gender

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.

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.

Blurbs, the gritty edition! I consume Abercrombie, Sternbergh, and Hurley

half-a-kingJoe Abercrombie’s new book is marketed as YA, I hear. In Abercrombie’s world, it seems the only difference is that there isn’t as much swearing. The first 30 pages seemed ordinary enough that I was starting to worry a bit, but no, Abercrombie did not disappoint in the matter of plot twists and well, plotting. Half a King could be the perfect gateway drug to fantasy for some unsuspecting teenager. It reminded me of my first foray into fantasy with Tad Williams’s Dragonbone Chair (I’m not counting Tolkien, oddly enough, as I got into him much later), though it is definitely grittier. You will have to wait a few months for this one, as it is not out till July.

shovelreadyShovel Ready wins the award for the Largest Number of One-Word Sentences in a Novel. It might also be the only book written about a garbageman, albeit a former one. Great narrator, fun read, but I can’t say it really stayed with me. I think it’s really my current overload with dystopian settings, though I did enjoy snappy narration (and I am normally not a fan of one-word sentences and one-sentence paragraphs) and noirish elements. It would probably be quite excellent as an audio book.

I came home one night after an absolutely exhausting work week. I got some bourbon (Bulleit, if you are wondering), and looked through my books. I picked up a couple of books: one turned out to be too depressing, another one turned out to be a lackluster version of something I had read years ago. Then I realized I’ve had God’s War sitting on my shelf ever since it came out, and I never got around to reading it.

godswarIn short: guys, it is not perfect, but it is complex and smart. It has kick-ass women. Oh, and everything runs on bugs. This includes all tech. Which makes certain kind of sense: there are a lot of insects, why not use them to produce fuel, or to heal (we are starting a bit smaller, see here about bacteria that can repair its own radiation damage). The book is also an interesting mix of both sci-fi (tech) and fantasy (people who have affinity for manipulating bugs are called magicians). Besides the world-building, what makes God’s War an example of great speculative fiction is its hard look at gender, religion, and the necessity (or lack thereof) of war.