December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…

November Links Roundup: Whose Side Are You On

The theme for November is “I hope I can fit everything interesting I’ve read this month into one post”. But you could say that these links loosely gather around the idea of clearly facing our alternatives and taking a stand. This heightened resolve reflects the mood of the country, where progressives seem to be waking up to the fact that moderation and bridge-building are an ineffective response to fundamentalism and fascism. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be especially grateful to the Massachusetts voters who passed Question 3 by a solid 2-to-1 margin, keeping our transgender nondiscrimination law on the books.

At Pacific Standard, freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky contends that “Israel Doesn’t Show Us How to Fight Fascism–But the Diaspora Can”. He notes a divergence between the intersectional, progressive values of many American Jews, and the right-wing Israeli government’s coziness with Trump. Like many in my generation, he grew up on the belief that support for Israel was our insurance policy against renewed persecution in our home countries. But it’s time to rethink that: “Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad…The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country.”

Berlatsky suggests we should look to the 19th-century Bund movement as our historical model instead: “The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated…When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?”

For a different perspective on the lessons of Jewish history, the Yale University Press blog editors recently interviewed James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, about the Jewish leaders who created the modern concept of international human rights:

In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

While acknowledging the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Loeffler argues that the international human rights community and the Left have become disproportionately focused on Israel’s sins, following a Christian theological tradition of disparaging Jewish particularity as a foil for “universal” values:

The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

At Media Matters, a site that fact-checks conservative misinformation, Parker Molloy wonders, “Media keep talking about ‘identity politics’. But what does it even mean anymore?” It’s become a cliché, even among some liberal pundits, to blame Democrats’ election losses on a divisive and narrow focus on special-interest groups: Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and so on. But Molloy says we’ve just been conditioned not to notice the “identity politics” of Republicans, because their preferred identities (white, Christian, male) have been held up as universal norms for centuries. Molloy cites an academic psychology paper that found that white Christian homogeneity demarcates Republican party lines and gives force to identity-based political appeals, more strongly than any similar appeal to race/gender/sexual identity among Democrats.

Along those lines, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones debunks the myth of the moral middle in her Time magazine article “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

…For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war too. They know there is no safety in the in-between. The romance of the middle can exist when one’s empathy is aligned with the people expressing opinions on policy or culture rather than with those who will be affected by these policies or cultural norms. Buried in this argument, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that these policies change people’s lives.

As Americans, we are at a crossroads. We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values? Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? Should we agree to disagree about the murder and dismemberment of a journalist? Should we celebrate our tolerance and civility as we stanch the wounds of the world and the climate with a poultice of national unity?

This piece came at a crucial time for me. I’m not sure how to feel about friends from my evangelical days who seem open to my identity journey, but attend churches that want to erase my existence. I don’t expect everyone to pick solidarity with me over their faith or their church family. I’m not that important in their lives. But I’m starting to resent the expectation that I honor their fence-sitting as a broad-minded vocation. Don’t try to make me concede that your Christian friends are “loving” and “good”, when they would not be that way to me.

At Longreads, “Theater of Forgiveness” is a powerful essay by Hafizah Geter about the intergenerational trauma of African-American women, and how it can be compounded by a religious culture that makes them swallow their anger. A nonthreatening, peacemaking response to racist violence is a logical survival strategy in a society that fears Black strength, but those suppressed emotions plagued her family with broken health and abusive relationships.

Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy.

How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?

I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.

Over the course of the essay, Geter recounts childhood torments at the hands of a cruel aunt. Yet without minimizing or excusing her, she ends with a compassionate awareness of her aunt as the fierce protector of her abused siblings. It’s something more complex yet more fair and satisfying than simple “forgiveness”, no sentimental forgetfulness here. Geter concludes:

No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.

Finally, via Harvard Magazine, here’s a link to a cool New Yorker story by Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”. Turns out that Greco-Roman sculptures were often painted in colors we might consider garish, but the evidence has been repeatedly ignored because we’re so invested in the aesthetic of white rational purity we picked up from the Renaissance. Art restorers even scrubbed paint traces off antique statues to make them more marketable to collectors and museums. Moreover, many portrait sculptures were originally colored with a variety of skin tones, unsurprisingly since the Roman Empire once stretched from Scotland to North Africa. The ancient Greeks actually considered dark skin a sign of superiority in men, since it meant they spent a lot of time outside doing healthy athletic things. Read the whole article to see photographic and video reconstructions of classical art in all its flamboyant hues.

