OUT IN THE UNION, by Miriam Frank, traces the intersections between the gay rights movement and the labor movement in America. The history is drawn largely from interviews with queer labor activists, and Frank quotes them at length throughout the book, giving her work the feeling of an oral history, ethnography or series of case studies. She provides contextualizing information, but OUT IN THE UNION largely defers to the activists who pushed their movements forward. As such, the book is deeply personal and specific rather than comprehensive. This is not a book that provides a dry and complete overview of queer-labor activism, but instead is a love letter to the victories and efforts of the people who lived that activism.
The book opens with the story of a trans man in a steelworkers’ union at the turn of the twentieth century. From there, the book leaps forward to cover how the emergent gay rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s was embraced (or not) as the labor movement sought to reinvent itself as manufacturing jobs moved first out of pro-union states and then out of the United States altogether. The hidden histories of queer workers prior to the 1960s are sparse in the text, emerging as context or as discrete moments in the interviewees’ lives.
Prior to OUT IN THE UNION, I was familiar with Frank’s work through Pride at Work, a pamphlet my own union used to better understand how and why to organize the QUILTBAG folks in our own ranks. This was years ago, back when I saw myself as a straight ally (back before I was out to anyone, even myself). The ethos of Pride at Work continues here: this is a book about organizing. The economics of unionization are supplanted by a blow-by-blow description of how various workplaces were or were not organized into unions. Frank remains an organizer at heart, and much of the book is devoted to recounts of how labor was able to use the particularities of an emerging queer activist culture to gain new ground or make new allies. In the case studies she presents—which range from bus drivers to auto workers to AIDS crisis workers—she uses organizing terms freely. Her target audience, clearly, are queer organizers out on the front lines, which necessarily limits the accessibility and audience of the book, which I think is a shame. It may find its audience out there in the front line, but from my experience working as a labor organizer there is little time to read even relevant and potentially useful books.
Reading OUT IN THE UNION was, for me, a particularly reflective and personal experience. Like many of the interviewees, I struggled with my own sexuality as I worked as a labor organizer. Fraught memories of coming to terms with my queerness are inextricably tied to the rollercoaster highs and lows of the organizing campaigns I worked for. Two regions which feature prominently in the book are southeast Michigan and Colorado—respectively why I, myself, was a campaign organizer and where I live now. Reading this book made me miss working in unions. It made me remember how hard that work is, and how necessary. It made me reflect (in a prescient and timely way given certain conditions current in my workplace today) on my discomfort living as a queer and unorganized person in a right-to-work state. I feel vulnerable, and even more so as a gender nonconforming queer individual. I feel vulnerable, like the people Frank records, and I want to fight back like they did and still are.
Frank writes with candor, both about the successful queer-labor alliances and the unsuccessful ones. Some were unsuccessful because the old guard of union leadership—typically straight white men in the skilled labor trades—struggled with creating space for and valuing the efforts of their queer brothers and sisters. Some were unsuccessful because a common source of oppression bonds communities together; Frank cites the climate in AIDS clinics where queer management overworked and exploited queer workers, but the workers viewed straight union agents as suspicious interlopers.
Frank uses the crossover of queer activism and the labor movement as a way to begin talking about class within the queer community. She points out more than once that queer people have always existed among the working class and in unions. She points out that being queer does not prevent managers from exploiting their workers. I was glad she used this lens throughout, but I wish she had taken it further. The book reads—I believe unintentionally—as very white. A handful of the interviewed activists are people of color, but most are white queer people. Given the layers of vulnerability queer poor workers of color face, it would have been a better book if race and class had both been discussed in relation to queer workers. In the epilogue, Frank cites the need for the labor movement to utilize queer immigrant workers to help reform immigration laws, but this is posited mostly as an aside.
OUT IN THE UNION ends with an epilogue tracing how the support of unions has helped marriage equality legislation get passed in multiple states. Frank uses this as a call to arms and a call to action to increase queer-labor joint activism. And while I appreciate that, I wish she had gone further. Marriage is not the only economic issue facing queer workers. Trans* workers are extremely vulnerable, often fired and rarely hired. I am, admittedly, less impressed or enthralled by the marriage equality movement, especially given that the fight has played out in legislative venues rather than in the workplace or on the streets. But, then again, most labor fights these days play out that way.
