Gender Landmines: Trans Masculinities, Femininities, and Binaries: A Review of Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon’s Gender Failure

9781551525372_GenderFailureI’ve been putting off writing a review of Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon’s collaborative book Gender Failure since I read an advanced reading copy back in March.  This is despite the fact that I had two type-written pages of notes that I’d made as I was reading the book.  The thing is, this book started off on the wrong foot with me, and I was never able to quite shake it.

Let’s go back a step: Gender Failure is an adaptation of Ivan and Rae’s extremely successful performance tour of the same name.  The book really carries over the multi-media aspect of the performance and is genre-bustingly awesome.  It’s interspersed with handwritten song lyrics, photographs, illustrations.  I especially love the dress-up cut-out doll of Ivan!  It’s no coincidence that gender and genre are only one letter off, and this book refuses to play by the rules of either.

Gender Failure is comprised of alternating essays/stories by Ivan and Rae, both of whom are talented writers, although I prefer Ivan’s more experienced and laid-back prose.  I did really enjoy the stories of Rae’s journeys through small-town Canada and unexpected kindness and prejudice, and new friends, and meeting a trans kid whose parents bring him to Rae’s show in Prince George.  Maybe it’s that Rae is better on the stage than in writing and Ivan is equally good in both mediums.   For example, this was one of my favourite lines by Ivan: “I had already spent years feeling like I was perched with one foot on a trans-shaped rowboat and the other foot resting on a butch dock, balancing myself and my language and words and work in the space between them.”

Some of this shit is hard to read about, like Ivan being harassed in the bathroom and people excusing it as ‘concern for women’s safety’ without any thought that Ivan also has the right to safely use a public washroom.  Both Rae and Ivan describe being intruded on and asked ridiculous invasive questions about their body and ‘the status’ of certain parts.  Some of this stuff is micro-aggressions and some of it is full-blown aggression.  Gender Failure is a passionate plea not for acceptance or tolerance, but for justice and respect.  Defending the right to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, Ivan writes “language changes and evolves to reflect the culture of those using it, and some people wish to be referred to by the pronoun they…  That is really all the reason needed.”

rae ivan

via lemonhound.com

This book is by no means a Trans 101, and is clearly written to speak to people like Ivan and Rae.  It’s not that I don’t think Gender Failure has a lot to teach straight and/or cis people, but it’s not written with them in mind, which is pretty wonderful.  This also means that the book doesn’t shy away from complexities and contradictions.  It addresses, for example, the ways in which transphobia affected Rae in a way it didn’t Ivan because Ivan continued to use female pronouns, which meant continuing acceptance in queer women’s communities, while Rae adopted ‘he.’  Rae also describes the lack of acceptance by trans guys who prioritized medically transitioning.  Erg, why can’t we all just support each other?  It was also fascinating to hear Rae talk about being confused and having an initially negative reaction to the pronoun ‘they,’ which is the pronoun they now use.  The idea of ‘earning pronouns,’ and having to convince people of your gender is something Ivan and Rae accuse both mainstream cis and trans discourses of sustaining.

Ivan also critiques the medicalized system of gender dysphoria while struggling to be ‘trans enough’ to be able to have their top surgery financially covered.  Ironically, Ivan had a terrible time finding a psychologist who could neutrally assess whether they were ‘trans enough’ to be funded, because most of them had read Ivan’s work as part of their training to be able to make such assessments about trans people.  Trans enough to teach people about trans issues but maybe not to get their surgery funded?   That is fucked up indeed.  I also loved one chapter by Ivan which was called “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” The answer, the shortest chapter in the book, is: “Yes.  Of course I still do.”

genderfailuredanger1

via genderfailures.wordpress.com

Notwithstanding everything I’ve just said, there was something that spoiled this book for me.  It was in the introduction, actually, and it really coloured the rest of my reading, despite how much I tried to leave it behind.  I want to make it clear that I’m making these criticisms with a lot of respect for both these artists.  In fact, I wouldn’t take the time to write this if I didn’t.

In Rae Spoon’s intro, they describe themselves as a “gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine) person.”  This immediately rubbed me the wrong way and I had to sit and think about why for a long time.  Obviously, Spoon has full rights to identify their gender however they want and to use the pronoun they, that goes without saying.  I mean, I hate that I even have to write that, because it sounds patronizing.  But to refuse to admit they fall onto the trans masculine scale—as someone who identifies as trans, was female assigned at birth (FAAB), and has a relatively masculine gender presentation—just doesn’t feel right to me.

In particular, this disavowal of the trans masculine fails to acknowledge the privilege trans masculine folks have in contrast to trans feminine folks.  This is something I’ve learnt from reading trans women writers, and it’s something that runs rampant in lesbian/queer women’s communities in particular.  It’s not within someone’s right to self-identify to deny gender-based privilege where it exists, particularly in queer men’s and women’s communities where the privilege of masculinity—even of the trans variety—often goes unchecked.  Rae does specify that they benefit from privilege “especially in queer communities,” which I appreciate.  But they don’t address the fact that their very terms of identification—“gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine)”—erase and conflate the very real power imbalance between trans male/masculine and trans female/feminine people.

