No sugarcoating Laura Jane Grace’s memoir

tranny

Today’s upsurge in fictional and nonfictional transgender narratives represents the demographic in myriad ways. Some works are intelligent, some thoughtless. Some good, some troubled. Through both the good and the bad, there is a remarkable tendency to simplify what it means to feel gender dysphoria. The syrupy, optimistic tale of a transboy’s coming out in Ellen Wittlinger’s novel Parrotfish, for example, simplifies (despite its good intentions) the messiness and mixed feelings of transitioning by co-opting the feel-good trappings of a high school romantic comedy. Even Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness, with its unflinching portrayal of family dysfunction, childhood sexual violence and poverty, deals little with the inner machinations of dysphoria. Mock, unlike many of her peers, had the certainty and the drive to transition at a young age.

These stories are important to tell, but they are disingenuously treated as representative of a whole. In fairness the art of the trans narrative is still very much in its infancy, but more works emphasizing the how no transgender experience is the same as another are needed. Arguably many narratives lack a nuanced treatment of the messiness of being transgender. Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny is one attempt to muddy the waters, to disillusion readers from the very concept of a linear coming out story.

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Slogging through narrative history in The Tunnels

I have this spectrum in my head for rating narrative histories. On one end is Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which a lot of people like but I find unreadable. This side of narrative history is saturated in flowery detail that drowns out the facts because it’s trying too hard to be like fiction. The focus is too narrow, it feels like I’m learning more about what Larson thought HH Holmes or Daniel Burnham might have been thinking on a particular day than understanding Chicago history. I don’t get an appreciation of the holistic reality of what Larson is trying to record. I just feel like he’s trying to turn history into a novel, which strikes me as disingenuous.

On the other side there is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which uses individual stories as representative of larger historical currents. It traces the migration of black Americans from southern states to the north, and uses 3 oral history accounts to narrativize the plight of these black Americans. It appeals to the reader’s pathos in a fiction-like manner, yes, but it maintains its purpose as history by not treating these individual stories in a vacuum. Wilkerson puts them into historical context, takes time to describe the cultural and social climate for these individuals and others like them. She explains Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the reasons why so many left the south and what many found when they found lives in northern cities. For every piece of micro-history, in other words, Wilkerson complements it with macro-history.

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Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #19: Zane

dark-dreams

“Resident Evil” by Zane, from Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

Bearing no resemblance to any Japanese survival-horror videogame franchise, “Resident Evil” is the opening story of the collection Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers, edited by Brandon Massey. It’s an odd choice for the first story. Understandable though that they gave Zane opening privileges, since Zane might be the most well-known of the authors featured in the book.

Oddly enough I’m not really Zane’s target demographic, but I’m still familiar with her enough to know that she is predominantly an author of erotica. And, well, it shows in this story. “Resident Evil” is about a woman who has just moved into a new apartment building and discovers that it actually houses a centuries-old vamp-man who lures attractive women into renting there, at which point he turns them into vampires and creates his own kinky undead harem.

It’s an interesting setup for a narrative, but that’s all it ends up being—a setup. Relationships are established, conflicts brought to light, the whole situation of the apartment complex basically laid out—and then it ends. There’s a sexual encounter there in the middle, but not much else. Conceptually it’s disturbing, but Zane doesn’t do anything else with the disturbing implications beyond giving the story a sort of wry dark comedy edge. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “This story was very immature, like every teen boy’s fantasy. It wasn’t horror – it was a comedy about a grown ass 500 year old MAN who still needs his MOMMA.”

Now, interestingly enough I think the story could have gone in a direction that subverted that “teen boy’s fantasy” of the vampire harem. The women in Zane’s story almost entirely make clear their dissatisfaction with their lot in, uh, after-life. The mother character especially could have gone somewhere, perhaps organizing a pained but necessary assassination of her son. But nobody ends up doing much of anything once the reader gets what the situation is. The characters develop—promisingly too, I might add—but don’t lead anywhere. There’s no moral, which isn’t necessary I guess, but more to the point there’s no arc. It’s not a story, it’s a premise.