Kelly Thompson’s THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING is a strange little book. Slim and quick, the book follows a pair of young women who stumble upon ancestral god-like powers. The pair exist as a fixed duality: Bonnie Braverman is the good one, and Lola LeFever is the bad one. The book switches between their perspectives as both grapple with their newfound abilities.
This book is one part homage to and one part send-up of superhero cliches. There are dead-parent-origin-stories and mad-cackling-at-oddly-named-henchmen. There are several explosive fights between the hero and the villain. This book has the strengths and the weaknesses of its specific genre, and for my money, it falls prey to a common issue: the villain ends up being so much more interesting than the hero that I ended up rooting for the wrong character.
I gave this book three stars, and if I’m honest, it’s because I’m splitting the difference. Bonnie’s sections were a two. I found her flat, two-dimensional. She is an example of “goodness” reading as lacking in depth or complexity. She starts at least a little interesting: when the book opens, Bonnie is a silent seventeen year old living in a group home. She’s been in the system since she was six, when both her parents died in a car crash which she instinctively knows is somehow related to her shocking strength and speed. She stops speaking. She becomes a ghost in her own life, and then the power grows and pushes her to intervene, to protect the people around her. And then she . . . gets a boyfriend. And starts speaking. And works a quirky bookstore job and makes a quirky bookstore friend and becomes less and less interesting with each page. The fact that she spent literal years in silence is not addressed. The feelings of displacement and uncertainty she seems to feel from being an orphan and ward of the state clear up right quick. It is possible to write an extremely good character who is also very compelling and idiosyncratic (see Atticus Finch or Minerva McGonagall) but Bonnie is not that character.
Standing in sharp contrast is Lola. Her story opens with a carefully plotted matricide. Her voice is immediately funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and the clumsy-witty sharpness of it does not let up once in the book. Her sections were a pleasure to read. The entire book is written in a stream-of-consciousness-lite first person-present tense, but Lola’s sections held much more immediacy and urgency than Bonnie’s did. Even as she falls prey to standard villain killers—madness, a moment of misplaced mercy, hubris—her voice remains distinct and arresting.
Honestly, though, what drew me so much more towards Lola’s narrative than Bonnie’s is that Lola’s is, deep down, an abuse narrative. It’s about Lola trying to make sense out of what she is and how she was treated and why she was treated that way. Replace “superpowers” with “mental illness” and basically you’ve got my childhood (without the matricide). Lola’s story encapsulated a lot of questions I’ve spent my adult life asking myself: if my abusive parents and I share genes, but they also raised me, then what parts of me that are messed up are because it’s encoded in me and what parts are scars left over from all those years in that house? How could I possibly untangle that? Where is that fine line between compassionate acceptance of my flaws and permissive self-enabling of my destructive tendencies? If history has repeated itself for generations—my great-grandmother abused my grandmother who abused my mother who abused me—then is it even possible to break that cycle? Lola reminded me of myself at eighteen, fresh out of a crappy home life and trying to posture and swagger into a better version of myself without realizing all the posture and swagger were the worst things about me.
She is a deeply real character, finely realized, and desperately tragic. I ended up rooting for her because in real life I rooted for myself. I kept hoping Thompson would subvert the Big Trope and pull a fast one on me—I very much wanted Lola to emerge as the good one, to have a redemption, to become sane and stable. That is not what happens. Well, she gets a redemption, of sorts, but it’s a hollow one. All in all, the GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING is a standard by-the-numbers retelling of superhero tropes with one truly standout character.
I am honored to have been chosen as a contributor to Hoax #10: Embodiments. Hoax is a feminist zine that gathers a variety of voices on particular theme for each issue. Like the best zines, Hoax is brimming with candor, with truth and with the kind of personal specificities that make reading through it feel like a conversation more than anything else. The contributors of this issue interpret the theme—embodiment—through a wide range of lenses. There are discussions on transnational identities, gender identities, gender identities contextualized by transnational identities and different kinds of disabilities; there is poetry, there is a short story about a mermaid and sirens, and there is even a good recipe for vegan strawberry muffins. I’m posting my own contribution here, but with the caveat that mine may actually be the least interesting essay in the bunch. All of that is to say that you should definitely check out the zine.
