A truly collaborative piece, “Courting the Peculiar: The Ever-Changing Queerness of Creative Nonfiction,” began as a co-written conference proposal for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) National Convention in Seattle, Washington, February 2013:
What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? Four queer-identified panelists collectively position creative nonfiction as a genre welcoming of writers and writing that embraces the peculiar, courts the unconventional, and opens to forms yet to be imagined. At the turn of the 20th century, Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons proposed: “Act so that there is no use in a center.” How can practitioners of creative nonfiction today use language to express truths still to come?
Upon acceptance, the four participants—Barrie Jean Borich, K. Bradford, Mary Cappello, Ames Hawkins—discussed a desire to “do something different,” something other than the expected independently written and sequentially delivered four single-authored papers/pieces/essays, connected, perhaps, as essays in a collection, but remaining fairly discrete. We decided to move away from thinking of our pieces and presentations as a mine, hers, hers and hers, and consider the possibility of an event featuring a shifting Barrie–K.–Mary–Ames voice that did not leave our audience confused. We established that the writing was the engine for/of the project, while still opening ourselves to formic possibility, emphasizing that we were as interested in what each other had to say as we were in what each of us had to write.
In short, we queered the panel presentation.
We asked ourselves a series of questions. Four seemed about right given the time constraints of panels. Each of us wrote three-to-four-minute long answers. The reading/performance lasted about an hour and was seen as a whole. We each chose images to accompany our written answers. Positioned within a PowerPoint, using design frames of an old movie theater proscenium and silent movie placards, our images highlighted the interconnections between genres and the simultaneous ancestry/history/legacy of artistic work.
As a final move, we considered delivery. Using the questions as the organizing principle, we read our responses back-to-back, as a four-part single answer, so the audience could hear and appreciate the differences (and traces of similarity) in the four writers’ perspectives. Then, to embrace Stein’s challenge to “Act so that there is no use in a center,” we rotated the order of readers, round-robin style, as we moved through the questions. We began in alphabetical order, but then the lead reader would, for the following question, become the final reader, the second become first, and so on, until, by the final question, all of us had read in each of the four spaces in the order.
It was a simple alteration, but the impact on the reading was profound, for the authors as well as the audience. We had not shared our responses prior to reading and were as engaged with the process as the audience. Each question created new openings, each its own unfolding and unfurling, each answer a making/remaking/unmaking.
What we have for you here is a digital reconstruction of that AWP presentation. We read aloud to you, via audio files that accompany our visual images, our responses positioned here in the order in which they were originally read. We invite you to consider the voices here as both collective and individual, as distinct and shared. Consider the spaces between, the timber and tone of both syntax and speaking voice, the consonances and consonants, the dissonances and distances. Enjoy the peculiar particularities of each author. Hear them as invocations, as welcomings, as call.
What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre?
Barrie Jean Borich
What does it mean to you, to your writing, to “act so that there is no use in a center?”
Barrie Jean Borich
How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?
Barrie Jean Borich
What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?
Barrie Jean Borich
Authors & Transcripts
Barrie Jean Borich
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press/American Lives Series), winner of a Lambda Literary Award in Memoir and an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) Gold Medal in Essay/Creative Nonfiction. Her previous book, My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), won the ALA Stonewall Book Award. Her work has been cited in Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading and she’s currently working on a book-length essay about repurposed industrial landscapes, urban joy, and riding her bicycle on the mean streets of Chicago. Borich was the first creative nonfiction editor of Hamline University’s WaterStone Review and is currently a member of the creative writing faculty of the English Department/MA in Writing & Publishing Program at Chicago’s DePaul University, where she edits Slag Glass City. www.barriejeanborich.com
“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: I’ve meant many things over the years when I’ve claimed creative nonfiction as a “queer.”
I’ve spoken of the work as “queerly formed,” as in not looking like all the other so-called “normal” forms, with an off-kilter sense of sound, shape, and fashion;
I’ve talked about CNF as transgenre, which is not the same as transgender but shares a desire to refuse binaries, which embraces hybrids, which strives to be a non-genred genre that contains aspects of all the other genres;
I’ve meant, in my own work, that the queerness—the lives of LGBTQ people—is written as the center rather than the margin of both the history and present tense of human experience.
I suppose I still mean all of this, but I’m more interested now in thinking about queerness as an angle of observation. By this I mean perhaps we can further turn inside-out common notions of the “normal” in terms of not only how we narrate our own lives but also how we narrate the life of the world. This requires us to engage in a deep revision of self-understanding, seeing our own lives, with our full voices and experiences honored and intact, as life itself rather than an “other” life. What then do we see when we look back out on the larger queer and not-queer world? What if we apply “the queer eye”—if I may take that term back from pop culture—to more than lifestyle and fashion, to all of our witness and rendering?
Literary nonfiction provides opportunity to make the personal literary and artful while also allowing the literary artist to act as the old documentary photographers did, to bring into view that which was not fully seen. But seeing is complex. We don’t all see the same thing. So what then of the actual world do we see with our individual and collective queer eyes? What do we find of beauty other eyes might find ugly? What in all the old world has deemed beautiful do we see good reason to critique?
“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”: This question feels easier to articulate as a reader and teacher than as a writer. As a teacher to have no center means to me, in part, that there is no one canon, no one mandatory reading list, no center bar to which we are all to aspire. This means when I teach I focus on authorial intention, within a world view where the author and the world the author speaks from is their own, while still attempting to embrace all the ways one writer’s center may not be another’s. This means we cannot assume there is only one reading audience so also can’t assume there is only one answer to the question “is this good?”
