This one is about everything I read in April: Detransition, Baby & A Trans Man Works at Jurassic Park & An Event, Perhaps & Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Here's the link to the original on patreon.
Well, it seems that this month the topic at hand is reading. Almost all my notes are regarding the things I’ve read, so I guess that’s what I wanted to write about! This comes at the cost of not talking too much about what’s actually been going on in my life, but maybe that’s fine. Formally I think this newsletter is a little different from the previous ones in that it’s mostly close reading. Maybe not quite close reading… medium-close reading? Middle distance reading? I’m not sure. Anyway, I do still want to bookend with some Precious Moments from Reality, so here we go:
Near the start of the month a Long Journey found something like its consummation. I got a tattoo from Scout! It was such a beautiful experience. Better than I could’ve ever imagined. It says “Quotidian” in a gorgeous languid serifed font, and it runs from halfway down my upper arm to halfway up my lower arm. We had originally planned on doing it inside the spring break of 2020, but we said “eh, let’s do it at the end of break.” Then the world ended. I don’t think I need all the preamble for it to be clear that it felt like a big deal to finally be getting it done. Scout picked me up, and we whisked through the Palouse, wind roaring through the open windows. I lay on his bed, the one that used to be Olivia’s, and laid my arm off the side, resting on his warm leg. The pokes were such a pleasure, the little blips of pain stitching me into my body and holding me there. Out the big square window directly in front of me lay the sprawling hills, clouds stretching and contorting in the wind. The open part of the window perfectly framed a telephone pole standing solitary on a distant hillcrest. We talked of many things, but tenderest was the silences between our usual excitable bubbling. We listened to music and softly sang along.
---Spoilers ahead for Detransition, Baby and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
This month I had a lot of fun reading June's so-kindly-lent copy of Torrey Peter’s Detransition, Baby. It was good; provocative, funny, clarifying, clear-headed. It felt lively and alert. The way I’ve described it to the folks who haven’t already known about it (which is unfortunately most of them) goes like this: “The story centers on three characters. One, Reese, is a trans woman, who is the ex-girlfriend of Ames, a former trans woman who has detransitioned and is living as a man. Third is Katrina, a recently divorced cis woman who is Ames’ new boss. Katrina and Ames start seeing each other, and Ames gets Katrina pregnant. Ames freaks out and realizes he can’t handle the dysphoria of being a father, so asks Reese (who has long wanted to be a mother) to help the two of them co-parent. Antics ensue.”
The first nugget that pulled at me emotionally and theoretically was Ames’ “juvenile elephants” metaphor. Ames has met up with Katrina with the intention of finally revealing his position on her pregnancy, but ends up spinning this story about “a gang of three juvenile elephants that had made a sport of chasing, raping, and killing rhinoceroses. … Another herd of elephants razed a village of three hundred, flattening the mud-and-wattle homes, and killing an elderly woman who attempted to chase them away.” Ames details that the sources he was pulling from argued that “the younger generation of elephants suffered from a form of chronic stress, a species-wide trauma that has led to a total and ongoing breakdown of elephant culture.” Basically, the matriarchs who communally reproduce the concentric social structures of elephant society are being poached, leaving a traumatized orphan generation. “Bonded in mutual sorrow and grief, [they] wreaked their vengeance on each other and the world.” Ames then makes the metaphoric leap to connect this to the experience of trans women. “With our strength, we can destroy each other with ease. But we are a lost generation. We have no elders, no stable groups, no one to teach us to countenance pain. No matriarchs to tell the young girls to knock it off or show off their own long lives lived happily and well.”
To be honest, this several-page-story pushed me up to the brink of tears. I felt deeply the absence of a single trans matriarch anywhere near to me as well as the raw & brutal power we are capable of. This was a moment where I reluctantly had to stop reading, off to do some chore probably. When I returned, the next page had Katrina refuting Ames’ claim. Talking about the few seasons of Drag Race she had seen, she says “On those, they’re constantly talking about mothers, and calling each other mothers. Like, just at a casual distance, I guess I thought of mother roles as part of trans culture.” Ames flails a bit, defensive, before conceding, “Yeah. I have a bad habit of saying trans women when I mean white trans women,” I was defensive on my first read too, I’d been so moved by that whole elephant thing! But rereading it I can see how hilarious and silly it is, Ames thinking he’s got this oppression game cornered and then clumsily realizes he’s ignoring Katrina’s mixed-race position and totalizing a white trans experience. Even funnier, at the end of the next page, “Something clicks for Katrina, … ‘Is this your way of talking about the pregnancy?’ [Ames] sighs. ‘Yeah. It’s hard for me. I’ve got some fear going on. I talk obliquely when I’m scared.‘” It’s funny because I do this too, the getting-oblique-when-discussions-get-hard thing, and seeing someone else get called out for it makes me laugh. It’s funny because Torrey is writing messy, depthy, hyper-specific trans characters. It’s funny because it’s true.
