memoirs

Writing as necessity

Scattered reading time these days, mostly due to the fact that my brain decided it would rather spend time writing. It is obviously bored with whatever life I have now and thinks we could do better. You go, brain. Living the creative life for the first time in years. Mind you, nothing published has come out of it yet, but I keep telling myself that submitting is an enormously big deal and most people don’t even get to that.

Apart from filling a creative void in my life, writing is one of the few things I need to do to prevent myself from becoming an unpleasant human being (others are reading and running). Writing is both so emotionally exhausting and so necessary. Despite this new Hamilton-esque almost-graphomania, writing is hard and does not make my brain go into the ‘flow‘ mode easily. It takes a while for me to get there, by which time, you guessed it, I am emotionally exhausted and ready to give up. Yet even this exhaustion is not altogether terrible, because there are parts of me I want to exhaust. There are parts of my brain that I want to wear down so that they don’t wake up at four o’clock in the morning and start telling me terrible things. I am temporarily out of commission running-wise, so scribbling is now the primary type of amateur therapy.

redpartsI am hoping to get reading back on track with Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, which is a peculiar mix of memoir, true crime, and personal essay. I did not think this book was going to be my cup of tea at all, but Maggie Nelson is so good at self-examination, observation, and putting it all into beautiful words, that anything she writes is hard to put down. The Red Parts is about a reopening of a 35 year-old murder of Nelson’s aunt, an occurrence that plunged her family into grief anew. She documents months in the courtroom as the case is reexamined, during which time she conducts an examination of her own, of her family and how it was affected by this terrible and up until now unsolved tragedy. I love writers who write in the liminal areas, whose books give catalogers nightmares, because that is how my mind works as well. I loved both Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Argonauts as well, although for personal reasons the latter affected me much more deeply than the former. Start with Argonauts if you have never read her non-fiction, but be prepared to find yourself seeking out everything she has ever written, including books you thought were not your cup at all.

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Readings: Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

I started my vacation with a glass of wine, some Beatles’ songs (a break from Hamilton on never-ending loop), and a reread of Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive. I was working on the book floor for two days before Christmas, and in that time, I sold this book to two people, one friend and one customer. If I could sell it to everyone who came in through the door, I would.

When I was just coming out, my friend told me to read McBee’s column in the Rumpus called ‘Self-Made Man’. McBee writes a lot about masculinity and what it means to be a man, something that has always been my interest in and out of the context of trans experience. I pay a lot of attention to how men behave and think and how they are made to behave and think.

DEUG7991Thoughts on masculinity aside, McBee is a powerful writer. His sentences are so vivid, it’s like he is writing directly on your eyeballs, or perhaps directly on your brain. I read Man Alive in one sitting, unable to move, unable to leave the couch. I am glad it’s fairly short, because my bladder would not have been able to last for more than 170 pages.

At the time (I read Man Alive early in 2014, before its publication), I was still not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I was not yet on T, and while I wanted to be on T, I also didn’t know if I would like the change. It wasn’t the idea of sticking myself with needles, or being on hormones for the rest of my life. I was just always a fan of status quo and did not like to change anything, even if said change was going to save my life.

I found the same kind of uncertainty in the pages of McBee’s book, and I found answers. There were trans memoirs that helped me realize I was trans. There were trans memoirs that helped me come out. And then there was Man Alive, which described precisely how I felt and finally placed me where I wanted to be in the space-time continuum that my clusterfuck of life had become at that point. McBee and I came from different backgrounds and had different families, and our reasons for postponing our transitions were different, but there was a similarity of thought and feeling somewhere in both our cores.

…and I knew there wouldn’t be a divine intervention, no right time, no sign that testosterone would make me a good man, no test to confirm that I would be happier, or more whole.

After I came out to my closest friends, I remember crying a few times when my heart was full of both pain and hope: the time when I saw myself in a mirror wearing a binder, and it looked so right; the time when I realized I had to leave my family and live as someone I had always been on the inside; and the time when I read Man Alive and knew I had made the right choice, even if it took me more than thirty years.

In the meantime, the twin man in the mirror was growing more solid while my current, softer face became more and more transparent. I knew which body was a ghost.

Readings: Drawing Blood

I finished Molly Crabapple’s memoir Drawing Blood (out December 1st), and here are some thoughts, positive first, negative last:

drawing bloodOn traveling while introverted: I already mentioned this in a previous blog post, but this memoir told me that it’s okay to mostly observe, rather than actively interact with the world when traveling and living abroad.