The Whole, Not the Parts: Performing A Nonbinary Gender
I am a nonbinary genderqueer person. I identify as trans*. My gender is a work in progress, something that is continually evolving. I dislike thinking of myself in terms of masculinity and femininity; both concepts are too loaded, too limiting and too restrictive for me. I describe myself as nonbinary and genderqueer because I understand myself through my embodied lived experience, the breadth and reach of which cannot be so neatly mapped to the either/or nature of societally sanctioned binaristic gender categories.
The concept of embodiment is foundational to my genderqueer identity. For me, my experience of my gender and understanding of it is deeply wedded to my literal physical body. The popular rhetoric of “the mind is gender, the body is sex” doesn’t work for me. I distrust the underpinnings of mind-body dualism in that statement since that line of thought is so often used to disregard my gender as a ‘real biological thing’. If my mind and experiences are genderqueer, then the vehicle through which I have those experiences and have those thoughts itself must be genderqueer, too. This is reflected with my relationship to my body: sometimes I have a dick and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I revel in my breasts, and sometimes I hide them. The way I use my body is as flexible and fluid as my understanding of my gender, which I believe makes my physical body as genderqueer as everything else about me. I want my gender grounded in something tangible and literal; I want my gender to be something beyond just an abstraction.
Outside my chosen family and close friends, no one else sees my body the way I do. I am not physically androgynous: I am not one of those waifish elfin-faced creatures who make people wonder what I gender I was assigned when I was born like Tilda Swinton or B. Scott or Casey Legler. Androgyny is socially constructed such that those of us with unambiguous secondary sex characteristics (the presence/absence of breasts, the width of hips, the breadth of shoulders) cannot inhabit that word. Androgyny is not understood as a body that questions the binary but instead as one that is questioned because of the binary. The whole wide world out there sees B. Scott and wants to know how they were born, what’s underneath their clothes, and that’s what makes them androgynous. The whole wide world sees my body—42DD breasts, hips wide enough to have birthed a child—and presumes it knows what and who I am regardless of my decidedly androgynous internal reckoning of myself. When I leave my house, I get “she” and “ma’am”. But even if I got a “sir” or a “he” it still wouldn’t be accurate. I wouldn’t be passing as me—I am masculine but not a man. It’s alright to refer to hypothetical people as “they”, but a person standing right in front of you? In the (presumably) identifiable flesh? Then people feel compelled to categorize you, to place you in one of two boxes. So I get read as variants of woman because of the shape and quality of my physical body. The precise breed of woman I am read as varies depending on the day’s gender expression: butch woman, lesbian, hard femme woman, just plain femme woman.
This constant stream of misgendering wear on a soul. The disconnect between what I truly embody and what the world around me sees has become a persistent chip on my shoulder. I can trace some of my introversion and social anxiety right to it. One reason I avoid going to parties because I become so hyper-aware of how the party-goers are reading my body, especially the ones I don’t know. Did the host brief them on my preferred pronouns? Probably not. Is it even reasonable to think they would have done so? I don’t know. And dating. I am poly, and all of my partners date all the time. They are some real Casanovas. But me? I’ve been on a total of maybe four dates the entire time I’ve been poly, and that’s largely because I really don’t want to have to take time out of my life to meet someone new who may or may not have the decency to “get” my gender. I was on a date with a woman, and I was talking about preferred pronouns and my genderqueer identity when she interrupted me to say it sounded to her like I was just a butch feminist. Which…I am butch (sometimes) and I consider myself a feminist, but she’d missed the point by about a mile. Who wants to deal with that? So I avoid parties and dating, and really the people I end up with are those who know me first as a friend and who have respected and validated my gender identity long before things turn more than platonic.
