REVIEW: Of Cats and Men by Sam Kalda

Of Cats and Men: Profiles of History’s Great Cat-loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers and Statemen by Sam Kalda (Ten Speed Press, April 18, 2017); 112 pages.

This is a smart, quirky, feminist and fun collection of brief biographies of famous men who’ve bucked gender constraints and loved them some cats. Right up this queer girl’s alley.

First, the writing is great. The biographies are smart and just telling enough to sate the uncurious and whet the appetites of more interested folks. But most importantly, the illustrations here are gorgeous–distinctly styled but not gimmicky, clever but not MERELY clever. As a cat-lover (who is, however, not a “crazy cat lady”… this is my only book about cats) and a lover of redemptive history, this is one of my new favorite books. I show it to everyone. What, perhaps, I love most about its aim is that it cares about and redeems the cat-loving man. With the possible exception of that grisly sea-captain Hemmingway with his famous 6-toed cats, cat affection has been cast as distinctly feminine and, thus, in men, a sign of queerness. It makes me happy that this book doesn’t address that with homophobic denials (“no, no, real men can like cats, too!”), but simply presses forward with profiles of men—all kinds of men—who love cats.  It’s a quietly-great answer to the requirements for gender conformity: one can legitimately be a femme man or a butch man (or any kind of man, really), and all kinds of men can do things we used to think of as too femme (as the kids used to say, “so gay”).

But that’s a quiet benefit of this book, not its outward aim. What it does, quite simply, is present interesting portraits of interesting men who were famous and to whom cats were important.

Finally, I’m not a qualified art critic, though I’ve written my share of criticism anyway, but I will say that I absolutely LOVE the illustrations here. They remind my uneducated eye a bit of a 1950s style of illustration, as does the color palette, which, coupled with the subject matter, only adds to the redemptive and smart feeling of this collection. I’d say that the illustrations are the point—that’s how wonderful they are—but I’d be shortchanging the biographies, which also feel like the point.

As I said, I show everyone this book. I love this book. Sam Kalda, your next book should be profiles of fat old ladies who read books and write reviews of them and live in New York and have two dogs and a cane and wear glasses. Go!

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Review: THE SEAFARER’S KISS by Julia Ember

The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember (May 4, 2017); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Now, I don’t know any of the versions of the story known to most Americans as “The Little Mermaid” (neither Hans Christian Andersen nor Disney nor subsequent K-Mart bedspread mythos), but I believe The Seafarer’s Kiss is a retelling of the tale, but à la Wicked, retold empathetically from a different point of view (than, at least, the Disney version). As with all good retellings, this is a new story, not simply a recast rehashing of something already said.

I won’t waste your time with comparisons, since I’m not very familiar with any of the other versions of this story; this novel stands on its own, anyway. I’m living proof that you don’t need to have any connection to the Disney or Andersen stories to understand and like this book. The only thing I will say, based on admittedly brief internet-based research into the other versions, is that this one seems more feminist, featuring female characters prominently as more than victim or villain (those roles get really complex here), constructing a kind of Handmaid’s Tale empathy for the conditions under which the female mermaids must function, and coloring every character’s actions with real motivations that extend further than simply stating that someone is an Evil Witch.

I’m trying not to reveal the actual story here, the discovery of which is part of the fun of reading, so forgive the verbal gymnastics.

This is, at its heart, a really strong character study. Don’t mistake me: I mean this in the best of ways, as all good stories, in my opinion, are character studies. Too many novels rely too strongly on plot and forego character development at all, but in my opinion, good insight into character should be what drives the plot at every turn. The plot of a good story should feel like a surprise as it happens, but inevitable once it does, because the characters are so well drawn that things could unfold no other way than the way they do. This is assuredly the case.

The titular seafarer, and the titular kiss she gives Ersel, the main character (is this the original form of Ursula, who is the sea witch in Disney’s version?), is what drives the plot, though not in the mooney-eyed-weak-princess way most Disney films seem to require. The chain of events that becomes Ersel’s adventure (and eventually the impetus for her growing up and finding her strength and her moral drive) starts with this girl, this kiss, but it’s merely the catalyst, and not the only driving force. Too often, female heroes are depicted as being solely motivated by love in their heroism. Not so here, and thanks for that. (Nor, for that matter, is Ersel’s “coming out” as being in love with a human girl much of a horror to anyone—and when there is discomfort, it’s with the “human” thing and the going-against-decree thing, not the “girl” thing. That’s refreshing.)

Basically, this is the story of a young mermaid who’s expected to be betrothed to her childhood bestie merman in a society in which reproductive heterosexual pairings are required due to a waning population (and in which, as a result, a girl’s worth is based on her potential fertility), but who bucks—and eventually upturns–the system, has her own adventures and her own ideas. She makes grave (I’m talking Shakespeare’s Mercutio-pun-grave) mistakes along the way, strives to address those mistakes, and becomes a better person, all without losing her fierceness. In fact, her fierceness becomes her great strength (no eternally slumbering and helpless princess, no mice to dress her, no unreal femininity clouds this up).

