The Body has its Own Ideas & Language

Saturday, December 22, 2018
Lee Kofman Interviewed by Cath James

A portrait of Lee Kofman, seated at a table next to a vase of flowers
Lee Kofman

2019 Summer School: Writing the Body

CJ: In your memoir, 'The Dangerous Bride', you detail your own sensual and erotic experiences in order to understand the narrative question you are seeking to answer about monogamy. Can you tell us about how these two elements inform each other in your writing process?

LK: This is a great question, thank you! My main question in the book was indeed: can non-monogamous relationships work? And if yes, then how? (And on the personal level, I wanted to understand why my own two non-monogamous relationships failed gloriously). The body, and more specifically the physical desire, was at the heart of my quest, of course. I tried to write honestly about my sexuality, and have honest conversations with other so-called non-monogamists whom I interviewed for the book. In the process, I discovered that people who passionately believe in monogamy, or in non-monogamy, can be often more driven by theories than by their own erotic and emotional preferences. This disparity was often the cause of many problems, because theories can seem very sensible, but the body… The body has its own ideas and language. And our flesh is a mighty thing against which even the greatest waves of moral ‘rightness’ crush. Or is this just my story? For in The Dangerous Bride, my narrator-self indeed learns a lot of theory about how to practice non-monogamy ethically, while at the same time, propelled by her body, she keeps doing exactly what she knows she’s not supposed to do.

CJ: Bodies are often a source of shame for many people, how do you overcome that in order to write honestly?

LK: My own body has definitely been my major source of shame since my teens. By the time I turned eleven, I’d undergone approximately ten major operations on both a defective heart and injuries I received in a bus accident. As a result, my body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars, which I’ve been hiding away ever since, even from my close friends. Although now, at least verbally (as opposed to physical exposure), I’m no longer hiding having just written Imperfect: How bodies shape the people we become (it’ll be out this January). There I explored how our appearance can affect our sense of self, and our life choices and chances. I interviewed many people for this book, but I framed it with my own story, and it was damn hard to reveal publicly what I’ve always kept secret.

I don’t have easy answers about how to write honestly about the body. In my case, I was propelled by the birth of my second child, who soon after was diagnosed with albinism. Once I realised that his life, too, is going to be marked by what I call an imperfection, and knowing how difficult living in an imperfect body can be, I began finding the courage to write Imperfect. But while this is my singular story, I can also share some strategies that I’ve learned using whenever I write about anything I’m ashamed of, no matter what it is. I tend to write such passages very fast, so that there isn’t much time for fear to take over, while talking myself into thinking this is just the first draft, which I then can revise and make less revealing… But once the passages are written, I often end up seeing their value and retaining the emotional truth. I also edit these tough bits as late as possible, when I’m already really invested in the work and more prepared to take risks. And I always try to remind myself of that fundamental, and somewhat paradoxical, truth of writing, that the more writers un-protect themselves, the more vulnerable and flawed they show themselves to be, the more they tend to endear themselves to their readers. Or at least earn their trust. Sometimes remembering this helps overcome the shame. Sometimes…

CJ: There is an understandable desire in us to not have our identity confused with how our body looks. The gift we have as writers is that we can move between these worlds, but are there things you also have to be mindful of?

LK: Yes, definitely. It’s true that in writing our appearance can carry less weight. But I also think it can be useful to be aware of how much our identity is entangled with our looks (in fact, this is my main argument in Imperfect) to produce a deeper, more honest and more vivid writing. This entanglement is so complex that I can’t fully unpack it here. But I’d like to make several suggestions which hopefully can be of some use for writing characters (whether fictional or real).

  • Today, perhaps more than ever, people use their bodies to showcase what they see as their essence. Body modifications, painted nails and any other such pointers can be useful in deepening characterisation.
  • Appearance can also indicate the extent of the character’s conformism.
  • On the other hand, appearance can also become a site of rebellion, challenging cultural conventions. Extreme body modifiers or trans-people, for example, may use their bodies in such ways, or at least are read in this way by others. This idea too can be useful in writing characters.  

CJ: How do you see your own body in terms of your Israeli, Russian, Australian background?

LK: I’d like to respond to this question not only in cultural but also in geographical terms. Israel is such a tiny place, everyone knows everyone there, so naturally my anxiety about the possible revelation of my scars was in its peak when I lived there. Whereas in the Soviet Union where I lived before that, most bodies were ravaged by something – drink, very long working hours, violence, inadequate medical treatments. So in Russia of those days I felt my scars were more acceptable. However, there I endured much unnecessary physical pain because of the corruption and backwardness of the Soviet healthcare system. Whereas in Australia, so vast and relatively tolerant, I’ve felt freer to express my somewhat non-conventional sexuality. These examples aren’t exhaustive, of course, but I’m not going to bore readers with the totality of my cross-cultural bodily experiences.

CJ: Which writer/s inspire you to write sensuously about the body?

LK: In terms of sensuality, Marguerite Duras is a great source of inspiration. But when I write, and read, about the body, I’m interested not only in sensuality but also in its opposites – awkwardness, disgust – and in other sensations, such as hunger or pain. And I’m equally interested in appearance, and bodily functions and actions. Mikhail Bulgakov is terrific in highlighting the comic aspects of embodiment. Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi write appearance really well, originally and vividly. And Patrick White is a master of writing any bodily aspects. 

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is the author of four books, including the memoir 'The Dangerous Bride' (2014, Melbourne University Press), and co-editor of 'Rebellious Daughters' (2016, Ventura Press), an anthology of prominent Australian memoirists. Her writing received numerous awards and her blog was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. Her next two books, creative nonfiction work 'Imperfect' (Affirm Press) and the anthology of essays 'Split' (Ventura Press), will be out in 2019. More information at