T Fleischmann Explores the Murky Relationships That Make Us Who We Are

"Time Is the Thing the Body Moves Through" is a book-length meditation on the indefinable things that define us

Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation in which visual details of visitors are obscured by strings of beads
Felix Gonzalez-Torres art, photo by Marc Wathieu on Flickr

Almost everyone has had a relationship they can’t really define. But just because we can’t put words to them doesn’t mean these relationships are any less intense—in fact, our murkiest entanglements are often the most significant. And these murky relationships aren’t only between people. We can have intense, indefinable relationships with our own bodies, with history, or community, or art. It is in these relationships we learn most about ourselves.

In T Fleischmann’s book-length essay Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through we are pulled through time and place (Buffalo, rural Tennessee, Chicago) as if the book were one large, complex pattern of these kinds of relationships being at once woven and unwoven. Speaking on love, desire, loss, state violence, history, community, sex, and art (particularly the art of Cuban installation artist Felix Gonzalez Torres), Fleischmann’s essay is always on the move—even shifting formally between sections of prose and sections of verse. But throughout, Fleischmann remains an anchor, making space for the reader to stand in the footsteps of their experience. They are the balance point around which the entire mobile of the book is built.

Over the span of six weeks, I had the following conversation with Fleischmann over email.

John Elizabeth Stintzi: Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through starts rather appropriately in transit—on a bus from Buffalo to New York City—as you find yourself unable to read (and begin browsing cruising apps on your phone, watching yourself get closer and further from the people in the profiles as the bus approaches NYC). One of my favorite things about your book is how it seems to not exactly have a beginning, middle, or end—how it seems to always be beginning and ending and in-between. What drew you to this moment as the entry point for the book?

T Fleischmann: The book tries to inhabit a space of becoming, with parts of the narrative or structure being incomplete, disrupted, but also stubbornly recurring. One of the ways I try to hold it all together is by opening at that intersection, leaving Buffalo being the moment of leaving one romantic friendship, and with a new love about to begin on the other side of the trip. It positions the two halves of the book, those two relationships being the book’s main narratives and forms, and hopefully orients the reader a little bit within the timelines. The bus ride also contains a lot of reflections of things to come and of the past—thinking about my relation to gay men, the land, writing/reading. I’m trying to place myself in all of this at once, beginning and ending and ongoing, to position what goes forward but also to resist closure.

JES: The book absolutely feels centered around those two relationships (with Simon and then Jackson) which, due to the interwoven structure, seem to exist concurrently. One of the main interests of the book seems to be how things relate to one another (lovers, language/metaphors, bodies, friends, etc.). What if anything did you find about yourself and love by weaving the book around these two relationships?

TF: Whenever I talk about the book I struggle to find language to describe the relationship with Simon, which was like all of my relationships—sometimes a friendship, sometimes sexual, a fling and companionship and a fling again. I see myself as both an individual and a person who is held by communities and collectives, with romantic relationships not necessarily taking prominence over other forms of connection. As I write this response, I’m returning to Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project in preparation for a talk, and appreciating the way she thinks of language getting to the feeling underneath the thing, to Guibert’s ghost image that doesn’t exist. The feeling underneath each of these relationships, I think, has very little to do with the idea of a relationship. Resisting a narrative of love is a way I try to get to that feeling, so that love (freed of how I was taught to see it) can hopefully do its work.

JES: I’m curious as well about love as both a painful experience and as a place of potential becoming—particularly in the verse-section of the book that’s about Orpheus and Eurydice, which talks about empathizing with Orpheus’ inability to not look back (“It’s just a man deciding he would rather see his beloved than / any future the gods could promise”) and where you say “every time I fell in love with someone new, I would / be made new, too.” I wonder if you could talk a little about love as a place of turbulence and becoming in the book?

Falling in love is a place of turbulence and becoming, with no bottom (or many bottoms).

TF: Falling in love is a place of turbulence and becoming, with no bottom (or many bottoms), and I think it continues, not just the start of the relationship but the whole falling ride, and its afterlives, too. This is exciting but also terrifying. I had an obsession with making pairs in the book, reversals and mirrored reflections, with Cupid and Psyche serving as the pair to Orpheus and Eurydice, and I tell the story of Cupid imprisoning Psyche. It all gets very murky to me, a topic I return to later when I talk about BDSM and state violence. While that section of the book longs to think of love as a space where experiences of violence, trauma, abandonment might be left behind or written over, the layering of time means that it is also the space where loss might return, love a space where we are vulnerable to violence again, where its memories might rise up. I like the word you use, “turbulence,” which seems to be such a part of becoming. And I’d extend this, of course, to any kind of love—not just romantic or sexual. It changes us.

JES: I agree: turbulence feels inherent to becoming. I especially like the comparison in the word’s most banal usage, as bumpy air experienced on an airplane—something that feels harrowing but is almost never fatal (though for some, becoming is). I especially feel this as a non-binary person, wherein coming to own that identity was very turbulent (and frankly, importantly remains so). In reading your book, I feel at home in the way you talk about identity in terms that feel uncertain, contradictory, or mutable because for me identity (especially gender, but beyond that as well) doesn’t make sense in clean, well-defined terms. I personally identify with the turbulent, gnomic, questionable things about myself more than the myth of my identity fitting firmly into any box.

