Ilana Masad is a force of nature, and whether our colossal misstep of a world likes it or not, All My Mother’s Lovers hit the shelves in May and has attracted a lot of attention. In Masad’s gripping debut, a queer millennial woman undertakes a road trip to deliver letters from her deceased mother to her coterie of lovers. It’s a book about love, death, and queerness and it’s narrated with the compassion of someone who’s borne witness to all three. A tireless literary citizen, Masad is now the recipient of the lit world’s effusive love: All My Mother’s Lovers has received advanced praise from outlets such as Buzzfeed, O Magazine, The Millions, and Electric Literature and endorsements from Garth Greenwell, R.O. Kwon, and Kristen Arnett. I sat down with Masad to talk about what it means to be in or out of the closet, whether drugs are important to queers, and “California as a place.”
R. A. Frumkin: First and foremost, All My Mother’s Lovers is a book about an adult millennial coming to terms with her boomer parents’ reality. We’ve so frequently seen boomers and millennials pitted against each other in popular culture: there has been no shortage of boomer-penned op-eds against millennial “laziness,” and the “ok boomer” meme volleys that disdain right back. How did you approach writing about boomers without vilifying them?
Ilana Masad: My dad died young, and it wasn’t until he was sick that I really started seeing him as a person. I was a teenager at the time, and realized that I would never get to talk to him as an adult, so I started asking him a lot of questions about his life. And after he died, I started asking my mom questions about her life as well. The older I got and the more I started hearing this discourse about how huge the gap between millennials and boomers is, the more I started thinking how, in certain ways, it’s absolutely true: we’re faced with different financial realities and incredibly different environmental and political realities. But every generation thinks that the world is going to end at a certain point, every generation has its freedom fighters and its liberators and its people who are working for change — so in certain ways we aren’t that different, we’re just in different places. So [in my book] I wanted to sort of reckon with that, as well as this idea that a lot of millennials have that boomers never dealt with any adversity — we know that’s not true, because they lived through Vietnam, to say the least. I wanted Maggie to be faced with the fact that her parents are their own people with their own histories and their own complexities and that her assumptions about them are in certain ways as disrespectful as her mom’s assumptions about Maggie’s sexuality.
Speaking of generational shifts, this novel represents a survey of two very different generations of queers.
I think we queer millennials have had our own fights for rights, for justice, for acceptance of our identities, and in some of our conversations we ignore or forget or flatten the realities of the queers who came before us. I have seen frustration with our generation among elder queers that I think is at times warranted, given how forgetful we can be. I didn’t want Liam to be a representation of all elder queer people — he’s a single person — but he reminds Maggie that just because we queer millennials have a lot of terminology parsed out, doesn’t mean we can forget the language of those who came before us, or their fights or struggles. I would highly recommend the podcast Making Gay History. I discovered it after finishing the novel and it really helped me better understand who laid the foundation we’re standing on today.
To some extent, it can be said that Maggie’s mom and dad are “closeted” — at least in today’s parlance — and that Maggie is “out.” How do you see each of these characters as conceiving of their queer and/or poly identities in public?
I don’t think Maggie’s parents would ever consider themselves in or out of the closet. Because to them, that term would only be associated with someone explicitly “gay” or “queer,” and they would not identify as such, even though Maggie’s dad’s identity does fall under the umbrella. Quite simply, it’s their private life. But for Maggie, it’s very important to live out of the closet. It would be inconceivable for her to think of her own sexuality as private because she codes as queer and because to her it’s more than who she has sex with — it’s an identity, part of how she sees the world. It’s her community, it’s her politics, it’s her way of viewing how society does or does not work. It’s a way of being.
I feel like I ask almost every debut novelist I interview this question — and you’re a very prolific book critic, so I feel you’re highly qualified to answer this — but how do you see identity working in the millennial novel? Especially queer identity in your own novel?
My queer identity is certainly all over this book. I think the humor is probably where it comes through mostly, because I have nods all over the place to contemporary queer culture. In the first couple pages there’s a mention of a Babadook t-shirt, for instance. I would have a crush on Maggie, but Maggie would never want me. I’m not Maggie’s type. Maggie’s too cool for me. To me, that’s very queer — to write a character who you’re very thirsty for but who would have no interest in you.