Poetry by Charlie Bondhus: “Becoming Baba Yaga”

Just out from Sundress Publications, Divining Bones is the third collection from award-winning poet Charlie Bondhus, who has kindly permitted me to reprint a sample poem here. This compelling book stakes its territory in the liminal spaces between male and female, fairy-tale and horror, the archetypal struggle in the psyche and the mundane (but no less dangerous) conflicts of domestic life. The presiding deity of this shadow realm is Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch of Eastern European folklore, who guides the narrator to embrace traits rejected by mainstream gay culture. Aging, emasculation, and the grotesque lose their stigma and become sources of transgressive power.

Becoming Baba Yaga

I was born an old woman,
I mutter through lather
as I scratch away the beginnings
of a beard, each stroke bringing me
a hair closer to alignment
with the female divine
curled and kicking inside, while I glare
at the little snub nose which belies the long,
crooked phantom pressing my skin
like an erection in the underwear I buy a size too small.

My dreams are full of chicken legs.
My thighs tingle for the swish
and stroke of a checkered peasant
skirt. Invisible handwoven blouses girdle
my imaginary breasts. I tug at my boy-short
hair and think about raspberry-colored headscarves.

There is no other way
to say this: I was meant to be a wise
and powerful Russian witch
rather than an unimpressive man,

a truth that makes me ambivalent
about the pretty young women
who come seeking transformation,
asking me to shave away the fat
a child left, straighten a nose
crooked as a kidney bean, plump
up breasts that are like the hard, rounded
nubs of an old cook’s pestle.

Like any witch I serve
the vanities of all who can afford
my fee, helping those who hate
their bodies in ways different
from how I hate mine. I study

the college photos they bring
of glamorous, uncomplicated youth,
remembering an old, lost book
and the engravings in which I recognized
myself—a fierce, bestial woman
as necessary as bone and just as unseen
in a world whose first language is skin.

Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
wild things
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
wet fire;
living skulls;
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.

 

Originally published in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts

The Poet Spiel: “Absent Member”

Love comes in many forms, and even romantic love is not limited to sexual partnership. The bond between gay men and their female friends, though sometimes complicated by mismatched desire, can be as profound as a marriage. Artist and author Tom Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel explores this truth in a bittersweet narrative poem about the only woman he loved. Below is his portrait of Phyllis. He tells me she died in a plane crash in 1972 with her husband, leaving behind their two children. May their memory be a blessing.

absent member

as if the lambs the lambs of childhood days were bleating
cross the lawn were softly bleating in my ear were calling me
to come this voice this girl i’d never seen her voice was like
the lamb’s and by voice alone i wanted her to know me

as fate allowed in time we came to know each other closely
came to trust each other’s touch but not like other couples
though we never did stop laughing never ceased to love
each other’s presence there was something missing
something fundamental to what other lovers found
to be essential in their coupling though she never labored
it and nor did i we loved our time together never mind

this girl this gift into my life this female like no other
i had known who took my heart and softened it
was raised to stay a virgin to save her precious cherry save
it for her husband save it at all cost through raucous
parties moments cast in passion foolish passion stay
a virgin til her prince had promised her to bear
her children all the children she had dreamed of like
her siblings being twelve she dreamed of twelve

and as for me although she was the foremost woman of my life
i could not promise knew for certain that i could not
promise her the children that she dreamed of could not
promise her at all there came a time a time of our adoring
when she realized when she began to think it odd
that never had i touched her regions of temptation
regions that her friends had told her had been compromised
by lovers had been taken in delight and perhaps
it was not just respect that had kept my hands my face
away from there and she’d begun to count my many friends
my closest friends whom she had so enjoyed who she clearly
knew were queer and at the toughest time of our relationship
and after all those years she asked me are you gay

she took a flight to where her mother lived and left me
mourning in the dark to wonder what i’d done i knew
i must have broken something more than just her cherry
must have taken more than that i must have ruined
what she’d hoped for all her dreams of being with me
in the future and naïve as it may seem my dreams along
with hers my dreams of my companion gone because
i could not be the man that she expected me to be could
not perform and knew it all along but never really thought
to think it out while in the midst of loving her so thoroughly