Rae later addresses the point of gender-neutrality again when discussing fashion.  I’m pretty skeptical of the idea that anything, let alone fashion, can ever really be gender-neutral or androgynous, to be honest.  The concept of androgyny has historically and repeatedly been masculine despite claims of gender balance—I’ve done a lot of research on it, as it’s something I wrote my Master’s thesis on.  And frankly, Rae’s gender presentation still reads as masculine to me and so falls right into this pattern of masculinity disguised as androgyny.  In the same way that ‘he’ was and still is used as a universal pronoun that supposedly encompasses both he and she, the concept of androgyny has been used to present the illusion of gender-neutrality while it continues to privilege masculinity and maleness.

via straight.com

via straight.com

I want to respect that Rae doesn’t identify as masculine but what else are you supposed to call the outfits of pants, dress shirts, ties, and jackets that Rae is wearing in the (beautiful) illustration on the cover and elsewhere in the book?  I’m wary of any effort to claim that you fall nowhere on the gender spectrum, which Rae does in declaring their “retirement from gender”—the thing is, everyone falls somewhere in comparison to other people and to ignore that fact is suspicious.  I’m having a really hard time reconciling wanting to respect Rae and feeling like they are avoiding admitting their privilege.  The fact is, genderqueer and gender-neutral are often shorthand for FAAB and masculine gender presentation, and it’s unfair of Rae not to acknowledge that.  The frequently seen term “women and trans” does the same thing, assuming that someone can’t be both trans and a woman, effectively making this statement mean “FAAB.”

In contrast to Rae, Ivan explicitly and repeatedly includes material about trans women and I appreciate how that helps counteract the dominance of trans masculinities.  Actually, twice early on in the book Ivan addresses transmisogyny and the privilege of people on the trans masculine spectrum.  The chapter about trans remembrance day and Ivan’s efforts to celebrate and not only mourn trans women’s lives is especially moving.  Ivan writes: “I will work to never forget my living trans sisters.  I will speak their names aloud , too, and then get to work.  Work to earn the word ‘brother.’”  Ivan thus acknowledges that the work of undoing and unlearning trans masculine privilege is a work in process.   This chapter may or may not have made me cry while I was reading this book on the bus.  You have to ask this question though: why aren’t more trans women like Ivan’s friend Rosie, who is lovingly described in an essay dedicated to her, telling their own stories? 

Rae’s interrogations of gender binaries similarly irked me.  They focus a lot on “rejecting the sexist requirements of the gender binary.”  This just sounds so holier than thou and naïve.  Just because you fit into the gender binary doesn’t mean your gender is sexist; it sounds a bit like someone’s just read a bunch of gender theory.  It also sounds dismissive of femininity.  I understand that Rae is coming from a place of being really hurt and let down and delegitimized by the gender binary, because they don’t identify in it, and have had troubles fitting into both the female box they were assigned in and the trans male one they chose to identify with for a while.  But just because Rae has been forced by heteronormative and mainstream trans narratives to identify within the gender binary doesn’t mean there is something inherently wrong with identifying in it and that trans and cis feminine women’s identities are inherently sexist.  That’s unfair and, frankly, unfeminist.  It also rankles me because it’s almost always masculine folks who are celebrating the demise of the binary and accusing feminine people—especially trans women—of enforcing it.  Bisexuals get this all the time too, as if the terms gay and lesbian don’t also reference firm ideas of man and woman.  These accusations against trans women, femininity, and non-monosexuals are not coincidences in a transmisogynist, sexist, biphobic world!  (For more on this, I suggest Julia Serano’s Excluded). 

Was anyone else bothered by the way that Rae’s writing interacts with the concepts of gender binarism and trans femininity and masculinity?

I’m at a loss: in some ways I really loved this book and in some ways it made me angry.

Posted in Alberta, Butch, Canadian, Graphic, Ivan E. Coyote, Montreal, Queer, Rural, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Masculine, Vancouver | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Now in Gorgeous Print Version!: A Review of Plenitude’s Fourth Issue

Plenitude-Issue-4-cover-for-webThe fourth issue of Plenitude is both a little new and what I’ve come to expect from this high-quality, diverse collection of writing by queer people.  What’s new, you ask?  Plenitude now comes in a print version!  I was so excited to get mine in the mail, and then get to parade it around on BC ferries while I was reading it.  Look everyone, at this awesome queer literary magazine!  Did you know it’s your queer literary magazine?  There’s just something about having a text in tangible, print form that just doesn’t compare to electronic versions.  Fine, call me a luddite if you want to.

So, what about that what-I’ve-come-to-expect part?  Let’s have a look!

Caitlin Crawshaw, via lifesalberta.com

Caitlin Crawshaw, via lifesalberta.com

The first story that really caught my attention was a cute bisexual first kiss story by Edmonton-based Caitlin Crawshaw.  There were a few phrases that really captured the difficulty of not fitting into the homonormative narrative of identity, like “I am trapped in that awkward space between the breeders and the queers.”  Having just finished Shiri Eisner’s book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, this first made me think: embrace the contradictory, radical in-betweenness that is being bi!  Then I remembered that being in that position can be isolating, scary, and just plain shitty.  Anyway, more on those bi topics some other time.

