Chorus of Desire: A Conversation with Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters
Wanting: Women Writing about Desire
by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters
Catapult (2023); 352 pp.; $16.69 (Paperback)Buy Book
Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters have joined forces to bring us the new essay anthology Wanting: Women Writing About Desire. The two are accomplished writers: Kahn is a poet and biographer, McMasters is a memoirist, and they share many dozen bylines combined. As editors, they also collaborated on the essay anthology, This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home, published in 2017 by Seal Press.
In Wanting, Kahn and McMasters have collected an array of voices—all women unabashed in their desire, each unique in its articulation. The roster of contributing writers reads like a literary A-list, and the collection offers essays ranging from flash to long-form, explicit to meditative, and narrative to intellectual. Publishers Weekly called Wanting “a striking and powerful compendium on the multifaceted nature of longing.” This anthology sheds light on the complexity of female desire and, in many cases, explores the intersection of motherhood and wanting—a topic of relevance to the co-editors, both mothers.
Jenny Bartoy, managing editor of Literary Mama, connected with Kahn and McMasters over Zoom for an inaugural interview about the book, which comes out on February 14 from Catapult. This conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Jenny Bartoy: I loved Wanting, and I’m excited to speak with you both about this book. What made you want to compile an anthology about women’s desire?
Margot Kahn: Wanting is, in my mind, a continuation of the conversation that we started in This Is the Place. When we put together that first anthology, Kelly and I were grappling with the concept of home. Kelly’s home life was falling apart. I was stuck at home with a newborn, struggling. We realized that home as a concept is a formative thing. It’s where you begin, and as you grow, it becomes something you create. And if home is the first stage of the game, the coming of age, then desire is the second stage. The real fire of wanting comes in this middle time, when you’re determining who you’re going to be, what your purpose is in the world. Power, ambition, money, sex, identity—these things orbit the central concept of desire like planets in a solar system.
JB: Did you have certain goals or expectations when you set out to create this anthology? What went according to plan, and what surprised you?
Kelly McMasters: When we started talking to writers, the secrecy of desire was very surprising. So many told us, “That’s an amazing idea, but I can’t write anything because someone I know might read it.” The other surprise was finding that many writers came from the place of, “I don’t know what I want.” They wrote first drafts about why they couldn’t get the thing that they wanted, but the want itself was not central. We wanted to focus on the actual act of wanting—not of getting or not getting, but the wanting. Margot and I split the editing, worked with folks on multiple rounds, and the writers kicked their pieces over the cliff. The want became primary.
JB: A good portion of the essays focus on sexual longing, but many are about other subjects, like desiring a car or cowboy boots. This wanting is central to the propulsive energy of this book. It’s unusual to see an essay collection maintain this kind of momentum. It reminded me of the hero’s journey we all learn about in our first creative writing classes. “What does your character want?” That’s what drives the story.
MK: Absolutely. That quest for purpose. What mark am I going to make? That hits a lot of us in midlife. Maybe we thought we knew what we wanted, and then suddenly we get to midlife, and it’s like, “Oh my God, I’m going to die.” It’s a time of reevaluation. I hit 40 and felt a little blindsided. “How did I get here? What do I want the rest of my life to look like?” But when I sat down to articulate what I wanted, it was harder than I thought. With this book, the idea was to turn to the world and see how other women are thinking about desire right now.
JB: How does this articulation of desire relate specifically to being a woman? The topic of wanting is relatable for all of us in middle age—men too. But what makes it different for women?
KM: When we began work on this book, I was just starting to date again in my forties. The last time I had dated was in my early twenties. I thought a lot about not falling into the same patterns. I’d spent a lot of my youth thinking about being desired. And with this reset in my forties, owning that desire and thinking about what I actually wanted felt completely different. It was amazing and empowering to go through this experience, while reading these essays and hearing these women’s voices state what they wanted, like a strong chorus. My own desires crossed over so many of theirs.
MK: As Kelly touched on, many women were raised to think about their desirability. Switching the lens to think about our own desires is hard. Oftentimes our surface desire stems from a deeper desire. Sometimes that deeper desire is difficult, even ugly. Maybe it’s something we were told to not desire. Maybe it’s something considered unseemly or unwomanly, or that may make us “undesirable.” For example, think about desiring power as a woman.