time soon came when she returned and met with me to tell
that her mother had inquired of her is this the man you love
and if so give your cherry to him and you need not wait
i was so thrilled to see her thrilled to hold her once again
came to think i could deliver that i could be her prince her man
i could do it no i couldn’t i could do it no i couldn’t
yes i would because i loved her and just because this was her
wish my dearest lover’s wish that i should take her lay her give
her what a lover gives the one he loves like all our friends

i laid her down in moonlight on my plastic couch
my crummy couch was not the best place to begin but
nonetheless it was the place i laid her down the surface cold
and somewhat crackly to the touch the surface harsh to
her flesh the color of a pearl a pearl without its gloss
a special kind of white a lovely white like pearl
without its gloss i sensed her apprehension but i
also sensed her readiness her breasts like halves of pears
lying limp and longing in their readiness for plucking
the moonlight from the window casting shadows
on their nipples lightly pinkened softly readied
for my plucking i saw then heard then pressed my hand
upon the pounding of her heart stood up and gloried
at the beauty of that naked body given to me for taking
never having seen a female body in its skin so beautiful
and offered up to me and then i saw her bush this mound
of hair i must admit i found it odd the lack of penis there
no penis in between her thighs for me and of course
that was a foolish thought but in sex the norm would be
a penis in that place for me between the thighs and though
her bush was plump and fit in place i found it strange
there was no penis there for me and knew not how to act
i wished her to become aggressive then to thrill my cock
and balls excite me but i knew full well that this
was new to her to even see a cock and balls to have a sense
of how this all should play itself and surely i the man
should take the lead but truth be told my cock was limp
and uninspired and unfamiliar with a body such as this
though so exquisite to the touch and so available to me
yet not familiar thus my cock hung uninspired

i’d always loved the way she said to me in french
that i had lovely hands in fact i hear it in my head
tu as les belles mains at 77 she is so difficult to lay aside
to lay aside as if she never happened in my life and
not so long ago when it appeared that i was dying
and i thumbed through scrapbooks of my years with her
my sister made a stupid comment like that dear girl
was nothing to me surely nothing in my life nothing
to a man who’d come to live a gay life with a man
and i recalled all those who’d done the same who’d never
known the depth to which i loved my girl my one
and only female sweetheart whom i would have married whom
i wished had had a cock and then i told my sister
of the day my girl and i were on our way to tell my parents
we were finished tell them that we were no more
because my parents too had hopes that we would marry
they too had dreams that i had found the woman of my life
and my sweetheart sat so close to me as we were driving
there to tell my parents and we laughed and had not ceased
to love at all and that was when she said perhaps the only
way that we can tell them why is to tell them that you finally
put your hands between my thighs and discovered
there’s no penis there and though my sister laughed
i don’t believe that she nor anyone believed then
nor believes now just how much it hurt to lose my girl
how much i hurt to lose her how she wakes alive again in me
and i in her these days or so it seems but in fact i lie beside
my kind and faithful man of years and years of better days

September Links Roundup: Manspread Your Novel

Ahh…September. The days grow colder, my brain wakes up, the Young Master begins first grade (!!). Time to get back to drafting the Endless Sequel.

If, like me, you write slowly, perhaps you’ve heard that self-critical voice in your head. The one that says the book really IS taking a thousand years to get to the point–it doesn’t just feel that way because you’re squeezing in an hour or two of writing every week, in between washing stinky boy socks and throwing out your saved letters from 2006. The voice that’s always nagging you to hold their attention, be more fun, give them what they want.

Well, ask that voice: when was the last time you saw a novel favorably described as “sprawling” that wasn’t by a man?

At Electric Literature, Jessica Shattuck’s manifesto “Why Women Should Do More Literary Manspreading” gave me some new tools to fight this self-undermining mindset. The piece is subtitled: “Stop self-editing and let yourself ramble like a man.” Certainly, in the later editing rounds, all writers have to consider tightening up scenes and pruning plot elements that don’t fit the final shape. But Shattuck takes aim at a form of self-censorship that particularly plagues writers socialized as women. We have been trained to worry about taking up too much space. People socialized as men expect that an audience will listen respectfully when they hold forth about their expertise and special interests.

