Category Archives: books
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.”
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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I’ve been struggling for over a month to write this review, not because I didn’t like the book–it’s an amazing anthology, in fact, and I think it should be a mandatory part of the feminist/activist canon–but because as an activist and a writer, my mode is always “do, do, do.” “Here’s how to make change.” “Here are five things you can do to improve your world.” “This is my experience and why it’s relevant to you.” This review isn’t going to be like that.
Feminism for Real is a challenge to white feminist academics and activists to stop doing. It’s hard for a lot of us to listen actively and compassionately. It’s hard to say “I am wrong, my ancestors were wrong, and I cannot fix it.” I’ve known this for a while, but it’s such a depressing thought, such a disempowering thought, that it’s hard to know what to do with it. And maybe that’s the point.
This is not our battle. What white feminists can do is show some respect, be conscious of history, make space for indigenous feminists and other people of color to do good work, and make an effort in our own communities to stop harming others. We need to recognize how colonialism and imperialism continue to impact huge segments of our societies, and we need to constantly fight against these forces. It isn’t our job to trumpet indigenous feminism, tell everyone about how the cool ideas native people have about women and other genders, or talk about how down we are with indigenous causes. Indigenous people are doing that just fine on their own. It is our job to address the pervasive, continuous, active harm we are perpetrating.
There are a thousand ways to do this. Attack bad government policy, attack the media, attack educators who wouldn’t know education if it bit them in the face. Support indigenous communities by giving indigenous people room to work–by speaking out against policies that take away land, culture, and freedom; by fighting rape; by challenging patriarchy.
As Robyn Maynard explains in her piece, “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!” it is important to recognize that the problem is not just marginalization but exploitation. The harms discussed in this book are not historical, rather we continue to actively perpetrate them. This is a structural problem for which we need to take collective responsibility. Maynard explains:
Justice means–justice has to mean–an end to people deliberately destroying generations of cultures, of women, of lives, and of dignity, for personal political and economic gain.
We can do this, but only by taking responsibility and recognizing where law and policy actively harm rather than help. I would encourage other white feminists and academics to join me in this self-critique, and in the challenge to listen without appropriating. Feminism for Real provides a collection of essays, poetry, and interviews that are a great first step to listening. You can find others on the web at Racialicious, SisterSong, INCITE!, and People of Color Organize, to name a few.
You can purchase your own copy of Feminism for Real from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The centre provided me with a copy of this book, and I was not otherwise compensated for this review.