October 01, 2011
Christine Lee Zilka’s story, “Erasure,” appears in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, co-edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Kat Meads (Other Voices Books). Zilka is the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as ZYZZYVA, Verbsap, and Yomimono. She received an Ardella Mills Fiction Prize from Mills College in 2005, placed as a finalist in Poets & Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. Zilka earned her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two wiener dogs. Zilka was brave enough to kick off our series with gusto . . .
You’re one of the contributors to a book the entire premise of which is women writing sex from male characters’ points of view. On a scale of 1-10, exactly how nervous does this make you, in terms of every male critic on the planet potentially pointing a finger at you and your co-writers and deriding you for “getting it wrong?” In a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (or wait, is that the reverse?) era, what would possess you to dare to try and . . . gasp . . . understand the other gender between the sheets instead of just throwing up your hands in helpless disgust like a good sitcom wife and saying, “Men! Who knows what they’re thinking?”
I’ll make a confession; before I began writing this sex scene, I interviewed a number of male friends about their sexual experiences. What do they think about during sex? Do they have anything on their mind at all? Do they have any anxieties? You get the picture. This, because of the very fear you state: I didn’t want to “get it wrong.”
I received answers ranging from the self-assured (“I don’t think about anything, I am just there in the moment and it’s all good”) to the more anxiety ridden (“It’s hard to keep your mind on fucking sometimes. Sometimes you’re worried and your mind is full of shit”).
It made me realize there is not one male sexual experience, and in some ways, there are many commonalities with the female experience. It is, at least on a psychic level, a human experience. It gave me utter freedom to really speak from the mind of my character, to just go for it, and to tell his truth.
Sex is a fundamental human urge, and at its best brings human beings closer together. Is it easier or harder to write from the perspective of a man having, chasing, or desiring sex than it is from the perspective of a man, say, going about the other business of his daily life? Is sex the great equalizer? And if so, why do so few literary writers–male or female–seem to focus on it?
I can’t speak for all writers but I can speak for myself: sex scenes are difficult to write! They’re not just a list of moving anatomical parts, or graphic descriptions. Sex scenes have to reveal something about the character and story at hand. So–considering how difficult sex scenes are to write, it’s often easier to reveal character and story by other means, i.e., “the other business of daily life,” as you say.
Sex scenes are also challenging because all writing is personal to the point where people always ask if your fictional story is “autobiographical”; given this bias, I wonder if people think my sex scenes are playing out real events in my life. And to a point, they can. Though in this case, it was a pleasure to hide behind a penis.
Tell us about “your” man in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. What drew you to him, and why did his story lead to the figurative or actual bedroom? If you had the opportunity to have sex with this guy (presuming he is straight and you are straight), would you?
My male protagonist, Yong Kim, who is featured in my piece “Erasure,” is the male protagonist of my novel-in-progress. As a writer, I am in a long-term relationship with this character. And in all the years I’ve been getting to know this guy, I never let him have sex. So when a friend forwarded Men Undressed’s call for submissions, I took it as a sign that I had to sit down and get Yong laid, and to really think about what kind of sex Yong would have, given his character and history.
And no, I don’t think I’d ever have sex with the dude; the whole scene is about his PTSD as it runs the course of his sexual experience. Maybe I’ll have to write another sex scene in which he is more joyful in bed.
Many readers have come to Other Voices Books asking if we will now be publishing a follow-up anthology entitled Women Undressed, in which make writers explore female sexuality. Although male writers have actually been doing this to great acclaim and/or controversy for centuries . . . think D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth to Milan Kundera . . . maybe there is still more to say. If such a book existed, what would you hope that your male literary comrades understood about female sexuality that their predecessors did not?
There is a greater social responsibility when we represent others, more so than when we represent ourselves. In writing scenes as we do any other scene, we have the characters represent a larger truth, whether that truth be the character’s community, history, culture, gender, etc. And this should be reflected in the complexity of character and language…and complexity of the sex scene.
Additionally, I hope to see female sex scenes furthering the development of female character development as opposed to or in addition to a larger idea or the development of a male counterpart. I’d like the woman to be the star!
Sexiest male character in all of literature?
When I was in high school, I had the most unspeakable crush on George Emerson from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View—that he could get Lucy Honeychurch to be a little naughty, and that I was such a “good girl” growing up—well, I wanted a George Emerson in my life. That was before I learned that I could save myself and that I didn’t need a man to be naughty all by my lonesome.
These days, I consider Junot Díaz’s Yunior, the narrator of both The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the stories in Drown , to be the sexiest male literary character. Dude is smart, sexy, AND he knows his Tolkien!
I am trying to think of a sexy male character of Asian descent, now—and they’re all emasculated, violent, or depressed. Time for me to write a sexy male character into my novel-in-progress.
Recently I was listening to a radio show on which they reported a survey they’d done on how old men and women can be and still be considered “sexy.” As you might guess, women’s ages came in younger than men’s, at 44 and 52 respectively. On the one hand, I have to admit that these figures are probably quite a bit better than they would have been twenty years ago, but on the other hand–wow, harsh that in an age when people are routinely living into their 90s, the culture basically asexualizes them for the entire second half of their lives! This smacks of some serious ageist bullshit to me. Tell us about the sexiest, smokingest older person you’ve ever known–male or female–and give us all some hope, will you?
When my husband and I got married, my mother-in-law chose to wear a beautiful, off-the-shoulder, floor-length gown. It was not mother-of-the-groom powder blue and ruffles and chiffon—it was color-of-a-burnished-penny-fitted-bodice-smoking-hot-sexy. When it was her turn with the makeup artist, you could hear the shrieks of pleasure—the makeup artist went to town and gave my mother-in-law movie-star eyes and lips. She was Sophia Loren incarnate.
I paled in comparison to her that day—nervous and in my paper-white gown, next to my bigger-than-life, hot, sexy, raucous Jewish mother-in-law.
She was someone who had grown up beautiful, and what she saw in the mirror of her youth was imprinted on her brain, forever. She wore clothes that only women who’d grown up beautiful would dare to wear: body-hugging V-neck cashmere sweaters and three-inch stacked heel pumps, and sequined halter-top dresses to office parties.
When she and I were out to breakfast once, a man came up to her with his finger pointed and mouth agape, stammering, “I saw you yesterday! Walking down the street!” And yes, she was walking down the street the day before in a glittery periwinkle St. John sweater pants outfit and giant Vuitton handbag containing only her car keys, which made slam-slam sounds as she swung the purse up then down then up again in her noticeable saunter.
“Am I that noticeable?” she would meow, for she sounded so very much like a cat to me. This, from the woman who hung at her office five-foot-tall posters of herself in a bikini in the 1960s.
My mother-in-law is gone now; she was killed in a car crash four years ago at the age of fifty-nine.
To me, my mother-in-law was the ultimate quinquagenarian sexpot—so very glam and while young enough to wear three-inch heels on a daily basis but also old enough to let us know she intended on being sexy until the end of her days. She was the first woman I ever knew who embraced her fifties and never ever thought she was “too old.” And she never did get too old.
*The ingredients of Men Undressed: twenty-eight women writers, exploring sex from male characters’ points of view. Four sex-obsessed co-editors. A lone man, Steve Almond, let into the convent to write a Foreword overflowing with bodily fluids. Ah, the possibilities were just too hot to pass up—welcome to TNB’s Six Question Sex Interview: Men Undressed edition, and stay tuned for more steamy interviews!