A Sub/Dom Relationship Centered on Desire, Power, and Art
In Alyssa Songsiridej's novel "Little Rabbit," a young queer woman discovers pleasure and agency in sexual submission to an older man
A sexual coming of age story, Little Rabbit is about a 30-year-old queer writer who meets a choreographer in his early 50s at a residency and quickly feels a spark of desire. The relationship that follows pulls her out of her comfortable life of hanging out with her best friends, working as an administrative coordinator in the Econ Department at Harvard, publishing an experimental novel with a press that immediately folds, and hooking up with women and “firm beta” men from her local and literary circles.
Both the art and the sex that the choreographer brings into her life crack open something new in her. She spends weekends at his apartment in New York and his house in the Berkshires, discovering the pleasure, agency, and power that come with submitting to him sexually. She is captivated by the performances of his dancers, finding his art form uniquely powerful in dissolving the boundaries of the self and making her less alone in her own body, while twining the lovers closer together and drawing them into starring roles in each other’s lives.
Alyssa Songsiridej and I first met as colleagues working at Electric Literature, where she is the managing editor. Though she could never have known it while writing the book, I ended up in a job very similar to her protagonist’s roommate, directing a literary conference in Boston. In our Zoom interview, I asked her about the tensions of being a queer person in a straight-passing relationship, how the truths of our private intimacies are lost in the public faces we present to the world, and how both sex and art allow us to transcend the normal boundaries of our bodies and selves.
Preety Sidhu: The protagonist of Little Rabbit is queer—bisexual or pansexual. And she’s drawn into this powerful attraction with a cisgender man who’s a far cry from all her “firm beta” previous male partners. Because with him, she discovers kinks that make her feel more alive than ever, less alone in her body, perhaps.
How are you thinking about the tension between queer identity, kinky desires, and the appearance of conforming to heteronormative expectations?
Alyssa Songsiridej: I feel like that’s one of the primary anxieties of the book and also maybe one of my own primary and personal anxieties.
Ultimately, I wanted to write a book about self-perception vs. the way others perceive us, and the really murky, inarticulable space between them. And how a person’s lived experience might bump up against the current restrictions of their identity. This kinky relationship was the way for me to play it out in a way that felt empathetic and alive. But I don’t have any clear statements about this tension, I’m just trying to play it out—in fact, I’m really pleased that a lot of people are having different reactions to their relationship, that they’re coming up to me saying, “I don’t know what to think.”
PS: I feel like we keep coming back to the phrase “some man’s little woman” and her not wanting to appear to be “some man’s little woman.” And yet outsiders perceiving that relationship might simply see an older, more successful man and a much younger woman becoming partners, moving in, and sort of taking on those life roles. I think that a central part of the book is that there is some part of her identity that’s not shutting down or getting smaller, but that is opening up or enlarging.
AS: I got the idea to write this book from listening to the Esther Perel audiobook Mating in Captivity. There’s a section about women who are strong feminists, but they like to be submissive in bed and so there’s that anxiety of, “Am I a bad feminist for liking this?” And I wanted to write a narrator struggling with those same things, wondering “Am I a bad queer person for ending up in a cisgender relationship? Why do I have those thoughts of what is good or bad queerness?” I wanted her to think, “Where’s all this messaging coming from?” And I wanted to interrogate our assumptions about relationships based on the balance of power between two people. I really think there’s a difference between “power over” and “more power than.” In the first case, you’re getting abuse. But what happens in the second case? In a romantic relationship, it’s impossible to always be perfectly balanced. There’s gender, there’s race and class, someone’s career is going to be going up and someone’s down—there’s always a negotiation of material circumstances. Those differences mean you have to deal with the way that you’re presenting as a couple in public all the time, which is an exhausting phenomenon. Although I guess that has happened a lot less since the pandemic because we don’t really present in public anymore.
So I wanted to focus on a couple that we’re used to reading one way—a friend of mine actually said I took a cliché and made it feel alive. This older man/younger woman relationship that people generally have a lot of assumptions about. It seems cliché; it’s something you’ve seen in Hollywood a lot. We have a lot of inherited assumptions about what’s happening in this relationship. And I wanted to take this relationship and give it a full life, to really inhabit it empathetically and challenge our knee jerk response to what it must be like.
PS: Some characters in the book are named right away, while others have their names revealed only at key moments, which I won’t give away. It’s usually the less important characters who are easily named while the love interests are known by their occupations and the protagonist’s name remains a mystery for some time. What did naming or not naming a character signify for you within the world of this story?
AS: It was really important for me that the two main characters, the narrator and the choreographer, not be named throughout most of the book. They’re only known by their names for each other: Little Rabbit, the choreographer. Because it’s a story about how their private selves—their nicknamed selves—come up against their public selves, the people with their real names. The people who are named, like Annie, are being shown as they present to the world.
PS: The protagonist and her undergrad best friend and current roommate Annie are both attracted to women and proud of their queer identities. From Annie’s first pained response to the choreographer spending the night in their apartment, I wondered if she was in love with the protagonist, and my suspicion only grew as the book went on. But the protagonist herself never explicitly wonders this on the page. What’s going on there? Is there an attraction so deep and buried that neither of them can even voice the question, no matter how much pressure is put on their friendship? Or was it strictly platonic on both sides, and the protagonist had to outgrow it to claim something deeper?
AS: I definitely don’t think it’s only platonic. I mean, I think there are lots of female friendships, even between ostensibly straight women, that can end up being erotically tinged and very intense, especially when you’re really young. And these characters are supposed to have met when they were eighteen and still forming their identities. In my experience, in super intense friendships like that, you end up forming your identities with and against each other. It’s so entangled, it’s hard to name all the parts of your relationship. There’s something almost more threatening about the relationship between Annie and the narrator, in friendships like that, because you’re so focused on the way that you’re similar, it erases the ways that you’re different.
