Body Work by Melissa Febos (review), 4Columns, May 2022.
In her new book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, memoirist Melissa Febos handily recuperates the art of writing the self from some of the most common biases against it: that the memoir is a lesser form than the novel. That trauma narratives should somehow be over—we’ve had our fill. That the hard-won wisdom and revelatory insights of the genre (its “confessions”) have been plopped onto the page like raw eggs, uncooked and without seasoning or craft. That personal narrative is necessarily indulgent and narcissistic. That memoirists have gazed so hard at their navels, they’ve buried their heads in their guts.”
In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin (review), 4Columns, November 2021.
Martin’s second book, and her first published in English, translated from French by Sophie R. Lewis, In the Eye of the Wild is a slim volume of acutely personal, semi-academic nonfiction composed in lucid, compressed prose. Straddling the visceral and the cerebral, the book is at once a riveting memoir of a life-altering encounter with a wild animal and a heady exploration of borders and liminality; the self as it interacts with, and absorbs some part of, the other; and the limits of anthropology as a method of understanding all of this.
Everybody by Olivia Laing (review), 4Columns, May 2021.
Given the vast, pervasive relevance of its subject, freedom, Olivia Laing’s new book about it is appropriately big—in scope, in reach, in feeling. (It’s fairly standard in page count.) Everybody: A Book About Freedom travels buoyantly through a rich swathe of cultural history to investigate bodily freedom and its curtailments: from illness and pain to the methods we take to relieve them, from state-sanctioned violence to the freedom movements that have emerged to resist it, from gender injustice to sexual liberation. It’s a formidable undertaking, one that Laing executes savvily, her plainly diligent research synthesized in lucid, coolly urgent prose.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (review), 4Columns, January 2021.
The title of Torrey Peters’s first novel is in some ways a joke, the flippant imperative doubling as an order of events: first comes detransition, then comes baby. It’s the first of many wisecracks in this vivacious comic novel about motherhood, a book that merrily skewers straight and queer orthodoxy alike. Savvily constructed as a breakout novel, Detransition, Baby is almost certainly the most buzzed-about book in the history of transgender fiction. And it’s terrific: smart, socially generous, a pleasure, a gift.
The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (review), 4Columns, October 2020.
When her husband’s position gets transferred out of the city, Asahi—the lead character in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole—quits her dead-end job and moves with him to his hometown. Living rent-free in a house owned by her in-laws next door, Asa finds herself adjusting to a strange new reality: now without need to work (that’s lucky—there are no jobs here), she has all the time in the world. “Endless summer vacation,” she thinks. “But it didn’t feel right.” It’s the perfect setup: for a comfortable life; for a horror story.
If the Marlborough show and its scenes of grubby, hooded Klansmen were the beginning of Guston’s imagined film, the Roma paintings see the film nearing a tentative end. Neither as widely shown nor as frequently written about as their Marlborough counterparts, the smaller, late-stage hood paintings of 1971 augur a phasing out of these icons from Guston’s visual vocabulary, perhaps suggesting they had approached the limits of their capacity as ambiguous signs. Now that the spectacle of their appearance had dimmed, Guston’s uncomfortably comic troublemakers no longer made much trouble. … In Guston’s Roma works, the hoods seem incapacitated, immobilized, even grieving. In Untitled (Rome)(1971), twin hoods huddle together, the usual eye slits converted into dark pyramidal windows. These hoods appear to have blended into the architecture: concretized, they stare out mournfully, beseeching, their bodies taking on the pained pink of a Rome still reckoning with the legacy and collapse of Italian fascism just twenty-five years prior.
“Out of the Clouds” (a feature on Bruce Boone), Poetry Foundation, April 2020.
Halfway through my first phone call with the poet and scholar Bruce Boone, he almost convinces me my rampant enthusiasm for his new book is misguided, that this 400-page volume of selected works, many years in the making, is no big deal, why should anyone care? Bruce Boone Dismembered: Poems, Stories, and Essays (Nightboat Books, 2020), edited by the poet Rob Halpern, brings together four decades of Boone’s wonderfully sociable, socially engaged writing, including early poems and talks, essays, reviews, and ephemera. (A 1984 letter to Stephen King is a special treat; King didn’t reply.) The book is, if not exhaustive, certainly major. What’s it like, I ask him, to see so much of his work revived and collected in this way?
“Harry Dodge’s Giddy Exploration of Consciousness” (review), Bookforum, April 2020.
Where most autotheory centers the life of the mind, Harry Dodge’s new memoir goes a step further, taking the mind as its matter and, to some extent, its form. The book is a brain! A peripheral brain that wonders about machine intelligence, consciousness, and itself. My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thingsifts through a relentless stream of inputs, nestling experiences and ideas to discover what might magnetize what. Roaring with thinking, the text might like to rise up and reassemble itself into animate form.
“Dodie Bellamy’s Crude Genius” (longform profile), Dodie Bellamy Is On Our Mind, CCA Wattis/Semiotext(e), February 2020.
…From the giddy excesses of her first novel, The Letters of Mina Harker (1998), to the conceptual pornography of Cunt-Ups (2001) and Cunt Norton (2013), from the procedural New Age kitsch of The TV Sutras (2014), to the virtuosic range of her most recent essay collection, When the Sick Rule the World (2015), Bellamy is an endlessly inventive writer. Her formal experiments balance intellectual rigor with a queer feminist commitment to mess and play. Though hardly a genre loyalist, she’s best known for her work with the essay, which she seems to reinvent again and again. Knitting together art, ideas, and reportage in startling combinations, her prose achieves a dense and dizzying velocity. “It’s graceful and beautiful,” says peer and publisher Chris Kraus. “As I see it, Dodie Bellamy is one of the most important living American writers.”
