Larissa Pham Will Reinvent Erotica
Talking sex, power, twins & Salter with the author of Fantasian
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I first met Larissa Pham at a reading at the Asian American Writers Workshop last spring. Her piece was lyrical and vulnerable, and she introduced herself to me (with some ambivalence) as a sex writer. Her novella, Fantasian, part of the New Lovers series from Badlands Unlimited, is a meditation on power and the self, in addition to being an erotic thriller. I interviewed Larissa about sex writing and power over e-mail and G-chat in early October. The author photo of Larissa that accompanies this piece is from an ongoing portrait series of mine.
Adalena Kavanagh: On twitter you wrote: “I maintain that you can’t talk about most things without talking, at some point, about desire.” Later you tweeted a photo of a pair of pants with a label that reads DOMINATE.
Your novella, Fantasian, is erotica, so yes, desire is a major theme but there are elements of dominance, as well. Why must we talk about desire? What role does a dominant/submissive paradigm play in your book and your work? (I hesitate to ask what place it has in your life, but if you feel comfortable talking about how the personal influences your art, feel free.)
Larissa Pham: I think we always have to talk about desire! I think desire informs so much of how we move through the world. I mean erotics here, because I’m always talking about erotics, but I also do mean desire in terms of want/need. I think being able to articulate wants and needs, and having access to the right kind of language for your wants and your needs is very important.
Now, in terms of the D/s paradigm — that’s an interesting question. Fantasian is an erotic novella, in the New Lovers series, so contractually there had to be sex in it. (6 chapters, 6 sex scenes.) And what is sex but just an ongoing conversation about power? All sex is about power and if anyone disagrees with me they’re lying to themselves. That’s hyperbole but I do believe it. I think D/s provides a really hyperarticulate framework for power in sex and I find that fascinating. It knows that power plays a role in sex (as power plays a role in most things) and it seeks to push it from subtext to surface level and even like, a meta kind of level, with the performativity of most D/s interactions.
So Fantasian is not only an erotic novella, but it is a book about power. At least, that’s what I was thinking about when I was writing it. The characters’ relationships to each other are shifting, which means their relative power dynamics are shifting, and what better way to convey that than with D/s?
I think the amount of referents within D/s, as a dynamic, are so rich that I often return to them in order to talk about other things. Like, I get to talk about class, or there’s this part where one of the characters gets fetishized by the other, and you get this really lush combination of heady erotics and then the power play beneath it. It’s really effective as a literary tool, as a way of accelerating character development and relationships.
AK: You reference Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage. Could you succinctly break that down for us?
LP: I have to admit that even though I quote Lacan, often directly, what I’m really positing is my own interpretation of his work. It’s through a scanner darkly, or whatever. But essentially Lacan posits that the I (which I take to mean the idea of a self as a discrete person) is formed when the child witnesses himself in the mirror. A mirror, when you recognize it, provides you with the image of…you! You have to reconcile yourself to how you look. Say, you look down and you see feet, you see your knees — when you’re in your body, you don’t really have a full sense of how you look. But if you wave your hands, if you kick your feet — those are gestures that are attached to a discrete body, and that’s you. They might have felt frantic or fragmented before. But now they’re enclosed in a shape, and the shape is your reflection.
So you’ve become visible. And when you become visible, you can’t go back. “Now that you know how you look…” That’s where you learn what desire is. What it means to be seen and interpreted. Because you have to deal with being a seen subject, in the way that you look around a room and you see all these other subjects. So the mirror, it’s a site of self-discovery. And it’s the beginning of the formation of a self. That’s my take on it, anyhow.
AK: In Fantasian, two Asian women meet and are struck by how similar they look. When I read your book I had to laugh at that because I am sure I am not alone in being mistaken for another Asian woman. (I had a boss who called me by the wrong name, even after he fired the other Asian woman). They share their first intimacies while looking at one another in a mirror. What does the mirror have to do with their identity and desire? Is their attraction narcissistic? Does that matter? Can you make a case for or against a narcissistic sexual attraction?