These are illustrations of how difficult I find it to embody and communicate my genderqueerness to the outside world. These are also illustrations of how much I want to be able to do that. But the gender binary is so culturally entrenched that I have not yet found a way to do this. Even dominant narratives about trans* identities are binaristic—MTF, FTM, I was raised Y but I always knew I was X. My own gender is so fluid, so very much a living document that it is not captured by common modern American cultural gender narratives. How do you embody something that has no name?
The deceptively simple answer is that you embody it the same way men embody manhood and women embody womanhood—through manners of speech, body language, how much space you do or don’t take up, which spaces you find yourself in in the first place, and through choices in dress and grooming. Gender is performative, right? We are taught, from an excruciatingly young age, to gender the people around us. We are literally taught to look at one another’s bodies, take stock of them, and plunk them into one of two categories. People look at my body, see what the doctor who delivered me saw, and assign me as female, too. My gender is as performative as anyone else’s (and cis peoples’ gender is as performative of trans* peoples’ even if those cis people don’t see it as such). The problem is that with no name, no category, the message of my performance is so often lost on the audience.
My gender performance includes all of the standard visible and nonvisible tools. It’s about my foul mouth paired with my empathetic assurances that I’m still listening to you. It’s about the way I use my short, smallish body to carelessly take up more space than expected. And it’s also about how I get dressed in the morning. My wardrobe is typically a game of mix-and-match between traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine elements. Suspenders and pencil skirts. A carved-up men’s suit vest over a vintage dress. Button down shirt and trousers, but the trousers are bright pink, that sort of thing. I am all fauxhawked haircuts and bright red lipstick. I telegraph as queer, and I always have, largely due to what has been described to me as a “masculine presence in a feminine body” which is a combination we culturally ascribe to gay women. I feel validated, in part, that it’s so easy to read me as queer regarding my sexuality. I am visible in that sense, and living as a middle-class white person in Denver, CO means that’s not something likely to bring about physical violence. There’s a theoretical proximity of my sexual queerness to my gender queerness that makes me think that someone will eventually “get” me if they’re able to “get” that I’m pansexual. In reality, I think this is an example of the way we, as a society, increasingly conceive of sexuality as something that comes in many variations and flavors but that we conflate gender and sex and see both as fixed and categorical.
All of this is running through my head when I leave my protective bubble at home. I perform my gender quite consciously, trying to guess at what the strangers on how the street are going to perceive me. Usually I’m able to say fuck it and wear whatever feels authentic that day. But, sometimes when I’m getting dressed in the morning I’ll put on a dress. And I’ll love that dress, and I’ll look awesome in it, but I’ll sigh and pull it off again. I’ll pull on a collared shirt and a tie and skinny hipster pants instead. If I wear that dress, I find myself thinking I won’t read as queer at all. Both my gender and sexuality will be washed away. It took me some time, after I came out to my partners as genderqueer, before I started wearing skirts and dresses again.
That internal back-and-forth as made manifest in putting on and taking off that dress is a curious thing. I think about how my privileges play out in this: as a white and no longer poor FAAB nonbinary person, masculinizing my feminine form is less transgressive (and therefore less dangerous) than the same kind of act made by a MAAB trans* person of color. It’s a privilege to want my sexuality and gender understood and validated. It’s a privilege to be able to express even part of that without fear of getting the shit beat out of me. Sometimes I struggle with how to own my privilege and still feel my marginalization at the crux of my gender.
Gender can be both constricting and freeing at the same time; it has the potential to be both oppressive and revolutionary. The only way I’ve ever found to be comfortable in my own skin is by rejecting the gender binary. I see that as an inherently revolutionary act in itself. It’s all so clear to me what and who I am, but something vital always gets lost in transmission. To the cashier at the store I’m still just a muddle, a motley assortment of ‘male’ and ‘female’ that somehow do not make a whole. But it’s also true that it would mean so fucking much to me to be gendered correctly on the first try by a stranger. I think if a coworker referred to as a “they” instead of a “she” or if a cashier at the grocery store called me “mixter” instead of “miss” I would start ugly-sobbing right there. I would feel acknowledged. I would feel dignified. I would feel like I counted. I would, in a word, feel like my gender was real. My gender is real—of course it is, I live it. It’s me. But a thing can be real without it being recognized as such.