About a third of the way through the book, Katrina comes to Reese seeking advice dealing with the faux-pax of clumsily outing Ames at work. This develops into a larger discussion, Reese sharing parts of Ames’ history that he wouldn’t divulge on his own to Katrina, and from there Reese reveals that “In her heart, she doesn’t think Ames is a man. … How many times had she seen the way that Amy, even before detransition, used masculinity as a defensive cocoon? … Masculinity had always been what allowed Amy not to feel.” This insight gave me a little slap across the face. This month I’m coming closer to resolving an insurance problem that disrupted my hormone supply. Normally I have a back-stock that I’ve been building to deal with this kind of thing, but I waited too long to refill and then ran into an error/refusal that made the script impossible to fill. I ran out of progesterone, and while I still had estrogen, I rationed it, skipping every few weeks. The thing is though, I’d been skipping injections before all this anyway, and it was this moment in the book that made me realize I’d been slipping on my hormones as a way to dissociate out of the struggles of the winter. I was avoiding being in a head space that made me experience the emotions of the present moment. I was using my masculine hormones to dull my feelings! So, I’ve decided to stop fucking around and get the damn thing sorted out so I can be raw and real and present right now!! Spring is happening all around me and even if it’s harder to deal with how shitty things still are in the world, I don’t want to waste a single day being dissociated if I can help it!
Chapter 4 was the part of the book that really rattled me though. It delivers a perfectly constructed network of flashbacks. I did the thing where I read a little bit into it, then stepped away for a while, and when I returned I was so absorbed by the story happening in the narrative past that when it flashed forward at the end, I was totally devastated.
The chapter opens with Amy (Ames’ name when he was living as a trans woman, if you didn’t get that earlier) coming down from poppers, sobbing, having sex with Reese, who is at the time still her girlfriend. She’s crying because the poppers made it so “she fell into direct contact with a raw fact: She was a girl in love with a girl. It was overwhelming. It was all she had ever hoped for.” Yes, I remember when this happened to me it was very overwhelming too. I think I was on the couch though, sobbing, not in bed. Next we hear about Amy’s first sexual experience with a girl at 15. Hugely dissociative, and another thing I felt I’d experienced. Further along is Amy’s first time having sex with a guy, in her sophomore year of college. She finds 36-year-old Patrick (lol) on a Yahoo group, asking for someone to dress up with. She replies, interested, but doesn’t have any clothes. He says there’s a place he gets his, he’ll pick her up.
“Picture an anonymous strip mall, veneered in a too-red brick, housing a Subway franchise, a vacuum cleaner store, and sandwiched between the two, a dingy painted sign that read: GLAMOUR BOUTIQUE.” Amy is disappointed with the not-so-glamourous interior but is transfixed by the goth clerk behind the counter. Her nametag says Jen, and she notices Amy’s nervous interest in the breast forms. She asks if she’d like to try any on. Amy isn’t sure her size, so Jen offers to measure her. Once they’re in the dressing room, suddenly it dawns on Amy, “I’m getting a bra fitting from a transsexual!” When she steps out, feeling the weight of the breast forms, she is overjoyed, overflowing with endorphins. “A giggle slipped out, like a bubble.” A comfort starts to simmer, the pleasure of being a girl among girls, talking clothes. “The sense of women advising each other on outfits, of her inclusion in that feminine rite, nearly overwhelmed Amy. It was more than she could have hoped for.” Not only do Amy and Patrick start to loosen up, but Jen is more at ease as well. Patrick tries on some pantyhose and Jen admits cheekily how much she loves the frilly maid outfits. It’s this joy that I want to pluck from this moment. I want to hold it in a vessel, harness its power, duplicate it on demand. It’s something quite specific but not all that rare. It’s the feeling of belonging. Maybe the most pure and generative state I can imagine.