Crawshaw’s character trying to look back and locate that so-called authentic queerness really resonated for me too:

People often look to childhood for an explanation.  But in mine, I see none.  Pink was my favourite colour; lacy little-girl dresses with ribbon and flowers made my little-girl knees weak.  I was a stereotype of a middle-class, blond-haired girl.  I was a talking doll.  For the record, I hated sports.  … At five, the rules were lost to me.  At twenty-three, I’m still unsure what team I’m playing for.

Vancouver-based poet Rachel Rose’s poem “Flood” was a pleasure to read, especially these gorgeous, sexy (also bisexual!) Sappho-inspired last lines:

Why let husbands come between us

when your hair, bright as saffron, fills my hands?

You were so stone

I flooded

Faye Guenther, via twitter.com

Faye Guenther, via twitter.com

An important, really well-written story that was hard to read at times was Faye Guenther’s “Opened Fire,” about a woman who served with the Canadian army in Afghanistan and has come back with PTSD.  Carmen’s current life, having returned to small-town Ontario with not much to do to keep herself busy, is interspersed with flashbacks to some really awful shit in Afghanistan.  There’s a romance in this story too, although it’s dwarfed by the other issues in the story.  Also, the woman Carmen meets has some of her own stuff to deal with:

Aurora had noticed Carmen earlier, the slight hunch of her shoulders and her upper body boxed tightly like a wound-up spring as if she were getting ready to throw a punch.  Lately, the days had been sliding by for Aurora, long but hardly memorable.  She felt like she’d fallen into their flat rhythm, losing track of herself along the way.  Suddenly here was this woman whose wary presence threw everything back into relief.  There was something dishevelled, too, in this stranger, something submerged.

Nat Marshik’s “First Poem for my Mother” is a really beautiful tribute that appealed to my nerdy interest in linguistics and language:

My mother’s world crackles with facts.

The smallest things salt themselves into words that twist

On the tongue, words that walk

On the legs of dead languages.  She revels

In the shape of a sound and its memories

Of ancient mouths, how history is woven

Through prefixes or pulled through

The narrow opening of a vowel.  She knows life

Can dance all winter inside a crocus bulb.

She keeps a dictionary by her elbow at dinner.

Amal Rana’s “Insisting on Socks” (okay too bad about the title) was otherwise a moving poem investigating racism in the immigration system:

knowing you might be deported

knowing we might never again

fight over fried chicken, the last aloo paratha

knowing you were about to leave my arms

perhaps for the last time

you suddenly mentioned you forgot to wear socks

and remembered that in prison floors are always cold

I offered you mine but didn’t insist

I didn’t insist

I should have insisted

Amal Rana, via loveinshallah.com

Amal Rana, via loveinshallah.com

I often find it difficult to talk about why I enjoy certain poems and not others, and these two were no exception, but there you go.  I liked them.  Check them out.

Oh yeah, and a shout-out to Shawn Syms’s story, which contains this awesome sentence about a gay guy in the 90s thinking about a butch lesbian: “Erik was actually a bit aroused by her macho looks, but wasn’t sure if it was politically correct to admit this.”  This made me laugh out loud!  I also appreciated how this story tackled biphobia by describing a lesbian organization that would rather hire a gay guy to do media coverage for them than a woman who “was booted out once it became known she also slept with men.”

These are just some snippets from the latest Plenitude issue.  You can get your copy (print and digital!) here.

Posted in Andrea Routley, Anthology, Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, Gay, Lesbian, Non-Canadian, Poetry, Postcolonial, Queer, Short Stories, Victoria | 3 Comments

The Best Erotica I’ve Ever Read: A Review of With a Rough Tongue: Femme Writes Porn, Edited by Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly

with a rough tongueCan I just start this review by saying that With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (edited by Vancouver writers Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly) is by far THE BEST EROTICA I HAVE EVER READ.  It’s like really good sex—when it’s over you’re just like, that was awesome, I want more!!  This book has really re-instilled my faith in queer women’s erotica, which I have to say was decidedly eroded by the time I read itYou know the lesbian erotica you’re reading is bad when you find yourself bored while reading a ‘best of the best’ anthology.  Or when an anthology of supposedly erotic stories is all about romance and not sex.  There were times when I questioned whether I even liked girls while I reading some of the vapid totally not sexy stuff I picked up! So, I am seriously happy that With a Rough Tongue is out there.  And it’s chock full of Canadian writers to boot (Anna Camilleri, rp chow, Kristyn Dunnion, Sara Graefe, Suki Lee, and Sherece Taffe, to name a few in addition to the ones I talk about below).  And it’s all written by femmes! What’s not to love?

The anthology certainly lives up to its promise of “no-holds barred queer sex tales that reinvent lesbian erotica in ways that are transgressive and empowering.”  Although the classification of the writing as lesbian is odd to me, since there are multiple stories featuring trans men, one featuring a drag queen and a cis man, one featuring a cis woman and man, and at least a few of the authors identify as bi/queer and not lesbian.  While I’m on this topic, I’d like to say that it would’ve been nice if some trans women could’ve been included.  That’s my one and only criticism of this fantastic anthology.  In any case, there are seriously talented writers in here.  In particular, I enjoyed stories by: May Lui, Nalo Hopkinson, Amber Dawn, and Ducky Doolittle.