When IRON COUNCIL ends, it brings both THE SCAR and PERDIDO STREET STATION to a close with it. The third and final book in China Mieville’s Bas-Lab trilogy picks up a buried theme in the previous two installments and runs wild with it. Looking back, all three books were about history—how it’s made, how meaning is made from it, how much of what really happens goes unknown and undocumented—but IRON COUNCIL puts this theme front and center.
The eponymous Iron Council is a small society of mutinous railroad workers. Years ago, they hijacked a train bound to connect New Crobuzon and other major cities and rode it into the wilderness, laying track as they went and picking it up behind them. The Iron Councillors are anarchists, living collectively, living in rapt defiance of where they come from, and back in New Crobuzon they are a symbol of hope that sometimes the poor and downtrodden win.
IRON COUNCIL is a split narrative that follows Judah Low*, a golemist who helps create the Iron Council in the first place; Cutter, a wounded cynic whose desperate love for Judah Low drives him into the center of things; and Ori, a young radical caught up in things he doesn’t understand back in New Crobuzon.** This is a big book, full of plot. There is a war, and an uprising, and vigilante justice, and a secret spy, and a strange monk who goes missing in pieces. All of the plot gravitates around the turmoil in New Crobuzon and the role the Iron Council plays in that—both as a catalytic symbol and as a group of real people who must decide to return to the city or keep running from it.
IRON COUNCIL is a deeply political book. It seems very clear to me that Mieville’s own politics seeped through to the pages here, that there is perhaps more of him in this book than in other ones. Having been in radical politics, I recognized a lot of the underground and fringe elements: arguments about the pitch and tenor of the paper, debates on the efficacy of guerrilla actions versus collective decisions that spun around and around. And in many ways, this is Mieville’s most utopian novel, too. He takes care to paint the Iron Councillors as real people grappling with real struggles, and they are not perfect. But he writes them with such love and admiration that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the romance and potential of their lives and actions.
The book ends on a strange philosophical question: when we reify history, when we relegate it to the realm of stories and divorce it from our day-to-day reality, what purpose does it serve? Is the idea of a thing enough? Here is a quote from the last page:
Years might pass and we will tell the story of the Iron Council and how it was made, how it made itself and went, and how it came back, and is coming, is still coming.
But if the Iron Council never arrives, if it’s always a potential and never a reality, then is what it brings a false hope? What is the role of history? How should it guide us? Is it better to freeze things before they have a chance to fail with the idea that they could have succeeded rather than let it play out and deal with the trauma of a defeat? The book doesn’t answer these questions, only dredges them up. Judah, Cutter and Ori all have very different perspectives on these ideas, on the role of ideas in praxis to begin with. I have kept chewing over all these questions for weeks after I finished the book. To call IRON COUNCIL thought-provoking is an understatement.
**It is a very male-centric book. There is a secondary character, Ann-Hari, who I adored. She had all the agency I wanted Bellis Coldwine in THE SCAR to have. Ann-Hari starts as a whore, and emerges as a leader, first among the whores (with whom she organizes strikes) and then as a prominent and influential figure in the Iron Council itself. Though we meet her and know her first as a love interest of Judah’s, she quickly becomes much more than that and exists as herself outside of that relationship. The end to her story, more than anyone else’s, was deeply affecting and horrifically tragic. It’s worth reading this book for her alone, but I couldn’t help but wish she had been moved to the forefront.
China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag is a strange, fascinating, massive place. THE SCAR, the second of Mieville’s trio of Bas-Lag novels, starts the story in New Crobuzon, where PERDIDO STREET STATION took place, and then quickly moves out to explore far, exotic corners of the world. The worldbuilding, this organic exploration, represents the best part of THE SCAR.
THE SCAR takes place immediately after the events of PERDIDO STREET STATION. The fallout from PERDIDO STREET STATION sets the plot of THE SCAR in motion: the New Crobuzon militia is rounding up all of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s known associates. Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac’s, flees the city before they can get to her. She learns an arcane language and secures a place on a ship bound for Nova Esperium, a fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. She plans to lie low in the colony for a few years until the heat dies down. She is forced to run, but Bellis is certain it’s temporary.