But as writers, the sense of having no center is more instinctual and perhaps more risky, because all comes down to developing and writing from a fully owned and sometimes quixotic voice. It’s probably safe to assume that any center a queer writer claims is not the same center as that of the queer writer sitting next to her. So is a queer center a singular center? Or a center-less center? But wait, as I write this I realize I am having trouble with no center, that some part of me assumes there is always a center, either their old center or our new center, or all our new centers.
When I published my first book, Restoring the Color of Roses, I used as the epigraph those famous lines from Yeats about the center that will not hold because I felt, as a young queer writer, that we were the rough beasts of our families and communities, the harbinger of the old things falling apart, and with that understanding came a sense of both apocalypse and reinvention. Now, further on down the line, I feel myself as less a breaker and more a maker, and when I make whatever I am writing I am remaking that center again, a middle that’s always green and growing. So perhaps that’s what it means to be a queer writer. Rather than constantly circling that same establishment center we are repeatedly recreating the points around which we circle, and in doing so reconstituting queerness as a progressive and ever-materializing location.
“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”: Perhaps we can write forward toward a greener and yet still-citified world. Perhaps we can imagine a literature where the us and the not-us are eager to look through each other’s windows? See through each other’s bodies? Perhaps we find ways to answer questions through layers of expansion and relief, rather than with the neat rise, turn, and fall of a narrative arc or the slick pavement of argument? Perhaps we can write the body with the body, the language of our long slow kisses, first inviting the next word to hover closer, then grazing, a whisper of touch, then a meeting, a pressure, a connection, a current, a shiver, not thinking, not a goal-taking, but rather a home that keeps ascending, both built and growing like prairie grass, an engulfing of change, the new breaking through not abandonment, not brokenness, but instead a way of both keeping and reclaiming? Everyone wants, I know, a good story, not this messy garden, this fragmented shit, not this do-goodie-greenery and you-say-I’m-a-dreaminess, but we still have and write about our dirty little lives. Perhaps too we write toward stories that renew rather than end and where what we come to is a light visible in some small moment of change, containing us?
“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”: Is polyphonic. Is multiple. Is all that was and is. Is a sequined curtain in the upstairs bar. Is a woman who’s not trying to be pretty. Is that girl three seats ahead in history class with rain straight hair. Is the 100 butchest women on the internet. Is a beehive and a cigarette. Is a fist. Is the only woman on the stage. Is the history underneath the history. Is a bar no wider than a hallway. Is her shaved head. Is craggy and handsome. Is cufflinks. Is an upturned collar. Is muscle to muscle. Is a shadow. Is two dresses. Is three tuxedos. Is an inked-up arm. Is an unseemly woman. Is the table of women who have never lived with men. Is that charisma straight strangers see, but can’t identify. Is a skirt on a bicycle. Is false eyelashes and a hoodie, headed to the Halsted Street bars. Is those two aunties who’ve shown up for all the weddings. Is the niece who hears about gay marriage on the radio and asks “but what about my aunts?” Is all you ever wanted to know about fucking. Is lip-synching for your life. Is yelling at the usher who won’t let your lesbian husband use the ladies room. Is laughing about it later because she does look damned handsome in her suit. Is the skinny barista in the coffeeshop singing along to Lady Gaga. Is the boys on Broadway who squeal when our pretty poodle mix dog wears her boots. It’s those two older gentlemen in the store around the corner who kiss each other on the cheeks before they part. Is the conflation of natty date night fedoras and heroin-dead actors and gender-blurry authors who’ve been the subject of award-winning biopics— all conflated when the panhandler on Wabash tells my spouse she looks like Truman Capote. Is the local drag queen I see now on TV commercials. Is the old lesbian in the art gallery who says as soon as they put up those rainbow flags all the gays moved away. Is remembering that same street in the 80s with its macrobiotic bakeries and garden level sex toy stores, blue grottoes glimmering out onto the sidewalks. Is the state-by-state civil rights schizophrenia. Is the Chanel headpiece on the former figure skater on TV, broadcasting from a country not his own where it’s against the law to be so fabulous. Is two old lesbians in blue jeans and with rock and roll hair hugging before one climbs up onto the bus. Is all this, is none of this, is history and privacy, is orgasms and head bashings, is all that is actual, both one and many stories, is nonfictions and fictions and songs, is what requires paper that scratches away like a lottery ticket or a book that cracks like a mirror when we read it, or a skyscraper with another country on each floor, is one form that must be many to contain so many stories of the naked and the queer.
Bio for Author
“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: Being queer is a creative nonfiction. Nonfiction as realness. Realness as the physical. The physical plane as these bodies we live in, or borrow for a time. Nonfiction then is the body, and as queers we inhabit that nonfiction realness of the body, queerly. We interrogate the body as we live in its permutations of desire and gender—the queerness we have to work to find whether at age six or 13 or 19 or 42 or 63. Queers activate the body as a site of becoming. The given of the body is exploded, ours to inspect and marvel at and transgress and theorize. We wear our bodies, we make real what we seek to be-desire-imagine-conjure: the body as a bodyform. We bend, experiment, invent, parade, modify these bodyforms, of our own making from what we know and stretch to know. We make this nonfiction more real than its own realness. We inhabit our form, we emblazon it, we bend it queerly. We queers are walking creative nonfictions.