Lui’s story is quite short and there’s nothing actually extraordinary about it: a woman is sitting in her apartment alone and her lover comes in, interrupts her, and takes her.  Maybe I liked this one a lot because it charts familiar territory where my mind goes when it’s so inclined.  I also like that it’s written in an address to ‘you,’ the lover.  For example:

Suddenly you stop, drag me to my feet, and, holding me tightly, you walk me backward to the nearest wall, where you slam me hard against it, and continue your attack on my senses, your rough seduction.  You grab both my wrists, one in each hand, and hold them down by my hips against the wall, as you bite and nibble at my breasts through my bra, swirling your tongue around my nipples.

nalo hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson, via nalohopkinson.com

Nalo Hopkinson’s story is the strongest in the anthology, no question.  “Fisherman” opens with a reluctant, awkward customer sitting in the lobby of a whore house—the exact place isn’t clear, but it’s definitely somewhere in the Caribbean.  This adorable client, K.C., is especially nervous because they’re not a cis man and are only passing for a regular fisherman like the others in this town.  The sex worker Mary Anne, a smart and sexy woman, reassures the fisherman she would never turn away such an ideal customer and then casually asks “You ever fuck before?”  No, of course, is the fisherman’s answer.  Her response?  “Well doux-doux, is your lucky night tonight; you going to learn from the mistress of the house!”  This is first-time sex erotica really at its finest: it’s hot and really sexy but cute and a bit awkward at the same time.  I’ll just give you a taste of what the fisherman is in for:

She hips bucking like anything.  A strong woman this.  I had to brace myself, wrap one arm around she thigh and hold on tight.  So close in there, I close my hand up in a fist.  I pull back my hand partway, and push it in again.  Pull back, push in.  Pull back, push in.  She start to bawl ’bout don’t stop, fuck she, don’t stop.  I could do that.  I hold on to she bucking body and I fuck she.  Me, K.C.

AmberDawn_2012

Amber Dawn, via sadmag.ca

Amber Dawn’s story also features a sex worker, whose boyfriend is trans; never of them having dated someone like the other before, they’ve both been educating themselves, about trans and sex work issues respectively.   I really liked how this story was a combination of an interesting, realistic look at a relationship and some really hot sex scenes, including one at the woman’s place of work.  Kay and Owen join forces with one of Kay’s co-workers and pretend they don’t know each other:

Only Kay knows just how much she has hungered for this moment.  She opens her mouth and takes him in.  The taste of salt hits the back of her throat.  She gulps it down and take him in a bit more, his soft flesh presses against her tongue.  Her whole body begins to move as she sucks, her ass lifting a little from the floor with each thrust.  The sensation of him sliding from her mouth, then her gently sucking him in again, his wetness dribbling down her chin: all of this makes her dizzy with pleasure.

ducky doolittle

Ducky Doolittle, via yelp.com

My last favourite, “Clean Panties” by Ducky Doolittle, is just such an awesome femme twist revenge story on a panty-stealing laundromat pervert.  I almost don’t want to spoil this one by giving anything away, but I just need to share this part:

As I watched him jerking himself off, I could feel my panties getting sopping wet.  I stepped over him so that I was straddling his body.  I lifted my skirt and started to touch my clit.  My panties were dripping and I just had to cum.  But I was going to be damned if he got to cum before me, so I knelt down with a knee on either side of his head and forced my pelvis down hard on his face.  After all, he was the one who had something to lose here, he was the one who should suffer, so I felt like I didn’t need to hold back.  He should pay me for those panties, and pay me in orgasms.

So far I’ve only discussed the particular stories that turned me on.  Obviously, what turns you on is a highly subjective thing.  With a Rough Tongue also includes a clever BDSM vampire story by Elaine Miller, a dominant femme boss seducing her secretary (or being seduced??) after accidentally shooting her in the shoulder with an arrow, a knife play story, and a cunnilingus-while-driving-in-a-snowstorm piece.  Seriously, your life is not complete without this book in your collection, and probably your nightstand.

PS: am I the only one who is reminded of cats with the tongue reference in the title?  That makes me feel a bit awkward.

Posted in Amber Dawn, Anthology, BDSM, Bisexual, Butch, Canadian, Caribbean, Erotica, Fiction, Kristyn Dunnion, Lesbian, Nalo Hopkinson, Non-Canadian, Postcolonial, Queer, Sex Work, Short Stories, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine, Vancouver, Zoe Whittall | 3 Comments

Queers, Social Media, and Fiction: A Review of Friend. Follow. Text.: #storiesFromLivingOnline Edited by Shawn Syms

friend follow textHow fitting is it that I found out about the anthology Friend. Follow. Text.: #storiesFromLivingOnline on goodreads, and the editor Shawn Syms found out that I was interested in it on twitter, because I had written about it on my blog.  He kindly sent me a pdf review copy to my email.  Although this collection isn’t explicitly queer, the editor Shawn Syms is and so are quite a few of the contributors and/or their stories: Marcy Rogers, Zoe Whittall, Trevor Corkum, Megan Stielstra, K Tait Jarboe, Dorianne Emmerton, Clayton Littlewood, and Alex Leslie.

