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.
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 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.
My essay “Notes Towards an Essay on Bad Laughter” is now published on The Spectacle. In it I explore laughter that is in the wrong place at the wrong time; laughter that means to be something else, laughter that performs the wrong feeling. Thanks to the editors, especially Meghan Lamb, for the invitation!
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.
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.