As we craft the bodyform, we craft the pageform. We bring our bodies to the page and the pages back to our bodies. Many queers have been shaped and made by the queer writings we’ve read that helped us to find and map and see ourselves.
Are we queers not then pagebodies? Bodies marked by the pages we have found refuge in, found our survival, politics, desire, outrageousness in? And the pages shaped by the storied bodies we traffic in, flock to, make vanilla or kinky love to, the bodies we make community and culture and queer family with?
Are the two women in this image not pagebodies? Their flare and brazenness – whose words and stories shaped their making?
In Audre Lorde’s words, “Your silence will not protect you.”
And Wayne Koestenbaum once stated, “The world was doing its best to ignore the fact that I was a writer.”
In our bodies as on our pages—the ones we read or write—this form, this place is where we let out our bentness, our strangeness, our realness, our silences, our peculiarity out—where we court it and brave it. We flock to the page to shape its form, to let it shape us, and the pages flock back to us in a circuit where the raw, the grit, the boldness, the trauma, the love, the desire, the revelation, the celebration is our very queering.
Our queer pagebody holds it all, even the rough, uneven stories, with flare.
“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”: Living and writing from the site of a queer body-mind, I implode a center. Because my queerness is kaleidoscopic and my gender multiplicitous, because the positioning of my whiteness and class do not subscribe to their companion monoliths—I move, think, act, love, fuck, speak, perform and write to activate a circuitry of shifting voicings and articulations. My impulse is to speak and write as a polyphonic chorus, one that asserts a shifting archaeology of voices and positions that might rub against each other, disrupt each other, get a rise out of each, refute each other, and still exist as a layered kinship.
As I trouble the center, I work to create a kinship of decentered micro-centers.
Rather than writing linearly or toward a privileged center, I refigure the center as a constellation of interconnected, divergent, overlapping, intervening cells.
A Polyphonic Chorus:
As my curly goatee tells you one story, other parts of my embodiment tell you different stories. How I strut. How I soften. How I listen. How I rage. How I let my hair grow. How I hold my hands. How I tie a tie. How I sway. How I top. How I bottom. How I bottom from the top. How I top from the bottom. How I look at another genderqueer I don’t know in the eyes. How I shrink. How I take up space. How I speak. How I command. How I back down. How I fight back.
On the plane to Seattle I sat between two men, both white. One was my size, and we chatted briefly about the wireless on Southwest. The guy to my left was a tall, hulky dude who took up a lot of space, never said a word, and watched a movie the whole ride. I ate a pizza. Read part of Eleni Siklianos’s book California Dream and worked on questions for my conference panel. When we landed, I walked off the ramp and headed to baggage claim. Bleary eyes landing on bronzed fish embedded in the floor, signs of the Pacific Northwest. I looked up and caught the eye of the hulky dude walking away from the ramp as he said something inaudible, with his head tilted vaguely my way. I said, did you say something? He launched into me saying that I was the most miserable traveler ever, to which I said, because I ate a pizza? He growled at me about my elbow being in his ribs the whole time. His attack rapidly turned into a series of disconnected insults until he called me a bitch and then, with a hand gesture at my whole body, from head to toe, he spewed: This whole thing. Is this whole thing working for you? I don’t think so!
I looked at him and said, actually yes, it is. As I turned and walked back toward the plane to exit the hurling flight path of his assault I said, You can take your rage somewhere else. I didn’t see him again.
Yes. This whole thing is as intricate and complicated as this hater fears. This whole thing is more fierce and shifting and terrifying and awesome than this hater can imagine. This whole thing unleashes safe containers. This whole thing speaks in multiple tongues. This whole thing holds trauma and desire in one topography. This whole thing does not give up when the world doesn’t know where to put “it”. This whole thing is not an easy solution to what it means to be a human being. This whole thing will look you back in the eye when you show signs of social venom. This whole thing writes this past into a future in one breath stroke. This whole thing will not conform so that others can feel comfortable. This whole thing will take the worst attacks, from a total stranger or a close love, and convert that hate and cowardice into fuel. This whole thing has learned to not turn away from itself no matter what. This whole thing burns the more brightly for it.
This whole thing is a network of pulsing, buzzing centers, an intricate decentered language that this dude at the epicenter of the center fears because this whole thing threatens to undermine the singularity of a center he doesn’t know how to live beyond. This hater did not know who he was fucking with.
Because this whole thing is whole: a whole working thing, a network of multiplying, mobilized centers that speak to other fierce and defiant centers that talk across time across gender across race across borders across space to other bodies who burn the more brightly for all of our whole things decentering the center.
“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”:
“Although wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead.”
― Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
A hiving kind, spirals of queer labor finding and remaking home.
The queer body, not as resting place but a site where we do and undo from all we make happen from all that happens to us with lovers, strangers, family, ourselves we unravel, we build up we cocoon in, we chrysalis out.
We knit stich a future; it is of us already. Wrapped, we move, layers of queer time, not fixed or stable ground, queering onward, fluid, or flux, conjuring, inventing, upending, we do not yet know all we are making from everything around us. We hive queer futures.
We are sleeping & we are waking.
We are dreaming & we are stirring.
We are breathing & we are dying.
We are falling & we are rising.
“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”:
(Four decades of queer stitches and ruptures)
Provincetown, late 1970’s.