LP: The narrator and Dolores are drawn to each other because they look alike, yes. I wanted to tap into the attraction/repulsion you feel when you encounter something in another person that you recognize in yourself. Like, you might have a friend who has a trait you really dislike but it’s because you share that trait, and you have to deal with seeing it in someone else — it’s jarring; it can make you realize how ugly you are.
Of course, Dolores is in some ways the narrator’s mirror, and vice versa — they’re using each other and projecting insights because of needs that they have for themselves. I think people are very selfish and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The mirror itself, the thing on the wall, almost becomes irrelevant when the two are together. Even in the first scene, when they meet, Dolores makes the narrator turn toward her and away from the mirror — they use each other as a surface, as the place where they hope to be reflected. There is a power imbalance, however. It’s not a perfect reflection.
Is it narcissistic? Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. Don’t answer that question. I think — with those two, I don’t know if it’s narcissism so much as idealism. They each have something the other wants, which might just be the other.
AK: There is mutual attraction between these women, but there is also understanding between them based on their experiences as Asian women, in a way they do not experience with their respective lovers — the narrator and her white girlfriend, Dolores and her white boyfriend. How do these differences they have with their lovers affect their desire and how they are desired? How do their similarities to each other affect the sexual encounter that happens later? I also note that the sex the narrator has with women is different than with men. She is both softer and harder with women — “Because we’re both girls we know it’s okay to be rough, that we can take it…”, more romantic. With the man she later takes on as a lover she plays out a submissive role. Are these differences gendered or rooted in the narrator’s own psychology?
LP: In the scene where Dolores is putting makeup on the narrator, I’m trying to tap into these questions of yours. The two girls create a very secret, private space between them — a space that is entirely based on their mutual experiences. And Dolores even goes so far to say, “You and I aren’t that different,” and the narrator reacts to that, but Dolores doesn’t listen. It’s a tight little cage they’re in. But I think, Dolores and the narrator — they’re both seeking to be understood. Astrid, the white girlfriend, obviously doesn’t understand the narrator. And Alexei and Dolores get into fights, even though they love each other and are obsessed with each other. Because Dolores and the narrator both have this desire to be understood without explaining themselves, they come together, they’re drawn to each other, to this new kind of communication that allows each of them to speak directly to the other.
The narrator has a very different relationship to Dolores than she does to either of the twins, or even Astrid. With the twins, they’re just, you know, bodies. She doesn’t really know Dmitri, she doesn’t want to know him, he’s kind of just this hot thing she can rub up against and project on. With Astrid, she’s her girlfriend, that’s a little more conventional. But with Dolores — I’m not sure how much can be felt in the text, actually, but I never considered her and the narrator to be equals. Dolores bosses her around a lot. And the narrator is submissive in a similar way that she is to Dmitri, but whereas her sex with Dmitri is more performative, with Dolores, it’s the real deal. She’d do anything for her.
AK: If Lacan says that we first form our selves, the I, by recognizing ourselves in a mirror, how does that relate to the reality Asian Americans find themselves living in America? If we do not see ourselves reflected back to us, how do we form our selves? I feel like you were teasing out that idea a bit without getting too theoretical. How does this influence or inform these characters’ sexuality?
LP: That’s a reading I hadn’t anticipated! Thank you. I wasn’t really thinking about the state of Asian America when writing this book. I’m usually hesitant to comment on the experiences of groups of people, especially from an Asian perspective because the Asian experience in America isn’t a monolithic one.
But perhaps you may have noticed that there’s nothing identifiably Asian about Dolores or the narrator aside from how they’re described in terms of appearance. They don’t talk about their families or food or any of the other cultural cues that make up the social construction of race. Where Dolores gets her cues is from her surroundings, which are the hyper-privileged classmates she has at Yale. (Of course, she’s also choosing to belong to that particular culture.) So, perhaps, in an oblique way I’m addressing that conundrum — of having uncertain models for identity formation, so picking and choosing and trying to see what’s most advantageous, socially, is what Dolores and the twins have found works best.
