Love is not love

Typical yard sign reading “In this house we believe: Black lives matter, Women’s rights are human rights; No human is illegal; Science is real; Love is love; Kindness is everything.”

Knowing me, I have mentioned this before, but also knowing me and my faulty memory, I’m not sure whether or not I have. In other words, please forgive me for repeating myself if I am, but this is important to me. I find myself being a sour jerk when others make a certain gesture of apparent support, and I am going to use this essay to both figure out why and explain. Or by explaining, figure it out.

In the last few years, it has become the fashion for folks to erect signs in their yard which read LOVE IS LOVE, usually in rainbow colors. This is, I get it, intended as a show of support, acknowledging non-heterosexual relationships as legitimate. As a queer woman married to a genderqueer AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) person, I do feel reassured and even happy to see such shows of support. Most usually, around where I live, the signs are put up at the houses of what appear to be very straight, middle class families. (And actually, the signs tend to be longer, all the same sign design, probably bought in the same place: IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE… and then a laundry list of things: Black lives matter, science is real, women’s rights are human rights, love is love.)

I do understand the impulse, especially given the political climate in recent years. But something about it just sits wrong with me, and every time I walk my dogs past one of those well-meaning house signs, I get itchy and cranky and am tempted to let the dogs do their thing in the yard and not clean it up. I don’t do it, but the temptation is there.

It’s not that I think people don’t mean the support they’re showing—I’m sure they do (though real support extends, in my mind, well beyond yard signs to action, which doesn’t seem to be quite as popular as the signs). Part of it is the list—what gets included, what gets left off (economic justice, for instance, or defunding the police, or eliminating the death penalty). It’s a prefab list. Nobody’s making their own. How deeply-held or well-reasoned can these beliefs be if you can buy them as a list on the internet?

But that’s just a side crank. My main crank is about the phrase LOVE IS LOVE, which extends well beyond the purview of these signs. In the last several years, the phrase has been everywhere. And I understand what it means to say: we should not distinguish between heterosexual, two-person reproductive relationships and other kinds of relationships. If you love the person/people you are with, that should be enough. I’m not even going to tackle the assumption that relationships need to be built on love. Okay, well, a quick tackle: there are many reasons to be together, romantic love being only one. Why not financial? Filial love? People who don’t love each other but share love for someone else (a child, a dog, a cause)? Convenience or need? Or—and this is a large reason for my first legal marriage (though not why I cared about the person)—health insurance? And I could also mention the assumption that a love relationship necessarily involves two people. I mean, for me it always has so far, but I’ve seen many relationships based on love that involve more than two people, and I’m capable of recognizing as real something other than my own experience. Ahem.

But all that aside, my beef with the phrase LOVE IS LOVE is beyond that. Because I disagree with the phrase itself. All love is NOT the same, especially if we are talking about queer love and societally-sanctioned “straight” love. To be clear, I am not hierarchizing one over the other or valorizing one experience over another, but I do insist that there is a very big difference. Queer people are different from straight people, and our experience is different. We love at risk.

Even in the years since marriage has been legalized in the United States for gay and lesbian couples, things are still often very different. My wife and I plan vacations carefully—there are parts of the country and places in the world that are not even a remote possibility for us to visit because we feel endangered. Even visiting my mother-in-law in Florida, we steer clear of public places when we can—we’ve been in restaurants with anti-gay propaganda displayed, for instance, or parked next to cars with homophobic bumper stickers. The air, in some places, just feels dangerous. Even in New York, our home, we’ve been followed, harassed, yelled at. When we lived in Brooklyn, my visibly-genderqueer partner had a beer bottle thrown at them by a drunk and a neighbor (three doors down from us) disgustedly shouted “I don’t need to see that!” when we walked by holding hands.

A 2020 study at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law determined that “LGBT people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault” (1). Another study shows that over 45% of LGBT workers experience employment discrimination (being fired, not hired or harassed because of their sexual orientation/gender identification) (2). LGBTQ folks are disproportionally homeless. Numerous businesses have made bank on publicly denying our rights (remember the bakery that proudly refused to bake a “gay” wedding cake?). Even finding a safe place to pee for genderqueer and trans folks is often difficult.

Suffice it to say, LGBTQ folks face violence and discrimination based on the fact that we are not straight. This is old news. LGBTQ folks of color face an even higher rate, by the way. So how can I get behind a sign that claims that LGBTQ love is the same as straight love? When you cannot walk hand in hand on your own block without risk, does that change the nature of holding hands? When you must plan where you might travel based on how much risk you face for your sexuality, does it change what it means to take a vacation? Does it change how the map of the world looks to you? When you risk ostracization from family, community, church, school simply because your love is queer love, does it change how love feels or what it means? Our love is formed and expressed in the face of resistance and disapproval and risk. That’s different. Love is not love. We love at risk.

