The following highlights are not exhaustive.
Dodie Bellamy, entire body of work, and especially The Buddhist, When the Sick Rule the World, and Academonia
In October I spent a week in San Francisco shadowing Dodie Bellamy for a writing project related to the Wattis Institute’s year of Dodie (whence I took the above book cover collage). She took me to community acupuncture and gave me a walking tour of her neighborhood; we had tea in the café at the bottom of Twitter Towers; and other adventures I will commit to the page in coming months. To support this project I’ve been slowly and reverently revisiting Dodie’s work, including early work like Feminine Hijinx and Pink Steam which I read and loved years ago without solid context for New Narrative. Reread When the Sick Rule the World with Liza as part of our book club offshoot (see below), exhilarated as ever by Dodie’s audacity and mirth, her vulnerability and candor, her genius in stretching the essay as a form. While rereading The Buddhist at Borderlands Café, I got cruised by someone who wished to chat about Buddhism, not Dodie, of whom they had not heard: Hard pass. Back home in Brooklyn, I just finished Academonium, and Dodie’s essays on sex writing, genre, and the academy/job market have been reviving my lapsed faith in writing sex. For this project I’ve also taken a few trips to the Beinecke Library at Yale, to see what treasures I might find in Dodie’s and Kevin’s shared papers. They are plentiful. A glimpse:
(an original letter to KK from Dodie’s alter ego Mina Harker)
Renee Gladman +++ Book Club
When my good friend and former book club co-runner Liza Harrell-Edge left New York for the Pacific Northwest early in the year, I did not know if my heart would go on. It has, in large part because we have kept up a semi-rigorous monthly reading group, just us. (Our Brooklyn book club has gone on, too, though we miss her dearly.) Originally our agenda was strictly to read and discuss Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, now that the fourth and final volume, Houses of Ravicka, is out. We’re halfway to achieving this goal, taking our time as we weave in and out of the constantly fluctuating imaginary city-state of Ravicka to wander wherever our enthusiasms take us—a detournement Gladman would probably support. Over the summer we worked our way through Samuel Delany’s immense, slow-burning (literally! the city of Bellona is on fire) Dhalgren, as Gladman has acknowledged its influence on the Ravicka series. We took a side trip through The Bostonians, Henry James’s archly comic novel of the women’s movement, which has nothing to do with Ravicka really, it just came up that we both wanted to read it—though I guess it’s about the city, too. This month we wrapped The Ravickians, the second in the series, comprising an imagined metatranslation of the Great Ravickian Novelist’s diaristic musings, an absurdist poetry reading, and a multi-character dialogue that maps in language one journey through the city of Ravicka. Excited for #3. May our literary kinship continue in years to come.
Ron Athey, Acéphalous Monster at Performance Space New York, November 2018
bb’s first Ron Athey performance and as intense as expected—though not in the ways I anticipated: no live mutilations or blood-letting; a surprising amount of language. Acéphale was Bataille’s seceret society, its symbol the headless man, and Acéphalous Monster is a one-person performance made up of five different segments tracing an arc from fascism (Athey channeling Hitler/Nazism in costume and hairpiece within the confines of a grid) to the guillotine block (as Louis XVI) to the headless man (Ron as minotaur; then as some kind of floofy dandelion). Supplementing the performance were text and video projections, including footage of a ritual involving an elaborate peacock butt plug and other spectacular SM implements and events.
My initial reactions were a bit nonplussed, like okay, enough with Bataille, why retread such stale source material—though I’d just been discussing temporal drag in my Revision & Reenactment class—also, bring on the live mutilations. Yet mutilation was occurring on the body of the texts: Athey was cutting up cut-ups (and cut-ups of cut-ups), deploying Gysin and Burroughs’ famous method. There was a lot of attention to fascism in this performance—Ron, in the post-performance Q&A, described the first grid segment (a re-imagining of Gysin’s Pistol Poem) as creating chaos within rigid order via random permutations—all to say I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to draw connections between Bataille’s fascist context and our own. Then I got it: yes.