This reminds me of that Junot Diaz quote, about thinking you’re a monster because you don’t have a reflection. Funnily enough, I always felt like a monster because I didn’t see my Asian American experience — which is most similar to Dolores’s — reflected anywhere. I wrote her partly to offer that.
AK: In addition to mirroring, and doppelgängers, we have twin brothers — which might be the most transgressive element of this book, because their boundaries are so porous, with each other, with the two women. Twins are spooky in that they seem like an optical illusion of doubles, but they’re real. Why twins?
LP: This is the part of the book I never know how to explain! The twins actually came first. At first, the book was just about Dolores and the brothers. I was intending to write a pulpy, gothic campus novel. Later, in another draft, I wanted to add a narrator, to explain Dolores’s fucked-up psychology, and then I got interested in the relationship between the narrator and Dolores. That’s where the mirroring comes from.
So why twins? I don’t really know. Like D/s, just invoking twins brings all these references, these slight wrongness-es. It’s very effective. But their characters are also foils to each other, and they’re intended to bring up the same questions that the relationship between the two Asian girls brings up: who are you, what are you, where did you come from? What makes you you, and what makes you different from any other person?
AK: In this book you’re talking about desire, and yes, you’re contractually obligated to write six sex scenes, but for lots of people, this is difficult to talk about. How did you get here as a writer?
LP: Hmmmm. I’m trying to remember where I got started sex writing. I usually don’t like to describe myself as a sex writer, but it is what I do, or it makes up a large part of what I do. I’m not really interested in what sex has to say about sex; I’m interested in what the sex we have says about other things, like our relationships to each other, or the things we hide from each other, or the narratives we craft around each other. I think questions of desire, intimacy, and relationships have always moved through my work. I wrote an essay for Adult Mag, right when it started, that I think cemented my ability to write things that were hot — things that were actually sexy and would get you off and be described as erotic. So I did that for a while. I wrote personal essays. I also kept writing about desire, and intimacy, and I took up that column, Cum Shots, which you’re familiar with. That was where I also learned to have a light touch, or a not-so-light touch, and how to play with narratives and pacing and structure.
I’m not really interested in what sex has to say about sex; I’m interested in what the sex we have says about other things, like our relationships…or the things we hide…
AK: I wouldn’t describe you as a sex writer, but why the hesitation to describe yourself that way?
LP: It’s all about avoiding being categorized, really. I guess it’s like when people hesitate to be called “women writers” — because historically, that has meant something. And I don’t really identify with “sex writing” as a genre, or at least, not most schools of it that exist… I’m not really an advice columnist (though I have been!) or a how-to expert (though I’ve done that too) and I don’t think I write the sort of thing that works, well in say, Playboy. Because there has been historically a genre of sex writing, and I don’t really see myself in that space. I’m more in the line of memoir, creative nonfiction, that kind of thing.
AK: Maybe you’re creating a new space.
LP: I hope so! There are a few writers who are doing what I’d like to do.
LP: Maggie Nelson is someone who comes to mind most prominently. She’s really good at pairing the dirty and the ecstatic with theory and art criticism.
AK: Yes! You center Fantasian on Lacan’s mirror theory, and power. But like desire, power is a touchy subject, especially when it comes to sex and or romance. Do you consider your writing feminist?
LP: That’s such a hard question! I don’t even know if I consider myself a feminist.
(But that’s because I have problems with like, the word and the way the movement is constructed, lol) I think… I write with a sense of agency. I think I take ownership over my actions and that my narrators are people who have agency. When I write about my own life, I think I do it in a way that’s not exploitative of myself or people around me. So… do I enjoy writing about and depicting rough sex, or being submissive, or you know, tweet about wanting to get beat up? Yes, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s exploitative. I hate the word empowered, but… I suppose you could say I am empowering myself in my work. Even when I’m copping to flaws.
