An Interview with Julian Carter, Author of Dances of Time and Tenderness

Dances of Time and Tenderness—by Julian Carter, out today from Nightboat—is concerned with what Carter terms “the trans promise: what we do with our bodies changes worlds.”

It’s an amalgamation of sex, sainthood, Dolores Park, archives of Peter Hujar’s pornography, politics that are affective, ancestral; all with a proximity that’s personal, intimate. The connections become chains which become “an inter-generational praxis of intimacy and care,” as Juana María Rodríguez writes of Carter’s work.

In our conversation below we discuss chains and choreographies, both real and almost real. “Ideally,” Carter writes, “you’re breathing hard.”

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: I’m drawn to the word “dances,” the suggestion of performed and embodied (and perhaps ecstatic) movement. There’s the argument that these movements can order and re-order our social and political lives, somewhere outside the realm of the administrative. 

How do you choreograph those movements in Dances of Time and Tenderness? What “dances” are here?

Julian Carter: The “dances” in this book are, first and foremost, the social gestures we make in relation to others: approach and avoidance, penetration and separation, the constant slip and slide of our attempts to come close enough but not too close—these are the choreographies of intimacy, as well as the actual subject matter of the chapters. The book is structured as a series of linked encounters that follow the ronda, the imaginary circle on the floor along which social dancers move. Couples rotate around the room; dancers rotate to form new couples. Each partner is different from the one before, each one is internally consistent, and together they constitute the experience of a night out dancing. Each chapter of the book focuses on one relationship or set of relationships. By the end of the book you should feel like you’ve been somewhere, like you’ve touched and been touched by a lot of other bodies. Ideally you’re breathing hard.

I like the suggestion that these are ecstatic movements. Ekstasis is the experience of being shaken or carried outside oneself—unmoored from what one believed oneself to be; if we’re doing it right, ecstasy reconfigures our basic experience of self in the world. That experience is pleasurable only if we allow ourselves to let go of the fiction that we know for sure what’s real, what’s not, and how to distinguish between them.

Dante Silva: I remember we discussed the genre of the project a while back, a conversation which reminds me of a Miriam Ticktin quote—“Fact is simply fiction endorsed with state power. . . to maintain fidelity to a certain set of archival limits.” How do you contest those (and other) limits?

Julian Carter: I’m a dancer—I tend to sidestep more than contest!

I certainly have some things to say about the state—Dances is not an apolitical book in that sense—but the archival politics I engage explicitly take place at a local community level, in the grassroots organizations that eventually morphed into what’s currently called the GLBT Historical Society. These contests were less centrally concerned with questions of truth than with questions of ownership and authenticity, expressed as conflicts over who gets to tell which stories.

Three of the five chapters are powered by the implicit question, “Whose story is this to tell?” That’s one of the reasons I find it mystifying that many people read this book as a memoir—I’m not sure how that question could arise if I were only telling my own story, or only telling it directly. If I ever write an autobiography I promise you I will claim my authority to do so! Although now that I’ve taken that stance, I find myself wondering whether it might not be more interesting to experiment with abdicating that authority.

To answer your question more directly: I write with integrity to the best of my ability, not attempting to duplicate reality but borrowing and adjusting lived experience—my own and other people’s—in order to communicate something about trans being that I’ve witnessed as deeply true. That is an order of truth that doesn’t line up with institutional policies, whether set by a library or a state or a grassroots history project. I tried to manage reader expectations by littering the text with reminders that this is not a memoir, it is not an autobiography, it is not even a lecture. Rather, it’s cultural history in the form of a love letter with a bit of verse, some performance analysis, and a fair amount of fantasy woven in.

Dante Silva: These chains are so wonderfully crafted, maintained, mourned, tended to, repaired. Could you say more about the idea of the chain as a formal structure?

Julian Carter: Why thank you!

The book is designed as a charm bracelet. I realized early on that a link on its own is only a link, it has to join with others like itself to become a chain. The essence of the chain is the potential for connection. I emphasized this by calling the chapters “links.” The sustained chain image is meant to help guide readers down the line of dance even when the stories skip around over continents and millennia. It also allowed me to include little charms: small independent pieces, many only a few lines, that depend or comment on the main storyline of each link, but don’t share responsibility for moving us forward from beginning to end. And, at a macro level, the book begins with a section called “An Opening, A Clasp” and ends with “A Clasp, Ending to Begin Again.”

Dante Silva: There is a constellation of lovers, scholars, artists, authors and activists that appear, or perhaps many constellations. There are so many intimacies that collide—we see that in the (64!) endnotes, too. What is the significance of your citational practice?

Julian Carter: Remember how I said that one of the animating questions of the book is “whose story is this to tell?” I take considerable pleasure in the craft of weaving in quotations so subtly that you have to know the source text to recognize them. For instance, I ventriloquize a famous speech by beloved activist and filmmaker Vito Russo, who used the refrain that the state, the church, celebrities—the heteronormative power structures—didn’t give a shit about queer death because it wasn’t happening to them. If you know the speech, you’ll recognize the quote; and if you’re a sensitive reader and you don’t know the quote, you might wince a little, because Russo’s voice isn’t mine and I, at least, notice the sudden lurch, the discontinuity in tone. Which said, there were places where I wanted to include data or extended quotations, and my editor was very firm that these needed attribution. I complied.