Pre-Order My Story Collection “An Incomplete List of My Wishes”

It’s here!

Feast your eyes on this lovely cover, courtesy of artist Ariel Freiberg and Sunshot Press editors Brent and Alexis Williams Carr! And now it can be yours for the low price of $12.95. (Kindle edition will be out later this fall.)

Diane Donovan of Midwest Book Review calls this book “a vivid literary and psychological collection especially recommended for those who like their stories passionate yet observational, their psychological depths presented in sips rather than explosions of flavor, and their stories nicely imbedded with social and spiritual reflection alike. An Incomplete List of My Wishes offers the kinds of inspections that leave readers thinking far beyond the curtain call of quiet dramas in lives lived on the edge of self-realization and social engagement.”

Read “The House of Correction”, a story in this collection that was just named runner-up for the 2018 Solstice Lit Mag Fiction Prize:

“I am going to this wedding,” Zebatinsky declared to Carla. His middling daughter. Middle. But the switched word lodged in his brain, as happened more and more these days, branching out tendrils of other words, a not unpleasant process until he was obliged to backtrack its meanderings to the conversation he’d left hanging. Carla in the muddle, middle-born between fiery David, now a banker in Hong Kong, and beautiful Natalie, who’d played piano in Carnegie Hall, found a husband, and died. Carla taught high school physics and nutrition at Bronx Science. She thought she knew everything about his prions. Or was that muons? He’d forgotten which were the particles that glued up your synapses, and which ones bombarded you without sensation, like a hand passing through a slide projection.

“How, Poppy? I can’t let you fly to Miami all by yourself. What if you get confused?”

Zebatinsky bit back a flippant remark. Getting confused in his own little apartment on West End Avenue and 94th, among the softly creaking shelves of books from thirty-five years of teaching Russian literature, was not only harmless but his privilege, his birthright, which middle-aged Carla was itching to trick him out of, with her sly talk of golf courses and assisted living centers in Connecticut. On the other hand, getting confused in a too-loud, too-bright airport that stank of sweet coffee and porta-potty deodorizer was not an adventure he cared to repeat.

“You’ll come with me. See, it says ‘Isaac Zebatinsky and guest.’” He pointed to the handwritten address on the square ivory envelope, the words scrunching together toward the end as if the writer had miscalculated the size of the small paper. “It’s a weekend. You can do your lesson plans on the plane.”

Carla blinked hard, her way, ever since childhood, of disguising a sudden hurt. See, he was still sharp enough to notice the important things. A mixed blessing because awareness included guilt for his unintentional dig. She didn’t want to tell old Poppy why she was single in her forties but it must bother her more than she let on. Perhaps that excused the tone of her question: “How do you know the Abramoffs, anyway? I don’t remember them.”

He sighed, buying himself some time with the implication of a long and emotional story to come, as he studied the invitation’s embossed sea-blue script: Rabbi and Mrs. Gershom Abramoff welcome you to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Sarah Nicole Abramoff to Jasper Michael Shapiro on Saturday, February 23rd, at 6:30 PM, Temple Shaarei Tefilah, followed by an address in Miami. The truth was, Zebatinsky had no idea who these people were…

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.

“Everything Must Burn”: Thoughts From My Lenten Journal

Spoken-word poet Emily Joy went viral on Twitter in 2016 with her powerful video “How to Love the Sinner & Hate the Sin: 5 Easy Steps”, a satire that indicts the heartlessness of anti-LGBTQ Christians using their own catchphrases. “Religious freedom means never having to say you’re sorry/ You can love people and take away their rights.” She’s also been a prominent critic of sexism and victim-blaming in Christian purity culture.

For my Lenten discipline this year, I wrote in the journaling workbook she created, Everything Must Burn: A Spiritual Guide to Starting Over. Designed for survivors of fundamentalism and spiritual trauma, the simple 8-week program covers topics such as Sexuality, Shame, Hell, and Creativity, with brief questions that prompt us to articulate our old and new beliefs, and affirmations of God’s inclusive love. Here are a few of my musings, lightly edited for clarity:

What do you believe about the nature of God?

