body, the nonbinary body, the gestational body?
ab: There’s this book by A.K. Summers, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag. It’s a graphic novel about A.K. Summers’s experience of pregnancy as a butch woman. I really appreciated reading that book before I was pregnant myself. And then the actual experience of pregnancy, some people experience dysphoria during that time. I didn’t; I was really fascinated by how strange the whole transformation was, and that even though it’s extremely normal—many of the things that we do in life that everybody does, like birth, illness, death, they’re by definition extremely normal—they’re also just these terribly unsettling things to go through. It could be grief-stricken, it could be a time of wonder, it could be both, but the experience of pregnancy, I just kind of found it fascinating. I rediscovered a love of overalls. I read a lot of forums, different transmasculine experiences of pregnancy, to get ideas about how to clothe one’s pregnant body, how to navigate conversations with health professionals, if that’s something you choose to do, about your gender, things of that nature.
I do experience dysphoria when it comes to my chest. That was something I thought I’d have sorted before the book came out, and I don’t. It’s really funny, I think in the copy for the book, it says how to navigate all these things at the end of the world; that was just kind of a joke because my brain is always thinking it’s the end of the world, but then the book came out in a pandemic, which threw things off. So I finally had a [top surgery] consultation recently, and I’m really looking forward to that next step of my life.
When it came to nursing or chestfeeding my kid, I don’t think it’s a totally healthy thing, but I sort of divorced part of my sense of self from areas of my body. It felt really important to feed her and so I fed her, and I was really focused on the practicalities of things. I didn’t experience the actual act itself as joy or trauma, it was just kind of like paying a bill or something, which is kind of weird, but it’s fine. And we got through that period of our lives and now it’s on to the next.
I do write about rehabilitating, just trying to be present in my body, because I think part of the way I’ve coped over the course of my life is to float above it. It’s really hard for me to be present and to experience something unless I’m alone. Interestingly enough, A.K. Summers writes about swimming while pregnant, and swimming is one of the things that allows me to feel at home in my body. I like cycling also. Sometimes doing is a way of being present. It’s really hard for me to be present while I’m not doing, but learning how to be a bike mechanic made me connect with some of the more proprioceptive aspects that I think you can lose touch with if you’re constantly distancing yourself from yourself. After a period of time, right, you can kind of start to forget yourself, which has to do with gender, and with other other aspects of personhood.