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.
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?]
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
My short story “AB 469: A Po(r)ny-ography in Three Parts” is now out in SPECS 7: The Unicorn Issue. The story is a response to a remark made by a legislator during a public hearing on trans-discriminatory changing room legislation proposed for Wisconsin public schools last October: “Would you feel uncomfortable changing next to someone with totally different body parts?” Taking a flight of fancy, it imagines shifting from “discomfort” to desire through select Katy Perry lyrics and My Little Pony fan fiction.
While I stand by what is essentially a satirical pornographic lesbian locker room fantasy written as a response to this specific situation, which was, at the time I wrote it, safely distant, I don’t pretend it is a comprehensive or adequate response to the oppressive reality of bills like HB2 or the broader climate of transphobia being expressed in various ways in U.S. culture right now; I stand in solidarity with trans and gender nonconforming people, and particularly trans women, who are affected by this legislation and this climate.
This Unicorn issue is truly magical. My por(n)y-ography shares space with Tim Jones-Yelvington’s brilliant One Direction avant-fanfic; JD Scott’s poetic sequence written to/with the Scribe Angel Siriel (Siri’s older sister); Sharif Shakhshir’s terrific “Unicorn Hunting,” a coming of age unicorn diaspora story in the form of an Assassins game; Shamala Gallagher’s prose poem “Untitled (Unicorn & Cheetos Poem)”; Minal Hajratwala’s poem “Operation Unicorn: Notice from the Department of Taboos” (I’m letting these titles speak for themselves); among others; and Brett Boyko’s cover art, titled “Genderfluid Unicorn Blues.”
Thanks to SPECS editors Kristen Arnett and Cathleen Bota, and everyone else on the team, for putting this creepy campy delight together and including my work in it.
As bonus material, here’s an essay I started on Robot Unicorn Attack several years ago and never finished, but will call finished now. Return with me now, to 2011!
Robot Unicorn Attack is a free online Flash game released in 2010. It features anachronistically crude graphics and two movement options: jump or dash. When you dash, you make rainbows. The soundtrack is Erasure’s “Always.” The game is gay.
A gay game, it offers the promise of winning under threat of death.
The song “Who Am I to Feel So Free” by MEN, released in 2011 with lyrics by artist Emily Roysdon, charts a brief and selective history of queer/trans feminist politics.
changed our names
used our hands
discovered options better than a man
and prosthetic sex
we built this world and we are asking your best
The song’s chorus is strikingly ambivalent: “Who am I to feel so free” can be read as a fist-pumping protest chant, expressing entitlement to be/feel/act free. At the same time the wording conveys an acute awareness that this entitlement is shaky, dubious. In this sense, the question is posed as genuine doubt: Who am I to feel free when my freedom and the freedom of others is perpetually under attack?
The song’s ambivalent relationship to freedom is enhanced by Shearon Van Riggins’ use of gameplay footage from Robot Unicorn Attack in their unofficial video for the song. The version of the song used here features vocals by Anohni, whose performance emphasizes the chorus’s ironies.
In the video, the song narrates our unicorn’s three attempts, and failures, to win. S/he is so free, it’s exhilarating to watch. S/he makes rainbows; s/he blows up but survives to run free again: I feel so free / I could never die / never die.…then the final death coincides with the last repetition of the chorus. Who! / am I! / to feel so free!: kaboom. Robot Unicorn has died.
Juxtaposed with the ambivalent lyrics of the song, the game’s win-or-die / win-then-die / always-die narrative archly comments on the teleological properties of gay and feminist liberation discourse, the rhetoric of which proposes a kind of utopic freedom enabled by winning again and again. The video is a giddy performance of both this utopic possibility—run free, robot unicorn, run free—winning!—while also relishing in crashing and burning, the queer art of failure. The video expresses camp resignation for the failures of gay and feminist liberation politics, amplifying the song’s ambivalence in fascinating and generative ways—ways that call out our failures to achieve collective freedom and coalition through intersectional justice.
Who is this robot unicorn, that s/he should feel so free? Whosoever rainbow-dashes alone, meets failure.
I want to be with you / make believe with you / live in harmony / harmony / always.
My third chapbook, The Feels, is out now in the latest issue of Black Warrior Review. The Feels is a collection of crossgenre writing that grew out of my Fan Fiction and Affect workshop for the AW Mellon Art & Scholarship series last year at UW-Madison. It features Melissa Etheridge lyrics upsetting / or feeling with / William James’s classic theory of emotion; feel extractions from One Direction fan fic; some dirty drabbles; and the Feel Machines (e.g. writing exercises) used to make these treasures. Many thanks to BWR for giving a home to this teary-eyed monster!