I often believe that God is unknowable and too tremendous for our consciousness to interact with without exploding. (Very Lovecraftian!) When I try to live into the hope that God is a goodness and love that wins out over cruelty and entropy, the closest I can get to awareness of that God is…the “deep and dazzling darkness” of Henry Vaughan’s poem.

…I’m not ready for God’s heartbreaking love. To feel the grief of not being loved that way for all of my youth.

…I’m going to try to be less fearful of God by identifying “God” with the magic-filled universe.

What is the place of anger in your spiritual and creative life?

In my creative life, anger is often the dynamite that knocks down the writer’s block of self-doubt and shame. That Anaïs Nin quote about staying in the bud being more painful than blossoming–for me it’s like, the time comes when my hair is too much on fire to give a flying fuck what anyone thinks of me.

…I’m angry that I no longer trust spiritual teachers and religious institutions because I feel they’re trying to sell me something–the belief that their system or community is complete and necessary for my well-being. At bottom, they all want me to feel unable to live without them and guilty of disloyalty for drawing on other support systems–just as my mother did! Am I just triggered? No, I am genuinely angry at hegemony as a human impulse.

…I feel really sad when I reflect on all of this. I sense in myself a deep need to be seen, consoled, and vindicated (Psalm 17). In the olden days, I’d say “God is the one to meet that need”, but now I react with suspicion to that facile doctrine–it’s a handy excuse for other people to avoid mutuality in relating to me–or for me to despair of asking for support from anyone outside my own head. And I guess I’m angry that there’s no venue or vocabulary in mainstream church culture or progressive theology to even address this as an issue.

Do you believe that God is the sort of being to send creatures they love to hell? What were some of the messages you received about hell growing up?

I’m lucky that I was never raised with the concept of salvation/damnation dependent on what religion you believed in… I didn’t need any worse concept of hell than being seen for my true self and deemed unworthy of love. Hell was being cast out from the presence of love, inescapably confronted with the truth of my loathsomeness forever.

I didn’t pick up this primal dread from Christianity, but Christianity found a hole in me for this fear to root in. I was vulnerable to this shitty theology that grace is merely a legal fiction (simul justus et peccator) whereby God pretends not to notice how awful you are.

That’s not love, but Christianity manipulates you into thinking you have to settle for it–then blames you for not feeling loved or loving God back. Negging as evangelism!

…I think that hellfire theology motivates you to see the worst in people because you know deep down how unfair it is–so you have to look for reasons why every sin is a bigger deal than it really is.

Do you see a difference between shame and guilt? Do you think God wants you to feel shame?

Can we distinguish, more than “grace alone” Protestants do, between shame and guilt? Grace sets us free from shame by telling us that our essence isn’t repulsive and nothing can separate us from God’s love. But if we say it also sets us free from guilt, we shirk the responsibility to make amends and take our sins seriously. I don’t think God wants us to feel shame, because shame is so intolerable for the ego that it takes away the base of safety that we need to change our ways.

…My faith, as I once knew it, can’t recover from the realization that my shame was the product of abuse, not genuine depravity. Protestantism will never let people actually live in the grace that it promises, because of its false claim that we are right to be ashamed–that self-loathing is factually based in unspeakable guilt, instead of being an illusion from imperfect parental attachment.

What do you believe love is?

Two things I have a problem with in how “love” is deployed in Christianity: (1) “Love” as an excuse to say coercive, scary, erasing things to people “for their own good”; (2) “love” as obligatory toward, or more praiseworthy when directed toward, people who intend harm to us.

Today I took a walk on the bike trail to enjoy the spring sunshine. I admired a young woman’s cute little dog. The woman, with a teary joyfulness, told me she takes every opportunity to talk to people about her near-death experience and how Jesus cured her cancer, because she now knows Jesus is the only way, and she’s worried I won’t make it to heaven. I thanked her pleasantly and noncommittally, and walked away feeling sad, breathless, homesick for a kind of peaceful certainty I’ve never had. What is God’s love, really? It’s the shameless innocence of the dog running through the woods, oblivious to the fearful system his mistress has embraced to solve a self-created problem.

…Now I feel like taking a page from this woman’s book and commemorating Transgender Day of Visibility by standing on a street corner and asking people if they’ve read the Good Word of Judith Butler. “I just want everyone to know that gender is socially constructed! The truth will set you free!”

