A Talk with Katherine Angel

In Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell, Katherine Angel opens up. This month marks the Stateside publication of the U.K. scholar’s poetic rumination on gender, sexuality, and, of course, desire. What drew me to Angel’s text was the ease with which it read; lyrical prose in an experimental format (think: a lot of white space), but what kept me there was the intersection of the literary and academic spaces, fused in a seamless—and unendingly fascinating—way. Her thoughts on feminism and owning one’s desire through the lens of her own further opens up questions with which women wrestle in virtue identifying as female. But Unmastered also dares to examine issues, dynamics, and struggles with a kind of pleasure and grace—it feels fresh, daring, and, yes, sexy.

On an unseasonably hot May afternoon, I met Angel at a Chelsea café to expand the conversation she’d started in Unmastered. She’d beaten me there, and was scribbling away in a notebook when I arrived, pleased (surprised, even) to see the U.S. version of her book, just days away from release, in tow with me. Over iced coffee and juice, we talked desire, and I was pleased to see Angel open even more of herself beyond her pages, which already reveal so much.

Meredith Turits

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INTERVIEWER

From my digestion of your book, it seems to me that your take on desire is an alchemy of things both premeditated and natural, protracted and impulsive. It’s a hell of a mix. When did the ideology that ultimately formed the thesis for the book begin to take root?

ANGEL

That’s the question I find the hardest to answer in a way. There are so many strands that went into it, one of which was my feeling in all the debates that I was coming across and all the literature that I was reading of a kind of non-literary sort—of an argumentative sort—I felt there was something that was really not being captured. It was in part because that sort of writing wasn’t concerned with language and the literary aspects of writing, but also because I feel like a lot of writing [in this field] plays this strange game of keeping the material at quite a distance, and not being honest about the complexities of how these things can be experienced within us individually. You can read a lot of really interesting stuff that’s very sophisticated, but my urge is always to ask, So how does this work for you in your life? How does this work for you when you have sex? How does this stuff play out for you in your body? Because it’s a book of non-fiction, it’s always assumed you have a strategic, articulated way in. For me, it was much more being inhabited…it felt very un-premediated, but it was informed by the academic stuff that I was reading about the history of sexuality and psychiatry. Over the last 10 or 15 years, I was just amassing all of these thoughts and feelings and feeling like there was something I needed to say that I hadn’t really seen.

INTERVIEWER

So then you have these instincts from the literary end, but you also have them from the academic end. What does the internal dialogue look like for you? Is one set of these instincts stronger for you?

ANGEL

I think they’re in a constant dance the whole time. It’s a tension that can be very pleasurable but also sort of stressful. You sort of have to write differently for different forms, and I sometimes feel frustrated by some of the academic language that one is required to adopt or bathe in all the time because I want to read good writing, and I want to write good writing hopefully. At the level of the writing itself, there’s an interesting interplay. Intellectually, I don’t feel like I’m anyone’s disciple. I very much feel that I take what I find useful from a vast range of things and I try to make something that makes sense to me from it.

INTERVIEWER

Then it’s a very instinctive balance for you between the two?

ANGEL

Yeah, with Unmastered it was.

INTERVIEWER

Does writing a book with such authority—the authority to even ask questions—challenge gender and femininity in any way?

ANGEL

In a sense, that’s what I was trying to do. Often, in the public domain, people are described as either endorsing gender categories or turning them upside-down and what I supposed I wanted to do was show that you can play with these things with pleasure but also with critical focus. I feel hyperaware about the way I experience my identity as a woman and the way I play with it, and I’m fully aware that it’s also a construction, and it’s formed by so many forces I’m interacting with all the time culturally. What I wanted to do was find a space where you could explore these tropes of gender, power, and explore the pleasure of sex—and explore the pleasure of sex that is quite specifically playing with that stuff, but without denouncing it. The biggest problem for me with how these conversations tend to go—in the media, especially—is that they’re always looking to kind of rule on someone else’s desire, especially women’s desire, and point out that it’s okay to want that, but not okay to want that. I’m not interested in that. There’s enough bullying of women as is, and I don’t want to contribute to it. I wanted to be able to point to all of those political questions about sex, and say, Look, these are the complex, ambivalent things that are going on, but to do it with pleasure as opposed to with a sense of guilt or shame.

INTERVIEWER

How do you personally handle guilt?

