Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ’91
Writing Herself Visible
Prolific author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ’91 joined GDS as a precocious and voracious reader in 2nd grade in 1980. She was competitive and excelled academically with GDS’s fostering of independence and self-reliance. At the same time, Mattilda arrived from an abusive home life and recalls continuing to experience gender-based oppression, particularly from peers, in a GDS that had yet to address explicitly valuing and/or making visible gender and sexual orientation diversity. “Queerness wasn’t in the values yet,” she said. She is as unflinchingly honest and as critical in her recollections of GDS as she is about the subjects of her three novels, five anthologies (as editor), two memoirs, and her other assorted works of art and film.
“The foundation for me as a writer, in storytelling, and even in math, was experiential at GDS,” Mattilda said. “One of the reasons I loved math was a teacher I had in 4th grade who would do these elaborate projects. We talked about Buckminster Fuller, the dymaxion, and the geodesic dome, so it was kind of like art.”
She described art classes as her “salvation” and recalled spinning long sheets of paper off the studio rollers to more than twice her height to make a large-scale skyscraper with watercolors. “We were always given independence at GDS, and they taught us to stand up for ourselves and our creative integrity,” she said.
“The Opposite of Nostalgia”
Around Middle School, she began to realize that “I had to start expressing myself in order to find people, otherwise they would just see the trauma,” she said. “I wanted to give other kids who were invisible to everyone the strength not to care about the people who wanted us to disappear.”
Mattilda was part of the first class to attend school in the new High School building, where she was the editor of the yearbook and coeditor of the literary magazine Brandywine. She described the space as “bigger and more alienating,” a theme not altogether unfamiliar to those who have read her Baldwinesque nonfiction The End of San Francisco (2013) and The Freezer Door (2020), both of which despair the social disintegration of San Francisco and Seattle, the latter of which she currently calls home.
“The End of San Francisco is the opposite of nostalgia,” wrote Jessica Hoffmann of the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2013.
“In a happy paradox common to great literature, [The Freezer Door] is a book about not belonging that made me feel deeply less alone,” wrote Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Now, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mattilda’s quest for authentic connection and belonging continues even more urgently. Of The Freezer Door, she said, “I wrote a book about alienation, and then everything got worse.”
From the start, Mattilda has centered her work on finding strength even from the depths of trauma, first for herself and then for other people, “the ones everyone refuses to see.”
Author Michelle Tea wrote of 2008’s So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, “Life is hard, I'm in tears, Mattilda's book is simultaneously the cause and the comfort."
Mattilda’s work first started getting published in her early 20s in anthologies. “Don’t even bother sending to literary magazines—anthologies are the way to go,” she advised young Hoppers. She thought she was “going to be that undiscovered author,” but as it turns out, she found her audience. Her novel Sketchtasy was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018 and her following has continued to grow since. Her latest memoir, The Freezer Door, garnered an honor as one of Oprah Magazine’s Best LGBTQ Books of 2020 and received rave reviews from the Washington Post and the New York Times immediately upon its release in November 2020.
“As a kid, I was told that most great writers never got published, and this was meant to scare me away from pursuing writing in a serious way. But actually, this freed me to write on my own terms, without worrying about publishing.”
"The Freezer Door is an aching, playful memoir of vivid desire amid the desperation of midlife disconnection,” wrote Kristen Millares Young in Washington Post Book World.
“There is much to love here,” echoed Kristen Arnett of the New York Times Book Review. “The pacing of the work, with its often fragmentary form, allows readers to sit with poignant moments for a beat, unpacking a sentence only to return later to unpack it again.”
Ultimately, Mattilda writes “to survive.” While connections with readers bring her a deep sense of satisfaction, she said they are an “extra”—albeit a truly meaningful one. “[Writing] is how I process the world. It’s how I go on living.”
Still, in her books she offers readers what she herself has always sought: to be seen, to matter, and to be worthy of care and compassion. While Mattilda will be the first to tell you that students didn’t always treat each other with compassion at GDS, her work—however devastating—carries on the compassionate principles of the school’s mission. “[At GDS,] we were taught a compassionate way of interacting with the world,” she said.
Learn more about Mattilda’s books at www.MattildaBernsteinSycamore.com. Her contact information is available on her website, including her landline in Seattle, which is (206) 325-5029 (PT).