And K-Mart, as a result, probably won’t sell the bedspread. But, seriously, bedspreads are for sleeping princesses anyway.

REVIEW: Huntsmen by Michelle Osgood

Huntsmen by Michelle Osgood (April 13, 2017); 218 pages. Available from Interlude Press here:

Hunstmen is the sequel to Osgood’s 2016 novel The Better to Kiss You With. Still here are Deanna and Jaime (the stars of the first novel) and all the orbital characters that came with them, but focus has shifted to tell the story of Kiara, who must find a way to come into her own power as pack leader, keep everyone safe and figure out how to be around her former love, Ryn. You might say it’s a novel about figuring out how(l) to fix a problem.

(I guess you’d only say that if you were a pun-loving doofus like me.)

So, in case you’ve not read the first book in the series, let me catch you up right quick: there are werewolves among us, and they even have their own governing organization (GNAAW, which makes me chuckle every time). Most people don’t even know, and werewolves themselves tend to lie low so word doesn’t get out; however, there are some people—they call themselves the Huntsmen—who think werewolves are a threat to non-werewolf people, especially those werewolves without a pack and thus without allegiance to GNAAW, and so feel no compunction about hunting those werewolves down and taking them out. Kiara is a werewolf, as are some—but not all—of her friends. She lives on the DL usually, but her father’s the leader of the large, successful pack to which she belongs, and she’s been tapped to be next. All she has to do is lie low, tow the line (I know some people say “toe,” but that makes no sense to me), and she’ll eventually be promoted to lead the big pack. But when she chances to see her former love Ryn starring in a local drag show (yes, drag isn’t limited to men impersonating women, despite what RuPaul’s Drag Race would have most of America believe… and here is where my long years as a professor force me to recommend the 2002 documentary Venus Boyz) and finds out Ryn’s the target of the Huntsmen because she’s a “lone wolf,” that plan goes to pot. Kiara steps up to protect her friends (and herself) and upsets the intended order.

Like the first book in the series, Huntsmen is a fun thriller with interesting characters and smart pacing. Also like the first book in the series, Huntsmen features an intelligent, powerful woman at its center. (It’s so rare, as a woman reader/viewer, to get main characters one would like to emulate, at least ones who aren’t punished at the end of the book/movie.) And this thriller delivers: so often, books and films are able to mount the tension, but aren’t able to resolve it in a believable and satisfying way. Not so here—there’s family drama, identity drama, love angst, and the general fear of being stalked, and the novel winds all this tighter and tighter, but, in the end, gives one a really good ending. You might say there’s as much bite as bark.

You know, if you were a pun-loving doofus like me.

 

 

 

 

What Happened? What Happened:

Those who know me as a professor may be surprised to hear that crowds of people, especially when I have to do something in front of those crowds, really shake me to my core. I am not very good at being in front of people, nor am I great in a crowd, nor do I do social stuff comfortably (many teachers are like this, apparently). So Book Con (the crazytown 2-day book fair of the Book Expo America (BEA) conference), which took place at a ridiculously-big venue (the Javits Center) in a ridiculously-big city (New York) was, for someone like me, daunting to say the least.

Still, I went, signed copies of SWEET, met some excellent people, browsed books and bookseller displays, drank my share of caffeinated diet colas that cost waaaaaay too much money at the convention center vendor stands, listened to some really great writers and editors give talks and did my fair share of hiding with a book in bathroom stalls and hallways with spare chairs. (I missed most of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket’s talk, but caught the tail end and at least got to hear his deadpan voice… my book signing time conflicted with Lemony Snicket AND Bill Nye, and I messed up the days and missed hearing Janet Mock, but still… I was in the same room as all of them at one point. I’m a reader and fan first, writer second–in fact, I remember this lesson from my college writing program days perhaps more than any other: you cannot be a good writer unless you are reading voraciously–it’s dangerous hubris and also sort of gross-narcissistic-ignorant not to participate in the literary community as a reader if you’re contributing to it as a writer.)

signing

I will say it was really fun to meet so many people, almost all of whom were readers–and some of those were writers–who love books. I felt myself to be among my own kind.

I will also say it was very exciting to see the cover of the new book, OLYMPIA KNIFE, on a poster–this was the official revelation (I cannot say “reveal,” even though that’s the lingo… “reveal” is a verb, friends) of the cover for the book that comes out November 2, and, though I’d seen earlier versions, this was also MY first look at the official, final cover, and I really quite love it. (I had no doubt I would, because I am a huge fan of the art director/cover designer C. B. Messer, who also did the cover and book design for SWEET, my first novel, the one that’s stacked next to me that I’m signing in the picture… that sticky note cover design will forever have my heart. She read the book and totally got what I was trying to make it, which is a satirical take on being romance while still kind of being a love story, a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too situation (please all hail that joke, because the novel largely takes place in a bakery) and the cover just exactly captures that blend of Romance Novel Trope and Not That At All.) Here is the cover for OLYMPIA KNIFE, due out Nov 2:

OK cover poster

At the bottom there, that’s a teaser quotation from the first chapter. But seriously, how beautiful is that cover? (The book takes place at the start of the 20th century in a rather janky travelling circus, and over the course of the novel all the acts wind up disappearing, hence the slightly dangerous-looking tents…)

