It’s unconscionable that it’s taken me so long to discover Wayne Koestenbaum’s essays: he’s writing in the precise mix of intellectual, critical, and personal that I aim for. A role model. I read his My 1980’s and Other Essays, a kind of omnibus of recent shorter pieces, earlier in the month, and it made me hungry for something longform. Humiliation is a booklength essay on that topic in the shape of 11 fugues.
It’s the sort of book I hope this book I’m writing might turn out like.
Here are just two of the things I loved (of so much in the book worth loving, like Koestenbaum’s writing on shame and the body and the queer body and porn and desire). One is what he calls “the Jim Crow Gaze”:
The eyes of a white person, a white supremacist, a bigot, living in a state of apartheid, looking at a black person (please remember that “white” and “black” aren’t eternally fixed terms): this intolerant gaze contains coldness, deadness, nonrecognition. This gaze doesn’t see a person; it sees a scab, an offense, a spot of absence.
It’s a useful term for a look I’ve seen on faces my whole life. A face we see every day on the president. A look I imagine I’ve worn more than once.
The other thing is the entirety of page 171, from the book’s final fugue, listing humiliations from Koestenbaum’s past:
23.I gave two of my poetry books, warmly inscribed, to a major poet. A few years later, my proteg? told me that she’d found those very copies, with their embarrassingly effusive inscriptions, at a used-book store.
24.At an academic conference, a student stood up, during the question-and-answer period, and accused me of assigning only white writers in a seminar he’d taken with me. Some audience members, appreciating the student’s bravery, applauded.
25.After the panel ended, a colleague?whom I considered culturally conservative?came up to hug me. I told him not to hug me right now; I didn’t want my revolutionary accusers to see me collaborating with privileged humanists.
26.The next day, I called up this colleague and asked him out to lunch. At first he refused. He said, “You shunned me.” The next day, at the cafe, he told me about a lifetime of being shunned.
27.Later, this colleague died of AIDS. I didn’t visit him in the hospital.
This litany of humiliations piled on each other makes me feel terrible. I feel Koestenbaum’s humiliation not just for having been an unsavory person, but for recounting these humiliations on the page. (This feeling of mine he expects and accounts for and speaks to throughout the book.) It’s so brave, which is a word I’ve tended to hate applying to essays.
Lately, I’ve been auto-sending a tweet each morning asking for suggestions of Twitter accounts that intentionally embarrass themselves or don’t try to appear likable or admirable or aggrieved. None have come in. Unsurprisingly, the only suggestions I do get are of parody accounts, or folks tweeting as some kind of funny character.
I read Humiliation, especially its final fugue, and trying to imagine it as a series of tweets I find myself dumb. My mind blank. To be a whole person online feels almost anatomically impossible, righteousness inhering to that experience as grammar does to a sentence. These days I’m seeing any such denial or avoidance of my embarrassments and private humiliating miseries to be a kind of self-treason.
A new favorite. I didn’t know that all my life I’d been looking for a fable about queers loving and working together as they prepare to destroy the patriarchy. Or “the men” in Mitchell’s parlance:
The first revolutions destroyed the great cultures of the women. Once the men triumphed, all that was other from them was considered inferior and therefore worthy only of abuse and contempt and extinction. Stories told of these times are of heroic action and terrifying defeat and silent waiting. Stories told of these times make the faggots and their friends weep.
The second revolutions made many of the people less poor and a small group of men without color very rich. With craftiness and wit the faggots and their friends are able to live in this time, some in comfort and some in defiance. The men remain enchanted by plunder and destruction. The men are deceived easily and so the faggots and their friends have nearly enough to eat and more than enough time to think about what it means to be alive as the third revolutions are beginning.
It’s a short book. Over the course of it, the faggots and their friends help each other stay alive and sane in Ramrod, a place run by the men. These friends include the women, the [drag] queens, the [radical] fairies, the faggatinas and the dykelets. Even the “queer men” who dress and walk among the men, “using all the tricks their fathers taught them” and at night go out and cruise the faggots.