Do I enjoy writing about and depicting rough sex, or being submissive, or you know, tweet about wanting to get beat up? Yes, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s exploitative.
AK: I think this is why power is so interesting but also so difficult to live with and talk about. If someone were to critique the submissiveness of your character, what gives her agency? (I am not critiquing, I’m genuinely curious how one reconciles the goal of gender equality with desiring a submissive sexual experience.)
LP: If the character had been sexually dominant, would that be considered feminist? I feel like it’d be silly to say yes, women dominatrixes are feminist! They’re no more or less feminist than other kinds of people who have sex. I think the narrator is a really porous, impressionable character, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s submissive sexually and also, sometimes, emotionally/literally, in the text. But she also holds her own, sometimes. When, I think Dmitri asks her — who owns you? She doesn’t respond. Because she doesn’t play to that performative part of the sex he wants to have with her.
AK: Ah, I think that’s the key. She decides what she responds to and how she responds to it.
LP: Yeah. I think, in sex, and sex that incorporates power — one needs to remember that there are layers of performativity across the whole thing.
AK: It’s difficult to acknowledge the performativity of sex if you can’t talk about desire. Going back to an earlier comment, you say your writing is not exploitative. What would make sex writing exploitative? How do you avoid writing gratuitous sex scenes?
LP: Hmm. On a really basic level, I think of my creative nonfiction (and reporting!) and how I try my best to honor other people’s identities and narratives when I’m writing. Someone once told me that they appreciated my work because of how genuinely fond I seemed to be of the people I wrote about and how generous that seemed. I want to preserve that. I think mean-spirited writing — you know, making fun of someone for their lack of sexual prowess or whatever — is very exploitative.
As for gratuitous sex scenes — when I was writing Fantasian I thought a lot about, what is this doing for the plot? What in the relationship is changing and, down to the gesture, to the dialogue, to the setting — what can I convey with this scene? Ideally, you can convey enough meaning that your sex scene is totally necessary.
AK: What are your favorite books or movies that center on sex? Have you read The Lover? Seen the movie?
LP: Is that Marguerite Duras? I haven’t!
LP: Also I just have to cite A Sport and a Pastime real quick. I’m obsessed with it.
LP: It does everything I try to do in such a beautiful and fluid way. It’s a huge influence. The unnamed narrator — I stole that from Salter. But the sex itself — not only is it unconventionally and honestly, incredibly accurately described, but it pricks at the emotional senses, it has depth, it changes. The timbre of the sex scenes in that book allow you to witness the changing relationship between the characters.
AK: I recently wanted to watch romantic/sexual movies with Asian characters and I browsed through various streaming services and came up with very little. It was frustrating, which is partly why I made the connection between Lacan’s mirror theory and the creation of the self, and the frustration Asian Americans might have by not seeing their stories or selves reflected. I love that Dolores is Asian but you don’t write her using the markers that white audiences might expect when encountering Asian characters. Just to clarify my earlier question about the mirror stage theory and representation in media.
LP: Oh gotcha! Yeah I’m so tired of representations of Asian Americans in literature.
LP: We aren’t all tight with our grandmas and talk about food! (Even though I am both of these things!) It’s like — how do you represent an experience without using those markers? Obviously you don’t have to, but then you get accused of like, whiteness, which is silly because really it’s a class thing, or a regional thing that people are reacting to. That seems like a bit of a mess but do you know what I mean? I’ve received criticisms of, like… my characters seeming white but really they’re from the West Coast, or they went to Yale, etcetera, et cetera. There’s this idea that you have to tell that story of despair and pain and immigration.
AK: People forget that not all immigrants or children of immigrants are poor. I had the opposite problem growing up. Because my father is white lots of people didn’t realize I came from a working class background. It’s important to represent class in literature because that’s how lines are often drawn in society. It makes and breaks you!
LP: Yes! All of the characters in Fantasian are obsessed with class.
