On November 5, 2020, We Are the Voices, Contemporary Writers Series, and the Trans Studies Speakers Series at Mills College staged a collaborative event over Zoom: a reading by author Jordy Rosenberg from his 2018 novel “Confessions of the Fox,” followed by a discussion of the novel with Susan Stryker as well as a question-and-answer session, where those in attendance were able to pose questions via the Zoom chat.
Rosenberg is a professor of eighteenth-century literature and gender and sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Confessions of the Fox,” his first novel, is framed as a historical manuscript following English thief and folk hero Jack Sheppard, who is revealed by the document to be a transgender man; it is discovered in the modern-day by a transmasculine academic, who annotates the manuscript with footnotes that grow increasingly personal. It was named a “book of the year” or “best book of 2020” by the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, the New Yorker and the Huffington Post, and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.
Stryker, who currently holds the Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mills, is a Professor Emerita at University of Arizona and has been a visiting faculty member at universities including Harvard, Yale, Northwestern and UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of works including “Transgender History” and “Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area” and was one of the producers on the Emmy-Award winning film “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.”
Mills adjunct professor Rebekah Edwards was responsible for introducing Stryker; Edwards identified herself as a “huge Susan Stryker fangirl.”
She added, “I turn to Dr. Stryker’s work every semester in pretty much every class I teach, whether it is critical thinking, archive theory, queer theory, history, literature, film…There’s always something where Stryker’s work is just the thing I needed to put on the syllabus. […] It’s not unusual, at the end of the semester, for students to say that Stryker’s piece was the one that most taught them, taught them to think, the one they say that mattered most to their learning in their whole semester.”
Professor Kirsten Saxton, who introduced Rosenberg, described his book as “delicious and brilliant,” relating positive experiences with teaching it to students, and praised Rosenberg’s “capacity to create new conversations and to insist that we rethink the old ones in dynamic ways.” She also drew special attention to the widespread critical acclaim that “Confessions of the Fox” has received, deeming such attention particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that it is “one of the first novels written by a transgender writer, edited by a nonbinary editor, and published by a major publishing house.”
Rosenberg himself preceded his reading with a description of the novel’s scholarly and historical context, talking at length about the importance of Foucaultian biopolitics to the work and the backdrop of 18th-century policing and plague, which — as multiple audience members commented — appears more relevant than ever to the modern-day.
Regarding this relevance, he commented, “We still live in the long eighteenth century. I at least believe this to be true enough. I hoped that layering a set of historical flashpoints — the medicalization of sexuality, the birth of the British prison system and the contemporary neoliberal university — would effectively estrange the only seemingly necessary institution of policing by depicting the scene of its birth as simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.”
He then read a scene from the very end of this book — the final footnote appended to the manuscript — which he claimed he chose specifically due to Stryker’s critique of the section, with which he clarified that he was in full agreement. Stryker protested that what Rosenberg remembered as a critique, she “was remembering as more of a homage or fangirling,” but admitted to questioning why transfemininity is only explicitly mentioned in the novel during this end passage, which describes a potential utopian future. Rosenberg acknowledged that transfemininity appears only in a vaguer or more allegorical sense throughout the rest of the novel, such as in mentions of the “mollies” (sex workers) who frequent London docks, and said he saw this omission as a missed opportunity on his part.
The first audience member to address Rosenberg observed how reminiscent and almost prophetic of the modern-day his novel felt.
Rosenberg responded, “Was it prophetic, or was it just an accurate diagnosis of its own conditions of existence? Because what enabled me to write the novel and have it received in the way that it was was precisely the entrepreneurialization of public universities. […] Obviously I’ve benefited in ways that are very troubling from the neoliberal university — the very fact that I was able to publish this and have it taken seriously by my department — but that’s because the university wants you to have a public-facing profile now, right? Which is its own problem.”
When asked whether his novel was inspired by the historical trend of Jack Sheppard-inspired opera characters being played by women in male drag, Rosenberg said that his dominant inspiration was actually primary sources from the eighteenth century, namely “hack biographies that were written [about Sheppard].”
“Those materials kind of represented Jack as always what you might anachronistically see as gender non-conforming,” he said. “And there was something about his gender nonconformity that made both him extremely desirable, but also enabled him in these renderings to evade the law and to break out of confinements. And so I was really just fascinated by that intersection of gender non-conformity and resistance to the carceral system and to police, and how far back it seemed to go.”
In an addendum to this point, Rosenberg brought up something he’d read after his book was published; the chapter on gallows literature in Greta LaFleur’s book “A Natural History of Sexuality” which addressed how “execution narratives” of white people like Jack had the “express purpose of naturalizing the idea of fixedness of criminal character.”
“The thing about Sheppard is he can’t stop doing crimes. Even after he keeps getting caught and keeps escaping, this is how he’s represented,” he said. “Something I didn’t think about until after I read [LaFleur’s work is how] execution narratives of white people kind of naturalize the idea of criminality as a habit and a character, and then that fixedness of criminal character gets racialized and gets transposed onto people of color.”
When asked about his upcoming writing, Rosenberg answered, “I am working on something, but it’s very unlike this. […] It’s essentially Karl Marx’s ‘Kapital’ as explained to you by a yenta while she also tells you about her life story.” (In other words, this is your grandmother’s Marxist dialectic.)
The audio recording of this event will be released as part of the We Are The Voices radio podcast. People interested in keeping tabs on its release date are advised to follow @watv_oak on Instagram and Twitter for updates.