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On Names / On My Name

 

From 2012-13, I edited a column called Name Tags on issues and experiences related to names and naming in The Land Line, a Chicago quarterly—I am hoping to resuscitate this column eventually, maybe even soon, in a new form. At the time (and still), I had seen so many friends and partners move in and out of names, as artists, as trans people, as various public and private selves, and I was interested in learning about other people’s relationships to their names.

I was also chewing on the problem of my own name—and this problem, which is also opportunity, has become more of a dilemma now that my body’s in transit. My given name combines the common (Megan) with the unusual (Milks) and so I’ve had the experience of being called something both regular and strange much of my life. I’ve published under this name for more than fifteen years, but it has never seemed quite right—in some ways it has an “unauthorly” feel—it is quirky and clunky, a limerick’s false start. And yet it sticks in the mind, a certain advantage. I remember struggling through my first painful short stories in college and thinking to myself: Megan Milks is a funny name—why suffer so hard to write serious, Literary stories? Whether this was a form of nominal essentialism or a way of coaxing myself into queerer terrain, well, whatever.

This weekend I had the pleasure of interviewing Eli Oberman for the NYC Trans Oral History Project. Of the many experiences and insights he shared, an observation he made about dysphoria has stayed with me. He was talking about his relationship to music as a form of expression, and made the point that dysphoria doesn’t necessarily have to mean the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body or gender; it can account, too (or instead), for the feeling of being locked outside of language, of not having language to describe your experience. I am feeling this kind of dysphoria around my name right now. I feel unlanguageable. 😦 Not that “Megan” is the wrong name but that there is no right name to come into. People have been (at my direction) calling me different names; I have been introducing myself in all kinds of different ways; it is starting to really itch.

After many conversations with many friends over the past I don’t know how long, I have tried out and discarded the following names: Mason, Masen, Mazen, Madigan, Madegan, Zachary, Fred, Zig. Sig. Sigfried, M. Gay, Carroll, Question Mark Milks. I’m probably missing a few. Thank you, everyone, who has offered input and advice during this time.

What’s in a name? A rose is a rose is a – OR – Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul  (Gertrude Stein). For a semester, I tried on the solid letter M., but ultimately it felt too anonymous, too coy; the double M of M. Milks too thick. Also, Facebook would not let me have it—their name policies don’t allow for single initials. This is how I came to use “Maybe Milks” as my Facebook identity for a few months, until Facebook flagged me and asked for documentation I didn’t have. So I became M. E. Milks, for a time, though that did not reflect what I was going by either.

I still like Maybe as a marker, of both doubt and possibility. And I keep coming back to Henry as an option. Maybe.

DAVID: And who is Henry?
TRACY: I have never met anyone called Henry.
DAVID: So. Who is Henry?
TRACY: I don’t know. Henry is in the cinema, in movies people are called Henry.
DAVID: Which movie?
TRACY: I don’t know, all movies, any movie. They’re always called Henry.

I am currently reading the ARC of Writers Who Love Too Much, the forthcoming anthology of New Narrative writing edited by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, and just came upon this piece by Leslie Dick which is all about Henry, a name that shows up in this character Tracy’s dream.

I like that Henry links me to Henry James and thus marks a literary and nonfamilial heritage. Though I don’t think of him as so strong a literary influence as much as say Kathy Acker or Samuel Delany, Dodie Bellamy or Dennis Cooper, I have a deep appreciation for his work and feel an affinity for him as someone who wrote often about women, who dabbled in horror, who enjoyed the pleasures of cross-generational relationships, who has been read as both asexual and queer. My sentence structures are not nearly as complex and circuitous, my work rarely hinges on indirection and ambiguity; and no, I’m not claiming to be “The Master” (gag), but: I too write often about girls and women. I too dabble in horror. I too have a relationship with both asexuality and queerness. Henry! I’m you! You’re me! In part.

DAVID: So you were Henry, all the time.
TRACY: Henry is me, me as a child, not not-castrated, but not castrated either, and it’s me the powerful woman,…Henry is her and me—which isn’t that surprising, since on some level I identify with her.

I tried to get Facebook to allow me to use Megan/M. Henry Milks as a name but the slash wasn’t approved. It is difficult it seems to have an unstable identity. Facebook wants to stabilize it. I’ve capitulated; now going by M. Henry Milks on Facebook and in most professional contexts. The M stands for Maybe. It stands for M. “M. Henry” links me to Chicago, and to food; there is a popular brunch restaurant in Edgewater named M. Henry.

