July Links Roundup: Repent, Harlequin

So many links this month, we’re doing two rounds: literary and political.

Notable science fiction and horror author Harlan Ellison passed away last week at age 84. A giant in the speculative fiction community, Ellison was also controversial for his verbally abusive outbursts and the sexual violence in some of the stories he wrote and championed. There’s no question that he’s one of my problematic faves. This memorial essay by Cory Doctorow focuses on the positive side of Ellison, while other writers on Twitter reminded us of his history of mistreating women, such as groping author Connie Willis onstage at WorldCon in 2006 (see these threads by Bogi Takács and Jasmine Gower, for example).

I see both sides of the man in his work when I reread it now, 30 years after he first blew my mind with “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. (One of the scariest stories I’ve ever encountered, right up there with Lisa Tuttle’s “Closet Dreams”; read at your own risk.) My husband and I both tried to get through Ellison’s iconic Dangerous Visions anthologies a couple of years ago, and had to quit because we were nauseated by the pervy-ness and rapey-ness marketed as bold innovation. On the other hand, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, his classic tale of quixotic but meaningful resistance to tyranny, inspires me in a whole new way as our country comes closer to fascism than ever before in my lifetime. And when I worry that my life is meaningless, I remember the defiant existentialism of “The Cheese Stands Alone” and resolve to move forward anyhow.

As the debate over Ellison’s literary legacy shows, interpretation of a text is never fully open-ended nor fully closed. In the space between, a community of readers develops: people joined by a common sentiment that the text is worth debating, critiquing, and absorbing into their lives, but differentiated by the unique alchemy between that text and their personal imagination. I don’t picture the exact same “Harlequin” that you do when you read the story, and the life circumstances that the story illuminates for you may be similar, but not identical, to mine. In their Harvard Divinity Bulletin article, “What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction,” MDiv student Jade Sylvan suggests this is also true about Scripture, which is one way to explain why we have four canonical Gospels instead of one. Like queer fans who write and share Kirk/Spock slash fiction to reappropriate a mainstream story for an under-represented group, early Christians told varying stories of Jesus to make him relevant and liberatory for their particular audiences.

If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need…Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.

Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery epitomizes the trope of the fan who takes enthusiasm a little too far: furious that her favorite romance writer has killed off his main character, she kidnaps the author and tortures him into resurrecting the character in a sequel. However, on the Ploughshares blog, Natalia Holtzman invites us to rethink the moral calculus of this famous novel, taking a closer look at the protagonist’s aesthetic snobbery and contempt for his fans. Is it actually a projection of the writer’s worst fears about himself, that makes Annie appear so monstrous? This post made me want to read fanfiction from Annie’s point of view. King’s plot is attention-grabbing because of the unlikely gender reversal. In real genre-fiction fandom, it’s far more likely to be male fans having violent tantrums because Dr. Who is female and Star Wars has a black hero.

We’ll end this link-around with some writing advice from two well-regarded contemporary authors. I have not yet read Rita Bullwinkel’s story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, 2018), described in this interview by Sadye Teiser at The Masters Review as “deadpan disaster” fiction, but I felt liberated by her depiction of her creative process. I’m working on embracing both the obscurity of my literary “brand” and the weirdness of my writing. In response to a question about her “craft choices”, Bullwinkel said:

I don’t think of writing fiction as a series of choices. I think of it as compulsive, and something I can not help but do. I would write if no one told me to, and, indeed, let me be clear, no one is telling me to write, no is making sure that I write anything but me. And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be. It is, simply, the things I am circling, written in the style in which I circle them. Even my earliest stories had some of the same mannerisms, and were circling some of the same things. It’s not that I think I haven’t gotten better. One must believe they are getting better, that their mind is becoming sharper, but, I’ve never had a conscious thought while writing about what kind of style I wanted to write in. The brilliant writer, Diane Williams, when once asked why her stories are so short, replied something like, “I am a pear tree. I make pears. I would be equally happy if I bore walnuts, but I don’t. Only pears to see here.” I feel similarly.

I am a huge fan of Alexander Chee’s novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and am looking forward to reading his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, sometime this summer. In this interview by Santiago Sanchez at Lambda Literary Review, he shares wisdom on many topics, including the market for queer art, your imagined audience versus your real one, and the pressure to represent your minority group and/or be confined to your personal identity demographics when writing fiction:

I don’t know how we can preserve our complexity in life and in art by not being willing to write about the world around us. I am not against people who are not me writing a character like me—I just want them to do it well, and for it to exist alongside my own work. And not to replace me, or speak for me.

The book exists in part because I have always felt the question “How autobiographical is this?” has been a way of not talking about what a book is about. A way of focusing on the writer that is a way of not focusing on the writer, that neglects what the writer has done in favor of a narrow psychological interpretation. I was approached by so many young writers of color for interviews and I kept saying to them, “please write about me instead.” To review me, not just interview me. And many have as a result. So that’s another way to preserve our complexity—to ask our communities to not just see us but to give us witness on the page, to write criticism, to be the queer critics of color we need.

