Sex As Power, Black Identity and The True Meaning of Love: A Unique Conversation with Artist, Performer and Writer Lex Brown Who Just Released Her First Erotic Novel

Text by Audra Wist

Lex Brown is an artist, performer and the author of My Wet Hot Drone Summer, recently published by Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited as part of the New Lovers erotica series. Lex and I met in the summer of 2011, keeping in touch and crossing paths in LA. She is now pursuing an MFA in Sculpture at Yale University. It’s hard for me to write about Lex as I see her as a close friend who I love, someone who I think is accomplished just as a person, aside from her remarkable work. She seems to have an casual but intimate knowledge of a pulse that goes unnoticed by most. Our interest in sex crosses over where we think in terms of experimentation or the idea of sex as power - where are there glitches and what is happening when we have a sexual encounter? In her new book, she takes on sci-fi erotica full throttle with a cloaked critique. She is electric and the book reflects that spirit with equal parts hilarity and sincerity. We sat down in Pittsburgh, PA after performing together the night before to discuss her new book, views on sex, the fluctuating temperature of our time, and how to appropriately experiment with love.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation.


Lex Brown: Audience praise in general is a weird dynamic.

Audra Wist: Actually, Aaron [Kunin] and I were talking about this… there’s some poets that don’t even want white writers to talk about black writers. No names, no mention of their work, no praise, nothing. And I wonder is that constructive? Or how is that productive? Anyways, what is it like to do the performance you’re doing or write the book that you’ve written and have a primarily white audience watch or read it and go “Good job, wow, great work.” I have no idea what that’s like. I remember [in a group dynamics class] sitting in the William Pope.L show at MOCA and we were to discuss the show and a black student blurted out “What is white guilt? Tell me. I don’t know. Can a white person explain that to me?” And of course, all of us whiteys were stunned, panicked. We didn’t know how to approach that question but we all knew it very well. It felt like anything we said was wrong - and here, to congratulate feels like it’s patronizing in some way. There are so many intricacies to being a person of color and writing or making and looking at art that I simply do not have the experience to speak about… or I don’t know what is the right or supportive response to these complicated knots.

LB: I think what is so complicated about right now is that in addition to already living in the white patriarchy, within the last twenty or thirty years, there has emerged another normalized reaction—a standardized black reactionary identity, or criticality, which does not involve thinking critically. And also the same for feminism and other marginalized groups. There’s this component of people reacting in the way they think they’re supposed to and not really stopping to consider and engage with things. Though, as I’m saying this, I know I can only notice things because I’m in my own very specific place of privilege… my own self-awareness of being black in an upper-middle class situation gives me a special kind of privilege of hyper-articulateness. Anyways, the point I’m getting to is that there are so many blogs in which people are going off about x, y and z. A lot of people are angry about a lot of things because they do recognize their oppression, and that is good, but in a way it can be so counter-productive to the project. I can understand where they’re coming from, but as a writer, when you’re talking about systemic oppression, you cannot throw that phrase around without providing the facts and experiences that are evidence of that oppression. You need to back it up because the things you are saying are true and are important but if you don’t back it up the only reaction you’re going to get is that you’re just being emotional and then you can’t be mad when somebody only sees that emotion. You can’t get mad at some white male reader when he says “all you’re doing is reacting emotionally” when the way that you’re writing is with the expectation that people just automatically understand you. You need to write as a black woman as if nobody understands, explain everything, because people can be ignorant.

AW: And that goes for anyone making an argument about anything, right?

LB: Yeah, you really need to because if you’re in a position of marginalization, there’s nothing about systems that are organized that benefit you. You need to be like a razor blade if you’re going to cut through the bullshit. You have to be! It’s really important to understand the intricacies of what you’re talking about and the identity of the person with whom you’re talking to.

AW: Or the context perhaps, like who it’s being sent out to or where it’s being published.

LB: Yes, this is something I learned in the clowning workshop. If you really want to change someone’s mind, they need to feel like you see them and they need to feel like… or, they need to have the experience of seeing you saying “I’m marginalized, you’re not, can you understand this?” There is a certain amount or acquiescing or compromise that has to happen. Making things a little sweeter. Not everybody feels that way. But my perspective on this is that the little song and dance… you know, it helps because in order to-- I don’t know if this is coming out coherently.

AW: I’m totally following. This is making sense.

LB: Okay, so, for example, to be a woman and talking to men and trying to get them to see you, you have to be like “Don’t worry, man, I see you.” You know?

AW: Yeah, of course.