This anthology begins with the simple premise that “Technology, social media and online communication have changed the way we live our lives – and the way we write about them.”  Some of the contributors are really playing with form here (there are whole stories in text messages) whereas some are more concerned with social media in terms of content.  As with all anthologies, I had some favourites.  Let’s talk about them.

So I was SO pumped when I saw that the first story “IMHO” was by Marcy Rogers, whose micro-fictions I loved in the Zhush Redux Queer Writing Collective anthology I reviewed last year.  I was not disappointed.  In fact, I think this story was my favourite from the entire book, which runs at almost 300 pages.  Like Rogers’s pieces in Zhush Redux, “IMHO” straddles the line between humour and the grotesque. I’ll just give you a few random tastes of this story:

“The decision to kill Scott was not an impulsive one.  It had evolved over time from a feeling of irritation to the embarkation of a heroic quest.  A quest in which Jude would slay the…sometimes he wished Scott would take up drag so he could say he was off to slay the drag queen.  But while some of his best friends wore dresses, Scott himself preferred tight jeans.”

“Jude liked to imagine Scott’s jeans getting tighter and tighter until he was squeezed right out of them like ground-beef toothpaste from a tube.”

Oh my god, isn’t that the funniest and grossest and most evocative image.  What a brilliantly chilling but hilarious story. I loved it.

Shawn Syms, via shawnsyms.com

Shawn Syms, via shawnsyms.com

Okay, so neither the story “And Also Sharks” nor the author Jessica Westhead are queer as far as I know, but this was my second favourite regardless.  It’s written in this kind of voice that you get, and kinda makes you laugh, but you also feel a bit sorry for her, but you kinda see a piece of yourself in her at the same time. It’s a certain precarious tone that Westhead pulls off very well.  A woman who’s perhaps not the brightest crayon in the box is writing an online self-help guru of some sort whose website is called “Planet Janet.”  Here she is:

“Anyway, Janet, what I really want to tell you is that I really respect your opinion and what you have to say, but most of all your bravery. You are not afraid to state your opinions, even when some people put comments like Kate P. did last week, though in a very small way I have to say I agree a little bit with what she put about your post that talked about adding a dash of joy to your daily routine, which is not so easy for everyone although you made it sound easy.”

This story actually made me laugh out loud, but it also made me cringe—like, uh, should I be laughing at this woman?

Zoe Whittall: photo by Kourosh Keshiri.

Zoe Whittall: photo by Kourosh Keshiri.

Zoe Whittall’s story “This Just Isn’t Working Out” is classic epistolary fiction about the end of a relationship with a twist: it’s told through a series of one-sided emails rather than letters.  These emails cleverly reveal not only a lot about the writer but also the friend she is writing to.  You see, the woman writing clearly admires her friend, but it doesn’t appear that the admiration is equal on both sides.  The email writer is fed up with her boyfriend, and her job, and her life, and envies her friend who got out of wherever she is and is in Toronto.  So she’s decided she’s going to join her friend who, from her point of view, is a free glamorous young woman living it up in the big city.  From the outside though, you can tell that things aren’t as great and hopeful as she thinks they are.  A ways into the conversation, for example, she writes:

“Dear Katie,

Thanks for letting me stay for at least a little while. I totally understand that it’s not a great time for me to move in. I get it. Maybe I can get a place in your building? And don’t worry, you know how clean I am. I won’t leave a trace! We can run your lines together. I can help you with your costumes. Really, I can’t wait to just sit still in a café and watch people. I used to love doing that when I went to U of T.”

Ouch, don’t you just feel embarrassed for her?

Trevor Corkum’s exceptional story begins at the end—this is very interesting to me as it seems really like the form of social media, facebook in particular: reading the most recent news first, then skimming back to read the first part of the story.  “5’9, 135, 6 c br bl” is heartbreaking and about a young gay guy who tells us:

“I’ve had other dates like this. You can’t really call them dates, but I do, because if I didn’t then I would have no dates, no real dates I mean, where a dude picks you up in a car or on the back of his Yamaha motorbike and brings you to a funky restaurant and foots the whole bill and tells you how great you look, how wonderful you are, even how your small insecurities are attractive, your tiny compulsions are charming, even the truly minor ones, and how much he wishes he could meet someone just like you to move into his fancy mansion in West Vancouver and be his monogamous boyfriend and live together quietly forever and ever.”

“So Much Fun” by Megan Strielstra was an unexpectedly queer story for me, about three best girl(friends) out on the town for the night, taking photos and instagraming.  I really liked how this story kind of peeled away the photos to see what was really happening behind them.  I often feel like photos on social media are more like a curtain to hide behind than anything else.  I think I can’t quite say more about this story without giving anything away, but it was a fascinating and dark look at the messy lines between love and friendship.  It also features two bisexual characters.

