Non-Monogamy Letter #5
The Non-Monogamy Letters (5/6)

Non-Monogamy Letter #5

In this letter to Kim Tallbear, Simon(e) van Saarloos explores non-monogamy’s connection to place, examining the relationship between time, failure, and expertise.

September 2023

Dear Kim,

How have you been? Much time has passed since we last exchanged. I’m picking our conversation back up in preparation for the ASA conference in Montréal on “Solidarity: What Love Looks Like in Public,” where we will read from our letters. 

First of all, how is your taste? Did it return, has it changed? I didn’t see much new wine discussed on your Instagram page… Have you visited Austin at some point, or did this relationship desire something different? 

So so many changes since I wrote my last letter to you (dated: January 16, 2021): I moved from Amsterdam, the Netherlands to Berkeley, California and I just entered my third year in the Rhetoric PhD program. Shortly after my move to California, I split with the long-term partner that I ended up living with during the initial lockdown. I’m newly in love and had a lucky deep plunge into a community of people in Oakland and the East Bay. I have started T (as you probably know—if not from someone close than from the “X months on T” voice comparison videos—it is custom to accompany this news with a timeline, sharing how many months or weeks you’ve been using testosterone… I’ll refrain from such celebrations of linearity). Soon, I’ll be using the university provided health care to receive top surgery in San Francisco. All of these changes are so deeply interrelated that I barely have language to describe them as events. 

While my plunge into community has very much accelerated by this unexpected and very lucky partnership with someone who lives collectively in Oakland, trains martial arts collectively, organizes collectively and loves collectively (yay, non-monogamy), I realize my connection to this place is starkly shallow. In some sense, it’s more frivolous than ever, precisely because I landed here for graduate school. Being in such a large institution as UC Berkeley—the biggest real estate extractor and exploiter of this area—immediately accounts for a kind of placement and positioning that fully hinges on institutional leverage and importance. I have always lived in different places as a freelance worker, bopping around with little more purpose than a quick gig, which meant that I was continuously chasing temporary housing, new friends, language, fixing infrastructures and friendly welcomes. Now that I moved continents for an institutional job, I can feel how luring it is to slip into a very settled kind of comfort. Not because the university provides enough to pay rent, but being part of this horrendous institution nonetheless works as a legitimating force! It’s a terrifying mirage of purpose and placement, especially as nothing about it affectively feels comfortable or sweet. And still there is a level of entitlement that breathes. For me, that is. So yes, in some sense, being at Berkeley-The-Institution in Berkeley-The-City loosens the need to look for justifications in relationship to place.

While Berkeley’s education and environment are more conservative than I—though quite practiced in paranoia and skepticism—could have feared, there are some amazing people here. I cite these people and credit their work. But on another level, on this level of speaking between you and I and everyone who wishes to read along here, love, or “public love” might show up in not naming them, in not outing them as comrades and dissidents. Citation will always be just a residue of the actual relationships. Sometimes these relationships flourish best when muffled, whispered, unmentioned in public. Non-monogamy is another strategy of such opacity: by naming many, by citing many, by relating with many, abundance might disguise. While I consider such a refusal of scarcity a form of precision, it shows up as lack of specificity, as if unable to point to the right guy in a cop line up.

When we last exchanged, you were in the thralls of thinking about time in relationship to settled love and unsettled intimacy. You mourn the use of time as a measure to determine the importance and primacy of a romantic relationship in your piece on Valentine’s Day and “Love in the Promiscuous Style,” posted on your substack and first read as a keynote at the Sexual Education Research Centre Manitoba. You describe how breaking up or letting go of a romantic relationship should not be viewed as failure. Surviving the test of time doesn’t say much about the quality of a connection. In your last letter from October 2021, you refused to reduce the value of an intimacy to counted time (we are together this long, and thus we matter, or thus we are “real”), but simultaneously fore fronted the value of long-standing relationships to place, land, water, people. You wrote:

We do think about the importance of length and perhaps too the amount of time that an Indigenous People spent historically and today in close relation with a land- or waterscape. Length of time, Indigenous peoples assert, makes a difference in knowing more than do recent settlers about our more-than-human relations in place and how to live well with them.

