Archer Asks: SJ Norman, author of Permafrost
By: Yves Rees
SJ Norman is a writer, artist, and curator who works across performance, installation, text, sculpture, video, and sound. He has won numerous art awards, including a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship and an Australia Council Fellowship, and was the inaugural winner of the KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award.
SJ spoke to Yves Rees about his debut book, Permafrost, a stunning collection of queer ghost stories published by UQP in October 2021.
Image: Karlee Holland
Yves Rees: You’re an artist and writer who sits at the intersection of many different identities. What are the words you use to identify yourself?
SJ Norman: My labels shift depending on who I’m speaking to. Labels are only ever useful to me as strategies to mobilise ourselves through the world and in order to be seen. That shifts radically depending on the context.
In terms of my trans identity, my default self-definition would be as non-binary transmasculine. I’m he/they, pronouns wise. I don’t mind being she-d if it’s in the context of faggotry. In fact, it’s a really gender euphoric milestone for a transfag when people stop she-ing you in a misgender-y way and start doing it in a queenie way.
In terms of my cultural identity, I’m Koori. Wiradjuri on my mother’s side, English on my father’s, born on Gadigal country. On occasion I’ve described my Indigeneity as “diasporic” – an ill-fitting choice of word to describe the displacement experience that is woven into Koori identity, but the only word I’ve had available at times when trying to communicate the nuance of my cultural positionality and experience as an Aboriginal creative working internationally. I borrowed this term from a friend, another Aboriginal artist, Carly Sheppard. It’s useful sometimes, sometimes not.
I’m a lot of other things, I don’t need to name all of them. I wish I didn’t have to name any of them, a lot of the time. Someone asked me how I was the other day and I said “I’m intersectionally exhausted.”
YR: For most of your adult life you’ve been extremely mobile, moving between so-called Australia, Turtle Island, Japan, and Europe. But in the last two years, the pandemic has enforced stasis. What has that experience been like for you?
SJN: I’ve moved around my whole life. My mother moved around her whole life, her mother moved around her whole life, and her mother moved around her whole life. My father is also a migrant, so that’s a way of living I was born into. I don’t really know another way to be.
I’m very at home on the road. I’m more at home in in-between spaces, both geographically and culturally, and physically.
The sudden imposition of total stasis has been very difficult. But none of it feels like an accident.
I spent all of 2019 on the road between Europe and the US, and was in the process of shifting my base to New York more permanently when I came back. I to this Country – Gadigal Country – to install my Sydney Biennale show and see family, and I was only meant to be here for two weeks. And then the first lockdown hit a week after that show opened.
I was meant to be on the road after that, so it has certainly been a shock to my system to be grounded back here indefinitely. Especially because that has also meant indefinite separation from loved ones, partnerships and communities that I love and belong to.
I very carefully built a life that enabled bi-location, because that’s what feels safe and right to me. Having that cut off has not felt safe or right. It’s been full of grief and very challenging.
I probably wouldn’t have gotten this book out, though, if I didn’t have all my other work cancelled. It’s taken me twenty years to finish Permafrost because I’ve been busy being a touring artist. I write well on the road. I do a lot of my best writing in hotel rooms or on trains. It’s a state that’s creatively fertile for me. But the seed of Permafrost was planted in Sydney, and I had to come back here to finish it.
I had to come back here to do a lot of things, including my medical transition. I needed to come back to my birth country to begin that process, because it’s such an intense transformation and rebirth. I needed to be on this land to begin that.
YR: You wrote most of the stories in Permafrost over ten years ago, and have only recently revisited them for publication. What was it like to come back to a version of your former self?
SJN: Scary. And spooky. And daunting.
Again, it was a process that was interwoven with my return to Sydney. It was a homecoming. I wrote the manuscript, except for the final story, when I was living in Sydney in my early twenties.
I was a student at UTS, living in Newtown. I’m in Chippendale now, and I walk past my old Denison Street house every other day. I see the place where this project started. And it felt like a necessary return; to come back to this place to bring that project to completion.
I left Sydney for the first time in 2006. I moved to Japan, and then to the UK for a bit. Then I came back here between 2007 and 2009. And it’s in those two years that I wrote most of Permafrost. And then I went to Berlin and stopped working on the project. I picked it up a couple of times, but only a couple of times. When I came back here in 2020, that’s when I made a commitment to finish it.
There’s a deep enmeshment of place and self that was uncovered for me in finishing this book. That’s to do with my relationship to this land, but also my relationship to the broader queer history of this place, and my own queer history in this place, and my own layers of self-realisation and transformation.
I am in no way the same person I was when I was writing most of this book. I have worked on the stories since I first drafted them, but not deeply. The bones are still the same.
There’s a fearlessness you have as a young writer and a young creator. There was a fearlessness in me. I didn’t want to fuck with those stories too much, because there’s kind of a purity to them that was coming from a much younger self.
The book I would write now is not this book. But I have to approach that younger self with love and respect. I’m in a very deep conversation with my younger self in this space, and in finishing this book.
YR: Permafrost has been described as queer ghost stories – a collection of hauntings. On another level, it sounds like you’re being haunted by the former self who first wrote the book. The book is ghostly on multiple levels. What draws you to the theme of hauntings?
SJN: I’ve always been into spooky stories. As a Blakfella, you grow up hearing spooky stories. It’s part of our culture to talk about hauntings, ghosts, metaphysical encounters. It’s part of the quotidian lexicon of Blak experience in Australia. The discussion of literal spectral presences and ancestral presences in the home was an ordinary occurrence.
I’ve also lived in a lot of haunted houses. I’ve had a lot of spectral encounters in my life. I’ve always felt very close to that world. It’s something that’s preoccupied a lot of my work – not just my writing, but my performance work as well.