There is a particular magic to an immersive and sprawling novel, and a thrill in following a confident writer on a scenic route through his imagination’s wilderness. Of course they can be terrible too — overlong and self-indulgent, stuffed with showy displays of information and smug postmodern tricks a reader is likely to skim over. But either way, many of these novels are met with both critical and sales success. Apparently readers are willing to follow a good writer down a long and winding road.

So why are so few of these novels written by women?

…As Meg Wolitzer postulated in her 2012 NY Times essay “The Second Shelf,” if a woman “writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.”

…Men tend to be less inhibited by lack of expertise or authority — if Philip Roth wanted to write a whole chapter about the inner workings of a glove factory, why not? If Jeffrey Eugenides wanted to delve into the origins of the Nation of Islam in Middlesex, who was going to question his authority?

Women, on the other hand, have long been told to watch what they say (or, more often — in church, in synagogue, in public in general — not to say anything at all). We have had to earn our credibility through quantifiable mastery, and even then, been frequently questioned or doubted. We have been encouraged to trim and edit our physical appearance, from whalebone corsets to bikini waxing. No wonder we are strict self-editors — in art as in life.

So go ahead, imaginary friends: tell me everything you want me to know about 1980s horror films, Jewish theology, bondage, and comic books.

The Christian literary journal Ruminate featured this intriguing reflection by Renee Long on rightsizing your self-image, “Reconciling Humility and Self-Worth in the Age of Ego”. Her touchstone is the weekly benediction at her church: “Be brave, because you are a child of God. Be kind, because so is everyone else.” Whereas conservative Christianity conditions us to abase ourselves in order to see Christ in others, Long concludes that healthy humility means resisting the American culture of lists and rankings. “It is possible to recognize the sacred in others, in all things, without having to weigh it against our own value. We can lie down, spread ourselves out on the floor of the universe and look up. We can see the infinite spectrum of light without having to dim our own shine.”

Taking up space is a pressing self-acceptance issue for me and my perimenopausal body. I’ve got feminist theory up the wazoo, but at a gut level (pun intended) there’s a strong belief that uncontrollable change equals failure. America’s culture of food moralism reinforces this. The Angry Chef is a lively contrarian blog about “exposing lies, pretensions, and stupidity in the world of food.” Author Anthony Warner takes aim at pseudoscience behind food fads and panics. In his post “Heart of the Problem”, he compares conflicting studies on the benefits of low-carb diets, and suggests that once basic nutritional needs are met, our food choices actually don’t make much impact on health and life expectancy. In developed (industrialized) countries, personal lifestyle obsession becomes a distraction from structural inequalities.

Everywhere, despite our wealth and secure food supply, people experience stress, stigma, pain and hurt. Or they are forced to live in inadequate housing, eat contaminated food, drink poor quality water or suffer a lifetime of inequality. They will get sick. They may use food as a comfort or an escape. Others will use alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs. They will develop disease and disorders, often in ways that will end their lives early. Is it really so surprising that these factors dwarf any tiny differences in the macronutrient composition of their diet?

This is why, when it comes to population health, anecdotes about the miracle properties of this diet or that are stupid and misleading. Look at me, I feel great because I eat low carb. Or Paleo. Or Keto. Or Mediterranean. Or DASH. Or vegan. Or clean. Surely if it works for me, it can save the world.

No. You feel great because of your privilege, your nice house, your dietary freedoms, your lack of stress. You feel great because you are lucky, your friends and family are lucky. You have never experienced the crushing stress of a marginalised existence. You don’t know what it is to live in constant fear of violence. You feel great precisely because you are free to choose your diet, buy your exclusive ingredients, and care enough about yourself to do so. That is why you are healthy. It has nothing to do with your food.

This is lifestyle drift in action. We know what really determines health – the deep and vicious inequalities that taint developed societies. But instead of trying to address these things, we imagine that if we impose the dietary choices of the privileged on those who are suffering, they will be transformed. And so every diet followed by a member of a privileged elite is touted as the solution, but none of them are. The only real solution is giving everyone a better life.

It is not food that is kills people early. It is poverty, stress and broken lives. No dietary change can insulate people from these things. The reason why we have not yet discovered which diet is best, is because within a society that has enough food to eat, any diet that rich people eat is associated with optimum health. And the reasons why have nothing to do with the food itself.