LB: And of course I see you because I live in your world! I understand-- well, no I don’t understand what it feels like to be white... but I also kind of can because I imagine it would be like if I turned off some things in my brain. For a long time, I have had a guilt that I had to get over that I imagine feels similar to white guilt because ultimately white guilt is a class guilt. It’s a privilege guilt. That’s what it has to do with and for me I felt guilty about privilege and a very complicated guilt about being black and I felt like I didn’t have anything valid to talk about because I was not suffering or something. And then, slowly I realized, oh, wait, I have this very unique position in combination with my disposition, which I also like thinking about those words: position in society versus a disposition, or personality, what does a disposition mean? Dispossessed?

AW: Or out of position?

LB: Yes, something to explore. Good title for a piece. But, I also relate that to the book in the sense--

AW: I was just going to say that. That’s perfect for the book: position and disposition.

LB: There’s the position of the book and the disposition of the book. There’s funny stuff in there, too. Erotica is something that people don’t take seriously but arousal is a serious and real thing. It’s a fun book. You know, I hope people even read it. That’s the whole question I have. Are people even going to read this book? And maybe that’s a larger question about books.

AW: Who reads ‘em?

LB: Who reads ‘em? Seriously! I’m reading books right now.

AW: What are you reading?

LB: Right now, I’m reading Taipei by Tao Lin, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

AW: That’s an interesting combination of books.

LB: I love when I can get into a book and I feel like I’m into all of them. Taipei because it’s just so... god, yes! That is how it feels to be a young person today. Have you read it?

AW: I haven’t read it yet.

LB: It’s really remarkable. I think someone on the back cover describes it as “relentless.” The intensity and specificity with which he describes an anxiety about vagueness that we experience now in the information age: a vague sentiment about being and existing. Especially because his character is a writer like him, everything that comes with existing as an artist that is existentially questionable and that is not present in the New York Times article where they’re talking about the “Creative Class” and asking “Do these doodles make you feel better?” That is the difference between this self-help doodling and being an artist - it’s confronting that existential vagueness that is the reality of life and being like, fuck!

AW: Disposition.

LB: Yeah, and Franny and Zooey is great because Franny’s character kind of talks about that, too. It’s actually very contemporary. Have you read it?

AW: Yes, I was always struck by that, too.

LB: Yeah. There’s this part with her talking to her boyfriend and then she runs to the bathroom crying and tries to pull herself together… there’s this affective nature with which she presents herself that I really identify with. Like you can’t help but have affectations and play with those when you are a conscious thinking intellectual person who is aware of that intellectualism as a marginalized person. You can’t help but be interested but also grappling with your own affect and what do I do with that? Citizen is great. I only just started, but she talks about Hennessy Youngman and him giving instructions to black artists on how to express feelings of rage, but Rankine is talking about the real rage that is the undercurrent of this rage, Hennessy Youngman’s rage, that is subdued. She has this brilliant line about making oneself visible to death. And I read it and was like, yep, that’s me. This craving for visibility. To be visible at all costs. Listen to me at all costs.

"...On the one hand, I’m like fuck, fuck these white dudes, I can’t keep having sex with them because I feel rejected and in pain and then on the other hand, I want to do it because it’s an experiment to push somebody. But it takes me so long to get over everyone. Through all of these relationships, I’ve learned and learned and learned to constantly try to get to a place of truth with love."

AW: Visibility at all costs, yeah, I feel that.

LB: I hope people read this book! Just look at me.

AW: Yeah, look at me.

LB: Like in your performance, you said “they never let you speak.”

AW: Yeah, they don’t. And when you do speak the whole thing is really dependent on the fact that they listen. That’s the hard part. You try to give them the opportunity to listen as best as you can but… you give it your best shot.

LB: Yeah, last night with our performances back to back and then Moor Mother Goddess - that was great!

AW: It was a great trifecta.

LB: I feel like when some people perform they ask “look at me” instead of saying “look at me.”

AW: Yeah, you don’t need to ask for permission and that’s actually the problem is that you shouldn’t have to ask for permission. I will take that.

LB: Or it’s something else to do while doing something else and saying look at me.

AW: Like I said last night, women are typically very good at being direct. Is everyone in the Badlands New Lovers Series female identified?

LB: Yeah.

AW: The ability to be direct is really specific to women, I think.

LB: That’s something Michaela asked me on the panel about being a woman, or writing as a woman, and she made a point—and I’m glad she made this point and it was pretty bold—she said, “We got submissions from men but they just weren’t as good - they just weren’t.” And the way she said it was very straight up, no apologies, and I appreciated that. I think she was asking why do you think, as a woman, you’re a better writer? And my response was…

AW: Women are better.

LB: [laughs] Yeah, women are better. But as a woman, you experience sexuality beyond the bedroom.

AW: You do!

LB: In a way that most men do not.

AW: You put your finger in the fucking wound. Men don’t even see the wound, they don’t even know. Women are in there, feeling around, touching it.