In terms of ghosts and queerness, these things are also in deep relationship. Hauntings or spectral visitations, as well as relationship with ancestors, relationships with liminal thresholds, dwelling beings – these are features of cultures that are in deep relationship with death. I’m talking about my culture as an Aboriginal person, but I’m also talking about my culture as a queer and trans person.
Not all the ghosts in Permafrost are classic human spirits. They are non-corporeal entities, but they’re not necessarily ghosts in the classical sense. They are threshold beings, and those are attractive archetypal narratives for me as trans person, because we’re always in a space of inhabiting becoming, and inhabiting a collision of past and future selves.
I don’t want to reduce the spectral presences in Permafrost to metaphors – they’re not – but these stories have a sense-making quality for me as a trans person thinking about how we exist in the world.
YR: So even though you wrote these stories before you were consciously trans, there’s an incipient trans sensibility in their interest in transformation and liminal spaces. Is that correct?
SJN: Yeah, absolutely.
For instance, I read ‘Stepmother’, the first story in the collection, as absolutely a story about trans-ness. I wrote that story when I was 23 and categorically unaware that I was trans.
I knew I wasn’t a woman – I figured that out when I was very young. And I found different ways of articulating that over time. This was circa 2004, in Australia, and ‘queer’ was less ossified in its meaning then, I think. So that’s the term I used to describe both my sexuality and my gender.
Back then, I did not have a language or a way of understanding myself as a non-binary, transmasculine, pansexual fag. That’s not something that arrived for me until much later.
But I can see, very clearly, that ‘Stepmother’ is a story about gender. It’s about a young, unhatched trans body trying to negotiate itself in the world in relation to the imposition of binary, cis-determinist femininity. And it’s about the failure to reproduce images of this kind of femininity in relation to this very fecund figure of the stepmother.
It’s fascinating when your book transforms from a working document to a bound book with your name on the cover. You can have this very dissociated experience of reading your book and it’s not yours anymore.
I was able to read my own book as though someone else had written it. And, in many ways, someone else did. It allows me to see things that I didn’t clock at the time, you know?
YR: In many of the stories in Permafrost, animals play a key role. Do you think there’s something inherently queer about animal-human relations? Do queers and other outsiders have an affinity for interspecies relationality?
SJN: It wasn’t super conscious to include animals to explore queer interspecies subjectivity. But again, looking back, I see that’s what I’m doing.
In the same way that place is a character, and metaphysical beings are characters, the animals are characters too. They may not operate or speak or exist in the story in the same ways as the human characters, but they still have their roles to play. That comes from an interest in upsetting hierarchies of subjective relations, which is definitely a queer sensibility. It’s also an Indigenous sensibility.
YR: Another recurring theme across these stories is sleep, and especially awakening from sleep to discover uncanny things. In your mind, is sleep a portal into supernatural worlds?
SJN: It absolutely is. It’s wild that we’re so preoccupied with the events of the waking world, yet we have six to eight hours of the day when we’re unconscious, when we’re elsewhere.
Where do we go during that time? The lives we live when we’re unconscious are no less real or important than what we experienced in the conscious life.
Sleep is also something that’s plagued me, because I’m a chronic insomniac. I have a lot of debilitating sleep issues. I always have. I’m basically nocturnal.
I usually work through the night. That’s when I feel the most powerful, creatively. I am the most available to story at night when the waking world is quiet.
Also, most of my spooky experiences have happened on the bridge between the sleeping and waking world.
YR: Prior to publishing Permafrost, you were mainly known as a visual and performing artist. How do you understand the relationship between your writing and other forms of creative practice?
SJN: It feels like a parallel life. Which is not to say that it’s separate. There is a conversation between those two practices. They are entwined, emanating from the same pool of energy. And they are coming through the same cipher that is my body. But they do feel like parallel worlds, and parallel selves.
If anything, I felt alienated from fiction as a craft for a long time. Why bother making up stories when the muck and complexity and nuance of everyday life is so much more interesting?
I felt almost distrustful of fiction as an art form. It feels so ethically weird to have control over the reality you’re making for a reader. I’m over that now, which is good.
I’m now freshly enjoying the space that fiction provides to tell your own story with a great degree of freedom. All my other work is in a space of consultation and process – it’s all about my relationship to other people. And I guess writing fiction gives me respite from that.
It gives me a space to explore creatively, and to expand into themes I wouldn’t necessarily get to touch on if I was writing nonfiction.
YR: Who are the queer and trans writers you admire?
SJN: Right now, I’m reading Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi. It’s blowing my fucking mind.
It’s an epistolary memoir, which is a form I love. I did an epistolary project last year with Joseph M Pierce called ‘(XXX)’, where we wrote letters to each other. I love the letter, as a short form, and it’s a brilliant concept for a memoir. It’s the writer in dialogue with other people in their life, rather than speaking to a nondescript, broad readership. The letters are relational documents that work as a collection but are also beautiful standalone pieces.
I’m also reading Alexander Chee’s essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which is great. I’m just starting Billy Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, which has been on my stack for ages. And I was totally decimated by Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem. Pico is a Kumeyaay poet, and a screenwriter for Reservation Dogs.
The list is too long, though. Those are just notables from my current bedside stack.
Dr Yves Rees (they/them) is a writer and historian based on unceded Wurundjeri land. They are a Lecturer in History at La Trobe University, the co-host of Archive Fever history podcast, and the author of All About Yves: Notes from a Transition (Allen & Unwin, 2021). Rees was awarded the 2020 ABR Calibre Essay Prize and a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship. Their writing has featured in the Guardian, The Age, Sydney Review of Books, Australian Book Review, Meanjin, and Overland, among other publications.