transgender

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.

Advertisements

Readings: They

It was stupidly busy here last week, what with a giant book fair, on the day of which I worked 15 and a half hours, an experience I’m not eager to repeat again any time soon.

Aftermath of said fair is still felt and being dealt with, so today is my only day till Thanksgiving that can be used for art-related pursuits. My goal is to write a bunch of stuff and then go to the Book Riot Read Harder book group. I’ve already had an altercation with a rogue can lid this morning and am now learning to live life temporarily left-handed, which did not prevent me from polishing one of the stories that got rejected in one place, but will be submitted to another, specifically to this. If you are a trans writer writing spec fiction, take a look, the deadline is December 1st.

Incidentally, Sigur Rós is excellent writing music.

But let’s move on to recent readings, specifically They by Sue Ellen Thompson. It wasn’t really on my radar until someone mentioned that the poet’s child was trans, and that a lot of poems in this book were about the poet dealing with her child’s identity.

I did not go into this hoping to like it or not, but the definite verdict is that I could not like it and in fact rather hated it. To me, the entire collection sounded like a long list of complaints by my own mother who denied and fought against my coming out for months (and in a sense, still does, but more passively). I hated the ‘daughter’-ing in the first part of the book, appalled and appalling turns of phrase like ‘what she’d become’. If I were to play a drinking game with this book, I would be drunk halfway through if I took a sip every time the word ‘daughter’ came up. Daughter. Daughter. DAUGHTER. It is an innocent and touching word, but I know how it can grate. How it can hurt.

The writing seemed whiny and pouty and self-absorbed. It gets increasingly hysterical as the collection goes on, the final part simply a litany of wrongs and ills:

uncertain what to call her

when speaking to my friends

(still with her business, really?).

The only time Thompson calls her child by the correct pronoun seems to be in the title (at some point it is mentioned that they/them are the preferred pronouns).

And finally, the problem I have with They is that Thompson, while describing her own reactions, is really telling her child’s story, making the collection feel offended and offensive, dismissive and erasing. It’s all bewilderment and bitterness at the fact that her child did not turn out the way she wished. I just hope that perhaps writing this collection was therapeutic, and she will finally be able to let go and let be.

 

And stylistically? Most of it reads like one poem, with the same rhythm, same turns of phrase, same same same.

After this disappointing poetry read, I am attempting to tackle my now ridiculously large ARC pile and see if there are any good things in there. How it has grown is beyond me, since I barely had a chance to look at galleys at work this week. Oh, and I finished Molly Crabapple’s memoir (once again, when?), so maybe I will write about that.

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.

IMG_1231

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).

IMG_0738

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.

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.