An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado (review), 4Columns, January 2020.
An important philosopher-theorist of gender and sexual politics for more than two decades now, Preciado is also an electrifying writer: capable of packaging damning analysis, utopian vision, and flamboyant drama into one fell swoop. He also has quite a range, roving between rhetorical modes with the same itinerant impulse with which he—Spanish-born, holding graduate degrees from two US institutions, and now based in Paris—lives his life. … The book collects more than sixty charismatic essays, mostly columns written for the French progressive paper Libération between 2013 and early 2018 (his column, “Interzone,” is ongoing). In each compact piece, he mixes lyricism and polemic, personal narrative and a transfeminist biopolitical analysis to subjects as disparate as marriage equality, the migrant crisis, human-canine love, Catalan independence, birthdays, breakups, even Candy Crush. These are hot takes, Preciado style. That they each, almost without exception, achieve considerable grace and power may excuse some of the sloppier comparisons they deploy.
“Gabrielle Bellot and Megan Milks on Baldwin, Machado and Other Writers Who Made Us Bolder,” Catapult, December 2019.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (review), 4Columns, November 2019.
In her new book, and first memoir, Carmen Maria Machado blasts her own experience with an abusive intimate partner into a sparking arc of story bits. Cycling through a staggering array of modes and strategies, In the Dream House wheels in and out of fabulist, formalist, and realist registers, cultural analysis and polemic to produce a fresh and unflinching interrogation of abuse in queer relationships. The structure holding it all together is a house: the titular Dream House, its chambers built of the stuff not of dreams so much as story. The Dream House corresponds to her then-girlfriend’s Indiana home, where many of the memoir’s scenes of abuse take place. But the Dream House is also a device, the central design of the book, which is constructed of as many narrative chambers as Machado can conceive.
Socialist Realism by Trisha Low (review), Bookforum, September 2019.
Where The Compleat Purge relished in performing the delicious narcissism of the morbidly melodramatic teen girl, Low’s new book Socialist Realism is decidedly Adult. More restrained, less indulgent, and properly, legibly, nonfiction, Socialist Realism is a mostly earnest, always engrossing long essay that charts a personal quest for utopia in the form of some kind of home. If this second book is not, frankly, as fun as her first, its pleasures are of an altogether different sort. Low has traded in the no-futurism of her suicidal phantasies in favor of dreams of revolution. A quixotic, improbably sentimental work, Socialist Realism longs for a better world while celebrating the minor joys of this one. This Low is not threatening to bequeath us her Franz Ferdinand CDs; she’s committed to life, for now, and to building a something else, a something more—what might be called home.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson (review), 4Columns, May 2019.
A remarkable thing happened while I was working on this review. Diving into the Carpenters’ discography, I found myself—almost without knowing it, without agency or control, spontaneously, as if taken over by a benign but powerful force—singing. There’s something about Karen Carpenter’s voice: the crisp enunciation and warm, rounded vowels; the earnestly affected emoting, doubled, tripled, held in harmony; the audible smile and come-with-me nods. I can’t help it, I’m impelled, slipsliding through lyrics I don’t actually know but the songs are so songy, they lead me right through: we’ve only just begun, they entreat, to live. They need me, I think. Karen needs me.
In this way I’m contributing to her resuscitation, or to what Karen Tongson, in her new book Why Karen Carpenter Matters, describes as her “queer afterlives.” Since her tragic death, at age thirty-two, in 1983 from complications related to anorexia, Carpenter has been the subject of three documentaries and a cult film (Todd Haynes’s early, brilliant Superstar), at least two biographies, innumerable newspaper and magazine features. … If the subject of Tongson’s idiosyncratic and very fun book is not that Karen Carpenter matters—a given of the title—but why, it’s also where, how, and above all to whom.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (review), The Seattle Times, February 2019.
From Audre Lorde’s “The Cancer Journals” to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation,” Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” to Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams,” personal writing about illness has done a great deal to destigmatize frightening (and unfathomable) conditions. Combining self-reportage, theory, journalism and polemicism in varying measures, this body of work (much of it written by women) captures not only the derailing experience of being incomprehensibly ill but also the Byzantine medical industry that often knows less than we’d hope.
Joining this formidable corpus is Esmé Weijun Wang’s widely anticipated “The Collected Schizophrenias,” which seeks to destigmatize what is among the most fearsome of conditions. “Schizophrenia terrifies,” Wang writes in the book’s opening. “People speak of schizophrenics as though they were dead without being dead, gone in the eyes of those around them.” Wang’s use of “they” on this first page is notable; within a few pages, her diagnosis will pull her into that feared category, and the “they” will become “we.”
Novel History. An interview with Jordy Rosenberg, The New Inquiry, July 2018.
MM.— I first “met” you when you organized that Nevèrÿon virtual reading group with Dean Spade some years ago. I learned so much from that communal reading of some of Samuel R. Delany’s masterworks. I bring this up because a quote from Delany about fiction as a process of “creating a false memory with the force of history,” which you reference in your recent interviewwith Kay Gabriel, seems fitting in starting our discussion of your book. In Confessions of the Fox it seems you are doing just that, while also troubling historicity itself. Are you thinking about this book as a work of alternate history?