Sometimes, when I read a truly outstanding book, I’m tempted to say, “That’s it. I’m hanging up my pencil. I thought I was writing fiction, but I can’t write like this, so why bother?” Then, I remember that this is exactly the opposite reaction I would want people to have to my work. I don’t want to induce competitive despair! Few responses make me happier than hearing that I inspired someone else to write. Chee feels the same way:

I think once you think of yourself as a public figure telling a story, you start to believe you don’t owe the reader what you owe them. You lose some of your humanity, and possibly the part that makes you a writer. What makes me happiest in this is that so many people have found their way to writing after reading my work. So for me it is about that only. I made some good people feel possible to be themselves, and that’s the best thing there is.

Follow Chee on Twitter and listen to his guest appearances on the Food 4 Thot podcast.

Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave

Posting has been light in the past month for a number of reasons, including course prep for my church group and attending my 25th college reunion. (What is it with the false modesty of our alumni going out of our way to avoid saying where we went to school? We’re not fooling anyone. Harvard Harvard Harvard.) I am exactly halfway through the 40-day book of Bible meditations that accompanies our Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course, and I’m feeling all kinds of ways about it.

The helpful overall premise of the course is that our spiritual life is too often unconsciously dictated by family patterns and other people’s opinions of us. We’re encouraged to spend quiet time with God in which we pull back from these worldly manifestations of our identity and seek security instead in God’s unconditional love for the unique person that God created us to be. This practice has been deeply sustaining right now, because a situation in my personal life has been forcing me to confront my codependence and what I used to call self-salvation or works-righteousness. The desire to be “good” can make me afraid to be honest with myself and others about what I can willingly offer, and what I can’t or shouldn’t.

Alongside this fruitful process, however, old wounds of betrayal by the church are reopening. I’ve heard it all before: the invitation to listen to the Holy Spirit, the fine-sounding pronouncements that God doesn’t want us to stifle our true self in conformity to social pressure and secular norms. Well, I did that, I found out I was queer, and they tried to make me believe that all the fruits of the Spirit in my life had been a lie. The author of this course is a conservative, presumably non-affirming pastor. I imagine he would say that queerness couldn’t be a true self because gay and trans identities don’t exist; in the evangelical worldview, these are just sinful behaviors. This inconsistency doesn’t invalidate the insights I’m getting from the course, but it makes me depressed at a time when I’m already struggling with trust issues in relationships.

A surprising outcome of daily journaling is that I get bored with writing my objections to evangelical theodicy and hermeneutics over and over again, and eventually find something insightful and positive (however tangential) in grappling with those brief excerpts from the Bible and Christian writers. (A fan letter I’ll never be able to send: “Dear Pastor Pete, your Daily Office workbook really helped with my gender transition! Thanks.”) I hope the selected musings below have some value for my readers.

Mark 11:15-17

What secondary things keep me from being silently present with God? Mainly the need to be “productive” to prevent anxiety from rushing in.

Surrendering control over my own importance feels like depression and annihilation because my mother’s sad defeatism was contagious (old insight) and because living with an engulfing narcissist meant that I was constantly battling to hold onto my realness, my separate and desiring self (new insight!).

How does God, or some kind of connection to Spirit, provide a better way to preserve myself? This is not an answer I can find in the evangelical framework of surrendering one’s will to the Big Daddy in the Sky.

God is not absent from us. We are walking inside God’s body, the beautiful world where everything is growing and alive. We are inside God when we stand on the earth and look up at the trees full of life force.

Luke 10:38-42

Wondering if there’s an interpretation of Mary versus Martha that retains Jesus’ point about priorities, without shaming Martha for doing what women have been told they have to do since the beginning of Western civilization in order to support the higher calling of (mostly male) contemplatives. Yet, in what ways am I passive-aggressive like Martha, blaming structural forces for my lack of courage or energy to claim my contemplative time as valuable? Am I really constrained, or am I not doing what God calls me to do because I’m afraid of displeasing people?

The pop-culture antidote to anxious busyness feels too close to existential purposelessness. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”–well, then why get out of bed at all? Better to try believing it’s all big stuff. Everything I could do today is sacred or sufficient, going for a walk or writing or frying eggs, so no worries about doing the wrong thing.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

The thorn in St. Paul’s side: what would be an alternative to self-blame and shame, that wouldn’t make me fake positive feelings about being a fat queer loon, and doesn’t play into the creepy evangelical concept of God sending us disabilities and disappointments so we don’t get uppity? Perhaps Ariana Reines‘ idea from her reading of my astrology birth chart, that my unique nature is part of a cosmic pattern where I have a role to play, but not like someone up there intentionally put obstacles in my path to change me!

That’s what is so coercive and doublespeak about thorn-in-side theology. It’s supposed to be saying, accept your flaws, but it’s simultaneously telling you that God sent you a burden because you couldn’t be trusted with the power of being whole and free.