I follow your thoughts on spending time with land and water, resulting in a knowing I cannot access. While I agree with you, I have to be careful as I cannot allow myself to submit to the widespread belief that spending time leads to expertise. We are definitely talking about different forms of expertise, because the kind that I can think about precisely privileges settler colonial life. Claiming expertise—a claim that comes in relationship to the celebration of study, of spending time with something—is used to gatekeep who has access to knowledge. To counter this, I propose frivolousness. Somewhat in line with how you reframe “promiscuity” in your Valentine’s text, frivolousness opposes the belief that spending time with something produces a kind of claim, stability and ownership. Similar to the often-heard accusation “promiscuous” in response to non-monogamy, I have often been called frivolous by readers of the Serious Newspaper where I used to write columns. Frivolous and young. I write quite a bit about this link between time and expertise in my new book, Against Ageism. A Queer Manifesto. The manifesto is mainly motivated by questions of time: who gets to spend time with what, and why? Citing many, citing non-monogamously, I underline how the distribution of time caters white supremacist power structures. Educational timelines are part of this: you cannot be taken serious as a scholar if you haven’t spent enough years studying a text or subject. Accumulating time is considered important, and rhythm is too: being too quick makes you suspicious and messy, slow equals serious. Too slow becomes crip, failed. In my view, you often work against such academic timelines, as you write in your introduction to your Unsettle substack:

I intend these posts as openings to conversation with readers and also as seed for longer pieces of writing. I am motivated by instant gratification and this type of format gets me writing far more than plotting out long papers and book chapters that won’t see the light of day for a couple of years. I also value learning in public with my co-thinkers, all of you who engage my words.

If we refuse time as a measure of expertise, if indeed we attempt to diverge from the idea that spending time leads to access and entitlement, how do you think about the value of long-term relationships to place and knowledges in the face of destruction and epistemicide? Does the problem with time evaporate if progression and ownership were not in the equation? Do you start your thinking about time from the assumption that there are different kinds of time and that it is only a colonial conception of time—singular, linear, progressive—that blocks us from understanding the value of love without calculation and measure?

If time is perceived as linear and is meant to progress, then age is a form of mapping time onto the body. We are assigned age at birth.[1] From then on, age is viewed as a universal category, erasing the ways in which access to time is distributed unequally. Education is age segregated, laws are age dependent, intimate relationship are expected to follow a linear path of life phases and stages characterized by age. Previously, we discussed this linear path referring to the relationship escalator of monogamous romance.  I have heard you talk about the difficulties of doing non-monogamy in Edmonton as a fifty-something person. Even though it is age ideology that shapes this experience, age-related expectations and characteristics are often deemed to be natural and biological. In Against Ageism, I write especially about how this clouds thinking clearly about disability: if you are not meant to be going out at fifty plus, if you are expected to prefer the couch over the club because of age (even though you do, as you admit in your piece on Covid-19), this eradicates the reality that at every age, we have different embodiments and capacities. And we are excluded by architectures that enable one body, norm, accent, language.

In Against Ageism, I wonder: what are the architectures that prevent intergenerational living? I think you might have some thoughts on this! In conversations on public love and care networks, intergenerationality is celebrated, but often in a romanticized form, arguing for the humanity of elders and children, embracing the project of “humanity” and thus requiring a certain kind of respectability in order for elders and kids to be included. It tends to forget the harm of adulthood, accepting what characterizes adulthood (responsibility, hard work, growth) a bit too greedily.