To ignore all this, to insist that “love is love”, seems heterosexist to me. The underlying suggestion is that “we should accept LGBT people because they are just like us.” That leaves so many of us out of your formulation. To predicate your acceptance of me upon your ability to understand and make sense of me (because I am like you) is narcissistic and small-minded. Queerness (the Q that often gets left off the letter list in discussions like these) is about resistance to heteronormativity. It’s about being illegible to the mainstream. When my wife was at a job interview in a strange town and walked down the street, someone loudly remarked as my wife walked by, “What is it? Is that a man or a woman?”

It is the opposite of open-minded to say you accept someone because you can recognize their sameness to you. This means you can only accept queer love between two normatively-gendered, marriage-minded, monogamous, permanent, reproductive, able-bodied people, a slightly-altered but essentially-the-same nuclear family. It means you still will not be able to accept the vast majority of queer love in all its different permutations.

Queer love is different from straight love. Often, it’s brewed in a crucible not a teapot. Often, it challenges the very assumptions which found straight culture. To accept queer love is to accept that “love” might mean something very different from what you’ve been taught to understand. Actually, to accept queer love might mean that you must accept something without understanding it.

  1. LGBT people nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to be victims of violent crime – Williams Institute (
  2. LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment – Williams Institute (

As They Say, the Tooth Hurts

Let me begin by telling you two facts. 1: I am 50 years old. 2: I just had all four wisdom teeth removed, an indignity and a pain beyond which I thought I’d long aged.

As I remember, most people had their teeth out when they were teens. Apparently, my teeth had not yet come in and, when they did, I had no money for a dentist, and so I never even knew. Sure, I had tooth-coming-in pain, but I just smiled waveringly (I wouldn’t say it was a grin) and bore it, not knowing why things hurt so bad. Eventually, the pain subsided, and that was that. I sighed in relief and forgot about a dentist, figuring I could do without what I couldn’t afford. I never knew I had wisdom teeth, so I never knew I had to get them out.

And despite what most people who know me will say, I have a small mouth. Not much room for teeth, wise ones or otherwise. (Get it? Otherwise?) So when my dentist recently told me the wisdom teeth had to come out because they were making trouble for my other teeth, pushing them around and crowding them out, I dutifully made my appointment with an oral surgeon and waited with dread.

I’d like to say I was worrying about it for nothing, but boy, howdy, it is a procedure that really sucks. At least when you’re 50 and not taking any serious drugs. I stuck with ibuprofen instead of getting something more powerful prescribed, and sheesh. Poor choice.

I’ve been thinking about those four gone teeth this week. My mouth has protested their absence by swelling up, acting tender, throbbing and stinging and burning with pain. Somewhere, in some trash can, those teeth are rattling around. Perhaps by now they’ve been sent to a medical waste incinerator. Does dentin burn?

Those wisdom teeth had made my mouth a hostile home, bullying the other teeth, rearranging the landscape of my jaw to their liking, occupying all my thoughts with their need for management. They represented a leftover from my youth, a pain I had endured without questioning where it came from or what could be done about it.

Yet it was hurtful and difficult to excise them. I’m still in throbbing, burning misery a week later. It hurts in the spaces where the teeth used to be, but the remaining teeth are also hurting, apparently on high alert, the nerves rattled because of the uprooting. That kind of pain invades everything.

The teeth are a metaphor. That much is clear. I could go on, but I imagine it would interest few people to know that much about me, and what a metaphor means doesn’t mean much coming from its originator anyway.

In a move of great hypocrisy, a move toward TMI, I will tell you that when the dentist told me I was a “tongue thruster,” I laughed. Mostly because of the name. She explained that in sleep, swallowing, managing tension, even speaking, I push against my teeth with my tongue and displace them. Even so, I find it funny and I want to put it on a T-shirt: PROUD TONGUE THRUSTER.

Hilarious dental language aside, I’ve been thinking about this idea. Perhaps the whole displacement thing was not the fault of those wisdom teeth, but the result of my tongue applying pressure, insisting on its own need for space. I have always been told I have a big mouth, but perhaps this is not the problem. Perhaps it’s a case of a big, insistent tongue, a muscle which can only think to push against what tries to hold it back, reactionary and stubborn, and this is the consequence I bear for it.

As a woman (and before that a girl), as a first-gen kid, as a smart kid, I was always taught humility above all else. There is perhaps no greater sin, I learned, than to put myself above or in front of another. As a child, I was told that children should be seen and not heard, that one should always consider how one might make others feel before doing or saying anything. In college, I rebelled, and was frequently called—mostly by the boys I knew—“outspoken,” which is the crappy way of saying, “You talk too much and too loudly about things I don’t want you to talk about.” It is also the thing They seemed to say about all feminists in the 1980s. When I was assaulted by a male student at school, the college counselor told me that I had provoked him and, though I’d told them he had been stalking me and telling others he was going to kill me, the school would not intervene on my behalf (I kid you not. It was 1989). Later, after that incident, as a young adult I realized from, well, just walking down the street daily, how very public the property of my body was, how other folks seemed to see it as unquestionably available for their judgment, comment and use.