Christianity is like the female clothes in my closet. I keep trying it on, because it’s right there and I used to like it, but it just gives me bunions.

Exodus 3:1-5

Perhaps it’s trite to snark at the suppressed homoeroticism of prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”, but heteronormative evangelicalism’s refusal to admit the pleasures of abjection leaves no other way for this imagery to be read except as rapey. It’s as though, like chaste ladies in an old-fashioned romance novel, they can only allow themselves to bottom for Jehovah if it’s cast as a painful punishment against their will.

Genesis 12:1-3

On trusting in the slow work of God, and giving up control over the outcome: When I pictured what it would be like for an abusive parent’s soul to be purified in Purgatory, I had a (previously unknown till this moment) awareness of a Love so secure and powerful that it could hold that person in every moment of their lacerating self-awareness and make it bearable, even a blessing overall. And how, then, can I start to live this life with the consciousness that a Love so great surrounds my poor little old ego in every moment, so that nothing I do or have done to me should ever make me afraid of myself??!!

 

Poetry by Rick Lupert: “I Meet Alexa”

Rick Lupert is the founder of the venerable online literary community Poetry Super Highway, and the author of 22 poetry collections, ranging from lyrical midrash on Jewish sacred texts to humorous travelogues. His new book, Beautiful Mistakes (Rothco Press, 2018), falls in the latter category, featuring work inspired by recent travels in the Pacific Northwest.

In this poem, he muses on those popular voice-activated Amazon Echo robots and the strange way they’ve insinuated themselves into our lives. My husband has installed at least five Alexas throughout the house and home office, on the pretext that “it’ll help our child learn to talk.” Currently, Shane uses them to play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” several times a day. Meanwhile, I often catch myself, in the car or a hotel room, about to ask the empty air, “Alexa, what’s the weather today?” Whatever happened to looking out the window?

I Meet Alexa
by Rick Lupert

Every room here has an Alexa Dot for the talking to.
I spend the early part of our discourse with the
expected mundanities – Alexa, where is the fitness
room? Alexa, what temperature will it be here tomorrow?
But it quickly moves into my obvious insecurities.
Alexa, do you think this shirt is okay? Alexa, we’re
your favorite guests who’ve ever stayed in this room,
right? And then a little weird – Alexa, show me pictures
of your family…Alexa, do they ever let you spend time
off with the Alexas in the other rooms? Alexa, what
can I do to be your favorite? I’m willing to do anything.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2017

My gender is Ron Swanson.

In these last days of 2017, many of us feel our greatest achievement is simply surviving the first year of president-dictator Tan Dumplord. But there were other small but sweet milestones to celebrate here at Reiter’s Block.

The Young Master learned to speak his initial consonants clearly, a mixed blessing because he has picked up my habit of saying “Oh, fuck!” We are practicing the substitute “Oh, fungus!” and giving each other time-outs when we slip up. He passed his first term of circus acrobat class with flying colors. Favorite songs are currently “I Like to Move It” by will.i.am and “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. He is very serious about Lego.

Thanksgiving with the fam.

My short story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was a finalist for the inaugural Sunshot Prize from New Millennium Writings and will be published in Fall 2018. Stories in this manuscript have won prizes from New Letters, The Iowa Review, Bayou Magazine, and Passages North, among others. Stay tuned for cover reveal and reading dates.

The Mirena IUD, installed in January, has given me my life back. For the first time in 30+ years, I’m not disabled for a week every month from endometriosis. These and other perimenopausal changes (hello, extra 20 pounds) have prompted me to reflect on aging, the many meanings of fertility, and a deeper commitment to inhabiting my body as-is, with acceptance and strength. I started lifting weights again with a trainer, after a 5-year parenting hiatus. I have a whole new attitude toward it since I’ve embraced my masculine side. I used to be afraid of bulking up, but now I welcome it.

Buy Two Natures.

Let’s get into the highlights reel, shall we?

Best Poetry:

The energetic, challenging poems in Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2017) put blackness and anti-blackness in conversation with the Western canon. For instance, the opening poem cycle reworks the Labors of Hercules through the legend of 19th-century African-American pimp Stagger Lee (the subject of numerous murder ballads by artists as varied as Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington, and The Clash). A later cycle replaces Jesus with Br’er Rabbit in the Stations of the Cross.As great satires do, these mash-ups make us ask serious questions: Who gets to go down in history as a hero instead of a thug? Would an oppressed people be better off worshipping a trickster escape artist, rather than a martyr?

I’m currently reading Ariana Reines’ Mercury (Fence Books, 2011), in which she continues her splendid dive into the poetics of abjection. An ironic, melancholy sequence about watching a violent action movie with her friends at the multiplex is juxtaposed with a vision of the Sun God’s holy cattle. She manages the near-impossible feat of noticing the pornographic banality of modern consciousness without posing as superior to it, and this humility gives her work a tender and sacred quality: “under any vile sheen a soul or truth can move”. Reines offers astrology readings through her site Lazy Eye Haver; I’m looking forward to my first one in January.