Side note: Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups, which also works with the cut-up, has recently been reissued by Tender Buttons Press. Hooray!
Kathy Acker events, Performance Space New York, March/April 2018
PSNY also put on a series of events celebrating Kathy Acker this spring. I attended an excellent film program curated by Matias Viegener and the marathon reading of Blood and Guts in High School. As someone who has been strongly influenced by Acker’s work but never met or shared space with her, I was moved to take part in, if peripherally, this ecstatic, convivial celebration of her writing and life.
Trap Door Launch at the New Museum with editors Johanna Burton, Tourmaline, and Eric Stanley and contributors Ché Gossett, Juliana Huxtable, Miss Major, and Toshio Meronek (February)
This event celebrating the publication of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility was—a scene. Standing room only (a big room!), a field of very hot trans and queer people; I confess my friends and I did some shameless trans celebrity spotting, even pointing, so rude. What a treat to be in the presence of Miss Major and these other luminaries, and to see this cross-generational exchange. The volume itself is gorgeous and full. My Brooklyn queer/trans/feminist book club dedicated two meetings to it; group favorite was probably Morgan Page’s essay on her podcast One for the Vaults, which treats trans history as hot gossip.
I wrote the following review for 4Columns but my editor felt the book was not worth the space and ended up cutting it. I did get paid (thanks!) so haven’t pursued placing it elsewhere … why not place it here, on this space I have cruelly neglected for more than a year? Behold, my review of Jill Soloway’s She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy (released mid-October by Crown Archetype). (This was first draft so not as worked over as it would have been if it had gone through 4C’s rigorous editing process.)
It’s been four short seasons for Transparent; four big years for trans representation and visibility. Since Transparent made history in 2014 as the first TV show with a leading trans character (albeit played by a non-trans actor), its creator Jill Soloway has gone from being an unlikely spokesperson for the trans and queer communities to a member of those communities. In their new memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, Soloway charts these changes, telling the story of their own rapid reorientations in the wake of their parent coming out as trans at age 70. Electrified by new queer feminist insights and an impassioned interrogation of gender and power in Hollywood, She Wants It is an unusual celebrity memoir. But in the end, it’s a celebrity memoir. If it’s better than most, still we want more.
That’s because Soloway, creator of the Emmy-award-winning TV show Transparent, is an unusual celebrity, a nonbinary queer feminist with legit creative power and real cultural sway. In She Wants It, they are still astonished at all that; and while the “How did I get here?” humility butts heads with their class privilege (c.f. the “sad supermarket Brie” bought by a personal assistant for their kid’s birthday party (wah wah)): hey, it’s a celebrity memoir. We read it for access to the celebrity world, and Soloway delivers, describing meetings and parties and dinners with the Duplass brothers, Mel Brooks, Shonda Rhimes, among others; directing Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon. More notable, perhaps, are the different celebrity worlds made adjacent here: trans artist Zachary Drucker sharing chapter space with Jeff Bezos; dyke poet Eileen Myles rubbing pages with Reese Witherspoon.
Divided into loosely organized chapters, She Wants It chronicles Soloway’s path from downtrodden Hollywood reject to award-winning director. “Once my parent came out,” they explain, “I was suddenly powered by a huge gust of yes” (25). Soon, Transparent was born—“the script came out so easily, like a slippery baby” (41)—and Soloway arrived not long after, now an award-winning director who has transitioned from married “straightbian” to a nonbinary queer live-processing their breakup with Myles (one can’t get any more queer, we might say, but that would be a dare).
Soloway’s story is nothing if not compelling. It’s also familiar, as it’s been so thoroughly metabolized on the show. In She Wants It, Soloway describes the Pfeffermans as the idealized, “better version of our family” (68), Soloway’s own arc most closely mirrored by Ali’s. Throughout, they reflect on the ways in which the show has shaped their own reality: “This is what’s wrong with writing a TV show about people who are all fragments of you. You can never tell what comes first, the fiction or the reality” (117).