When I hit late middle age, I was heavy tired and then elated to discover that I had become mostly invisible in public. (Walking with a cane has helped in that department, too.) There are certainly drawbacks to such invisibility, but there is a useful side: no longer would I be pushed or pressured, bullied or used, forced to walk the gauntlet of a landscape hostile to women like me. If you don’t see me, then you won’t bother with me. Aging didn’t feel like a loss at all—it felt like a relief. My life got much better, much more my own, in many ways.

I believe they’re called “wisdom teeth,” by the way, because they come in later, around the time one should have become “wise” to the world. Is it telling that people usually have them yanked out upon their first appearance? Does wisdom produce that much disruption, crowding everything else out?

All this is probably the pain talking. I haven’t been thinking right, the drilling ache curdling my thoughts. I should have asked for some prescription painkillers, but I didn’t want my head muddled. Go figure.

Today both my dentist and her hygienist told me that I’m healing really well and that they’ll take the stitches out next visit. I will be unlaced, and my mouth can once again do what it will. That sounds like the relief of freedom, but also the weight of responsibility coming. All my mouth has ever done is get me into trouble.

They’ve removed all my wisdom and it hurts, but they tell me relief is around the corner and everything will get better. It is entirely possible that the stoic mentality by which I have always operated was the wrong choice in my case, and that the pain from the wisdom tooth extractions is neither the fault of those bullying wisdom teeth nor of my tongue and its pressure, but of me and my own choices, my own stubbornness. What if they take out the stitches and everything still hurts? I can’t imagine it not hurting—living with the constancy of pain, it’s hard to imagine an otherwise. I mean, pain is a signal. It’s hard to imagine being wise without feeling pain. I’m not exactly sure what to hope for. Red pill, blue pill.  

Upcoming Online: Author Talk

Co-Sponsored by the Dobbs Ferry and Scarsdale Public Libraries in New York, fabulous author (and one of my favorite people) Julian Winters and I are going to chat about LGBTQIA+ representation in fiction, our own books, and your questions.

Join us on Zoom (register to get the link) on June 9 at 7 PM EST.

On Ownership

When you start an essay with this title, it’s pretty open. I recognize that. We could be talking about anything from the history of slavery on down to “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. And perhaps that’s the problem with ownership, at least the way we Americans tend to conceive of it. I mean, wasn’t it a sense of ownership that compelled all those (mostly white) people to violently invade the Capitol with guns and deadly violence because “their” country had been unfairly wrenched from “their” grips? It reminds me of that moment in Paris is Burning when the category is rich people (or something like that) and the MC yells encouragement at the ball walkers, “YOU OWN EVERYTHING!” That’s the American Dream, right? You own everything, and everything is in the context of ownership. (Of course, to do so, it goes without saying, you must be a person who can own, not a person who can be owned—no POC and no ladies or poor folk of any ilk need apply.)

What does it mean to Americans to own? As I can think it, there are three main definitions of the term, “possession” being the most primary. People also say they “own up” to something, which usually means to admit one’s culpability in it. And the kids today (well, as far back as when I was a kid, too) say they “owned” someone when they roundly best them in a sport or game—you got owned, or, as it has been recreated in recent years, you got pwned. All these uses can easily be understood in the context of the first definition, possession, so let’s talk about that one. (You might even say that “possession” owns all the other definitions.)

You own everything. At least, as Americans, we are taught to imagine this is so. This goes for material possessions, but also goes for children, thoughts, animals, actions, land, rights and liberties, and even society. We love the word “my.” It’s hard to make oneself understood in English without the possessive. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to refer to my wife without using “my”—outside of using their name, this is pretty tough. (Let’s not even go into how confused people get about the combination of the gender marker “wife” and the pronoun “they;” nor shall we go down the rabbit hole of “owning” one’s gender). When it comes to the dogs and cat who live with me, take up most of the bed, nuzzle me when I’m crying or yelling, depend on me for food and defend me fiercely against falling leaves and twist ties on the floor, the word “pet” feels wrong because it seems like a euphemistic way to say “my” animal. “Animal companion” has always felt a little too awkward, but I’m left with nothing else.

This is one instance of the language trouble I think is good for me: I like being confronted with the discomfort and inadequacy of language when it comes to expressing reality. It reminds me how powerful language is, how much it can do to shape the way we think, and it makes me rethink unchallenged assumptions. (If I choose to submit to the language, I choose to imagine I own “my” wife, “my” dogs and cat, “my” house, and even “my” gender. I choose my way into that moral and philosophical mess, whether I’m conscious of doing so or not.)