JB: What do you think about the relationship between motherhood and desire? Becoming a mother alters our identity. The link between identity and desire is steady throughout the anthology, especially from the writers who are mothers.
MK: I found that when I became a mother, all of a sudden I was setting aside not all, but many of my own desires for someone else. I want to write, but someone’s hungry. I want to go for a run, but someone needs to be driven to school. I want to paint all day, but there’s a music recital. I’m still learning how to manage the juggling act of combining caretaking and family life with my own desires and ambitions.
KM: There are secret identities too. I think of Angela Cardinale’s piece, “Sex in the Suburbs,” for example. And I remember so clearly in our editorial meeting, we all said, “But are your kids going to read this?” When you’re a mother, you have these secret desires that you protect your children from, and sex certainly is one of those in most households. This was a complicated but necessary layer, and I was thrilled that Cardinale was willing to put herself out there in that way. Some people refuse to write because of the fear of exposure or vulnerability—the fear of speaking their truth aloud. And I’m not sure we would need to have these conversations if this were an essay collection full of men. I don’t know that anybody would say, “But do you want your children to read that?”
JB: The most poignant essays for me in the anthology were those written by mothers. Joanna Rakoff’s story about longing for her former boyfriend was so honest and brave, it floored me. So did Tara Conklin’s essay about becoming allergic to her marriage and wrestling with the end of desire. Both pieces show mothers who honor their desire in order to become whole. On the flip side, Aracelis Girmay’s devastating essay, about wanting to preserve her Black children’s innocence as long as she can, shows how a mother’s desire can be tightly woven with what she desires for her children.
KM: Aracelis’s essay is one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever read. The decision of what to share with your children, as a mother, whether that’s bodily desire or desire for change in the world, is very personal. Often mothers try to build worlds of protection around their children, to reflect the love and safety they want their kids to feel. But this is not the way the world operates; part of the reckoning that occurs across so many of the pieces you just mentioned is the wrangling necessary to hold in our hearts and in our bodies what we wish our children’s world could be like and the truth of what we know of the world, including our own limitations and powerlessness, whether that be against lust or racism or our inability to force ourselves to stay with a spouse.
JB: In her essay, Lisa Taddeo writes, “We don’t want to hear about what another woman wants.” There can be a lot of judgment among women, among mothers especially. The question “Can you have it all?” is often reframed to “If you don’t have it all, is it because you want too much?”—your desire is in the way. As mothers, should we shield our children from our desire?
MK: The idealized mother of yore was the 100% self-sacrificing woman. And this is a lovely patriarchal trope. If the woman is 100% self-sacrificing, she has no time or inclination for her own wants, and she will stay in the home taking care of all the bullshit while the men achieve their ambitions and fulfill their desires. I think it’s important for our children to see that we are not 100% self-sacrificing beings devoted solely to picking up socks and making snack plates, or there will be no progress. I want my son to understand that I have my own wants and desires, that it’s okay for me to take time away to focus on them, and that he and my husband can support those desires.
KM: The first few years after my separation, I tried to be this always sunny single mother who could do everything. I can work full time and make your dinner and pick you up from soccer. And one day we were walking down Main Street, and there was a Help Wanted sign in the window of a sushi restaurant. And my youngest son said, “Maybe you can apply for that job. That way you can have something to do on the weekends when we’re not with you.” Little did he know, I got all of my needs taken care of in those two days every other weekend, and that’s what got me through and let me be sunny in between. But that was when I realized, I need to let him see what is happening when he’s not with me. With boys in particular, I’m always thinking about what kind of men I’m raising. I’d love for them to understand what these essays are all communicating: that wanting is complex and multi-layered and some of it has absolutely nothing to do with our children. Our desires can be entangled with or completely separate from them. It’s important for our kids to understand where, in the solar system, their star lives.
JB: Anthologies are enjoying a resurgence in the literary world. Tell us about your process in putting this anthology together. Once you came up with the idea for Wanting, were there certain topics you wanted? Were others unexpected?