And look how gorgeous the issue is, with cover art by Amandine Urruty:
Other treats include fiction by Kate McQuade, Jill Rosenberg, Sequoia Nagamatsu, and LaTanya McQueen; poetry by Rhiannon Thorne, Jennifer S. Cheng, Mary-Alice Daniel, Patricia Colleen Murphy, Mark Baumer, and Anne Marie Rooney, nonfiction by Maria Perez, Will McGrath, Shelley Puhak, and Rochelle Hurt, and…
a special feature on Clairvoyance with work by Claire Hero, Caren Beilin, Karyna McGlynn, Allegra Hyde, Arisa White, Susan Briante, Kendra Fortmeye, and Rachel Levy. Fantastic issue, all around! Purchase here.
A journal I’ve been super psyched about since I first learned of it last year (though it’s been around since 2012) is Nat. Brut. I intentionally left it off my dazzling and comprehensive 2015 Year-End Review List because I wanted to sing its praises separately.
Then! I received an email from editor in chief Kayla E. inviting me to join Nat. Brut’s board of directors. I learned more. I agreed. Now I’m not just on board, I’m on THE board (!) (or will be when my term starts, I think in March) of one of the most thoughtfully and beautifully made journals around.
Have you seen it? It’s stunning…
…and activating, energizing, invigorating. Nat. Brut is pro-art, pro-social justice; it publishes art across media and genre, centers marginalized voices, and promotes environmental sustainability.
Issue Six (Fall 2015) was my intro. I bought a copy mainly because Meghan Lamb, whose work I follow, contributed to the supplement, a comics zine. More on that below.
Issue Six assembles a generous, diverse collection of fiction, poetry, features, and visual art, plus a foldout comics poster called “Early Edition.” Among my favorite pieces are:
- Afabwaje Kurian’s “Butter,” which deftly explores tensions between black African immigrant and African American communities through the story of a Nigerian girl’s fraught relationship with a classmate, and her first, confusing encounter with the n-word.
- Elise Liu’s “John and Mary and Jenny and Mike,” an equation-based reworking of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” that pluralizes not only the available storylines, but the original couple, recasting them as a range of characters with different social and national identities.
- Morgan Jerkins’ “Asha,” a succinct and compelling fabulist parable about Black women’s domestic labor and the exploitation of generosity.
- David Rice’s “On the Murder of Nicola Teensmah,” a story in the form of an essay on a fictional film—convincing, unsettling, surprising, oddly funny.
- I’m spotlighting the fiction because I was so impressed with/excited about the range; other highlights include poetry by Justin Wymer, Margarita Delcheva, Talia Lavin, and Adam Fitzgerald; Kayla E.’s interview with Jayson Musson, the artist behind the ART THOUGHTZ YouTube series; and Chitra Ganesh’s She the Question, a comic that reconstructs from a feminist perspective images from the Amar Chitra Kathas comic book series for children (published in India and distributed around the world).
- And so much more.
As a supplement to the issue, Kayla E. created and illustrated All of Them Witches, a zine of four comics that rewrite sexist horror comics from the 1950s, written by Meghan Lamb, Stine An, Carrie Guss, and Ashley Keyser, and edited by RL Goldberg. Sharp, funny, pulling no punches, these four “re-mixes” do exciting work to resuscitate the pulpy, perverse sensationalism of their originals, while correcting—with triumph—their insulting misogyny.
Much of the journal content is available on the website, where Nat. Brut also publishes original content, including this terrific roundtable of women and nonbinary comics artists responding to the erasure of women in this year’s list of nominees for the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême.
From 2005-2008 I co-published a zine called Mildred Pierce and Nat. Brut is sort of what I envisioned that project growing into: a beautifully printed yet somehow sustainable journal/magazine that publishes smart, fresh literature, art, essays, and comics; art and ideas that are in many ways resistant and thoroughly politically and socially engaged. Nat. Brut is doing all that — & more! I’m eager for Issue Seven. ❤
End-of-semester visualization exercise by Madison Ganson
(if you look closely you can see the GAY creeping through from someone else’s drawing!)
In the fall I taught a new English/Critical Identity Studies course called Queer & Transgender Literature and Theory. It was an ambitious course designed to explore (1) literature written by and about queer and trans people, (2) formal strategies used to enact or produce queerness and/or transness in literature, (3) the overlaps and tensions between queer and trans as theoretical and interpretive lenses; and (4) the relationships and intersections between queerness and transness and race, ethnicity, nation, disability, class, and other dimensions of social identity. It was categorized as a course in “Genre, Mode, Technique,” so I focused on the diversity of queer and trans aesthetic traditions and approached it as a hybrid course: we responded to course texts both analytically and creatively, experimenting on our own with some of the methods and strategies that some of our authors used, for example, cu(n)t-ups (after Dodie Bellamy) and fan fiction (after Tom Cho). While the course succumbed to the usual first-time problems—we read too much! didn’t read enough!—and there are certainly moves I’ll make differently next time around, I call it a success. Some people have asked to see my reading list. I’ve shared it below, after some highlights and revision notes.