It also stands for Megan. While I have never felt I am “a Megan,” whatever that means, as I have tried out various alternatives, I’m appreciating its sounds and cadence more and more: especially when pronounced what I consider the American way—a short e, not the Irish e that bends into a long a. I like the hard g. I like the way the two syllables can be delivered as either spondee or trochee (yes, I’ve been teaching meter this week). Is this a form of grief? Maybe. I haven’t decided whether to kill it or not.

Ideally I’d use a string of names to reflect my divine multiplicity, like Maybe Megan Henry Carroll Magnes Upton Milks. Upton aka Uppie was my maternal gay great-great-uncle; Magnes riffs on my grandmother’s name Agnes; Carroll’s a version of my mother’s middle name. Hashtag matriarchy. Hashtag nonbinary.

This is all to say that you can call me any of the following: M. Henry, M., Henry, Megan, Megan Henry, Henry Megan, Maybe Henry, Maybe Megan, Maybe, just Maybe. For now.

Notes & Updates: Summer/Fall 2016

I started this post long ago! Will not pretend I didn’t. Here you will find: A recap of summer activities & reading notes / updates & announcements, etc.

Summer Recap

June 2016: I’m in Lawrence for two weeks, participating in speculative fiction novel camp for two weeks with friends and friends of friends at the University of Kansas. Three weeks ago, I attended WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention in Madison. I’ve been participating in an Octavia Butler reading group, where we read Butler and other feminist science fiction. When I return, I’ll be teaching a workshop in speculative writing (sign up here!) (September update: This didn’t happen due to bad timing and low enrollment. Would love to try again.) Then moving to New York. (Update: DONE.) It’s been a specfic summer, in other words.

Highlights from novel workshop:

Group plotting FTW! Look how my M moved, became clean and possible! (By M, I mean the shape of the novel, in four arcs. Speaking of M’s: I’m going by M now, transitionally–more on that below.)

At the suggestion of fellow KU novel workshopper and fantastic writer Brooke Wonders, I picked up a copy of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, a new anthology series developed by John Joseph Adams; this year’s editor is Joe Hill. This first volume collects a ton of writers who participate in/are associated with WisCon (i.e., write feminist, antiracist, proqueer)—like Sofia Samatar, one of this year’s guests of honor, who has not one, but two stories here.

Her “How to Get Back to the Forest” is one of the best stories I’ve read: it appeals entirely to my interests. It recasts bulimia as a survival mode: girls at camp using self-induced vomiting in an effort to get rid of bugs that have been implanted at the bottom of their throats. In her notes on the story (included in the appendix), Samatar brings the story into conversation with Eileen Myles’ “Everyday Barf,” Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto, and Kate Zambreno’s chapbook Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, and Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write. Really smart, horrifying, sometimes funny, tremendously moving story that thinks eating disorders in a speculative register.

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Another recent read is Sarah Schulman’s The Cosmopolitans: which is fantastic in a superlative if not speculative way. I suggested it for my queer/trans/feminist book club and was so looking forward to talking about it with other people; but Book Club LET ME DOWN, i.e., I was the only one who finished it. Okay, in their defense, yes, we’ve all had busy summers, and as it’s a newer book on an independent press, there weren’t many library copies available. (This issue of accessibility has been an ongoing problem for our book club; if we want to read contemporary queer and trans literature, much of which is published on small independent presses, there usually are no or few library copies. We need to get more queer and trans lit into libraries.)

On The Cosmopolitans: structurally one of the most elegant and well-executed novels I’ve read. I was deeply impressed by Schulman’s mastery of the form; the depth of character, the links to theater, the surprises, the authorial intrusions, the winkingly anachronistic style: the book takes place in 1958 and has the affective and stylistic texture of a book of the 50s. Indeed, it’s very Baldwin-esque, and his Another Country is mentioned by the author as an informing text in her author’s note.

It’s a novel of friendship, and I think more successful than Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in creating a complex worldview and addressing head-on the ways in which friendship is complicated by difference. The central relationship is formed between a white straight cis woman and an African-American gay cis man. Schulman carefully crafts a narrative that, at the same time as it prioritizes lifelong friendship over sexual/romantic relationships, also legitimizes Earl’s desire for a lover/boyfriend. The novel seems very interested in demarcating the gaps and fissures in Bette and Earl’s relationship, creating parallax by presenting it through both characters’ eyes to show that each one is getting something valuable—if different—from the relationship.

I haven’t read Balzac’s Cousin Bette, one of Schulman’s models for the book, but saw a connection to Henry James’s Beast in the Jungle, which similarly chronicles the lifelong nonsexual relationship between a (presumably gay or asexual) man, John Marcher, and a straight woman, May Bertram, who, the story suggests, wants more than friendship from John—but this uneven desire remains unspoken between them. Schulman’s novel can be read in some ways as a corrective to James’s story, which presents nonsexual hetero friendship as a beard, a pretense. In The Cosmopolitans the friendship is real, valuable, prioritized: although each individual is getting something different out of it, and ultimately Earl needs something else in addition to (not instead of) this friendship.

