Krissy Kneen is a Brisbane-based author best known for her erotic fiction, including her most recent novel An Uncertain Grace, published this year by Text Publishing.
Stranger in the Dark is Kneen’s ongoing project for Australian literary journal The Lifted Brow, a subscription series of 12 monthly emails being sent out over the course of 2017. Written directly addressing the reader, the project describes an intimate and explicit sexual relationship between the email’s author and its recipient.
A fascinating formal experiment and an erotically charged read, Stranger in the Dark pushes the boundaries not only of the reader’s desire, but of sex, sexuality and gender. For Archer Asks, journalist Benjamin Riley interviewed Kneen about the ideas she’s exploring through the series, and about writing queerness.
BR: How did the project originate?
KK: I had been thinking of doing a subscription series for a couple of years. I wanted a platform that would allow me to be more risqué, something that felt intimate and exciting and dangerous. I had been thinking about a locative project where you listened to sex scenarios in a public space. I pitched the idea to MONA once but it didn’t happen. The idea of emails felt risky and dangerous and very personal. Like the act of having an affair.
I wanted to partner with someone who could manage the roll out of the project. [The Lifted Brow] is brave and loves doing new and experimental things so I pitched the idea to [editor] Sam Cooney. We couldn’t lose. It would be fun.
BR: Reading the emails is an incredibly intimate experience, particularly given the boundary-pushing intensity of the sex you’re writing. Has it been challenging to negotiate those boundaries? I’m thinking, for example, about the fact that the third instalment came with a content warning.
KK: I suppose I feel that this email form is more intimate. I can speak directly to a reader and I do understand why a warning is necessary. I am playing with the line between fear and excitement and everyone has a different limit. This form feels more private than a novel but that also makes it more risky.
Warnings just help the reader to prepare. They also add a certain frisson which I like.
BR: Has it been challenging writing such direct (and directive) scenes for a reader of unknown sex and gender?
KK: In Stranger in the Dark I can’t describe the genitals at all as it will be a male or female or other reading this. The only constants are anal sex and oral sex so ‘mouths and arseholes’ has become my mantra. It certainly pushes you to be more creative in the way my protagonists—me and you—have sex. Luckily ‘me’ is actually me in my own body so I know what that looks like and I can go to town on the genitals there.
It has certainly become easier with practice. I feel like I am on a bit of a roll with the ungendered sex now but when I first started it was so laborious. It has been worth the effort. I think it has made me a better and more thoughtful writer of sex.
BR: Has writing ungendered sex presented any particular narrative opportunities?
KK: I re-read Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body last year and I loved the way she moves from talking about the ungendered character as penetrating the other to being penetrated. There is kind of a top and bottoming going on in the same character and I love that. I think it is more common that people change from a top to a bottom as the mood takes them. You don’t always feel dominant in a sexual relationship. Sometimes you just want to sub.
In this narrative there is a kind of handing over of the story. At the beginning I am very much in charge but I want to slowly shift power dynamics across the 12 months as a reader takes control of the story in their own head. I think the power will change as the story moves on. But I really do want to challenge the reader to think of sex that accommodates any gender. I want guys to move away from a phallic view of sex and I want women to think outside the idea of being penetrated and I want other genders to feel included in this strangely intimate conversation.
BR: That’s really interesting! It almost sounds like the project is an experience in learning to embody, in a sense, queerness. Do you hope taking control of an ungendered subjectivity will prompt readers to explore—or even deconstruct—their own gendered sexuality?
KK: Yes I really do! I spend a lot of time trying to imagine the physical sexual experience of different bodies other than mine and it is a very rewarding exercise. Our idea of attraction is also very dependent on what we are supposed to find attractive.
When you say the word tree you picture a generic shorthand kind of tree and that is culturally specific. If we say attractive person, the shorthand for attractive relies on years of cultural coding that stands in for the idea of attractive. I kind of hope people will question their own subjective experience of gender as well as their culturally prescribed experience of attraction.
My physical body is not your traditional attractive body and yet I am using it as a canvass for a reader’s desire. Lots of stuff going on in each episode. More to come too.
BR: I can’t wait for the next instalment!
Benjamin Riley is a freelance writer and journalist based in Sydney, Australia, writing about politics, culture, queer issues and mental health. In 2014 Benjamin received the prestigious Victorian AIDS Council Media Award for his coverage of HIV and LGBTI health, and in 2015 he was a finalist for Media Person of the Year in the Victorian LGBTI Community Awards. Read more of his work here, and follow him on Twitter at @bencriley.
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