"I Wrote This When I Was Different"
A Conversation with Krys Malcolm Belc
If you’ve been a subscriber to this newsletter for a while, you probably know how enthused I get about writers who have three or more children. Mostly it’s just nice to be reminded that it can be done. And so even before I read Krys Belc’s memoir in essays, I suspected that I would want to talk to him about writing with three small kids (and a fourth due any day now). But the wonder of The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood goes beyond the circumstances of its creation. So much of the book is about form: the human body, the shapes of the stories we tell, the paperwork that legitimizes our lives to the rest of the world. For Krys, form is always in flux. He tells this story — of a body that is “not quite man, not quite woman” and of what that body can do — in a way that similarly resists easy categorization. The mix of flash nonfiction, photos, and legal documents; the shifts in tense; the shifts into epistolary form. All of it feels right and perfect and playful and generative. It’s the kind of book that makes you think about writing differently, the kind of book that expands your conception of what can be done on the page. Read on for my conversation with Krys about discovering creative nonfiction, deciding to have that fourth child, and writing amid the chaos.
I was struck by how important place seems to be in this book. How related it feels to identity. For example, you wonder what route your parents took from Flatbush into Manhattan when your mother was in labor.
Yeah, I do feel like place is important, specifically in thinking about my mom in labor and driving. When I gave birth to my first gestational child, it took over an hour to get there when I was in active labor, which is really bad. The rest of it was fine, the car was not good. So I think when I was writing about having given birth but not really writing a birth story or a traditional narrative about it, I have my own things that I'm really hung up on from having that experience and I think one of them was being trapped in the car. A lot of my writing of this book was trying to understand my obsession with motherhood and mothers in my life so I was projecting a lot of my own obsessions onto my mom and my partner and my partner's mom. But in a broader sense, I think moving to Michigan was kind of a trip for my family in a lot of ways. I went there to go to writing school and I'd never lived in the Midwest or even really spent considerable time there and we decided to just move there for three years. I thought it was an interesting idea for me to begin hormone therapy right before moving, too. I was like, this will be fine, I will go through whatever happens in this place where nobody knows who I am. And then I realized I hadn't really thought through very much what it would be like to transition in a place where nobody knew me at all and I had no connections to people and I didn't know how I would feel like I had to act and how that would affect my family life and how I acted at home. I think there was a cascading effect of deciding to transition in secret in the woods and a lot of the writing of the book was about missing places where people knew who I was even though I ended up having a really wonderful experience in that writing program and living in Michigan. My partner and kids are actually there right now visiting friends and hanging out. It’s definitely a place that's very meaningful to all of us but I think I was a little bit naive about what it would be like to choose to do what I did. And I was writing the book in that context.
Talk to me about your pre-MFA writing life.
I always wrote a lot as a teenager and an undergrad. I took writing classes. I didn't major in English or writing but I took workshops for funsies. It was something I really liked and really cared about. And I had a really great writing mentor in undergrad who was kind of like, ‘have you been thinking about going to graduate school in writing?’ And I had been because I went to a liberal arts college where everyone went to more school after school. And he was kind of like, ‘maybe you should do other things first.’ Everybody I knew was applying to stuff and I was like, yeah, I don't know if I want to do more workshops and I also am not sure that this is my primary interest and what I want to do with my time right now. So I became a teacher in Philadelphia. My partner- we met in college and she was living in Philadelphia working so it just made sense that I would move here because I was doing whatever I could to spend all my time with her. I'm a special education teacher so I got certified to do that at night and I taught high school for three years. And then I took a break for a year when I had my kid and then I became an elementary school teacher.
So you were home with him?
For a year. I had him in August and I took a year at home with him and my older kid, who are thirteen months apart. And then we got childcare and I went back to full time teaching work.
So were you writing at all during that time or was this a separate life from that?
In college, I only wrote fiction and I really wanted to write more fiction. That was all that I ever read and that's what I considered real writing to be for some reason.
