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Readings: Olivia Laing on loneliness

I am about to move out of the house I share with three other people into a place where it’s going to be just me. I am excited at the prospect but also fearful because for the first time in my life it occurred to me that I might become lonely. In a way, it’s a strange question for me to ask because I am introverted and misanthropic, and normally go out of my way to avoid most human interactions. This fear of lonesomeness is probably due more to the fact that my friend is moving away, and due to misanthropic introversion mentioned above, I don’t have a lot of friends.

I should not lump solitude with loneliness because, as Olivia Laing points out in her new book, The Lonely City, one can be lonely even when surrounded by humans. In fact, perhaps the loneliest time in my life was not when I was surrounded by rice paddies in rural Japan, but when I lived in New York. It’s the reason I picked up Laing’s book. In it, she documents her own loneliness in NYC, and also looks at loneliness through lives of several artists, including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger.

lonelycityThe Lonely City received a nice review from NPR, although they thought it was beautiful but rather oppressive and well, lonely. It is, perhaps, not the most uplifting book, but it is not depressing per se. It is mostly because the lives of artists Laing chooses to profile are not exactly brimming with happiness and cheer. Wojnarowicz’s life in particular seems so brutal that it’s amazing he survived long enough to make art. Her chapters on his life and the AIDS crisis the most heartbreaking and poignant part of the book. Darger’s life is largely unknown (although Laing gets access to his diary), but his paintings are so deeply disturbing that one can’t help but imagine something awful either in his circumstances or his personality.

As I read on, I could see what the NPR reviewer was getting at. As one goes through these lonely lies, one forgets what ties all these biographical pieces together except for a certain oppressive aesthetic. Everything is dull and gray. Humans cannot connect and instead, live in mental glass cubes with no exits.

Laing’s own struggles with loneliness are there as well, but what I didn’t expect to find in this book were her observations about her own gender, that she felt ‘more like a boy, a gay boy’, or perhaps a gender that was somewhere in the center of the spectrum. It always fascinates me how people come to realize that they are perhaps trans, since it happened to me so late in life. I did not expect this piece, but in hindsight it is relevant to the topic because of its connection to being an outsider, feeling not fitting into into neat boxes, and possibly feeling guilty as a result.

I don’t think I had a deeper insight into loneliness after finishing this book, but I discovered lives of artists about whom I did not particularly care before, and found them fascinating. I barely knew who Wojnarowicz was (there was a biography of his a couple of years ago that briefly crossed my vision, but I did not pick it up), and I did not really care about Warhol despite having a print of his art in my room, left behind by some previous tenant. I rediscovered Peter Hujar, whose ‘Orgasmic Man’ photo is on the cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The Lonely City is definitely a book that made my life richer and gave me a lot of new reading paths.

 

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Readings: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

When I was writing a draft of this post, it started with ‘I just listened to the new David Bowie, and it might have broken my mind.’ This was on Sunday morning. Then he died and broke everything in my body, mind, and soul. I rarely mourn famous people. I see announcements, ponder about mortality for a second, and move on with my life. This one was different. I’ve been playing his music non-stop for the past ten hours. I’ve seen all the tributes, I’ve read all the tweets. I’ve drunk all the wine. I might form some coherent longer thoughts about it later, but not right now. The last time I remember being this sad was when I was thirteen, and Freddie Mercury was dead.

I leave this with the most appropriate tweet from Monday morning:

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And also this short story by Neil Gaiman.

Let us move on, since we have to.

51CnHfrWXnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have finished The Census-Taker by China Miéville, and did not particularly like it. I appreciated the style, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s as if the entire book were chiseled out of a gray stone, with gray town, gray people, and gray things happening in it. Perhaps it’s the almost complete absence of names (but no, that can’t be it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation did not have names either), perhaps it’s the length. I always find novellas awkward. They spread out past short story length, but feel half-formed, like dough that has risen but not baked. I might not be able to articulate precisely why I didn’t have fun reading it, but the verdict remains that this was definitely not my favorite Miéville. He has another book out later this year (The Last Days of New Paris), so we will see how I fare with that one. As I mentioned before, my favorite writers are those who are hit or miss with me, because that means they are trying different things. I love Miéville’s writing, and I will definitely continue reading his books.

And now I am off to work on my secret thing.

Art, meanderings, and briefly on reading

With the new year, we have been plunged into a semblance of winter, with winds and 32 degree-weather. Nevertheless, I braved the outdoors and not only went and saw the Wonder exhibit at the renovated Renwick Gallery, but also meandered down to the Mall, specifically to the Lincoln Memorial and environs.

I have a soft spot for Renwick because the first exhibit I saw there when I just got to DC was an incredibly well-done and heartbreaking exhibition of arts and crafts from the Japanese-American internment camps. So I’m glad it got renovated and is open for business once again.

The Wonder exhibit is worth seeing if you are in DC. Nearly everyone I know in this town seems to have gone and seen it. Of course, seeing is never enough, and everyone also took photos of it and posted them on Instagram. Despite being an old cranky man, I am actually not against this particular practice, but this hive mind behavior was quite amusing. Or at least it was amusing until I stepped into the museum and was immediately assimilated into the art spam Borg. It’s really hard not to succumb to the photo/social media pressure since you are encouraged to do this in every room. It is a striking exhibit that lives up to its name.