On making art in general and more specifically, trying to make money while making art: In a way, Drawing Blood is not an easy book to read, because it is so honest about what it takes to make money while trying to become a an artist who can make money with her art. It is also honest about what it takes for a woman artist to do these things.  If Crabapple’s accounts of older men treating her as a sex object starting when she was still a child and warnings from people that traveling alone as a young woman is dangerous are shocking to you, you might be an alien from a happy planet where sexism has been eradicated (and we envy you). She talks about how a woman’s body does not belong to her, how it becomes a reason ‘she must be fetishized and confined’, how a lot of the world excludes women: ‘his was the public world, which is to say the male world, of bars, drugs, and easy camaraderie’. Molly Crabapple is precisely the woman the system aims to break: defiant, independent, eventually out of fucks to give.

The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women: Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picked-fenced land of generous collectors and 2.5 kids. But make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

On making art political:

I started drawing as a way to cope with people: to observe and record them, to understand them, charm them, or to keep them at arm’s length… When the world changed in 2011, I let my art change with it, expanding from nightclub walls to hotel suites and street protests. My drawings bled into the world. 

Art is political because art is a way for people to tell you and show you what their experiences are. Art is for displaying uncomfortable truths and is therefore used by marginalized, under-privileged, unjustly feared, and in general kicked around groups to both make themselves heard and possibly heal.

On being in artist in a more general sense:

Young artists must be arrogant so they don’t kill themselves.

Drawing Blood is about self-making. The evolution and development of an artist are on full display here, and Crabapple’s unerring dedication to her craft is palpable. In fact, if there is one definite way in which this book touched me, it’s in its ability to make me want to draw. A lot. I do not possess Crabapple’s monomania for drawing (or for anything, for that matter), but her memoir gives you a taste of what it’s like to be in love and in need of making art.

Crabapple will no doubt inspire a lot of people who think they could never be artists or make their living as artists, but here’s why she will also ruffle feathers (and she ruffled mine). Crabapple’s choice of words is not always, shall we say, agreeable. She is often just as graphic when describing things with words as she is when describing them with drawings. Her choice of words for Buck Angel’s top surgery is not sensitive. While I don’t particularly care about Buck Angel, I would never describe any transman’s top surgery in this way, so beware (and if he has read it and is okay with it, then Crabapple needs to get trans friends who are not Buck Angel).

This blog post is actually a newsletter

No particular theme to this one, other than a list of links and thoughts about books.

First, personal brag: Here I am in Shelf Awareness Pro, which is the trade issue of Shelf Awareness, a great bookish newsletter for readers and booksellers. I had a lot of fun talking about books I’m reading as well as books I’ve faked reading.

My friend Hannah is on Episode 5 of Book Riot’s Get Booked podcast. She recommends a lot of good literature.

George by Alex Gino is an amazing book. I tweeted that I wished I had this book as a kid, but that’s coming from a 36 year-old transguy who has lived in Canada/US for most of his life now. My childhood was spent in a country that allegedly had no gay, queer, or trans people. It’s nigh impossible to envision a book about a trans kid existing in the USSR. And so I can’t really tell what my reaction would have been if I read it when I was a child. Was I aware of my gender woes then? I can’t really tell. I don’t have an easy narrative for my trans identity.

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Now I know why writers seem to write in front of windows.

I just started reading Molly Crabapple’s memoir called Drawing Blood, out in December. I’m still in the beginning, where she writes about her travels. At one point she mentions how she was ‘too shy’ to make friends, which led me to think about my own hopping around the world many years back. I’m wondering whether being extremely introverted and also socially phobic made my overseas experience more lackluster than it could have been. Crabapple also says that there were times when she was just a pure observer, walking around with her sketchbook. I did some drawing in Japan, I remember, possibly also as a way of being around people I was too scared to talk to. I also did a lot of drawings for my school kids because that was a good way to transcend the language barrier, not to mention win popular teacher points. Drawing makes me go into a kind of alternate reality, I think, where the socially phobic barriers don’t seem to matter because the real world becomes whatever you’re drawing and the page.

In any case, her writing about her own shyness gave me some comfort that I did not miss out on some crazy adventures because I was too introverted to do them. One can, in fact, have a great experience traveling and writing about without talking to every person on the planet. Pure observation is a valid way of relating to the world.

October reads: Witches of America by Alex Mar

witches of americaI just finished Witches of America by Alex Mar (out 10/20/15), and it gave me all kinds of nostalgic feelings for my pagany days. In the future I might write about those, but for now it’s enough to know that I used to be one of ‘Witches of America’ (or, more accurately, ‘Druids of America’).

Witches of America is not an exhaustive study of paganism today. If you want that, you might want to check out Ronald Hutton or similar. Mar’s book mostly deals with the Feri tradition and OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) ceremonial magic practitioners, but it is not just an anthropological study either. It’s also a memoir and an exploration of Mar’s personal spirituality, which I found particularly interesting and also very familiar. Her doubts about the religious side of the Craft, her interest in a mystery tradition, both seemed to be precisely on my wavelength.