Yeah, we all did, didn’t we?
Yeah. And then when we had kids, I started a blog to keep in touch with family and friends. A lot of our friends at the time were moving in and out of Philadelphia and it felt more like a permanent home to me and Anna at the time. We were the first people we knew to have children so I started just writing like a weekly- something about just like my family life and domestic life. I was writing stuff but it wasn't literary, I don't consider it literary still. There's probably things that are nice and poetic about it and I look back on it to get pictures because there were a lot of pictures.
Yeah, it was a lot like that. And I did feel like that was the vibe of writing the book too. I was like, I want to take something that I've done in the past that I felt really connected to in writing and kind of elevate it, do a little different spin on it. But I started writing fiction again around the time when Anna was pregnant with ZZ, our now youngest, I think because I was having a lot of angst about having a third. I don't think I was ready to have more children at that time and I had feelings and I felt motivated to write fiction. And I also felt like I was coming out of whatever postpartum mental state I had been in for a prolonged period of time. I felt very done with that so I felt more able to write fiction and write about teaching and where I lived and queer stuff, things that I had never really written about.
I’ve also experienced that kind of fertile postpartum mental state and I get excited every time I find someone else who has experienced it too.
Yeah, I just started writing short stories again and when Anna was very pregnant, she and I went to a wedding of a dear friend. It was our first time away overnight from the two babies and we met up with a friend who's a novelist and she was just talking about her life, and I was teaching in a pretty difficult context and I was like, maybe I'm finally in a place where I should think about getting an MFA or something. I've been teaching for a while, I don't love what I'm doing at the moment, and things are about to be really tumultuous anyway so why don't I just add this into the mix? I decided that day that I would apply to graduate school in writing. Our youngest kid was eight months when we moved.
That's a lot. Three kids including a baby and you move your family across the country. Were you going for fiction?
Yeah, I applied with short stories. I think I sent two or three short stories to the programs that I applied to.
This memoir in essays came out of the MFA, though, right? Did you write it there?
I wrote the whole thing there, yeah. I was like, if these people are going to completely uproot their lives and move to this place, I need to do something. I can't just play around. I really made people make big changes for this.
So when did that switching of gears happen, from fiction to nonfiction?
I had never had knowledge that the words creative and nonfiction went together, that those two words meant something when they were put together. I had consumed popular memoirs that you would have found at an airport or something and that was my entire knowledge of what that genre was. I just thought short stories were what writers were supposed to be doing so I took a fiction workshop my first semester. Amazing professor, very supportive of me, very helpful with my writing. She's like, ‘man, you need to take other genres because it doesn't really seem like you're having that much fun.’ I'm very buttoned up sometimes, I think that's the affect that I had when I got there. And she was like, ‘you know, something in this story that you wrote recently, there was this research portion, and I just feel like you'd have a lot of fun in a nonfiction class and have you thought about it?’ I was like, no, but that sounds fine. I was in a program where everyone took all the genres so I signed up for a nonfiction class and I wrote part of the book in the class. I started writing the essays right away. I didn't know that I was interested in writing about any of the things that happened in the book. I think it was something about the people and the timing and my hormones. Everything was happening at once and it was my first winter in Michigan and you can't do anything there.
Right, might as well write an entire book.
I was like, I guess I'm just learning how to write new stuff.
So all of a sudden you find yourself writing nonfiction and you're also writing about your family. I'm always very interested in the personal and familial negotiations involved in that. Did it make you nervous at all to do it?
I think for better or worse, Anna and I have the kind of partnership where she reads all my writing before other people do. Not everything but a lot of stuff I'll be like, is this anything? And she told me pretty early on in our relationship that she doesn't care if I write about her. She doesn't have any restraints on what content I can produce about her. So I knew that she wasn't going to be a problem and she's kind of the main secondary subject of the book. My parents don't care so I wasn't worried about that either. They have so many kids who all make art and they're just like, yeah, this is what it is. I made sure that there was nothing in the book that would come as a surprise to anyone. But I didn't show my folks any of the book, I didn't tell them I was writing a book. I just sold the book and posted on like Facebook or whatever.