Best Fiction:

KJ Charles‘ Victorian-era paranormal gay romances are witty, sexy, and literary. I can’t describe exactly why the men in her books feel like real men, not the overgrown boys in a lot of romance novels. They’re worldly-wise and bear responsibilities beyond their years, and have a very British gentlemanly restraint about open displays of emotion, which makes their moments of intimacy more meaningful. The mystery plots are a delightful homage to M.R. James and other masters of the antiquarian ghost story. This year I read the Charm of Magpies series and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I’m glad she’s a prolific writer because I didn’t want these books to end.

Angie Gallion’s Intoxic series is a trilogy (with a fourth book in the works) about Alison Hayes, a trailer-park teen from small-town Illinois who copes with an alcoholic mother, unplanned pregnancy and adoption, and the mixed blessings of a successful modeling career in California. This moving coming-of-age story is incredibly accurate about the complex emotional terrain of family trauma and recovery.

Best Nonfiction:

Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) is a meticulously researched history book that reads like a thriller, with vivid characters and political intrigue. British journalist Hari unearths the junk science and racist panic behind the criminalization of addictive substances, exposes the brutality of American prisons, and profiles communities from Vancouver to Portugal where legalization is working. His takeaway findings: Drugs don’t cause addiction, trauma and isolation do. Prescribing maintenance doses to addicts in safe medical settings not only cuts crime dramatically, it even reduces addiction over the long term.

Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper, 2017) deserves all the critical acclaim it received this year.In this starkly honest and courageous memoir, the bestselling fiction writer and feminist commentator shares her complex and ongoing story of childhood trauma, eating disorders, and navigating prejudice against fat bodies. After being gang-raped at age 12, Gay self-medicated her emotional pain with food and became obese as armor against the world. She offers no easy answers or tales of miracle diets, but rather something more valuable: a role model for learning to cherish and nourish yourself in a genuine way despite society’s cruelty toward “unruly” bodies.

Favorite Posts:

Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

Should enbies always push for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in feminist activities? When feminists who identify as women decide to continue centering women in their group’s language and mission, what alternative services exist for enbies to address issues that have traditionally been the purview of feminist organizing: sexual assault, reproductive rights, discrimination, and the like?

Aspie Explorations

Because environments that most people find comfortable can put me into temperature meltdown, I often have to choose between bowing out of a group event for a reason that people think is stupid or untrue, or attending and making others uncomfortable with my access needs. Either way I risk being told that I don’t care enough about people, when in fact I am doing invisible extra work just to “relax” with them. The emotional labor that Aspie women and female-ish people do to stay connected is not really appreciated because of sexism.

High Court to Decide on Religious Freedom to Discriminate

While the wedding cake example [in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission] may seem trivial in isolation, it’s a microaggression which, if multiplied, intentionally creates a climate of fear and exclusion for LGBTQ citizens. Consider the hundreds of small transactions and interactions you engage in each week, then imagine the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be refused service, each and every time. Think about having to calculate whether it’s too risky, for your emotional and perhaps physical safety, to leave your house and go to the store today.

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist.

Baba Yaga sends you best witches for 2018.

 

 

My #MeToo Moment

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment have shared their stories with the #MeToo hashtag millions of times since October, when an exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment of female employees and performers was quickly followed by similar disclosures about actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and numerous others. #MeToo was coined 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, the program director of Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers young women of color.

Closer to home, in late October my high school alma mater sent out a mass email to current and former students, parents, and faculty, saying that the school was investigating alleged inappropriate sexual contact between “former employees” and students in the 1990s and earlier. (I attended from 1982-89.) This probe was reportedly sparked by an alumna’s #MeToo post. What followed was an amazing, heartfelt outpouring of personal stories on our alumni Facebook page–so many of us finally breaking through the walls erected by our school’s competitive culture and by the general pressure on urban teenagers to seem sophisticated and invulnerable.

Our school was an amazing place to be a talented maverick, and gave me a better education than Harvard. But if you want to understand its shadow side, read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I remember being assigned to read it in 9th grade and not understanding it at all. As David Foster Wallace said, the fish asks, “What is water?”

I reread it out of curiosity last year after I heard that it had queer subtext. Now the title character’s narcissism is blindingly obvious (though I still find Sandy’s religious vocation unconvincing). But as a teen, I must have thought it was normal for teachers to play favorites, track their students into single-issue identities as “the singer” or “the poet” or “the math genius”, and tacitly encourage us to outdo one another in specialness instead of finding solidarity with our peers.

At times I benefited from this system, with life-changing mentors in poetry and theology. At other times I felt crushed by the inability to break into the inner circle of the performing arts departments. Either way I grew up with an unhealthy sense that my fate, and my talents or lack thereof, were mostly unchangeable.

