I find a lot of re-homing in water

“I feel the ocean this way. I’m put back together once I enter it, and every time I enter, there’s a homecoming and I feel the need to say a prayer.”

– J Wortham

J offered “blessings for a new year that is dripping with honey and covered in all the deliciousness that you need” as opening line in an email thread related to their oral history project of Riis Beach, part of the fellowship “I See My Light Shining” that is a collaboration between the author Jacqueline Woodson, Columbia University and Emerson Collective. For years, I followed their work as staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, co-host of the podcast Still Processing, and editor of the visual anthology Black Futures, and felt even more inspired as I learned of their practice as sound healer, reiki practitioner, herbalist, and community care worker. For months after reading their recent piece “Want to Love Your Body? Try Swimming Naked”, I imagined in queer spaces – What stubborn attachments are dissolving fluidly right now through this sacred, collective glimpsing and sensing? I had to ask if I could learn more from the person who shares as service, who offers directly, concisely, and explicitly towards a vision of healing justice and liberation. I felt blessed when my teacher Taravat Talepasand connected me with J for this interview. 

Gili Rappaport (they/them): You wrote “You can’t dissociate in the ocean” in your recent piece “Want to Love Your Body? Try Swimming Naked” in The New York Times Magazine. Do you think that being in nature, and the ocean specifically, is a kind of gift that we are being offered as humans to mend the disconnection that we face from our conscious awareness, our thoughts, our feelings, our memories? And how does that relate to being queer? 

J Wortham (they/them): This is a beautiful question. There is so much synchronicity between queerness and nature. So much of nature is queer, which is to say that it does what’s best for it. The binaries of the modern world have been pushed upon us both through categorization and compartmentalization. But when you actually look at how nature functions, it has a natural fluidity to it. It has its own orientations. It’s antithetical to hierarchies. There is so much collaboration, cointegration, sentience, intelligence and sensorial information that doesn’t make sense to the humans that study these systems, plants, and bodies of ecology, so they go unrecognized. It feels inherently queer that the intelligence and order of the natural world defies expectations of how things are supposed to work – both that it is quietly existing, and that it is thriving in its own ways without being detected, observed, controlled or perceived. When nature is left to its own devices, it figures out an ordinance that works for it. 

Gili Rappaport: What about the history of queer sites along waterways? 

J Wortham: There is a long, fascinating history of queer spaces existing alongside bodies of water in nature. Every time I travel, I look into those places. When I was searching cruising spots out in Long Island and the area that is now commonly known as the Hamptons, there were pockets that were less well known to me there and all along the rivers in New York. In pretty much any city, town, or place that I’ve been curious about that had water in the landscape, there was a history of queer encounters. I find that really beautiful, harmonious,  and exciting, and it makes sense: there’s a metaphorical fluidity, sexiness, and evolution that happens alongside the water. 

Also, something that came out of reading Esther Newton’s book Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town (2014) is that bits of land alongside water also provided privacy and anonymity, which is not the same thing as isolation. There was a need and a desire for a place away from societal rules and regulation to experiment, have fun, and find freedom. That’s also interesting when we start thinking about it from a racialized lens. 

Gili: How do you connect this research with Work of Body, the book of essays that you are currently writing on dissociation?

J: First, I want to express that my connections with water aren’t universal, and they may not be true for people other than me: a lot of people feel uncomfortable alongside or in water, and there is ancestral trauma, especially for many Black and Brown people whose peoples have endured pain and historical violence on and alongside bodies of water.

For me, water is a stabilizing and grounding force. I find a lot of re-homing in water. As Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved (1987): “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” This quote speaks to collective shared memory as enslaved people, and the ways in which black people cared for themselves before the Civil War, and helped return to each other. 

I feel the ocean this way. I’m put back together once I enter it, and every time I enter, there’s a homecoming and I feel the need to say a prayer. If I’m somewhere and there is a body of water, I want to visit it. I sometimes want to do a ritual alongside it. I feel at home, like there’s a part of me that’s returned to myself. It’s hard to find out a lot of information about my history but I would love to know if there were fisherpeople in my lineage.

This relates to dissociation because I am someone who spends a lot of time outside of my body, and not always aware that I’m outside of it until I’m re-entering it. That process can be slow or fast, and it’s so beyond me. Being around water is one of the ways that I feel consistently located within myself. I find that interesting because the ocean as a body has so many parts, and it’s also this incredibly massive thing. 

This summer, I took ocean swimming classes in Martha’s Vineyard and Cayman Islands. I learned how the ocean has a language and rules. Safety there is imperative. Learning to swim in the ocean is different: currents and shifting temperatures can indicate important things about depths or tides. So you’re listening differently, breathing differently, seeing differently. It feels like learning a new language. It is the opposite of dissociation. 

A big part of why I wanted to write that essay, besides wanting to write about queerness, water, and beaches, and because it made sense with my research at the time, is because I always am trying to understand the deeper relationship between myself, water, queerness, and my ancestral orientation. I don’t know that it’s ever going to be clearly delineated. It just is.

