I began 2018 with the earthquake room by Davey Davis, and inadvertently set the tone for the rest of the year. Immutable dread permeates the novel, which tells the story of a disintegrating queer relationship against the backdrop of a very-near-future Oakland in which the threat of devastating natural disaster looms. Yet amidst the pre-apocalypse, life—aka dyke drama—must go on. The novel’s unfortunate prescience struck me this week, as I hid in my apartment from the Most Unhealthy Air Quality in the World, perusing an Instagram feed that alternated between respiratory mask selfies and personal ads (“NON-TOXIC MASC 4 RADICAL TENDERNESS”). I couldn’t help feeling as though Davis’s vision of the very-near-future had in fact already arrived.
Anne Garréta’s Not One Day followed, an archive of desire and liaisons that deserves to be remembered for more than this line, but it was the one that stuck with me, perhaps because the banality of death felt more tangible this year: “Life is too short to resign ourselves to reading poorly written books and sleeping with women we don’t love.” Then, After Delores, Sarah Schulman’s first book, a pulp murder mystery about a jilted waitress nursing her broken heart in dimly lit bars, which I happened to read while nursing a broken heart in a dimly lit bar.
In the spring, I read A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, though it was probably the wrong time. By then my broken heart had healed into a cold, callous thing, and Barthes’s obsessive lamentations, however brilliant, left me unmoved. A note I wrote in my phone from that time reads: “writing toward The Other / but what about / The Other’s / discourse / The Other didn’t ask / to be watched like this.” I dipped into Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and was most compelled by her story “Inventory,” which felt like the offspring of Davis’s and Garréta’s books, as it was also an archive of sexual encounters, set in another near-future apocalypse. Apparently it is a truth universally acknowledged that not even the end of the world will quench our libidos. I finished Estrangement Principle by Ariel Goldberg, which had been lingering half-read on my shelf since 2017 (the inscription on the inside cover, written by an ex-lover: “In case having one nonbinary masc white Jewish person constantly musing about what it means to call art ‘queer’ hanging around wasn’t enough for you, here’s a whole book of that same thing! Xox, ———”).
I got coffee with a friend who recommended José Esteban Munoz’s Disidentifications, after I admitted to him that I generally read too many books by white women. I immediately ordered a copy and blasted through the first hundred pages, finally finding language for the many cross-identifications I’d been practicing all my life. But then, summer came. Summer seems on the surface to offer myriad opportunities for uninterrupted reading; international flights; camping trips by the river; lazy Saturday mornings tanning in the backyard hammock. But who can actually find time to read when parties—and their attendant hangovers—beckon? I took a trip in June to Toronto, where I discovered a wonderful bookstore (Glad Day Bookshop), but read neither the books I brought nor the ones I bought. In keeping with the season, I did find myself at a pride event, drunk on vodka cranberries, crying in the basement of a college campus that looked like Hogwarts; queer culture is nothing if not a second/perpetual adolescence.
Autumn brought better conditions for reading: crisp air, etc., etc., hot cups of tea, etc., etc., and most important, fewer social distractions. I purchased on eBay, of all places, I Go to Some Hollow by Amina Cain; I had been searching for it in used book shops since 2015, after I read Cain’s stunning, ethereal collection, Creature. I had even emailed the publisher (Les Figues), to no avail. Cain’s highly internal, experimental short short fictions are brief blinks at relationships, which, in her signature style, are as uneventful as they are quietly devastating. I followed it with an appropriate seasonal choice—White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, a haunted-house-story-cum-bildungsroman published in 2009 that remains relevant as ever in 2018. The ghosts, as it turned out, were (spoiler alert!) a metaphor for anti-Black racism and xenophobia against refugees.
And then, cooped up in my home this week with my roommate’s air filter on blast, I read The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam. A particular refrain is repeated throughout the book, a quote from Quentin Crisp, which I think could appropriately grace a motivational poster embodying the spirit of 2018: “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”
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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.