My first queer memory—fuzzy, vague, cinematic. My mother, brother and I in Provincetown for a reason I don’t remember. It was summer and we walked down a street with shops and people coming and going. My mother told us in an informative, almost tour-guide-like way that this is a town where lesbians live. I didn’t know where to put this idea. It floated around for years, an unhinged memory cloud. A disembodied queer nation I didn’t yet know my body belonged to.
Oberlin Ohio, 1989.
I lived in a lesbian, feminist collective, the same one Alison Bechdel depicted in Fun Home. We had weekly house meetings where we talked about house chores, lesbians, and lesbians. The lesbians we were reading, the lesbians who were shaping us, the lesbians our gaze was upon. I was also taking classes that birthed my feminist lesbian thinking and radical politics. My consciousness, midwifed by Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks. That year was also the first year I was dating a man for the first time in a more than two-month kind of way. Duly note: he was going to Brown, 1000 miles away. But I felt in love. I was in love. I was fucking for the first time—having adventurous, romping, tender sex. As the year went on, I started waking up in bed with this long-haired man having dreamt about kissing women. I told him about the dreams and asked him if he dreamt about men. Dreams, and currents of desires—conflicting and converging—hovered over the bed I sometimes shared with this boy. I was a split topography that year; my mind lived in one place, my body in another.
Houston, Texas 1992.
After college, I moved to Austin, and my activism went into full tilt. The grassroots organizing building on Congress Ave. housed meetings of Act Up, WAC (Women’s Action Coalition), The Lesbian Avengers and other collectives I threw myself into in the 90’s. The little city of Austin—echoing the fierce activist resistance across the country—crackled with the energy of radicals, liberals, artists and freaks splitting the seams of the Reagan-Bush era and its aftermath. The summer of 1992, the Act Up chapter I was in drove to Houston to protest the Republican National Convention. My best friend (later my girlfriend), her girlfriend and I jumped in a pick-up truck and hurled our way toward sweaty Houston. We met up with Act Up chapters from all over the south at Diverse Works, a progressive arts space downtown. We broke into caucuses for our different causes and in different corners of the warehouse, made up chants, designed posters and ranted, laughed, found kinship. Queer bodies converging, radical pods amassing, to put our bodies on the line. The AIDS crisis combined with the repression of the Reagan-Bush Era called forth our deepest urgencies. Silence = Death. Desperate times called for sharp, blunt words. We knew that assembled together, our bodies were a language more than words. We knew this when the riot cops appeared out of nowhere, when the helicopters descended, when without warning the riot cops turned their horses on us and charged. In the midst of the riot, in the midst of the chaos of bodies charging, dispersing, running, is a single image, stilled, of my friend Lisa getting beaten by a cop. Five years later, she committed suicide and how I remember her most is on the bus that drove us all away from the riot with her lip busted up but laughing brazenly and how we all ranted and laughed and surged as the bus carried us back through the streets where we had marched, a small travelling nation—sweaty, shaken, but unbroken.
Columbus, Ohio 2001
After hitching rides from Texas to Chicago to Ohio, I landed in a camp of all camps: hundreds of drag kings from across the country and Canada ready to trot out of their glorious, subversive outrageousness. In the green room, two kings stood in front of a mirror meticulously applying spirit gum and facial hair to their chins, upper lips, and chops. They inspected each other’s handy-work, gave each other tips, and went back to grooming. This was the first of many drag king convergences. On the mainstage for the first time, I lip synched to the Bee Gee’s How Deep is Your Love and pulled flowers out of my pants and gave them, one by one, to the audience. Redact that. This year, at a Christmas drag show in LA, I pulled sugar out of my pants and threw it over the audience as snow-cum. Back in 2001, I was raw and fresh and cock-strutting. But I pulled the flowers from behind my back. And rubbed the petals across the faces of the audience, who were hungry for whatever you dished up to them from that genderfucking stage. Queer women, genderqueers and trans men converged from all over for workshops, talks and drag king shows. There was a whole lot of swooning in those early days of the drag king movement. A combustive heat filled the rooms and clubs where we shared, tested, and flaunted our latest theory or embodiment of subversive genders and queer desires. A heat from all falling in love with each other—in the most collective, queer way. Hell yeah, there was a lot of chemistry and lust firing off, and a line-up of couplings, short and long-term, were born from this space. But the hot joy rippling through us all was about a larger, public queer body—a collective constellation that held and celebrated a wild range of queer geographies, politics, desires, cultures. We knew that each body, each expression, each history, made this collective—and together, we were a wilder, smarter, hotter queer geobody. We staged our minds (our humor, irony, wit, politics) through our bodies, spinning a queer vision that stretched the limits, memories and dreams of who we thought we were. For those days and nights, we were more than our own body or town or troupe or home—and we could feel the orbit of that public queer vision, watching with pleasure the very orbit we were spinning.
Mary Cappello’s four books of literary nonfiction include Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times Bestseller), and, following Maya Deren, a ritual in transfigured time titled Called Back. Her most recent book, Swallow, emerges from the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. A recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative, the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. Her recent essay-novella, “My Secret, Private Errand,” appears in Salmagundi magazine; she is currently completing a book-length essay on “mood.” www.marycappello.com
“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: There’s something resplendent about the question of creative nonfiction as a queer genre, and it’s not just reducible to calling upon Mother Minelli for one’s inspiration over and against Father Montaigne—or, if we must hail creative nonfiction’s essayism as a paternity, could we at least admit Montaigne’s inventions having emerged from his love of another man? Getting to it though, I feel a rush, a cornucopia, like the colors that both blind and wake me into the senselessness of the American musical—a camp fantasia that isn’t so much surface as it rends the redness of the red, offering me some alternative tap dance of saturated rapture. As a queerly conspiring creative nonfictor, I was reared on Ann Margret and Fred Astaire, and my work is ever hopeful to find a language that exorbitant and embodied: can the slender tuxedo jacket of form accommodate the bosomy reader within? Maybe that’s what I’m after, or I’m its after-effect: call it debonair spillage.