Gili: What you’re saying about the fisherpeople reminds me of something else that you wrote in The Magazine: “An oracle once looked me dead in the face and told me I crawled here from the ocean floor”. It reminded me of when a medium told me that I had been wandering the desert for thousands of years. 

On the topic of queerness, ancestry, and identity, what’s your relationship with your name change and geography of home? I heard you say on the podcast Thresholds (2023), “I wasn’t beholden to anybody. And at a certain point I was like, I’m not even beholden to myself. So who am I trying to people-please? Because nobody out here is checking for me. And that was really freeing.” How have you benefited from having a name change when you were living in the Bay Area, and then returning to your home community in New York? 

J: I trust the timing of my life and the great unfolding. It is what it is. I feel a lot of peace around it. Sometimes when I talk to friends in my life who’ve been clear on their queerness from a young age, I feel envious. I wonder what my life would be like, had that been my path. I can also look back on my own life, my childhood, and see all the ways in which there was actually just so much queerness present, which didn’t maybe follow a classic, clear arc, but I’m actually not even sure that there is one. 

I was a little bit of a later bloomer, but it was hard for me to access queer community. When I was younger, even though I was trying, I felt outside of the matrices of queerness and queer desirability. When I first moved to New York, I would always try to go to queer parties and queer bars. But I wasn’t really tapped into Black and Brown communities. Instagram wasn’t as popular, so I found it hard to find things. I was constantly going to places and put in these predominantly white environments, trying to appeal there, and feeling so inadequate. It convinced me that I didn’t actually belong or that I wasn’t actually queer, or queer enough. That kept me from feeling like I could be more fully expressed. This dovetails my larger life journey of not looking outside of myself for approval, validation, and acceptance: not needing others to tell me the names that I can name myself. In hindsight, it was a slow dawning awareness, and then figuring out how to own it in a way that made sense and felt comfortable for me. So it did benefit me. 

It’s nice to be able to talk about it without shame and embarrassment, which I had for a long time. I love the bell hooks quote about queerness, “not being about who you’re having sex with, but about being at odds with everything around it”. It’s queerness in the way you live your life, orient yourself politically, think about your role in the world and your contributions, and create new paradigms. That feels fitting. I’m trying to press up against the edges of my own queerness and see where it can go and how it goes there. And who can come along with me.

Gili: What is the role of clothing in a place where clothing isn’t required? And how does that relate to a show like Ralph’s Beach Parties at Riis Beach, NYC?

J: There is something incredibly powerful and radical about the ways in which clothing and adornment work for all people, and especially queer people. People who in our everyday lives try to figure out how to dress in a way that attracts the kind of attention we want, or detracts the kind of attention we don’t want, to dress for our genders, and to have playfulness. To participate in true identity construction as much as we want and need. And there’s also a lot of freedom in taking it off. That’s the intersection when I think about a queer nude beach. 

I haven’t been to Ralph’s shows. But my guess is, from being on Riis Beach and seeing how fashion works there, it’s fun to wear neon thongs and pasties. It’s all meant to be comedic and funny, to make other people laugh or gasp. Even if there isn’t an organized fashion show, it’s always a fashion show. It’s the way in which we signal to each other and have playfulness. In New York in particular, there’s a culture of dressing for other people, to give other people an experience that defines their day. It’s one of my favorite things about living here, the community, and the ways in which we try to make each other laugh or smile just by how we show up in the world.

Gili: Also, speaking of shame and embarrassment, have you had to overcome any of those feelings around public nudity at queer beaches? 

J: I’m rarely nude at Riis beach in New York. I worry about surveillance so It’s not freeing for me the way it is for other people. After growing up with so much internalized fat phobia, body anxiety, and disordered eating, I finally feel really happy with the way I look and feel naked, which is unusual in the scheme of my whole life. But if I end up in naked photos, I want to have agency over that. 

In Oaxaca, there seemed to be different standards of surveillance and documentation: there’s more respect and acknowledgement of the space being sacred and special, and not privy to the nonstop documentation that governs so much of our modern lives. It was the first time that I thought, “I might actually be able to experience what so many other people get to experience when they’re in the water and when they’re swimming”. That was a big revelation for me and what I ended up writing about actually more than anything else. 

That’s the exciting thing about being a writer: having lines of inquiry and curiosities, following them, and paying attention to what else is happening and coming up. I try to let the circumstances dictate the story. This is a great privilege of still writing at a magazine in 2024, which is rare and feels kind of endangered. Freedom of inquiry feels like a real privilege. 

Gili: In the magazine piece mentioned above, you shared some personal erotic accounts: “In the dunes of Provincetown, Mass., where a girlfriend and I tried covertly to have sex, several times, only to have a park ranger chase us away, several times, with the increasing exasperation of someone trying to clear a road of errant livestock.” How do you navigate the agency aspect of sharing accounts with others? I imagine a tension between the need to paint a picture of reality, and the privacy of what you share, with whom, and how you share it.