Another hazard, not unexpected, is that Soloway’s fiction exceeds this work of nonfiction on nearly all counts, and especially in its wisdom and daring. Among Soloway’s greatest skills as screenwriter and director is their ability to build emotional precision into scenes that capture behavior as messily ugly as it is uncomfortably comedic. (Their notes on their directing approach, which draws on writer and producer Joan Scheckel’s trademarked Technique of “playable actions,” are illuminating.) The conflicts between the often awful, always riveting Pfeffermans are deliberate and controlled.
In comparison, Soloway’s on-the-page scenes read as uneasy, the authorial “I” pulling back or redirecting just when things begin to get interesting—or, cough, ‘problematic.’ At the end of the first chapter, after Soloway’s trans parent coming out to them over the phone, their then-husband Bruce responds to this news by coming downstairs in one of Soloway’s dresses; the two of them break into laughter. The only commentary offered here is “Jesus fucking Christ.” End scene. Wait, what?
Moments like this—left dangling, begging for self-examination—litter a book that might otherwise be not only entertaining (as it frequently is) but more thoughtful. Soloway offers self-reflection about some choices—such as the “original sin” of casting Jeffrey Tambor, a cis man, in the role of a trans women—but it’s inconsistent and the scene/info balance is uneven. When they’re not barreling to abrupt and confusing ends, as above, perfectly interesting scenes get hijacked by infodumps or successions of vaguely rhetorical questions.
When they do bring analysis, it’s often frustratingly—even willfully—shortsighted. They describe getting a C on a women’s studies paper in college for “failing to interrogate my own heteronormativity” (35). She Wants It gets maybe a B-. Take their discussion of the Divided Feminine—the ways in which women are forced to separate with “another side of themselves” (unclear what side this is) to “access male privilege”: “Men want a good wife, a sweet mommy. In return, a woman gets a house, diamonds, babies, safety” (26). By which they mean straight cis men and straight cis women, of a certain class and experience. (And generation?)
There’s a terrific scene of Soloway watching porn with Eileen Myles. “Neither of us was much into feminist or queer porn,” they inform us, then proceed to rant about how sexist porn is—so sexist, in fact, they had to write a manifesto about it. It’s an amusing scene to sit in on, and their overexcitement is endearing. But there’s nothing like watching the most misogynist porn to confirm how misogynist porn is. References to a nebulous revolution similarly come across as naïve and quixotic, self-congratulatory.
Cutting through the slapdash quality of much of the writing are ecstatic passages devoted to the intensity of new queer love: “Eileen wanted to know the content of the hunger behind my eyes,” Soloway writes. “She was right there next to my brain…Our ideas about the world made themselves alive into shapes to be revealed to each other” (125). Less scintillating are predictable platitudes about family. “We have to love as much as we can, especially when it comes to family” (179), Soloway offers. This kind of banality seems beneath Soloway, more like the treacly This Is Us than what we might expect from the creator of Transparent.
Though an author’s note alerts us that Soloway will play “fast and loose” with pronouns, they offer little commentary about the title. She Wants It speaks to the book’s concerns with ambition and consent, the show’s interest in the female gaze and its demonstration of female consent. Soloway doesn’t ignore the pallor cast by cast and crew members’ accusations of Tambor’s sexual harassment on set, addressing it (inadequately, likely owing to legal issues) in a chapter titled “Oh, Fuck.” Now that Amazon has dropped Tambor from the show, a big question mark is hovering over the final season, scheduled for release next year. It’s maybe for this reason that the book feels oddly timed and not quite done, its arc incomplete like the story its telling, which includes the story of Soloway’s publicly new-ish gender journey. In a year or two, Soloway might have a clearer, more solid container for all of this. The book would be better for it.
