When Maggie Nelson appeared on San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures circuit earlier this year, the first question she was asked was how she identifies her work, much of which masterfully blends of poetry, memoir, and critique.
Nelson refused to play ball. “I’m afraid I’ll have to perform resistance,” she told the interviewer, not impolitely. She summed up “the affliction,” as she referred to it, of the requirement for artistic labels thus: “We all want to know what you are and we want you to stay that way.”
This exchange about genre could easily serve as a microcosm of the demands placed on writers in general, and on marginalized writers in particular. The default perspective on queer women’s writing is their work as extension of their selves, inextricable from the personal, private, and confessional, even if it’s fiction, and even if it defies genre; like the queer women and nonbinary people that produce it, the work is gendered against its will (and probably in ways that are boring and reductive rather than otherwise). It is the norm to demand that the artist account for her art so that it’s immediately legible to conventional aesthetics—that is, affirm for us the ways it fits into our expectations rather than allow it to speak for itself.
As Nelson’s interview suggests, “identity” has become a buzzword (one that’s acquired a distinctly Millennial veneer), but it’s no more a uniquely contemporary issue than “feminism” or “labor.” If you need convincing, look no further than Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which dives into this most topical-seeming of issues in the Portland of 20 years ago.
Kicking off with a Dickensian description of the city’s fading grunge scene, Stray City is the story of Andrea Morales, a woman more or less orphaned by her lesbianism who has become one of the transplants, outcasts, and gentrifiers of the radical paradise of late ’90s PDX. Among all the other punks and artists who’ve gravitated to the ostensible progressiveness of northern Oregon, she has enshrined herself in a tenderly wrought chosen family who half-seriously refers to itself as the Lesbian Mafia.
Johnson competently sets the scene through music (riot grrl, homocore) and culture (zines, The Ethical Slut), contrasting it with the straitlaced, middle-class home Andrea left behind. Hers is a lifestyle that can be elevated as “bohemian” just as easily as it can be denigrated as “trashy,” an unstructured punk playground that nevertheless makes far more sense than the bourgeois logic of the homophobes from which she’s fled. In Portland, Andrea belongs, and she’s come to rely on her fellow queers as the family she never truly had.
Until, that is, fresh out of a breakup and aching with heartsickness, she stumbles into the arms of a straight man. You can almost hear the vinyl scratching across the Bratmobile LP. Anyone who’s ever been in a queer scene knows what’s coming next—Andrea’s best friends are in a band called “Gold Star,” after all.
As bisexuals, multiracial people, and those with fluid genders can confirm, resisting binary identification does more than evade metaphorical capture. Claiming an invalidated identity, or refusing to identify at all, can lead to rupture, even to danger. Andrea has not forgotten the birth family that practically holds its nose when it deigns to interact with her. Nor has she forgotten the repercussions of its shunning, both practical (like everyone she knows, she’s always a paycheck away from destitute) and emotional (“Promise me it is not what I think it is,” begs her mother). In Andrea’s subculture, fucking a man, not to speak of dating one, is more scandalous than selling out for a salaried job with Nike. If she is not really, totally gay, as this dalliance makes her wonder, will she be forced to shred her Lesbian Mafia membership card for good?
The man in question, Ryan, is straight out of a Portlandia sketch: a scruffy musician not into commitment or owning property, he floats hither and yon on tour buses, rootless and futureless. He is kind, but other than his kindness is unremarkable, except for his dogged (though not usually pushy) pursuit of Andrea. Her attraction to him is another matter altogether. She is unable to explain it, even to herself. Least convincing of all is her ambiguous physical desire: “And just as I was thinking, This is so . . . simple, unsure if it was a nice thing or a boring thing, it was over.” Her already-low opinion of straight men—what with their penchant for seeing lesbians “as a porn category”—aside, she continues to sleep with him, igniting the tension that is Stray City’s most compelling feature.
Because there is (slightly) more to Ryan than the taboo he represents. He is an outsider, separate from Andrea’s close-knit queer community, whose intensity (and incestuousness) has started to overwhelm her. It’s no coincidence that Andrea and Ryan share their first kiss on the same evening that she learns her most recent ex has been dating one of her first lovers. The revelation is distressing, if not surprising to those familiar with how queer community tends to function.
“If no one ever slept with anyone’s ex, if missteps and bad behavior disqualified people for life, we would all soon be single and sexless,” Andrea observes, aptly cramming the controversies of “call-out culture,” the double-bind of assimilation, and capitalist precarity into one sequined nutshell. Instead of wading back into the lesbian dating pool, where her ex and a paralyzing number of potential heartbreaks lurk like a school of sharks, she plays it safe, dipping her toe into the Jacuzzi of heterosexuality instead. While it poses an existential risk, sleeping with a man is at least free of intra-community baggage—provided, of course, that that man can be kept a secret.