The rest of the chapter progresses through a lot of misery, necessary to arrive at the end, necessary as a counterpoint to the joy. It wouldn’t mean so much if it wasn’t so hard to get... A mother and daughter walk into the shop, judgmentally ruining the scene of euphoria. Patrick speeds off with Amy*, and they have a different kind of dissociative sex. But then we surface again inside the moment at the start of the chapter, Reese comforting Amy while she sobs. It’s the raw familiar reality that devastated me. I’ve been there, I’ve experienced this break down. I've just never seen it reflected back at me.
When I was telling Olivia about the Glamour Boutique scene, she asked if this was a fictional setting, and it made me realize that I had assumed it must be. The book has other little liberties (transsexual is the common word, not transgender, for instance), so I hadn’t really thought too hard about the reality of the situation. It seemed impossible to me that such a place could actually exist. But, doing some reading after I finished the book, I realized that Glamour Boutique is in fact a real store in Fairfield, New Jersey. Street view shows me that the faux-brick is more of a gray, and it’s actually next to a home improvement store, but there it is.
Of course, the brick and mortar Glamour Boutique is closed for Covid, but they do curbside and delivery! You can browse the site at your leisure, but to be honest, it made me a little uncomfortable… Can you guess why? For me it's how overwhelmingly white the website is. Not a single non-white person. The closest thing I can find is a “Light African” option on one of the breast forms. Looking at the promo video they have on the store location page, it seems that the only people who exist in the store’s imaginary are middle aged white male crossdressers. Digging deeper, it’s unsettling to me the way that the video constructs a version of a friendly, helpful, maybe even matriarchal community setting where there are experienced crossdressers ready to dress you up. But the thing that gets me is that it’s so clearly a commodified experience. You pay to access this space, and the people helping you are paid to serve you, no different than the power relationship between the waitress at a restaurant. The real Glamour Boutique is not the revelatory imaginary space I’m interested in claiming. But the space that Torrey starts to create is getting at it.
Another wonderful thing I read was a zine-length poem called “A Trans Man Works at Jurassic Park” by Benjamin Auden Roswell. It is an abstract investigation of “our subject”, a trans man, one of the scientists who played a part in bringing the dinosaurs at Jurassic Park into being. It opens with the opening shots of Jurassic Park. The wet trees rustle in the night, a huge metal cage containing some monster is carried in. “Our subject does not appear in the introductory sequence. Instead, he stands just off screen—up and to the left—on a viewing platform.” Many of the following pages track through a cell cycle. The section “Interphase” opens with: “This is the truth of the matter. They made dinosaurs before they made our Subject’s testosterone cheap enough for him to afford. They made dinosaurs before they made him a dick that works like a real dick and feels like a real dick.” The section ends with: “Someone at Jurassic Park hoped, however obliquely and secretly, that the dinosaurs would kill. This is worth knowing.” In Metaphase, it says, “We conclude that in this world there must be transexuals. We do not have proof that they exist, but that does not mean one day we will not discover them—like we discovered DNA trapped in the belly of a dead mosquito.”
Before Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters self-published three novellas: The Masker, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, and Glamour Boutique. The first two are freely available on her website, but the third is no longer available because, as you maybe guessed, it became the scene I described above. I listened to a few interviews with Torrey via podcast and on one of them (Read Like a Writer) she says that each novella was a riff on a genre, with Glamour Boutique drawing on the soap opera form. This was striking to me, and perhaps clarified part of what made the book so raw with pleasure: It actually depicts a vivacious interrelated cast of complicated trans people! Inside the pandemic, I’ve come to really appreciate the simple joys of a closely related genre, the sitcom. As of my writing we’re about halfway through season 5 of Sex and the City (a recurring reference in Detransition, Baby) and I am having so much fun! It’s so nice to settle in and just watch some women eat lunch and make jokes together. There’s something plain and dare I say quotidian about the practice, and when it comes to media representation (not that representation isn’t a TRAP), something sorely missing is the normal lived experiences of trans people. Torrey demonstrates what fun it would be to see trans people jaunting around in their fictional lives and what’s that? Detransition, Baby is getting a TV show? My fingers are crossed that it turns out as good as it has every right to be :^)
In A Trans Man Works at Jurassic Park, in the Telophase section the speaker/investigator is trying to find out about our subject, researching and interviewing. “We gather the broken mirror shards of our subject. … We meet a thousand versions of [him]—each a vital piece of our remembrance. Each piece, someone who deserves to live and to be loved. We cannot narrow him down. We cannot pack him away. To know even a part of him we must know every one of him.”
