Unraveling the Queer Memoir

February, 2020
T Williams, Blog Correspondent

My current literary obsession is the queer memoir. I don’t want to tell what these works mean or anything. I want to show you how they engage me together, as a group.

I have seen so many reviews of books which try to convince you to pick it up and read using a string of adjectives. This novel is inspiring, confident, delightful. The prose (it is always prose) is handsome, remarkable, elegant. The dialogue is crisp, witty, fit for the screen. I am always left unconvinced by this language. I want to read good books, books that could be called delightful or elegant or what have you. But what I really value in writing is its ability to engage me deeply. When I am engaged, I may be delighted, but that is not what’s driving me to read. I have been engaged by bad books. I have failed to be engaged by good books until I’ve learned why they’re worth engaging with. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I have no clue why I find a book engaging. But I think an answer becomes clear if I consider why books, plural, engage me. Some texts, when read in the context of each other, begin to resonate together. When books ask similar questions and pursue similar projects, they become lenses through which to understand each other.

My current literary obsession is the queer memoir. I don’t want to tell what these works mean or anything. I want to show you how they engage me together, as a group. I will pull out a few similar threads of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom, and Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann to show you why I am still turning these books over in my mind.

The Argonauts focuses on Maggie Nelson’s relationship to her husband, her children, and her writing. Her book’s goal, one at least, is to express the inexpressible through expression. This is summarized in a most beautiful metaphor: Is it not idle to fault a net for having holes? The meaning of our words is always shifting, being renegotiated in new contexts. The net’s holes make it useful. Language’s unreliability paradoxically makes it able to capture what it can’t.

Nelson keeps us at the tip of erotic and romantic tension. She shows that she knows exactly how this net can be used when she spares us of all but the most suggestive snippets of her sex life. She similarly focuses on the most dramatic moments of her other relationships: the arguments she has with her husband about the very book we’re reading, her sharing in the joy of his transition, the love she feels for her baby, the death of her mother. We can’t have full access to these scenes of Nelson’s life, but she renders each as suggestively as possible.

The Argonauts is deeply influenced by theory. Nelson is always quoting, referencing, and struggling with the words of her intellectual forebears and contemporaries. Often, she uses her personal experience as a counter example in her arguments with the sources she cites, such as Sedgewick, Wittgenstein, and Freud, but is just as likely to use them to nuance and inform her own life. Language may always be failing, but it never stops producing these conclusions or hot edges of tension. Nelson seems somehow totally content with the net of language while constantly trying to grasp at it. I can’t shake the feeling that she is trying to plug the holes in the net. She captures the moments of language’s uncertainty when it suits her and then uses it as precisely as she needs to.

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is more concerned with stories than with words themselves. In a moment of sheer magic, Kai Cheng Thom’s seemingly biographical first person ‘I’ explodes into fairy tale. The book Fierce Femmes is not a memoir and yet it is. Thom dares us to wonder how much of what happens in this book is based in real experience and how much is fictionalized. I think it’s wrong to push the work into allegory, something to be interpreted until its lost all trace of the fantastic. Bees and ghosts can be figures for trauma but at the same time they can just be bees and ghosts.

The memoir’s opening frustration is that trans women are trapped in a narrative that robs them of everything that makes them dangerous. All girls, after all, should have a bit of danger in them. So, Thom’s narrator is constantly changing, constantly escaping. Her childhood home, the community of trans women who accept her, and the apartment of her boyfriend all prove to be places where escape is necessary despite whatever value and healing are found in them. Fierce Femmes does not ever settle on one story. All stories should be escaped, the memoir will never deliver an unfictionalized account of its author. At the same time, Kai Cheng Thom affirms that some us need certain kinds of stories. We need tales of magic, glamour, and violence if only for a little while, if only to escape from.

I am so engaged with these books because they are constantly questioning language and narrative. They are as critical of themselves as they are of the relationships and situations they portray. 

T Fleischmann’s Time is the Thing A Body Moves Through is billed as an essay but embeds art criticism and personal experience into each other through prose and verse poetry.  Fleischmann reflects on the art of Félix González-Torres amid their various experiences of art, history, and relationships of all kinds. Intimacy confronts Fleischmann as an unsolvable problem. On one hand, the self is totally isolated in its own perception. On the other, we desire connection with each other. But these connections are never total. Empathy can push on but never pierce the prison of isolation. Language and art fail too. Art will never yield a total picture of the artist to those who engage with it. Words are unfit for some tasks. Fleischmann is adamant that their being, their sexuality and gender, will forever be uninscribed by words.

Fleischmann seems content not to solve this problem of their essay. They instead oscillate between the importance of solitude and the joy of relationality. We can only be our truest selves, unsullied by the impositions of others, in isolation. The feeling of falling in love can overcome any hurt. Intimacy remains possible but never total, and Fleischmann happily accepts it as such. It is a necessary good that every touch must end, but we can keep wanting to be touched again.

The queer memoir is a fascinating and emerging genre. I am so engaged with these books because they are constantly questioning language and narrative. They are as critical of themselves as they are of the relationships and situations they portray. I hope you have started to take issue with what I’ve presented here. Have I been too harsh on Maggie Nelson? Did I do justice to the role Kai Cheng Thom thinks stories should play for women? I know I’ve already done her book a disservice by only using the word ‘violence’ once. And don’t you think my view of T Fleischmann seems a little rosy? There’s only one way to find some answers: read.

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