…It’s so fucking hard to love one’s friends and family properly, I’ve got no time for hugging neo-Nazis! Cynical aside: perhaps for some people it’s easier to “love” an enemy because there’s no feedback mechanism. It can all be a self-flattering illusion. Your enemy can’t call you out, like a real friend does, because you’ve already decided to ignore their opinion of you.

What does it look like to live creatively?

To live creatively is to trust myself to follow my instincts into unknown territory. To pursue what excites me (or take a rest when I need it) without having to know how it turns out or explain why this is what I’m doing.

I fear that “creativity” gets confused with “productivity” such that my self-image as a creator must be constantly proven with output. Or that creativity becomes a burden, like the “devotion” my mother supposedly gave me–a privilege that can never be repaid, a duty to prove that I’m grateful all the time and not squandering my potential.

…I try to follow Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice in Big Magic that I should revel in the freedom of my unimportance, but that doesn’t work well for a naturally depressed person. I am still searching for what it would mean for my work to “matter”–what’s a healthy, non-egotistical, inner-directed way for that need to be met? I sense that as long as I look to someone else for that validation, I’ll live in fear–even if the someone else is God, because a good parent God would not base their love on my achievements. What would make my work matter TO ME?

Jack Gilbert (no relation) had it right–go live on a fucking island with your goats and your three wives and let your friends drag you out to publish a book every 10 years. He was like the Ron Swanson of poetry.

…I’m starting to develop evidence-based faith that I can manifest changes in my life that I once despaired of. And that is creativity–thinking outside the limits of what the literal mind takes to be impossible… Being trans is one of the most creative and magical things I’ve done. I’m willing a new gender into existence.

April Links Roundup: You Can Handle the Truth

Happy Easter and Passover, readers! I’d wish you a happy spring, too, but it’s been snowing all morning here in Paradise City. Ah, New England…

There are many links this month, and they have no theme. Let’s get started.

I have awesome friends who are all completely unfazed by my journey to not-female-ness. My best guy friend forwarded me links to excellent TED Talks by drag king performer Diane Torr (“Man for a Day, Woman for a Day”) and Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams (“I’ve lived as a man and a woman, here’s what I’ve learned”). Williams was a conservative Christian pastor before her transition, and now heads the psychotherapy and pastoral counseling organization RLT Pathways.

On her blog last month, Williams shared some wise advice about spiritually mature Biblical interpretation and “Knowing What You Know”. Children start with an “external locus of control”: they rely on their parents or primary caregivers to teach them what is true and morally right. Healthy adulthood means developing an internal locus of control. However, unhealthy families train people to keep on relying on secondhand guidance into adulthood. And churches have colluded with that program by taking over the role of the controlling parent, instead of encouraging believers to develop personal discernment. This happens, for instance, when anti-LGTBQ Christians disregard the promptings of their empathy and personal experience.

I have since realized when my understanding of Scripture causes me to reject what my heart, mind and soul are telling me, the problem is not with my heart, mind and soul. It is with my understanding of Scripture.  The problem is that I have made my heart, mind and soul subservient to my tribe.  When your tribe’s interpretation of Scripture violates your own conscience, the question you should ask yourself is why you have opted for an external locus of control.

For religious people, the answer is often that we have been taught that our bodies are evil and not to be trusted. Our sin causes us to deceive ourselves. Since we cannot trust ourselves, we must submit to an external power. Of course, this is great news for the tribe. It guarantees its ongoing existence. If the tribe can make us afraid of our own conscience and common sense, it can maintain the control necessary to remain in power.

It is interesting that when people talk about our sinful proclivities, they often quote the writings of the Apostle Paul. But when I look at the writings of Paul, particularly in his letter to the church at Rome, I find Paul more concerned about the sin that encompasses us when tribal rule takes over than the sin zipped up inside our own beings.

Over at Ruminate, a faith-oriented literary journal, fiction writer Mindy Misener discusses another challenge in developing an internal locus of control, regarding the issue of why we write. In “I Don’t Like Writing About Writing, But This Is Overdue”, Misener describes her slide from personal to career-oriented motivations, a choice she likens to Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve both God and Mammon: “I entered an MFA program wanting to write and left the program wanting to get published.”