Bellis’ plans are ruined when the Terpsichoria is taken by pirates.* The ship is boarded, the commanding officers are shot, and the ship is comandeered. The pirates steer the Terpsichoria to Armada, a legendary city of stolen ships adrift in the Swollen Ocean. The remaining crew and passengers of the Terpsichoria are absorbed into Armada’s population, given housing and jobs, but are told in no uncertain terms that they can never leave the floating city. Some, like Bellis, are horrified. But there were others on the boat who don’t mind so much. Tanner Sack, a Remade man grotesquely punished for a crime by a magical reshaping of his body, was on the ship as a prisoner sent to Nova Esperium to serve as slave labor. While the press-ganging robs Bellis of her freedom and agency, to be treated as any other citizen, to be paid for his work, gives Tanner Sack his dignity back and wins his loyalty in the process.
Armada is the real star of the book. The story is primarily told through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack, both new to the city and press-ganged, but the heart of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue and the obligations those in power have to those they are supposed to serve. Armada reads as a real place, with a real economy. It’s a parasitic city, but it’s a living, breathing place. The factions that make up Armada spar with each other, try to undercut each other, and ultimately coexist to keep the city alive. Mieville’s descriptions of the city itself, from the way comandeered ships are repurposed to become city parks and industrial areas and living quarters, to the petty rivalries between the city’s leaders, are endlessly fascinating.
Madness and greed exist in Armada, too, personified here as the Lovers, the rulers of Bellis’ district. The Lovers, a pair of scarred people whose codependence is both deeply disturbing and awe-inspiring, have conceived of an ambitious and dangerous plan which involves a sea monster, an ill-fated scientific expedition and quantum mechanics. The Lovers’ obsession horrifies and fascinates both Bellis and the reader, and ultimately endangers the city of Armada and everyone within it.
The book is well-paced and well-plotted. The worldbuilding is wonderful. The abstract concepts Mieville toys with here are interesting. But, ultimately, the book didn’t quite work. This was one of those rare books where I was totally in love with it at the start and slowly, inexorably fell out of love with it by the end. The reason was Bellis. I loved Bellis—I loved her misanthropy, her urgency, her cold, intellectualized take on the world. I loved having her as the dominant narrator. At the start of the book, Bellis was a breath of fresh air. Finally, here was a smart, remote woman lead who found her way through the narrative on her own. Truly, this felt like her story. In Bellis’ voice, Mieville exercises a degree of stylistic control rare for him. The writing was simple and smirking and evocative.
But by the end of the book, Bellis is utterly, completely stripped of agency. It was as if, over and over, Bellis had to be taught a lesson, had to be cut down to size. That Bellis turns out to have been the pawn of a half-dozen equally arrogant and willful men over the course of the book bothered me. It undermined everything I liked about Bellis, everything that was subversive about her in the first place. And, honestly, I thought Mieville was better than that. Bellis Coldwine is, more or less, the polar opposite of Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist of EMBASSYTOWN, which I loved. He writes Avice as a woman who is brilliant and decisive and who changes the fate of an entire world. She doesn’t really see herself as the driver of those changes, though she undeniably is. Bellis, on the other hand, believes herself to be doing things, making changes, and has that ripped away from her by the end of the book. That she wasn’t seems to be a thoughtless choice. Bellis is made a fool of and for no good reason. The book is still interesting and engaging, but Mieville’s misuse of her character was enough for me to realize that I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to or tried to.
*Honestly, Bellis is a case study in terrible luck.
“Encroachment” tells the story of the Osorio family, a Mayan family living in modern Guatemala, and the Mayan god Cantzicnal. Set against the struggles of a Mayan community against the development of a gold mine by foreign corporate investors, this completed 9,300 word short story weaves together the familiar and unfamiliar and interrogates the nature of faith in the modern world.