My main question for my book club, which hangs unanswered in my meeting notes, but maybe you’ll want to think through this with me, is as follows: is Bette’s desire for Truth, her relentless insistence upon and near-maniacal investment in it—heroic or tragic? Or both.

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September/October 2016 Updates & Announcements

I taught Sofia’s speculative bulimia story in my intro to CW class last week. Still so impressed with it.

My own contribution to the conversation on bulimic writing is forthcoming in a scholarly volume called Reading and Writing Experimental Texts: Critical Innovations edited by Robin Silbergleid and Kristina Quynn. My chapter “Blah Blah Bleh: Bulimic Writing as Resistance” thinks through Bellamy’s and Zambreno’s theorizations from a feminist disability studies lens while engaging with literary criticism’s historical reliance on pathologizing reading practices. This is an essay that’s gone through many versions: first published in much different, more personal form in Mildred Pierce 5: Comedy and the Grotesque; later funneled through a Society for Disability Studies conference paper; now in happily hybrid semi-academic state.

I’m living in New York now, teaching and writing.

I’m going by “M” until I land on a new name. I’ve got this Name Tags series on names/naming in the works for Entropy but haven’t followed through with it while deliberating over my own name stuff. What’s my name? Is it Zig? Mason? Zegan? Maze? Marzipan? Taking votes.

Shortly before moving, I took one last trip to Chicago to see some friends and meet with Cheryl Wollner who interviewed me for Luna Station Quarterly.

Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, which I co-edited with KJ Cerankowski, will be available in paperback soon–exciting! Will make it much more accessible to folks without access to academic libraries. We were never happy about the price tag of the volume.

I’ll be in Indiana in October as part of University of Indianapolis’s Kellogg Writers Series

…and in Toronto in November as part of the Naked Heart LGBTQ Festival of Words.

Otherwise, not leaving. New York folks, say hi. Everyone else, come visit.

Itchy Occupations: On Parasites

My essay “Itchy Occupations: Toward a Theory of Parasitic Writing” is now out in New Theory, a new journal of inter/crossdisciplinary art and thought. It thinks through the metaphor of “parasitic” writing from a queer biopolitical perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

A parasitic mode of writing is organized around imposition, infection, and itch. It sucks, it burrows, it produces chronic irritation. In contrast to the pure machine of conceptual writing, parasitic writing insists on impurity, transcorporeality, bad boundaries. It is a minoritarian mode, exploiting power asymmetries and enacting imposition: the self-body-text—understood in a post-Enlightenment western context to be bounded, sovereign, impermeable—recognized as permeable; violable.

This essay went through MANY DRAFTS! …

… My interest in the parasite as a figure of possibility for writing emerged from my experiments in appropriative writing as well as my experiences with parasitic infections, which included two rounds of scabies and a summer of bedbugs, all in a fairly short rush of time. During this time I developed an intimacy with my parasites. My scabies mites, for example—I’m using the possessive pronoun, they were mine, were part of me—and they were also a symptom, or evidence, of my participation in queer sex culture. My mites were bred from sexual intimacy, they had breached bodily boundaries, they were reproducing inside of us. My then-partner and I called our scabies our gaybies. I was proud of them, their tenacious circulation through various bodies in my community.

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At the same time, they were eating us from the inside, leaving behind a miserable itch. Itching is reproductive, regenerating itself; you might scratch to stop the itch, but doing so only revives it—which is why we often use the word “itch” as a verb meaning “to scratch”—they are the same thing.

Is itching pain, or is it—something else? Heightened sensitivity? New awareness? In Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai explores the political valence of irritation, which, she says, “might be described as negative affect in its weakest, mildest, and most politically effete form” (181). Looking at Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, she analyzes the chronic irritation experienced—and provoked—by Helga, a young woman of mixed race and mixed nationality moving through various settings during the Harlem Renaissance. In Ngai’s reading, Helga’s irritation irritates the reader because it is always there: despite encountering what we might consider minor and major instances of racism and sexism, Helga registers them all as equally, vaguely annoying. Their effects come to the surface not as expressive outrage but affective rash, a mild allergic reaction to which Ngai confers political valence.

Following Ngai: what it would mean to irritate a text in a more parasitic fashion, that is, to burrow inside it like a scabies mite, to eat it from the inside, to make it itch?

[bring in Derrida and Lippit on animetaphor, animals exceeding language?]

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Yes, all of this got cut.