Thinking in terms of possession does a few things for the thinker. First, it brings the world into reach, makes it smaller and accessible and manageable. If they are “my” feelings, “my” wife and “my” house, I can ostensibly control them. If I begin to think of the world as Jacques Derrida saw language, things change. Derrida is known as the one who developed “deconstruction,” which suggests that each word or concept we know depends upon us knowing another word/concept, and that depends upon another, so that if one obliterates one, a huge hole opens up in the web of what we “know,” like a run in a stocking. For instance, in order to understand what a mother is, one must also understand “woman” and “child,” and probably “nurture,” “parent,” “father,” “pregnant,” etc. Things had to change when “mother” began to apply to women who parented non-biological children. We learned to say “mother” and “biological mother” in an effort to make it clear just what kind of possession we are talking about. Do you genetically possess that child, or just emotionally/fiscally? Did you possess that child with your body for nine months? Is someone who births but then kills a ten-year-old child a “mother”? (Were they a mother before, but then stop being one?) What about someone who does not birth the child, nurtures that child, but is not a woman?

Nowadays we understand “mother” is not concomitant with “father” (we can have a family with only a mother, or two mothers, or no mothers), we are struggling to change our understanding again.

I don’t even want to slip down that slope of “woman,” because it’s rocky and muddy and long and deserves an article devoted to it alone. But just begin to think: if we no longer understand “woman” to be a biological female, a “lady,” a good and proper companion for a “man,” and all that comes with that business, can we properly understand “mother”? What makes a mother and not a father?

You get the point. This can go on and on (for Derrida, that is the point): if we unravel “woman,” then “mother” comes undone, but so does “sister” and “daughter,” “widow” and “wife,” “seamstress” and “party girl” and “slut” and “princess” and “lesbian” and even concepts like ladies’ rooms or pink ribbons for breast cancer (you are aware, of course, that plenty of non-women get breast cancer, even those who are Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB)).

“Having” a gender suggests that one “owns” one’s gender, but this is generally not something we experience. Your gender is defined for you by “your” culture—when you are born in the US, for example, you are declared by the doctor in charge (“It’s a boy!”), and then by the birth record, which records the sex of the child (how do we conflate sex with gender still?) and the child’s name (which most often is meant to declare your parents’ choice of your gender as girl (Sarah) or boy (Stephen)). Then your parents send out a birth notice, and most of these primarily declare your gender (pink ones, or ones that anounce “It’s a boy!”).

I can’t help but think about all those “gender reveal” stunts that have been going awry and blowing people up and setting the planet afire all in the name of hanging on to the predictability of an imagined stability of the concept of gender. It’s just too poetic: a person attempts to make a big, flashy declaration of the expected sex of their baby, which is understood to confer the gender on the child and it winds up killing them or burning everything down. If it weren’t so tragic (and here I think about how a child will feel, growing up knowing their father died trying to declare them a girl), it might be funny. (This is to say nothing of the fact that “reveal” is a verb, not a noun. A noun, by the way, is a thing you can own–you can’t own a verb… what does this suggest about a gender “reveal”?)

Much of this, in my mind, wends its Derridian deconstructivist way back to the concept of “ownership.” Who owns my gender? If I am not free to declare it myself, but it is conferred upon me by others who recognize me as man, woman, trans man but “really” a woman or genderqueer but “you can tell he’s really a man,” I do not own it. Real men don’t eat quiche, they used to say in the 1980s. Pink is for girls. (Did you know that before WWI, pink was considered a stronger color–related to red–than the calming blue, so pink was for boys and blue was for girls?) If crossing my legs a certain way, wearing a certain article of clothing, speaking with a certain tone or timbre of voice, or thinking certain things indicates to others some signal that causes them to read my gender in a particular way, then I do not own it. Even if I declare myself a woman, if my womanhood is dependent upon recognition by others (do I “pass”?), then I do not own it.

“Possession,” which is defined as having or owning something, works this way. It’s tricky. You can possess something (I possess a great pair of shoes), or you can be possessed (I am possessed by anger often) but still can “have” it or “be” it. If I am possessed by a ghost, I am inhabited by it, but it may leave or be expelled. If I am possessed by an idea or desire, does it own me, or do I own it? Possession is temporary (those shoes will fall apart, I will not be angry at some point, that ghost will give up). If it is temporary, is it about being or having (nodding hello to Cathy Opie)? Is it, in our American conception, about both?

Alysia Constantine’s latest novel, Luckmonkey, features a group of activists trying to force questions into the unquestioned ideas of possession and ownership.

The Day Erased

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.

Night, sleep, death and the stars.

A Clear Midnight

Walt Whitman

I’ve pulled away from the world, been absent. It’s been a terrible time to do so: my third novel, Luckmonkey, was recently released, and I know I should be putting my voice everywhere in an attempt to draw a bit of attention to it. But there have been other considerations, ones much more important to me than my success or failure as a writer.

