Ames Hawkins is a transgenre writer and the author of These are Love(d) Letters, a genre-bending visual memoir and a work of literary nonfiction that explores the questions: What inspires a person to write a love letter? What inspires a person to save a love letter even when the love has shifted or left? And what does it mean when a person uses someone else’s love letters as a place from which to create their own sense of self?
Assistant Editors of Punctuate sat down with Ames in late October for a conversation about her nonfiction treatise which combines the interdisciplinary aspects in which love letters can be viewed. Her recent book, These are Love(d) Letters, is built similarly to a travelogue. It combines the reproductions of her father’s love letters with a theoretical critique of the letters and the epistolary form, along with the narrator’s first-person account of her father as lover, creative/artist, queer/gay man, father, husband, and person living with AIDS.
Punctuate: We were wondering if you could talk about the different projects/forms you incorporated in These are Love(d) Letters and how you organized the book as an entirety.
Ames Hawkins: That’s a long story. But that’s a good place to start because I get really excited talking about these projects. The very first iteration of some of the pieces in here started as blog posts. They were very simple, and really just about my dad; I wrote some of them in 2006. Then, I wrote a version of a memoir—or what I thought would be a memoir—it would be this longer AIDS memoir, but that didn’t really work because I also identify as a creative-critical scholar.
Then, I just decided to write about these letters in every possible form I could think of that was comfortable for me. I would keep showing it to people and keep showing it to people and I would get bits and pieces of advice. I wanted people to be really thinking about the spaces between those pieces of writing. You think about the gap between the two entries, not just “Oh I read this entry then I read this entry,” but how do you really call attention to those spaces between.
Finally, over the years, I used the letters themselves as a framing device. Twenty letters, twenty chapters. There were probably forty thousand words I didn’t use, and this book is about fifty thousand words long. There are passages where I am crafting theory, where I’m working at being a theorist. And then there are passages which are more lyric and working in a poetic form. And I could have kept writing. I could’ve kept doing more and more and more but then it would have become a different project. You have to figure out what that project is and create constraints in order to know when it is done.
P: Could you elaborate on the whole idea of distancing yourself? Because near the beginning of this book you talk about how you saw yourself within the pages of these love letters. How do you distance yourself from something that is so personal to you?
AH:That’s the same question from a different angle. The first part is, I distance myself in order to write, in order to become closer to the subject or to the writing because I wanted to be in such a relationship with the writing. The other question is—when does the distancing come from the object itself?
So creative nonfiction is . . . what? A mental journey. This book is a recording of my mental journey working through these letters. We who are creative nonfiction writers usually like to read mental journeys. That’s sort of a cheesy thing to say when you say you write for sort of therapeutic reasons. But there’s a lot of that, that’s kind of what it is. The figuring it out, right?
P: What was your involvement with the graphic design? Was it strictly just the artifacts/the reprinted letters, or more?
AH:It was a true collaboration. What I told the designer, Jessica Jacobs, is that I wanted the book to communicate “letter-ness” not epistolary. What I mean by that is that it’s not an epistolary piece. There are some epistles in it, but it’s not epistolary nonfiction. I wanted to communicate the sensation of what it means to hold a letter in your hand, to be with the object and experience the sensation and intimacy of reading a letter that is actually a book and not just a book about letters.
P:You mentioned something about the “physical sense of holding a letter” so can you elaborate more on how getting in touch with those physical senses of holding, reading, and writing letters helped you write this book?
AH:Sure. It has been my practice to remove myself and physically travel—go somewhere else to write. I would always take the letters with me. Once I figured out what the pattern was, I would reread and rewrite the letters with my own hands, carry the letters around, read them multiple times every day, until I figured out what was going on. I would ask myself, “What am I going to do with this?” When I was out of creative ideas, I would pull the scholar back to the surface and think about things from that angle again. It was recursive. It was fun. Stressful, but fun.
P: What was your emotional experience writing the book?
AH:When I knew that something was really good, I would cry. If it made me cry, I knew the writing was honest. I always talk to my students about the difference between fact, truth, and honesty. Facts can be used for multiple different truths. So, this is my truth, these are facts; my mother agrees to all the facts, but they comprise of a completely different truth for me because this is my story. The honesty is introduced with how it feels to the reader. When you discuss motivation, impact. Whether that rings true. But that’s not necessarily the truth. Truth comes from the narrator’s honesty. When I felt like I was letting myself be completely honest, it was emotionally moving.
P: The letters themselves go through liminal space just by the process of mailing them, of moving through time and space as they go from writer to receiver. We are wondering if you considered liminal space nonexistent in internet communications.