Previous: Mixtape for the Apocalypse by Jemiah Jefferson | Next: TBA

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“admit it for eternity”

I’ve been browsing my old writing folders to get some inspiration and have found a few things that feel like they’re worth posting. The following is a poem(?) I wrote a few years ago as a result of listening to Say Anything too much and not handling not being in a relationship very well and getting fed up with the groupthink that many folks at my small liberal arts university developed.

Enjoy, I think…?

“admit it for eternity”

listen
everything is complicated and most things are beautiful
and i am neither david foster wallace nor joyce carol oates
keep these things close in mind
as i get mean, hypocritical, hyberbolic, and overly verbose

diatribe #1:
i will not endure your dry-ass pseudo-intellectual musings
about how everything is essentially dust
and about how we are nothing more than sacks of flesh
do not atomize me, lobotomize me, or tear me into theoretical shreds
i am not a participant in your bullshit ayn randian utopia
established as an excuse to avoid saying please and thank you
i do not abide by your dull, cold attachment to reason
it’s boring, it’s disgusting, you barely pass for a human being
and i don’t approve of your neurotic fucking maximalist writing style
you don’t need five hundred words to say what could be said in five
there is a finite amount of books that can be read in a lifetime
and i’m just not confident that infinite jest should be one of them
you are not as smart, busy, or important as you think you are
stop feigning superiority over people you don’t even take the time to get to know
i will not buy into this post-modern bullcrap
nothing is unknowable, history is not subjective and lost
tyler durden is the invention of a writer who tries too hard to upset people
i am in fact an individual unique goddamn snowflake
do not romanticize yourself as a misunderstood egomaniac
only use the word “byron-esque” when you’re being facetious
settle down and read some toni morrison with me, for chrissake

hear me out, okay?
try harder, do better, be nice, improve thyself
everything is complicated and most things are beautiful
and i’m too tired to be this angry

diatribe #2:
notice how none of you people ever talk about how much you like anything
how your alleged superiority over guys with clinical depression who are dicks sometimes
rests in a haze of petty scorn, unhealthy obsessions, and self-loathing
resist the urge to fetishize the things you hate by talking about them way too much
don’t dismiss someone’s emotional turmoil based upon a shallow passing judgment
nor will i wallow in put-upon cynicism and defeatist attitudes toward the patriarchy
stop recommending john green
he is a festering boil on the already-shitty face of white american culture
perpetuating bullshit teenage us-against-them mindsets and mediocre turns of phrase
i am not part of your depressing web of human longing and woe-is-me short prose pieces
knowing what the bechdel test is does not equate to being educated on gender theory
your passive aggressive self-righteousness is an egregious facade misusing legitimate social issues as a means by which to spend every moment of your life whining about how awful you think other people are
you’ve never stopped to constructively judge yourself or walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes
settle down and read some toni morrison with me, for chrissake

once again, alright?
try harder, do better, be nice, improve thyself
everything is complicated and most things are beautiful
and i’m way too tired to be this angry

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Cinemasculinity #6: Luke Cage – Shownotes

luke-cage

Script: Here.

Sources:

Unmasc’d:

  • Remedy for toxic black masculinity
  • Socially conscious superhero
  • Black masculinity as reformation story
  • Over-symbolic blackness

Further Reading:

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All sound clips are from Luke Cage. I do not claim ownership to these clips and use them for fair use purposes only.

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Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #18: Jemiah Jefferson

mixtape-for-the-apocalypse

Mixtape for the Apocalypse by Jemiah Jefferson

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

Judging by the synopsis I didn’t expect Jemiah Jefferson’s Mixtape for the Apocalypse to be an ordinary horror novel. After reading it I’m not sure if it even qualifies as horror at all. To be sure Jefferson is a horror author with her Voices of Blood series, but this work rests somewhere outside relatively limited genre boundaries.