Like, just FYI, wrote a book. That's pretty badass.
They knew I was going to a writing program, it wasn't completely out of the blue. They came to my graduate school final reading and I read part of the book and my mom cried a lot. It wasn't bad crying.
No, I'm sure it was pride and just emotional.
Also like, this is a lot, this guy’s got a lot of feelings. I struggled and continue to struggle with how do you write about parenting when your kids are- at the time, my kids were not at an age when children can really consent to being content and so I guess in thinking about my personal ethics around this, I thought a lot about making sure that I was always the main subject and that it was much more about my processing of experiences I had had and my witnessing people's childhoods through my own- that’s why there's so much about my own childhood, because I'm introducing the readers to the lens that I'm bringing into this experience of parenting with me.
And you include a lot of pictures but they're mostly pictures of you, not of the kids.
I think that was less of, I don't want their faces out there because they were no longer even the ages that they were depicted in the book. I mean, my oldest is 10 years old now. The slowness of that whole process- they were never going be the same, it was just going to be baby photos. But I think that the purpose of a lot of the images was to invite the reader into the experience that I have of looking at photos of my own childhood, which I conceive of as a trans childhood but nobody around me thought of my childhood that way. It's almost like giving someone colored sunglasses to put on to read through the rest of the book. With my two kids that Anna carried who we call “the bookends” – which we're also going have to revise, I guess, we’re screwing up our whole family narrative – they are barely in the book really. If you tried to be like, what do you know about these two kids in this book? You can't even really name stuff about them except the years they were born. I feel a little tricky about the kid that I gave birth to, Samson, because he's more of a subject and he's my most private child, unfortunately.
Like, why are you the one who's so private? But it's not a biography of Samson, it's just me trying to figure out how I feel about it all.
I haven’t entirely worked out my own set of ethics around this but while it’s true that babies can’t consent to being content, I always feel that there’s something to babies where they’re so different than the person that they end up becoming that whatever you write about them is more about you than them. When I’ve written about my kids five and under, it’s a very different feeling for me than if I were to write about those same kids now. My daughter is ten and now she has feelings and opinions about the pictures I take of her. Writing about her is an entirely different thing than it once was.
I was actually giving a craft talk recently where I was talking about the difference between my favorite pictures that I've taken of my oldest child and the selfies that he takes. The affect of those photos is completely- I consider a picture of him and I'm like, this is the photograph I've taken that most captures Sean and that would not be his choice. So how would you write about this person where you're misinterpreting their central sense of self so much?
Yeah, you don’t have access to their interiority in the way that you think you do. Speaking of the children, I don't want to say that the whole point of this interview is to talk to you about your decision to have a fourth child but I would be lying if I said I wasn't dying to talk to you about your decision to have a fourth child. I have four kids and I find that it's pretty rare among writers. Two is kind of standard.
Three is the limit.
So were you nervous about the impact of another child on the writing?
First, I want to say that when I sold my memoir, I decided that when I finished graduate school – much to some people's dismay, including my partner’s – that I really wanted to find a nine to five that had nothing to do with writing or creative life. I wanted to do something different with myself again. I felt like I missed some of the things that I had felt about myself as a person when I was a special ed teacher. So I am now ending on August 31st a very different job that's not tied to my writing at all and doing writing stuff like teaching, writing, and going and visiting universities and all that on my days off. I work in a pediatric oncology clinic educating patients and schools about the impact of cancer treatment on educational attainment and school functioning. I have developed an expertise in something that's not myself for the last three years so I do feel like I was in a little bit of a different functioning space where I wasn't like, ‘how will this impact my writing,’ because I had made such a great decision to devote so much of my time to something that wasn't writing. And sometimes I'm like, why am I not writing? This is really bad. I'm back in the place I was before I went to graduate school. Anna has always wanted a big family. I'm one of six and she was one of three when she was growing up.
