The Urgency of Shame

A conversation with writer Garth Greenwell

by Jacob Alabab-Moser & Evan Lincoln

Illustration by Alex Westfall

published May 1, 2020

Near the beginning of Garth Greenwell's first novel What Belongs To You, the narrator checks into a seedy hotel on the Bulgarian seaside with his travel companion, a charismatic hustler. Rather than allow any semblance of a vacation, the decrepit resort town backdrops the breakdown of the two men’s drainingly transactional relationship. “[A]s I watched the motion of the sea I recuse myself, thinking bitterly oh, what have I done,” the narrator laments. Thereafter, the work bears witness to his estrangement as both a foreigner adjusting to life in a new country and a gay man grappling with childhood traumas and adult tragedies.

In Cleanness, Greenwell’s newest release, the air is noticeably more buoyant. While the narrator takes a similar romantic excursion into the Bulgarian mountains, this time the vacation is bona fide. The Soviet-era lodgings are still shabby, the internal monologues are still thick and brooding, as his relationship with a boyfriend faces uncertainty. But amid the rolling hills, he is deeply in love—and it’s finally reciprocated. Now, Greenwell seems interested in what’s seemingly a feat in queer romantic life: a relationship in equilibrium.

From his home in Iowa City, where he currently teaches a seminar at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop on Queer Aesthetics, Garth graciously spoke to the College Hill Independent about Cleanness, queer literary tradition, and some future projects. 



The Indy: What are the themes at the core of Cleanness? 

Greenwell: Cleanness explores three or four years in the life of an American teacher living and working in Sofia, Bulgaria. I think about the book really being about intimacy of various kinds. A lot of the discussion of the book has centered on sexual intimacy, but there’s also the intimacy of student/teacher relationships, the intimacy of friendship, and also the weird intimacy of citizenship—what it means to belong to a particular place and the intimacy that creates. 

The Indy: Your narrator is an English teacher in Bulgaria, and he’s also learning to speak Bulgarian and adapt to the culture. Outside of fiction, you also write criticism about books in translation. I was wondering what interests you about issues of translation, language, and communication across cultures? Also, how many languages do you speak? 

Greenwell: I studied a lot of languages, in part because I love studying languages, and in part because in college I was studying opera, so studying the major European languages was a part of the curriculum. I speak Bulgarian, French, and Spanish. Spanish is the language of the household—my partner is Spanish. Those are also the languages I read in, and I can also read in Portuguese, though I don’t speak it anymore. I also study German and used to speak it fairly well, but now don’t speak German at all. 

I love learning languages in part, because I love this weird space of consciousness that is created when you’re living in a language that you don’t speak perfectly—that constant transactional space between language opens up an interesting mental space for me … I’m interested, as someone who is (as my narrator is) very invested in a certain mastery of language, or a certain elegance or eloquence of expression … It also seems to me that the kinds of misunderstandings and misprisions that can happen, that do happen, that are built into that space of having to communicate in a language that you speak imperfectly..make visible the endemic difficulties of communication. It’s really hard to understand what we mean, and working in a foreign language just makes that more visible and easier to think about. 

The Indy: More specifically, your narrator is a gay foreigner living in Bulgaria. How does one build a home in alienation, or what does it mean to build a home as a foreigner or a queer person? 

Greenwell: That’s a profound question, and I think that’s the kind of question that makes me want to write or make art—the kind of question I don’t feel like I have the tools to address in argument or logic or reason but I kind of need the weird pressure of art to think about. 

Home has always been an incredibly vexed question for me: the possibility of home, the availability of home. There’s a way in which, and I think it’s true for my narrator and becomes evident in the structure of my first book What Belongs to You, that the alienation the narrator feels is a kind of home for him. The alienation that the narrator feels in Bulgaria is very resonant with the memory of the alienation he felt in the places that supposedly were his home in Kentucky. 

The question of home comes up in Cleanness a couple of times. When it’s clear that he’s returning to the United States, one of his students asks the narrator “Are you excited to be going home?” and the narrator recoils from that and feels like returning home is not what he’s doing, and maybe not an option for him. One of the few times he uses “home” affirmatively he is referring to shame, to a feeling of shame, that affect, like a kind of home for him. 