Mar’s approach to belief is similar to mine in that she is ‘compelled by the mysterious’ and ‘drawn to the outer edges, the fringe — communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together.’ At one point I labeled myself a perpetual seeker because I could not settle. I kept chasing something that would give me meaning, almost initiate me into my own mind, if you will. I also always viewed magic as a path to self-transformation. When Mar finally starts training in the Feri tradition, she talks about seemingly enrolling in therapy through witchcraft. I was also looking for something that would help me make my own narrative, a story of myself. I now realize that a lot of my search was closely tied to my uneasiness with the gender I was assigned at birth and an attempt to find a place that would make me comfortable with my body, but my approach to religious belief remains much the same.

Mar’s view on large pagan gatherings and their ecumenicism is also spot-on. It is virtually impossible to make up a ritual that will not seem diluted and bland, if you are trying to make it for vastly diverse groups of people. The largest rituals I attended were always the least meaningful for me, even if the amount of power raised was through the roof. Mar says: ”Maybe this is my problem, evidence of damage to my own psyche, that i’m looking for something deeper, darker, more layered, harder to live with.’

If anything, Witches of America allowed me to take a look at paganism from a certain remove but not as a stranger. It also made me realize that my engagement with paganism was from a perspective of a completely different person. Mar’s chapter on Dianic (largely women-only) Wicca now raises in my mind an important question of inclusion/exclusion of transwomen (Mar mentions this concern very briefly in a footnote, but it is mentioned). People going skyclad and a very binary power structure of most rituals now make me wonder if I would feel comfortable in such a cis-oriented setting. That said, I like to think that if any religion would be okay with gender fluidity and bodies that do not conform to a standard, it’s paganism. I haven’t really participated in anything pagany in many years and certainly not since my transition, but now I have this urge to dip back in and see how it would feel now.

Plus, it inspired me to clean my house and find all my Tarot decks and a bunch of cloak clasps (though the latter are mostly for the Ren Faire outing next weekend).

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Recent books, briefly

First of all, Books Brains and Beer is back (-ish)! Or is he? He isn’t sure. But he has been reading up a storm and posted a bunch of flash reviews. I like short reviews. Every time I see some gigantic review spread in The New York Times, I have a feeling that I could save myself some time by skipping the review and reading the book instead.

Which brings me to my own brief bookish observations.

First of all, all those glowing reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho are quite right. I’m just going to say that it was Saturday night, and I had some red wine, and this book was perfect. You might want to replicate the setting. It wasn’t the kind of book that sucked me in and made me spent 12 hours on the couch. On the contrary, I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then putting it down. Perhaps it wasn’t the book’s fault and I was just feeling distracted that weekend. That said, I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. It’s quite fun and also funny. Favorite quote:

‘I had no one to teach me better, you see.’

‘So you have found someone to teach you worse!’

Lest you think it was just an amusing romantic historical romp, here’s a brief list of topics it touches upon: Class. Race. International politics. Colonialism. Gender roles. Education of girls.

My other read was quite in contrast. It was Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door, out next January (can I even talk about it yet?). It was a magically beautiful memoir about love, grief, friendship, and how all those things change and are experienced at different points in life. The whole book feels like a quilt made of gossamer. It jumps in time, holding all these fragile pieces together. The sentences are almost translucent at times. For some reason I always find descriptions of male companionship and love incredibly heart-achy and touching. Perhaps it’s because I myself am a queer man. Perhaps this kind of love still feels forbidden from a larger society’s point of view, marriage decision notwithstanding. The Narrow Door has quite a few of those, and I was glad I had a glass of bourbon at hand. I’ll definitely mention it again closer to its release because it is already on my list of 2016 favorites, and we aren’t even in that year yet.

Other books briefly:

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Here’s what you should do. Read this book while listening to electronica. The combined effect of that music genre and Kleeman’s writing style make you feel as if time no longer exists. Or it makes reality feel like a continuous straight line with no beginning or end in sight, with no changes whatsoever. Maybe that’s why, sadly, I abandoned it. I couldn’t handle the depersonalization effect it seemed to have on me.

Saga # 5 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. For some reason, I refuse to read Saga in single issues. I like the trades. I wasn’t a fan of #4, but this one is pretty good.

IMG_0598Currently reading:

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. Yesterday was its release day, and I spent most of it with a giant raccoon cutout as we shot videos and took pictures for marketing purposes at work (if you don’t get to stage mock battles with human-sized cardboard raccoons at your place of employment, I feel sorry for you). I’ll be honest, Furiously Happy is better than Lawson’s first book, but it did give me an anxiety attack. I woke up at 2 am last night, convinced that some shit was going down. Apparently reading about other people’s mental issues reminds me I also have mental issues. But I’m not giving up, because the book is immensely funny and full of taxidermy, two things I look for in all books and find in so few.

I know you wanted a picture of me with a giant raccoon. You’re welcome.