I’ve written before about my mother-in-law, who has been suffering from dementia that brings her by turns to sweetness and anger, to paranoia and forgetfulness, to incontinence, to fear, to confusion. It’s been a decline both slow and rapid, always awful, always frightening. Recently, she’s slipped down another rung and can no longer function very well on her own. She soils herself at night. She never quite knows to whom she’s speaking on the phone or in person, mixing up people and events and time, building her own very different universe out of the crumbs of fact she’s been able to retain. She’s very confused—mistaking toothpaste for face cream or permanent marker for her eyebrow pencil (both comical mistakes, until you realize they were real mistakes). Often, my phone rings with a call from her, but when I pick up, it’s dead air—she’s been playing with the phone, randomly pushing buttons without the intention to call, without, most likely, even understanding what the buttons do.

The other day, she told her homecare worker that I and my partner are both her biological daughters, and her second, older biological daughter—a troubled person with whom she has a troubled relationship–is actually not her biological child, but someone she adopted away from a terrible family. And while it’s so endearing that she thinks of me as her own daughter—most queer spouses my age could never hope for something so wonderful—it is also a little weird that she thinks I and my partner are siblings. I’m going to think twice every time we kiss or hug in front of her now.

We have moved, in the words of her homecare worker, into a new phase of the dementia, and though it is not about me, nor is it any portent of my own biology (as it feels like it could be for my partner), nor even my own parent (again, as it is for my partner), the news has been worming its way into the pit of my stomach, the back of my throat. I’m waterlogged by grief. All my limbs feel too heavy.

As the queer child of an immigrant whose family has remained overseas, a child whose parents divorced each other and remarried new families, I’ve become used to a close-but-distant kind of relationship. One loves one’s family of origin but remains ever estranged, even as one has to seek new family (queers call it “found family”) for intimacy. I’m very lucky that both my family of origin and my mother-in-law love and accept me, and that I have collected a fiercely loving and supportive found family to boot.

Dementia is cruel: it takes you away piece by tiny piece, it ebbs and flows into better and worse times, its alchemy stirs the mind into a swamp of fragmented and unmoored memories. For years, my mother-in-law said I was like a daughter to her, then actually began to call me her “other daughter,” which was her loving way of recognizing my relationship with her biological kid, my wife. Now this is what I have become to her, a literal other daughter, no longer in scare quotes, the metaphor eaten away to its kernel of truth.

One of the novels I used to love to teach was a surrealist work called THE INFERNAL DESIRE MACHINES OF DOCTOR HOFFMAN by Angela Carter. It is a messy proposition, loosely strung together, straddling genres and tones and writing styles and political points, but it’s also brilliant, funny, strange, compelling, and I love it (likely for the very aspects that make it messy). Early in the novel, Dr. Hoffman, an Evil Guy, invents a machine that makes metaphors into reality—everyone in the audience at an opera becomes a squawking, preening peacock, for instance—so that “reality” becomes a dangerous, unnavigable wilderness and Hoffman can, in the chaos, grab control of the world. Words become unreliable, meaning shifts, signs quite literally fail to work, and the world tilts.

Though this novel has always been about meaning-making and language and story for me (oh, please go read this bizarre, provocative, problematic book), those Dr. Hoffman machines must, I imagine now, garble up the world in a way similar to dementia. All the signs fail to function. Past and present and future run together like watercolor. Everything means what it wants to mean. Metaphor (“You’re like a daughter to me”) becomes reality (“You are my daughter”).  

Both thinking and lack of coherent thought are the problem. A demented brain has a schism, a chasm, the thoughts and memories trapped somewhere far across the divide, unreachable and foggy in the distance. My mother-in-law grasps for what feels like truth, though the results resemble something like what happens in that game of Telephone in which a phrase gets so twisted through its whispered repetitions that it becomes nonsense. But my mother-in-law is also sure of what she knows; she thinks it, therefore it must be true. I must be her biological daughter; her homecare worker’s sweet and devoted 80-year-old husband is touching her butt. Meaning and thought are the ground most of us have come to believe is stable.

My mother-in-law’s homecare worker refers to her own “son-in-love.” I always figured this was a fantastic accident of second-language speech, but perhaps it’s actually intentional. After all, it is love, not law, that legitimates the relationship. This is particularly poignant for someone like me, who has been in a queer marriage since long before it was legally recognized. My partner and I just passed our 20-year anniversary but have only been legally recognized as married for less than six of those years.

My meandering point, I suppose, is that meaning and language are so very important, and to lose them must be gutting. Language has the power to create (biological ties have threaded their way between me and my mother-in-law) and it has the power to erase (I think back to when lovers were routinely referred to as friends or roommates, think back to Boston marriages and confirmed bachelors, and to that most pernicious modern slogan, “love is love,” which erases the specific political dangers of queer love). Language grounds you with logic, with temporal dependability, with consistency. When I was young, I could not even conceive of being queer: there were no models, and I had no word for it, only the knowledge that I was uninterested in boys and found girls much more magnetic. I thought I was unable to fall in love; I did not know that there were women who loved women—it was not even in my Imaginary as a possibility–never mind that there were women who loved people who were neither men nor women.