The book currently occupying my lunch breaks at work is Peter Salmon’s An Event, Perhaps, a biography of Jacques Derrida, the French-Algerian philosopher who founded deconstruction. It’s deliberately a biography that is oriented towards theory, and that’s honestly been a lot of fun for me. My brain is simply one that is tickled by really complicated abstract concepts! It’s nice too because the text is grounded in something other than theory, so we move through the ideas as they relate to Derrida’s life. This works well because the rich nuggets of philosophical insight are so whole and digestable, freed from the thick matted roots connecting them to the texts they emerge from.
One such nugget comes from Emmanuel Levinas, an influence on Derrida. From the biography I gleaned that Levinas proposed an alternative to the deep-rooted idea in philosophy that our mind/cognition/conscious exists first, that our inner realm is full of clear ideas, and the further ideas get from the serene pool of our minds, the muddier they get. The key example here is the idea that writing is inferior to speech, which is inferior to thought. But! Levinas draws on an experience in WWI, where he was held as a prisoner of war. During that time, he and the rest of the men with him were totally dehumanized, but at one point a dog gets into their camp. The experience of the dog recognizing them as conscious beings reaffirmed their humanity, and from here Levinas draws the conclusion that our humanity is more constituted by being perceived by an other, rather than by the projections of our consciousness. And then, returning to the example, rather than writing & speaking being inferior to thought, it is actually writing and speaking that makes thought coherent. Isn’t that neat? Doesn’t that feel like a little thrum of truth? Look, I’m doing it right now, here in this newsletter! I'm putting down words and in doing so I'm better understanding the thoughts I’m trying to communicate!
That’s not even getting into the real meat of Derrida’s thought… I just got to the part about hauntology, and it’s like, instead of ontology (the study of things/being/existence), hauntology is studying what isn’t. Wild, right? This is riffing off of the idea that linguistically, words are largely defined negatively; A cat is a cat because it is not a rat, is not a dog, is not a plant. What are the ramifications of deliberating trying to understand the nature of something’s being by what is absent? I'm not sure, I don't think I totally understood the concept!
I’m not going to get into the stuff I’ve already passed in the biography, because honestly part of the fun I’m having in reading this heady nonsense is not having to worry too much about remembering it. I let the ideas tickle my brain, I enjoy that pleasure, and I keep moving. I like to imagine they are imprinting on some level, leaving a trace, and I hope that I might be able to have a conversation about them if prompted, but who knows. Maybe they won’t make sense to me until I talk to someone about them…
A lot of the time I spend at work, I’m listening to podcasts. One of several in my rotation related to queerness and the world ending** is the aptly titled “Queers at the End of the World”. There was an episode that I actually listened to last month about Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—the film and also the manga series. I am a deep fan of the film, but up until hearing this podcast I’d been under the impression the manga was basically the same as the movie. But, to my enthusiastic surprise it turns out that it’s a 7-part epic that goes way further than the film ever did! I set my sights on tracking down a copy, and that took me until the start of this month. When I finally got them all together I absolutely devoured them. I think it took me about a week to finish the whole thing?
My final synopsis for this month: Nausicaä is the princess in the Valley of the Wind, a small state around a castle on the edge of the Periphery. A thousand years ago the world was destroyed in the Seven Days of Fire, a cataclysm that ended the existent advanced industrial civilization (a strong metaphor for nuclear fallout.) In the aftermath, the Sea of Corruption develops, a rich forest of toxic fungi filled with giant insects. It grows continually, slowly pushing humans off the land. The Dorok and Torumekian empires squabble for the world’s remaining resources, starting a war, and Nausicaä must leave the Valley.
