Cyrus Grace Dunham on Turning the Body Into a Home
"A Year Without a Name" explores gender transition, queer desire, and our unreliable bodies
What does it mean to be “at home” in your body—or rather, what does it mean for the body to be a home? We often conflate these two things metaphorically, and our skin acts as boundary and border, just as much as it offers points of contact, touch, and intimacy with place and people. We aspire to have the containers we reside in offer us the same level of comfort as the domestic sphere, and yet, everyone inevitably confronts the fallibilities and betrayals of their own body and the bodies of others. And if the body is your home, then a name is your address: a way for others to locate you. In the memoir A Year Without a Name, Cyrus Grace Dunham charts their experience of inhabiting and dissociating from their body, reckoning with the ways queerness, gender, desire, home, and family inform and intersect around the corporeal.
When I spoke to Cyrus, Zoom kept failing and we had to start the call again several times. It felt fitting that that we could never quite pick up in the exact place where we left off—it wasn’t seamless, and this oscillating between starts and stops seemed to reflect just how few answers there are when it comes to identity, just how impermanent and nonlinear this thing called a body is.
Ayden LeRoux: I wanted to start by thinking about the geographies and landscapes that you move through in your book, because you are able to convey this real reverence and ache through people and places simultaneously. You’re going to India and New York and Los Angeles and the Bay Area and the desert in Southern California and you’re also moving through, and with, these relationships with Zoya, Antonia, Joshua, GD. How does place influence your sense of self and how does place shape who we are as lovers?
Cyrus Grace Dunham: I’ve always had this ache for another place, which can also often feel like an ache for another person. I think they have a similar effect—when you fall in love with someone new or find yourself someplace new, you get to feel different. You get to feel like a new version of yourself, you know?
AL: There was something subtle—even if you weren’t naming it explicitly—that was happening as I was reading that I could feel this rootedness in LA developing. I think a lot about that quote that’s in The Poetics of Space by Bachelard: Je suis l’espace ou je suis. I am the place where I am.
CGD: Our bodies mediate our ability to feel and be in a place. Dissociation can make it really hard to really feel the textures of a place. It took me a few years in Los Angeles to start to locate markers of time passing because there appear to be minimal seasonal changes. You have to be someplace a little while to start to understand how time works there. I wanted to nod to those markers of time in the book. Things like the guavas starting to fruit or when the bark falls off the eucalyptus trees.
AL: The sensorial or sensual self that you’re talking about connecting with place is so much about who you become as a lover to all these different people and the tactility of that.
CGD: Totally, and every different relationship has a different set of symbols. I appreciate you bringing this up because I love writing about people and love and sex and place. So much of conveying attachment is picking a few symbols because we can never communicate the entirety of a relationship to a place or a person. You get a smell, a color, a fruit, a sensation. We have to reduce things to the building blocks of sensation as a way of communicating the intensity of attachment.
AL: Definitely. It’s one of the things I reflected on in reading your book, and then again in Ocean Vuong’s new book and in T Fleischmann’s books. People always say, “The hardest thing to write about is love, or illness, or death,” but I think sex specifically is the hardest thing to write and not have it be totally corny. The three of you do that so tactfully. Maybe this is silly, but what are your tips on how to write about sex?
CGD: I love how both T Fleishmann and Ocean Vuong write about sex. It’s really hard to communicate the sensuality of sex without relying on cliché metaphors and symbols. I was so impressed by how Ocean Vuong seemed to rely on a totally uncharted symbolic realm in describing sex, in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. T Fleischmann has this way of saying things exactly as they are, letting things be the symbols of themselves. I believe there’s a line in their new book: Jackson’s sweat tasted like Jackson’s sweat. That may not be exactly it, but it’s something like that.
Sometimes I held myself back writing about sex because I was afraid of being corny. I would under-describe or under-give. It’s really hard to describe sex between trans and gender-nonconforming people because most of the language that we have to describe sex acts and genitals are gendering in a very violent way. What if someone has what the world would think of as a pussy, but it doesn’t feel like a pussy to them? I avoided describing people and their bodies and the specifics of sex because I wasn’t confident that I knew how to do so without relying on gendered descriptors.
AL: It’s interesting that you say that because so much of what was evocative was the way you allowed yourself to become gendered by certain acts in the book. It created the sense that you are accumulation of selves rather than a person erasing their past. Do you think names are a way of taming us? I was thinking about the scene when Joshua gives you the collar. Taming isn’t always bad. There is a sense of feeling safe or at home.
CGD: Joshua would often say this thing to me, like, “Being trapped is often the closest thing we know to feeling held.” That always resonated with me. I think about it all the time. But yes, I deeply agree that names tame us. All words as representative symbols tame that which they describe. We use specific words to communicate identity as if these are stable and obvious facts. And a name is connected to questions of loyalty because ultimately a name is something that’s given to us—it’s not something that we consent to—and we primarily accept it. Last names functions as vehicles of inheritance, a way of passing down power. Even in queer and trans spaces, the assumption is often that someone will find a name that suits them better than their given name and it will be their name forever. Names are supposed to have permanence, rather than being something more like an outfit or the weather or a mood. What does it say about how we relate to fact and stability and false notions of permanence that we expect people to keep names?