There are so many ways to think of creative nonfiction’s queerness, and my own glossary includes the extent to which it allows me to court incongruity, dis-continuity, dis-identification, and filial impiety. The file folders of queer nonfictive practice could include: allowing the wild in; inhabiting your language like a foreigner; investigative self-estrangement; chance operations, accidents and mistakes; architectures of the real; archives of the true; archaeologies of the actual; exquisite demands; laborious play and feeling-ful mentation; escape from polemic; notes on notes; disruptive beauty; or, the politics of forgetfulness, to name a random few.
For the sake of three minutes, let me, like a Dadaist, reach randomly into the D’s: what’s queer about creative nonfiction is the genre’s dereliction; its dilettantism and dandyism; its desperation no longer quiet but sung; its not being interested in being done up and its never being done; its dorkiness; its Druidism; its decrudescence; its dappledness; its dump [comma] what a; its decrescendo and diminuendo; its density; its disparateness; its delicacy and its doggedness; its disturbance [comma], varieties of; its Dionysian energies; its deadpan demeanor; its drollery; its anti-dogmatism; its love of dolphins (huh?); its dudes [comma], all the young; its delightful, delectable Cole Porterisms; its delinquencies; its anti-determinism; its down to earthiness; its documentary foundations.
In what sense is creative nonfiction a form of queer documentary-making? If a documentarist, I’m an odd sort of one because I’m not interested in any and all documents but those that resist either our filing or our handling or our placings. Improper documents: a surrogate father’s death certificate, my grandfather’s unsent letters, my father’s unfinished stories. “Here are all the notes;” my father pushes the scraps of paper toward me, scraps that too readily resemble the bits of pieces of jotting, the anglings and inklings, the ambles and paper estuaries, the bits and fragments of traces that make the materials on my own writing desk. I still compose by hand. “Maybe you can finish it for me,” my father says.”
What am I to do with them? What have I to do with them?
“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”:
“…Please excuse /the wandering / writing—Sleeplessness / makes my Pencil / stumble—Affection / clogs it—too— (A 742)
…Threading with you / this lovely Maze, / which is not Life / or Death—(A 734)
…Sweeter/ of course than / not writing, be- / cause it has / a wandering /Aim… (A 744)
…for I am / but a restive / sleeper and often / should journey / from your Arms / through the happy / Night… (A 740)
…the Bible says very / roguishly, that the / “wayfaring Man, though / a Fool—need not / err therein”; Need / the “wayfaring” Woman? / Ask your throbbing / Scripture—(A 740)
That’s Emily Dickinson, queer co-conspirator whom I keep ever nearby, inscriptions from her late letter fragments with thanks to Marta Werner and the Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives where Werner gives us these fragments in her illustrated essay, “Fly Leaves: Toward a Poetics of Reading Emily Dickinson’s Late Writings.”
[If hyperlink does not load, insert: http://www.emilydickinson.org/node/7]
I never begin where I’ve been trained to begin; the way I write, and the way I try to live, is to listen well and respond from someplace else.
In Awkward, I wrote an entire book about the pleasures and perils of off-centeredness. In classrooms devoted to decentering nonfictions, I ask my students to identify the narrative conventions that accrue to a particular type of trauma memoir—abuse, abortion, alcoholism, adoption, and to write athwart those; to identify the absent interlocutor who is the tacit addressee of one’s prose and consciously replace that persona with another; to understand how the unidentified addressee determines the position that the prose’s autobiographical Subject can take. I believe in the necessity of observational notebooks: of practicing seeing, of cultivating sight, but the question is always what do I look for? Where do I look? Seek out the periphery, I suggest. Don’t look where you are trained to look, but make a collection out of a category that might even seem absurd or banal. Wallpaper, say, or overcoats. Maybe truth emerges out of our assembled notes on looking-elsewhere.
In a recent suite of meditative collaborations with David Lazar [If hyperlink does not load, insert: http://theconversant.org/?p=5366] I proposed that digression isn’t sufficient in describing what creative nonfiction does best because it privileges both a point (as singular vantage and aim), and a center. But essays at their best, I said, think like Gertrude Stein and therein lies their pleasure and their difference: “act so that there is no use in a center”; “aim less”; “I do not write in order to be right.” Even when an essay conveys information, it does something more than or different from pointing. I think there’s a big difference between digressing and wandering.
Digression feels neurotic (a Poe-esque imp of the perverse?) whereas wandering takes courage, and it’s also not the same as “changing the subject;” it’s a staying with the subject that requires that we approach from numerous different pathways.
Might creative nonfiction’s allowance of a wending repair a history of the imagination’s pre-emptive intrusion in any writer’s life, from childhood forward? Creative nonfiction writing wanders, waywardly, in an attempt to restore all of the paths that had been cut-short, headed off at the pass, de-railed, even if worded byways are more dangerous than wooded paths, even if the way of writing is ill-lit, and most of all braced by the uncertainty of solitary passage.