Despite the dominant language of agency and choice (also present in reproductive conversations: my body my choice), I don’t think either of us tries to approach non-monogamy as a private choice, an individual matter of “this just fits better,” so I also wish to ask us: can we think of (existing) architectures that support and enable non-monogamous kinship? We spoke about living alone as a luxurious and privileged escape from living with a nuclear family or partner. You expressed the possibility of shifting to a more communal structure, a possibility heightened by two recent foot surgeries.

After coming back from book tour travels in Europe, returning to the Bay Area confronted me with the design of distance in everyday life here. In the Bay—whether because of literal spaciousness on the streets or the (cultural) capital of Silicon Valley—it seems much more socially acceptable to completely ignore other people in public spaces. It seems more normalized, and it is somehow more possible. People have written about this as a spatial thing—I think it was Adorno who warned for the cooled and hardened emotional interior of US Americans because they would be influenced by the development of the kitchen fridge and its strong magnet, requiring an aggressive slamming of the door?—but I’d feel imposturous claiming this. Especially as you have described feeling incredibly squeezed in Berkeley, suffering between mountains and ocean. But yes, somehow, it feels pretty natural in the Bay to move through public space and ignore others. That is not to say that I don’t think love cannot be practiced in silence. Averting your eyes can be a form of recognition. Not everything has to depend on expressed and loud love. I’m thinking about J. Logan Smilges’s work Queer Silence. On Disability and Rhetorical Absence, in which they read silence not as muted, but as a form of resistance. For example, Smilges approached the anonymous Grindr profiles in rural US not just as a sign of homophobic oppression, they also understand a refusal of visibility in these profiles without pictures. Or take Dean Spade’s quiet and fantastical non-monogamous practice, shared in “For Lovers and Fighters.” In the subway, Spade tries “to look at each person and imagine what they look like to someone who is in love with them.” He sees all their details, awkwardness, flaws, shines. Spade writes: “It feels good to think about people that way and to use a part of my mind that is traditionally reserved for a tiny portion of people I’ll meet in my life to appreciate the general public. I wish I could think about people like this more often. I think it’s the opposite of what our culture teaches us to do. We prefer to pick people apart to find their flaws. Cultivating these feelings of love or appreciation for random people, and even for people I don’t like, makes me a more forgiving and appreciative person toward myself and people I love. Also, it’s just a really excellent pastime.”

While I’m typing this, I’m in a public space, a family-owned outdoor restaurant between Oakland and Berkeley. I have my own defamed noise cancelling airpods in, while a conversation erupts between one table behind me, and a table on the other side of the fenced patio. The conversation starts with a dog, the cuteness of the dog, the parent of the dog praising his dog for loving him unconditionally, and the lady behind me yelling in unison. “People are just selfish these days,” she says. “People don’t see each other; they are all hoes now. Dogs are loyal. They understand what matters!” Agreement over discontent fills the air. She says: “It’s all about money even in church, so I don’t go anymore. God is in me.”  And I try to keep typing, try to block out the conversation until I decide their exchange fits perfectly with what I’m writing anyway. I chose public space to write, precisely because of course this often happens: no matter how annoying the chatter of others (or, as Lauren Berlant says: the inconvenience of others), narratives grow relationally and background conversations serve as thematic guidance, proof, distraction, disagreement, and affirmation. And since my laptop-focused, closed-off presence in this neighbourhood café must confirm the distaste of these two strangers across the patio, I am just as much part of their narrative as they are now of mine.  

And I guess, in some ways, an oh so literary question pops up: do those who preach to love people mostly love the thought of loving people (while people who love dogs actually love dogs?)? The distinction here, between desiring to love and actually feeling love might be false. It might hinge too much on a distinction that requires a separation between you and I, animate and inanimate, body and spirit, human and animal, living and dead. You write about these false distinctions extensively. I do wish to recognize the ethical impossibility of writing, because of the lure of romanticization and objectification of people and places. You often express that you are careful when writing about lovers and kin, because when writing a story that involves someone else, control is at play. Can we think beyond the language of choice (your lover does not choose the words you use to write about him) when legitimatizing writing about someone? Can writing exist beyond this conception of control, beyond placing the author in proximity to power? Is such a writing possible?