My mother-in-law’s mind has come unmoored. She is now irretrievably at sea. Watching, trying to ease her struggle, has been excruciating for me and for my partner. We still remember the exacting woman who trusted no one to cut her hair properly, who had been a model, who loved her little Yorkshire terrier, who escaped an abusive husband and traveled out of the country to get a divorce, whose life was a series of truly heroic stories. We’ve all drifted away from what we used to know to be true. Love only gets us so far, and doesn’t help us skirt the pain of loss, the long slow horror that this illness is.  

The land is grounded, the ground is reason, time marches across it, steadfast, reliable. I think, therefore I am, DesCartes said, and I wonder what this means for my mother-in-law, who can no longer think in the same way she used to.

I think, therefore I am unmoored.

Acts of Empathy: On Coconspiring

Here is a thought experiment for you. (For too many folks, it’s actually more of a memory than a thought experiment—I hope, for you, this is an entirely theoretical exercise.)

Imagine you are houseless and squatting in an abandoned building. List everything you are without.

You might start by listing utilities like electricity, gas, running water.

Go on: what might lacking these things mean you must live without? Heat. Showers. Clean clothing. Cooking on a stove. Refrigeration. A toilet.

Now, do more. What else might this way of living mean doing without? Mail. A driver’s license. Furniture. A locking door. Safety. Quiet. Privacy.

What about a phone and address that give people the ability to reach you easily? (I’m assuming you won’t have a cell phone if you don’t have a stable place to live, though this is not always the case.) This means you have no point of contact for friends and family, but also job prospects and medical clinics. Now what does missing that important contact mean you also miss?

Even more: what about the free mental space and energy it takes to write, paint, create, teach, raise children, think? If you spend your energy worrying about finding food, keeping clean and warm and dry, you don’t have much left for those other things. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Though Virginia Woolf was an elitist, A Room of One’s Own had a great point: without money and a safe, private space, you cannot do much at all beyond working to survive.

You can probably make a much longer list if you keep going. I did so when I sat down to write a novel starring houseless squatters. The novel is done now, edited, published and out in the world, but I’m still nervous that I overlooked something, took some convenience of stable housing for granted, forgot all the ways in which I am lucky.

It’s easy to do. I wake up, jump in the shower, eat and pee when I want, work and think and relax in peace. I listen to music when I feel like it. I feel pretty safe in my house. I sleep without fear in a comfortable bed, and when I wake up, I don’t think about whether I’ll be able to return to the place I call home at the end of the day. I have a key, and I have a piece of paper that says I can; nobody can board up my home or take it over while I’m out.

The enormous difficulty of thinking about houseless characters in this way—thinking of all the ways in which the experiences of the day are different for those folks than for me—strikes at the heart of what’s so tough and so scary about writing fiction. Unless everything you write stars characters exactly like you, you must write about people who are unlike you and about experiences you may never have. In my case, I do not want to write novel after novel filled with only fat, Greek, disabled, 50-year-old queer women who love green olives and diet root beer. Writing fiction is work precisely because one must write outside one’s own box.

This comes with a caveat, of course. The problem, historically, in America (and probably many other places) is that most published writing has been done by those of the dominant culture–here, it’s white, upper/middle class cis men. When they needed a feminine character, they invented her. When they needed a character of color, they imagined someone to fit the bill. When they wanted to show a disabled person—well, aside from Tiny Tim, I’m hard pressed to even imagine that happening. It all goes back to the Imaginary (I’m pulling a little from Lacan here and a lot from Luce Irigaray, for those who care): we can say that the Imaginary is that mental space you hold which contains all things that are possible to think of. If something is not contained in your Imaginary, you cannot conceive of it. For instance, imagine a sixth human sense. Got it? You very likely said ESP. There are TV shows, books and movies about that one. Now imagine a seventh way of sensing the world, and an eighth, a ninth… What would a tenth human sense be? There are, of course, more than five human senses (lots of folks have detailed them; proprioception is my favorite), but few of us have even an inkling of the existence of them. That tenth way of sensing the world is not in most peoples’ Imaginary; if the possibility is not contained in your Imaginary, you quite simply cannot imagine it. For the most part, in the history of mainstream American literature, non-male people, queer folks, trans folks, disabled people and BIPOC folks did not reside in the Imaginaries of many writers, nor did those writers even realize that lack, nor would they have even believed that lack was a problem. (I’m looking at you, Norman Mailer.)

Also for most of our writing history, such people were barred from publishing their writing or being recognized for it (glancing sidelong at Mailer again, and at PEN). Many of those people were barred from writing at all (for Black people held as slaves in America, for example, it was often a punishable offense). Or, if such folks did publish, they had to pretend to be of a more acceptable identity. George Sand was actually a woman named Amantine Dupin, for instance. Jean Toomer reportedly passed as white in early career. There are infinite examples.

Writing only about characters exactly like you is problematic because it narrows the field of vision and just continues the long history of leaving out so many of us. Writing a character not like you when you do not see that character as fully human is equally problematic—you get a strawman, a pawn, a thing you can move about and dangle into your story to suit its purpose.