I developed the same problem when I shifted from poetry to novels. I wrote poetry mostly for myself, to discharge and analyze my deepest feelings. Winning prizes was fun, but it didn’t affect what I wrote about or my motivation to keep writing. But fiction, a more popular genre, involves other people, on the page and in the market; someone might actually read it. Two years of marketing my debut book further eroded my ability to write without hearing the voices of imaginary critics. Like Misener, I have to re-commit to “writing out of a desire to touch the ineffable.”

That’s a goal that I see realized in “Art Can Handle Us”, an essay by New Zealand poet and dance teacher Rata Gordon, published in January in the journal Corpus: Conversations About Medicine and Life. Her writing students, dealing with mental illness and trauma, bring the burden of feeling unworthy into their creative process. The miracle of art is that it is spacious enough to handle everything that frightens us about ourselves. The open-ended nature of poetry-making is an invitation to meditate, to be present with and curious about something that could otherwise trigger us into disconnection or reactivity.

Every time we say yes to our experience, either through writing it down, sploshing it with paint, crafting it into a play, or squishing it with playdough, we send a very important message to ourselves: ‘I matter. My experience is real’. This is a powerful antidote to the conditioned belief that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow lacking. This is particularly significant for people who belong to marginalised groups in society, but it matters to anyone who has ever doubted their self-worth.

In my experience, finding a way to express what is arising as honestly and precisely as possible is where the best art comes from. By ‘best art’ I don’t mean art that is the most well-liked or appreciated by others (although that may sometimes be true); I mean that it is the most internally satisfying to create.

As Gordon mentions, society’s prejudices feed a writer’s internalized self-judgment. It’s not just a personal self-esteem problem to get over. In the Spring 2018 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review Online, Lili Loofbourow, staff critic for The Week, chronicles how our aesthetic standards are unconsciously dictated by “The Male Glance”. (Hat tip to poet Marsha Truman Cooper for sending me the link.)

The slope from taxonomy to dismissal is deceptively gentle and ends with a shrug. The danger of the male glance is that it is reasonable. It’s not always or necessarily incorrect. But it is dangerous because it looks and thinks it reads. The glance sees little in women-centric stories besides cheap sentiment or its opposite, the terrifically uninteresting compensatory propaganda of “female strength.” It concludes, quite rightly, that Strong Female Lead is not a story but a billboard.

The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed. The glance is social and ethical the way advice columns are social and ethical, a communal pulse declaring—briefly, definitively, and with minimal information—which narrative textures constitute turgid substance, which diastolic fluff. This is the male glance’s sub rosa work, and it feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending—to omnisciently not-attend, to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor because our intuition is so searingly accurate it doesn’t require it. Here again, we’re closer to the amateur astronomer than to the explorer. Rather than investigate or discover, we point and classify.

Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say…

…Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself.

For Mallory Ortberg, the brilliant satirist and cultural commentator behind the (now sadly defunct) online journal The Toast, questioning gender roles in literature led to a real-life gender transition. This characteristically witty interview at The Rumpus coincides with the release of Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, an expansion of Ortberg’s “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series at The Toast.

Ortberg: Fairy tales are labeled by the nature of the protagonist. There will be entire subsets of fairy tales that are about the seventh son, or the third daughter, or whatever. There’s so many ways in which not just your gender but your relationship to your family, like whether you’re a daughter, whether you’re a son, whether you’re the oldest, whether you’re the third, whether you’re the seventh, some other significant number, shapes you. It shapes your role in a story, and it’s almost a job. The ways in which being a father in a fairy tale sets you up for one of several paths that you can be in, or being a stepmother, or being a mother, or being an older, envious sister.

Gender feels like a job that you can sort of apply for, and you could just as easily not get that job. It didn’t interest me to write about a world where gender was better, so much as —what if it was not tethered to the same things that we tether it to, what would be ways in which it would still be a trap and a fiction and a prison? Which is not to say that that is the only thing that gender is, but in the terms of things you can explore in a short story, that’s some serious grist for the mill. I was just trying to think of an imaginative way somebody else might be trapped by gender, in a world where they were not trapped in the same way that we are?