Same here. I'm one of three and my husband is one of six.
Six is a lot and my parents have a lot more wealth than I ever will probably so they were able to raise six kids in a way that was comfortable.
Which makes a difference.
It's a huge, different thing. So she's always wanted more kids and when I was in grad school, I was like, I'm way too serious about my writing and also we can't have a kid in the middle of nowhere, that's not happening. And then when we came back, I had the same, you know, I'm not doing this. We had an annual battle over destroying the sperm that we had banked 10 years ago at this point where I was like, I don't want any of this stuff tempting us anymore. But then, honestly, as I was doing edits on the book and thinking through a lot of this stuff- it’s interesting because when you're proofreading your memoir that you wrote however many years ago, you’re like oh, I don’t know that I’m even in this headspace.
You were a different person writing that than you are editing it.
I wrote this when I was different. It's really weird. Let me try to remember what I thought about this back then. But I was thinking through just how much of myself I was able to reveal in the book but also how much was missing. It felt like an unembodied book almost. I feel a lot more present in the body that I have now. And I think some of that had to do, again, with place, because I was writing in a place where I was kind of afraid that people would know that I was trans. I really butched it up when I was living out in Michigan and Philly's very queer and I'm like a white middle class guy so nothing bad is going to happen to me here, everything's fine. I was just feeling like I had had this amazing experience that I wrote about and I'm so glad I had Samson but also it wasn't the real me who had done it, not because I think I was a different person before I medically transitioned but just because I had a bad sense of personal embodiment and a bad ability to create physical memory. So I was proofreading the book being like, yeah, this is going to be fun and everyone's going to read my personal stuff but also there's this different me that doesn't exist in this book and I'm a little sad about that.
Time for another baby and another book!
It wasn't even like, I want to have a new experience to write about. Anna has always wanted to have this other baby, this fourth baby, this has been her little project to get me on board with this and I've always said no for reasonable reasons. For example, we cannot fit a fourth child in our house, we are doing okay financially, our car would not fit another human being, you know.
Yes, I really, really know.
And I also think for better or worse we entered a glory days of parenting where all our children went to school at our local elementary school that they could walk to on their own. And you just put them in the room and say, go to bed and close the door.
That does sound great.
We were in a very different place where I could imagine space for having that experience again, where I just really had never seen any space in our relationship to go through that again and in our family life. And she didn't want to have another.
Right, I was going to ask, was she always like, I want this and you're going to do it or…
No, she just wanted another child.
One way or another.
I was slightly concerned when we moved back to Philly and she took a labor and delivery job, because I was like, okay, you're going to steal a baby.
Yeah, that is not a good place for a baby addict to be.
Yeah, and I was like, you're going to be holding babies all the time, seeing them born all the time, this is not good.
And just born babies are the easiest babies. It’s so misleading.
Yes. And they're crying but it's funny because they're crying because they're confused, you know?
Exactly. Everything is adorable. Not a good drug.
I wanted to do it again for a variety of reasons. I think a lot of it has to do with my life becoming significantly more insular in the pandemic and just being home a lot and feeling very safe at home. And nobody thinks it's weird that I had a baby in my family, you know? It wouldn't be weird if I did it again, because everybody is chill with the fact that I did it before. But unfortunately, we decided firmly to do it and I quickly found out that I'm not fertile anymore so that was a big wrench in our plans. I have diminished ovarian reserve that’s pretty bad. My reproductive endocrinologist, who has known me since Anna and I had our first child, seemed also surprised by this development. Honestly, so many people had given us so much shade for having so many kids in our twenties and I was like, I'm so glad I did this when I was 26 because I had no idea this was going to happen. I tried a few medicated IUIs and my doctor was like, ‘your insurance will keep covering this but if you're not vibing with this, it's probably not going to work. I don't know how many times you want to try to do this.’ My medical insurance through my day job actually covers egg donation as a treatment for infertility. Anna wasn't on my insurance, but they covered the cost of her egg retrieval.