JR.— Madhu Dubey uses this term anachronistic fiction (as opposed to historical fiction) that I thought was really useful. She uses it to talk about Underground Railroad, for example, where pre-emancipation frames are still taking place after emancipation; she also uses it to talk about Octavia Butler’s Kindred. In particular Kindred really brings out this concept, because you’ve got the hand reaching through the wall from the 19th century to the 20th century. We’re talking about speculative historical fiction where the answer isn’t totally about some fantasy of total verisimilitude of historical particulars. But it’s more than that, it’s this speculative thing that has to do with a moment in the present touching a moment in the past. These leaps. These historical leaps and rubbings-up-against-each-other.
“The Stories Are Horrifying”: An Interview with Kristen Stone, Fanzine, August 2018.
MM: This novel is very much focused on family, on belonging (to), on inheritance, on family making as a desire, a goal, and, within a context in which children and women (especially poor and/or young and/or unmarried women) have been historically disempowered, a problem. I know you’ve been working on this for many years, while your own family has undergone many changes, indeed, as you have made, and continued to make, your family. How has the book changed and developed alongside these changes?
KS: This is such a smart and sneaky way of asking the question we (okay, I!) always want to ask, which is, how autobiographical is the text, or how close to your body. I started writing this in early 2013, the year two of my grandparents died, my paternal grandmother, who Virginia is based on, and my mom’s dad, who worked for NASA in the early days of the space program (but was otherwise nothing like Dacre.) I started writing it as a way of playing with or working out some of the family secrets that I only knew parts of, things I would never get to ask. In 2013 I wanted to start a family but didn’t know how. A person I cared deeply about moved away under distressing circumstances. I started going to church. I cried a lot. I started writing this book. When our son came to live with us in the fall of 2014, I took a long break from writing this, or anything. I felt like I was dying. But I kept coming back to it, my choppy, traumatized text.
Against Memoir by Michelle Tea (review), 4Columns, May 2018.
I used to describe Michelle Tea’s writing as intoxicating, and it was: pitched up and speedy, a whirlwind of drugs, sex, and punk poverty that seemed glamorous from the outside. It’s been illuminating seeing Tea reflect on this work from the position of sobriety in recent books. Her 2015 memoir How to Grow Up offered a lessons-learned meditation on adultish clean life, while her 2016 (and, I think, best) novel Black Wave threw a harder eye at her former self, using fiction as a cover to reckon with the effects of alcoholism—and writing—on her relationships. These twin concerns—addiction and writing—show up frequently in her new book, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms, a collection of essays and talks written over the past fifteen or so years, a period that overlaps neatly with her sobriety. In one essay she calls her autobiographical novel Valencia (2000), her most widely read book and a contemporary dyke classic, a “drunkalogue.” She started drinking “in earnest” at fifteen, she tells us elsewhere, and didn’t stop until she was thirty-two. Happily, she’s never stopped writing.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (review), Strange Horizons, April 2018.
With an Afrofuturist premise grounded in a queer neuroatypical worldview, An Unkindness of Ghosts is the post-Butler novel many of us have been waiting for. Meet Aster, a healer, sharecropper, and rebel who lives in the lower decks of the spaceship HSSMatilda. On a quest to find an apocryphal after-Earth promised land, the Matilda has journeyed for more than three hundred years with what’s left of humankind in its hull. The story begins with two related events—a series of blackouts on Matilda and the ship’s Sovereign taking ill and subsequently dying. Seeing connections between these two events and her mother’s death during another blackout twenty-five years ago, Aster begins to investigate. “I’m chasing my mother’s ghost,” she explains (p. 81).
Census by Jesse Ball (review) 4Columns, February 2018.
The writer Jesse Ball is prolific. Since his first collection of poetry appeared in 2004, he has averaged over a book a year across genres. Ball has described his novel-writing process as a kind of durational performance: he completes most of them in two- to four-week bursts. (He also authors short stories and essays.) As a slow writer, I’m dubious—and, I’ll say it, jealous—of fast writing, so it’s not without begrudgement that I concede: Ball’s novels (I haven’t read his verse) are generally very interesting. With complex structural tricks and a playful absurdist gleam, they push and pull at fiction’s very fictiveness. Census, his seventh, is more modest than his others, even occasionally a plod, yet it sustains a subtly glowing warmth.
Mean by Myriam Gurba (review), 4Columns, November 2017.
“Being mean makes us feel alive,” Myriam Gurba writes in her new book, the memoir Mean. “It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes, it keeps us alive.” Rooted in her experience growing up a queer mixed-race Chicana in a world structured by whiteness, straightness, and misogyny, Gurba’s particular meanness is confrontational, deliberate, and very, very funny. She goes for the throat, then bats the reader playfully on the head.
Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett (review), Strange Horizons, October 2017.
If its heft at nearly 450 pages is any indication, it’s not the first trans SF/F anthology due to any dearth of writing. A big book, it has the feel of arrival, this mysterious rectangular object finally crashing down from the future, or many futures. Addressing issues as various as reproductive technology, haunted adolescence, trans monstrosity, trans-trans love (and sex), and good old-fashioned coming out woes, these stories represent a spectrum of trans experience and a range of speculative genres. All are explicitly trans-centered, and all speak to a trans—or trans-literate—readership. There’s very little explaining, in other words, which leaves more room for the alien spore that’s just landed, and the hologram café.