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Art spam, condensed into one image

For some inexplicable reason, I was then drawn farther south, to various memorials via a lovely pond filled with Canadian geese. The same weather that brought icy winds also brought us ridiculously gorgeous sky.

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I then paid a brief visit to Lincoln (overrun with brave frozen tourists) and even walked around the Tidal Basin to Jefferson (not overrun because it’s kind of out of the way and it’s not enclosed like Lincoln and therefore drafty).

I grew up in a country full of war memorials, and yet only few of them were as affecting as the Korean War Memorial on the Mall. I think it’s something about the steel figures. They are quite eerie and make one uneasy.  Or it might be that I am simply older and thus more affected by war memorials.

None of this has anything to do with reading, apart from the fact that I had books in my bag while running around the Mall. Aiming to break down gender stereotypes wherever I go, one of them was a romance novel (Say Yes To The Marquess by Tessa Dare) and another a Star Wars novel (Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn). Incidentally, if you are a dude and you are wary of romance novels, read this delightful article by Sunil Patel. And then go read some romance novels.

I promise that next post will have more to do with reading. I’ll tell you about some short fiction I’ve been reading for the past week.

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.

Making (good) art

In a hopefully successful attempt to start writing and drawing again, I have instituted a self-imposed Arts & Wine hour (or two or three, as the mood strikes). The rules are exactly as stated in the name: I get some wine and do some arts. Arts is a pretty loose term and might include drawing, writing, or occasionally reading about arts and how to do them.

IMG_0122I’ve been reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook, which is a wonderful memoir. You might or might not like her sculptures, but the book is definitely worth reading. It’s about art as work, and hard work at that, about art as part of life, and how peculiar it is to produce art:

But I do know that when I put a pencil on paper I feel that between the point and the paper there is a coming into being from a live source within myself.

My current favorite quote comes from Daybook:

I began to see how my life had made itself as I was living it, how naturally and inevitably I had become an artist.

I find this feeling of inevitability oddly soothing. It’s as if you arrive at a certain point in life, and suddenly everything that has happened up until that moment makes sense. This resonates with me as a trans person, as I remember telling my mother that my life finally made sense in an attempt to defend my identity and decision to transition.

Daybook also surprised me with Truitt’s writing about gender and femininity. It is not so much about what it means to be a woman or a man, but an attempt to capture the intrinsic feeling of gender that is not common in writing by cis people:

My first recollection of being a girl is sunny […] In my memory I seem to know that my being a little girl enhanced the whole exchange. By this time I had somehow absorbed the knowledge that my body was like my mother’s, that I would grow into that form, distinct from the form of my father.[…]

My implicit femininity was in all these aspects but was more than any of them, as the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. The essence remains ephemeral but distinct. I still feel it, recognize it. I am without it when I am alone if I make the effort to think very clearly; if I do not, it tinctures my thinking. I have learned to take it into consideration, in a sense to guard against it as a blurring factor, to try to remember that my sex is secondary to me, I separate from it. 

The Arts and Wine hour so far produced: at least three blog posts, two published and one in queue, a submitted short story (this alone makes it all worth it, right there), and a drawing that I think is going to be a present. This led to me realizing two things: a) I’m really good at starting short stories and then never finishing them and b) I find drawing both therapeutic and at the same time paradoxically painful and emotionally exhausting.

What I’ve been reading: the comics edition 

Not too much time to write and read this week, as we are in full National Book Festival mode, but there’s always time for comics! I’ve mentioned a few in my previous post about depression/dysphoria reading (a friend of mine called this using books ‘as defense against dark arts’), but I don’t just read comics when I’m in the dumps. I read them… a lot. This year, it might have been most of the time (or it might mean I’m in the dumps most of the time, huh).

So here’s what I’ve been reading:

Couv_aama_14mm.inddAama series by Frederik Peeters.

It is beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Well, perhaps ‘terrifying’ is not quite the right word. It looks as if it’s from another time and another place. To me, it feels like some remnant of 1970s-80s European pop culture that has been living in my subconscious and is now coming into view. It’s like watching some disturbing family movie you vaguely remember seeing as a child. It might be all the bizarre alien flora and fauna in it, or might be the colors and the way Peeters does faces.

If you’re around DC in September (read: if you’re coming to SPX), Peeters is going to talk about the series at Politics & Prose at Busboys & Poets Brookland on September 17th. I’m quite curious to meet the man whose mind produced these books.

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The most beautiful magazine cover you’ve ever seen

Island magazine

Brandon Graham started it with Emma Ríos and a few other people (here’s an interview with them). It is so pretty. The second issue has a cover by Ríos, and it’s so beautiful I would have spent my money even if it were blank. Reading and subscribing to a comics magazine gives me a strange nostalgic feeling, like I’m in Japan and it’s Shonen Jump. Not that I ever read Shonen Jump on any regular basis. In fact, I don’t remember ever being subscribed to a comics mag. It’s nostalgia for something that never happened.

By a completely unplanned coincidence, Brandon Graham is also going to be at Fantom Comics on September 18th. They have a few other people coming, it’s going to be amazing.

Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido 

Damn my weird phobia of talking animals. I avoided Blacksad forever, and it was my loss. I honestly didn’t expect a comic involving talking human/animal hybrids give me a commentary on race, offer a great noir reading experience, and feature some of the best art I’ve seen. It’s a must, required, all that jazz.