Category Archives: books

Radical Reading: We Were Witches

Image result for we were witchesI was a little startled by how much I related to Ariel Gore’s new novel, We Were Witches, out now from The Feminist Press. Deeply embedded in Gore’s experience with young motherhood, I thought I might like the story but expected to distance myself from it given the femininity of the topic. But this tale is deliciously queer in both form and function, and speaks to emotions I’ve certainly felt but found difficult to name.

In accessible language and with a playful narrative framework, Gore leaves the experience of shame cut open and dripping blood onto the page. But at the same time, she reminds us that only living things bleed, and reshapes that shame into resistance. “What does shame require to stay alive?” she asks. “What is the antidote to shame?”

Blending a personal journey with political questions, this story reminds us that even white women are not served by White Feminism, and the narrative complicates any nostalgia towards 90s feminism. Gore’s story reminds us that women can also be brutal and that whiteness can be a prerequisite for mainstream feminist protest, that seeking protection for a child can mean forced re-insertion into a heteropatriarchal structure even where the patriarch didn’t ask for it. Ariel in the story experiences both deeply personal, specific pains and the weight of oppressing systems that defy happy endings and leave some questions unanswered. This is a book about shame and magic, violence and motherhood. It’s not (entirely) a true story, but it plays with the question of what is true.

Disclosure: The publisher provided an Advanced Reading Copy of this book for review.

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Radical Reading: Dirty River

Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.

cover of Dirty River, drawing of a brown femme with a flower in her hair, leaning on a cane next to train tracks with industrial buildings in the background and a river flowing from themOne of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.

Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home. 

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A Radically Queer Gift Guide: Gifts for Queer Readers

While I’m not exactly a great big fan of capitalist gift-obtaining sprees, I’m pretty excited to finally have a year where I remember to post a Radically Queer Gift Guide. Why? Well, I do enjoy putting my money where my mouth is, and so many of the gifts I’ll suggest in these series come from creators and businesses I’m proud to support. Others may be from larger companies, so of course spend at your own discretion, but I am guilty as the next person of sometimes falling prey to the lure of big-box geekery.

For the first post in this series, the focus is on books, always my favorite gift to give and receive. I’m featuring some favorites both old and new that will appeal to radicals, queers, activists, and anyone on your list who appreciates a bit of mind-opening in paperback form.

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Radical Reading: Gaysia

gaysia coverWhen I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures.  I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.

Avory Faucette: Though your style is accessible and reflects your journalistic background, I also wasn’t surprised to find that you have a PhD, since you raise a lot of important questions that I’ve seen in the recent scholarly literature around queer identity in Asia. What kind of research did you do in preparing for your travels? Were you at all influenced by academic research in deciding what topics to investigate in the countries you visited?

Benjamin Law: To be honest, the volume of academic writing on queer identities, culture and communities is so enormous, I had to back away from it and remind myself I was writing something pretty different – a work of adventure journalism. At the same time, a lot of academics were so enlightening and crucial in my understanding of how other cultures framed queer identity, especially Dr Peter Jackson. But most of my background reading was other journalism, actually. For prep, I’d try to email or call every expert in the field, in the country I was going to. And then when I’d arrive in, say, Myanmar, I’d have a meal with them, pick their brains, and ask for more recommendations of interesting stories, or people I should chat to. Most of the contacts I encountered were people I met on the ground.

AF: What was your biggest surprise in terms of how the people you met see their own identities or present themselves?

BL: I guess the biggest surprise was that nearly every preconception or expectation was completely dismantled by the time I left a country. For instance, as an outsider, you go to Bali assuming every male sex worker is living a life of rank exploitation and poverty, when a lot of them are middle-class guys with other jobs, but see sex work as a respectful way of supplementing their income. I’ll never forget when one money boy said, “Of course I’d ask for money after sex – I’m young and handsome, and no one should get this for free.” In a way, I sort of got where he was coming from! And then there are the stories I assumed would be happy, like the ladyboy beauty pageants in Thailand, where transsexual women get a lot of media attention and sponsorship deals if they win. But of course, as I quickly discovered, Thailand isn’t exactly this promised land for transsexual women. In some respects, their laws overlook transsexual women so much, that ladyboys are treated even worse there than countries were transsexual people are less visible.