That’s amazing and also very unusual for insurance to cover that, right?
It's so unusual. The large fertility practice that we go to that has billions of satellite offices was like, we've never billed for this, we've never seen this. So, thank you to my employer.
And so now it's Anna's egg, your donor, your body.
Yeah, so it's a full sibling to two of my existing children, but Samson's half. He feels good about it.
He likes being special.
But he was like, ‘why would you want to do all the bad parts? And the baby's not even related to you.’ I was like, splitting labor is important to me, Sam, take note.
Remember this, kid.
When I think about the life that I have that allows me to write and create stuff and teach- Anna's in a place in her career where she doesn't want to have a new baby that she's supposed to feed and she doesn't want to take a leave and she doesn't want to possibly have a major abdominal surgery and have to take a longer leave. She's happy at work and has a great job and wants to keep doing it and I am quitting a job so I think it just is working out.
Talk to me a little bit about tense and point of view because it shifts throughout the book. For example, at times you write to Anna.
I think there's a particular freedom in the memoir in essays form that allows you to try out different things. I had a writing teacher, Matthew Gavin Frank who taught the book Bough Down by Karen Green, which is a memoir about her husband's suicide that includes some collage work so it’s an image text book, which is obviously my- I love that. I remember him talking about memoirs that circle around something, that don't necessarily address something head-on. And that really stuck with me because originally, I was writing essays and sort of being like, I am frustrated with myself that I only have one thing that I'm writing about right now, I’ve got to start writing about other stuff because I'm writing too many essays about the same thing. And then I was like, oh, that's because it's a book project. It's allowed to be one thing because books are a cohesive unit of some kind.
And you need a lot of pages of them, actually.
Yeah, you need to keep writing about the same stuff.
They expect them to be many pages.
Yeah and I think there were times when I had different orientations to the subject matter. Like if the broad subject matter is ‘I had a baby and I have feelings about it,’ I had all of these different kinds of things that I was thinking about and ways of processing and people who are the primary subject matter. I think epistolary writing and memoir is a super useful tool, particularly if you're writing about an experience of marginalization. I read a lot of trans memoirs because I didn't want to write into a genre I wasn't well-read in. And so many of them kind of lapse into explaining a lot of the mechanics of being trans and I was kind of like, I have no idea whether this was in the first draft or editor's consideration or the agent said, ‘you should put this in to sell the book.’ Obviously, I don't know where those came from but I was like, if you're writing in epistolary form to someone who already has background knowledge then it's really goofy for you to explain basic shit to them so it was almost a protective measure for me.
Not to have to do that.
Not to have to, not to be able to because sometimes it can also be distancing in a way where like, I don't want to write about how I feel about the decision to take testosterone so instead I'm going to write about, like, how does it work to get a prescription for it? That’s not what I want to do. I wanted to be able to write about my experiences but talking as if the reader was already pretty intimately acquainted with the basics. And, on the other hand, a lot of epistolary writing that I can think of is written to a loved one but an interesting layer is when the people have very different orientations to whatever the subject matter is. I lapse into epistolary form with a couple different people in the book, including a stranger briefly, but they're all cis people. So, yes, there's an intimacy but also, you're never quite going to close that gap because I'm explaining an experience of weird vibes at the doctor's office with our kids and, yes, they’re our kids but you don't get it.
Right, Anna would never have that experience. As a cis person, I obviously felt a gap as well but the book also made me think about the queerness of pregnancy and specifically the queerness of first pregnancies. You have one line about how pregnancy didn't make you feel more feminine and I think it helped me put my finger on something that I keep writing essays about and not entirely working through, which is that being pregnant did not make me feel like more of a woman but instead made me feel like something else entirely outside of my experience of gender. You talked about embodiment earlier and how you felt like that was missing from the book. Do you think that that's tied to your experience of your first pregnancy versus how you feel in this one?