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus (review), 4Columns, August 2017.
Chris Kraus’s first novel, I Love Dick, was published the year of Kathy Acker’s untimely death from cancer at the age of fifty. A half-generation behind Acker, Kraus shares similar aesthetic and philosophical concerns and has inherited, to a certain extent, Acker’s status as cult avant-garde female author. I Love Dick is enjoying a revival thanks to Jill Soloway’s TV adaptation, and now Kraus has written the first authorized biography of Acker. With After Kathy Acker, Kraus is “after” Acker in multiple ways, at once under her influence and in pursuit of her life and legend.
Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative, 1997-2007 (review), 4Columns, April 2017.
In their new anthology, editors Bellamy and Killian gather what they consider the first generation of New Narrative writing—though in keeping with the movement’s suspicion of linear, coherent narratives, they are quick to shrug at this marker. Formed in the late 1970s in San Francisco, New Narrative was a transgressive, queer-leaning, self- and body-obsessed literary avant-garde that took shape in part against the dominance of anti-narrative, self-evacuating Language poetry at the time. Combining the confessional with the conceptual, it experimented with the possibilities of loosely autobiographical storytelling to produce an exploded and unstable “I.” Gossipy and uninhibited, its breath is hot in your ear. It wants to tell you everything, and it wants you to overshare back.
Kindred (graphic novel adaptation) by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (review), 4Columns, January 2017.
It’s been thirty-eight years since the publication of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979), her fourth and most widely read novel. The number is significant: it’s a measure of time Butler herself used to predict major change. She set the dystopian Clay’s Ark (1984) thirty-eight years into the then-future because, her letters tell us, she felt this was long enough for the world to have changed drastically while still remaining recognizable. Kindred has now been adapted into a graphic novel by collaborative team Damian Duffy and John Jennings, bringing what Butler called her “grim fantasy” to rich visual life. Scripted and lettered by Duffy and drawn, inked, and colored by Jennings, the adaptation is mostly faithful to the original text, delivering a captivating graphic interpretation that both revivifies Kindred and introduces it to a new audience.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada (review), 4Columns, November 2016.
Few animals have captivated the world like Knut, the young polar bear rejected by his mother and raised by a human surrogate in the Berlin Zoo. Considered something of a miracle due to the improbability of his survival under these conditions, Knut quickly became a global celebrity, and in 2007, when he was not yet a year old, he landed the cover story of the German edition of Vanity Fair: a piece titled “I, Knut—A World Star from Germany.” In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, her latest book translated into English, Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada assumes a similar faux-autobiographical perspective, and imagines, with persuasive complexity, the interior lives of not only Knut, but two of his forebears. Both a novel of ideas and Knut fan fiction, Memoirs of a Polar Bear is as densely philosophical as it is deliciously absurd, and as playful as it is poignant.
Conflict Is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman (review), 4Columns, October 2016.
If you’ve read any of her other work, you’ll know Schulman to be a fiercely ethical chronicler of human experience, a novelist, playwright, and social critic as bighearted as she is fearless. Schulman writes from a humanist standpoint devoted to capital-T “Truth” and the possibility of change, and this book might be viewed as a culmination of her long, rich history of ideas thus far. In many ways extending the arguments of her earlier Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences(2009), Schulman returns to the problem of shunning, here tracing its roots to overstatements of harm supported by bad friend groups (which can include the family). Conflict Is Not Abuse constellates a range of issues—from intimate partner conflict to call-out culture to police violence and incremental genocide—to describe a cultural moment defined by escalation.
Pretty and Suffering: The Heroine of Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl. Los Angeles Review of Books, June 2014.
***Winner of an Electric Lit Critical Hit Award.
Any discussion of Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl must begin with its protagonist, Ruth. Pretty and suffering, Ruth is a young American abroad in London trembling in the cold air of a world that is one big eyeball directed at her. Ruth is unformed, “a question mark, a mystery”—even to herself. She’s a “Green Girl,” a term borrowed from Hamlet, where Polonius uses it to describe Ophelia. Green Girls are young, fresh, not fully formed. They forge ahead, clumsy and naïve, in the precarious process of becoming themselves.
Knowledge and Nostalgia at the Museum: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, JSTOR Daily, July 2017.
“There’s something nice and safe about having money,” Claudia reflects after they’ve spent all Jamie’s savings. In fact, the book is deeply obsessed with money, with most transactions carefully considered and recorded. While this obsession forges a familiar through line between New York then and now, it also provides a fascinating look back to a time when the Met was free-free, a bus ride cost 20 cents, and Sunday brunch could be enjoyed for under a dollar. Indeed, to revisit the book as an adult is to sink into nostalgia not just for a more innocent, wonder-struck youth but also for what seems like an absurdly affordable New York.
Book Club Made Me Gay, JSTOR Daily, June 2017.
When most people think about queer identity, they think about sex—or their parents (that is, whether and how to tell them). I think about book clubs. In her 1995 essay “A Different Bookworm: Coming Out, Brainy-Girl Style,” the women’s historian Bonnie J. Morris describes coming into lesbian identity as a self-proclaimed “dyke bookworm kid.” She writes, “I stumbled upon a gay studies conference before I ever entered a lesbian bar.” In my case, it wasn’t a conference but a book club. I was 26.