AF: Were you surprised by how some of your subjects saw you as a journalist? I was struck, for example, by a story where someone perceived you as white, and your decisions in certain contexts not to reveal yourself as queer. Did you find that your own identity shifted significantly in the eyes of those you met as you went from country to country?

BL: Oh absolutely. My first rule was never to lie – I’m openly gay myself, but I’m not going to go out of my way to discuss my sex life with a religious zealot who believes homosexuality can be cured by the power of Christ, or Allah, or yoga, or whatever. But then, to get access to other openly gay men, I’d bring up my boyfriend back home, just to let them know they were in a safe space. Being a Chinese guy ethnically, but an Australian person in terms of citizenship, was interesting – some people saw me as outsider, and others saw me as someone they trusted more quickly, because I had a familiar face.

AF: Finally, I was particularly interested given my own research into how some Asian cultures classify gender and sexuality in how you described kathoey people in Thailand. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to get any sense from English-language literature of whether kathoeys and other gender categories (hijras in India, fa’afine in Samoa, etc) are really a distinct category in the given culture or just another understanding of what white Westerners would call trans women. Your explanation seems to suggest that ladyboys are basically trans women and that the idea of kathoey has died out. Do you think that in Thailand, or in other queer cultures you researched, gender and sexuality are mostly understood as separate categories with a Western model of transgender identity, or do you think there’s a fundamentally different understanding of gender (or how gender and sexuality relate) in these cultures compared to in the US or Australia? You described some fairly complex understandings of identity categories in a few of the countries you visited, and I found myself wondering to what extent they might affect a general cultural understanding of gender (as opposed to something very much internal to queer subcultures).

BL: Every culture has different vernacular for what’s often similar things. But then in some places, like Myanmar/Burma, the language is really specific, because the gender and sexual identies are so super-specific and don’t have an exact parallel – apwint, abone and thange, for instance. I mean, I think it’s really interesting that the West uses the acronym LGBTIQ, whereas in many other cultures, those alliances aren’t seen as inevitable or natural, necessarily. Gay Burmese men would probably have little or no understanding, concept or care-factor about lesbians, and one country that might subsidise sex change operations because transsexuality is seen as an illness, might also stone homosexuals to death.

Thanks to Benjamin for generously answering my questions about the book and to Cleis for the review copy!

 

 

Taking a Literary White People Break: First Ten #50POCBooks

After a somewhat abortive start when I realized I just wasn’t reading anything at all, I re-started a plan to just not read white authors for the next fifty books I read starting in March. The only exception to the rule is for books I’m reading for review: otherwise, I thought it would be a good idea to take a break from white people for a while. Let’s face it; our ideas are pretty easy to come by. If you’d like to do a similar thing, tag your posts or Tweets with #50POCBooks so we can share recs with each other.

The first ten books I read, not really by any plan, included nine books by women, and all the books were by black authors/contributors. Five of the authors/contributors were some flavor of queer. Some of the books I started with were classics I’ve been meaning to read for a million years, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Tar Baby. I also finally read my first bell hooks book (Communion) and my first June Jordan and Audre Lorde essay collections (Some of Us Did Not Die and Sister Outsider, respectively). I also read a couple of Nikki Giovanni poetry collections, a collection of writing by black gay men, and my second Octavia Butler novel (Parable of the Talents).

Most of the books I read, I loved. I was particularly struck personally by Communion, and will likely come back to some thoughts on love and what love is in a separate post inspired by that book. I want to read more of all of these authors, and this challenge seems like a good time to do so. I found it particularly powerful to read fiction and poetry by black women as I’ve read so much non-fiction about black femininity, intersectionality, and womanism but less “creative work” by black female authors. I’m also kind of on a nerdy linguistic tear after reading a fair bit of prose and poetry written in AAVE and other dialects. Sometimes I get a bit nostalgic, because I grew up in the South and went to a minority-white elementary school, so there’s this weird brain connection between Southern AAVE and childhood for me.