Finally, Little Red Tarot founder Beth Maiden has helped me rethink one of the most problematic cards in my deck with her post last month, “Reclaiming the Empress”. Beth’s issues with this Major Arcana character are the same as mine:

In many ways, I’ve rejected this archetype, associating it in the traditional way with ideas of maternity, fertility, motherhood. I’ve been quick to un-align myself with what often feels like a very strong gender stereotype, one which says women and femme folks should be soft, nurturing, fertile, mothering, receptive, and giving – all Empress qualities. But there are so many other aspects to this card, and so many other ways of framing the qualities I’ve listed, taking the Empress way beyond the ‘archetypal feminine’ or ‘Mother’ that I find problematic. It is more than possible to reclaim and embrace the Empress archetype in a feminist and queer context.

In my online tarot course A Card a Day, I talk a lot about the messages of self-care and nourishment the Empress brings us. Messages about the importance of listening to our bodies’ needs, of tuning in to our surroundings and consciously (and unconsciously) enriching our connection with our environments, our relationship with the spaces we inhabit.

And because it’s about relationships, the Empress is about receiving as much as it is about giving. Receiving from the earth, receiving from our communities, from the folks we love. Letting ourselves be cared for and nurtured, and showing up to offer this to others too, in turn. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, a cycle, to this giving and receiving, they are two parts of a whole. Receptivity doesn’t have to be a weak quality – it takes strength and vulnerability to allow ourselves to be supported and cared for.

In this illustrated post, Beth recommends some old and new decks whose artwork and guidebooks offer creative alternatives to gender-stereotyped images of the Empress. If you’re in the UK, support her online shop!

 

Queer Witchcraft as Resistance: Take the Survey

Via the Little Red Tarot e-newsletter, I learned of this interesting academic research project on the intersections of queerness, spirituality, art, and politics:

Australian academic seeking practicing artists who identify as queer/non-binary/LGBTQIA+ and identify as witches for inclusion in thesis: Contemporary Queer Artists and the Resurgence of Witchcraft as Resistance. Participants must be over 18 and willing to fill out a 16 question survey covering both their art and witchcraft practice. All personal information will be kept private. To take part, email Brooke at fecba001@mymail.unisa.edu.au

Brooke Haba, the researcher, gave me permission to post some excerpts from my survey responses. If your identity fits the description, do get in touch and fill out the questionnaire. I found it to be a useful self-examination of my evolving spirituality.

 

How do you feel [your art practice and your witchcraft practice] intersect?

Both require faith that what Western culture calls “imaginary” is important and real. For me, fiction-writing and spirituality both involve the cultivation of an inner listening that receives messages from noncorporeal beings. Asking my novel characters for fashion advice isn’t any more or less absurd than invoking Baba Yaga to heal my reproductive health problems. (Both of which really worked, FYI.)

I use Tarot spreads or card draws to center myself at the beginning of a writing session, and to suggest plot developments or unexpected images for a scene. I’ve done gratitude and prosperity rituals for my book launch.

In what ways would your art differ if you were not a witch?

I might still be afraid that writing gay erotica imperils my mortal soul.

Does your queer identity relate to your witchcraft practice?

Only in the sense that both depend on believing my own intuition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Being self-referenced, as the psychologists say. Trusting that my will and my perceptions are the foundation of my reality.

Is witchcraft a form of resistance in the current political climate?

I think it can be, but like any religion or ideology, it isn’t necessarily on the right side (whatever we imagine that to be). Humans are clever monkeys. Any system can get corrupted by our instinct to seek status and domination.

Grassroots witchcraft in America may have the advantage of being decentralized, politically marginal, and lacking large financial investments. Christianity began with radical resistance to empire, but over the centuries, became enmeshed with the political and economic status quo. The tradition accreted as many oppressive concepts as liberating ones. Modern witchcraft currently doesn’t have that baggage to overcome. So it may naturally attract anti-fascist, pro-equality folks. But we should never be complacent that alternative spirituality is any guarantee of authenticity or righteousness. Our biggest temptation could be consumerism—performative witchcraft on Instagram, having all the right swag instead of thinking about what communities our money supports.