In Search of Duende: The Fits, Fanzine, November 2016.
The 2015 film The Fits is about movement and corporeality, about social belonging, about yearning to be absorbed into a girl group. It’s about finding oneself in movement with others.
It’s also about sickness as a kind of art. The source of the “fits” the girls are manifesting is not the water. It’s not a “boyfriend disease.” It’s art, and you get it from your friends.
Itchy Occupations: Toward a Parasitic Mode of Writing, New Theory, June 2016.
An agent of imposition and occupation, the parasite may also be an agent of intersubjectivity, allyship, symbiosis: potentially. More often, the relationship is nonmutual, one-directional, nonconsensual, nonethical. The parasite takes more than it gives. The parasite is a dangerous subject, Anna Watkins Fisher writes in her analysis of artist Roisin Byrne’s performative parasitism. It does not necessarily work toward something…it just works…
Open Channels: On Fan Fiction as an Affective Technology, The New Inquiry, July 2015.
In fan fiction, the fan’s affective excess finds form in a proliferation of narratives drawn more or less closely from a popular text, mixing its recognizable feel with analysis through strategic modifications to readymade, familiar worlds and characters. The source text functions as a scaffold for invention of all kinds.
Through these kinds of inventions—or fantasies—fan fiction “reorients” a source text… In these terms fan fiction is not (or not only) a genre but a practice—an affective technology that “feels out” a text to find (often hidden or subtextual) emotions and desires. It announces a relationship to a source text that is infatuated, made dizzy, and vulnerable to betrayal. From this vulnerability, fanfiction seizes the objects of its affections and confronts them to express and/or repair the hurt.
CONVERSATIONS / INTERVIEWS
“Tim Jones-Yelvington: On the Joys of Melodrama” (interview), Lambda Literary, February 2017.
MM: Many of the stories in This Is a Dance Movie! take up the subject position of adolescents coming into queer sexuality. In our panel at this past AWP, you addressed some anxieties about writing about teens as an adult who works with youth. What compels you to write adolescence/adolescents, and how do you negotiate those anxieties?
TJY: … I think that a lot of queer people have a distinct relationship with youth and adolescence, because we may not be viewed by the dominant culture as fully adult (especially if we party past our prime, or don’t have kids, or stable employment, etc.), and because for many of us, adolescence was a really formative time, like the location of some defining trauma or awareness of “otherness.” So for me, unrequited adolescent longing seems to be a big recurring theme, and one that I think appears in several of these stories. That jittery excess of teenage feeling, I’m very very drawn to that.
Sara Jaffe: On Her New Novel ‘Dryland’ and Tapping into the Adolescent Mindset, Lambda Literary Review, September 2015.
MM: This is making me think about just how much Julie doesn’t “know” yet. She seems to exist in a kind of zone of fog—there’s a lot she doesn’t, or can’t, articulate, and she moves through her world with a hiddenness that seems quite painful—especially since it’s in part related to her queerness. (But maybe this fog, too, is potentially liberatory?) Do you see Dryland as a coming-out narrative?
SJ: In the typical coming-out narrative, I think, the protagonist has this secret (being gay/queer) and the struggle is one of whether/how to reveal. But as you said, there’s so much Julie doesn’t know, or resists knowing, even about herself. … I was thinking a lot about the relationship between experience and identity. For Julie, experience (the experience of being attracted to Alexis, of making out with her) comes before any sense not only of claiming a queer identity for herself, but of even knowing what that might possibly be. It was an intentional inversion of my own experience of identifying as queer well before getting the chance to make out with any girls!
Translating Djuna Barnes to Film: An Interview with Daviel Shy, Weird Sister, June 2015.
MM: I was so thrilled to learn you’re working on a film project related to The Ladies Almanack, which is such a weird, clever, and funnybook—and a book that hasn’t really gotten its due, I’d argue, either as a literary text or as a lesbian feminist cultural artifact. I know you’re working with other texts too (and I want to hear more about them, too) but I’m curious what drew you to work with this book in particular—and why in the medium of film?
DS: Sometime in 2012 when I was in grad school, and practicing a sort of binge researching, I ordered it from another library. Once I read it I just kept on renewing it. I couldn’t put it away. I read this before Barnes’ other work. I think I was led to it because I was looking for examples of lesbian property while writing about Rosa Bonheur, and I was captivated by the house Natalie Barney built with Romaine Brooks. Looking more into these two, I found the Almanack.
MM: Many of your poems seem vintage, if not ghostly, possessing a multilayered temporality that arrives via voice and diction as well as scenario and character. How would you describe your own relationship to history, and/or to time more generally?
GA: I have so many dreams about time travel, usually traveling back in time and finding myself shopping and being boggled by how everything I’d usually (in my waking life) identify as “old” is now just a regular brand new thing, marveling at the fact that I get to see/buy all these things cheaply, and they’re everywhere, they’re the norm, they’re not decaying and torn, just new & probably boring to everyone else; these are day-clothes, not glamour gowns.
“On Slash Fiction, Queerness, and Innovative/Conceptual Writing,” Entropy, November 2014. Featuring contributions from Tim Jones-Yelvington, Byron Campbell, Alex Kalamaroff, Michael du Plessis, and myself.