Try starting out without needing to know in advance where you will arrive: it’s the directive of both the essay and of creative nonfiction. Try asking a better question than what it is, like what kind of work does it do? What is the nature of the peaks and valleys of its field of play?
Emily Dickinson begins a letter to her beloved Susan,
“at Centre of
and closes it by opening with a question,
“Should I turn in
my long night, I should
“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”: On more than one occasion, in interviews, French philosopher Michel Foucault speculates that homophobia is not so much motivated by people’s abhorrence of what they perceive to be aberrant sexual acts as it is a response to the fact that homosexuality produces new forms of friendship, makes new forms of love possible, even restructures the meaning of kinship: “To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another—there’s the problem” (From “Friendship as a Way of Life,” Gai Pied, April 1981, p.137).
When you ask me to imagine a queer future, I turn back to Michel Foucault and the sort of radical kinship structures I find in the work of Hilton Als, identification, and dis-identification; communitarianism born of something other than blood ties and the domestication of desire. Writing as a form of friendship, and friendship as a way of life.
Does this future we have in mind require a teleology of present and past? Like the essays we were taught to have beginnings, middles, and ends? When you ask me about a yet to be imagined queer future, I find myself looking back: to William Blake, a visionary who looked through time and beyond it: who died painting his wife in the nude and singing Allelueia! Who remarked, “what is now real was once only imagined,” in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an ecstatic word/image experiment that un-did binaries of good and evil.
I think the best answer I can give if we’re going together to imagine a queer future is to be critical of the question itself, considering we might have to start by asking the question that no one else is asking. To admit when we can that the Emperor (not to be confused with Catherine Blake) is wearing no clothes. In order to imagine a queer future, we’d need to ask a question that doesn’t already anticipate its self-fulfilling future, its answer. In place of how do we use form, I’d ask how do we form—to re-inhabit form as a verb rather than a noun, and to reconceive “expression” as a relay of impressions or of soundings.
Can creative nonfiction’s sterling moment be a trans-generic one? The arrival of that day when readers are invited to read writing rather than authors, to eke out styles and novel relationships to language, to find ourselves in a place of collocations: creative nonfiction sharing a room with visual art and music, film and architecture and performance. Collocations and appositions: if opposition cancels, apposition makes apparent; if opposition negates, apposition fosters and opens. Can we imagine a writing fueled by a love of incompatabilities, a yen for placing side by side?
Each repetition of an available sexism has the power to make me indignant, but when you ask me to imagine a queer future, I remember Susan Sontag, who confronted with same said, you can’t spend your life being indignant. Can we turn to creative nonfiction for a tone other than indignance: can we play beyond an octave of tones and incite new structures of feeling?
Can we parse queer futures by purveying the books we all have on our desks or in our queues that we hope, intend, aim, want, long, or expect to read over and against those that we truly are reading? The writing that I most like to read is a literature in search of a reader and sometimes a literature that demands the creation of a reader that, prior to the writing, does not yet exist. The books I want to read are those that teach me newly how to read.
In the queer future I imagine, I go back to the point of a non-familial familial origin, re-learning primarily the Italian habit of resting mid-day and enjoying on Sundays a walk called passagietta. I am also in this future fluent in Arabic; that’s one of my desires. How can we write the future when we’ve barely learned to read the past? Why not a writing trained enough on the moment to incite new forms of care?
“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”: On chemotherapy, I want to translate everything that is written to me into a language other than English, and in this way, transform the most banal utterance into a declaration of love so that I can pine, long for, and imagine being wanted. It’s the privilege of being at loggerheads that I miss on chemotherapy; it’s the enchantment of being en rapport.
By all accounts I ‘do’ extremely well on chemotherapy. My ability to exercise daily, to fold, empty, tidy, sort, to hydrate, put me in a tiny subcategory of women on these drugs according to my oncologist. What I cannot do during this time is read and write. Reading must be akin to eating, I decide, and writing to preparing a meal. Pictures replenish me. For a period of time, I eat paintings; I live on reproductions. I lift a hand to remove an ingot as if to recite the secret phrase that will unseal the opening to a cave. I bring down tomes otherwise unopened on my shelves—on chemotherapy, I look through picture books.
The painting that holds me best and most is Marsden Hartley’s Summer—Sea Window No. 1, and through it I experience pieces of a landscape as comfort food. If this painting were a recipe, it would instruct the cook to bring to a shimmer rather than a simmer. “If it’s beauty you’re after, hide the roses inside their leaves,” the painting says. “If it’s a view you need, consider looking through a baffle.” Because all of its planes are equalized, no part of this painting’s scene is privileged, and yet two elements in its arrangement appear to be in competition for my gaze: off to one side, slender, tall, a bunch of roses emerging from a vase, and at the front center of the painting, weighty, thick, a book. The book orients a view of (seemingly edible) clouds and a boat through the window—the book as ledge rather than ledger.
Where do you have to be standing to experience the dock as a desk? What’s the true center of the painting?—a book, a boat, or a rose? The book is rose-colored; it’s saturated pink, and as such is not a book at all but a block of color, an outward form, a surface for reflecting roses. Just as a painting can’t be opened, neither can this book, and since I can’t read anyway, I drift. I sip some water, keen to tally another glass put in, and drowse toward what I think I can recall: Hartley had written an essay on Emily Dickinson. Was it possibly the first critical commentary on Dickinson’s work I’d ever read? “Alone and in a circumstance…” “This world is not conclusion…” “The name of it is Autumn…” Scarlet. Resumption. Crimson. Surcingle. Vermillion. Contusion.
