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Constance Debré and Chris Kraus on queer identity, casual sex and the politics of refusal via Granta



Constance Debré is the author of Play Boy, winner of the 2018 Coupole Prize, and Love Me Tender, translated from the French by Holly James this year. Love Me Tender describes the narrator’s exit from her marriage and career, as well as her decision to embrace a queer and ascetic life after her ex-husband attempts to block her from accessing her young son.

Chris Kraus is a writer and critic. Her novels include Aliens and Anorexia, I Love Dick, Torpor and Summer of Hate. She has published three books of cultural criticism, as well as a literary biography, After Kathy Acker.


Constance Debré and Chris Kraus discuss queer identity, motherhood, and the societal structures that seek to place the two in opposition.


Chris Kraus:

In Love Me Tender (2020), your second novel, the narrator has just quit her job as a lawyer, left her husband and son, and moved into a tiny studio apartment. Her life has become a lot simpler, she does only three things – write, swim for an hour a day and pick up girls.

Do these conditions reflect changes that took place in your own life? If so, would this be the time when you were writing your first book, Play Boy (2018)? Tell me a bit about that time.

Constance Debré:

It was a bit like Saint Augustine and his conversion. In the same week, I had sex with a girl and I had the feeling that I could write. It was a complete change. At the time I was around forty-three or forty-five. I quit my job as a lawyer – which is not a very reasonable thing to do – but for me it was the only thing to do. When you have this in you, you just do it.

I didn’t start writing straight away. I spent some time thinking about how I wanted to write, about what books meant to me, and what book I wanted to write. I think art and writing are as much about how as they are about what. I wanted something very straightforward: direct, short sentences, simple things. I wanted to hustle French literature, which sometimes fatigues me with its pseudo-sophistication and approach to psychology. I have learned a lot from American literature and art, and I wanted to put a lot of that in the book. With Play Boy, for instance, I had in mind a famous William Eggleston picture, The Red Ceiling. It’s just a photograph of a red ceiling and a white lightbulb – I think he took it in 1973. It’s simple and profane, and very powerful. This is how I wanted to write. From there I had to think about the what, and it was the same thing: I wanted something simple. The simplest thing was what I had in my pocket – me and my life – although, it’s not about me. It doesn’t tell the story of my life, but my life is the material. That’s what I did with Play Boy.

Kraus:

So, the how and the what are [entwining two fingers] are very much like that?

Debré:

Yes exactly. I have just published a third book, Nom. I had this idea of the hero within Greek mythology; a figure who defies the gods, and therefore has ordeals. In other words, it’s the ordeals that make the hero: the more ordeals you experience, the more heroic you are. I do think that bad times are a part of life. With Love Me Tender, I wanted to present this hero’s story without complaining, because I think literature is also about proposing figures who help us readers to deal with our own lives. Whether the main character is a reflection of me or not, I wanted this figure be a hero, and have them walk through the fire.

Kraus:

To me, the most striking thing about the book is the way you conflate motherhood and parenting with the idea of a hero’s journey, with motherhood being the most abject, self-sacrificing situation, these two things rarely go together.

I mean, the narrator obviously didn’t intend to abandon her son. She expected shared custody, like any normal person after a divorce. But her ex succeeds in villainising her, depicting her as a monster to the point where she’s only allowed supervised visits with her son once every two weeks.

The narrator’s reaction to this situation swings wildly back and forth. She’s defiant, depressed, sarcastic. She writes unsent love letters to her son. She’s so nervous she throws up before their scheduled visits. I’ve never seen a relationship between parent and child depicted this plainly. Do you think writing truthfully about the love between parents and children is the last great taboo?

Debré:

It is one of them, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. The complexity of love – romantic love – appears throughout books and movies. But there’s nothing about the complexity of love between a mother and her son, which I find suspicious. Why wouldn’t it be complex? Freud writes about the love that children feel towards their parents, but the love travelling in the other direction remains undiscussed. It felt like a red flag for a bull, something that I was excited to write about. I wanted to speak the truth, and to understand why such truths are kept hidden.

Kraus:

And more so for a mother than a father. Everyone expects the mother to exercise self-censorship and repression in the interest of the child. Did you feel yourself pushing against that?

Debré:

I never understand what the problem is with the truth. If we hide things, it’s because we think that we could not stand those things. I’m much more confident; I believe that everyone can stand the truth and I have no problem telling my son that love is complex. I think it’s the best thing you can say about love – yes, sometimes love is so strong that it approaches hate, or rejection. Love contains negative feelings too, although maybe ‘hate’ is not exactly the right word.