One of the beautiful things about this book, which is full of beauty and wisdom and even pretty line drawings, is how generous it is with its spirit. It is easy as an out and proud faggot to hate on the closeted “queer men” in this book. I’ve done it myself: big vocal public anger at Larry Craig types who work to protect and maintain straight power, and then try to also reap the joys of queer sex.
You don’t get to have both unless everyone gets to have both. You pricks should be locked up for life.
Mitchell, as I’ve said, is more generous. Here’s how he ends the page on the queer men:
It’s the most beautiful book I’ve read about solidarity.
That it’s a book everyone should read doesn’t, probably, go without saying. Maybe isn’t readily apparent. If I’m making it seem like this book (from 1977 and out of print, but any easy googling will turn up a PDF) isn’t for you straight friends of us faggots, if I’m making it seem like something niche, or a relic, know that this book gave me the clearest lesson on what the patriarchy is, at heart, and not just why but how to fight it.
I’ll leave you with one more bit to inspire you, one I’m planning to hang over my desk at work:
Abandoned halfway through. This book is Not For Me. I think I failed to take its title literally enough: this is a how-to book for folks between their quarter- and mid-life crises. If All Advice Is Autobiographical, this book is a memoir, but one directed at a You I couldn’t quite step into:
Breakups make me feel old and haggard, all used up. Getting a new hairdo or a shot of Botox lifts me out of dumps. Even a mani-pedi and an eyebrow wax remind me to take care of myself?an outward manifestation of all the inner self-care breakups require of you, and a continuation of the declaration of self-love that you made when you dumped that fool. Oh, wait?the fool dumped you? As we say in 12-step, rejection is God’s protection! The Universe is looking out for you by taking away someone who was bringing you down. Give thanks by getting a facial.
What makes this Not For Me has little to do with gender (I like mani-pedis and restorative skincare treatments). It’s got a little more, perhaps, to do with age, but mostly it has to do with my looking for wisdom these days beyond 12-step bromides and This Worked For Me So It’ll Totally Work For You advice. But here’s where I’m trying to take this post: I can recall a time when I would’ve finished this book and set it aside a satisfied customer. Tea’s book’s being Not For Me is all about me, not her book.
Reading it brought me back to my first term teaching at USF. I had a student who wrote flash essays in this Tea-ish/How-To vein, specifically about how the reader might go about self-treating their depression without needing drugs or therapy. Self-care tips. Streetwise, This Worked For Me anecdotes. Assumptions that the reader’s life/background/belief system were in line with the author’s.
I was a shrewd, ungenerous reader of this work, aiming in my feedback to bring it all around to what I knew as Classic, Universal Essay Form: lengthen and enrich the structures, deploy more psychic distance between the narrator- and character-selves, etc. I wrote honest marginalia about how the You being spoken to was not me and was presuming things about me I couldn’t agree with.
The student protested: maybe I was reading it wrong, or unfamiliar with the style.
I counter-protested: how else can I help you but by reading this as I am, and gearing my feedback/revisions toward The General Reader?
Reading Tea, I saw at last an example of how I was wrong. If pushed in that classroom to describe The General Reader, I imagine I’d describe a man with a background and reading history closely aligned to my own. It is clear on every page of Tea’s book that whatever her notion of The General Reader might be, it’s not a 40-year-old professor who stays mostly at home and distrusts even the slightest interest in fashion and material objects.
The General Reader doesn’t exist. Not universally. It’s something I always try to keep in mind in the classroom: how is this work asking to be read? What do I know of the writing process (not The Essay Form) that can help this student see their work more deeply and develop it to the end.
I don’t know what I would do if handed Tea’s book in a workshop, but I know I wouldn’t do or say anything without listening to her first about what the work is, to her, and where she wants to go with it.
A graphic memoir about a young girl in the world of mid-level competitive figure skating, who comes out as queer and comes to realize she has to leave skating behind. What’s beautiful about it are Walden’s colors and her use of rhythm and pacing, how she moves from small and tight panels to wider and more expansive ones. Examples are hard to quote, so to speak, but here’s a couple of JPGs I could find.