And opportunity is limited for the writers themselves—it’s gross to think of an empowered person speaking in the voice of—and in place of—the person whom they purport to represent, but even grosser when you recognize that money and the power to be heard are at stake. Imagine a women’s rights rally at which only men were permitted to speak. Or a conference on disability empowerment to which only able-bodied people were invited. Representation matters. And self-representation matters immensely.

But many of us are still underrepresented in literature: queers, trans folks, women, BIPOC, disabled folks, houseless folks, the list is long. And it’s also dissatisfying to think that only books written by women may contain women, or that the only time a disabled character may be represented is by a disabled author. The trend now is toward “sensitivity readers,” people who act not as native informants but highly attuned readers, reading a text for its representations of an identity they share and experiences they may understand more readily than others (a disabled person reading for accuracy and authenticity a manuscript featuring a disabled character, for example, or an immigrant reading a manuscript featuring an immigrant character). This can be a good move if those readers are compensated and credited properly—too often, those of marginalized identities are expected to do the free labor of educating more privileged folks about those identities.

Forgive me. This essay began by speaking about imagining the experience of houselessness, and ended here, in the question of representation, native informants, access, privilege and authorship. You may think I’ve let it meander, but I haven’t. While houselessness is not an identity but an experience, much of the problem with representations of an identity by someone to whom that identity is not endemic is that there is a failure to conceive of the experience of that identity. It is, in both cases, a failure of empathy and a withered Imaginary.

I don’t have a great solution, one that sits well with me. Stories should represent the range of people who live in the world, but author opportunities should also do so, and they currently do not. My solution for now, with Luckmonkey and other books I’ve written, is to do my best at representation (of those like me and those not), to find out what I don’t know, to consult and compensate with money and with full credit those who know better and more deeply than I do, to do my research (both cultural and historical), and to try to support and promote writers who do speak as “Own Voices” authors when I cannot.

I’m learning from the new phrase the kids today are using: coconspirator. It’s now replacing that old, very problematic term “ally.” (As someone who’s been a member of numerous LGBTQ groups, I cringe at the memory of straight kids claiming allyship, attending the meetings, and then speaking over queer members of the group.) While an ally feels some sort of connection with a marginalized group, a coconspirator acts in solidarity with that group. The term puts the emphasis on action instead of on feeling. It puts the emphasis on the group (I act with and in support of that group), rather than on the person herself (I feel kindship).

I like the word coconspirator. A writer, I think, must be a coconspirator always. A character, a story, a novel will never and should never succeed at speaking for anyone. But perhaps, when one is not helping to build the platform on which someone else may stand to speak, it is possible to try speaking with them.

Grab Your Drink

The Luckmonkey book party is tomorrow (Sunday) at 7:30 PM EST on Zoom. If you haven’t yet, sign up to get your link and passcode. The invitation is below, and you can RSVP here.

MEANWHILE, my fabulous partner B, being a whiskey snob and real mixed drink pro, has devised a drink in honor of the book party. It’s called the Fussmonkey, and it’s B’s spin on Pittsburgh’s Fussfungle, which is a spin on an Old Fashioned. There’s flaming cinnamon. You need to make yourself one to enjoy during the party, so go to liquorsherpa’s video to see how. (And stay tuned: B is making an alcohol-free cocktail recipe and another surprise boozy one, too!)

Breaking and Entering

From the Femme Maison series of paintings by Louise Bourgeois; reproduced from Femme Maison – Wikipedia

Decades ago, when I was young and living on the first floor of a cheap Pittsburgh 2-story rental house, I met Ryan. He was a good kid, if a little weird.

Ryan lived in the 2nd-floor apartment of the house, and we shared a basement and yard. I saw the kid a lot, as he gobbled up any scrap of attention I or my partner could spare—he was lonely, living with a mom who had to work all the time to support them, with no friends that I ever saw and a really intense stutter when he spoke. I invited him in often just to hang out, play a game, talk a little, have some company. He’d often come over when I got home from work in the evenings and stay until him mom would get home.

Problem was, Ryan was a sponge for attention—my partner and I were, as far as I could see, the only people who listened quietly and patiently when Ryan talked. Sometimes it took him several minutes to get a single sentence out with all the stutters, which set my innards jangling with impatience. I tried not to let it show outside, because I figured that would probably make the stuttering worse, and it was just plain mean. It was probably pretty painful for him, too. I hoped that being allowed to speak at his own pace would, if not help his stutter, at least make him feel more supported.

Like a starving cat, Ryan haunted my doorstep, and I fed him every time he came by. Which was every day. I didn’t want to hurt him by shooing him off, but man alive, he was hungry for attention all the time. He even seemed to want to fit in with my partner and me—when I first met him, Ryan made “chinky eyes” and other anti-Asian racist jokes he’d probably thought were harmless fun, but after a while he seemed to make the connection that my partner was one of the people he was mocking, and he taught himself to stop.

