Published on June 21st, 2021 | by Ezra Stone0
“I wanted to be unsparing”— an interview with Krys Malcolm Belc
Krys Malcolm Belc is the author of The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, a stunning, genre-defying exploration of pregnancy, parenting, family, and transition. He generously corresponded with me by email this spring about writing, anger, and— of course— parenting through the pandemic.
Ezra Stone: It’s the only thing anyone has talked about for the last fifteen months— what has the pandemic been like for you and your family? Has it changed the way you write, either your craft, your subject matter, or logistically?
Krys Belc: I am definitely a “go somewhere and write” person so it’s frankly been a creative mess for me. I do a lot of the domestic labor and it’s hard not to lapse into that instead of writing. When the pandemic hit I had also been at a new job for only six months. It’s in a pediatric oncology clinic, and I really didn’t know anything about pediatric cancer when I started. I was just reading so much, all of it about cancer, and when I sat down to write nothing good happened. After a few months I was feeling acclimated and decided to commit to writing in a coffee shop after work once a week (I even hired a sitter!) and then blam, lockdown.
So I have given in and come to accept some very drafty and wandering and “bad” writing from myself. As long as I do something when I can I’m accepting the work—and myself—with grace. Messier drafts and ideas than ever before pass muster. I’ve written a few things I’m proud of and I’m trying to accept the difficult writing moments because comparatively my pandemic experience has been very fortunate.
Some things I am thinking about as I’m writing these days: queer temporality, being an abled parent of disabled children and being an abled person doing the work I do, cooking and domestic labor and gender, my experiences as a “women’s athlete,” and a lot of other random stuff. This time has divided my already divided attention, and collapsed boundaries, even more, and I hope that I can make art out of all the thinking and mess drafts I’m making!
ES: I was reading through your Twitter this morning and giggling at all your tweets about not wanting to stop reading to see if your children were murdering each other in the yard. Seriously, though: how did you write about parenting young children in real time? How did the facts of having young children underfoot affect *how* you wrote the book?
KB: Part of the interesting thing about writing this book is that I feel like I almost blacked out for a lot of my children’s infancies—my first two are thirteen months apart—so really writing was an act of excavation and recovery. Now that they are older, I do feel like I can take and make space a little bit more. I can tell them to “go do something,” my favorite phrase, and they will, at least for a little while.
As for this book, I wrote a lot of it in graduate school. In 2016, I quit my job as an elementary school teacher and went to an MFA program when my youngest of three was eight months. It was a big risk that I also know I’m lucky I got to take. I am fairly certain there is no way to make up to one’s partner for saying ok to the family pay cut that came with my grad stipend and to moving sight unseen to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Anna knows that if she ever wants to get an MFA or do some other wild thing I will take a job I don’t particularly want in a place I don’t particularly want to live to that end! All of this to say that I had a little more flexibility in my days, even though I did sometimes bring my infant to office hours and write while he played on my office floor.
Early on in graduate school I was given advice to work on my writing in my head when I could not sit and write and that carries me through. It’s been especially true now. When I have an hour or two to write, I’ve been thinking for days about what will happen during that hour or two. It’s magical what can happen on the page if I’ve found the mental time, while driving to preschool or cooking dinner, to work out what I hope to do when I sit down. My partnership has involved a lot of labor to decide that we each value time alone over family time, so taking the kids out on solo adventures to give the other space to do whatever is a pillar of our parenting. That’s when I try to write. We see each other a lot more during the pandemic, but our kids don’t expect both of us at any given time. That’s just the family they’re growing up in.
ES: I read the chapter about anger with my heart lodged in my throat. It was so raw and felt so deliciously risky to admit. It feels like, as queer/trans parents, a lot of us feel we have to prove we’re as good as or better than straight/cis parents. How did it feel to write that? How did you keep going?
KB: In writing a memoir I wanted to be unsparing. The idea of the “bad mother” is something that is incredibly prevalent and is a barrier to women having vibrant working and dating and sex and art lives while mothering. I have a lot of privilege not only because I am white and middle-class but also because in being seen as a dad I get a pass on a lot of the expectations we have for mothers. It isn’t fair, to mothers or to me. I should be expected to and allowed to be caring and loving, too, but should also be given space to be human and heal from hard things and to make mistakes. Apologizing exists and is meaningful because humans are expected to make mistakes. I don’t feel my experience fitting either inside or outside motherhood; it exists in step with it and I wanted to turn the hard lens people turn on each other on myself. I appreciate you asking about that section, as it was by far the hardest to write and is still painful to read.
ES: Cis people want to see us packing, binding, putting on makeup and wigs, tucking— they want to see the trans person constructing their self in lurid detail. But your book never feels like you’re explaining yourself to cis people. How did you navigate that? Who are you writing for? How did you make decisions about what to include or exclude either as you wrote or edited?
KB: I have been asked this a lot and I think my answer keeps evolving. One thing that doesn’t change is that the novel has a lot of direct address, and although I did in revision move things in and out of different POVs, much of the book was written in direct address because the closeness of that does allow me to construct the myself I want to, someone who is explaining my thoughts and feelings without having to answer general FAQ type stuff about trans issues. Writing to a someone in my life, whether it’s my partner or son or mother, narrows my audience in a way that for me allows for the most intimacy. That is the part of my answer that does not change.
What does evolve is: I’ve come to realize in looking over the book once it was an object in my hands that a lot of it is about reclaiming each chapter of my life as trans. Although I do have very supportive people in my life I worry sometimes that cis friends and family think I am only trans in my current form and presentation. Almost like the act of medical transition or changing pronouns was what made me trans. That isn’t how I conceive of my life. Being in this body from 1987 through to now is what makes me trans. Everything leading up to this point is trans. Some trans people want to put pictures of themselves as children in a drawer. I wanted in the book to exist in different bodily forms in readers’ faces: to be long-haired and in dresses and to be pregnant and bloated and postpartum. I wanted to be all of the Krys Belcs I’ve been in one place and never to explain or apologize for it.
ES: Last questions. What are you reading now? What are your kids reading? Who are your favorite trans authors?
KB: I am reading two books, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.
Some books by trans authors that I love and recommend are Hall of Waters by Camellia-Berry Grass, The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy, and Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi.
I just asked my kids what they are reading and here is what they said:
8yo: Storythieves 2: The Stolen Chapters by James Riley
7yo: InvestiGators by John Patrick Green
5yo: Doodleville by Chad Sell
ES: Thank you so much, Krys!
Krys Malcolm Belc’s The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood is out this month from Counterpoint Press.
(Author photo above by Mark Lisosky; book cover design above by Jordan Koluch)