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.
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.
[Collective First Person by Nicki Werner, 2014]
“It strikes me as a barely explored pronoun, full of possibilities.” –Steven Milhauser
I’m pretty obsessed with the politics of pronouns in fiction writing owing to many of my characters’ genderqueer and/or non-binary identifications—and my own! Prior to coming to a(n) nb/gq identity, I often adopted third-person limited for more autofictional stories to enable critical distance—a distance that started to seem like disidentification. I was using “she” like a slap.
So I moved away from third limited to embrace first person, which avoids binary gender pronouns for the most part (Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body being the classic example of a gender-ambiguous, potentially genderqueer narrator). Right now I’m experimenting with no-pronoun third-person—i.e., repeating the protagonist’s name in place of using pronouns—as well as they/them third person, second person, and—I’m coming to it—
Collective first. Our topic at hand. Aka first person plural. Aka “we.” While it’s been on the rise in US fiction, it remains underused and underexplored.
Like “you” (see Erica Hunt’s terrific essay on second person in Citizen), the pronoun “we” is “flexible and ambiguous” (Maxey 2), its boundaries shifting and porous: at any given moment, it is unclear how many “I”s a “we” might include. This presents opportunities for authors to negotiate the individual in relation to the social, to draw lines (or refuse to) around various groups or social categories, to dramatize belonging and exclusion.
Probably the most well-known example of collective first is Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), in which a singular narrator’s use of “we” reflects the dystopian society’s erasure of individuality (via the lost “I”). “We” here functions as an institutional weapon of forced conformity and suppression of self, and when “I” arrives, it’s loaded with utopic possibility.
First plural can also be used to make the opposite, and, we think, better, argument. For example, Andrea Lawlor’s chapbook Position Papers envisions a compelling anti-capitalist world in which “we will eschew individual possessive first person.” The proposal is somewhat tongue in cheek, as Lawlor uses possessive singular on the very next page—“In my country…”—but persuasive nonetheless. Throughout, collective first invites the reader into a proposed collectivity that is intentional and accounts for difference. Indeed, it operates much like philosopher Kay Mathiesen’s theory of collective consciousness: “collective subjectivity,” she writes, “requires plurality (i.e. that there be multiple conscious subjects), awareness (i.e. that there is genuine intentionality), and collectivity (i.e. that the collective subject forms a social group)” (236).
To adopt a collective perspective, Matheisen says, is to “understand and predict what another person is thinking” through simulation of thought (that is, empathy) and “to model within ourselves the beliefs, values, etc. of the collective” (247). Given that arguments around who belongs and doesn’t have been / continue to be used as weapons of discrimination and criminalization, to invoke collective first in this way has tremendous political potential.
More commonly, we’ve seen it used less politically, to represent small town subjectivities: e.g., William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930) and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993). As Ruth Maxey has noted, both narratives adopt a masculine retrospective collective voice—a “we” that, while remaining flexible and ambiguous, invites only some readers into it. In a variation on the small town point of view, Christopher Grimes adopts a bureaucratic “we” in The Pornographers (2012)—one that is constructed deliberately (and satirically) to exclude women (and, arguably, people of color, queer and trans people, and other marginalized identities). Since the novel is structured as one impossibly long sentence, the effect is a babble of collective anxiety, the “we” trying desperately to hold onto itself and its authority.
More recent examples of collective first tend to highlight difference and singularity within the group, as TaraShea Nesbit has observed (cw: in this article, a racist slur is used in a cited book title). In Justin Torres’s We the Animals, for example, the retrospective narrator increasingly shifts from first plural to singular to chronicle his fraught individuation from his family, as he confronts his undeniable (queer) difference. In the final multi-part chapter, the narrator is abruptly expelled from the group; the narrative’s shift from first plural to a distant third to a dissociated second to finally a reluctant, terrified first singular illustrates how violent the process of individuation can be (especially when forced).
Then there’s the narrator of Aimee Bender’s “Debbieland,” who actually refuses to individuate. Having come of age as part of a gang of girl bullies, the narrator has retained her collective identity into adulthood; the reader doesn’t realize until halfway through that her “we” is actually an “I.” Her continued use of collective first implies stunted growth, a resistance to maturation that isn’t cute—it’s a potential social threat, protecting her from accepting responsibility for her actions. As in We the Animals, collective first is strongly associated with adolescence, supporting the notion that adulthood means individuation; an adult “we” is suspect.
Some recent scifi narratives, meanwhile, are not afraid of “us”! Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and the Wachowski sisters’ Netflix series Sense8 both adopt a new form of collective first involving multiple characters linked across bodies.
In Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the narrator is an AI entity designed to exist across many bodies, as the brain of a ship and its ancillaries (AI drone troops who have been installed in colonized human bodies). A number of different passages show the narrator experiencing multiple scenes simultaneously, from the point of view of different ancillaries, a simultaneity that’s initially quite dizzying for us readers to take on.
Is this a variation of collective first? The narrator rarely adopts “we” as a perspecive. Maybe she’s a multiple “I” as opposed to a “we.” But isn’t that what “we” is? We don’t know! This point of view seems related to but not quite collective first. The best description might be cloud subjectivity, as proposed by Joshua Rothman.
One of the most interesting dimensions of Leckie’s cloud subject is that its bodies matter very much. The bodies the narrator finds herself occupying are not blank slates: one of them likes to sing. Owing to corporeal history/memory, individuality is not entirely erased; this is one way in which the colonized haunt the novel. Also, the cloud fractures at numerous points in the narrative, requiring the ancillaries to act as disunified individuals. To me this is one of the most striking aspects of Leckie’s collective subject(s): it insists upon a whole, cohesive self that contains multiple, differentiated selves. Cohesion and plurality are not contradictory.
Sense8’s cloud subject operates similarly, though so far the show emphasizes plurality over cohesion: the first season spends a lot of time revealing how the links between the eight sensates work. We learn with them that they can feel each other’s feelings; take control over one another’s bodies; but it’s selective—they are not experiencing all eight sets of realities all the time. The show celebrates interdependence and co-subjectivity: its various conflicts are resolved through each individual’s skills and what they can contribute to the group (not unlike the set-up of Orphan Black, RPGs, or cooperative tabletop games like Pandemic).
We remember the rise of network narratives in the early 2000s (Crash, Traffic, Syriana, Babel, The Wire). Narratives like Ancillary Justice and Sense8 combine what Caroline Levine has identified as the affordances of network narratives with those of collective first point of view. And whereas some other constructions of multiple subjectivity tap into cultural anxieties around the fear/threat of sameness across subjects, these narratives are excited about the possibilities of collective consciousness.
Collective consciousness, Sense8 argues powerfully, is anchored in empathy. The eight sensates provide emotional support for one another; they learn from each other; they help one another make difficult decisions: Nomi, for example, who is trans, steps in to help Lito confront his fear of coming out publicly as gay. Capheus helps Riley work through her fears that something terrible will happen. (Something does! but that’s unrelated.) Yet there are limitations to what they can know and understand (and I hope in subsequent seasons, these fissures and gaps will get more attention).
Like Ancillary Justice, the show attends to differences across bodies. The writers have fun with gender difference, for instance: Lito experiences Sun’s PMS; Will takes on Riley’s pregnancy (both tropes of genderswap fanfic, incidentally). When Capheus is called “bitch” repeatedly by his antagonists, Sun (whose life has been deeply impacted by sexism) steps in to react. These moments of intersubjective exchange seem importantly trans and feminist in nature. Moreover, through them, empathy is proposed as rooted in the body, driven not by emotional intelligence but corporeal experience. The sensates do not need to simulate the thoughts and feelings of others: they are feeling them in their bodies.
I hope the next season will explore more of the negative aspects of trans-subjectivity: What about when a sensate resists, wants to refuse, the exhausting prospect of feeling with/as someone else? While the show’s celebration of empathy-based collectivity is provocative and politically valent, it’s important to remember that this empathy is forced.
David Levithan’s YA novel Every Day offers a counterexample, presenting co-subjectivity as undesirable and often challenging. The novel adopts the point of view of a floating subjectivity who wakes up each morning in a different body. Deeply affected by each host’s body—its capacities and limitations, its corporeal history—the narrator negotiates a complex new co-subjectivity…every day. This is often difficult, as some bodies are easier to live in, and feel with, than others. At one point the narrator finds themself in the body of someone struggling with severe depression; the book presents their suicidality not as an emotional/mental state but a powerful bodily urge that the narrator must fight: “I have to convince myself that this isn’t a pointless life, even though the body is telling me it is” (63). Like Sense8, the novel privileges corporeal reality—but gives serious consideration to the negative dimensions of intersubjectivity.
These speculative narratives invite us to feel with characters negotiating involuntary intersubjectivity and collective consciousness; to have our own trans-subjective exchanges—voluntarily. The dirty truth is I’m often a reluctant empathizer, and would not want to be “we” all, or much, of the time. But I’m a great reader; this is my contribution to the group. It’s possible my community doesn’t need an essay on collective first and multiple subjectivity—I can’t read your minds—but I wanted to write it. So I did.
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.