The Skeptical Narrator
Morgan Thomas peels back the layers of identity, subjectivity, and desire in their debut book, Manywhere
MCD x FSG Books published Morgan Thomas' first story collection, Manywhere, in January 2022. It's a fictionalized, semiautobiographical recounting of the lives of nine people in the American South. Through first person storytelling, their writing breathes life into tales about belonging, the cost of authenticity, and the universal search for identities that resonate. Thomas sat down with Desert Companion for the second episode of the Black Mountain Conversations podcast to discuss the book and their other work. The following excerpt is edited for length and clarity.
Your stories feel so lush — both figuratively and literally, as they take place in oftentimes verdant, watery areas. How are you doing in the desert?
Oh, it's been a real gift to be able to spend time in Las Vegas and the surrounding landscape. I have never lived in the desert before. I've only lived in landscapes that are characterized sometimes by having too much water, in Northwest Florida and also in the Pacific Northwest. It's interesting to be in a landscape that I think is sometimes also characterized by a sort of non-normative relationship to rainfall. But in this case, so often, people will say that the desert has too little water, and I saw an interesting quote in the visitor center at Death Valley that I will paraphrase: The desert doesn't lack water; it has exactly as much water as it needs to be the desert that it is, and it's only when you try to build a city in the desert that it can feel like a lack.
When people have seen me reading Manywhere, and asked me about it, I’ve found that I'm struggling to describe it, especially in terms of genre, because it sort of defies categorization. This is partly because it transcends genre — or maybe mashes up various types of fiction and nonfiction. I thought that this must be a deliberate choice, given the relationship between genre and gender, and the book’s extraordinary treatment of gender. Am I onto something there?
I have two thoughts. One is that I know much of the work that I am most interested in, in this moment, when it comes to fiction writing, is work by folks like Aisha Sabatini Sloane and Lars Horn and other writers, who I think are reconsidering genre, specifically in a way that is allowing them to tell stories about our relationship to ecologies and our relationship to each other, and queer and trans stories in different ways. And I've thought that a part of that queer approach to storytelling is also potentially a queering of genre in some of their work. So, it's interesting that you mentioned this in the context of Manywhere.
When I think about the story collection and genre, what I know is that it's heavily researched. So, there are certainly aspects of history and contemporary life that are true that I researched. And also, it does feel important to me to understand it as fiction, I think for a few reasons. One is that I think it's through fiction that I'm able to offer the sort of layering effect that I hope to offer when it comes to the characters and narrators in this collection. …
Yeah, the stories do feel so real, because they often have a basis in reality. Yet they’re clearly fiction at the same time.
Yeah, and I think the other piece of that is the ethical questions around like, what does it mean to write about historical characters and historical figures? The story that focuses on Philippa Cook is based on a real story, someone named Thomas or Thomasina Hall, who was brought before the Quarter Court of Jamestown (Virginia), who was an indentured servant at the time, who was charged with having sex with a woman, which was illegal for an indentured servant., and sort of brought gender directly into their testimony before the Quarter Court of colonial Jamestown. When I thought about their story, I deliberately made choices like choosing a different name, changing aspects of the testimony, and other deliberate changes to distance it from that lived person. Because I understood the ways that the character on the page, and also myself as a writer, wanted to distort that story, and wanted certain things from it. And I wanted to make sure that I was also diligent about the ethics of writing about that person and their life.
Yeah, without historical consent, I guess you might say.
At Black Mountain Institute, in September, you did a reading and book signing. Before reading a piece about natural gender fluidity in the animal world, you noted that this has been a very difficult year for trans people in the U.S. And then you read a deeply researched, thoughtful, and funny story that I read as a scathing takedown of bigoted thinking. Was that your intention?
One of the pieces that I read there was an essay called, “An Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera.” My intention in that piece was to wrestle with my own complicated relationship with scientific approaches to animal behavior, as that comes up adjacently to questions of gender and sexuality. Something I think a lot about is the stories that we tell about nonhuman animals and the ways they are interacting with other members of their species. And … I think our understanding of one impacts our understanding of the other. So, for instance, I was watching a clip on BBC’s Our Planet, I think, recently, and they were talking about these cuttlefish. There was a smaller male, quote-unquote, cuttlefish that changed their appearance to appear like a quote-unquote female cuttlefish. And as the documentary was describing this behavior, they were talking about trickery, like this male pretending to be a female. And (there was) all this rhetoric that kept reminding me of the rhetoric that we hear sometimes about trans people in the U.S. So, when I read that essay, I was thinking about, yes, trying to push back against that rhetoric and also about the reality that, for me, growing up, some of my earliest understandings of what it meant to be queer came not from discussions of human queerness, but from discussions about animals that my parents and other authority figures would talk about.
Manywere has nine stories, each one about a main character in the American South. Some, as we’ve discussed, are based on real characters, anchoring your fiction in history. Is this a way of retelling history, or maybe inviting the reader to reimagine the history that they've been taught but might actually be otherwise?
Yeah. So, I began writing Manywhere when I was first trying to understand my own genderqueer identity, and my own queerness, and I was living in the South. And I was mostly not finding around me communities of queer and genderqueer people. And I was really seeking role models — especially, I think, role models of folks who have lived a full life as a queer or genderqueer person, and not finding that around me. I started to look for it in the archives online and in physical archives and found these stories in history. So, I think for me, the project began as a search for self-affirmation from these historical figures, and it was only after I had started writing and had a few drafts that enough time passed, and I began to think about that project with a certain level of skepticism. And I think that skepticism is also — I hope — layered into the stories. I think it's a wildly complicated act, to attempt to affirm 21st-century gender identity or self-understanding by relying on a person who lived prior to modern queer discourse.