Below find, in order, one dispatch from Communal Presence, some news, and a pile of enthusiasms.
Last weekend I was in Berkeley for Communal Presence: New Narrative Writing Today, featuring the legends of New Narrative past and present: Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, Renee Gladman, Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles, Gabrielle Daniels, Matias Viegener, Roberto Bedoya, Rob Halpern, Gail Scott, yes yes and so on. Seeing all of these writers together in the same room was exhilarating and historical.
In the first plenary, devoted to Kevin and Dodie’s recent anthology Writers Who Love Too Much, Gabrielle, Matias, Roberto, Dennis, and Eileen each briefly shared their own histories and entanglements with New Narrative – how they found it, how it found them. Gabrielle, chronicling what she described as her “apprenticeship” with Bruce and Steve Abbott: “It was a time for my mind to be blown.” Roberto, on “being inside and outside of aesthetic ordering,” particularly as a writer of color: “in and out is a porous terrain of imagination.” Dennis: “Sometimes I was part of [New Narrative], like Kathy Acker, and sometimes we weren’t….now I’ve become lifelong friends with these writers.” Matias [I’m paraphrasing]: “all of us were thrown into these [given] families and then you get a choice, but so much randomness is involved…so many of the people here have become fixtures in my life, and it’s kind of miraculous.” Eileen: “I feel like I’m just hanging out with my teachers…in New York I had learned that you hung out with people who had what you wanted. Each of these guys had what I wanted and I happily took it.” Eileen on meeting Dennis: “We didn’t meet, our magazines met” (Eileen’s Dodgems meeting Dennis’s Little Caesar).
Later, Renee Gladman, in a panel called “New Enactments”: “To be in narrative now is to be in an already fractured state.” At the final marathon reading, she read a stunning piece that got cut out of Calamities; in it, she engaged with Gail Scott’s notion of “a community of sentences” to describe this whole moving architecture of interacting, communal language.
My panel was also a highlight! Sam Cohen and I organized “Bad Boundaries II: Ethics in New Narrative Writing” as a continuation of a panel we put on for the most recent &NOW Festival (2015 in Los Angeles). Maxe Crandall started it off with with a presentation on Poets Theater. “Why is Poets Theater ‘over,’” he asked, “when New Narrative is ongoing, ever-relevant?” He suggested that it may relate to a new cultural investment in the star system–“Poets Theater dies when the star system becomes real.” Three performances on Saturday revived Poets Theater works by Carla Harryman, Kevin Killian & Brian Kim Stefans, and Camille Roy; I trust Maxe (et al.) will keep the medium alive in new forms.
Our panel continued with Nikki Darling, whose paper made connections between New Narrative, magical realism, and experimental fiction as a whole, working to situate both Gloria Anzaldua and Lidia Yuknavitch within the tradition.
Then Sam and I read part of our chapbook in the works, which collects the two stories we each wrote about the other after our difficult breakup in 2015, and a conversation we’re calling “Processing: On Revision and Repair.” For the panel we read modified excerpts from that conversation, doing a kind of mutual overshare via public processing. The chapbook is an exercise in accountability and repair, and it’s a polarizing project: are we only poking at each other’s emotional leftovers, or are we working toward a new queer intimacy? We think the latter. Here we are with Stephen and Nikki post-panel.
Our panel competed with other good-looking panels, and there was much I missed overall. At the Saturday plenary, Rob Halpern and Camille Roy each read deeply affecting back-to-back pieces documenting care and grief for a lover’s gone body. And the opportunity to finally see OG New Narrativists Bob and Bruce read was a gift I don’t take for granted.
NEW OLD NAME NEWS
Presently going by both M. and Megan. For now I am liking holding onto my history in my name as I shift into a new embodiment.
I’ve got two books in the works and recently signed with Rachel Crawford at Wolf Literary Services, joining some of my favorite peer contemporaries: Tom Cho, Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sarah Gerard.
