Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Getting (Productively) Messy with Maggie Nelson. . .

Despite all the other tasks calling to me from/for this blog, most of them pleasurably if time-consuming, I'm going to take a few minutes to transcribe a paragraph from Maggie Nelson's memoir The Argonauts. Nelson's rigorous thoughtfulness about her relationship with her "fluidly gendered" partner is so inspiring, so productive. She blends a deeply committed attention to theory (in which she has a solid reputation as a scholar in Critical Studies) with her own lived experience as lover, wife, mother, among other roles. Her generous willingness to think on the page, to meditate through the complications, and beyond the binaries, is especially welcome to me right now as I watch a beloved young relative painfully struggling against the thises OR thats, the Yesses or Nos,  the girls OR the boys. . . Why must they choose a bathroom door to enter?

But there will be no more of my clumsy proselytising when Nelson has done such elegant writing.  Here's the paragraph I wanted to record today:

How to explain -- "trans" may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes ("born in the wrong body," necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some -- but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, "transitioning" may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others -- like Harry [Nelson's partner], who is happy to identify as a butch on T [testosterone therapy] -- it doesn't? I'm not on my way anywhere,  Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don't want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some, at some times, this irresolution is OK -- desirable, even (e.g., "gender hackers") -- whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality -- or anything else, really -- is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours? 

 (on page 53 of The Argonauts, Minneapolis: Grey Wolf P, 2015 . . .  and note that she cites Beatriz Preciado)

Back, soon, to chat more about our experiment with some poetry and to offer a short list of recent reading. But if you've been thinking about gender, sexuality, binaries, and beyond, lately, and especially if you want to recommend pertinent reading on the topic, do leave a comment. And even if you haven't, I'm always pleased to hear from you.


  1. Very germane to my life at the moment, as I have a teen going through some gender stuff, and it's people's desire to stick to the binary that is causing the most angst. Interestingly, I'm also reading a lot of YA fiction for my Masters, and it's quite astonishing how things have shifted since I was a teen, in terms of ideas about sexuality and gender fluidity. I do think for some kids there is a bit of 'trying on hats' (like the boys who wore eyeliner in the 80s), but I also think that there have always been people who didn't really identify with either of the two 'options' but didn't see an alternative to picking one ...

  2. Yes, the binary can be so very oppressive. In our extended family, we're seeing one young person struggling openly, courageously, painfully, doing their best to refuse identifying with one or the other gender, preferring to slide along the spectrum comprising both.
    And I agree very much with your last sentence. That's the complexity I'm appreciating in Nelson's book. As with most issues and conditions in life, it's rarely either/or.
    I wish you and your teen all the best through this stage. I know they have support in you (and, I'm guessing, their father), and I hope you're finding some support as well for you. There are so many good people out there in reference to this ball of wax, (and so many jerks as well, sadly).


  3. Have you read - Annabel - by Kathleen Winter? She is also Canadian....


    1. I have, Ali, and thanks for bringing it up here -- fiction is such a powerful way for us to imagine someone else's perspective. I taught this novel several times, once or twice in first-year classes where it was quite challenging for some students. Let's just say we had some grand discussions. . .

  4. I'd like to read this. We seem to crave easy answers, and clear binary thinking, when actually nature is far less clear-cut than we imagine it to be. And how wonderful would it be if we could just listen to each other, and accept what they tell us, about gender or anything about themselves, without having to fit them into our own little biased categories.

  5. Nothing to add-only things I could read at the moment is some comfort read (can't even follow posts)- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand at the moment or Louise Penny (interesting,when I think about it-there is actually a child,later a young person ,Bean,and it is not known if Bean was a girl or a boy,except for her/his mother. And doctors,I suppose)
    This book seems very,very interesting. I've never met someone going through transition and it is pretty rare here(there are only occasional articles or tv shows)-I believe people keep it privat or go abroad
    I agree with Mardel's and Tiffany's comment
    The struggle must be painful and sometimes young people feel the obligation to choose a category when things are not so clear for them