Tell the Truth in the Truest Way Possible: A Conversation with Thomas Page McBee
What makes a man? Given the countless social problems and dangers that stem from long-accepted gender expectations, this question—which drives Thomas Page McBee‘s new memoir MAN ALIVE: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man (City Lights/Sister Spit)—is a crucial one. Thomas’s columns “Self-Made Man” (The Rumpus) and “The American Man” (Pacific Standard), along with his writing for VICE, Salon, and TheAtlantic.com, similarly explore masculinity and transgender identity. By putting the construct of manhood at the center of his work, McBee brings attention to men’s lives as socialized, gendered experiences rather than absent of gender—the “universal” stories that they’re often presented as in literature and other media. As a culture, we don’t often talk about men’s experiences as shaped by gender, but Thomas’s work aims to change that. His tenderly crafted stories add complexity and dimension to dominant gender narratives, opening up space for new ways of thinking about what it means to be a man.
FANZINE: MAN ALIVE questions the binary of good vs. evil and struggles with the idea of forgiveness. Your abusive father and the male mugger who threatened your life are the book’s two most prominent examples of toxic, violent masculinity. And yet, in the book, you choose to offer both figures a kind of forgiveness, to see them as more than simply monstrous examples of “evil.” How is this kind of generosity tied to your definition of manhood, and to your efforts to shed light on/complicate/expand traditional notions of masculinity?
THOMAS PAGE MCBEE: I think masculinity is customizable, and I’m obviously a living example of that. I spent a lot of time wondering what makes a man because I was afraid of the answer—I thought being a man meant I had to inherit the worst aspects of masculinity. The truth is, I walk in the world and I’m a dude—with all the inherent privileges and projections being a bearded, tattooed, white American man means. My claiming of masculinity meant shining the best parts of myself through the prism of passing, and so I really try to be the best person I can be. Forgiveness and empathy are, for me, core to being a good human being and, yes, a good man.
FZ: Yes, totally. I’m thinking also about how violence is often learned as integral to being a man, and about feminist movements’ efforts to change this via education and dialogue. Do you see your writing about masculinity and violence as related to these larger efforts and conversations?
TPM: I hope so. My primary objective in writing about masculinity is to make gender visible to men and, in the process, highlight the inherent choices we have to embrace or reject related expectations. I love being a man—I’ve risked everything to be one—and I also want to bring the same open heart and rigorous self-examination to masculinity that I bring to every other core part of my life. I don’t think men talk about being men enough, especially in relationship to women. I’ve found that in my work on violence specifically because violence is very gendered in a myriad of ways, and not just the ones you expect. I think it’s important to use my male perspective to be an ally to women who voice concerns about personal safety and rape culture and to be an advocate for that reality with other men. I think it’s important to use my male perspective to highlight the way men are violent toward each other and the nuance of that. How can we be better to women and to each other? I’m just one guy, but that question was central to my formation of self so my hope is outlining my own relationship to masculinity will make room for other men to access a more complicated sense of self-which I think is the key to empathy, and repairing our relationships with ourselves and each other.
FZ: You’ve written a lot about challenging the mainstream/dominant trans narrative of “born in the wrong body.” Were you trying, through your book, to subvert prominent trans narratives in our culture?
TPM: I think I was trying, in the book, to be authentic and open and inherently that means not being reductive about my body or my life. There’s nothing wrong with relating to the “born in the wrong body” narrative if you’re trans, but it never sat right with me. I feel like I was born in the right body. I wouldn’t trade a second of the life I’ve lived.
FZ: You used to identify as a poet before moving into writing more creative nonfiction and lyrical essays. MAN ALIVE has this really compelling form—jumping in time from chapter to chapter to form a richly dimensional story that’s woven together by all these smaller threads. Can you talk about how you came to this form, and how you think about form/genre in your work?
TPM: Thanks! I think having a background in poetry has been so helpful when it comes to thinking about memory and narrative, because memory really is just a series of metaphors strung together into a story you tell yourself. I really wanted to explore time in this book, because time—as we know—isn’t linear. When it comes to trauma, or identity formation, or love, or loss—time is a wormhole and an echo and a myth. We create our own narratives, and MAN ALIVE is so much about owning your own mythology. I really hope the reader walks away with a felt sense of what this journey was like, and I wanted to provide as many hooks as possible for her to connect to the emotional texture of my experience. My favorite books always allowed me to better understand my own humanity through relating to the writer, so I wanted to give that experience back. Reading has been such a gift to me.
FZ: What books or authors or other media are you obsessed with right now?
TPM: I’m very excited for my Rumpus colleagues—Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is wonderful, and I’m so stoked about her new endeavor, The Butter. She’s a very brilliant editor and I’m sure she will do fantastic work. I’m excited for Saeed Jones and the attention his new poetry collection, Prelude to a Bruise is getting—and he’s another editor who’s making the world a better place at BuzzFeed LGBT. Same goes for Isaac Fitzgerald, who runs BuzzFeed Books and whose Pen and Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them is coming out, like, tomorrow. I also was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Michelle Tea’s new book, How To Grow Up. It is so good. It’s a hilarious, poignant essay collection about class and queerness and fashion and becoming an adult when you’re an artist and a rebel. I admire all these folks so much, and seeing their work in the world is always exciting.
FZ: What were your main goals in writing MAN ALIVE?
TPM: To tell the truth in the truest way possible. To make narrative work. To ask what makes a man. To answer it.
Photo Credit: Kareem Worrell