Is queer identity a form of resistance in the current political climate?

That’s easier for me to answer YES. Sometimes I tell myself that my gender-questioning obsession is self-indulgent and stupid, like, “Really? You first decide to come out in the Trump administration?” But that’s me, nothing motivates me like the chance to piss someone off!

But seriously, I’m privileged to be as safe as a queer person can be: I pass for female, I’m self-employed, I’m white, and I live in a town where my son can go to Drag Queen Story Hour at the synagogue. If I can’t come out, who can?

Honestly, the only folks around here who are likely to give me grief about trans stuff are some older lesbian-feminist separatists who feel their struggles are erased by the blurring of the gender binary. I really feel this infighting is deadly, not only to us gender-nonconforming folks, but to everyone in the progressive resistance. Divide and conquer, you know. So yes, even against the old-guard Left, calling yourself “queer” is a useful form of resistance because it is an intersectional term—it reminds us to value solidarity in all our diversity, not settle for a world where single-issue groups fight for the crumbs left behind by the One Percent.

What does witchcraft offer that other spiritual perspectives lack? Do you see witchcraft as a spiritual path?

For me, it is certainly a spiritual path. I can’t imagine what else it could be. Without gratitude for the great mysteries of existence, without accountability to the nonhuman web of life, isn’t it just technology—imposing our will on events by manipulating so-called inert matter?

What it offers me is a redirection from dogma to practice and present-time awareness, not unlike the Buddhist and Jewish traditions that are also part of our family background.

I also see witchcraft as a way to integrate my adult self, who thrives on independence, analytical thinking, and political consciousness, and my child self, who is embodied and creative and has always known herself to be surrounded with invisible allies. The modern liberal church is this weird mix of an infantilizing authority structure and a skeptical intellectual culture that dismisses miracles and magic as childish.

Who/what inspires your art practice?

Anyone who is taking a risk to be creative and authentic, in any genre—putting their ego on the line and pushing through fears of abandonment and failure.

 

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.

 

 

October Links Roundup: That’s What I Like

There is no theme this month.

The single best medical decision I ever made was to get the Mirena chemical IUD this year–or as I call it, “Van Helsing”, because it stopped the bleeding! I was somewhat pushed into it because my insurance company forced me off the brand-name Pill that kept my endometriosis under control, and the generic version was making my blood pressure go up (or perhaps that was the frustration of losing control over my reproductive health??).

But I didn’t actually hear about the IUD option from my OB-GYNs. It was never suggested to me, during the 30+ years I’ve been chronically disabled from menstrual pain. No, I had to read about it in the comments on an article about fertility magic at Little Red Tarot. Some goddess must have been looking out for me, because my periods have stopped, and for the first time since I was 10 years old I can make plans like a normal person. I don’t have to deal with losing a week of my life every month to pain and insomnia, or the shame of having to make false excuses for my unavailability because menstruation is a taboo subject for many people. As with all hormonal medications, your mileage may vary, but it dramatically changed my life for the better.

Lack of information is just one of the obstacles to good reproductive care. In her essay “You’ll Feel a Pinch” at the online literary journal Catapult, Megan Stielstra writes about her decision to have her IUD replaced early, in case the Trump administration makes birth control even more expensive and hard to get. She had to go through a lengthy and humiliating process to get this authorized. I blame the Religious Right; they’ve capitalized on people’s reasonable moral qualms about abortion to gain veto power over all health care relating to sexuality and reproduction.

Turning from real-life monsters to probably-imaginary ones, comics artist Greg Ruth explains why “Horror Is Good for You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” on the website of sci-fi and horror publisher Tor.com. (Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism for the link.) Childhood is scary, so stories that acknowledge the strangeness and dangers of the world are validating and can teach resilience. Horror archetypes teach us truths about intimacy, isolation, difference, and the struggle to find your place in a community. Moreover, the constraints of writing for younger readers can produce more subtle and effective fiction, because the writer can’t go for the lazy shock value of sexual violence and gore. No wonder I became a horror fan in junior high… around the same time I started to bleed every month… coincidence?