Pang. Heft. Husk.
Incautious. Acorn. Dimple.
Twig. Pluck. Wrinkle.
I drift toward tidings, beginnings of something greater, something still to come.
Bio for Ames Hawkins
“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: What I mean when I claim that CNF is a queer genre is that I find more value in claiming that I am a transgenre writer able to simultaneously identify with David Lazar’s assertion that the essay is a queer genre, with Kazim Ali’s statement that, “Genre, like gender, is not so much passé as it is boring.”
Which is to say what I want more than anything is to not have the writing process be rote, to not already know where it is I’m going, sure of my argument, confident of my approach.
Which is to say I could tell you about how I teach a course called Queer Writings, could locate the answer in texts, in Audre Lorde’s joins, in Wayne Koestenbaum’s prick, in Hollingbaugh veins, in Despentes’ dick.
Which is to say I claim creative nonfiction in my body as literature, as much as it is a body of literature.
Which is to say when I finally re-located my desire, sliding away from some particular final answers, toward the ecstatic thrill of writing in hot pursuit of these questions, I could finally get started.
Which is to say I can’t stop thinking about Gayle Salamon’s exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s elastic ideas regarding sexuality: “The join between desire and the body is the location of sexuality, and that join may be a penis, or some other phallus, or some other body part, or a region of the body that is not individuated into a part, or a bodily auxiliary that is not organically attached to the body.”
Which is to say I can claim that I locate my sexuality in the body auxiliary of particular texts, a join I trace to my ninth year when I was equally titillated by both the story of Harriet Tubman and the poetry of Shel Silverstein.
Which is to say my Derridean be-coming as a transgenre writer begins puberty in my body as literature in 1978 as both unknowable dark matter and latent language-kink spiral.
Which is to say I think about my sexual desire not so much in heterosexual and/or homosexual terms, but as something more like syntaxual and languagual.
Which is to say I am genreamorous: never narratively or identifiably faithful to or in any one form.
Which is to say I understand my sexuality as located both in my writing and that toward which my writing bends.
“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”: Last year, I was building myself an office, a room of my own. I was building it in a lake house, a second home newly acquired with my now ex-partner. It is a grand 3500 square foot salt-box, pine-paneled, lodge-style structure situated on the edge of protected wetland in a National Forest, and the space was situated in the back of the master bedroom, a 10×12 foot area with pine floors and a slanted ceiling. In preparation, I had removed the perimeter of white pressboard shelving on which the past owner stored all her many bins of fabric, and had begun constructing a wall into which I’d already inlaid a stained glass window that used to be a part of a church in upstate New York in which my grandfather once preached. I imagined for the office a door of a style I began to covet while watching the Showtime series Masters of Sex: heavy, wooden, with brass handle and large square a pane of glass on which can be hand-painted in black the office-owner’s name.
This would have been the first home-office I’d had since I was nine, when I lived on the third floor of a redbrick Georgian colonial, when I did all my writing inside red brick buildings, learning all the different sets of rules: what I would have to do to make myself visible.
Both houses remain where they were, largely as they were. My material connection to them does not.
For the past thirty-five years, I bitched about not having a room of my own, not having a spatial creative center. But if I’m being honest, this fact not only hasn’t seemed to stop me from writing, it may have helped me to come to understand my own de-centered writerly desire.
Now, as I find myself in a two-bedroom apartment that I share with my sixteen year old son, having recently separated from my partner of nearly two decades, I think about the fact that though I had started creating an office of my own, once again, I am without one.
I think about the fact that even though I can write anywhere, I’m most attracted to library cubicles: small spaces without décor, without windows, without distraction. Little writing closets, Steinian spaces of possibility where, “A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing.”
What would it mean to acknowledge that though I tried, though I thought I wanted it, though I believed I needed it, for some reason, the office never materialized? Does it matter that it isn’t just a room of my own that I now have, but an apartment where I have the choice of writing in the front room, or in my bedroom, next to a double-wide closet?
Do you know the pro-queer bumper sticker: Closets Are for Clothes? When I first read that, my closet held dresses and kilts hanging next to mom-ironed button down oxfords hung in color-coded order. Now, my closet is full of shirts and pants, and most importantly, ties. A center made of colorful strips of silk, each individually hanging limp, expectant with radical use.
What I realized: When I write, I am usually fully dressed, often using a tie, wearing a borderland, feeling my way to whatever center the piece I’m writing seems to need, to desire.
Here, I’ll border-hang; everywhere I’ll dress-write.
And, I’ll never leave the center where I tied it.
“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”: 1: I’m nine, visiting the library with my mother and brother. With two hands flat against the heavy oak door I loved to break the vacuum created by time and air conditioning. I reveled in the moment that the smell of the sunbaked cement transitioned into the scent of gardenia-dipped librarians sprinkled with cotton-ragged paper and recovered books. That summer, my mom signed the cards giving me permission to take books out from anywhere in the library. I would race to the back, to the shelves of adult fiction and quickly find another Agatha Christie Miss Marple novel. I did this as fast as I could so I would have as much time as possible to sit on the floor in front of the children’s biography section and re-read for the zillionth time Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, by Ann Petry, ever conscious of two facts: 1) that this was a “true” story; 2) Harriet and I had nothing in common but we were unquestionably connected.