In the name of honestly, I’ll also note that it’s hard for me to write about literature and poetry written by POC because the last thing I want is to sound like the white anthropologist or professor: “See how the exotic other speaks!” Thus these posts may be less analytic or attendant to racial issues raised in the books, and more generally about my impressions reading. Of course much of what I read in this first batch addressed issues of black resilience, civil rights, oppression, and power, but I don’t feel that I’m the right person to comment on those themes. I will generally say that I am both struck and unsurprised by the talent of the authors I read for these first ten books, and their facility with addressing both the bullshit black communities face and the power and grace within those communities.

You can find full titles and authors to the books I read on Goodreads here.

Radical Reading: Excluded

It’s been a while since we had a Radical Reading column around these parts, and I confess that it’s due to the fact that I read Excluded, written by Julia Serano and published by Seal Press, about three times before I felt like I could really talk about the book. The October 1st release date came and went, and I knew I needed to get a review up, but I just kept dithering about what I wanted to say. In a way, though, I think it’s appropriate to post this review as 2013 comes to a close, as this was such a major year for intersectional feminism and (perhaps more obviously) its discontents.

Excluded summarizes some of Serano’s earlier work since her widely-read (in the trans community, anyway) Whipping Girl and then tackles the issue of trans women’s exclusion from feminist spaces. This topic clearly hits a chord with trans and cis feminists alike, and it’s been brewing in feminist, queer, and alternative sexuality communities for several years. A post I wrote about the cotton ceiling debate back in 2012 remains the most popular post on QueerFeminism.com, a site I founded to give a voice to communities that have been excluded by many mainstream feminists, and rarely a day goes by where I don’t find some example of cis feminists being transmisogynist to a greater or lesser degree on Twitter. Furthermore, Serano’s book comes from an important voice at this important time–unlike some of the other trans authors popular in radical queer communities, Serano is a binary-identified bisexual trans woman. She describes herself specifically as bisexual, a transsexual woman, and a femme tomboy. Much of Excluded reminds us of the danger of assuming that the gender binary is a conservative force, and the continued prevalence of biphobia or perhaps general bi-cluelessness in communities that rally around the term “queer.”

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Radical Reading: We Are Many

The We Are Many anthology, edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire and published by AK Press, is an ambitious project. In 435 pages, it attempts to both document the historical activist moment that is Occupy and provide a collection of practical lessons for activists. The editors acknowledge that the book is a work in progress, rather than an end, and I would agree with that assessment. This is an accessible book, but it is not a practical manual. The work of assembling all the relevant voices necessarily stands in contradiction to the work of providing something that on-the-ground activists can easily use. That said, the collection is full of gems, some of which could be extracted for a future more practical guide.
What the anthology does excel at is the work of documentation. I was impressed by the diversity of voices included, and the unique “conversational” format that lends itself well to a work that positions oppositional views in one place, for example on race in Occupy or the role of the police. There are no sections in this book–instead there is an editorial ebb and flow where themes come up but are not explicitly labeled. I really liked this technique, and the way journalistic pieces, personal accounts, practical tips, photos, and drawings were displayed alongside each other.
The style of the book gives the reader who was never present at an Occupy a real sense of the movement, an important task given the way on-the-ground activism and writing/reading are sometimes divided and the unsurprising media bias around Occupy. As a writer/reader type who does most of my activism through this blog, Twitter, and public teaching, I found the book incredibly valuable in this sense. The stories included give a picture of the breadth of Occupy both geographically and in form/focus (for example, see the pieces on Occupy Research or the occupied farm on land owned by UC Berkeley). The pictures and personal accounts are powerful narratives that place the reader at the center of the movement and lend both frustration and inspiration. I particularly liked Michael Andrews’ detailed account of one New York march, capturing the joy and collective spirit of a group that confounded the police with its size and evoked a sense of hope for the future. I also flagged Janelle Treibitz’s piece for future reference: her documentation of specific examples of how cultural resistance works is the kind of thing we need to see more in writings from radical organizers.
Of course, this is not a movement without its problems. Authors in this volume at times question the utility of the 99% model and some of its particular issues: are the police really part of the 99%? What about successful artists and gallery owners? How do 99%ers treat each other? Racial tensions are of course a big part of this picture, as is the treatment of certain groups within the 99%. In an excerpt on Rochester’s Take Back the Land occupation, Hubert Wilkerson comments on those occupiers who complained that homeless residents of the occupied park were “stealing” donated food. “So I’m saying whoa, it’s the reality of an occupation where people are trying to change the world, but haven’t started changing themselves.” (p. 53) This uncomfortable theme of hypocrisy within the movement also comes up in the CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective contribution, which discusses the idea of a “black bloc” of violent protestors within occupy that was described by a non-violent occupier and then used to Other fellow occupiers. The Collective suggests that this tactic might explain why Oakland lasted longer than other movements: when protestors used this language, they handed the FBI a very useful device for a divide and conquer strategy, allowing the FBI to extrapolate from a type of action to a type of people “terrorists” that it could then condemn. Rose Bookbinder and Michael Belt discuss the importance of labor in their piece: while many occupiers were young protestors from the suburbs, organized labor represents the actual community being occupied, and it is crucial that labor therefore be included. Similar critiques have of course been made of the idea of “occupying” already-occupied Native land.
If it were possible to summarize Occupy, this would be a much shorter book, but I like the three logics Joshua Clover describes as considerations to use in considering future activist strategies: Occupy had no single demand, no one body could meet Occupy’s demands, and any demand with meeting could not be met by the current social arrangement. (p. 99) This is, as I see it, an essential statement of what it is to be “radical.” Though I was not an Occupier and had many questions about the utility of Occupy, We Are Many has helped me to understand its value as a manifestation of this radical vision: community microcosms with not one vision but many, impossible to achieve through simple government action, grounded in the need for tough conversations and revolutionary paradigm shifts.
We Are Many is available through AK Press.

