Novel History

The imagined “lost confessions” of an infamous 18th century English thief fucks with the demand on trans people to produce themselves as case histories, in order to illuminate something new about the present

Illustration by George Cruickshank, 1854, from “Jack Sheppard” by WH Ainsworth. (British Library Commons)

In his first novel, Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg constructs the lost memoirs of Jack Sheppard, an infamous 18th century English thief and jailbreaker, imagining him as transgender and his partner in crime Bess as an anti-imperialist femme sex worker of South Asian descent. Running parallel to Sheppard’s story is that of Dr. Voth, a present-day scholar (also trans) whose editorial footnotes provide both historical context for the manuscript and a record of his maddening interactions with the neoliberal university. The novel’s transhistorical sweep illuminates the relationship between criminalization and capitalism then and now, while honoring an extended history of trans experience—and queer love. Emphatically pro-queer/trans, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and pro–sex worker, Confessions of the Fox is also wildly inventive, marvelously entertaining, and profoundly, close to painfully, moving.

Rosenberg, who teaches 18th century literature and queer/trans theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, divides his time between Western Massachusetts and New York. In his Manhattan apartment we talked about fantasy, history, desire, and urine as his tiny dog Gnome snarled through various toys.

MM.— I first “met” you when you organized that Nevèrÿon virtual reading group with Dean Spade some years ago. I learned so much from that communal reading of some of Samuel R. Delany’s masterworks. I bring this up because a quote from Delany about fiction as a process of “creating a false memory with the force of history,” which you reference in your recent interview with Kay Gabriel, seems fitting in starting our discussion of your book. In Confessions of the Fox it seems you are doing just that, while also troubling historicity itself. Are you thinking about this book as a work of alternate history?

JR.— Madhu Dubey uses this term anachronistic fiction (as opposed to historical fiction) that I thought was really useful. She uses it to talk about Underground Railroad, for example, where pre-emancipation frames are still taking place after emancipation; she also uses it to talk about Octavia Butler’s Kindred. In particular Kindred really brings out this concept, because you’ve got the hand reaching through the wall from the 19th century to the 20th century. We’re talking about speculative historical fiction where the answer isn’t totally about some fantasy of total verisimilitude of historical particulars. But it’s more than that, it’s this speculative thing that has to do with a moment in the present touching a moment in the past. These leaps. These historical leaps and rubbings-up-against-each-other.

It’s kind of obvious that my book is doing that, because it has that metafictional structure with the 21st century editor editing an 18th century text. I tried to create that kind of heist, or thriller, narrative where the two plot lines were going to converge—and touch. I only read that Dubey piece afterwards, but I did like that idea of anachronistic fiction as a way of using those kinds of juxtapositions to startle readers about the present so that things that are naturalized get defamiliarized and can be apprehended in a different way. So, in the case of this book, legacies of imperialism that we think of as left in some part of our barbaric past are reiterated in different form in the present.

There’s also the issue of creating a sort of anachronistic fake trans narrative, essentially. It’s a totally fantastical narrative: What if testosterone extraction and synthesis had been developed by a group of pirates who mutinied off an East India Company ship? There’s a force of that anachronism, I guess, that I was hoping to use to unsettle certain presumptions about transness in the present and also gender in the past.

Kindred is a really interesting comparative text. I’m thinking about what you were saying about touch in relation to the Stretches, a “colossal library in chitin, spiderweb and glass” that Voth discovers later in the novel. I was very intrigued by that fantastic space. “Stretch” seems useful as a word to describe the kind of transhistorical crossing you’re doing in the book—a stretch backward that is both an elongating and a reach to make new space in the historical record—stretching it, pulling at it, elasticating it. This place of the Stretches is arguably the most fantastic element of the book. Can you talk more about the different modes of fantasy in the book, especially in relation to transness?

It was really amazing to be able to work with Chris Jackson and Victory Matsui as an editorial team, in particular Victory, who identifies as nonbinary. We were able to talk out so many aspects of this. One of the things that we talked about a lot, and that I agonized about probably too much, was this question of how fantastical to make sex scenes or transgender bodies. I wanted to write a dirty, sexually explicit book. But I didn’t want it to be prurient or exploitative. At first I was like, well, I can’t show any bodies at all. Whenever somebody has sex, there will be a fantastical cloud that descends upon the scene, and I’ll just describe the feeling of sex.

Turns out I’m not so good at describing the feeling of sex. I just ended up being very ham-handed with it. Every time somebody had sex there would just be a shower of beautiful light. It was just really cheesy. Basically fireworks. Every time. And then I started to get really pissed off then, because I was also working with certain traditions. I was working very closely with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and that’s basically 800 pages of him agonizing over the relationship between embodiment and language. I just started to feel like I needed to be able to work with that as a trope.

The solution was to thematize it and split it so that the editor character in the twenty-first century is obsessed with talking about his body. He’s a little bit of a schmuck, and that’s fine, that’s his character, he’s obsessed with his body and he wants to talk about it. I became interested in less “Do we represent the body or do we not represent the body?” but instead this issue that all people probably encounter, but here specifically as a trans thing, around the relationship between language and embodiment. Within the body of the text you don’t ever see their bodies, really. You don’t see their genitalia—either of their genitalia. The cis woman or the trans man. It was important to me to show neither of their bodies. But they do have a lot of sex.

As you were talking I was thinking about the language that is used, which is euphemistic in this coy and really playful way. Much of it is slang. Like quim, for example. Which is I guess different from what you’re talking about in terms of like specific, explicit depictions of—

I tried not to do visual depictions, but you’re right. I was working with these dictionaries of thieves’ slang from the period. Those dictionaries have a lot of language for genitalia and body parts in them. I would use that language without doing visual representations. And then the editor character translates it. It was important to me to have a deluge of language for erotogenic zones. One of the points of that was to dislodge that language from the presumed biological parts, and at some point that becomes clear that it’s actually not clear which parts which words are referring to. At one point they say, “Oh, pussy could refer to any loved part of the body.” I don’t know if you’ve read that Gayle Salamon book Assuming a Body?


I really like that book. At one point she makes the point that everybody’s relationship to embodiment transits through fantasy and language. I think I was really wanting to use that thieves’ slang as a way of marking the extent to which language mediates our relationship to our body. And that can be shared within a community or between two sexual partners or however many sexual partners people have. It’s a shared way of summoning the body in language.

This is one example of how you intercede in the legacy of scientific-medical objectifications of the trans/intersex body. But also it’s an example of the kind of pastiche you’re doing, bringing elements and tropes of 18th century literature into the book. Because we have the guiding hand of Voth, who’s helping us understand everything, the Thing-Voices [Jack sometimes hears the voices of objects crying for freedom], which are a very interesting element of the book, we learn are related to it-narratives of the time, which I’m not familiar with.

In stories of the rise of the novel, most of the ways that it’s told is that what you get is the development of interiorization and character over the course of, say, the 18th century, where basically you have no interior characterization, none that’s stable, until like Jane Austen, and then everyone’s like, “Thank God Jane Austen is here, a book that we can actually like.” Before that, everything feels really very unfamiliar to contemporary readers. It was more just like a cacophony of weird experiments.

These it-narratives, where you would follow things like commodities, atoms, like a little molecule or whatever, a shoe—these were some of the it-narratives. The standard explanation for this has to do with just the totally alarming advent of commodity capitalism, where you literally get the birth of shopping and stores, and it’s totally alienating and bizarre. The standard Marxist account: You get a loss of the relationship from the process of production, and suddenly commodities are there, and they appear to have value in and of themselves. I think you’re leading me towards that Marx quote, that very famous quote from Capital: If the commodity could speak, it would tell you that the only thing of importance about itself is its value—meaning its price, not its usefulness.

The book is kind of a literalization of that. I think when Marx is saying, “if commodities could speak,” what he’s really saying is that they already kind of are. They actually have this force in the world where they seem to be animate. I wanted to literalize that, in a speculative fiction–y way.

We’ve talked about anachronistic fiction as one way to think about your novel. You brought up Kindred. I was also thinking about Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman as an interesting comparative text: this fictional intervention into history—an intervention into what is really historical erasure—that is simultaneously recuperative and inventive. But here Jack Sheppard has a real presence in the popular imagination and the historical record—and, to a much lesser extent, Bess Lyon. What was it about their history and their stature that suggested queer and trans possibilities?

Here’s the thing: For either of these characters, especially due to their class position, there actually aren’t many actual records on them. What there was was an enormous amount of public fascination with them at the time, and especially with Sheppard. Yes, John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera about Jack Sheppard became the longest-running opera ever in Britain; and then Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. There was a ton of source material—hack autobiographies, newspaper reports. The point being that we know certain facts about Jack Sheppard, like he was incarcerated in a child’s workhouse, and then sold into a servitude-like carpentry apprenticeship. But we don’t really know a lot. What there was was a lot of was rumor and oral history.

What I became interested in was less the John Gay and the Brecht material but the contemporary hack material. I was interested in what he meant to people at the time. Obviously I was interested in the way that he represented resistance to commodity capitalism, resistance to the way that the laws were changing at the time, to just criminalize everything. Things that used to be just normal ways of getting by—like tending a piece of land—oh no, this is private property, you can’t grow food here. Criminalizing taking the scrap material from your own work process—like if you’re working on a watch part, the shavings, the waste, it got legislated as private property. Everything was suddenly legislated. His prison breaks represented this fantasy of resistance. He was repeatedly represented, especially in the hack material, as what we would describe as gender nonconforming now. Very effeminate, supernaturally lithe, and able to get out of spaces in ways that no one understood. What we would call, anachronistically, his gender nonconformity, was also very sexy.

He was frequently attached to this figure we know way less about, Edgeworth Bess, who presumably was his lover. But he was attached to many women, and it was often said that when women would get caught and accused of stealing things, they would say, “Oh, Jack Sheppard gave it to me.” He became this total legend of desirability and gender nonconformity. I was interested in literalizing that metaphor, not to suggest that he necessarily really was trans, but to fuck with this idea of this constant demand on trans people to produce themselves as case histories, to produce empirical evidence of themselves, of their history. The book is not an attempt to produce more documents on Sheppard but an attempt to create the possibility of speculativeness and fictionalizing around transness when so much of the demand from outside is that we produce ourselves as these pathological cases.

One of the things about Bess is that she’s represented in all the material in a typically sexist way, as this vixen who seduces Jack into a life of crime. It’s basically absurd. I wanted to come up with a way to characterize them as having a love story of collaborativeness around heists and sex.

There is a ton of sex in the book, and a lot of desire overall. Jack is introduced first and foremost as a great lover of pussy. And he is loved and desired back. I was grateful to you for bringing that into a narrative of transmasculinity. The book is very much opposed in tone to the kind of attachment to melancholy and loneliness that characterizes many older trans narratives, especially transmasculine narratives.

I don’t know if that was really conscious—or less about transness and more to do with communist utopia in general. What I really did want to do was represent, in extremely elaborate and ornate ways, the relationship between transness and desire, and the way in which masculinity often becomes a relation—for these characters, perhaps for this author—with femmes. That doesn’t mean that’s my definition of what I think transmasculinity is. But I was interested to represent a version of that particular thing, and some of the femme labor that goes into that.

Do you want to talk about pissing?

I’m totally psyched to talk about that, because there’s a lot of urine in the book. The simplest answer is that there are certain moments where the book is just channeling total love for bodily effluvia. Here, too, the touchstone is Delany. That’s something that I’ve responded to in a really intense way in Delany, that relationship to effluvia. There’s this moment of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders where some of the characters are in a location that is used for sex parties—I think it’s the morning after. They’re standing out on a deck and a character is thinking about how much urine has been spilled in this sex club. There’s so much pissing; there’s so much eroticized pissing. So much! The character is thinking about the way in which that urine would be pooling on the deck at night and you would see the starlight reflected in the urine.

You have to think about this from a science-fictional perspective, because what he’s doing there is yoking together the awe-inspiring, expansive tropes of space opera with bodiliness and embodiment and queerness. There are certain stereotypes where space operas just seem like a straight place. Like space just seems like a straight place. Delany does this thing of bringing together that ethereal outer space–ness, total abstraction, with bodiliness in urine. There’s this question of urine as representing this certain level of total abjection of the body—but in Delany there’s devotion to that abjection. And the love of these abjected aspects of the body is totally speculative and transformative and genre-breaking and has all this potential. That is one of the things that urine means to me.

Urine for Delany becomes this prism through which you can see all these other things. There’s another moment in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders where urine is spangled on a spiderweb and all these characters are looking at it after sex and they’re having this moment of seeing the connectedness of everything in the world. They describe it as perfection, in a Spinoza sense, which means connectedness. You get this sense of this abstracted, totalizing, very intensified vision of the world, only through these abjected bodily particulars. Maybe that’s what licensed me to just go to town with urine. It’s a theory of urine. But also I just really loved writing about urine. I don’t know what to say.