Over the past few years while writing and rewriting this essay (while doing many other things!) I have read quite a few books on parasites. In addition to those cited in my essay, I will take this opportunity to shout out Rebecca Adams Wright’s brilliant short story “What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Alien Parasite.”

Also Mira Grant’s Parasite (#1 in the Parasitology Trilogy), which is NOT v good, tbh, but for the following exchange of dialogue, which gave me light when things got dark:

“Sherman? You’re really a tapeworm? You’ve been–”

“I’ve been a tapeworm the entire time you’ve known me, pet.”

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Zine Reading/Release Party: Thursday!

I will be reading with Jeanne Wright, Alaura Seidl, and Lauren Russell this Thursday in Madison. We’ll be sharing work produced during Lauren’s six-week documentary poetics workshop, in support of a zine collecting that work. There will be pizza! And opportunities to work with erasure, collage, etc. throughout the event. I’ll be sharing poems from a new project related to the Slender Man stabbing case. Join us! Party starts @ the Arts & Literature Laboratory (2021 Winnebago St) at 6 pm. More info here. 

Wisconsin Film Festival Recap: Kill Me Please, The Fits, The Witness, &c.

 

I’ve just returned from my fifth WIFF film in four days! When I was describing my film choices to friends last week, I noted that they were all about…girls. But I didn’t mean it in an objectifying way! I meant: adolescence. Coming of age. Coming into girl identity, sexuality, queerness. Most of them, anyway. // RECAP!

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First in my lineup was Mate-Me Por Favor/Kill Me Please (dir. Anita Rocha da Silveira, #fuckyeswomenfilmmakers), a feminist serial killer film that follows a group of four teen girls navigating adolescence in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro as it is impacted by a series of rape-murders in the area. The girls become morbidly fascinated with the murders, treating each new one as spectacle, as gossip; the protagonist, Bia, becomes especially fixated, strongly identifying with one of the victims after finding her near-dead on the way home from school–and even seeming to become her at times. The film emphasizes the vitality of Bia and her friends, their desire to live and be in their bodies, sexually, violently, amidst the death culture surrounding them. Notably, there are no adults on screen in this film. The last sequence, including the film’s last, long shot is stunning. This film, da Silveira’s debut, shares many themes and strategies with Sofia Coppola’s work, especially the commitment to capturing transitional zones of girlhood, and the use of big swells of pop music, though Kill Me Please has more nerve, I’d argue, with perverse black humor and unexpected moves in narrative logic. Bonus lesbian makeout scene.

Sunday I saw The Fits and Viva back to back. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer, #fuckyeswomenfilmmakers) is about girls on a dance team in Cincinnatti who start breaking into fits one by one. Gorgeous and unsettling, the film’s narrative seems informed by the story of the girls in Le Roy, NY, who broke out into tics and seizures several years ago (though those girls I believe were all white). Like Kill Me Please, The Fits explores the (Black) girl body as spectacle and as site of sometimes violent intensity. The film does not pin down the cause of the girls’ convulsions, but suggests they originate in a desire to perform belonging. While the fits make for a strong hook, the film centers on tomboy protagonist Toni, and her longing to be absorbed into the girl group; among my favorite moments were the sequences where Toni tries transferring the movements she’s learned as a boxer to group dancing. It’s a sweet story, the camera capturing Toni’s anxieties and determination to get those sequences right with tenderness. Almost entirely all-Black cast.

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Viva (dir. Patty Breathnach) is a straightforward film set in Havana, about a baby drag queen, Jesus, whose new gig as Viva gets cut short by the sudden return of his long-gone alcoholic and abusive/homophobic/overall jerk father. A sumptuously shot, compelling film with fantastic performances, if fairly predictable as far as story goes. Thoroughly enjoyable and quite moving but I wasn’t blown away.

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First Girl I Loved (dir. Kerem Sanga)—two girls fall for each other; one girl’s best guy friend gets jealous and homophobic/abusive; Cameron Esposito has a supporting role. I found this film pretty engrossing and I expect teens will love it: really commits to its characters’ big feelings. A solid portrayal of one teen doing her darnedest to pursue her queer desires with little support.

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I wrapped my lineup with The Witness (dir. James Solomon), a riveting and emotionally difficult documentary that offers a powerful corrective to what we think we know about the Kitty Genovese case. The film follows Kitty’s younger brother Bill, 16 at the time of her murder, now in his late 60s, tracking down the facts and misinformation surrounding it. The New York Times comes away looking ugly and opportunistic, and those “38 people” who reportedly did nothing, the primary example for what has passed into common knowledge as “bystander apathy,” come away partially vindicated, as is Kitty, whose life, so fully erased by her death, gets recreated here through Bill’s witnessing. I have more to say on this film—to be continued, in a series of essays on reenactments in film.