I don't know if this was your intention, but it made me wonder what it would be like to go back and reread all of history through this lens, or maybe to question all the truths that we've been taught about gender throughout history that we take for granted.
Yeah, and I think it felt really like a process of discovery. And one of the things that continues to feel really hopeful for me is that it's clear that our understandings of gender and sexuality have changed over time, and that the language that we use now is not the language that we use historically. And I think that, to me, suggests potential possibilities in the future, which I find exciting.
All the stories in the collection are told in the first person, right?
Yeah, there's one exception, but the historical stories are all first person to some extent.
How does point of view help you to tell the stories in the way that you wanted to tell them?
That's such an interesting question. I think a lot of the point of view decisions that I made felt, in part, like ethical decisions. For instance, about the direct address in the first story (“Taylor Johnson’s Lightning Man”): I chose that mostly because I couldn't decide which pronouns to use for Frank Woodhull. And so, I needed a pronoun that wouldn't suggest anything about Woodhull’s gender identity or the pronouns that Woodhull would have wanted to use if Woodhull existed in the 21st century. So, the “you” became a sort of useful stand-in there.
Additionally, the first person comes about, in part, because I'm interested in centering our gaze as readers on the gaze of these narrators. So, in many of these stories, especially the historical ones, there is a character, and then there is a narrator, who is sort of looking at that character, thinking about them, potentially wanting something from them. And then, I hope, there is the reader and the author, potentially, as well, looking at the narrator who's looking at the character. And I find that telescoping to be really useful, and I hope one of the things that it does is make the question less about what the truth is of a specific identity, or even a specific experience and more about, again, storytelling, how the stories we tell shape us, and the ethical questions within them. And how all of that is sort of further complicated when we're thinking across centuries of history.
I noticed also your characters often get into some type of trouble. It's trouble that could be argued is both of their own making and the result of a rigid world not allowing them to fully live their true natures. For instance, Philippa Cook (in “The Daring Life of Philippa Cook the Rogue”), in 17th-century Virginia, would have been called an intersex indentured person, maybe? They run away to New York escaping both their conviction and indentured servitude, which is completely understandable. But then Shoo, the 21st-century character who's obsessed with Philippa, acts out irrationally in the pursuit of their story. So, you have a juxtaposition of external intolerance and internal bad judgment.
Yeah. Some historians describe Thomasina Hall, who was, in part, the inspiration for that story, as intersex. Again, I think it's a label that feels difficult to impose historically, especially across so much time and with so little knowledge about that person, and what labels might have felt affirming or useful to Thomasina Hall. But yes, I was interested in that story in exploring desires that are at least seen as irrational. The narrator breaks off an actual human connection with another person in the contemporary world, a person who is real and embodied and right there, in order to pursue this romance, almost, of historical affiliation. And one that is, I think, from the setup, unlikely to offer them what they want. …
I think what you said is true, that our choices can be so circumscribed by the places and the societies in which we find ourselves. And I think all these narrators are coming up against the edges of that, and attempting to move towards desire anyway.
BMI’s fellowship does involve a community project. So, tell me about the one that you're doing here in Las Vegas.
Yeah, it's been so much fun. I am meeting with about 10 people, 10 writers here, who are interested in thinking about queer and trans identity as it relates to storytelling, and specifically as it relates to storytelling about ecology, about our relationships with each other, and our relationships with this landscape locally, and also with landscapes more broadly. We've met twice, and we'll have two more meetings, and we're reading different published work by Tommy Pico, and Sabrina Imbler, and Zeyn Joukhadar. And we’ll be workshopping each other's work. Thus far, it's just been such a joy to be in a writing space that feels queer and genderqueer and where everyone is thinking so brilliantly about what it means to center relationality in our written work.
I want to come back to the desert ,where we started. It does figure into some of your forthcoming work if I'm not mistaken?
Yeah, so, I'm currently at work on a novel, and it's very much in progress, which means that everything is still fluid and uncertain, but the overall storyline is that two siblings have to leave their Florida home due to both political and climactic changes, and ended up moving West, potentially to the desert of Northern or Western Nevada. Again, everything is fluid. But I have been excited to be here and be experiencing this landscape and climate. I know that that is working its way into the text already, and I'm thinking of it as a sort of genderqueer response to the Grapes of Wrath, which is a book that I have, I think, a complicated relationship with. So, I'm interested in sort of writing a different story that thinks about what white migration and gentrification and colonization look like in an ecologically queer 21st century.
How does the move from those lush Southern landscapes to an arid landscape figure into that exploration?
I was initially interested in it because I thought it would be contrast. But increasingly, as I exist here, what I'm seeing are more and more and more similarities. So, I already mentioned that both of the landscapes to me feel both defined, often, by people who live outside of them, and sometimes within them, by a non-normative relationship with the amount of water or the rainfall; both of them feel shaped by water in very different ways, but still in significant ways. Something that I hear a lot about the sort of marshlands of my home is that it's non-productive (I'm putting quote marks around this) ecosystem, right? Like, it's not great for farmland, it's not so easy to build skyscrapers on. So, it's out of step with these capitalist priorities around like what land is, quote-unquote, supposed to be for. And that can sometimes mean that it's left alone, and can sometimes mean that it's more heavily exploited. I think both things happen. This also feels like something the desert comes up against, the sense that it's out of step with capitalist priorities, and that can leave it vulnerable to exploitation. And so, I think all of these similarities are intriguing to me and sort of weighing on me as a as I write into this novel.