For this month’s Sunday conversation, a number of us converged to consider the teeming terrain of slash fiction. Over the space of a week, we managed to tackle slash as an appropriative art form and a site of queerness; we thought a bit about ethics and zones of permissibility as they relate to slash, particularly Real Person Slash (RPS); and we considered slash as a model of influence for writing outside of slash as a genre. And there is much more left to say.
“On Trigger Warnings: A Roundtable,” Entropy, April 2014. I organized a roundtable on trigger warnings in literary spaces and the creative writing classroom on Entropy, with contributions from CAConrad, Jos Charles, Andrea Lawlor, Sarah Schulman, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, & Anna Joy Springer.
- Part I: In the Creative Writing Classroom
- Part II: Generational Tensions
- Part III: Disability and Accommodation
As the debate on trigger warnings in the academy rages across the internet, I wondered how it’s taking shape in the creative writing classroom—so I invited six writers/artists and educators to participate in a roundtable conversation via email. Over a period of about a week, our discussion of trigger warnings in the classroom expanded to confront issues related to censorship, accessibility, and generational tensions. The conversation was broad ranging and quite moving; sometimes polarized and always provocative.
I don’t think I was trying to carve out a definable identity of the anorgasmic that can be duly recognized and take its place alongside other recognized identity-groups. Forming groups as such seems to have a political reasoning, as you suggest, and I’m not sure my relationship with sexuality is political. True, culture in general sets aside the asexual if every message — about anything — is based on sexual desire and desirability. Even the weather channel has girls in sexy dresses telling us the forecast. But the same could be said about obesity, or other forms of being classically unattractive – sexual culture has to ignore them. Except, no, they are bombarded by a part of sexual culture – advertising – in that it is assumed those groups have a hunger to join the culture of the “sexy.” That’s why I am uncertain where I belong. Do I wish I were different than I am, sexually? This would mean I view my sexual identity as being inoperative or malfunctioning, rather than my sexual identity simply being different from the culturally privileged one.
Undead Poets’ Society: A Review of Kim Yideum’s Cheer Up Femme Fatale, Fanzine, May 2016.
It’s a witchy, traumatized book. At turns flippant, mordant, grieving, confrontational, Kim’s poems swing wildly, and the punches that land are both comedic, and hurt. Many are populated by grotesque objects; many operate in a Gurlesque mode. Especially in the first two sections, Kim’s poems are delivered by an unstable, polyvocal “I”, an incoherent subjectivity we might call, via the title, the femme fatale. Kim’s femme fatale is dangerously charming, languid, shockingly morbid. Her smile is a leer; her wink a nervous tic; she will not cheer up.
Blue Talk & Love by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (review), Lambda Literary Review, May 2016.
“You! What’s wrong with your body?” demands Malaya’s dance teacher in “Saturday,” one of fourteen exquisitely crafted stories in Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s debut collection. Malaya, who we’ve first met at a weight-loss support group, is eight years old, and she has missed a step. Mrs. Rhymes won’t let it go: “You got to be in your body, girl! Move your arms! Your feet!” Malaya responds by dissociating, floating through the rest of the dance, daydreaming about going to sleep and waking up “long and lean and limber–waking up “right.”
“Moving Image,” review of The Wet Archive, an exhibition of queer photography at the Chazen Museum of Art, Our Lives Magazine, July 2015: 22-23.
In opposition to the moving images of film, photography is often thought of as a static form; but, as stressed by The Wet Archive, the photographic image is volatile, subject to morphing over time. By invoking a version of the dark room, where images are in process, still emerging, the exhibition emphasized the mercurial nature of both the photograph itself and the viewer’s encounter with it.
Review of Binary Star by Sarah Gerard. The Rumpus, April 2015.
There used to be a ride at my local amusement park called Time Shaft, a rotor ride where you got spun around with increasing speed, the centrifugal force pushing you against the wall as the floor dropped out beneath you. Reading Binary Starbrought back some of that feeling of being spun into suspension. It feels dangerous and ecstatic; it feels sick.
To enter Damnation is to be absorbed in it, to yield to it, to wait patiently–if uneasily–for it to be over. Reading it, one passes into a kind of liminal state. While this is true of all immersive texts, it seems especially true of this one, given its archetypal and uncanny worldbuilding, its ability to infect the reader with its monotonous rhythm and unblinking words. While reading Damnation, I found myself relating to the doctor, who remarks of a mysterious book that has arrived in the village: “I don’t want to be alone with these words anymore.”
“Is this relationship built on trust?” Nigel Nolan asks in a caption directed at FeD, one of his “Argentine boys for sale.” The relationship in question is structured on commodity exchange: FeD’s image in exchange for a cut of the sales from it. Argentine Boys for Sale, a 500-page ebook with accompanying soundtrack by Xiu Xiu, documents a three-year-long project in which Nolan shared a home with five young men in Buenos Aires. Nolan painted and photographed these “boys,” posted their portraits to his blog, and invited visitors to sponsor them by buying their images, with the promise that ten percent of each sale would go to the subject, who would later tell the buyer how he spent the money.
“‘Yes, I Really Am This Vulnerable’: Unthinkable Creatures Has Heart.” Omnibus review of Unthinkable Creatures chapbook press. Lambda Literary, October 2013.
The first line of the first chapbook in the Unthinkable Creatures catalog declares, “THERE IS NOTHING CREEPY ABOUT HAVING FEELINGS”—a fitting entrance for a chapbook press that prizes the raw heart above all. These creatures are unthinkable not because they appear strange (although some of them, endearingly, do), but because they display open vulnerability, a position adopted by few creatures living in the world.