I could tell you were kind of into Maggie.
[Laughs] Maybe I described the soft butchiness a little too much.
What do you think of the critical tendency to read so much queer fiction as autofiction, whether it is or not?
I feel like there’s a hetero attempt to imagine the author as the protagonist in the more risqué moments of their works — during the sex scenes, especially, so the author can be judged for them. Or the hetero reader can be titillated by them, whatever they do in reaction to queer sex scenes. It seems to me that when a straight man writes autofiction — let’s say Knausgaard (who, by the way, writes autobiographies but gets to call them autofiction) — the critics obsess over the prose and the discussion of masculinity and the lush details on every page. But when a queer person writes fiction with even the least bit autobiographical strain, the hetero literary world becomes really interested in “how much of this is true.” Queer authors have fought against this really well — Garth Greenwell has certainly fought tooth and nail to get people to stop discussing his work this way. And I also wonder — I don’t know whether this is true — but I wonder whether it’s culturally expected of some marginalized people to write debuts that are autobiographical in some sense. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
It’s a fact universally acknowledged — but not as universally spoken — that drugs are a huge part of queer culture. Drugs seem to figure in Maggie’s life, as well. Is this part of a broader cultural statement, or is it a character trait specific to Maggie?
For one, I think different drugs have played different roles for different communities and generations of people. In my own queer experience, drugs have played a tiny, tiny, nearly nonexistent role. For Maggie, I honestly wasn’t thinking about drugs as queer-specific so much as I was thinking about them as part of the culture of privilege surrounding her. I’m thinking in particular of her very blasé comfort with pot — her white privilege will always shield her if she gets pulled over with it. (Yes, she’s briefly jailed for one night, but nothing really happens to her.) I think I was more interested in showing Maggie’s attitudes and interactions with pot as emblematic of white privilege, and showing them in California where pot’s legal. There are many, many people in jail for that particular drug, and very few of them look like Maggie.
Shifting gears: why doesn’t Maggie open her mom’s letters?
Silly as it is, I think it’s because her mom raised her that way. If something is addressed to someone else, you just don’t open it. She was taught to respect privacy. I know that’s really simplistic, but I think it’s legitimately the reason why — I don’t think it occurs to her that she could actually open them. Maggie’s always clashing with her mom but also trying to prove her mom wrong. In this case, she wants to prove that she’s a responsible adult and she can get shit done and she can make her mom proud. I think it’s what many people do when they have parents who are disappointed in them in some way — there’s no winning against that, but you can keep on trying to win all the time, forever.
I’m really going to sound like Guy in Your MFA right now, but California is a character in this novel. Can you say more about the novel’s sense of place?
I was born in LA and lived there until I was three and then moved away and never lived there again. Growing up, I really only understood the city as the place where I went to visit my grandparents. I always had this sort of magical relationship with LA because I saw it through a child’s eyes. And when I started writing this book, I was living in the midwest, so I had Maggie live in the midwest, but I knew I wanted her to go back to California. When I started researching Maggie’s trip, I didn’t really know California as a place that well. But then I just started finding landmarks, walking around using Google Maps and Google Street View figuring out Maggie’s driving routes and where she would live and where the other characters would live. California’s big and interesting and it’s a landscape that’s similar in a certain sense to where I grew up because it’s desert-y but also has mountains. It’s a lot of different landscapes in one state, and that’s familiar to me, so I was able to wrap my head around how to situate Maggie there.
What advice to you have to aspring queer writers who want to write about queer culture?
Do it. Definitely do it. But think about the nuance, always think about the nuance. Think how whichever aspect of our culture you’re exploring has changed, because it’s always changing (I think that’s part of the beauty of queer culture). Don’t worry about it seeming weird or unrecognizable to readers who don’t understand it: Who the fuck cares? Do it anyway. We deserve it. Queer culture is real and it has a powerful effect on the broader culture. That Met Gala with the camp theme? There’s a reason the handful of queer people who were there actually knew how to pull off camp and very few others did. We have historically had an effect on the world and we will continue to have an effect on the world, so write it.
R. A. Frumkin‘s fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and criticism have appeared in Granta, Guernica, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Their novel, The Comedown, came out from Henry Holt in 2018 and SEM Libri in 2019. They are a professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.