Also at Tor.com, the Lovecraft Reread series by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth offers insightful and witty critiques of work in the HPL tradition. After covering H.P. Lovecraft’s original tales, they have gone on to reread stories by weird fiction contemporaries like M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and contemporary practitioners such as Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Lumley. You may even find horror greats like Ramsey Campbell dropping in to the comments section, which is remarkably respectful and well-informed.

The high-modernist poet T.S. Eliot was my other big literary obsession during those teen years. Revisiting Lovecraft this year, I noticed some psychological similarities. Both writers contemplated man’s humble place in the cosmos, liked to name-drop erudite references in multiple languages, had a fastidious and even phobic attitude about sexuality, and resorted to racist caricature in their defense of Anglo-American civilization. I wondered if they were aware of each other, since their iconic works were written in the 1920s-30s. Wonder no more: in comment #9 to the Lovecraft Reread of HPL’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, user “trajan23” treats us to HPL’s TSE parody, “Waste Paper”, which begins thus:

Waste Paper
A Poem of Profound Insignificance
By H. P. Lovecraft

Πἀντα γἐλως καἱ πἀντα κὀνις καἱ πἀντα τὁ μηδἐν

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright
I used to ride my bicycle in the night
With a dandy acetylene lantern that cost $3.00
In the evening, by the moonlight, you can hear those darkies singing
Meet me tonight in dreamland . . . BAH
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?
In the spring of the year, in the silver rain
When petal by petal the blossoms fall
And the mocking birds call
And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite.
The first cinema show in our town opened in 1906
At the old Olympic, which was then call’d Park,
And moving beams shot weirdly thro’ the dark
And spit tobacco seldom hit the mark.

Never fear, you too may find a place in the literary canon of white men, with help from the Lovecraft Engine, a random phrase generator that remixes HPL’s favorite over-the-top descriptors. My first go-round gave me “That iridescent, fabulous menace,” which is exactly what I aspire to be.

Speaking of fabulous, our queer link of the month is Brandon Taylor’s LitHub essay “Who Cares What Straight People Think?” Taylor writes about what is gained and lost when books with queer characters go mainstream, no longer segregated in specialty bookstores or back rooms. One could argue that when straight writers and readers consume narratives of queer suffering, it perpetuates a narrow stereotype of LGBTQ lives as tragic and Other. Perhaps it’s more progressive to write mainstream fiction about characters who just happen to be LGBTQ. However, Taylor concludes that it’s a mistake to use outsiders as our reference point for self-censorship. Gay-bashing, AIDS, child abuse, and other traditional tropes of queer fiction are still unfortunate realities that we must be free to write about:

It is tempting to imagine that this is the way things ought to be, tasteful meditations on the human condition with queer people at their center, that the supposition of a queer default means an abandonment of trauma narratives and queer suffering. That everything will be alright when we’re finally writing of ourselves in our everyday lives, everything smooth and bourgeois and immaculately styled.

But that would be a grave miscalculation, a failure to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Queer people live their everyday lives under the threat of violence and political persecution. Queer teens would rather die than continue living in a world that is actively hostile to them. Our narratives must remain alive and vital to that pain, to the very real suffering we endure. To assume a central queer gaze is not to pass judgement on narratives of queer suffering at all, but to allow queer people to continue to tell their stories, to write into their own narrative spaces without the need for a heteronormative overculture. After all, it is the heteronormative gaze that renders these narratives problematic. It is their place of prominence in the overculture that presents the problem, not the narratives themselves.

It is not enough to merely write queers in comfortable bourgeois captivity. You have not conquered some artistic challenge. You are not artistically pure for turning away from queer suffering. Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience. The answer to Michelle Hart’s question about the state of gay literary fiction is this: we must move toward a queer aesthetic, which permits the true simultaneity of queer experience. We must stop waiting for permission. We must stop looking to the overculture for legitimacy. Within a queer aesthetic, we weep and we laugh and we withdraw and we advance. Queer suffering and queer joy dominate the ordinary instant. We are everything at once.