It’s just that deep violet color throughout, unless there’s light in the scene, and contrasting light: the sharp angles of early morning sunrises, or the glow of litup windows in a dark evening, car headlights at dusk. When that yellow appears on the page it’s like a trumpet or melodic refrain you’ve been waiting for.
The matter-of-factness about her queerness and coming out to family and friends was a smart touch, because this is a story hanging its narrative on other ongoing conflicts. And as with all coming-out narratives I felt that same pang of envy and self-loathing. To have even known I was gay at Walden’s age….
Much less had the guts to tell others.
I was amazed by the insight into the power and purpose of memoir from an artist just 20 years old at the book’s publication. Here she is in her author’s note:
I think for some people the purpose of a memoir is to really display the facts, to share the story exactly as it happened. And while I worked to make sure this story was as honest as possible, that was never the point for me. This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling. I don’t care what year that competition was or what dress I was actually wearing; I care about how it felt to be there, how it felt to win. And that’s why I avoided all memorabilia. It seemed like driving to the rink to take a look or finding the pictures from my childhood iPhone would tell a different story, an external story. I wanted every moment in this book to come from my own head, with all its flaws and inconsistencies.
I like this idea of how researching the facts/memorabilia of one’s life can push a story to the exterior, rather than keeping it true to feeling, which is to say true to emotion, intellect, and art.
you either love the world
or you live in it
I love the sad wisdom in these lines, which is a sad wisdom that runs throughout this collection. I’d only before heard Sax’s poems, at two readings here in San Francisco, where he spent a number of years. He’s from the performance poetry school: some poems were memorized, some asked the audience to woop at certain breaks, all seemed to draw mysterious things out from his body, which is sturdy and self-possessed about how it fills the space it takes up, like a dancer’s.
Echoes from his past performances came to my ear as I read certain poems, that voice, but on the whole these pages were filled in a variety of ways. Space and line working toward effects beyond what the voice alone can do. The concerns throughout are with mental health, physical health, ailments, drugs, addiction, sex, and the body and its transactions. Sax is younger than me by a number of years, but smarter than me in a host of ways about queerness and ways of being queer in the world we, as above, find ourselves just living in.
how technology can move
from its corrupt origins
i have to remember the internet
began inside the murder
corridors of a war machine
each time i link to a poem
or watch two queers kiss
“Queers” and not “men”, note. Also that cleaving of sex to poetry, or poetry to sex. “[T]he homosexual since his invention has been a creature held captive in the skull,” he writes in “On Trepanation” (the practice of sawing open a hole in the skull), and it’s a sentiment I felt in my bones. What made this book a gift was how readily Sax found salvation within this world, the one here, outside the skull. Because “heaven’s a city / we’ve been priced out of”, his speakers are here to make as much of this life as they can, no matter the costs.
spare me the lecture
on the survival
of my body
& i will spare you my body
Buy Sam Sax’s Madness here.
- Because I tend to be a late adopter of certain trends and habits.
- Because even as late as 2017 the message I hear in the conversations about books, and stories in particular, is that the most important stories (and the stories most valued) out there are about A Man and A Woman.
- Because if not “important” or “valuable”, then what One-Man-One-Woman stories often get called is “universal”.
- Because If not A Man and A Woman, then the other best/important/valuable stories are sagas of families, as distinguished by sexual reproduction and hereditary bloodlines.
- Because I’m a queer writer writing a queer book, and I’d like to get a sense of the conversations I hope to step into.
- Because my knowledge of queer books has centered for too long on Books By Gay Men, and it’s time to rectify that.
- Because in trying to figure out why I wasn’t enjoying Call My Be Your Name (the movie) I kept asking myself “Would I keep watching this is if it were about a man and a young woman?” and I realized I would not.
- Because calling Call My Be Your Name a queer story when the story itself invests so much of its energy in not calling queerness by its name feels inaccurate.
- Because if CMBYN is a straight story by/about queer people I’d like to start finding queer books by queer people, because, again, I’m a queer person writing what I hope is a queer book.
- Because, in the end, queers are my people, and I’ve spent too long convinced otherwise.
You can follow along with my year of queer reading on Goodreads.