Mixtape is, I’d say, about 20% a Catcher in the Rye journey into misanthropy and 80% lucid stress nightmare. It concerns Squire, an average Oregonian dude in his twenties, looking back on a complete mental breakdown he recently suffered which lost him just about everything—two jobs, future prospects in his career, his girlfriend, his friends, his home. The novel streams through various events in his life, going back and forth between observations he makes post-breakdown and the journal he wrote during it.

Squire’s life during the slow process of breakdown is defined by the many, many ways in which he is unsatisfied. He hates his tech support gig even though it’s his main source of income, hates how underappreciated he is at the small comics publisher he draws for, hates (albeit justifiably) his increasingly antagonistic roommates, hates how his ex looms over his love life (or lack thereof). Now, all this is bad for anything to go through, but Squire isn’t devoid of blame. In fact he’s got a lot of internal problems going against him. He’s not particularly likable from the start. Self-centered, paranoid, lazy, the dude spends most of the novel lounging around, brooding, smoking pot, getting drunk, making people who care about him suffer, being creepy and self-defeating by looking at lewd photos of his 15-year-old penpal at work and risking his jobs by not even pretending to give a shit about them. While much in his life is out of his control, all this helps the reader to recognize that he is complicit within his downward spiral. As a result we readers walk a fine line between loathing and sympathy for the character.

I think that’s the main “theme” of Mixtape—the limits of sympathy. Jefferson’s centering of a white, straight, cisgender protagonist in itself causes the reader to stretch their patience with him. But more than that, it’s about where we draw the line with self-destructive people. Whether or not those self-destructive inclinations are made by choice. This in mind, many characters do or do not choose to work with Squire best they can. Try as we might to appreciate the debilitated mental health angle of Squire’s behavior, it doesn’t excuse his unsavoriness. Even though his mental state clearly spirals out of his control, leading to blackouts and then outlandish, volatile actions, something about the way Squire moved into that state keeps us from being too squared within his corner. Squire, mental illness or not, is still self-centered, still has a victim complex. I certainly struggled with trying to feel for the character while at once being utterly repulsed by him.

At some point halfway through the novel, it takes a much darker turn. It was stressful all the while, but then Squire becomes totally broken. One passage in particular, in which Squire manically scribbles down a series of violent, angry, murderous images concerning his ex-girlfriend and a number of others who’ve wronged him, really got to me. This and other similar sequences turned him from a somewhat mopey, semi-relatable but mostly tiring dude to someone you’d report to the authorities if you could see what was going on in his head (which, with the magic of prose, we as readers pretty much can).

This is where the novel leans toward “horror”, but I still wouldn’t identify it as such. It’s almost even more horrific than anything in the horror genre just because of how realistic and subdued the majority of the novel is. Squire is an exaggerated example of how mentally exhausted and angry one can get, to be sure, but despite his general deporability I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t let life at some point or another get to them like it did him. Squire carries out or visualizes for us the actions dictated by the invasive thoughts and black moods we experience when our outlook is the bleakest. It’s a man-vs-self story, and that’s where the horror lies—no exterior threat, but the aptitude our own minds have for falling apart. And more than that, how we’re responsible for it while and after it’s broken.

Best line:

  • “DAMN IT. I forgot all about the fact that the makers of potato chips are also thwarting my every move […].”

Previous: Fledgling by Octavia Butler | Next: “Resident Evil” by Zane

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Cinemasculinity #5: Father Karras (The Exorcist) – Shownotes

the-exorcist

Sources:

Unmasc’d:

  • Submission to God is manly
  • Contrarian take on the post-Vietnam edgy virile male
  • White Science vs. Black Magic

Further Reading:

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All sound clips are from The Exorcist. I do not claim ownership to these clips and use them for fair use purposes only.

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