AH:So,is there liminal space in email exchange? Yes. It’s just quicker. There’s no authority that has stamped it. There’s some classic difference between a letter and an email letter, even though there’s some similarity. They can still be intimate, do a lot of the same work, but it’s fast. It’s not been sent to another government structure that literally verifies its existence. It’s not physical. I don’t have to physically open an email and there’s no clarity about ownership after it’s read. When I send you that email, I could resend it by forwarding it to a recipient who can then forward it again. Whose email is it then? Mine or yours? So that’s what screws things up for email for me, the liminal space of ownership. It’s fascinating.
P:In our country, we don’t trust many government institutions and their employees, but we do trust the post office. In other countries, the post office also handles banking. How might that (trust in a postal institution) change how we feel about the ownership of the letter?
AH:What I think about immediately is—to what degree is a letter currency? Your question makes me think about the notion of value and how we view value of particular objects based on the connection that pervades from an institution.
P:Why did you wait so long to open the letters and read them?
AH:It was too emotional. It was just too much. To think that there was that thing there the whole time you didn’t know about . . . that actually made my parents make more sense than they ever did to me, actually. It took a long time to get to a point that I felt ready to learn more about that part of their past.
P:Getting a little bit back to the idea of email and online messages in general—you can always revise them. You can’t exactly do the same with letters. Most of the letters in your book are entirely in pen and nothing is crossed out. Do you think anything is lost in being able to revise something you said?
AH:That’s a philosophical question. Yes, something’s always lost, and something’s always gained. If my first draft was in a journal, maybe you could find it in my journal. Then maybe there was this scrap of paper I had while I was driving that had a couple of ideas on it. Unless you were really fastidious, you would have not kept those either. So yes and no. Yes, something is lost. Something is gained, too. You can write faster. You can edit faster. Speed is its own affordance.
Then there are other advantages like spellcheck and thesaurus. I love thesaurus in Microsoft Word. Thesaurus is your friend. I love playing with alliteration. I think about words as raw materials. So how many raw materials do I feel are facile and able? How do I keep adding words to my toolbox, like paints? This phrase, that phrase, this way to look at it, that way to look at it. I like the way digital tools enable me to play in and around, and through words.
P:Following up on adding words to the toolbox, you created a word via hyphen that you repeated at least three times: “always-only”. It doesn’t roll off the tongue too easily if you’re not prepared for it. Can you describe the process of creating that word and why you needed it for the piece?
AH:There is a lyrical quality at some points in the writing. A lot of those words are trying to capture notions of liminality. At times, I would drop into that way of writing and couldn’t pull out. It gets a little too sing-songy and I would think oh my god stop, stop, I can’t keep writing like this. I would drop into it because it would become play—playing in and around language. Sometimes I would think I have to go read a manual or something basic so I can get back to plain prose ’cause sometimes plain prose is all you need. But words like “always-only” are words to get at the thing—a sensation and way of knowing that exists beyond words. If that’s even possible.
P:Related to that, when you were talking about raw materials when we are handwriting we have way more raw materials and I think that comes up when you talk about your father’s use of dashes in the letters and how it’s a symbol of time passing. Did you handwrite parts of this book?
AH:Oh, sure. Was most of your schooling done with handwriting?
AH:I think the real affordance of handwriting is that it is embodied in a different way, like you’re literally physically feeling the paper and you are moving your hand in a way that there is a direct connection to the creation of the symbols that are letters,that become the words that are different than tapping things out on a keyboard. That is just a different movement. It’s not that typing is not embodied, but the movements are different. There is also a very different thing that happens in how you process and how you read on a screen than how you read on paper. I just think it’s more in your body to write on paper, read physical texts. The tactile sensations do something with and to our thinking, and to our thought.
How many of us are good at memorizing now? We’re just not good at it anymore. But go back hundreds of years, and that’s how language developed. Through repetition. You’d have a relationship with reciting a text out loud and that would lead to the production of texts in ways that we are not as able to access today because memorization as a part of our literacy is not so much a part of our practice anymore.
P:Was it important to find a centering concept for this book?
AH: Yes, even though Gertrude Stein said we have no use in a center! Once I figured out the constraints and form of the book—an idea that returns us now to where we began with this interview—I realized that if there is to be no center, each passage has to be its own center.
Interview by Punctuate’s Assistant Editors: Elijah Abarbanel, Rachel Martin, Rachel McCumber, Riley McFarlane, Brigitte Riordan, Lejla Subasic, Tracie Taylor, Katie Turner, and Vlora Xhaferi.