LB: Or the wound is wounding you, just walking down the street, whatever. There are so many infinitesimal interactions of sexuality that women live and breathe. For me, I constantly feel like I’m living and breathing identity as a woman, as a black woman. And because I’m black, I’m so sensitive to other aspects of class that might be harder to feel if you were white. But people of color, when you’re in this weird position… somehow my ancestors made it here and I’m so aware of here.

AW: Of course, that lineage and the time.

LB: I’m so aware of my ancestors all the time. I really visualize myself almost with a cape trailing behind me—my parents, grandparents. Who are mostly black, but some white and Native American. My mom knows a lot more about it than I do. I need some money to do some research. You know some issues are too big or complex for me to take on right now because I don’t have the money or can’t devote the time.

AW: Something else I thought of while reading the book was sex as transactional.

LB: I think I need to peg somebody. I think I need to have that experience.

AW: Oh, yeah. That’s an absolute. I think men have this fantasy about it. They think women are so turned on or are getting so sexually aroused by it, and that’s a part of it, but I think it’s mostly… I mean, I’ve said this before: sex is not that interesting, power is and pegging is about power. Power is in that wound.

LB: Yeah, I was having sex with this guy and afterwards, I was explaining to him what I was thinking about the whole time and he said, “Wow, you think a lot.” The instinct I feel when he makes that comment is I’m going to push this. You’re obviously fascinated by me thinking a lot or you’re trying to destroy it. That’s hyperbolic but, there’s an attraction in sexual attraction, at least this is the way it works for me… is that there’s something that you want in a person and at the same time there is something you want to erase or destroy, even if the thing you want to erase is your own desire for wanting something that isn't you. Does that make sense?

AW: Yeah.

LB: So, when he says something like you think so much, I’m thinking yeah, I do, but I don’t know if you realize what it sounds like you saying that me… but also I don’t know what I sound like to you telling you this. That aspect of sex is very interesting to me as a transaction between people.

AW: It’s almost as if sex can be an intellectual transaction.

LB: Oh, sure! When we were having sex, I was thinking about so much stuff! I always do when I’m having sex. And I really feel that also has to do with when you’re in the receiving position. Physically, you are equally engaged in making it happen but you could, in the receiving position, you could ostensibly just be completely flat and have all this time to think which I often do.

AW: [laughs]

LB: You don’t have to do anything to make intercourse happen. I think it’s true too that you could be a passive top. Sort of.

AW: But putting them in that position, the importance of pegging, is putting them in the position of receiving so that their mind has that time to do what we usually do.

LB: Yeah, totally. I really fight that impulse and what this guy and I talked about on the train, it was a difficult discussion. I  have this impulse to go towards things that are difficult. I want to change your mind. Bottom line, I really do. When you’re attracted to somebody and you feel like they have something that you don’t, that’s what makes the attraction.

AW: It does.

LB: Projection.

AW: Absolutely.

LB: Projection is attraction. And so I know what it is that these white guys have that I don’t. But, what is it that I have? I feel like they don’t know, but it’s there and it’s an interesting mystery. What is it that I have that they don’t know that they want? And so on the one hand, I’m like fuck, fuck these white dudes, I can’t keep having sex with them because I feel rejected and in pain and then on the other hand, I want to do it because it’s an experiment to push somebody. But it takes me so long to get over everyone. Through all of these relationships, I’ve learned and learned and learned to constantly try to get to a place of truth with love.

AW: I think that’s a really good outlook though. I’ve been thinking about the same thing.

LB: I don’t know if I’ve ever even had sex with somebody who loved me and I loved them.

AW: And even when you do, sometimes it can’t work. I have so much love for [my ex], but I’m not sure if we can ever fuck again, there’s too much love between us.

LB: In a sense that sex diminishes that or is superfluous?

AW: It diminished the unconditional nature of our love. Sex can introduce a possessiveness and necessitates something else, something more. Whereas when we’re just friends, it’s an unconditional love.

LB: I don’t know if they can go together.

AW: Neither do I. I’m very skeptical. But I’ve also had weird sexual situations work in all types of ways, good and bad.

LB: At this point I think love is really grappling with your inner shit and being challenged to throw some stuff away. But also own some stuff—own your shit in a way that’s uncomfortable. Within the act of loving someone, you have to come to terms with how you construct yourself, as well as how you construct the other person. I’ve had to come to understand love as a non-possessiveness.

AW: I see what you mean. There are also some types of love can be play pretend or a security blanket to shield you from your own cracks. I wonder sometimes if I am really looking at love for what it really is.

LB: I imagine love as the essence of the universe, which is beautiful, but not peaceful. Each person is a universe, and you have to come to an understanding. Maybe real love is unexpectedly coming to the same definition of what love is.

You can purchase Lex Brown's book, "My Wet Hot Drone Summer," here. See the trailer below. Text and interview by Audra Wist. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

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