PS: For me, that part made it feel more like a coming of age story. The narrator had this post-college self and was dating around and living the Camberville life with her undergrad friends, and then she sort of outgrew it. That life is no longer big enough to contain her and there’s something more and deeper that she wants, that the choreographer can provide. But then Annie stopped growing up in parallel. Does that sound accurate?
AS: Yeah, definitely. It was really important to me that this narrator be in her early 30s. I know it might confuse people to be coming of age in your early 30s. But I do feel like there’s something about that time period where you have had some experiences as an adult and you think you’re one way, like you’ve made assumptions about how your life is going to be. And then when you hit your late 20s, early 30s, a lot of that just goes out the window. You have to completely start over again. You can’t keep being the person you were. Otherwise, you get stuck. And I think that’s a big part of what’s happening with Annie and the narrator.
PS: In the first pages of the book, the protagonist is captivated by the dancer Jackie:
“Watching her taught me something I would need years to learn how to say. We’re alone in a body, I thought. Our forms are hollow shells until our souls come to fill them. Then we bumbled, lost to each other, separate and apart.”
Towards the end of the book, she thinks about her relationship with the choreographer and how her “body blossomed into something built by the two of us.” Can you talk more about this idea of being alone in a body and the extent to which the protagonist’s evolving relationship with the choreographer either reinforces or breaks down her sense of aloneness in her body?
AS: 99% of the time we bumble around in the world caught in our own sense of self. We think of ourselves as being separate from everything, separate from—not to sound really woo, but like, the universe. I’m interested in moments that break that aloneness, where we feel merged with other people. Sex is one of those rare moments when you are taken out of yourself, where you get to break the barriers of, or the limits of, who you think you are. I feel like art is similar. When you’re really in the flow of making something, you’re taken out of the lonely sense of being a discrete being. I feel spirituality is another similar experience. I’m really interested in those moments of flow or union, how they help us live our lives. Figuring out how to write about those moments is an important project for me.
PS: It wasn’t like the protagonist had no prior sexual experiences. She had a variety of partners, male and female, but it seemed that the choreographer was breaking open something entirely new in her. How were you thinking more specifically about his character, as opening up possibilities for her in that sense of “aloneness in a body”?
AS: The thing about the sub/dom nature of the relationship is that she can willingly give up control over herself for a discrete period of time. To do that with someone that you trust really opens up a lot of possibilities for experience and pleasure that you might not have if you are 100% always in control, or if you are unable to let go of control. And I think it matters that he does a completely different form of art. He’s had a totally different life experience. Like I said, I don’t think he is the cause of the change in the narrator, but he’s definitely part of it. Embracing their relationship is going to influence her life in ways she doesn’t expect.
Another important part of the book for me is acknowledging the relationship between art and the material world. Like, you have to have money to live, to do stuff. Art takes time, and the way to get time is usually money. I think that’s something the narrator is struggling with. I think she’s a purist and it’s limited her, and he’s muddying the waters for her a bit.
PS: You know that question about her struggling to accept her own desires or work through what her own desires say about her? I feel like she’s on a path to accepting and owning it, discovering it, exploring it, and coming into an identity where she can tell some people about it and even start to see this as just part of her overall life and relationship. Then Annie pops out and pushes back, with what her own previous fears about herself would be. I think that’s why that particular line landed powerfully for me. I was thinking about the worries about what our own desires say about us, and learning to—whatever they might be—claim them as empowering. Do you have more thoughts on that?
AS: Yeah, 100%. What the narrator’s grappling with, what I wanted to bring to life, is this anxiety and worry about how our—consensual!—desires reflect on how we present ourselves in the world. In some cases, like abuse or hypocrisy, yeah, you should be anxious or concerned. But for the narrator—look, when we talk about kink in mainstream culture, sometimes we operate with ideas that are not quite accurate to the internal experience. I think that’s the case with the narrator. In her relationship with the choreographer, there are lots of ways in which she has more control than he does. It’s a consensual relationship. Everything that he’s doing is for her pleasure, including the domination. So really, he is serving her, you know, and really she is in charge, and she can end up controlling certain scenes. That’s a dynamic I wanted to make clear.
PS: I think she spends a lot of time worrying about how much power he has over her and how her body is responding, and following him all over the East Coast, and how maybe she followed Annie before in a similar way that I think that is interesting. But I want to think about the power she has over him. I really love the scene where they meet Jackie in the dance studio to try and show Jackie something about their relationship so Jackie can better exact the choreographer’s vision for the dance. There’s a great moment where the protagonist drops down in front of the mirror and we’re thinking about the self that she can see in the mirror, the self that she can see as her own flesh, and the bruises even she can’t see under her clothes, what’s hiding there. At the same time, she is kind of torturing him by making some of this public in his professional life. He started it that, of course, but how much of what they’re doing is giving her power over him and more power over her own life? And is it ultimately way more empowering for her than it is about losing power?
AS: In her case it’s definitely empowering. She has to have power in order to give it to him in the first place, and she’s only giving it to him under specific circumstances. There are clear boundaries. There were little things about their not-sex life where I wanted to be clear that he doesn’t have influence over her. Like, he’s a vegan but she’s still eating salami. He wants her to feel equal in their public lives. She can give up power to him in bed because she actually has it. If she didn’t, if she was actually in a disempowered position in the relationship, she wouldn’t be able to really submit to him in the pleasurable way that she does. The fact that it’s a choice and it’s a game actually gives her a lot of power.