ANGEL

I don’t feel guilty. [laughs] I probably used to. I feel a sense of shame, because I think that’s so ingrained. I find it difficult to not feel a sense of shame and self-consciousness about sexual things, simply because every time I open a newspaper or magazine or listen to the radio it’s there doing precisely that—wanting to make me feel ashamed, whether it’s some kind of right-wing misogynist, or some type of specific feminism that partakes in that judgmental scrutiny of other women’s choices and beliefs. I feel like I’m always interacting with that dynamic. I feel like most women probably do. For me, writing the book was getting into the snake pit with those questions. It was my way of reckoning with shame and saying, Well, I’m going to try to interact with it my own sense of agency and defiance and pleasure, and I’m not going to let it beat me. So, I think the book changed that stuff for me quite a bit.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your first memory of having an experience in which you were explicitly treated differently because you were female?

ANGEL

I think it was just this awareness from a very young age that I wasn’t safe. I definitely noticed very early on that I elicited a certain type of attention from men on the street or on busses and it was clearly about me being a girl and about being sexually alluring to me.

INTERVIEWER

You talk about that unhappy history with sexuality from a young age—you were “acutely, unhappily aware of the pull of sex”. How did this influence the trajectory how you viewed sex, and how you currently do?

ANGEL

It’s a complicated thing. There’s an aggressive way in which one can be looked at and interacted with as a woman, and the obvious ways of actual aggression and attack and violence, but it’s such fraught territory because it’s so important to be able to play in a space where pleasure and the exchange of that kind of flirtation and sexual dynamic should be able to flow freely in both directions…The feminism that I grew up reading [felt] that the price you had to pay for that kind of aggressive, male interaction was to cut off your own desire for that attention: the desire to look at a man and be sexually agentic towards men, but also the pleasure of being admired as a woman and being found attractive. Part of growing up was realizing it didn’t need to be a zero-sum game. That’s the whole point: There needs to be a way where as women we can say, I like this. I want this, and not to feel that just because there’s a world full of people who think that women deserve what they get or whatever the misogynistic narrative is that we need to deny our own pleasure or entitlement to joy and seduction.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting to hear you speak about communication, and think of it in context of your narrative: We as readers see your dynamic with communication—the back and forth between what you keep censored versus what you reveal. What is your relationship to secrets in your personal life?

ANGEL

I tend to think that if something is important and interesting to talk about, one should talk about it, even if that involves some risk or vulnerability—as talking about this stuff often does. I don’t feel particularly exposed by the book, for instance. Yeah, I took a risk by writing and publishing that stuff, but I don’t feel like people who read the book know me. One of the effects of publishing a book is that I feel so relaxed talking about the book and talking about all these issues, but in a sense I’m more careful about what I reveal about parts of my life, partly because I don’t want people to think that they know me through the book.

INTERVIEWER

I want to talk about something surprising I experienced: I found myself wondering through your pages how a mother would read them—not your mother, who does show up in the book—but I felt discomfort thinking about, say, my own hypothetical daughter in some of the situations you describe.

ANGEL

What made you feel that sort of discomfort?

INTERVIEWER

To think about her being exposed and vulnerable.

ANGEL

That issue is a thread that goes through the whole book in a way. The sections where I talk about my mother were ones where I felt that I wanted to capture what felt like incredibly rich, poignant, and quite painful moments between a mother and a daughter where I could feel like she wanted me to enjoy myself and experience the pleasure that was out there to be experienced, but she was also very anxious, as one would be. I’m not a mother, but I imagine that if I were to have a daughter, I’d be thinking about all this stuff so much, and find that balance between protecting from all the violence and horrible shit out in the world, but also to not make a daughter feel like she was weak or had to fiercely guard her own sexuality in this world of marauding, predatory men. I could feel that tension so much with my mother and think she did such a good job of balancing that. I wanted to address those sections to her in recognition of how hard it must be for a mother. I was anxious about her reading the book, although my hunch was that she would love it and understand what I was doing, and read it as the sort of tender homage they were. That’s a fraught transition for a family—a child growing up becoming sexual.

INTERVIEWER

Did she?

ANGEL

Yes, she was wonderful. Really, really, great.

INTERVIEWER

Has your own exposure and release of the book changed any of your interpersonal dynamics?

ANGEL

I’ve never really thought about it, but I suppose so, for the good. People who know me well saw in the book the fruition of so much of me–all the things that I’d been thinking and talking about for decades. People who are close to me were moved by the form that it came out in. It’s been really interesting; it’s sort of done something for people, like helped them think about something in their lives, and be able to touch some of those issues, which I think can be incredibly painful for some people, like vulnerability and fear of desire, or their own painful past.

 

Meredith Turits is a senior editor at Bustle.com, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Joyland, Corium, Anobium, Full Stop, Bookslut and Glamour. She can be found in Brooklyn, on her blog, and on Twitter.

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