I was bullied a lot, but never sexually harassed or assaulted at school, unless you count the time that the other smartest kid in 7th-grade Latin class looked up all the swear words in our dictionary so he could call me a whore (meretrix). However, the sexually charged atmostphere felt unsafe to me, and I resisted growing up too fast, even though this made me terribly lonely (and led to some awful fashion choices–Laura Ashley fabric should be only for sofas). My mother supported this choice for the self-serving reason that she wanted me to stay childlike and enmeshed. So I’ve spent all these decades feeling ashamed and angry that my peers had a real adolescence while I hadn’t dared.

Our #MeToo Facebook thread dramatically revealed that I wasn’t so different after all. Many of those “cool kids” felt equally out of their depth, and pressured to be too sexual too soon. Poor boundaries between adults and students played a big role here. Many alums on the thread agreed that our teachers and administrators often forgot we were psychologically still kids, despite our intellectual precociousness.

The then-headmaster and school founder, a notorious womanizer, set the tone. He made a pass at my mother during the admissions process: “Your daughter is so smart, you and I should make genius babies together.” Luckily she thought he was gross, and the world was spared the supervillain offspring of two narcissists. Another story: For a profile in the local paper, he told them he was a “libertarian”, but they misquoted it as “libertine”, which he shrugged off by saying they were both correct. Yet this is the same person who first told me I was “A Poet!”, introduced me to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and reassured me that someday I would be “bien dans ma peau” (fit well in my skin). As Rene Denfeld wrote in The Child Finder, her gorgeous recent thriller about intergenerational trauma, the good in a person doesn’t hide the bad like a costume–the good and bad are inseparable, somehow both true.

It’s been a very emotional experience for me, with these belated waves of compassion and affection for my former classmates (well, maybe not the Latin guy), the grief that we didn’t know how to let our guard down sooner, and the refreshing validation that I wasn’t just a prude–I was right that there was something predatory and boundary-blurring about the environment where our sexual self-discovery was supposed to unfold.

I’ve already made one new/old friend from this group conversation, and hope we will keep up our momentum to share what we’ve learned with the current generation of students. Telling survivor stories changes lives.

Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

Monsters and Madwomen (Just Another Day at Reiter’s Block)

We’re crazy for links this month at Reiter’s Block!

At the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion, Laura Shannon, an expert on traditional women’s ritual dances, recovers intriguing background information on two fearsome females of Greek mythology in “Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma”. The story we know best, from the 1st century CE poet Ovid, pits them against each other. Beautiful Medusa is raped in Athena’s temple; the goddess is offended and turns her into a monster, then helps the male hero Perseus behead her.

Shannon contends that this patriarchal reinterpretation covers up an earlier tradition in which Athena, her mother Metis, and Medusa were three faces of the same goddess of wisdom and healing, “aspects of an ancient triple Goddess corresponding respectively to the new, full, and dark phases of the moon…Their many common elements include snakes, wings, a formidable appearance, fierce eyes and powerful gaze.” Male-dominated traditions emphasized Athena’s warlike qualities, but she was also a figure “of healing, of wisdom, of protection and self-defense, of craft and culture, of the olive tree–which can have great significance for all those healing from trauma.” This tantalizingly brief essay is excerpted from Shannon’s piece in the anthology Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom (Gladys Livingstone, Trista Hendren and Pat Daley, eds.), forthcoming from The Girl God, a publisher of feminist spirituality books for children and adults.

Over at the blog of sci-fi publisher Tor Books, author Theodora Goss surveys literature for “Five Monsters That Explore Gender, Sexuality, and Race”, from Victorian lesbian vampire Carmilla to Octavia Butler’s human-alien hybrid Lilith.

What is a monster, anyway? We tend to associate the monstrous with the ugly, evil, or frightening, but there’s a more sophisticated way of thinking about these creatures. In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen T. Asma argues that monsters are examples of “categorical mismatch.” We like to organize reality into easily understandable categories: you are either male or female, human or animal, living or dead. When something or someone crosses those boundaries, it makes us uncomfortable: that’s when we label it as monstrous. That kind of labeling can be dangerous, because it can allow us to deny someone’s humanity. But the idea of the monstrous can also be powerful. If you’re a woman, it can be a subversive act to think of yourself as Medusa, with snakes for hair, turning men to stone.

Asma points out that the word “monster” comes from the Latin root “monere,” meaning to warn. In other words, monsters always have some sort of message for us.

Goss’s latest book is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a Victorian-era paranormal murder mystery featuring the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other female victims of mad scientists’ experiments, including my personal obsession, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lovely and poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini. My 1,000-book wishlist just got a little longer.

With the ascension of the Orange Chucklefuck to our nation’s highest office, we can’t expect much relief from the mental illness “diagnosis” rhetoric that progressives deployed during the 2016 campaign. At Eidolon, an online journal of scholarly writing about Classics for a popular audience, Jessica Wright explains in “Crazy Talk” that calling our ideological opponents mad has a long and coercive history. Wright is a historian at the University of Southern California studying theories of the brain and mental illness in antiquity.