Yeah, I feel like the first pregnancy was a little bit like being swept under when you're swimming in an ocean, like where you're just like, I have no power over what's happening to me. I don't have empowerment over this situation.
And I was in this weird head space of being like, well, if I don't like the body I'm in now but I also didn't like the body I was in before- you know, I kept getting more pregnant and I'm like, I don't like this but I certainly wasn't pumped about it before I was pregnant. What's the third option? It felt very tumultuous. There was all this turmoil and it was really hard for me that Anna thrives on being a pregnant lady. Anna is a great pregnant lady. She has great pregnancies. She looks hot.
We all know those people, yes.
Yeah, she's one of those people. And I was just like, I know that we're different people but it feels like it's so different. And this time I like it more, I feel better about it. Samson and I are very close, I'm very glad that I gestated him and all that, but I felt very disturbed by having another person inside me, it felt very monstrous, in a bad way. I was like, he's moving and I can't control when it happens, I'm so freaked out. I just couldn't move past that at all. And I also didn't know what it would be like in the after so I was like, this could just keep getting worse. And now I know it's not going to get worse because last time I had a baby, I was happy when I had the baby out. Hopefully that'll be the case again. But this time I like it, I wanted it. It was very desired and it feels good. So that's really weird.
I keep coming back to the word natural, which is in the title of your memoir, and I think that’s the difference for me. The first time did not feel natural. The second time, it didn’t feel like it had much to do with being a woman but it felt more natural, it felt like something that I do, if that makes any sense.
Yeah. I think the idea that it has so much to do with being a woman is something that's really strange to me because that's not how my friends who've done it conceive of it. There are definitely cis straight women in my life or cis women who are partnered with cis men who are sort of annoyed, if they have more than one, that their partner can't- they'll be like, ‘oh, it's good that you guys can switch up because I don't want to do this again’ or ‘we definitely desire a second child but I don't want to be pregnant again.’ But people aren't really talking about their proximity to womanhood as a concept when we’re talking about what it's like to be pregnant. We’re talking about the publicness of your body when you're pregnant and how your boss perceives you and what does your mother-in-law say? And also, the embodiment stuff, like, do you have hemorrhoids? Is it hard to sleep? None of that feels gendered to me.
It feels like I've spent a lot of the past decade being pregnant but, if I’m lucky, in the grand scheme of my life it will have been a short period of time and I truly feel that it is its own island of experience separate from the rest of my identity, be it gender or otherwise.
It’s like time out of time, that’s been my experience. It also felt similar to narratives of illness and disability and people feeling like their body was separate from the typical or normal bodies around them and that there was no way to connect with other people. I do think that there are a lot of bodily similarities with other things, I'm just not sure womanhood is the thing that's tying this together.
Do you have a dedicated space to write?
I do now. We lived in little apartments in Michigan so I wrote in the library or in a coffee shop and then the pandemic happened. Anna is nothing if not a really relentless problem solver and she also writes so we've tried a lot of different writing areas, but recently, to reward me for quitting my job and also as a push present – I know people don’t like that, but I think it's fine – she set up this corner of the living room because she was like, ‘whenever I try to set you up in a private area, you never go there.’
A room of your own would not work. You need a public space of your own.
I grew up with five siblings, I don't do things in quiet places. But it has been really good because I'll get up a little early one day and before the kids are super hungry or we have somewhere to be or I have to go to work or whatever- I feel like writing in a public space makes me available but also not available in a way that’s really working for me. I am pathologically prone to loneliness so I don't need to be by myself. It's interesting because we'll see where my current work in progress goes and what time I need. There were times writing my first book where I did need to be in an alternate space. But then there were other times where I'm like the local bustling coffee shop right after school drop off, that's where I'm going to write, and it would be chaotic and I wrote fine.
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