You talk a lot about metaphors in the book, saying that you’ve grown to dislike them “because one thing is never another thing, and it’s a lie to say something is anything but itself.” You go on to say that “not even apple and apple can be each other.” You also talk about how you don’t identify with “queer” anymore. Do you think you can speak a little to the way in which you think through your gender and sexuality in the book, and how you reject using terms like “queer” which might attempt to define you in favor of occupying a less rigid place (where you might be apple while of course not also apple)?

TF: I was never particularly drawn to narrative or stable versions of gender and sexuality, in large part because I so rarely found myself reflected in those stories, experiencing most often a kind of disidentification (I am not: straight, gay, man, woman) rather than the clarity of I am. When I was younger, this felt confusing, although now I’m more interested in celebrating the opening of it. The book does the same thing I did in life, wandering through different sexual subcultures and performing both disconnection and connection, belonging and longing. It refuses to give up my resonance in gay male subcultures in the same way it resists my exclusion from lesbian spaces, deflates my experience of BDSM, makes a party out of trans sociality. At its most hopeful, Time finds a revolutionary potential at the edges of this layering, although it comes back to a pretty simple project, of just trying to think through what I have experienced, and understand myself in relation to others. The way I have identified my gender or sexuality at different times has been a part of that, although for me, identification has obscured as much as it has revealed.

JES: Talking about process calls to mind the sections where you talk about making art with your friend Benjy in Tennessee. You write: “We make pictures because it’s fun and we want to, so we work at a very slow pace, punctuated by beer and cigarettes. These digressions, we decide early on, are the most important part of our process.” There seems to be something revolutionary and honest about the idea that digressions are “the most important part” of the process, and a good reminder to those of us (especially myself) who sometimes forget that living life and joyful non-sequitur are important to art-making. Your book feels so vibrant with life, do you ever struggle with balancing living your life and your work?

The tension that feels prominent to me is the tension between the work I want to do and the restrictions placed on me by capitalism.

TF: One thing that compels me toward autobiography is the uncomfortable blurring of life and work that occurs there. This is something that academic spaces had trained me to ignore, although writing the life should require as much attention to life as to writing. The tension that feels more prominent to me is the tension between the work I want to do and the restrictions placed on me by capitalism—finding time to write, finding time to read and take in art, creating the work I want even (or especially) when that work feels in conflict with the academy or other professional considerations. I hope to navigate this not by playing the game, but by returning to my values. Supporting the people in my communities, engaging in activist projects, providing care work, things like this exist outside of the considerations and mandates of professional cultures, but they are vital to, like you say, life. The challenge for me is finding ways to center these activities, and the way I try to do that is by remembering that these kinds of work, which may occur on the page or away from it, are at the heart of both my writing and my existence.

JES: For a book that feels so rooted in moments—and in our present world—I’m intrigued especially by your looking back at the historical (like the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres) and the mythical (like Orpheus and the search for “Thule”). Halfway through the book there’s a long section telling the story of a religious sect that was created by this American figure (shortly after the American Revolution) known as the “Publick Universal Friend,” who is a “gender-less holy entity” that a 24 year old was inhabited by after waking from a deadly fever. How did you come across this story? What made it feel so urgent to bring into the book?

TF: I first heard about Publick through Benjy Russell, the artistic collaborator and friend who appears in Time. It’s a weird story! Part of what drew me to it at first was simply how out of place Publick seemed to my understanding of history, yet how their story was also surprisingly and often eerily familiar to some aspects of my own life. As for their role in the book, they serve a few functions. I think of them like an ivory tower, an interruption in the text, and a way to think through the limitations of imagination as a white settler, with Publick’s own fancies and delusions inseparable from the violent realities of their life, as mine are. In this way, telling their story is a read on myself, as well as a way to refract some of the book’s themes—queer rurality, belief, sex, what it is to be public, to be a friend. Understanding myself in relation to history is a fraught project (the problems of trans histories). Looking at the Universal Friend is about thinking through the delusions of whiteness, and recognizing the ways these delusions can be embedded in my trans imagination, even as it gestures toward liberation.

JES: I totally feel that—it all seems to come back to turbulence! This book really feels like a radical love letter to lives we don’t often see written lovingly in literature—non-cis, non-monogamous, rural/not-exclusively urban, and non-straight lives. The way you root the thinking the work is doing in experience, in history (art, personal, or otherwise) makes the effects of this book so much more visceral than others I might think to compare it to. There is something to how tangible the world around you feels and exists in the book that—as someone who often feels like a ghost—really shook me. A final question might be: how can a book that seems to be so often centering love and curiosity and joy feel so rupturing?

TF: It’s very easy for me, also, to feel like a ghost at times, difficult to feel like I am present. It seems to me a reasonable response, as we watch the crises escalate and the extinction continue. But the book wants to be present, not metaphorically but physically, through embodiment and community. It wants to be present through the ruptures. And we need ruptures! We can even, at times, emerge from them joyfully, loving, curious. Ghosts are powerful, too, and they can guide us forward, but for now we’re here, in a world on the edge of collapse, and the book is stubbornly optimistic in believing that our lived, visceral experiences can help us commit to that necessary process of change.

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