AK: Sometimes it seems easier to talk about race than it is to talk about class. Or maybe race is more visible so it’s easier to pretend class doesn’t exist.
LP: Yeah. Like on the one hand, it was important to me that Dolores is Asian and she’s in this relationship with Alexei, because I wanted to represent an interracial relationship that wasn’t like, weird and Orientalist. But I also wanted to write across that class line, I wanted to complicate their relationship. Race is definitely visible and affects you in a different way, but of course they intersect. That’s also why it was so important to me that Dolores is a bit well-off, a bit privileged and less aware of it. The conflict she and Alexei have is so emblematic of conversations I’ve had with white guys, men I’ve really cared about, but have had to navigate this difference of experience with.
AK: Money is another way to represent power, of course. I appreciated that you wrote an interracial relationship that wasn’t Orientalist. And then you have an incendiary relationship between two Asian women, which is no less complicated.
LP: Yes! Both of those things matter so much to me.
So, a bit of backstory: Fantasian originally started out as a conventional novel, a love triangle between proto-Dolores and the twins. In the character of Dolores, I wanted to explore casual sex and college relationships and the emotions that come with it. I wanted to represent in her, an Asian woman, the kinds of experiences I’d had but had no model for when I was in school.
I wanted her to be sensitive and pretty and like, maybe not very smart about everything but doing her best — I wanted her to be able to be flawed. So that approach to the character, and to the characters, stayed as the manuscript changed. Of course now Dolores is a bit more messed up, but that impulse — to be true to these real things, to depict these things that _do_ happen but aren’t really written about in satisfying ways — that stayed.
AK: Did she change as the novel became less conventional?
LP: Yeah, she’s become a much darker character. The novella’s a lot more psychological now. Which, personally, I love. I’m glad it’s this tight, dense thing.
AK: Dare we say she’s…somewhat “unlikable”? (Not a real question — I’m making fun of the literary world’s talking points) It’s very psychological. You’re left with a puzzle in the end, and no real answers. I mean, the narrator makes her choices, but they seem to satisfy Dolores. (This is vague, but readers — you have to read the book!)
LP: I wonder, is Dolores unlikable?
AK: Not until the end, I think.
LP: I have such a fondness for her as a character because I’ve been living with her for so long. Did you feel sorry for Dolores at the end? Some people told me they did.
AK: I didn’t find her unlikable. Maybe more unknowable. But how much do we really know someone?
LP: YESSSSS. THAT’S WHAT I WANT YOU TO ASK.
AK: You can’t. You have to live with that uncertainty until it’s impossible to do so. You make a choice. But if people were easily knowable it would be much easier to write novels. Maybe even a bit boring.
LP: Definitely. I’m still not convinced I know what a novel is, though. (Or that the self exists.)
AK: My reasons for writing are rooted in trying to understand human psychology and studying people. But I would never claim to “get it”. I’m making educated guesses based on action.
LP: Yeah. It’s interesting to hear you say that because the impetus behind my writing comes from a different place. I’m really interested in trying to represent a feeling, or impart a feeling. Something really particular, which can be universal in its reception.
AK: I can see that. What do you hope to work on next?
LP: I’m working on a book proposal right now, although it’s in very early stages. It’d be nonfiction, auto-theory… like Intimacies, my current Tinyletter, or Cum Shots, but longform. I’ve been exploring that form for a while now, and I want to try doing something longer and more sustained in it.
AK: What do you mean by auto-theory?
LP: It’s such a trendy word but… theory that comes from the site of the self Chris Kraus / Maggie Nelson / Sontagian / Barthesian type stuff. Like, using the personal to theorize on relationships, intimacy, that sort of thing.
AK: Is it centered on a theme or experience?
LP: I think my work right now is centered on themes of intimacy and relationships, particularly sexual ones, so probably that, plus memoir — that seems to be the best description of what’s going on in my work and what I want to draw out. Using a small thing to illuminate big things, or using the personal to illuminate something that might mean something to other people.