Too Many White People Challenge: Thoughts on Finding Authors of Color

I’ve decided to do something I’m calling the “Too Many White People Challenge,” named for the simple fact that when I look at my bookshelves, there are far too many white people looking back at me.  When I think about the books I read in school, books I’ve read for fun, books I’ve read for research, the vast majority are unsurprisingly by white authors.  If I want to be an effective advocate against racism and for structural change, then I’d better start reading points of view that don’t come from white people!

The challenge is simple: no white authors for the next 100 books I read.  I’ve made a couple of exceptions for books I’m asked to review and for books I have to read for work, but otherwise, no white authors for the next 100 books.  If you’d like to join me, you can do so at this Goodreads group.  I’m not going to be blogging a lot about this experience here on Radically Queer, because I don’t want it to turn into a self-congratulatory thing, but I’ll check in from time to time.  The Goodreads group is where I’ll be a bit more wordy.

I want to start by sharing some observations I’ve made while looking for books to read.  These are mostly what I expected, but I’m sharing them here in case they’re thoughts that haven’t occurred to some:

  1. It’s not necessarily that easy to identify an author of color.  For the sake of efficiency, I had to take some shortcuts that mean I’m missing some of the authors of color on my to-read list.  I went through all my Goodreads to-read shelf, checking off authors of color.  These were almost always authors that I already know, authors with a non-Western name, or books about a race-related subject.  I then went through for the latter two to get rid of the white authors that snuck in.  I’m necessarily going to be missing a lot of authors of color with whom I’m unfamiliar, who are writing about topics other than race.
  2. Reading authors of color doesn’t necessarily mean you’re learning about race.  I kept this challenge simple because my goal wasn’t to learn about race, but simply to take white perspectives out of my reading for a while.  Some of the books I’m reading are novels, some are non-fiction, some are even self-help.  There are a few really silly looking chick-lit novels in there.
  3. Race is (surprise!) a socially constructed category.  We all know this, but it’s interesting when compiling a list like this to see the principle in action.  I had to ask myself what the goal really was, and decide where I would draw the line for “of color.”  I decided not to include Israeli Jewish authors, for example.  I also decided not to include Turkish authors, though that was mostly for personal reasons, since I’ve studied Turkish and am pretty familiar with the culture.  I did include authors from other parts of the Arab world, but it’s possible I’ve accidentally snuck some white people in there, since you can’t actually look at someone and tell whether or not they’re white, so if a white person is from an Arab country I might not realize.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, despite the difficulties in coming up with a very precise definition of which authors “count.”  I hope some of you will join me?