The Indy: I’ve heard you speak about the impact of queer shame in your work. In your book, the narrator goes on a trip to Venice with his boyfriend. During that story, he briefly makes reference to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. When you write, how do you see your self engaging with other works of queer literature or a canon, if there is one?

Greenwell: Canon is an interesting word, and I’m kind of anti-canon in the sense of canons as being something backed by institutions. I think canonization is a function of various kinds of structure of powers. I’m never interested in canons, but I'm really interested in conversations, and I’m really interested in traditions. A tradition is different from a canon, for me. Etymologically tradition means “handing down,” and I do think of a tradition as something that’s transmitted in a more interior, personal, less institutional way. I think of a tradition as being a conversation among artists across time. 

A desire to be part of the conversation of queer literature is really central to my motivation for writing. Giovanni’s Room, Death in Venice, Mrs. Dalloway—these are books that are constantly in my head … I’m also aware of the way in which my books are asking similar or the same questions that Giovanni's Room is asking, and yet, I'm also conscious of the ways in which those questions are differently valenced or the answers to those questions are different.

Around the issue of queer shame, David’s experience of queer shame in Giovanni’s Room is bound up with a desire not to be queer and is bound up with a great deal of anxiety about understanding why he’s queer and figuring out whether he might be able to change that. That kind of shame is completely absent from my narrator: never does my narrator want to be straight, never does my narrator really identify shame with the fact of his queerness. 

There’s a way in which that psychological space, or that space of subjectivity is something that interests me. This queer subjectivity that feels newly available—where if someone has rejected the homophobic lessons they were taught and can recognize that queerness is a source of joy, of pleasure, of sociality, of love, of art-making and yet still recognize the ways they are shaped by lessons that they’ve rejected. That kind of space—a space that is not bound by shame but is not free from shame—and acknowledging that space and trying to explore the complexity of that space is something that feels urgent to me. It feels deeply wrong to me, that pressure that is sometimes put on queer people to deny shame. When a rhetoric of pride becomes coercive, I think it becomes very dangerous. 

I’m interested in looking at emotions that are often understood as purely negative—things like shame, or rage, or abjection, or even the desire not to be, which is a desire the characters in Cleanness express. I'm interested in looking at these negative emotions and seeing how, in fact, they can be made productive of values, of sociality, of joy, of pleasure, of art, of things that I care about and feel grateful for. 

The Indy: Younger gay men are entering a culture today with the technological advancements of online dating apps and PrEP that alter gay life. Do you think anything has been lost? 

Greenwell: I do. But it’s also interesting to me—there are obviously new possibilities for queer sexual life that didn’t exist when I was a kid growing up in Kentucky. I’m also very struck by continuity. When I think about my college students, they are absolutely cruising. The [gym] here at the University of Iowa is one of the cruisiest places I’ve ever been. My young gay male friends who sometimes react strongly against the idea of cruising in public bathrooms or cruising in a park, almost all of them are cruising in the locker rooms of the gyms they go to … What upsets them, I worry, and I worry about this a lot in contemporary gay culture, is class—the difference between cruising in their gym locker room and cruising in a public bathroom in Bulgaria is that everyone in their locker room is paying $100 a month to be there. It seems to me that cruising, as everything else in American life, has been gentrified. 

[With] Grindr—and there are very positive things about Grindr that I have talked about at length elsewhere … you are only seeing people on your block, and that means you’re likely seeing a radically more homogenous group of people than you would see if you went to one of the 7th Avenue video stores or if you went to the bathroom at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia. 

That is a real loss, and it does seem to me that queer cruising embodies what seems to be the radical potential of queerness as a bond that cuts across the usual lines of demarcation in American life. That certainly was the force of cruising for me when I was a 14-year-old in Kentucky—I encountered in the cruising parts of Kentucky kinds of people that everything in my life was organized to keep me away from. 