Experience has taught Andrea that choosing the wrong lover can mean the loss of identity, because identity is not only self-conceived: It’s externally imposed, too. Never once during her relationship with Ryan does she question her attraction toward other women. Rather, it’s her lesbian cred—on which is predicated everything she’s come to see as “home”—that’s on the chopping block. This is a dilemma that’s been dogging her since her college years, where, “[e]ssentialist was an accusation my friends and classmates had flung around liberally in arguments, yet secretly maybe all we wanted it for ourselves in some way or another—to have an essence. To be an identity.” Having spent the majority of her young life struggling to discern just who she is (her connection to her Mexican ancestry, for example, was lost to assimilation when her grandfather left Nayarit behind him and never looked back), Andrea is dismayed at how easily someone like Ryan can threaten all that she has fought to become.
What results is a love affair in its vintage application: a man and a woman who can only be together in secret. Andrea goes to outlandish lengths to make sure no one learns about Ryan, lying to all of her friends and sneaking off on trips so they can be together without getting caught. One wonders over but isn’t surprised by Ryan’s willingness to be treated like an embarrassing skin condition in exchange for intimacy with someone whose warmth for him is chilly at best. As queer women often bemoan, meeting men is easy; it’s meeting other queer women that’s hard to do.
While it’s nominally about the sexual relationship of two people, at its core Stray City is concerned with the family, with monogamous romantic love and all of its auxiliary phenomena. As is the case for the lesbian protagonist of Sarah Schulman’s seminal After Delores, which turns 30 this year, losing a lover is just as traumatizing as losing one’s family, because for many queers, our lovers are our family. When her ex, Flynn, says, “Oh, Andy, you’re my family, you know,” Andrea’s never felt happier in their relationship. Ryan’s gender aside, the appeal of being pursued by someone on whom you needn’t even bother wasting the energy to trust has obvious appeal, especially when Andrea can keep it to herself. Until, of course, the unimaginable happens: She gets pregnant.
In a heterosexist society, bisexual identity is usually both predicated on and nullified by monogamist ideas about “who you end up with.” Stray City evades this trope by not ending at “the end”—when Andrea decides to take her pregnancy to term, the book is only half-over. Her pregnancy doesn’t precipitate a “decision” to be straight or gay or even bisexual. The book cuts to a future, 10 years down the road, when Andrea is in her 30s with a kid, a new woman in her life, and a whole different set of problems: Her daughter, Lucia, is now old enough to start asking questions about the “bio-father” (as Andrea squeamishly describes him) she’s never met.
Andrea and Lucia’s journeys to self-knowing are depicted with humor and compassion, and while the novel’s two Portlands, separated by a decade, are written with loving precision, Stray City nevertheless feels not quite complete. While its second half ends on a hopeful, but decidedly final, note, the first leaves Andrea’s anxiety about her bisexuality (Or homoflexibility. Or queerness. Or whatever.) unresolved. The bisexual boogeywoman that Andrea and her fellow Lesbian Mafiosas fear is the one that does not invest in lesbian community like they do—but neither do they make space for queer women who aren’t cis lesbians, so how can the latter be held to such a standard? “Because to us,” explains Andrea, “bisexual was the earnest white girl in your women’s studies class who had a nice boyfriend and wanted to clock in a little more oppression.”
But just as we are getting somewhere with this fear, one that today we might identify as biphobia, the novel switches gears, splitting its focus to include Lucia and her own story alongside Andrea’s. The question of the latter’s sexual identity is absorbed into Lucia’s search for the person who contributed one-half of her genetic material, a shift that feels unsatisfyingly abrupt.
In an ideal world, just as we would allow writers’ work to speak for itself, so would we allow queer women to the be the arbiters of their own identities and experiences. Andrea knows what she is, and what’s more, she wants to stay that way; in my opinion, anyway, her lesbian identity isn’t invalidated by her relationship with a man.
But Johnson falls into the very trap that she lays for her protagonist: Andrea is more driven by the fear of a complicated identity than by a desire to understand herself better, and as a whole, Stray City exhibits this same hesitation. Instead of diving into the existentialist rupture Andrea’s shifting identity presents, Johnson lets the trail go cold, leaving us with a resolution that, while no less lovely, is as cloudy as the Portland skyline.