Along those lines, at NPR’s food feature The Salt, Alan Levinovitz in “What Is ‘Natural’ Food?: A Riddle Wrapped in Notions of Good and Evil” suggests that the coveted moniker is more of a symbolic or spiritual concept than a scientific one. Until the 18th-century Romantic movement, people believed processed foods were healthier and higher-status. Food restriction was the province of religious ascetics who, rather than trying to get closer to nature, wanted to transcend it. Nowadays, people are more afraid of unregulated corporations putting chemicals in their food, and nature seems benign by comparison. But the line between synthetic and natural is even hard for philosophers and scientists to draw.

Take the philosophers. Joseph LaPorte of Hope College specializes in the language we use to classify the natural world and has written extensively on the idea of “nature” and “naturalness.”

“To be sure, natural doesn’t mean safe,” he told me. “Nature produces some of the most formidable toxins in the world. But when it comes to packages of chemicals, as they exist in foods or fragrances, nature is a good bet, or at least a clue, because co-evolution often suggests its safety and efficacy.”

Not so fast, says York University’s Muhammad Ali Khalidi, also a philosopher of science who specializes in classificatory language. “Something very recent might be safe,” he points out, “and something that’s been around for hundreds of years could be very dangerous.” Case in point: Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, has long prescribed herbal remedies that contain dangerous heavy metals. Smoked meats, a mainstay of non-industrial food production, are now known to increase cancer risk.

Nor is the lack of consensus limited to the safety of natural food. Scientists also disagree on whether it makes sense to distinguish natural from synthetic products at all. Richard Sachleben, an organic chemist, told me flat-out that all chemicals are natural. Petroleum, he explained, was originally algae. Coal used to be forests.

Maybe natural is just shorthand for “what you see is what you get” or “ingredients I can spell”?

Samantha Field’s blog post “Sin Is Not Just a ‘Heart Issue'” and Adam Kotsko’s post “We are not the ones we have been waiting for” similarly question what Kotsko would call the neo-liberal dogma that individual choices are the main driver of social change. Field discusses the controversial movement to ban plastic straws in restaurants, which disability activists argue would adversely impact them without making a real difference to the environment.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

Kotsko challenges the common journalistic framing that “we the people” collectively lacked the will to stop global warming, when these decisions were actually made by identifiable politicians and business leaders.

This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

Several important articles this summer took on the topic of disparities in women’s healthcare. Writing in The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters surveyed stories about health-care gaslighting in “The Doctor Doesn’t Listen to Her. But the Media Is Starting To.” Celebrities like TV star Lena Dunham and tennis great Serena Williams spotlighted the problem of doctors dismissing women’s symptoms that turned out to be life-threatening. Lili Loofbourow at The Week wrote about “The Female Price of Male Pleasure”, asking us to question the assumption that painful intercourse is natural for people with vaginas. This disregard leads critics to minimize #MeToo stories as simply normal (bad) sex.

I’m speaking, specifically, about the physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually “viable.” Have you looked at how women are “supposed” to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don’t shorten their Achilles tendons. They don’t need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as “conventionally” attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it’s ludicrous to pretend they aren’t.

Finally, because I love a good “Fire your mom” post, enjoy this salty advice from Lori Gottlieb’s “Dear Therapist” column at the Atlantic, in which a pregnant woman asks whether she should let her abusive mother be her midwife:

Sometimes when people come to therapy, they want my advice on a question they’ve already answered. The person already knows that she wants to leave her abusive boyfriend, or switch jobs, or not go on vacation with her cruel sibling, but still she asks, “What should I do?”

Why do people ask a question to which they already know the answer? Often it’s because they don’t trust themselves, because, through no fault of their own, their inner voices have been distorted or silenced. Given your history, I imagine this is what has happened to you, too.

…Becoming less visible to a volatile mother served as protection from her ire, but an unintended consequence was that you also became less visible to yourself. Your inner voice became muted, while external voices became amplified. So if people tell you to “let go of the past”—a past that’s as recent as two years ago, when your mother walked out of your wedding—you can barely hear the inner voice that says, If I can’t trust my mom to be there for me at my wedding, I can’t trust her to be there for me after my child’s birth. The calibration is out whack, and now’s the time to fix it.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for motherhood is to start trusting your inner voice more. Becoming invisible may have been a useful strategy when you were a powerless child, but the good news is that now you’re an adult with full agency, and becoming invisible won’t only be counterproductive—it will be impossible, because, like it or not, you’ll be very visible to your baby. Simply by watching you live your daily life, your child will learn a lot about relationships, and you will have the wonderful (and healing) opportunity to show your son or daughter what an adult who trusts herself and isn’t besieged by self-doubt looks like—starting with trusting the answer you already have deep inside about bringing your mom in as your midwife.