MK: When we conceived of the book, we definitely had a list of topics we wanted to cover. We started by looking for particular writers who had written around those topics, and we scored some initial pieces that way, like Melissa Febos’s orgasm essay, “Song of Songs.” At the same time, writers were handing us essays that we didn’t expect, covering topics that were not on our list but that, as soon as we read them, we realized had to be in the book.
KM: We thought of Amanda Petrusich, critic for The New Yorker, specifically because we wanted a music piece. And then she turned in this wild, gorgeous, lush piece about religion and solitude. Another example is Laura Joyce-Hubbard’s essay. She’s a former cargo and commercial airline pilot, and as soon as I met her, I thought, we need your story—what’s it like to want to fly? That’s not something that we went in knowing that we wanted.
JB: Reading this collection feels like looking through a kaleidoscope—light hitting a different facet of the same topic with each new essay. This conveys the complexity of female desire, but also of the expectations that box women in and how our multitude of desires push against them. What was your process in organizing the anthology? Did you set out to create this sense of reverberation of ideas in ordering the essays?
MK: If somebody is going to read only 30 or 50 pages before they decide whether or not they like this book, we want them to get a sense of the book right away. So we tried to put five very different, strong essays right up front. Yes, there is some sex, but if you look at these first essays, the range that’s covered is pretty broad, from topic to voice to structure.
Then we look at how the essays build on each other with slightly different points of view—your great kaleidoscope metaphor. For example, the sixth essay, Kristen Arnett’s “Being a Dad Means Respecting the Yard,” is an interesting take on tending to your own plot of land. And then two pieces later, Rena Priest’s “Desire in the City of Subdued Excitement” offers a different take on what land ownership looks like from an Indigenous perspective.
The last five essays, from Merritt Tierce’s “Notes Toward a History of Desire” about rape and her evangelical upbringing and their influence on her desire, through Amber Flame’s braided piece, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby,” about a queer parent raising a tween, are a reward for the hardcore readers. If you’ve read in order, you’ve immersed yourself in these ideas, and you’re ready for some complex deep dives.
JB: Part of the fun in reading this anthology is noticing the connections between themes. In “The Pleasure Archive,” Keana B. Nurse comes to terms with her desire for what may be historically dictated by the oppressor and reclaims that power, and then Tarashea Nesbitt writes about her teenage self finding power in her desire to be desired by her molester. Then Rena Priest wrestles with the shape of her power within and against a colonized culture. These threads make for a very satisfying reader experience.
KM: There’s some friendship between the essays. We specifically knew we wanted Domenica Ruta’s “Control Freak” next to Elisa Albert’s “On Not Getting What I Wanted.” Domenica honors her abortion in a powerful and beautiful way, and we wanted to hold that next to a piece that essentially begins with the drumbeat of “All I want is another child.” We wanted to keep those close together. But there is a lot of alchemy involved and Margot is a magician.
MK: I think that there is some magic to it. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, a taste—the sound of the language, or some particular images that want to sit next to each other. Like, these two essays speak to each other, or these three essays need to go in this order.
KM: Our editor, Alicia Kroell, is an incredible reader and helped us finalize the order, and we were so grateful for that help.
JB: Women have always written about desire. From Kate Chopin in The Awakening to Annie Ernaux’s works of passion—desire is a consistent theme in literature. Other anthologies have been published on the subject too, for example Desire: Women Write About Wanting edited by Lisa Solod Warren, and published by Seal Press in 2007. How do you see Wanting contributing to this discourse?
MK: Desire is something to continually grapple with because it’s ever-changing. A recent review of the book in Shelf Awareness put it beautifully: desire is a “complex cultural, economic and political state of being.” It makes sense that we’d keep revisiting this topic as the world around us changes. As culture and politics change, so do our expectations, fantasies, ambitions, and realities. I hope women’s desire is something we’re always talking about, always revisiting.
KM: When we first conceived of This Is the Place and tried to sell that anthology, Hillary Clinton was about to win, and everyone said, do you really need space for women talking about home? You’re about to have a female president in the House. And then everything changed. And I think similarly, the proposal for Wanting was created before we knew that Roe v. Wade was going to be overturned. This is not the conversation we thought we would be pushing against when we imagined this book. But things are not static, including female desire. I hope this will be a very different conversation in another ten years.