The other thing I think is lost when one is on dating apps as opposed to in physical space is that I think dating apps lull us into believing that we know much more about our desire than we know. The whole idea of filters on dating apps is abhorrent to me, because—one—I think it works for the homogenization and gentrification of queer desire, but also because it … reduces what I think is the radical potential of desire, which is its potential to surprise us. 

The Indy: More books like yours are entering the mainstream that center the queer experience and reveal parts of queer sexuality that might be provocative.  How do you envision their impact on society?  

Greenwell: The real answer is that I don’t … I don’t think about the public life of a book. The great solace of writing to me is privacy, its inward facing-ness. Everything outward about the life of a book or the life of a public writer in the world is just radically separate from that. 

Speaking about the particular moment in queer literature right now, I hope that it is becoming ever the more difficult to tell young writers that if they center their books on queer life that they will not find a readership. I hope in the age of Carmen Machado, Akwaeke Emezi, and Alexander Chee that it is becoming more difficult to tell young writers that lie. I do think that was always a lie—books about queer experiences found large audiences long before the 2010s. 

Another thing I’ll say is that it is my central belief as a writer that good books, good art come out of a sense of necessity … The lie I tell myself as an artist—and I think it’s important that I recognize this as a lie—is if I make the work I need to make,  if I make it as fierce and as gorgeous and as committed to its own integrity as I can, that I don’t need to go to the world, the world will come to me. And that’s of course a lie. We all know there are structural forces that determine what art by whom gets seen by whom. It’s also the case that the most powerful force in what happens to a book when it enters the world is chance. It’s important we recognize that, but I also think that any artist coming from a minority community has to tell themselves that lie. Because the opposite [is] to try to reach out to them, to try to package the value of our stories in a way that would make that value immediately legible to a majority that’s deaf. It’s very hard for me to imagine genuine art coming from that kind of engineering. 

The Indy: When you’re not reading literature or listening to classical music, what other forms of art do you look to for inspiration? Is there a recent release that’s piqued your interest?

Greenwell:I take in a lot of art all the time ... My first education in art was singing. The human voice is still really central to how I think about writing so many classical singers are central to that but also many non-classical singers as well. When I’m working on my writing, I never think about another writer’s sentences or inspirations—I never reach for another writer’s style—but I will reach for singers. That might be Jeffye Norman singing a phrase of the “Liebestod” from [Wagner’s opera] Tristan und Isolde, Björk singing a phrase from “Black Lake,” ANOHNI, or the young South African singer Nakhane, who really inspires me at the moment. 

I also watch a lot of films. One of the ways my partner and I have been weathering lockdown in Iowa is going through the Criterion [Ingmar] Bergman box set, DVD by DVD. It’s been decades since I’ve watched his films in any serious way and I’m finding that really revelatory. 

 I have a strong response to [visual art]. There’s a young artist whose work I find genius: the photographer Mark McKnight. One of his images is actually on the UK edition of Cleanness. I am planning to write a long piece about the way in which his work engages with the queer body and especially queer bodies that are often excluded from queer canons of beauty—larger bodies, nonwhite bodies, older bodies. The way that his work articulates a very complicated, difficult—but to my mind, ravishing—beauty is something I find endlessly inspiring. 

The Indy: While you’ve found considerable success as a writer and a critic, you had a roundabout way of getting to where you are today. You went from classical music, to academia, to teaching English abroad—lots of “fits and starts,” as you said yourself. What or who has motivated you along the way?

Greenwell: I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the first person who sped me on a path towards art—the choir director at my public high school. In freshman year—shortly after I failed the first semester of freshman English and right after my father had kicked me out of the house—I was a terrifyingly at-risk kid. This guy heard something in my voice. He started giving me voice lessons after school, gave me cassette and VHS tapes of operas, and really just gave me art. And in doing so, he saved my life and certainly set my life on a course towards writing. His name was David Brown, and he passed away last Thursday, so I’ve been thinking a lot about him. 

The first poetry teacher I had, James Longenbach at the University of Rochester, made me think that poetry was the highest vocation one could choose. 

