In a New Yorker essay from earlier this month, Masha Gessen writes of two distinct categories of experience. This is in the context of US presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, and why it is that some queer people (as Gessen explains through the article), think he is not gay enough. The “experience” she’s referring to is that of people who grew up queer in this country. But the “two distinct categories” she describes can be applied, or at least considered, in some other contexts too.
The first category, she says, is the experience of never fitting in, for a range of reasons that have to do with the way one appears to others: the way you walk, the way you look in clothes, the way you hit or fail to hit—all the things that set you apart before you have language to describe them.
To these I might add: the way you talk and don’t talk, the way you dress and don’t dress, the way you answer questions about what you do and where you live and where you went to school and finally (or perhaps I should say firstly), where you are from.
And then there is the other experience, she adds, the life of blending in.
For any context, what I wish here is that she had worded it just a little differently. Even if it trips a little less lightly off the tongue, I wish it had been something more like, “the life of blending in, or of having blended in.” As in, the life of being already blended in. Because I think that sometimes (and maybe more than sometimes, for some contexts I’m thinking of), blending in is not a thing you do, or a thing you even think about doing. Not most of the time and not consciously. It is instead, simply and invisibly, a thing that you are.
The rest of Gessen’s essay is important too, for all the elegance with which it lays out how these two distinct categories of experience correlate with two divergent tracks of queer or LGBT politics in contemporary America. How the people in the more mainstream, and often more visible track aim to erase difference. How their message to straight people is therefore “We are just like you, and all we want is the right to have what you have: marriage, children, a house with a picket fence, and the right to serve in the military.” But how the politics of being “just like you” leaves out the people who belong, so to speak, to the other track—the people who cannot or do not want to be just like conventional straight people, whether in appearance or in the way we construct our lives and families. The people who are not (and maybe more importantly, do not want to be) blended in.
I think of Audre Lorde of course. It is not our differences which separate, but our reluctance to recognize those differences... But I think mostly, and linger a long time, on that last part of that last line. The way we construct our lives and families.
For a while now I have been chafing with varying degrees of quietness, at something I’m still trying to articulate properly (before you have language...), that has to do with the ways in which we have been and continue to be socialized, taught, whatever, to imagine so very few and very specific ways of living out our lives, in terms of the forms and shapes and textures those lives can have, the contours and pieces they can comprise, the pitch or key, and the spaces they may or may not occupy.
The times I usually find myself wanting to think and talk about this have to do with times when I hear that someone is getting married (or in any case, planning a more or less traditional wedding), when I hear that someone is expecting or wanting a baby (especially when the someone happens to be a woman I think is intelligent), and when someone asks me whether Andrew and I have considered doing either (though that happens less and less, thank goodness). And the ideas and terms I usually find myself wanting to use have to do with capitalism and patriarchy and the cult of growth, with coupledom and relationships and the cult of happiness, with meaning and possibility and purpose.
But the one phrase I almost always want to use (and, depending on the person I’m talking to, have to try very hard not to use), is “a failure of the imagination.”
I think of that phrase again, when I move on to another essay that Gessen mentions (by Greta LaFleur, a professor of American studies at Yale), and consider the picture discussed in that essay, of Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, on the cover of Time. But I think of a lot of other things too, as I consider the tulips, the Chinos, the bricks and the porch. (As I consider too, the fact that the bricks and the porch belong to a house with bricks and a porch, and likely too a car, a garage, a yard, and so on through the illustrated dictionary of mobility, arrival, and success.)
LaFleur describes this picture as a vision of heterosexuality without straight people. What’s funny is that the picture reminds me very much of so many actual pictures I have seen over the years. Pictures that seem so much like it, except they are of people I am related to by blood or by color.
Visions likewise, you could say, of whiteness without white people.
As it turns out, this idea of whiteness without white people is what brought LaFleur to the idea of a vision of heterosexuality without straight people. She cites a paper by Ana Ramos-Zayas, a fellow professor at Yale. The paper isn’t about the picture of Pete and Chasten, or even about heterosexuality. But it is helpful in explaining what we see and don’t see in this picture, because it discusses whiteness as a form of power that has become alienable and portable, such that it can be wielded by people to whom we might imagine it does not properly “belong.”
This kind of whiteness is not about the actual colour of someone’s skin. Rather, Ramos-Zayas says, it works as a practice, comportment, etiquette, or ethos (and, I would add, as a set of more or less material accoutrements, as in that illustrated dictionary with the house, the porch, the car, the yard, etc.). It is a feature of the ever-increasingly complex horizon of racial capitalism that can be removed from the conditions of its production in white supremacy and deployed by others.
