gender stuff

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: 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.

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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Reading my way out

I shared with him a healthy skepticism and a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Part of making this blog’s content broader means also opening it up to more personal matters. Matters like my trans-ness, my queerness, my depression, my struggle to make life more meaningful creativity-wise.

I am a trans man (if you need more info on trans people, you can start here). I am recreating my own body to fit what is in my mind. It’s a project. Sometimes I feel as if I’m sculpting a new David, chipping off marble bit by bit.

Gender dysphoria is a bitch. After being on T for 15 months now and being read (mostly) as male, it still comes out of nowhere and bites in the most unpredictable ways. The strangest things set it off. Arms, shoulders, shape of my hands, neck. Any body part is suspect.

It comes and goes, and right now it’s in the former part. I feel like I’m going nowhere, I’m angry at my facial hair, I’m angry at cis people. Even well-meaning ones. They have no idea. Books, being the general remedy for anything in my life, are what I turn to first for mental health needs.

Here’s where you expect me to give you a list of inspiring and uplifting trans memoirs. And perhaps reading these is a way to go, but mostly trans memoirs dig into my soul and make me cry. They helped me immensely in the early coming out period, and I still seek them out, but other people’s experiences with dysphoria are, oddly enough, not what I need right now.

karenmemoryWhat I need is good fantasy. This doesn’t happen often any more, since I somehow migrated to the hard sci-fi end of the pool in the past few years. Except this time I am going in the opposite direction, and so my current dealing-with-dysphoria pick is Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. Incidentally, there is a trans character in this one, accepted as such with no fuss – bonus. So far it’s greatly entertaining. I thought I was done with steampunk, but wait, apparently not. I think it’s because the book is not about goggles and divers steam-powered gadgets (there is a licensed Mad Scientists guild, though). It’s most definitely about people first. Badass women, more specifically (I know it will surprise the Sad Puppies contingent that women are people. If you have no idea who Sad Puppies are, read this pretty good summary of the Hugos kerfuffle.).

My other pieces of dysphoria/depression battle armor are comics. Here are some great ones that are out in trade: The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie; Rat Queens by Kurtis Wiebe; Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory (it appears I only read Image publications? Seems wrong somehow.).

A few other series I am reading in floppy/single issue form are:

arclight8house Arclight by Brandon Graham and Marian Churchland. I call it ‘the genderqueer Prophet‘. It has a distinct Graham feeling to it, and Churchland’s art is beautiful (read her Beast, it will blow you away). There is a goose. And if you’re in the DC area for SPX next month, Brandon Graham is going to be at Fantom Comics (my home away from bookstore) on Friday, September 18.

Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen. This remains one of the most beautiful series art-wise, mostly due to Nguyen’s use of watercolors. It’s a space opera with robots. It’s out in trade on September 9, so you can get your hands on issues 1-6 of this pretty thing at once.

Kaptara by Chip Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod. Oh Chip, your mind is a wacky place. A fabulous wacky place.

And now, The Shocking And Unforeseen Conclusion: looking at this list, what we discover is that at this time in my life I really need comics and books that fly in the face of everything Sad Puppies stand for. Books with awesome women, books with genderqueer/queer characters, books with not just white people. Isn’t it amazing that those kinds of books can also be both therapeutic and entertaining?

And if you still need some trans memoirs, here’s a couple:

Man Alive by Thomas Page Mcbee. He is a great writer. It will dig into your soul. It will make you cry.

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. She is amazing and so is her book.

And finally, a non-book item for you: Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! It’s a little known fact that I was a punk kid in my previous life.