The second volume of The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing is a twin set: one book, two parts, bound together in opposing orientations. There is one side, and then there is an other side. As editor Davis Schneiderman informs us in both introductions, “these ‘sides’ mirror each other, except when they do not.” Craig Dworkin’s “The Cube” on one side mirrors, on the other, a cube-shaped stamp story by Alissa Nutting. Kate Durbin’s appropriative “Anna Nicole Show” corresponds with Joe Atkins’ appropriative “Boxxy Foar 4DD1@!!!!1!!” Visual poetry shows up in the same slot on both sides, Nico Vassilakis’s STARINGSmatching up with A.J. Patrick Lisziewicz’s Alphabet Man.
Short is an elegant, entrancing writer, and her second book-length collection is both devastating and uncomfortably enjoyable. China Cowboy is a loosely constructed, fluid narrative, told via prose poetry that adopts the double tone of a tragicomedy: La La taking a carnivalesque romp through a sorrowful Patsy Cline album. It moves freely between the grotesque and the surreal, and reads simultaneously like a concept album and a biopic.
The poems take an attitude toward the show that is vexingly, wonderfully ambivalent. Reality TV is at once a project of othering and a project of identification, and Kept Women performs similarly, both defamiliarizing and embracing its subjects––which, of course, are always objects, of a gaze. These poems are fascinated with fascination. If reality TV is the new anthropology, they suggest, it, too, must be an object of study.
Birds & Bees is kind of its own hype machine, organized as it is around/after/by two affectively opposed but similarly contagious pop songs: the Temptations’ “My Girl” and Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody.” These two (and possibly other?) songs form the affective technology of the poems in this chapbook, their lyrics and beats pumping through insistently even as the record/CD/MP3 skips/glitches around.
Because this book’s title so perfectly describes its contents, I’ll focus mainly on describing how fun it is. The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker by Michael du Plessis delivers total delight: the book is utterly, enchantingly frivolous and plush with provocative ideas; it’s as perkily pretend as a JonBenet portrait and as exhilarating and unpindownable as anything Acker has written.
The cover of Heroines suggests collage, and the book is just that – intensely referential, appropriating ideas, language, and history from a variety of sources. It is also a séance, a ouija board, a medium; an old film projector flooding images of modernist literary history on top of the author’s own flickering figure. Open it, and consult with ghosts
Aase Berg. Transfer Fat. Edited by Johannes Goransson. Rain Taxi 17.4 (Winter 2012): 51.
These poems are disorientation machines transferring signification, the fat, the oily excess, of language. Here words get atomized into phonemes, each sound, and its significations, reverbing into the next. Beneath their taut skin, the compressed lyrics of Transfer Fat are as swollen with new morphemes as the bubbling skin of a wet Gremlin.
“Radical Transubstantiations: The Mutation of Fortune by Erica Adams.” Montevidayo, August 2011.
The Mutation of Fortune is a collection of short tales narrated by an inquisitive, resilient young woman who experiences — and herself produces — a series of strange and fantastic encounters over the arc of the book. Many of these are violent, quite horrifying, and wonderfully grotesque
“The Birdwisher.” Anna Joy Springer. Montevidayo. November 2010.
The Birdwisher is a modest, zine-y novella, beautifully illustrated by artist Sam McWilliams. … It is a treasure. The subtitle is “a murder mystery for very old young adults,” and in her acknowledgments, Springer says she wrote the story “on top of” Dashiell Hammet’s “Dead Yellow Woman.”
Gina Frangello. Slut Lullabies. American Book Review 31.6 (September/October 2010): 18.
As in her deeply psychological first novel, My Sister’s Continent (2006), Frangello’s writing here is thick with context. Indeed, implicit in her narratives is the argument that character cannot be separated from context: from place, class, or family, from gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other kind of cultural marker.
Christine Wertheim, ed. Feminaissance. Tarpaulin Sky Reviews, October 2010.
Kate Zambreno. O Fallen Angel. Rain Taxi 15.3 (Fall 2010): 28.
“Bad Girl Criminality and American Teen Dreams,” co-written with Alicia Eler. Hyperallergic, August 2013.
In Bling Ring and Spring Breakers the adolescent characters form twinnages and girl gangs, acting as singular beings on a quest to “just be free and have fun,” to quote Selena Gomez’s character from the latter film. But what does it mean when “being free and having fun” means embodying the dangerously bored, brazenly entitled criminality of LiLo? In their quest to find themselves, these teen girls (and one boy) simultaneously accessorize and become accessories to (as well as agents of) crime — they become lethal bling. And in the case of Spring Breakers, they become a force of anarchist negativity that is both intoxicating and disturbing. In this America, the teen dream of finding yourself means losing yourself — and bad girls do it well.
“Free Tilikum or the Transfiguration of Amber Doll: Radical Passivity in Amber Hawk Swanson’s Doll Projects,” Montevidayo.com, October 2012.
With the transformation of Amber Doll into Tilikum, Swanson’s exploration of compound female subjectivity becomes an exploration of human-doll-animal intersubjectivity. Swanson figures Tilikum in the pose of the entertainer, with tail raised, greeting his spectators, with the collapsed dorsal fin characteristic of orcas in captivity; meanwhile his upward, unflinching gaze, communicates his enforced submission and his history of and potential for violence, inscribed back onto the female-gendered doll body that forms his own. Swanson as doll as Tilikum: the art object flickers with the radical passivity of these co-mingled subjects.