So the picture, LaFleur says, offers us the promise that our first gay first family might actually be a straight one. Kind of like so many of these other pictures I see all over my Facebook feed, among my family albums, and on my shelves. Pictures that seem similarly to promise, or anyway suggest, with all the razor-edged hope of a post-nine-eleven world, that this brown family might actually be a white one.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[sabato 29 febbraio 2020 ore 17:03:01] [¶]
I find some articles on the Internet, about ghosting. At first it feels helpful. Like showing a wound to a friend who happens to be a doctor. I add mental-emotional exclamation marks to all the sentences that feel most like salve. Ghosting is a form of emotional abuse! Ghosting is a form of manipulative punishment! The emotional effects can be devastating! And so on. But I tire quickly of this.
Later, much later. Another word comes, apparently unbidden. Shades of Said and Darwish. And so I go searching among the poems at the Poetry Foundation. Find something far closer—uncannily close—to home:
Turning down Shiraz’s streets
it turns out to be such
a faraway thing.
A without which
I have learned to be.
Or am learning, anyway, to be.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 23 febbraio 2020 ore 16:03:29] [¶]
Coming back today, to Kimiko Hahn and The Narrow Road to the Interior. There is much here on the prose poem (though of course, she is speaking in terms of a particular kind of prose poem form—the Japanese zuihitsu). I collect towards a necklace, pieces like this:
Translated as running brush, I love the way the zuihitsu runs with the content.
Paragraphs absorb the emotionality differently than lineated poems. When I tried rendering a few scribbled paragraphs into conventional poems they did not work; there was an over-sentimentality that was not evident when in paragraphs. It wasn’t that the feeling was camouflaged, more, there was an absorption, an acceptance of the emotion that the verse could not bear.
And by the way. Have you ever looked at the word camouflaged—I mean really looked? Look. Isn’t it beautiful?
Elsewhere: The zuihitsu [is] spatial in every way...
Elsewhere again, and speaking still of spatiality: This is where I write zuihitsu—for the permission, the blur, the rooms created by the little blocks of text.
I remember a line read long ago, Hahn in an interview with Bomb Magazine:
Just because something is partial doesn’t mean that the whole is not, somehow, present.
Maybe not a necklace, then. Maybe always, a possible necklace.
I realize I want more zuihitsu. And so I go back to Sei Shōnagon. But there is—has always been—something about The Pillow Book that has, well, not repelled me really... But perhaps, that has required me (as if I’m being courteously asked), to keep a certain distance. I don’t get that in Hahn’s work. I feel like I am allowed up the steps, past the veranda, past even the aisle and into the inner chamber.
Also there is a roughness to Hahn’s zuihitsu. There are broken edges, and much feels unresolved, maybe even messy. Much too, feels uncomfortable. I do not usually get that from Sei.
What I do get from Sei. List titles like this: Things that look ordinary but become extraordinary when written. Of course, she’s talking about the way the words for names of some things, when written with Chinese characters, could be interpreted differently. (And of course, this is only in the Meredith McKinney translation...) One of her examples is the word for knotweed, which is written with the characters that (if interpreted literally) would mean ‘tiger’s staff.’ But along the way, it’s like she’s describing the essence of what happens with zuihitsu.
Things that look ordinary become extraordinary when written.
Back in Hahn again, I find a word I want to change: A flock, startled by a child’s outburst, rises as a single lake of wings. Like so:
A flock, startled by
a child’s outburst, lifts as a
single lake of wings.
It’s not mine to change, of course. (Never mind that it’s not even necessarily better.) But this is maybe part of what I mean, when I say she invites you in...
I write more in spring. The window is open and the tumult, entirely familiar.
Something about the line triggers—maybe this is the way it happens for Hahn too? I find myself listening to lines of my own:
Let’s let the outside in.
Is a promise a prediction?
Some afternoons, when I want to sneeze as if it were something sexual.
And what did she mean with her daughters, always to say to them at night, “Sticks, feathers, string, mud”?
And extremophiles? I must find out about extremophiles.
Finally, the idea of devotion to devotion.
Years ago I found an interview that Hahn did with World Literature Today, in which she quotes Elizabeth Bishop’s words to May Swenson: “Poetry is a way of thinking with one’s feelings.” I still love that. It sounds and feels like something a child would know to say, would instinctively understand.
Would always already know.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 17 febbraio 2020 ore 13:02:19] [¶]
I know. It’s not a long time I’ve been gone. And yet it feels like a long time, to me. A long time in a place filled with something that feels simultaneously like the opposite of longing, and like longing.
I come home with things to unpack. Some stuff is in the suitcase, like a photograph of my mother in a red sari, and another pair of paisley earrings. Some stuff is not. Like the color of cooked tea, and the call of that bird at Beach Luxury. Like a blue-plastic-bag, filled with the heads of marigolds.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 03 febbraio 2020 ore 11:02:19] [¶]