Radical Reading: A Queer and Pleasant Danger

Kate Bornstein’s memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, out today, is perhaps not what you would expect from the memoir of a white transfeminine person in her mid-sixties.  Unlike some of her peers, Bornstein wrestles with gender and sexuality questions that are often attributed to a younger generation.  This will be no surprise for readers of Bornstein’s earlier Gender Outlaw, but it is refreshing in a genre that is often overwrought with medical history, descriptions of a second puberty, and marital drama.

In fact, a large chunk of A Queer and Pleasant Danger isn’t about a trans topic at all—or at least, not a topic that most would consider trans.  Bornstein chronicles her years in Scientology, from the anorexic and suicidal young man that joined up in Colorado to the high-ranking Sea Org officer who lived on the flagship with L. Ron Hubbard himself in the 70s to the struggling young father trying to establish a presence for the Church in seedy New York neighborhoods.  This portion of the book is hilarious and quite readable, though not without the threads of emotion that you would expect from such a tale told in retrospect.

Bornstein frames the book as a letter to her daughter, Jessica, who was born in the New York years and who is still in the Church with her mother, estranged from Bornstein for the last thirty-two years.  The emotional element comes from the fact that this transgender memoir is really a deceptively simple father/daughter story.  Bornstein never got to be her father’s daughter, but her memories of Jessica are all as “Daddy.”

The transition element weaves throughout the story, from surreptitious crossdressing as a successful salesman for Scientology to transition and eventual rejection by many staunch trans women who couldn’t quite assimilate Bornstein’s notions of gender.  The initial appeal of Scientology for Bornstein was that thetans, the Church’s notion of soul or essential humanity, don’t have a gender.  When she took that flexibility beyond the Church, her trans female peers were evidently not amused.  Bornstein’s queerness, openness to less rigid ideas of gender, and forays into the lesbian SM scene kept her from fitting in with most trans women and cis lesbians and frankly, make it a more interesting book.  At the same time, there are elements of gender hierarchy in Bornstein’s relationships that will likely frustrate any second-wave feminist readers.

As a trans activist, I’ve never quite known what to think of Bornstein, who seems to weave between some really brilliant ideas about gender and some frustratingly foot-in-mouth moments.  But as a writer, she accomplishes the same thing she does as a performer: she draws you into her story and gives you a break from life to laugh along with her.  What she sometimes lacks when asked to be a trans spokesperson or a media pundit, she makes up for in her storytelling.  I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a brief and honest reprieve from the daily grind.

As Bornstein’s one-time partner, David, says, when she asks what she is, exactly—”You’re a mad, mad artist, my dear, and you are awfully cute.”

Review: Captive Genders

I received a review copy of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (coming out this month from AK Press) at the perfect time.  I’ve been frustrated by the growing focus in recent months on two of the things I care least about when it comes to queer rights, the two things that the mainstream LGBT movement seems most adamant about: marriage and the military.  It’s impossible to get away from those two topics if you’re following LGBT news, but this book also turned my focus to another problem–that the most-covered “alternative” issues, those focused on individual rights, are still not the most important priority.  Employment and housing discrimination are important but they focus on the middle class.  Hate crimes are a problem, but the kneejerk response of hate crimes legislationtries to solve that problem by using the same harmful official system that terrorizes queer and trans people on a daily basis.

I would recommend this book to any activist, but especially to white, middle-class activists in the “LGBT movement.”  The pieces in this anthology encourage us to get away from the white, middle-class idea of “safety.”  Strong sentences for hate crimes don’t make us safer.  Nor do most of the priorities of LGBT rights organizations.  It is only from a privileged position that we can even believe that there might be a safe, mainstream, assimilated place to work and live.

Conservatives and moderates in the movement, and outside of it, want you to feel safe.  It’s another story of us versus them: it helps those who are disgusted by trans people of color, by poor queer youth, by public queer sexualities, to tug the most powerful and heavily funded segments of the LGBT population away into a zone of “safety” and assimilation.  Of course, many queer and trans people don’t have that luxury, and it’s foolish to think that any of us really do.  Queer and trans people in prison, juveniles in the child “welfare” system, immigrants, sex workers, the homeless, and other marginalized groups are often victims of a cruel and unusual system that targets minorities and encourages oppression.
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