Ryan was, as I said, a good kid, essentially.

We lived in a molding old house at the very top of a very steep hill. Our front yard was comprised of ivy and a practically vertical set of stairs. The house was on a busy street right across from a bar. The bar crowd was rowdy, drunk, sometimes violent and dangerous-sounding. Our front door did not have a working lock and the landlord wasn’t inclined, on our meager rent, to fix it. On those nights, I thanked my lucky stars that the screaming men on the street would probably not attempt to scale the steep stairs to our house. Probably not, I always thought. Security was a privilege of rich people.

The place had not one locking door or window—it might as well have been a tent. The door from our apartment to the shared basement was in our kitchen and was fastened only by one of those hook-and-eye catches, with a big gap between the door and the jamb. This meant that Ryan could go into the basement, grab his hockey stick and easily open the latch to our kitchen door while my partner and I were both at work. Which he did on a near-daily basis.

I think Ryan just wanted to be in our space—he didn’t seem to be stealing anything or doing any harm. He was probably playing with our cats, breathing our air, maybe hiding. Once I came home and found one of our indoor-only cats (she was brain damaged and we were nervous about letting her roam around cars and other animals) in our postage stamp back yard. I figured that Ryan had broken into our house, left through the back door and allowed the cat to escape without realizing it. Other than that, the B & E was a pretty harmless habit he had, and he was never there when I got home from work, though there would be signs of his presence everywhere (the toilet seat left up, or crumpled gum wrappers on a table, the smell of sweaty kid, the cat on the lawn).

I barely remember what Ryan looked like, or what his voice sounded like, or even exactly how old he was. I think he was somewhere around nine. What has stuck with me for 25 years, though, is that feeling of someone breaking into my space.

When I wrote Luckmonkey, Ryan was on my mind. In the book, the characters are houseless, but concoct a politically-motivated social project in which they break into other houses and businesses to steal one thing and replace it with something else (they might take the coffee maker but leave an exercise bike, for instance) as an anti-private-property act of disruption.

When I told someone about the idea for the book, they asked me, “Have you ever been robbed?” It was a challenge, a way to suggest I wasn’t going to be writing from a place of understanding. I thought of all the ways I’d been robbed, all the ways my safety had been unambiguously challenged. As a queer, fat woman who went to a predominantly male college in the late 1980s, I could compose quite the list of violations on my body, my sexuality, my privacy. But what has stuck with me are not the big soul-crushing violations of that time, but Ryan and his little, harmless break-ins.

That time just after college, when I was living in Pittsburgh, was full of un-safety. I was renting an unlockable house across the street from screaming drunk men, working a series of low-paying crappy jobs at which my hard-earned college degree was not useful, jobs at which I had to put up with all manner of treatment (deliberately locked in a walk-in freezer once, called “that big fat girl” by a colleague on the phone another time, bombarded by a profanity-laced screaming fit by a temp boss for…I’m not exactly sure what reason…so badly that I quit in tears, and him mystified when I did. You get it. I’m sure you’ve probably been there). Suffice it to say, I did not feel an abiding sense of security about anything—my privacy least of all.

So when I lived in that unlockable house on the hill in Pittsburgh, when Ryan used his hockey stick to sneak into my private space, it felt terrifying and awful and familiar. A sinking, slipping feeling. Someone had been in the place I went to be alone, to be unwatched and unevaluated and safe. The world was an awful place, but I had that cruddy little apartment with my partner, and I thought I could depend on that safety. The disturbing thing about Ryan’s break-ins wasn’t that he did anything bad or took anything. It was that I knew he could, and therefore I knew anyone could. As much as a home should make you feel safe, it’s an illusion.

That was the feeling on my mind as I wrote Luckmonkey—and that is precisely the feeling at the heart of the characters’ political break-in project, the Uproots. It’s not to take away property, which can be replaced. It’s to disrupt that sense of safety and power that comes with property. A home should be a place where you can speak, breathe, decide what comes into it (or stays out of it), what happens to it. Your home is like your body. (And here my former film scholar self says, femme-maison, and she is right and you should Google it.)

I realize now that Ryan is all over the pages of Luckmonkey, in the houselessness and displacement, in the Uproots break-ins, in the stories of alienated folks (the first-gen kids, the queer kids, the gender non-conforming kid). All of those elements are versions of Ryan’s break-ins in that they are about rootlessness, the privilege of ownership, how to speak so that people will hear you.

I wonder where Ryan is now. If he’s okay. If he’s found someone to listen as he stutters.

LUCKMONKEY parties down

Friends, you’re all invited to the online party for the release of my latest novel, Luckmonkey! The invitation is below. Don’t forget to sign up at this link ahead of time so I can send you a link to the party and a password. It’s very speakeasy, plus a monkey.

In honor of the book, my partner B has devised a special cocktail you can make at home. Be sure to watch the video and read the recipe ahead of time so you can make it to enjoy during the party.

See you all there!