“Plagues and Carnivals in Delany’s ‘Plagues and Carnivals,'” Montevidayo.com, September 2011.
As part of a virtual reading group, over the past few months I’ve been working my way through Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987); we’re in the middle of discussing Flight from Nevèrÿon, which includes in it “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” an experimental novel of crisis responding to the AIDS situation in early 1980s NYC. It’s been interesting reading it in the context of recent posts by Joyelle and Johannes on plagues,plague states,and the notion of infectious poetics.
“Like I’m the Only One Who’s in Command: Xiu Xiu/Rihanna, ‘Daphny,’ and The Path,” Montevidayo.com, July 2011.
Xiu Xiu’s music has borrowed sound effects from early video game soundtracks as well as horror movies, two genres that deal in violence and death frequently and unapologetically. The game The Path has been talked about quite a lot in the past couple years in discussions of violence against women in art, so I won’t say too much here. You can read this NPR article about it. Mainly I want to address the way it deals with complicity.
“The Sluts &/vs Twin Peaks (Briefly),” Montevidayo.com, July 2011.
Similar to Laura Palmer, whom Johannes has described as “a site of excess,”The Sluts’ Brad exceeds himself and the boundaries inscribed upon him. The language used by others to describe him is emphatically inconsistent (according to the reviews, Brad has seven different heights, four different eye colors, occasionally an exstremely distinct tattoo). But Brad (if there is a “real” Brad, and this remains questionable throughout the novel), unlike Laura Palmer, is still alive (at least, until there is a question of his being alive). …“Brad” is some kind of vacuum character: just as quickly as he’s filled, he’s emptied of meaning. Or maybe more accurately, “Brad,” is some kind of internal organ (potentially the bowels).
IBTC doesn’t seem aware that it’s dragging, and moreover doesn’t forge a temporal link so much as it reinforces the purported split between past and “present”: embodying the schism between second wave lesbian feminism and third wave queer/postmodern feminism through the toxic, bed-death relationship of the two feminist icons in the film – Courtney, an older, Gloria Steinem-like pragmatic liberal feminist, and her young lover, Sadie, a radical queer anarcho-feminist and the leader of C(i)A. They break up by the end of the film: irreconcilable differences; not enough sex.
“More Temporal Drag: Peaches Is Risen,” Montevidayo.com, April 2011.
In her performance, Peaches is almost entirely deadpan, only occasionally flirting with camp — though camp is already heavily embedded in her costumes and staging choices, and of course the concept itself. If we view Peaches Christ Superstar as a kind of temporal drag, how do we read it: as revival, as anachronism, as religious drag? Peaches enacts both a resurrection and transubstantiation — embodying all the characters and voices within the original rock opera, as well as the context that received it, pulling it into the present.
“Bieber, the Stains, and the Triumph of the False Pretender,” Montevidayo.com, March 2011.
Watching the Biebz movie brought to mind another film featuring hysterical tween/teenage girls, except in this one their mania-object is herself a teenage girl. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS (1983) follows the rise and (plot spoiler!) fall of (fictional) girl punk band The Stains, whose lead singer Corinne “Third Degree” Burns (played by Diane Lane) becomes a fashion statement and feminist icon, inspiring a horde of female fan-clones. Her fans become her, mimicking their desire-object through hair and dress. Corinne (who is only fifteen, I think, maybe sixteen) becomes the site of their desire and hope: for something else, for more power, more dignity, more sexual agency; for female/feminist community.
“Black Swan, The Wrestler, Good/Bad Sexualities, and Self-Destruction as Transformation,” Montevidayo, December 2010.
I’m surprised nobody’s brought up Black Swan yet, the new Aronofsky film starring Natalie Portman as an overcontrolled frigid ballerina who must learn how to be sexual in order to make great art. … The instability with which Black Swan approaches self-destruction — at times seeming to fetishize it, at times seeming to mock it (especially at the end) — provides the tension that for me rules the film, and that does so really effectively. But the way in which Aronofsky connects self-destructive and pathologized sexuality is pretty clichéd in both Black Swan and its companion piece, The Wrestler, and both films’ protagonists are gendered in really heavy-handed ways especially with regard to their sexualities.
“So I want to Kill This [Spritz]head: Paranoia in Tori Amos, Hothead Paisan, and Reading/Writing Generally,” Montevidayo, October 2010.
Paranoia is after all a defense mechanism, a form of protection. In Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, this equation sets off the entire narrative — Hothead takes to wearing her demon (which represents her hatred and paranoia) like a coat, some kind of supernatural armor that enables her to go on the offensive and undermine heteronormativity one act of gruesome violence at a time.
“Anorexia in Temporal Drag,” Montevidayo, August 2010.
Pulling from Freeman again, this time her essay on erotohistoriography, I’ll revise her question, which is concerned with queer practices of pleasure, to suit my own interrogation: “how might [dangerous or ‘pathological’ body management practices], be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” (59) What does it mean to link historically specific pathologies via narratological temporal drag?
“Queer Utopianism and Edie Fake in Temporal Drag,” Montevidayo, August 2010.
Fake’s installation on Wednesday exposed the fuzzy boundaries between the then and the now, simultaneously undermining and reinforcing divisions between what we see as distinct “generations” of queers and queer activists.
MISCELLANEOUS OTHER WRITING