 

 

Two Poems from em jollie’s “A Field Guide to Falling”

Western Massachusetts writer em jollie’s new poetry collection A Field Guide to Falling (Human Error Publishing, 2017) is like a stained-glass cathedral window: even in scenes of suffering, the glorious colors give joy and uplift. Much of the book processes the aftermath of breaking up with a beloved woman, though at the end, the narrator seems to find a new beginning with another partner and a greater sense of herself as complete and sufficient. But this therapeutic summary can’t do justice to the mystical meaning of her journey. The speaker bravely walks up to the edge of everything we consider permanent, looks into the clouds swirling above the bottomless gulf, and finds a way to praise their ever-changing shapes. These poems imply that the value of falling–in love, out of love, out of Eden into a world of loss–is in how it challenges us to keep our hearts open, to say Yes despite it all.

Specificity keeps these classic themes fresh. A lesser poet would risk pathos with the extended metaphor of “How to Set a Firefly Free” as a farewell to a relationship where love exists but is not enough. This poem works because it is a real firefly first, a symbol second.

Firefly, suddenly setting aflame cut crystal hanging
from ceiling fan pull-chain. Greenish glow in each facet
while all night dogwood salts dark-wet sidewalk
flowers ripped gloriously open in rainpour.

Isn’t that a love poem all by itself? Those “flowers ripped gloriously open” already remind you of your own worthwhile heartbreak, whatever that was. The ending, which makes the personal connection explicit, only confirms what you felt it was about from the very first lines.

…If only
I didn’t know why lightning bugs blink.
If only I wasn’t so wise to the fact that your light
does not belong to me, will not ever.
If only I didn’t know that was right.

So naturally I just Googled why lightning bugs blink. Wikipedia says the trait originally evolved as a warning signal to predators that the bug was toxic to eat, but now its primary purpose is to communicate with potential mates. This dual meaning of sex and death confirms the speaker’s sad verdict on this love affair, which earlier in the poem she compared to the bond between a neighbor and his snarling dog: “[w]e said they were so mean they belonged together. Yet there/was something sweet about the belonging.”

jollie has one stylistic tic that I understand is common to the Smith College “school” of poetry, which is the occasional (and to my mind, random) omission of “a” and “the”. I’m sorry to say this is a pet peeve of mine. It creates a missing beat in the rhythm of a sentence, which distracts me. It’s fine to twist grammar to make a more compressed line, but I feel that this works best when the entire poem is written in an unusual voice, not when a single part of speech is excised from otherwise normal English.

jollie has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. It was hard to choose just two! Buy her book here.

Object Constancy

Sand can be grasped in a palm, yes. But wind
will take it eventually. Heart is body’s hourglass,
holding its own beginning
& end, its constant ticking tipping moment into
granular moment, for a while. You could take my skull
in your hands, but you will have to give it back
at some point. As will I.

Sure, Freud’s nephew came to understand
that Teddy Bear was just over edge of crib when it
disappeared from sight. But where is that Teddy now,
if not in some museum, curators desperately
fighting its inherent impermanence? Presence has to be
interrogative, doesn’t it, rather than declarative?
Dust is still dust. What I mean is: how
do I trust more than what I learned in the chaos
of childhood when since then I’ve been ingrained with loss
upon loss, like every human walking wings of light
through time?

Feather the paintbrush of my fingers across your jaw.
Feather the paintbrush of your fingers across my jaw.
We color each other for this moment. Just this one.
Then it’s done, days like hungry teeth devouring
endless could-have-beens into the finite sacred what-was.
I say: I love you (I have no choice)
What I mean to say: I let go (I have no choice)

****
A Few Desires, or How to Hunger

I want to be the malleable soap
your hands sculpt as you cleanse yourself,
as ordinary and as daily and as caressed as that.

I want to be the cutting board, that firm surface
you can lay edges against, that allows you
to divide roughage from nourishment.

I want to be the pillow case, containing all
the softness for resting your public face
and the slim canvas you play your private dreams onto.

Let me suds into joining the stream of water
down the drain, become the bamboo board
oiled so many times until finally, split, I am

placed on the compost pile. Let the laundry
tear my threads until, like the pillow case,
I cannot contain, but let every thriving thing seep out.

But in truth I can be none of these things,
just this tiny self loving you, accepting your gifts,
providing what sustenance I can in return.

In other words, use me up, until I am done with myself.

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

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. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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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)