What is the effect of the “crazy” talk that permeates our public forums and our political discourse? We have a very long history of using words such as “crazy” and “mad” in casual polemic. The Greek orator Demosthenes used the word mania sixteen times in his extant speeches, and never to offer a “medical” diagnosis. Some two-and-a-half centuries later, Cicero employed the Latin word insania and its related verb insanire on over seventy occasions.

Authors such as these were the models of polite speech and rhetoric throughout the Roman Empire, and were enormously influential in literary culture and education in modern Europe and its imperial reach. As Caroline Winterer has shown, Greek and Latin models were fundamental to political oratory in antebellum America. Frederick Douglass, as David W. Blight has described, studied rhetoric from a book called The Columbian Orator, which included extracts (translated and imagined) from Greco-Roman oratory…

…Our penchant for casual diagnosis does not stem from political oratory alone. The discourse of crazy was fundamental to early Christian texts, especially heresiological catalogues, polemical pamphlets, and sermons, all of which were arguably more influential even than Cicero during late antiquity and the medieval period. Terms for mental disorders were commonly used to undermine one’s opponent and to situate oneself as an authority on others’ moral health…

Phrenitis was an illness popular in early Christian polemic, especially in the writings of the bishop Augustine of Hippo, who diagnosed phrenitis over forty times in his religious opponents, including pagans, Jews, and Manichaeans. In Augustine’s work, as in the writings of contemporary preachers such as John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Peter Chrysologus — phrenitis served as a metaphor or a model for illness of the soul. That is, in early Christian terms, the failure to be saved. Phrenitis stood in for the delusion, the loss of self-control, and the threat of death that Christian authors associated with alternative religious paradigms. With salvation understood as the only form of health, rejection of salvation could not but be understood as symptomatic of disease…

…Phrenitis provided a model for a spiritual illness that presented among its symptoms the experience of spiritual strength. As such, it was integral to Augustine’s anti-Jewish polemic, since it explained why the Jewish people might believe themselves to enjoy a positive relationship with God.

The no-win logic of spiritual/political madness is an authoritarian trap. The more you protest, the more your strengths will be twisted into symptoms–cool logic as sociopathy, emotional pleas as hysteria, self-preservation as noncompliance. A modern comedy or horror film scene in an asylum would be incomplete without the stock figure of the paranoid patient desperately asserting that he’s not really crazy, his distress contrasted with the calm of the men in white coats. We’re so easily fooled into mistaking privilege for sanity.

Preachers such as Augustine commonly represented themselves as physicians of the soul —a conceit borrowed from ancient philosophy — but phrenitis enabled them to leverage a new kind of authority. To borrow an example from Plutarch, a preacher might compare sin to gout in order to persuade his congregants of the importance of spiritual care. When a preacher diagnosed sin as phrenitis, however, it meant that he thought his patient was beyond persuasion, and needed rather to be coerced. More than once, Augustine explains punitive actions against religious opponents as a form of treatment or restraint commonly applied to those suffering from mental illness.

Augustine justifies intervention in the religious and political lives of his opponents on the grounds that he is a physician of the soul, and that their religious difference is symptomatic of an organic mental disorder, an illness of the brain. This rhetorical move diminished his opponents’ authority to speak for themselves: phrenitis offered a model for therapeutic intervention in a context where the patient refused treatment. Psychiatric invective became a powerful tool for establishing the authority of one religious perspective and practice over another. Even though Augustine’s diagnosis was “merely” metaphorical, he intended it to have real-world effects.

Wright cites contemporary examples of psychiatric diagnoses being mis-applied against marginalized groups. For example, during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, the psychiatric establishment redefined schizophrenia to discredit and criminalize black men:

Jonathan Metzl in his book The Protest Psychosis…shows how schizophrenia transformed, during the Civil Rights era, from an illness characterized by weakness and depression and associated primarily with white patients (especially isolated housewives) to a diagnosis of aggression and paranoia, disproportionately applied to African-American men. Within the frame of Civil Rights protests, Metzl argues, violent actions (including self-defence) could be interpreted as the unpredictable outburst of the schizophrenic, while the identification of structural inequality was interpreted as paranoia, and the denial of one’s own sickness as delusion. Asylums for the “criminally insane” saw a steep rise in the population of African-American men, who were contained through sedatives in doses now considered extraordinarily high. Fifty years later, African-American men continue to be disproportionately diagnosed with the disease, which continues to be associated with violence and aggression. With the merciless irony characteristic of structures of injustice, the system of mass incarceration that has evolved over the intervening decades in fact minimizes the mental health resources available to incarcerated populations, criminalizing mental illnesses, even as it medicalizes “deviant” behaviours.

Thus, when we use “crazy talk” to oppose our resident fascist demagogue, we’re not just being politically incorrect. We’re actually reinforcing the authoritarianism that we fear.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

Save

After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

December Links Roundup: Into the Dark

kaliimwithher

“Turn your face away from the garish light of day, Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, And listen to the music of the night,” the Phantom of the Opera sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. These lines captured my heart when I saw the show 25 years ago. Darkness as fertile, safe, restful, profound, and full of tenderness.

As we approach the Winter Solstice, and a political transition that feels apocalyptic for many, the spiritual qualities of darkness invite closer attention. In both popular culture and pagan literature, we need to rethink the colonialist metaphor of “light” magic as good and pure, “dark” or “black” magic as evil and sexually decadent. Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, a new book of intersectional feminist spirituality, suggests the terms “empowered” and “occluded” (rather than the Jungian “shadow”) to refer to the helpful and destructive aspects of an archetype.

I’ve been exploring the Pagan channel on the religion blog portal Patheos, which is where I found John Beckett’s blog, Under the Ancient Oaks. Beckett is a Druid and Unitarian Universalist. In a post written shortly after the presidential election, “Be the Dark”, he had a refreshing take on the ubiquitous urgings on social media to “be the light”. Many of us on the Left did not have a ton of happy confetti to throw around last month. We were feeling scared, despondent, angry, and overwhelmed. Even if we had it in us, was spreading positive vibes really helpful or a form of denial? Beckett reflected:

[W]hat if you don’t particularly feel like being the light? What if you’re still hurting, still afraid, still mad as hell? What if you’re just not a love and light kind of person?

Then be the dark.

Be the safety of the dark. We tend to think of the dark as a dangerous place, but for a wide variety of nocturnal creatures, daylight is dangerous and the dark is where they’re safe. You can’t see as well in the dark, but that also means it’s harder for you to be seen. Our mainstream culture mocks “hiding in the dark” but if you’re up against predators who are bigger, stronger, and more numerous than you, hiding in the dark is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Embrace the safety of the dark.

He went on to praise other positive qualities of the dark: restfulness, nurturing, and the ability to create illusions. Finally, he dared to encourage us to be the danger of the dark:

Here we shift from nice safe pretty Nature metaphors to the reality of what must be done in the dark… Being the danger of the dark is knowing in your soul that you’re scarier than anything that might come after you. This isn’t the testosterone-driven braggadocio of young men. Rather, it’s the quiet confidence that comes from the direct, first-hand experience of Gods, spirits, and magic. It’s knowing you have allies in the Otherworld – not servants you can call down at will, but mighty Powers with whom you are aligned and at whose side you will fight… and win, eventually if not immediately.

It’s knowing your own Will can be enhanced with herbs and stones, with blood and piss, and with the bones of other creatures. It’s knowing the power of words and the power of symbols.

It’s knowing spells that go against your morals, that you would never use… unless there was no other way.

It’s knowing that as long as you have breath you have hope, because you have magic and you have Will.

Some of the most interesting scenes in Once Upon a Time happen when Regina, the semi-reformed Evil Queen, must partner with the heroes to fight a threat to their town. She’s a risky but invaluable member of the team because she’s willing to be the bad cop when nothing else works. In the current season, she’s split off her Dark side so that she can be a good person who gets a happy ending, but dis-integration is not working out well for her or anyone around her.

(If you’re all getting tired of OUAT life lessons, don’t worry, I’m now binge-watching Luke Cage.)

Also on the subject of Dark Goddesses, a friend sent me religion scholar Vera de Chalambert’s article “Kali Takes America: I’m With Her”.  (The subtitle was Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan.)

…Donald Trump might already be picking his deplorable cabinet, but it is the Dark Mother, the destroyer of worlds, oracle of holy change, the tenderhearted be-header, that won this country. Kali has brought down our house in a shocking blow; all the illusions of America, stripped in a single night. We are not who we thought we were. Now we must get ready to stand in her fires of transmutation. We need them…

Paradoxically, the price of true hope, it seems, is being unsettled beyond repair. And this is exactly the opportunity our political moment is presenting to us all. Right now, from all corners of our shocked culture, there are cries of hope, demands of needing to become even brighter lights amidst the spreading darkness. I disagree.

I think that this moment gives us an opportunity for reckoning only if instead of running for the light, we let ourselves go fully into the dark. If instead of resolving our discomfort too quickly, we consider the possibility of staying in the uncomfortable, in the irreconcilable, in the unsettled.

Before we rush in to reanimate the discourse of hope prematurely, we must yield to what is present. Receptivity is the great quality of darkness; darkness hosts everything without exception. The Dark Mother has no orphans. We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better.

We can’t cut of the stream of life and expect to heal.

Cutting off the inconvenient is a form of spiritual fascism. By resolving to stay only in the light in times of immense crisis, we split life; engage in emotional deportation, rather than hosting the vulnerable. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact.

In a culture of isolation, be the invitation to everything.

The intuition that the Dark Mother has returned is pervasive if we heed the signs, and our thirst for the dark is deep.