J: I think a lot about the privacy of the people I’m writing about. I appreciate what Melissa Febos has written in her book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (2022) about the ways in which we can practice care, consideration, and collectivism in reckoning with the power of being a writer. We will always write in a way that is biased towards ourselves, so how can we be aware of those biases? It feels jarring sometimes to see something intimate or personal in print that you’ve shared. When it feels necessary, I talk to the people I plan to write about. 

I find it empowering, important, and necessary to share stories that feel meaningful because I believe in service. I believe in the reparative personal work that we do in talking about it and normalizing it, and it is also helpful for other people. I could be wrong: there could be people who feel that it’s an overshare, not interesting, or a little over the edge. The feedback that I’ve gotten has reinforced that it is helpful when I talk about sobriety, body shame, dysmorphia, dissociation, and queerness. 

Also, there still aren’t enough direct, concise, explicit examples. I remember being in my twenties and reading sexy, explicit, disgusting books about women, bodies, and rage and the authors were always white. I never really understood why that was, so it became a personal mission to incorporate that into my own work. It was freeing to do that. I have pulled back some because I am aware that not everybody needs to know every single thing all the time, and there’s a way to write about sex and intimacy that isn’t necessarily just describing acts explicitly unless it’s helpful to the story. So that’s the learning curve that I’m in right now: trying to find that balance between the two. 

Gili: Given all of your experience writing for The New York Times Magazine, editing the anthology Black Futures, and also conducting the oral history project, do you have any advice for people who are interested in being archivists, journalists, or working in that kind of socially engaged way? 

J: Some of the most engaging and rigorous conversations I’ve been having lately involve concepts of care and mindfulness when asking people to share personal information, whether that be oral histories, or journalism, or really anyone that you’re asking to be vulnerable. To be really mindful of the power dynamics that exist when you’re someone with a recorder and publishing power. So many of the people I reach out to are from historically ignored communities, so sometimes there’s suspicion, and sometimes there’s such excitement that someone cares that people give a lot. It’s up to us to be responsible and protective as much as we can be. 

Also, these are two very different roles: archivists and journalists. There are different considerations for both depending on what you’re doing, recording, archiving, and documenting. Being credibly aware that it is an extractive process and that people aren’t always aware of the repercussions and consequences when sharing intimate details of their lives. That is something that I think about quite a bit, and something that I try to let people know in advance. And that we can go slowly. 

Something that I’ve also learned over the years from feedback is that people will feel they were misrepresented or the full story wasn’t portrayed, because it never is, and it can’t be. And while that is something that I do think it’s important to try to be aware of, it’s not always something that we can be responsible for. It is important to try, when possible. When I’m working in historically disenfranchised communities, the last thing I want to do is replicate the systems of disenfranchisement that already exist. We all get to choose our practices, the ways we want to work, and how we want to show up and cover our communities and the things that we care about. I try to remind people that the paradigms of how personal and vulnerable information is received online, which is how most people are receiving this information, can make it really challenging to be vulnerable and authentic. It’s something that I don’t want to haunt me as I get older, and it’s something that really weighs on me. I feel a need for care around it now.

Gili: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing so vulnerably about this need for care. Do you have any other questions before we close out? 

J: This book of interviews that you’ve been conducting for the past few years (collected in the anthology I See What You See, KSMoCA May 2024) sounds amazing and necessary. I’m glad that you’re doing it. I hope to meet you and your collaborators, and hear more about the project as it evolves. 

Gili: Thank you so much J! 

J Wortham (they/them) is a sound healer, reiki practitioner, herbalist, and community care worker oriented towards healing justice and liberation. J is also a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, and co-host of the podcast ‘Still Processing.’ J is the proud editor of the visual anthology “Black Futures,” a 2020 Editor’s choice by The New York Times Book Review, along with Kimberly Drew, from One World. J is also currently working on a book about the body and dissociation for Penguin Press. J mostly lives and works on stolen Munsee Lenape land, now known as Brooklyn, New York, and is committed to decolonization as a way of life.

Gili Rappaport (they/them) is a naturalist using their skills as an artist, designer, and educator to deepen relationships with nature through social and visual forms. Their interdisciplinary practice cultivates intergenerational, inter-species connections that move within a range of outdoor sites: beaches, wetlands, rivers, forests, gorges, sky bridges, heritage trees, backyards, and graveyards. They co-authored Field Guide To The Northeast (The Outside Institute, 2017–2021) and co-organized Ralph’s Neon Oasis Beach Party at historic gay beach Jacob Riis (Gateway National Park, 2023). In 2024, Anthology Editions will publish the book they designed with Ralph Hopkins, They Call Me The Mayor at Riis Beach: Ralph’s Beach Parties 1994—2000, and KSMoCA will publish their anthology of interviews I See What You See: Art + Social Practice Conversations. The Front Room at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Parallax Gallery, The Switch Gallery, and Dream Clinic Project Space have all shown their work, and KSMoCA and and Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University has their work in their public collections.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207