In terms of romanticization, I have noticed that I’m decreasing my romanticization of lovers. By which I mean: I’m a little less prone to read them in their role of “lover” and feel more curious to meet them in layered ways. I have to credit my current relationship for this. It’s not just that I feel loved in such a bizarrely full way that it is almost as if this love between us stimulates non-monogamy within me, simply because I feel held in layers, stresses and relaxations that I didn’t even perceive as legible parts of me (there is also a lot to say here about transitioning and being perceived as multiple genders, but this is for a next letter). It’s also the relaxation of a relationship that desires non-monogamy as its baseline. It’s rather calming to have accepted non-monogamy, not as an identity but as a practice that’s always around– ever-changing in form, but never thrown overboard. Instead of feeling like I have to continuously desire many people and present myself as available to others because of non-monogamy, I now have access to a more chill inevitability of non-monogamy, producing space for desire to visit, instead of activating desire to prove the presence of non-monogamy. Of course, this new chill doesn’t unsettle the possibility of reproducing settler colonial norms into non-monogamy. Living in the Bay Area has made me much more skeptical about the political fuel and potential of non-monogamy—there is a lot of identity discourse hinging on the E- in Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM), focusing on ethical as a form of claiming moral superiority and securing oneself as a good polyamorist. This is why I turn to your work, in trying to stay with the unsettle.

We spoke over Zoom in January 2022, to prepare our reading for Practicing the Social: Entanglements of Art and Justice External. You said something that stuck with me. I asked you about identifying as heterosexual, or maybe I asked you why calling yourself queer didn’t feel right to you. This wasn’t meant to box and label you, and it wasn’t just sparked by your mentioning of lovers who are not cis men. Instead, I think, my question rose from the desire to loosen queer’s dependence on settler colonial notions of understandable and nameable gender. Your response stuck with me since. You said that you don’t identify as queer, because you feel close enough to cis womanhood and desire heterosexual companionship enough to identify as straight. You also felt that you haven’t suffered in the same way, and from the same young age, as many of your queer friends have. While I see and appreciate the honouring logic here, I expressed my surprise about such a linear notion of queer. I want to contest the idea that queer appears at an early age, as something innate, as a relief that is only worth celebrating if the itch has always been clear. If linear time is a settling measure, a meter of hierarchy, then accessing queerness should not depend on how long one lives with it, how long one has suffered. While I support owning up to heterosexual privilege—which confirms that queerness is not an identity or innate feature, but rather a practice—I feel a sense of rhetorical failure when tending to queer and trans as something that should always be known, as something that should fit with your previous personal narrative. While I have my own crass feelings about folks who identify as queer because it is contemporary cool, I want queer to exist as a contagious, dangerous, uncontainable force. Not something that you need to deserve, but something that cannot be resisted.

What do you think?

With much warmth,


P.S. I really loved reading your voicing of IZ in “Close Encounters of the Colonial Kind”!

[1] In debates about abortion, age is assigned even before birth, which then leads to a sacralized fetus. I can imagine this might be completely differently approached when not thinking from a life versus dead ontology, subjectivity being alive and objects being dead? If plants are alive, and the spirits visiting in dreams are alive, and all things alive are interdependent, this must change life-agency-ownership discussions around abortion? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Simon(e) van Saarloos is a writer and artist. They have published several books, including Playing Monogamy and Take ‘Em Down. Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting. They are also the host of *The Asterisk Conversations podcast and recently started a PhD in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley.

Illustration by

Whess Harman is Carrier Wit’at, a nation amalgamated by the federal government under the Lake Babine Nation. They graduated from the emily carr university’s BFA program in 2014 and are currently living and working on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh as the curator at grunt gallery.

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