Dorianne Emmerton

Dorianne Emmerton via 10x10photographyproject.com

So, finally, there’s a story by the other writer in Zhush Redux that I really liked: Dorianne Emmerton.  Her story, “A Series of Tubes,” is about a woman who goes trolling on message boards to relieve school stress.  This was my favourite sentence: “The Internet was like high school, Marika thought, then corrected herself: life was like high school.”  Online, Marika finds, oddly enough, a cyber girl crush even though she thinks of herself as straight.  But a real-life crush on a boy interrupts her cyber reality, and the story takes a turn that honestly totally shocked me.  It did not end at all like I thought it was going to.  I’m still not really sure what to think of this story, but it has definitely stuck with me. (NB: trigger warning for sexual assault).

Some other standout contributions to Friend. Follow. Text. include “Status Update” by Sarah Yei-Mei Tsiang, which is about the stories behind status updates and beautifully written; Alex Leslie’s story about Justin Bieber but not Bieber (which is originally published in her short story collection that came out in 2012); and Heather Birrell’s story about an online forum for expectant mothers that takes an interesting turn: the women end up talking about abortion.

I highly encourage picking up this book! I loved it so much I didn’t even mind reading it on the computer, which I normally hate but in this case, I guess, was oddly fitting.

Posted in Anthology, Asian, Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, Gay, Lesbian, Non-Canadian, Queer, Short Stories, Toronto, Vancouver, Zoe Whittall | Tagged | 2 Comments

“To Let Yourself Want Something”: A Review of Natalie Meisner’s Double Pregnant

double pregnantBeware, if you pick up Double Pregnant: Two Lesbian Moms Make a Family by Natalie Meisner and you’re at all at the stage in your life where you’re beginning to feel the baby fever.  I spent a good portion of the time reading this book thinking “Oh my god, my eggs are running out!!!”  That said, Nova Scotia native Natalie Meisner and her wife Viviën’s story is ultimately a happy and successful one, despite their fairly late start in the baby game, so it’s an encouraging read in that way.  Just, you know, be forewarned about the possible ovary pangs.

Meisner’s writing is somewhere between unadorned and ornate, which I really enjoyed.  She does a great job setting the scene for some of the crazy adventures she and Viviën end up going on in the pursuit of a known sperm donor.  (Because Viviën is a woman of colour who was adopted into a white family, it’s really important for them to find a donor who can have a relationship with their kids, so they forgo the anonymous sperm option).  For instance, after another unsuccessful “date” with a potential donor, Meisner writes: “I … felt like the only strike-out at some bizarre reproductive Sadie Hawkins dance.” Overall, the experience is punctuated with “moment[s] where truth just shoulders fiction aside and dashes over the finish line of life’s race toward the bizarre.”

The joyful, hopeful writing about their discussions about and wishes for their future children was my favourite part of the book, I think.  Like this:

natalie meisner

Natalie Meisner, via thereflector.ca

“We have discussions late into the night about how we can best navigate these uncharted waters. On the one hand our discussions are practical: What friend can we turn to for a favour such as this? And dreamy on the other hand: We’ll teach them three languages, they’ll have two passports and the world will be their international oyster. We picture ourselves courtside at all their games. As basketball players ourselves, we take it as an article of faith that our children will want to play too. We’ll try to open the world up for them but also allow them to make their own mistakes. We’ll teach them the value of hard work, of kindness, and the importance of the social contract.”

Later, after she’s actually pregnant, Meisner writes to her unborn child, reflecting on her writing practice: “How could I have ever thought that to write you have to lock yourself away from all that is organic? You can’t. Now, I know that you can’t, and any attempt to sequester yourself from the world is both fruitless and misguided. This is the very stuff of feeling and of books. The very stuff of life itself.”

I also loved this beautiful and simple line about Viviën: “Suffice it to say that the first time she looked at me my future began remaking itself around her. I knew I could never let her go.”

Things get a little less hopeful as the journey to find a donor continues.  It was a window into a strange world that I hadn’t really thought much about, to be honest.  How bizarre to meeting with these strange men you find on sperm donation websites (they have those??) for these kind of date-like things where after small talk you get right to asking someone to ejaculate in a sterile cup for you.  As you can imagine, some of the men offering their “services” aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that eventually both women get pregnant at the same time, which actually doesn’t end up being as crazy as it sounds (you know, relatively speaking).  Meisner has this to say about the exquisite vulnerability of pregnancy:

“To let yourself want something. No … someone. To really want someone … leaves you absolutely no idea of how to keep going with your life if they are not in it, and it is terrifying. It’s like admitting you are in love without knowing if you’re loved in return.”

double pregnant family

Pretty fucking cute family, right? via calgaryherald.com

 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I don’t get to read a lot about the east coast, and I was particularly pumped to discover Meisner is from a small town on the south shore of Nova Scotia, an area I’ve spent a bunch of time in because my ex is from there.  I could really picture their old rickety house by the ocean!  Everything I’ve said so far notwithstanding, I do have a bone to pick with this book.  It’s unfortunately something that coloured a lot of the rest of the book for me after reading that section.