Kraus:

Elsewhere you talk about writers who you looked towards early on, authors like Guillaume Dustan and Hervé Guibert. Certainly those are people to look to in terms of telling the truth and speaking plainly, but when you sought to tell the truth about parenting, were there any books that guided you? Did you read anything that was close to what you were trying to do?

Debré:

No, [Kraus laughs] maybe it was because I was lazy, but no. Still, it wasn’t a problem. You just write the sentences, and then you read them and ask yourself ‘Is it true?’, and answer: ‘yes, it is true.’

Kraus:

The most shocking part of the book for me was the end, when finally the narrator has achieved her goal. She’s got into a normal custody arrangement, but there are times when the son retreats, and he doesn’t want to see her at all. She comes to accept this, and realises the sadness of the victory. She’s finished grieving for her son. It’s like the end of a romance but more serious. Do you think people bring the same illusions to parenting as to they do to romantic love?


Debré:

[After a long pause] No, probably not, but I don’t know if this is an illusion or deception. I think people panic about what other people think. I don’t know if it’s an illusion or more of a crazy pressure, it’s obvious when you go to the park and you see a parent talking to their very young child, and probably the child doesn’t understand anything. The child just lives their life. The parent is talking to the child, but really, I think they are talking to the people who can hear them. It’s not sincere.

Kraus:

They are performing themselves.

Debré:

Exactly, yes. And they are trapped in that crazy performance all the time.

Kraus:

I want to go back to this question of the how. I’m still curious – before you started writing at all, you must have thought a lot about how it was going to be.

Debré:

Yes, well, it had to fit with my taste in literature, but it also to coincide with this idea of coming out – I am a late bloomer. Suddenly I was forty-something, and I had this incredible feeling that I could catch things, that life was there to be caught. When I realised that, I felt that this was how I wanted to write: frankly. But, of course, before that moment I had read lots of books, and I do love Proust, but I like it when things are said directly. When you lay everything down on the table. For example, in the book, the supermarket sex is described exactly as it happens, not as a performance, or a narrative detached from the bare facts. I think one purpose of books is to express the beauty we experience, but not in general terms, not in a ‘blue sky’ way, but in our time, in the here and now.

Kraus:

You write about casual sex in a direct and matter-of-fact way. The narrator says: ‘I like sex in the same way I like looking at people in the street . . . the feeling of being so close and yet so distant,’ and then, ‘I often say no and sometimes say yes. It doesn’t really have anything to do with sex, let alone love. I’m starting to realize I can have just about anyone.’ There’s a lot of writing about casual sex described in an artfully casual way, but it still seems shocking when a woman does it, and especially a lesbian. Is this something you felt yourself pushing against?

Debré:

It’s interesting because as I was accused of being something – I don’t know what exactly, but something bad – I realised that there was also a very conventional way of being a lesbian. I wondered why and I wanted to write about other ways of being. I realise I am now mixing the book and my life, which is something I hate to do. But I felt that I was being accused of something and I thought that the book might become, if not the truth, then an explanation of what was going on. I felt like I was being told that I was not in my place; that I was not where I should be. Not only was I a lesbian but I was also choosing to prioritise writing over earning money. And then on top of that I was choosing to have physical and sexual relationships outside of the couple form. These were the ideas I was pushing against and this is what I tried to show in the book. It became a way of being even more of what they didn’t want me to be.

Kraus:

People here have found your book very polarising, which to me is the best thing. Some love the book because it feels like the most honest and important thing they’ve read in years, shattering all kinds of silences. Others say they find it ‘too macho’ and ‘divisive.’ Did the same thing happen when the book published in France?

Debré:

Yes, kind of, but the negative critics were a bit too silent for my taste. I think it’s great to have this opposition. That’s what you hope for when you write this way – if everyone just said it was OK, maybe I should do it again.

Kraus:

If everyone likes it too much, it’s bad.

Debré:

Exactly.

Kraus:

OK, last question. You’ve been on a residency this year at Villa Albertine in New York, trying to figure out if there’s still a counterculture in the US, and to understand what’s now considered reactionary and progressive. What have you found?

Debré:

I wouldn’t pretend to have the slightest answer to that. Though I do feel, for instance that meeting you, being with you, there probably is an avant-garde movement in the US, which I don’t see as much of anymore in France. And that’s probably why we French writers have been influenced by American countercultural writing and avant-garde literature. I know that my books wouldn’t exist without that American tradition that’s for sure.


Love Me Tender by Constance Debré, translated from the French by Holly James, is published by Tuskar Rock Press (UK) and Semiotext(e) / Native Agents (US).

Photograph of Constance Debré © Pierre-Ange Carlotti

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