My brain is mercurial. It marvels and terrifies me in turn: sometimes it works so gloriously well, and sometimes it turns on itself with such viciousness. The same brain that writes all these novels and solves all these problems and is so taken with the world around me also saddles me with anxiety and depression and crippling migraines. I have a love/hate relationship with my brain. It is fickle and tricky.
Everything about my brain—the brilliance and the pitfalls—is inherited. I come from a long line of very smart, very tortured people on both sides of my family. Big thinkers who succumbed to alcoholism thanks to recurrent depressive episodes. Curious people trapped by bipolar disorder. Creative people who stumbled under the weight of chronic headaches. All of my immediate family members—my mother, father and sister—have or had serious mental health issues just like me. My mother and sister also get migraines. The brains in my family are for all of us a curse and a blessing. Jon, too, has his own mercurial brain. He’s brilliant and funny and insightful, but he is constantly grappling with anxiety. His anxiety, like mine, seems to stem in part from genetic influence.
I think a lot about my mercurial brain and his these days as I watch my kid develop. I get a migraine and I wonder whether twenty years from now she’ll be lying in the dark whimpering in pain herself. I get an anxiety attack or spend months surviving a fresh bout of depression, and I wonder if the same thing lies in store for her.
Recently, Jon began dating a woman who suffers truly vicious migraines—ones worse than mine by a wide margin. She told him she didn’t want kids and one reason was she didn’t want to curse them with her migraines. And I understood. When I was pregnant, I thought a lot about this, about how there was little possibility of my kid skating through life with a brain that always happened to work the right way, one which was always a friend and never a foe. Did I want to subject her to this?
Internalized ableism is sneaky like that. No one wants their kid to suffer more than they have to. No one wants their kid to suffer in the ways they themselves have suffered. Noble goals, both. I still worry for her, and I still wonder whether I was right to saddle her with my kind of mercurial brain, and at the same time I marvel at just how much ableist Kool-aid I’ve drunk in my life. The truth is that no matter what the migraines would be debilitating and the mental health issues would suck when they are at their worst. But they are made so much worse by living in an ableist society.
If everyone had free access to quality health care (mental and physical) without stigma and shame attached, if space and care were given to those suffering without judgment—if, put plainly, the world wasn’t ableist—then the disabilities I live with would be infinitely more tolerable. When we blame the brains and bodies of those who suffer instead of the society that piles on the suffering, when we say that maybe those facing life as people with disabilities shouldn’t be born, that’s a hair’s breadth away from eugenics.
This is not to say that I think Jon’s lady friend is in any way wrong in her personal decision. And, honestly, given that society is so deeply ableist I still worry. But it is to say that people with disabilities will always exist. And it is to say that I had Zadie, that she exists with her ticking-time-bomb brain, and that while I worry I don’t think I have cursed her.
I can teach her all the things I learned the hard was as a person with disabilities. I can teach her the strength to survive. I can teach her how to have spine enough to advocate for herself. I can teach her to be kind enough to herself to make space to cope. I can bring her up in a household where these things are not shameful, and hopefully that foundation will be something she carries with her. I can teach her to make peace with a mercurial brain.
In terms of writing—specifically in terms of producing new content—June was a light month. I wrote roughly 10k words, only about 2k of which was new fiction. To put that in context, I wrote nearly twice that on a new story today alone. I didn’t produce much new fiction this past month, but I did do a lot of editing. And a lot of planning. And a good amount of blogging. And that counts as writing, surely. But planning a book and drafting the prose itself are two entirely different things. Before, the planning was accompanied by a distinct terror that no matter how well planned it was this was going to be the book I would never be able to execute. The prose was going to elude me.
I only wrote about 2k of new fiction last month, and I’m ok with that. And, I have to say, I’m pretty proud of myself for being ok with that.
I’ve written before about my process, how regimented and diligent I am. I’ve written about why I’m regimented and diligent—historically, a cease in writing has been followed by a vicious plague of self-doubt. There’s been a sense in me that in terms of producing fiction I am like a shark: to stop an inexorable move forward, to stall in the slightest, spells death. There’s been an irrational fear that to halt will dry up the well. It’s like when you’re running, and you haven’t paced yourself, and you know that if you stop you’re done for. If you stop and your burning lungs and aching legs get the chance to root you that your body will refuse to run again. That fragile kinetic well of energy has dried up. Truly, you were running on fumes long before, but the admittance of that fact spells your doom. That is how writing has always felt to me.