I’d been working on a Best-of-2016 (yes, 2016!) type post that got sidetracked repeatedly by national and world events. Now I’ve turned it into an early Best of 2017(+), and I have beaten you all. Here are some (mostly) recently published books that have delighted and devastated me the past, oh, year or so.
Myriam Gurba, Mean Gurba’s first memoir is officially out in a week or two; I’ve got a review forthcoming in 4Columns, so more TK. But for now: the links Gurba makes here between her own experiences of sexual assault and a much broader rape culture that pervades everything have new timeliness in connection with the Weinstein fallout and the #metoo movement. If you know Gurba’s work at all, you’ll be expecting clever, crass humor and Mean has it in spades: the book is both devastating and devastatingly funny.
Some things to report, plus calls for submissions…
The latest issue of The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose & Thought is out, with art by Xiaoze Xie; poems by Hadara Bar-Nadav, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Dorothy Chan, Alain Ginsberg, Nazifa Islam, Moira J., or Gaagé Dat’éhe, and more; nonfiction by Anne Yoder, Kristin McCandless, and Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Jill Talbot; AND . . . fiction (<–my section!!) by Lily Hoang, Jennifer Morales, and Cecca Austin Ochoa. Lily’s “The Mystical Adventures of the Happy Cat” is a delightful and eerie fable starring one Happy Cat; Jennifer’s excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa is a sneak peek at her current novel, which houses a lesbian pulp novel within it; Cecca’s “Transient” gives a glimmer of queer utopia to a homeless youth at a farm called Fog Orchard.
Submissions are now open for our next issue. We read twice a year; deadlines are March 1 and September 1. Consider submitting your work!
(art by Kristen Stone)
I’ve rebooted Name Tags, a column series on issues related to names and naming, over at Entropy, and am looking for contributors. Here’s the Call for Submissions. This CFS may be familiar: it’s a new iteration of a column I edited for the Land Line Quarterly from 2011-3.
Speaking of names, I’ve dropped the Henry from my nominal identity — it just wasn’t sticking. I’m currently publishing under the names M. and Megan until further notice.
I’ve been writing for a new arts criticism site, 4Columns. My most recent review, of Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s essential Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing, 1977-1997, was recently posted in full on Dennis Cooper’s blog. Alright!
Speaking of New Narrative, I’ll be at the upcoming Communal Presence conference at Berkeley in October, appearing on a panel called Bad Boundaries 2: Ethics in New Narrative Writing Then & Now, with Sam Cohen, Maxe Crandall, Nikki Darling, and Tim Jones-Yelvington. Sam and I will be presenting work related to our collaborative chapbook project in progress, Bad Boundaries (which collects a story by each of us as well as a conversation about breakups/conflict, writing the ex, and accountability and the duty of repair).
Thanks to a tip from Sam, this spring I took a psychomagic writing class with the genius Laurie Weeks, author of the great Zipper Mouth (Feminist Press), whose short story “Swallow” is included in the above Writers Who Love Too Much. I read “Swallow” in 2005 thanks to one Andrea Lawlor gifting me a copy of its original publication in a 4×4 tiny journal; it CHANGED me. So it was exhilarating to work with her for a few months as part of a queer feminist art cabal in South Williamsburg. We even had our own tincture (thanks, Grace!). I wish I had taken some photos; it was a dreamy and powerful collection of wild weirdos, a lifeboat during nervous times.
I’ve also been contributing a bit to the New York Trans Oral History Project. My conversations with musician Eli Oberman and artist/writer J. Soto are now available in the archive, alongside many other treasures. I believe the project is still looking for more volunteers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Saturday, July 16th, I am co-coordinating the Madison edition of International Wuthering Heights Day. This will be one of my last activities in Madison before I move on to New York at the end of the month. Come out if you are in town! Wear red!