After that, I think it’s not individual people but experiences and places [that motivated me]. I can’t imagine how I would have become a novelist without living in Sofia for four years. I’m immensely grateful to that, to the disruption and the new direction it gave my life: the experience of teaching high school and all of my high school students, the interest it gave me in other people’s lives and the world around me.

The Indy: You’ve hinted that your next work is going to be a book set in the South—which is very exciting! As someone who also grew up in the South, it was quite a brutal place to come of age. But I was wondering, what parts of Southern culture and life do you find compelling or even redeeming?

Greenwell: I would never have thought that I would write about Kentucky, because I left when I was 16. I hardly ever went back. I thought of it very much as a place I escaped, as a place I ran away from. For 20 years, I thought I knew everything I could possibly want to know about Kentucky … If that’s my attitude towards a place, I can never write about it. That’s an attitude of disdain—knowingness. Any settled feeling prevents me from writing about something.

I went back to Kentucky in 2016 when What Belongs to You came out. I went back largely because my father whom I’m estranged from left Kentucky—that made it possible to go back to the city [Louisville] on the book tour. I spent about 10 days between Louisville and Lexington and the experience that I had was one of amazement at how Louisville had changed and also how it looked different to me in my late thirties. My reaction reminded me of the reaction I had to Sofia … In fact, it was infinitely more mysterious and complicated than I thought at sixteen.

For this next project, whose completion is still very far in the future, I started spending time in LGBT historical archives in Kentucky. I spent about six weeks going everyday and looking at these materials. What was a revelation to me was just so stupid because of course queer people are everywhere, and therefore, queer history is everywhere. [I found] this incredibly rich queer history of Kentucky that I had no access to, when I feel like it could have been key to my survival when I was 13 or 14 or 15. It’s been incredibly moving to me to dive into that and to learn more about this place. 

A place like Kentucky never needed to be redeemed. Human places are always complex places, they’re always places of infinite value. I think what needed to change was my ability to feel. I feel really grateful to the sense I have now that my hometown, and with it, the whole world of my childhood might be things I don’t have to run from. It might not even have to be something I have to confront in an adversarial way, like how I tried to in the middle section of What Belongs to You. It might be a source of richness and it might be something I’m grateful for. That’s a radically new possibility in my life, and I feel excited by it. 

The Indy: We wanted to know if you see yourself sticking to writing criticism and fiction in the long term. Do you think you might try something else? A new genre of writing, maybe, or something else completely? 

Greenwell: I feel pretty committed right now to writing fiction and criticism. In fact, there’s a chance the next book I publish might be a book of criticism. But my life has been a series of zigs and zags, and I want to be open to the possibility of that [change]. The one thing that’s been a constant in my life, at least since that choir director intervened, is the sense that art has to be at the center of my life. In some ways, it’s hard for me to imagine that somehow some other way of engaging with art would supplant writing from the center of it, but I hope I would be open to that if it did happen. 

There’s an operatic interpretation of What Belongs to You in the works right now, and collaborating with a composer to write something original for an opera is something I would love to do. I would be very open to writing for theater in that sense. 

I hope I’ll never feel so settled in a life that I can’t be knocked off course in ways that feel enriching. The thing I love the most about being an artist is that there’s no such thing as wasted time. All of those years I spent studying music, all of those I spent writing poetry—the fact that I’m not a singer or writing poetry right now doesn’t mean those years were wasted. They’re actually central to the art I’m trying to make in the genre I work in now. 

The Indy: That’s reassuring as someone who’s about to graduate, who’s planning to do something in the future that’s different from what I studied. 

Greenwell: The thing I wish I could go back and tell my very anxious college-years self is to be braver and less fearful. I was framed in humiliation so early...There’s something for me that really punctures from the humiliation of failure. 

One of the things that’s so important to me about the privacy of writing is that it allows me to fail. I wish I had been more eager for failure when I was in college and the years right after. I really encourage you to take all of the leaps and know that failure doesn’t matter. 

JACOB ALABAB-MOSER ‘20 and EVAN LINCOLN ‘21 are now, too, listening to Björk’s “Black Lake”