So, at one point the women are being referred to a maternity doctor, and they’re kind of hoping this doctor might be a lesbian.  After meeting her and seeing that she’s wearing some kind of ballet flats with little bows on them, Meisner makes a short comment to the effect of “no lesbian would ever wear those shoes.”  As a queer feminine woman, I was super offended by this supposed off-hand remark.  Actually, it was the fact that it was supposed to be a funny, flippant comment that really bothered me.  This is exactly the kind of insidious sexist and anti-feminine shit that made me feel like I couldn’t be feminine when I came out.   Like, I couldn’t be the kind of woman I already was and also be queer.  There are plenty of lesbians and bisexual women who would wear those kind of shoes—THEY’RE CALLED FEMMES.  Duh.  I don’t know why I even have to point this out.  And saying it’s supposed to be funny and that someone who says something like that doesn’t really mean it is no excuse.

We as communities of queer women really need to work on the fact that femininity doesn’t read as queer and how incredibly fucked up and misognynist it is that our communities are so masculine-centric.  I hate to end this review on such a negative note for an otherwise lovely book, but this issue is too close to home and has had too many really hurtful consequences on my life not to highlight it. Thoughts about this, anyone else?

Posted in Alberta, Black, Butch, Lesbian, Non-Fiction, Queer, Rural | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A Magical, Tantalizing Recreation of Historical Space for Queer Black Women: A Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads

the salt roadsMy first thought after beginning to read The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson was “Why did it take me so long to read this book?  It’s SO AWESOME.”

My second thought: “Holy crap, there’s lesbian sex twice in the first fifteen pages—why doesn’t the blurb for this book make it clear that’s it’s queer?”

Uh, let’s back track a little.  I’ve read Caribbean-born and raised, current Torontonian Hopkinson’s first and most recent books and enjoyed both, but I really loved The Salt Roads.  It’s an ambitious, wide-reaching novel that is at once historical, spiritual, magical, and fantastical.  I love the kind of historical fiction that reimagines and brings women from the past alive and into the spotlight, and Hopkinson does this so well, but she also refuses to stay within the bounds of realist historical fiction.  There’s a dash of Caribbean voodoo, fourth century Christian pilgrimages, and smoky visions emerging out of a pot of surprising liquids.   It’s a tantalizing, fabulous mix and a moving recreation and celebration of black women’s voices and spaces, with a lot of attention to shadism throughout.

Another thing I loved about The Salt Roads was that it follows three very different women, in different times and places.  The first woman we meet is Mer, who is a loving but hard woman and a doctor, midwife, and plantation slave in (probably?) mid 18th century Saint Domingue (Haiti).  (The novel never tells us exactly when, but an historical figure, a rebellious one-armed man who escaped his plantation in 1751 is one of the slaves who lives on the same farm as Mer).  Mer’s snarky voice is the first thing you see when you open the book.  She’s examining a pregnant woman and she mutters “It went in white, but it will come out mulatto in a few months’ time, yes?”

Mer is one of the oldest slaves on the plantation, having been there twelve years, and serves as a kind of mother figure and spiritual leader.  At one point she thinks: “So hard to be the one asking for aid instead of giving it.”  This pretty much epitomizes this calloused, strong woman who is both terrified of and intrigued by the plots of rebellion and the possibility of living outside the system of slavery.  Her closest support is another woman, Tipingee, with whom she was “sisters before Tipingee’s blood came; wives to each other after, even when they had had husbands.”  There are atrocities in Mer’s world, of course; but Hopkinson focuses on the community and individual loves and desires, creating a queer, black, feminist revisioning of the narrative of slavery in the Caribbean.

nalo hopkinson 2Mer’s is the most explicit struggle for freedom, but both of the other main characters are searching for this as well.  The second character Hopkinson introduces us to is Jeanne Duval, a biracial woman originally from Haiti who is living in Paris.  I was thrilled to find out that Jeanne is a real historical person!  She was actually a long-term lover and muse of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire.  I love this kind of historical writing, giving voices to women who have been overshadowed by the famous men that they were connected with. Oh yeah, and she’s also queer, and the first scene we meet her in has her in bed with another dancer/entertainer, Lisette.

A tiny pulse from Lisette’s thigh beat under my ear: stroke, stroke, stroke.  I contemplated the thick red bush of her jigger, so close to my face.  I breathed her scent in deep.  ‘You smell…’ I said.

‘I smell of cunt,’ she laughed, making my head shake as her body shook. ‘And spit, and that honey dust you wear.  And I have your face powder all over my skin.’  She raised up on one elbow.  I hung on to her uppermost thigh for purchase.  Oh, so warm, so fair, her skin!  She said nothing, just reached a hand to me.  I felt a tug along my scalp.  She was stroking the length of my hair, spread out so all along her legs. ‘Beautiful,’ she breathed.  ‘My beautiful Jeanne.’

Just so you know, it gets more explicit after that, but you’ll have to pick the book up to find out how exactly.  Jeanne is also looking for freedom: economic, sexual, and artistic. Her opportunities as a black woman in 1840s Paris are severely limited, and although her real love is Lisette, it’s not really practically viable for them to be together.  She turns to Baudelaire, with whom she has, to put it mildly, a very interesting relationship.  There’s all sorts of class and racial issues going on with them, and Baudelaire is kind of a typical self-involved poet jack-ass, although he does love Jeanne in his own way.  It’s fascinating to watch Jeanne navigate the intricacies of her emotional, sexual, and financial relationship with him and to pursue her own desires and dignities while working with her narrow options.