AL: Your book does this great work of not following that traditional arc of self-discovery of completion or arrival. And yet, a name is an arrival of sorts.
CGD: I’m in an odd moment because there was so much relief in coming to the name Cyrus, but now I’ve written a book that’s out in the world that has the name Cyrus on it. I have a lot of fear that I’ve given that name away. I have a lot of fear that I’m going to lose it.
AL: Your word choice of “losing” it is striking, as if it could fall out of your pocket or something.
CGD: Or it could be taken. It’s hard for me to look at the book and see the author name and not experience the commodification of the name. And it is a commodity now, but it’s also evidence of a process that I went through. What you said about taming is relevant. All of the stable language that we use to communicate ourselves, whether it’s a gender marker, a pronoun, a name, is a way of making ourselves consumable and palatable. A name means something so different when you hold it inside yourself, like a secret.
AL: I’m curious how you feel about this being pigeon-holed as a memoir about gender or a trans memoir. For me, part of why I was so moved is because I have a genetic predisposition for cancer, so the fragility of the body is very relatable. I feel there is all this rich potential for crossover between writing about sexuality and illness and disability and mortality, because of how they undo assumptions about bodies. All of our bodies betray us, as you say. How do you feel about being forced into genre categories?
CGD: Binary ideas of sex and gender are extremely violent and harm everyone. They harm people not only because they disidentify with the gender they were assigned at birth, but because anyone who has a body that strays from supposed biological norms is, in a way, failing at gender. Because of this, there’s so much crossover between thinking about transness and thinking about illness and disability, something that many people have written about much more eloquently than I can. All that’s to say, I don’t feel any scarcity around identification with gender nonconformity and gender deviance. It should be as accessible as possible.
I’m interested in any way of being embodied that undermines binary ideas of sex. I never want to impose gender non-conformity on other people, but I do think that genetic conditions, and of course intersex conditions in particular, do so much work to show us that binary sex is not real.
In terms of your specific question, I don’t necessarily see this as a trans memoir. It’s as much about the affective, embodied experiences of whiteness, elitism, alienation rooted in cultures of fame, recognition, and achievement. And, of course, the interconnectivity that pulses underneath all those forces, that transness allows me and so many of us to access. The book probably will be thought of as trans memoir. I don’t want to play naive around my using the genre as a Trojan Horse to address other questions I want to address.
AL: The people that I’ve been able to relate to most about my body—because I’m advised to have a mastectomy—are other people who feel that their body is fragile at a young age. That’s friends of mine who’re intersex, trans, GNC, and who deal with chronic illness or disability. I worry that I’m imposing my own projections into gender because I am a cis, white, queer woman. But I wish there were more bridges between those conversations about illness and gender and how they liberate us from assumptions made about what sex and gender performance looks like.
CGD: A disservice that the contemporary mainstream trans movement has done to larger movements around intersexuality, around gender nonconformity outside a binary sex logic, is perpetuating the notion that must feel “not at home in their body” in order to be trans. What does that even mean? To not feel at home in our bodies? Like, how can one feel at home in their body in a culture that’s built around rampant alienation and individualism? Most people don’t feel at home in their bodies, and yet the construction of I’m a woman, but I feel like a man is a remarkably simple and reductive one.
I know lots of people who don’t experience dysphoria but also don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. To me that’s a deeply legitimate position to take, a deeply legitimate feeling to have. What’s funny is that I’ve actually experienced quite cliché forms of dysphoria. But I don’t see those forms of dysphoria as being necessary for a trans experience. I hear you saying you’re cis and I find myself thinking I don’t even know what that means. If you feel like you will never be able to perform womanhood, in the way it’s expected of you, well… that sounds pretty not cis to me. But I’m not here to debunk your sense of self. [both laugh]
AL: But you’re totally right, there are many ways to not feel at home in one’s body. Going back to what we were talking about with lovers and geography and place—I don’t feel at home in my body in San Diego. Or there are people that I don’t feel at home with.
CGD: I think what we’re talking about is that there are many people whose experience of gender deviance can never be contained by, disciplined by, the construction of “being born in the wrong body.”
AL: Do you feel committed to nonfiction?
CGD: I love nonfiction. I don’t like the idea that nonfiction has an obvious relationship to truth or fact. I don’t like the idea that nonfiction is necessarily about the past or the present. Nonfiction can be speculative, just as much as it can be rooted in recollection. There are moments in A Year Without a Name where I’m describing the future. I’m describing a way of being embodied, of existing as someone who uses he pronouns, as someone who looks like a man, and it’s all a fantasy. I use language to catalyze a transformation in myself. I’m committed to a nonfiction that holds space for fantasy, speculation, and alternative ways of being.