She may not be an official Goddess yet, but Ursula the Sea Witch (from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”) is the form that the Dark Mother has been taking for me lately. Like Kali, she has a lot of arms, and she’ll fuck you up. Half octopus, half chanteuse, she is loud, large, lusty, and speaks the truth that you may not want to hear. She’ll tell you the price of following your dreams. Can you pay it?

ursula

I had no gaydar when “The Little Mermaid” was released in 1989, but when I re-listened to Ursula’s song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” a few months ago, it was obvious she was a drag queen! Was I just reading my own preoccupations into her? Nope. In the literary journal Hazlitt, Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree’s article “Unearthing the Sea Witch” reveals that she was based on none other than Divine, the countercultural icon of outrageous filthiness from John Waters’ movies. Lyricist Howard Ashman, a gay man, also added a smidgen of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant from his hit musical “Little Shop of Horrors”.

The article concludes, “Ursula is a plum role because as Glenn Milstead [Divine’s birth name], Howard Ashman, John Waters, and generations of queers and drag queens know, being ostracized, fat, and sick can bring its own strength and power… [I]n stories like these there is no convention. There are only relationships. Deep, firmly felt connections between strange, gross, gorgeous, and utterly authentic characters. What’s subversive about Ursula, Audrey II, and Divine is that they cannot be contained.”

Save

Release Week Reviews for “Two Natures”

More great reviews have come in since Two Natures debuted last week. I’m honored when readers say that I did justice to the real-life experience of gay men and their loved ones during the AIDS crisis. When other people make an emotional connection with characters who previously existed only in my mind, something magical happens, like the scene in the play Peter Pan when the collective strength of the audience’s chant “I do believe in fairies!” brings Tinkerbell to life.

On Goodreads, reviewer Nocturnalux gave thoughtful attention to the book’s literary devices and philosophical dichotomies:

The story of Julian, a young fashion photographer trying to make it in the fast and furious 90’s New York environment, is not simply the vehicle through which gay rights, religious issues, the AIDS epidemic, family breakdown and queer identity are addressed: by immersing the reader fully into its well developed world, the novel conveys all this and so much in an organic manner.

This immersive quality is achieved in part thanks to a very apt usage of the first person narrative. As a photographer Julian employs highly image saturated language to frame his experiences, in a most literal sense. Visual intense descriptions punctuate the story and is the lenses through which the storytelling process happens. But these also serve to show a sense of alienation from the actual world, a pressing anxiety that haunts Julian.

The narrator’s repressive, traditional Christian upbringing also factors in his means of expression, with many biblical references strewed very liberally throughout the entire novel, to the point of the title, as it has already been mentioned. The biblical imagery covers a gamut of tones, from lyrical, pensive and musing to snarky and highly cynical…

Two Natures is in all respects very honest. It does not shy from being graphic, painful, at times horrifying, often moving, all without caring for niceties. The comprehensive scope of the endeavor has its own artistic vision, both in-universe- Julian strives to capture some form of beauty- and at a structural level as the novel is almost flawless in how it harnesses highly personal moments to turn into literature.

Ultimately, Two Natures questions the very notion of ‘either/or’ system: perhaps there is a way of sublimating truth into beauty, or vice-verse, and reach an integrated way of feeling in which one can be true to oneself and still find actual love. There are no guarantees but the mere possibility is enough.

Meredith King at the M/M review blog Diverse Reader provided an enthusiastic release day review and promo post. Leave a blog comment or tweet about the giveaway for a chance to win a free e-book review copy.

Talk about a debut novel that grabs you, bleeds you, and makes you cry until you’re raw. It’s one of those books that when it ends you realize you stopped breathing. This is not an easy read. The subject matter is very heavy and the author really thrusts you into the gritty.

Many of us remember the early 90’s and how AIDS was actually vocal. Yes, it had been around for years before but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that people talked about it. Many people suffered and died because of this virus.  This book not only addresses AIDS and that time period but you are gutted at the loss of one character because of the virus. That is the only warning you’re getting about the seriousness and emotional upheaval in this book.

This tale is close to 400 pages long but it flowed. Pacing was terrific and the characters were fleshed out nicely.

Gay novelist Hans M. Hirschi belongs to the same generation as Julian and me. His positive response to the book was very meaningful. Hirschi is a literary writer with crossover appeal to the M/M romance market, as I hope to be. His books have romantic subplots where love generally prevails, but also tackle serious issues such as bereavement, child abuse and trafficking, spirituality, and the obstacles faced by nontraditional families. I recommend his novel The Opera House, which is so far the only book I’ve read that reflects my experience with mental health stigma as a prospective adoptive parent. Some highlights from his review:

First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990s, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself…), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the ‘hero’ of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It’s all there, deliciously described…

…Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of “open relationship” might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms Reiter for writing “our” story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.

As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.

Who knows, perhaps writing can change reality, after all? Readers, if you see Julian walking around New York sometime, give him a big kiss from me. He saved my life.