There’s so much to love about the world of Nausicaä. Nausicaä herself is a big one all its own. She is a tomboy, so from my perspective she might as well be a trans girl. She studies the Sea of Corruption, can communicate with the insects, and learns that the forest is actually purifying the human pollution from a thousand years ago. There is a scene before she leaves the Valley where Yupa, a family friend and also the most skilled swordsman in the land, finds Nausicaä deep below the castle. She is hunched down amidst a rich growth of plants. Yupa recognizes them as being from the Sea of Corruption and recoils, an understandable reaction when we later see that the forest toxins can cause immediate (and fairly graphic) death. Nausicaä explains, “When you give it clean water and air, even bread-fungus turns into this beautiful little tree—and it doesn’t give off the miasma either. It’s not their fault… it’s the earth itself that’s polluted!” She shuts the water off, leaving them to die so that they don’t have a chance of spreading. She has this expansive empathy though that is so hard to dislike. At every turn she's like 'Wait, no, don't hurt them! Let's see what they have to say...'
There is so much more I love about this fiction that I don’t think I have space to extrapolate all of it, so I’m going to get a little brief:
--The world scratches a special itch for me that I just can’t get enough of: That certain kind of fantasy where people spend their life dedicated to skills, honing a craft. The kind of world where people live together and care about the whole community, and the old people are venerated for their ancient wisdom and everyone cares for the kids.
--The world is so richly textured in both the world-building sense and also the literal, textural sense. There are complex cultures: People who handle insects for their functionality but are reviled by society for it, people who have adapted to life inside the forest, tribes with scholar/shaman leaders, royal lines, whole towns and cities. It is a place vividly, overwhelmingly bursting with life. There are so many named types of giant bugs and fungi, all growing over each other; The giant Ohmu: hivemind pillbugs with golden little feelers; The god warriors: giant constructed biotech humanoids who spit focused fire, arbitrators of humanity. One of them comes to life before he's done growing and we watch as every time he uses his powers he viscerally decays a little bit more.
--Nausicaä probably has like 30 different outfits throughout the manga and every one of them is important! For instance: There is a prophecy that says something about a "blue-clad one". Nausicaä is given a brown dress by a Dorok women, then goes and saves a tortured baby Ohmu. The Ohmu's blood is blue, dying the dress and fulfilling the prophecy. Then, she alters it to be a flight suit and it goes through various levels of decay!
--All the characters are so complicated and likable in their own way. There is this group of old men from the Valley who are constantly fawning over Nausicaä, going to any ends to protect her. Selm is one of the Forest People. When we first meet him he's suited up in thick mossy clothing to protect him from the forest toxins, and he seems quite scary and intimidating. But as Nausicaä grows closer to him, we see that he radiates a calm peace, and several times he astral projects to help her. Kushana is the Torumekian Princess, and she is a harsh foil to Nausicaä's tenderness. The narrative refuses to binarize her though, she isn't a villian but she also isn't wholly good either.
--Browsing the web for stuff about Nausicaä is a ton of fun because the manga was running from 1982-94, so there are a lot of really old websites dedicated to it, and that's just really charming to me.
--This is decidedly a story of apocalypse, one that does involve dangerous airborne spores. Because of this, masks are a pretty big part of life, and it's kind of a strange and unexpectedly affirming representation of life right now.
--The narrative ends up kind of anarchic: the emperor is killed, the old god is slain, and the past civilization’s plans for the future are obliterated. Nausicaä decides that it is better to live the lives they have in the present and take their chances adapting to the ever expanding Sea of Corruption than to let the preserved husks of the people who were in power a thousand years ago seize control. Selm says in mind link to Nausicaä, “Let us live, entrusting everything to this planet. Together.” Kushana, as princess, is next in line to the throne refuses to take the seat, keeping it, as the final line of the manga says, “a country without a king.”
Ok, that's all I have to say about what I read this month, let's wrap it up with another Precious Moment <3
Near the end of the month, we had a few solid days of rain. I went out on my lunch break to my usual dirt patch as the weather wavered between a warm mist and little plump plops into the woodchips. It was warm, comforting, comfortable. I listened to Frank/ie Consent’s Lemon Rind. My progesterone was settling back in and tears welled up. I relaxed up against the fence and deeply inhaled the Rain Smells. On the way home that day I heard windchimes, and near home a soothing piano sound drifted on the wind. I’d just finished Nausicaä, and for the next few days I kept hearing windchimes when I went outside. The weather now is decidedly warm. Yesterday was sunny, summery. We biked, got sweaty, drank a fermented drink. I thought to myself, “Was that spring? Is it over so quickly?”
*It’s worth mentioning that Amy emerges from Glamour Boutique into “Fat drops of an April storm.”