But I only wrote 2k words last month, and here I am refreshed and back in the swing of it. I’ve had to take breaks from writing before, almost always due to circumstance: there was a dissertation to finish, or a newborn baby to nurse, or depression to survive. And there was circumstance here, too: an uptick in stress and demand at work coupled with a change in my daily routine*. The resurgence of my writing this month happened seamlessly. There was no week of despondent worry. There was no girding of the loins as I sat back down to the keyboard, convinced I had run dry. It just happened. It just worked. In short, I have learned to trust myself.
I’ve never been one to suffer imposter syndrome in general. I was among the proud few in grad school to feel like I had definitely earned my place there. But a lifetime of thinking I was not creative led me to feel like writing fiction was a fluke rather than a stable talent I was nurturing. Maybe I’ve simply been hacking away at it long enough to know it’s not going anywhere. Maybe it’s simply me getting older and more comfortable in my own skin and my own life. I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t worry that I’m going to lose it. That’s progress.
*As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to write on my commute into work since I take the bus. But recently, in part to manage the fatigue and stress of my day job lately, I’ve been bike commuting in the mornings which, while very pleasant and generally restorative, has meant that I my usual writing routine was disrupted fairly substantially.
I have been meaning to read China Mieville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION for years, now. It was the first book of Mieville’s to catch my eye, though I only vaguely knew it was supposed to be very strange and somehow involve wings. I ended up reading his later stuff first, and have only now worked my way back to this.
It is a marvelous book, but it is clearly written by a younger and not quite as sure-footed writer than the man who produced EMBASSYTOWN. It is a grand, sprawling creation. It is a giddy, horrifying, sweet, philosophical wonder of a book. And it is overwritten, clunky, confusing and oddly paced.
The story takes place in New Crobuzon, a bizarre city in the world of Bas-Lag built around the partial skeleton of a monstrously huge unknown creature. The city attracts all kinds, from a beetle-headed rebellious artist to a washout brilliant scientist to a wounded and broken refugee seeking a miracle. Mieville delights in the nastiness of the city—this is a deliriously gross book in a peculiarly poetic way.
Like most of Mieville’s work, this book is a philosophy told through narrative. His books are ultimately always more about the abstract concepts they grapple with than the characters who populate them. A main thematic focus of the book is transition and inspiration, how one begets the other over and over in a cycle. It comes up in the book in a hundred different ways. The other major theme is consciousness. The two are linked here, likely informed by Mieville’s politics: the ways in which thought and sapience transmute and transform the material world seems to have clear roots in Marxist dialectic thought.
The world of Bas-Lag is rich with sapience: there are humans, but there are also khepri and vodyanoi and garuda and wyrmen and a mention of vampirs and the horrific handlingers. That’s not even everyone. There are the Weavers: a race of multidimensional spiders whose ways of thinking are so far removed from our own as to be uninterpretable. And there is the Construct Council. Magic (here called thaumaturgy) and science bleed together to make possible the Remade: individuals whose bodies have been drastically and often grotesquely reshaped. The book is, in a word, colorful. And the plot comes to hinge on all these differences and all these paradoxes.
The plot is initially somewhat thin, but the richness and breadth of the worldbuilding is enough to hold interest. By the time the plot truly gets going the book builds momentum like nobody’s business. The last quarter of the book has some of the most urgent and affecting plot construction I’ve ever read—it’s truly shocking, and it’s deft enough to dredge up a hundred different responses page to page. The ending is haunting.
That said, the book could have been condensed. There are plot lines that go not quite far enough, that aren’t embedded gracefully enough, threads that could be pulled without damaging the richness of the tapestry Mieville weaves. This is a case of too much book: one where the focus feels occasionally spread too thin, where the hopping around from character to character can be frantic and disorienting instead suspenseful or revelatory. It’s a wonderful, lively book that is a hair too shaggy.