TL;DR: Run, mofo!

Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Nerd Community at Flame Con

For my novel research, this weekend I went to NYC for Flame Con, billed as the world’s largest LGBTQ comic con. Now in its fourth year, Flame Con is sponsored by Geeks Out, a volunteer nonprofit dedicated to making comics and sci-fi fandom more welcoming for us queers. As the title of one panel put it, I experienced “the subversive simplicity of queer joy”.

Flame Con was way more fun and friendly than any literary conference I’ve attended. Poets can be so bitter, present company not excepted. We trail clouds of angst about whether our work is important enough and whether our publishing deal is as good as someone else’s. At Flame Con I rediscovered the happiness of making things you enjoy and meeting other people who are doing the same. We were like children in the best sense, unselfconscious about loving sparkly ponies and superheroes, simply grateful to spend time in the fantasy worlds we created.

It was a delightful novelty to be in a social setting where I felt completely cool and like I fit in. Imagine that every time you get into the elevator in a large Manhattan hotel, someone else is also wearing a butch haircut, rainbow jewelry, or a tank top with a sassy gay slogan. I got a compliment on my glasses, y’all.

At the trans and GNC meetup, about 40 of us sat around a workshop table, two rows deep, and threw out joking answers to the question, “What is the trans agenda?” Hint: it involves a lot of fanny packs. People connected over the shared experience of renaming themselves after comics and video game characters, obsessively listening to “Reflection” from Mulan, and using FaceApp to envision ourselves as the “opposite” sex.

You handsome devil.

At the Queer Nerd Poetics reading, I heard funny and passionate performances by fine writers who were new to me. I especially enjoyed Liv Mammone’s persona poem about the lack of handicapped access at the Louvre, “Venus de Milo Answers a Tumblr Feminist”. Liv really knows how to write a catchy title. Read an interview with her at Brooklyn Poets and follow her on Twitter. Omar Holmon of Black Nerd Problems spoke out in verse about the challenges of loving a genre where you don’t often see yourself reflected. Brendan Gillett, dressed as a dapper elf, graciously emceed and closed out the show with “Names for Months in a New Queer Year”. Happy Augayst, everyone!

I spent several hours at the exhibitors’ hall, making contacts to interview for the novel about the 1990s indie comics scene, and buying a ton of books and swag. G. Pike designs beautifully colored pins, keychains, and stickers depicting birds in the hues of various pride flags. Pride Pets enamel pins from Gay Breakfast feature different breeds of adorable cats and dogs with pride flag stripes, and pronoun pawprints, too. I met public health consultant Christel Hyden, the educator behind Heads or Tails NYC, an interactive webcomic about HIV prevention. And I bought this shirt from Hiroki Otsuka, because apparently I’m into bears and tentacles now?? Is this a thing that happens with middle age?

Ready for Chippendale’s of Arkham.

Continuing on that theme, I bought Kori Michele Handwerker’s Undone: A Tentacle Illustration Book, an elegant black-and-white art chapbook reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley; the first issue of Megan James’ comic book Innsmouth, which the artist described as being about incompetent Mormon-style Cthulhu cultists; a pin-up of a sweet hairy dude in purple high-heeled boots by Joel Gennari; and the erotic art anthology Doable Guys III. Check out Kori’s webcomic about discovering their nonbinary fashion style. Offsite at the BGSQD bookstore, I attended the book launch of the groundbreaking collection We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology from Stacked Deck Press, edited by Jeanne Thornton and Tara Avery–which, now that I think of it, I probably also backed on Kickstarter. Well, if I end up with two copies, I’ll donate one to Forbes Library. I also picked up collections and graphic novels by Molly Ostertag, Tony Breed, Jessi Sheron, and others.

The convention wasn’t all NSFW by any means. Diverse, upbeat books for children and tweens were well-represented too. I bought Shane a Lumberjanes collection and a Warriors graphic novel about magical cat clans. Let the geek family traditions begin.

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!