2: I’m nine and I’ve just spent all weekend memorizing because that was the assignment: choose a poem of over 10 lines to recite in class. I could have memorized “The Raven”— a favorite of mine—but I was also already keenly aware of the notion of audience. I didn’t just want to impress the teacher; I wanted to garner the attention of my peers. Two years prior I had won a writing contest at school. The 1970s were the golden age of the democratic experiment in education, so while the teachers had been the ones to choose the finalists, the ultimate decision as to who was winner was decided by popular vote. My dramatic reading of an original tall tale about a 99-pound weakling who, by some deus ex machina, ends up with superpowers enabling him to toss barbells around at will, brought down the house. With confidence garnered through this past experience, I proudly stand when Mr. Jacobs calls my name, and enthusiastically begin, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out…” I don’t get two lines when he stops me and says: “That’s not written by a real poet. You’ll have to choose another one.”
In 1978, we move from Sterling Heights, Michigan—a middle/labor class second wave white flight community outside metro Detroit—to Grosse Pointe, Michigan—an old-moneyed, long-time white community that shares city limits with Motown. Five years hence, I will get my first clear understanding of why this place has become for me not just a context, a spatial container for my experience, but a second skin, a life-giving organ, inseparable from who it is I am and how it is perceive reality. In this repeatable future I’ll be ever reading Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook. In the section titled the “Basic Body Types,” Birnbachs’ elision of the Amazon and the Aesthete, I will not only see who I am, but will sense the explosive unknowable, erotically frightening possibilities of who I am—will and can be—to come.
“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”:
They Courted Me Peculiar
First, Harriet. Plain and dark and tall.
From the children’s section she came to call
On androgynous me when I was nine,
All baseball hats and spit and shine.
And though I was privileged —unmistakably white—
I read her story over with all my might.
Something secret, sacred, yes underground too
Was there in her tale left for me as a clue
To who I was then and who I could be later:
Liminal. Transgender. Transgenre. Narrator.
Others came calling. Sojourner and Anne
Amelia and Helen and Clara but then
Harriet sweet would give me her hand
And we’d reunite in my promised land.
And in the same moment Harriet gave me a self
I discovered that words also come from the shelves
That it isn’t just beginnings, middles, and ends
But aesthetics and syntax and language, my friends!
These are the secrets to loving, to play,
In and outside words all night and day.
I could be faithful to Harriet, and I would!
And Shel taught me playing the field could be good.
I memorized “Cynthia” (that much is quite true)
But I’d have done “Ickle Me Pickle Me Tickle Me” too.
I’d lay down with unicorns, with losers as well,
Be they ticklish constrictish whatifish or swell.
And for rejecting my desires for no reason he’d tell,
Shel taught me my teacher could just go to hell.
Now, the fact that the day after I was born
In Folsom prison Johnny Cash first performed
Shel’s queerish tall tale of that poor boy named Sue
Makes me believe in the existence of universal truth,
Bodily connected across time and space
When I list some of the names that were given her face:
Moses, General Harriet, black Joan of Arc,
“The most of a man,” said John Brown (which wasn’t a lark).
Courting, flirting my latent creative desire,
These two peach-popped my word-lust and set me on fire.
Thus in every here-now and in every there-then
Of my writing production in everywhere-when
I will eventually find language through gender/genres that bend
Always walking and writing where my sidewalk ends.
Images in “Courting the Peculiar”
All images found here are believed to be in the “public domain;” some of the images displayed are of unknown origin. We do not intend to infringe on any legitimate intellectual rights, artistic rights, or copyright. If you are the rightful owner of any of the images posted here and you do not want it to be displayed, or if you require a suitable credit, please contact the authors and we will immediately arrange for the image to be removed and/or provide credit where it is due. Access to all content on this site is free of charge and therefore we do not gain any financial benefit from the display or download of any image.
The images in Barrie Jean Borich’s sections of “Courting the Peculiar” were obtained here:
Part I: The Female Gaze, by Brooke, on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/brookeipse/8532994118
Part II: Hartísimo de fotos ya by Gabri Solera, on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/besosyflores/7349202282
Part III: Save Our Planet Building. Original image source unknown; assumed to be in the public domain. http://interiordesignable.com/green-architecture-save-our-planet-building
Part IV: Film Still, Kim Novak in Pushover (film noir/Richard Quine). http://wanderingcinephile.blogspot.com/2011/04/kim-novak.html
Some of the Images in Mary Cappello’s section of “Courting the Peculiar” were obtained here:
Part I: Marilyn Monroe reads Arthur Miller. June 1951 photo by photographer Ben Ross for Parade Magazine. http://www.moicani.fr/article-marilyn-monroe-s-library–103215312.html
Film still from opening of Bye, Bye, Birdie, directed by George Sidney; cinematography by Joseph Biroc, Columbia Pictures, release date April 4, 1963. http://houseofmirthandmovies.wordpress.com/2008/11/09/bye-bye-birdie-george-sidney–1963/
Part IV: Marsden Hartley, “Summer—Sea Window No. 1, ” oil on board, 1939–1940. This work is in the public domain. http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=73887
All other images are the personal property of the authors of “Courting the Peculiar.”
- See Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1998: 131–133. ↩
- Excerpted from Mary Cappello, Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, New York: Alyson Books, 2009, pps. 124, 125, 127,126, 128. ↩