The third woman, who isn’t introduced until much later in the novel, is also an historical figure: Saint Mary of Egypt.  She goes by Thais in the novel, and is a sex worker like in Christian accounts of her, although not in the derogatory, oh it’s so terrible how she enjoys sex way that those writings frame her life.  In fact, in Hopkinson’s re-telling she was sold into prostitution and slavery as a girl, and is working towards her freedom when she decides to take a trip to Jerusalem on a whim with her gay fellow prostitute Judah.  The man (who later is also deemed a saint) who discovers her and declares her to be holy is portrayed as a crackpot who sees something in her that is not there, and Thais and Judah leave him unceremoniously in the desert, going in search of food (even though she’s supposedly fasting).

Connecting these women and others, is Elizi, a spirit who flows free sometimes and possesses human bodies at others.  When the bold type appears in the novel, you know you’ve encountered her (and perhaps other goddesses).  These parts of the book are surreal, brief interposes between the more straightforward narratives of the three women.

I feel like I’m failing to adequately describe this encompassing, rich, beautiful novel.  Just go read it, people.

Posted in Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Nalo Hopkinson, Postcolonial, Queer, Sex Work, Toronto | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Reclaiming Bodies, Writing The Self: A Review of Portable Homes, Collected by Lexie Bean

Cover artwork by Shelby Ziesing, Tails Williams, Thomas Anyel Irving, and Steven James Ploe (via autostraddle.com)

Cover artwork by Shelby Ziesing, (via autostraddle.com)

Portable Homes, collected by Lexie Bean, is quite unlike any other book I’ve read.  Like a lot of other collections showcasing the work of different writers, there were some whose writing I liked a lot, and others that didn’t really do much for me.  That’s kind of standard for anthologies; the thing is, what’s really interesting is that I’m not sure it’s really the point that some of these pieces didn’t do anything for me; the letters in this book are the kind of writing that is less for readers than it is for the writers themselves.

That’s because Portable Homes is a collection of letters by survivors of domestic abuse to different parts of their bodies.  It’s a powerful way for these people to reclaim their bodies.  You can check out this great interview on Autostraddle with editor Lexie Bean and her co-organizers Lisa Neumann and Caroline Mills, where they talk about the history of the “Attention: People With Body Parts” multi-media project. In that interview, Bean specifies that their definition of domestic violence is this: “domestic violence is violence within a place that should feel close and safe.”  She also specifies that

Within Portable Homes there were a lot of queer people, which is great. It was mostly people who identify as women, but not fully, which is really important to make space for both male and trans communities who have experienced violence, because it goes in all directions.

Another big community that’s represented in the book is low-income communities, which is people who have limited access to resources that are tangible and physical, which really makes this project feel resonant within places where that’s a big issue of accessibility because the goal is finding a safe space within our bodies and other people, and within spaces where you can’t go to a transition home.

I noticed both of these things when I was reading this book, and it was something I really appreciated.  Not only are queer women included, Portable Homes also addresses queer women as the perpetrators of violence, which is an important topic that’s not much talked about.  If you’d like to read more about this, I highly recommend Leah Horlick’s article on Autostraddle: “This Happens: Sexual Assault Between Queer Women.”  Queer men survivors are included in Portable Homes as well.

Lexie Bean

Lexie Bean (via thefeministwire.com)

God, some of these letters are heartbreaking to read.  Some are full of self-love, but others are ambivalent about the body parts they write to.  For example, one woman wishes for bigger breasts, so she can feel more like an adult, distanced from the body she remembers that was abused.  Another woman comes up with a powerful, strange image, and says she was convinced that her belly button was a breathing hole for a future baby.  Hers was one of my favourite letters.  Here it is in full:

Dear Belly Button,

At seven years old, I was convinced that you were the breathing hole for my future baby. I was too afraid to cover you, afraid to hide my future baby’s mouth—afraid that she would feel stuck like my wrists under the blue sheets on that night our stepfather uncovered you.

I wanted you to be able to breathe, to spit out the words that his wet tongue whispered into you like a wishing well. To spit out the bones, the tongue, the cheek; your story is anything but tongue and cheek. You are real; you tether me to four generations of women whose wishes echoed into someone else’s mouth. You remind me of my future baby: the one that knows that his words, his hurt, are not a secret.

Breathe slowly; I will never cover your mouth. My lifelines and un-brushed hair, my beautiful wrists and crisscrossed toes have all heard the news through your wavering breath.

But you survived.

Breathe slowly,

Stay with me

With love,

I imagine that writing these letters were cathartic and healing to the writers, but I would caution readers that a lot of the material in Portable Homes could be triggering, especially as many of the pieces are quite explicit; that said, I’ve never experienced sexual assault so I imagine folks who have might experience this collection quite differently than I did. Above all, keep this sage advice from the introduction in mind:

Do not be afraid to put this book down. Do not be afraid to pick this book up.

This book is not heavy, but a release for those who have survived.

The project is ongoing, and you can check it out and submit your own letter here: http://attnpeoplewithbodyparts.org/   You can also check out their facebook page for up-to-date info on workshops, tours (including in Canada), and past and future projects.

Posted in Anthology, Graphic, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments