START OF TRANSCRIPT
ME O’Brien: Hello. My name is Michelle, and I will be having a conversation with Kayla Puan for the New York City Trans Oral History Project. This is an oral history project centered on the experiences of trans identifying people. It is June 24, 2069, and this is being recorded at the North Ironbound Commune in Newark. Hello Kayla.
Kayla Puan: Hello Michelle.
O’Brien: Could you start off and introduce yourself.
Puan: Sure. My name is Kayla Dorothy Hart Puan. I’m seventeen years old, and I was born and grew up here at North Ironbound. I am a photographer. I guess it’s relevant to say I’m trans. I’m a girl. A woman. A trans woman I guess?
O’Brien: Seventeen? So are you traveling soon?
Puan: Yes! I have been planning my sojourn for the last few months. I’m really excited. Can I tell you about it?
O’Brien: This is your interview! You should talk about whatever you’d like.
Puan: I’ve never traveled before.; I’ve only ever taken the train to the cities right around here. To start for this trip, I’m taking a clipper cargo ship south. It will stop in Baltimore and Miami, and then we’ll be headed to Cuba. From there I’ll take small boats and visit Jamaica, Trinidad and Puerto Rico.
O’Brien: What brings you to the Caribbean?
Puan: I’m seeing friends. Trans kids I know online. We are all in a photography collective together, called Kimera. We had a show last year that traveled around a bit. I’ve never met these friends! I’m going to spend two weeks at each of their homes. Everyone besides me lives in the Caribbean, and I think seeing them all that will be the most fun part of my trip. After all that I’m going to New Orleans. I have an internship at a photography studio there, doing some really interesting processing techniques I want to learn. Then I’m taking a train to Colorado.
O’Brien: What’s in Colorado?
Puan: My dad, one of my dads, Kareem, was killed there. I am going to hike through old battlegrounds in the Rocky Mountains for the month, and visit where he was buried. [Pause.] My dad was killed fighting fascists when I was five. It was really sad. I remember being really sad. I don’t remember Kareem very well. He had been in the army I guess when the insurrection started, and his whole unit defected early. He’s part of why Newark got free so much sooner than a lot of places. He taught firearm safety to everyone around here, and tried to recruit folks to go fight the fascists. I don’t remember this. But I remember how bad things got after he died. It was so hard on all of us. [Long pause.]
O’Brien: It sounds powerful that you are getting a chance to visit where he was buried.
Puan: Yeah. [Pause.]
O’Brien: We can come back to that. What’s after Colorado?
Puan: I’m hiking to Wyoming and doing a service stint there. The Blackfoot Confederacy operates a rare earth mine there. They mine Samarium. It’s used in lasers. I am going to work for three months.
O’Brien: Is it dangerous?
Puan: Yeah, a bit. Not the Samarium itself, I don’t think, but just being underground for a few hours at a time, and it’s always possible there may be an accident. But the Blackfoot nation has a lot of skills in workplace safety and environmental mitigation, and I gather they’ve figured out how to do it safely. But it’s hard work, and no one works in the mines for too long. It’s mostly robots, I guess? But for some things they really need people underground, and everyone agrees no one should have be underground for the long term. A lot of kids – adults I mean, kids becoming adults like me – do three-month work stints there during their sojourn, like I’m doing. I guess it’s one of the not very pleasant jobs that folks can take on for their sojourn three-month service. And I guess there is a lot of praying at the mine? Mining is spiritually dangerous, too. Taking things out of the Earth. So we do a lot of praying and rituals the whole time. I have been reading about it, but I don’t know that much about it. I have never prayed and not really sure what it is exactly. My mom prays, I think? Or meditates? I’m not sure if it is the same as what folks at the mine do.
O’Brien: That sounds like a great sojourn! Will you be coming back here after?
Puan: Yes! I don’t know what I’ll do after that, but I’m thinking of maybe gestating, and starting to study teaching photography.
O’Brien: Tell me about your photography, and that of your collective.
Puan: My photos are cinematic. They look like stills out of vids or games or vr. I’m into the strong emotion in people’s faces, and catching that mid-action. I’ve tried staging shoots with actors, I’ve tried just getting pictures from day to day life of things I see. But lately I’ve gotten more into setting up a camera in a fixed location where a lot of people pass by, like at the canteen, and then processing through weeks and weeks of stills every time someone passes in front of the camera. I look for images that imply some sense of a storyline, like a scene from some unfolding plot you can guess at. I think I got into it through loving movies when I was growing up. For a while I thought I’d get into film production. I grew up really into these popular Namibian soap operas totally packed full of melodrama, and I always found the Sub-Saharan film world to be super compelling as a kid. For years I thought I would move there to make films, to get involved in that whole glamorous world. But I think I’ve found, for now, the part of movies that is most compelling to me, these images that evoke narratives. My collective all does some variation on portraiture of human faces, and we are all trans, but beyond that we are kind of all over the place. I guess we also are all interested somehow in denaturalization, but how we approach that varies a lot.
O’Brien: That sounds really interesting. You said you are thinking of gestating? Is that common for trans women?
Puan: Yeah, actually it’s pretty common these days among my friends online, and I know one girl that is pregnant right now in Brooklyn. I’ve always wanted to do it. I was gestated. Well, everyone is gestated. You know what I mean. My gestator was not one of my parents. Her name is Emile. She lives in Elizabethtown, and I go to see her most years on my birthday. She is a painter! Gestated four children! She is very cool. I was thinking it could be nice to give birth while I’m still young. I’m lucky the tech means I can do it.
O’Brien: Lovely. Maybe this is a good time to go back to your growing up? Tell me about your parents. How did they meet? What kind of work did they do?
Puan: I had four parents, initially. Kareem, who I mentioned, who was killed. His boyfriend Joseph. Joseph’s three-hour was coordinating the distribution of a drug used by diabetics. A pharmaceutical logistics circle. He is retired now. Sara, my mom, she is a nurse for her three-hour. Still working. And Caleb, Sara’s husband, he drove a bus. And before that I think he was a teacher. He became a bus driver because of his political group, he told me once. They all helped found the North Ironbound Commune shortly after the insurrection took Newark. Ani and his children moved in much later.
O’Brien: Tell me about North Ironbound.
Puan: It’s my commune. We have 231 residents. It was the first commune of Newark. Other people know this story, it was before I was born. During the insurrection people set up these big cooperative kitchens and worked together around getting food and eating it together. People started sharing childcare, and trying to sleep close to each other for safety. Initially it was about staying alive, figuring out how to get everyone fed, how to keep things going when they got rid of money and all the police quit and the fascists were driven out, people needed to eat. The group kitchens were the beginnings of the commune, and from there they shared all the other kinds of work of daily life. Groups of a couple hundred, I guess? Folks decided it was a better way to live, and as the insurrection went on people adopted these apartment buildings for commune centers. North Ironbound Commune was the first in Newark, and Dutch Neck just down the road was second. You are very old! You may remember that.
O’Brien: I do! I was in Brooklyn. I was old then too. Why were your parents involved?
Puan: They were communists! [Laughter.] And I guess there were some arguments when things started settling down about if everyone should go back to their tiny households and live as isolated families and use money again. My family was opposed to that, and fought to keep the communes, and helped win the policy that food coming in from other regions gets distributed through the commune kitchens. A few people got by staying in their homes, but gradually people became more and more involved in the communes near them. I think my parents were especially into it because of their own backgrounds. Kareem and Joseph were gay, and I guess that was still a thing back then? And they are all, what is the word, interracial couples. So that changed their politics. And Sara hated housework so so so much. She would still complain about it while I was growing up, even though she got to avoid all the housework duties for her two-hour. She said women should never do housework ever again because they had done so much of it for so long. It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me though, when I did a housework shift.
O’Brien: Did you ever wish your family was more independent, like cooking and cleaning for themselves, and living separated, and with the parents in charge of everything?
Puan: No! Oh god, I get that that’s how people used to live, but it sounds so lonely and so bad. And I don’t think it would have been good for me. None of my parents were very into trans stuff when I came out, but they were able to get a lot of help from everyone here who they worked and ate with. The money and property stuff sounds like such a terrible idea all around and seems like it must have been so miserable for everyone.
O’Brien: What was your first memory?
Puan: I remember crawling around in the sun, and finding squash hiding under the big leaves. The sun coming through the leaves, I remember that. A lot of my childhood I spent on the farm. We have this farm, because people love it.
O’Brien: Was the farm how people survived?
Puan: Oh no! Once the fighting died down, we got food from all over the world. And we always had digits, and movies, and the internet came back up quickly. We were healthy. Sara was the main medical care for the commune, but she worked a lot with a doctor at Dutch Neck. No, things were really good when I was growing up. North Ironbound was never a production center of any sort. Everyone’s three-hour job is about something outside of the commune; some people leave to work elsewhere, others work on various projects in the workshops and co-working spaces in the main building. Then everyone also does two-hour of commune work, like cooking or cleaning or building. But we don’t make anything here besides some things we use for ourselves and share with a few neighbors. We all play our role, though, in what gets made in the region, and tend to be very active in global logistics stuff.
O’Brien: Three-hour job? That’s three hours of work daily? I don’t think everyone listening organizes their time between three-hours and two-hours.
Puan: Yeah, three hour daily, sure. Three days a week. I do my three-hour on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes people do three-hour jobs more than three days a week, but only if they are really obsessed or there is an emergency. Two-hour jobs are also usually also three days a week, but often on the other days, and focus on our life here at North Ironbound.
O’Brien: Did your parents live in the main building here when you were growing up?
Puan: This main building wasn’t built yet. I helped build it when I was a teenager. But there was a previous main building, an apartment building. But no, my parents moved into a brownstone. You can see it over there! [Pointing] They moved when I was born. But still came back to the main building for two meals a day, and for videos, and for their three-hour and often their two-hour, and all their classes, and the assemblies where we decide everything, and for pretty much everything except having some quiet private time.
O’Brien: You said there was a sad time?
Puan: [Pause.] Yeah. After Kareem died. Joseph got really upset, and was so mad all the time. He was drinking a lot. My memories of it are vague, but I was asking around about it to get ready for this interview. It was a big deal for me I think even if I didn’t understand it all. One night Joseph attacked me, I guess? Hit me a bunch of times? Sara and Caleb were gone at the time, and it was just Joseph and me. He had never done that before, I’m pretty sure.. I had come out as trans that year, I knew I was a girl, and I think that was very confusing for him. And Kareem dying was so, so hard for everyone, but especially for Joseph. And Joseph was upset about the refugees who moved in about then, I don’t know why. They say I didn’t have wounds you could see very easily, and I didn’t tell anyone, but people figured it out very quickly. I was going to the crèche for school three hours a day, and there were four adults there I was really good friends with. And we shared our brownstone with another group of adults and kids upstairs, and I knew all of them well. And then everyone who worked in the garden in the mornings knew me because I was one of the kids who was around all the time. And they all immediately knew something was wrong and something had happened. They had this big assembly and argued about what to do all night. At one point two friends talked with me for an hour about what I wanted. I actually remember that part really well strangely, that conversation.
O’Brien: What came out of that?
Puan: They decided Joseph had really fucked up very badly. They made him move, and three of his friends volunteered to make an accompaniment. One of the three of them stayed with him all the time for two years! That seemed very long. He also had to do all this counseling, and I guess he ended up talking about Kareem a lot. That’s what he told me later. Joseph visited me once a week, even though I saw him in the canteen and all most days. But he always had a friend with him all the time, and I could tell they weren’t ever, ever letting him be alone or run away. It was hard and weird. I got very sad, and I went to this group at Dutch Neck for kids. That helped me with my tics and stomach aches, and my feelings, and it also really helped with thinking about being a girl it turned out. [Pause.]
O’Brien: Do you know who was involved in that decision? How many people?
Puan: I think everyone? There are over 200 people living in North Ironbound. Probably the parents and grandparents had a lot of say, and some of the older kids before their sojourns, and Harriet was the child development specialist, and everyone who was my friend. Just assuming it was a bit like all the assemblies I went to as a teenager. Not exactly the same situation, but other problems that came up I was a part of deciding about. When it comes to talking about kids with problems that’s often what the discussions are like, with more weight on parents and older kids and people who take care of kids.
O’Brien: Did you ever live in the crèche?
Puan: Yes, when I was 13, I really didn’t want to be around my parents anymore. Ani, Joseph’s new love, moved in. Xe brought three kids, Booker, Rashan, and another Sara. The apartment felt so crowded, and I wasn’t close to those kids. I moved into the teenage crèche, a couple of apartments in the main building. It was great! We spent a lot of time playing video games and doing these wacky role-playing things and writing stories together. Our rooms were always very dirty. We ate all of our meals in the canteen, and adults would come by the crèche twice a day, so we weren’t totally alone. But it was so so wild. We didn’t have sex? I was surprised at that, because we got so so much sex education at school, but back then it was cool to put off sex until your sojourn. I don’t think that really makes any sense honestly, and I’m glad that is changing. So yeah, I was living there. School was just like a three-hour, but sometimes more days of the week, and then we all had commune work shifts. I was always doing the garden stuff for my two-hour, but I also got into cooking. And then I spent a lot of time doing photography the rest of the time. We had a good set up in the basement, and when we started designing the new main building I made sure there was a whole photography lab, because all the ones in Newark suck.
O’Brien: What did your parents think of you moving out of their apartment?
Puan: They were a bit sad about it I think. It wasn’t their choice. It was mine. [Pause.] And I guess also the Assembly and the teen créche got to have some say in me moving. [Long pause.]
O’Brien: How much contact do you have with strangers, folks beyond those you grew up with?
Puan: There are always travelers staying with us. Often as many as a dozen people—young people on their sojourn, refugees from disasters, people who weren’t happy in their commune, or folks who just don’t like to settle. Some of them eventually become residents, and a lot of them move on. I was always excited to meet the travelers coming through when I was growing up. I would often eat with them and ask them lots of questions. Then I also know tons of people in the communes around Newark, North Jersey and New York. There are also parties and conferences and tournaments of one sort or another. I mostly connect to people about trans stuff or my art. A lot of my life is online, in video meetings and conferences, in my art networks, in Planning, so I’m always chatting with people all over the world. Plus I think it’s important to say that folks who live here came here from so many different kinds of lives. North Ironbound, like a lot of communes, really values having people living here from everywhere.
O’Brien: Did you do a medical gender transition?
Puan: Yeah. I put off my puberty until I was 14, and then did it as a girl. All the other trans kids I knew were very nonbinary. I guess everyone was kind of nonbinary and bisexual then, but I really knew I was a girl. I had a couple of surgeries, before they could do the genetic therapy to have it happen on its own. Though we never had sex, I also fell in love all the time. Like really over and over all the time. I was so into dates and romance and walks. God the number of walks I had gushing about feelings. It was so so nice. And really confusing.
O’Brien: Tell us about falling in love.
Puan: I am just really a romantic. The whole thing! I’d meet people working on a project or visiting another commune, or once in a while having a moment with someone who lived here, and I’d feel that spark and feel myself wake up and be alive inside and I’d love it so much. Then I’d flirt and fall and feel giddy and scared, and then dates, usually followed soon by drama and confusing neurotic conversations. Every time I would learn a bit more about myself, about how confusing one’s own heart can be when that vulnerable. I very slowly managed to figure out how not to rush into the conflict quite so much, what sorts of stuff would trigger me and spiral me out. Some of that was about what happened with my dads I think. Anyhow, I burned through a lot of people. I dated or pursued or something or other with everyone near my age. But I still have this real, deep set sense that the way to be happy, really happy, is only possible through being utterly and totally in love. Hopefully, I’ll grow out of that. I think I need to learn more about how to be lonely. I’m not alone very much, living here. Maybe on my sojourn I’ll learn how to be alone.
O’Brien: I hope you do! [Pause.] What do you hope to do down the track?
Puan: Well, my sojourn is really exciting. I have been planning it with my crèchemates who already did theirs. I told you about wanting to gestate. Maybe I’ll have two kids? Maybe one? I don’t know. I’m thinking I will try teaching photography. So I’m going to start a program at Essex County.
O’Brien: That’s a college?
Puan: Yeah, studying pedagogy and photography to teach kids. That would be my three-hour, and I think I’d like to do it in the afternoons, because that’s when kids aren’t as sleepy. And I want to keep working in the garden, and maybe I’ll run this trans discussion group I have been a part of at Dutch Neck.
O’Brien: You said you are involved in some Planning?
Puan: A little. For a year I’ve been on this dispersed committee about logistics around hormone distribution continentally. I guess I got that from Joseph, really wanting to make sure everyone had the drugs they needed as something to be really deliberate and careful about. What is easy to make in the region we do, but there is a lot we import. I have always felt pharmaceuticals were what is most important to get right. If we don’t get the latest model of digits, no one will die. And because of transitioning, I saw how important hormones were, and there was room to help with Planning on that front. If the reception is decent, I am going to keep doing that during my sojourn.
O’Brien: This week is the 100th anniversary of Stonewall. Is there anything you want to say about that?
Puan: My trans group goes to the party in Manhattan. It’s a very big party! In my trans group, we have been reading about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, and then about trans folks during the insurrection. My group did a play, like a theatre play, last week. We wrote it and took the production really seriously. I like the parties overall. I do a lot of drugs usually at them. I got really into hallucinogens a couple of years ago at the Stonewall parties once my neuro scans checked out that it would be okay for me.
O’Brien: You said your parents were communists. Are you a communist?
Puan: I don’t even know what that means anymore! I mean, I guess there are still some fascist enclaves and someone has to fight them, and I’m really unclear on what the hell is happening in Australia? It seems like a mess, and there is this whole property and wage jobs and money and government thing going on there. We need to sort that out. I thought about doing my service fighting there, but it felt very scary to think about. But isn’t everyone a communist? What does it mean to be a communist today?
O’Brien: I don’t know. But you seem like you like your life.
Puan: I do. I am lucky. I am really very lucky.
O’Brien: You had something you wanted to read? A quote?
Puan: Yeah. It belonged to Kareem. He carried it with him. It was a book by this French dude, Fourier, writing in—it says in 1808. It was a passage Kareem highlighted at the end. It was given to me after his death. Here it is: “Do not be misled by superficial people who think that the invention of the laws of Movement is just a theoretical calculation. Remember that it only requires four or five months to put it into practice over a square league, an attempt which could even be completed by next summer, with the result that the whole human race would move into universal harmony, so your behaviour should be governed from now on by the ease and proximity of this immense revolution.” I like that. I felt Kareem knew the future was coming, and he had hope. We all need hope. Kareem died to help make all this possible, and I miss him.
O’Brien: Is there anything else you wanted to share?
Puan: No, I think this is good. I liked being interviewed.
O’Brien: Thank you Kayla. I have also really enjoyed this conversation.
Puan: You are welcome! I was worried it would be weird. You are very old. But was it was fun. Sad at parts. Thanks for interviewing me.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
ME O’BRIEN is a writer, parent, communist and trans woman living in Brooklyn. She works with the NYC Trans Oral History Project, an actual, non-fiction, online archive in the present. She is an editor of Pinko, a journal of gay communism.