Category Archives: reviews
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.
One 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.
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.
When 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!
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.”
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.”
When I started to read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s newest collection, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (AK Press), I had an idea of what to expect. There are plenty of examples in the trans/queer blogosphere and Twittersphere of queer, trans, and/or non-binary individuals critiquing femme erasure and femme invisibility. Usually these individuals are young, white, college-educated, and politically radical. They (we) critique a mainstream gay culture that attacks or erases femme expressions of gender, is bothered or even disgusted by trans queers, and deifies masculinity.
Some of the contributions in this volume come from this group, but the collection as a whole takes on a different tenor, one that is sorely needed in our communities. Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? focuses on brown bodies, on AIDS, on colonialism and nationalism, and on the intersections between these themes. These essays are about love and fear–the potential of queer creativity and the impact of a faggot-coded epidemic.
This volume asks us to question our fears–not only of femininity but of brown bodies, trans bodies, poverty, drugs, open sexuality, terrorism, and AIDS. The essays engage explicitly with sex, linking queer desire to ideas of nationality, safety, and acceptability. The authors ask us to build a political discourse around sex and desire and to see the potential in brown, femme, and/or diseased bodies that the collective mainstream gay imagination fears and has forgotten because of the terrifying possibility of death.
Some of the most controversial essays challenge the idea of “safe sex” and ask us to consider barebacking as a sexual practice. How do we pose bodies and sex as dirty or clean? The public health discourse around AIDS jibes well with a national rhetoric of individual responsibility–you are either safe/clean or you are not, you are a citizen or a terrorist, you are with us or against us–and if you cross the line, it is your fault.
“The ‘risk reduction’ we practiced often meant avoiding intimacy with the very people we needed in order to overcome generations of internalized shame; we ended up limiting the types of connections that had historically led to personal health and community well-being.” –Chris Bartlett, “Levity and Gravity”
Some of the authors in this volume suggest solutions to the status quo that are wrapped up in sex, desire, cruising culture, creativity, and femininity. These solutions also challenge the white, middle class, masculine gay norm. Ali Abbas, for example, tells the story of a white colleague accusing him of “playing into” his own Middle Eastern culture while simultaneously ignoring the queerness of some Middle Eastern cultures. Masculinity here is linked to nationalism and citizenship, which in turn is linked to the mainstream gay American culture’s focus on marriage (a right linked to citizenship) rather than human rights, immigration, sexuality, or poverty.
Several essays challenge the assumption of norms, usually presented in a “good vs. bad” binary, around desireability and sexuality. CA Conrad wants to know why fat men are assumed to be undesireable, while Philip Patston asks the same thing about disabled bodies. Patston’s story of going to his therapist and initially assuming, when told that things would be different for him because of his disability, that gay men would see him as a rare and desireable potential partner, challenges the assumption that normal desire focuses on able bodies–or on white ones, thin ones, cis ones, or masculine ones. Discussions of creativity in the early AIDS movement and of the good things about HIV-positive sex challenge readers to consider whether even an “infected body” is necessary less desireable. The gay community is used to the idea of collective trauma (ie, AIDS) vs. collective Pride, but why does Pride have to be found principally in middle class white bodies? Why not in a community of “Others”–brown, trans, pos, disabled, queer faggots?
I agree, at least in part, with the criticisms of the mainstream public health response to AIDS. There are no “good gays” and “bad gays.” The community, such as it is, would be a better place if we consciously engaged with disease, with sex, and with the creative potential of our fringes. I agree with Patrick “Pato” Hebert that our power lies in sex and storytelling, and that these things are linked. “We make ourselves through storytelling. We reproduce the queer power of ourselves through our sex.”
The narratives in this collection are a first step in looking at ourselves as sexual, positive, worthy wholes and as a powerful potential community of activists and artists. As Nick Clarkson explains in his story about a gay cis man who is unwilling to go home with him because of his trans body, we are not solely defined by our histories. It is important to recognize queer people both collectively and individually as a whole–through our histories, our identities, our bodies, and our stories.
Jeanne Córdova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws: a memoir of Love & Revolution, recently released from Spinsters Ink, fills an important gap in the existing first-person accounts of the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but suffers from an unfortunately inconsistent tone. When students take up gay or lesbian history in the US, the starting point is often the Stonewall Riots. The picture of gay and lesbian liberation has a decidedly East Coast slant, or it is told more generally in the context of national movements–homophiles, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and so on. Córdova’s strength is in the details she provides on the day-to-day life of lesbian activism in 1970s Los Angeles, centered around the strike against the Gay Community Services Center. Her weakness lies in a tendency towards melodrama and an inflation of her own importance in the broader story.
The reason why accounts such as Martin Duberman’s Stonewall are so gripping and effective is that the narrator or the individual subjects of the story are portrayed as mere players in a bigger picture. The power of those individuals in the narrative comes from how subtly their story is told. Córdova has an amazing story–the details of the relationships between gay men and lesbians in LA at the time, the struggle between gay liberation and labor movements, and Córdova’s journalistic relationship with “her Nazi” are particularly interesting. There is a good balance between broader themes and particularly interesting historical snapshots in the book. Where it starts to come apart is Córdova’s tendency to drop into melodrama in describing her personal romantic relationships, non-monogamy in the movement, and her own role as an activist. The dialogue doesn’t come alive, and whenever Córdova focuses directly on analyzing herself at the time or her role in the movement, the subtlety that helps a reader relate to a narrator is lost. The dynamics of butch and femme in the 1970s LA lesbian community and the trend of non-monogamy are interesting, but the moralistic tone that weaves through the narrative will make it uncomfortable for some.
I would recommend this account for those who are particularly interested in first-person history of lesbian liberation on the West Coast, but with reservations. A shorter, more tightly controlled narrative would be more effective in communicating this particular story.