So, I left the 2-day book-oriented fiasco with mixed feelings: on the one hand, my head was swimming from SO much (people, noise, books, things to do, money spent, long days) and I my body actually hurt, and I was exhausted for a full day afterward (I consider myself a tough dame, but sometimes my disability reminds me I may be tough but I’m still at its whim). On the other hand, I felt buoyed by meeting so many really superb people, and especially buoyed the ones that asked me to sign a copy of a thing I wrote, about which I had never even dared to dream when I was a fourth grader and decided I would be a writer when I grew up. Hard not to be red-faced and flattered when someone not only reads something you wrote, but BUYS it and then ASKS YOU TO DEFACE IT WITH YOUR TAG. One fellow asked that I sign a copy of Sweet for his wife, and requested to take a picture of himself next to me as I did so in order to prove to her that he didn’t just fake it (are you out there, sir or sir’s wife? you totally made my YEAR).

I also got to (re)meet some of the other writers at the press who were there: Jude Sierra, Lilah Suzanne and C. B. Lee, all of whom are writers I admire (check out their books at http://www.interludepress.com, or in my reviews on this site. I love all the books–each has several–but can particularly suggest What It Takes by Sierra, Broken Records by Suzanne, and Not Your Sidekick by Lee as favorites.)

Now that BEA is over and the flurry of book conferences has died down a bit (for me) for a while, I can go back to my hidey-hole (thanks, Mr. Bush) and read and write in solitude for a bit.

On my lap right now are two books, so expect reviews soon, of Huntsmen by Michele Osgood and Of Cats and Men by Sam Kalda. Now, please excuse me while I go make up a pot of chamomile-lavender tea and find a cat or dog to warm up my legs as I read in peace.

 

Lollipops & bookmarks! Tag, you’re it.

TODAY: I’m at BookCon in NYC today all day. I’ll be signing copies of SWEET (11a-12p, officially, but seriously, I’m there all day). Plus, my upcoming (Nov 2017) second book’s cover is revealed today (spoiler alert: it is beautiful!).

Plus, if you stop by and are nice, I’ll give you a rainbow lollipop and bookmarks or something.

Come find me, plus 1 trillion great books at the Javits Center, NYC, booth 2780 with Interlude Press.

No tag backs!

REVIEW: Consequences (of Defensive Adultery) by M. Jane Colette

Consequences (of Defensive Adultery) by M. Jane Colette (May 2, 2017); 232 pages. Available as either ebook or paperback at Amazon here. And from Kobo books here. (See the author’s website at mjanecolette.com for more buying options.)

Consequences proposes, in a roundabout way, the concept of “defensive adultery”—adultery, in other words, committed in response to one’s partner’s wrongs (be they emotional abandonment or sexual affairs), a way of salving oneself after a lover’s cruelty, or of creating enough emotional distance that the lover’s wrongdoings can’t hurt you. In the novel, the narrator Elizabeth relates the story of such adultery to her current lover as they… do lover things.

In her story, which occurs before she takes up with her current lover, she begins an affair with a professor whose marriage to another woman, Zia, has crumbled. Into the empty space steps Elizabeth, only to discover that, once she is the wife and no longer the lover, she is put in Zia’s place as her husband takes newer, younger lovers on the side. Zia angrily haunts their relationship—in no small part because she has a daughter with the professor, a daughter who is shuttled between Zia’s and her father’s homes; also in the mix is the angry, pansexual, pierced and tattooed daughter-in-rebellion Sasha, the narrator’s blood daughter Alexandra, and Sasha’s godmother, Zia’s and Elizabeth’s friend Annie.

It’s a tenuous trembling thing, this web of people pulled together into a knot of relationships, all painful, all vital, but all the push-pull kind of hate-love. Elizabeth is strung between them all, hero and aggressor and victim in one, more naturally reactive, struggling to become active on her own. She is, in other words, extremely human.

The story is told through Elizabeth’s voice, cut through with conversations between Elizabeth and her current lover, who controls and tortures her (only as much as she agrees to and enjoys) as she recounts. The frame tale (the story of Elizabeth telling the story to her lover, his statements of interest and whim, and his tormenting of her) gives tension to the story Elizabeth is telling, positions it differently for the reader than one might be inclined to understand it otherwise. The lover becomes, through the telling, a needling voice, disbelieving the point of view or recasting the events through a different eye, calling into question the sole authority–or even primacy–of the narrator.

The author herself (whom I recently met at a book conference) hands out business cards that read “I write erotica for smart people,” which translates to this novel being gentler, more emotionally complex, more subtle and less flatly pornographic than what passes for “erotica” in most fiction/film (there’s no, “Pizza? I didn’t order any pizza“-level doing-it here). It is more about who feels what because of whom than it is about who puts what where. (It is, perhaps, more in keeping with the root of that word, “eros,” which refers either to the god of love, according to the ancient Greeks (Eros, who is like the Roman god Cupid), or to, in Freud’s terms, the “life instinct.” In those terms, yes, it’s erotica for sure.)

In fact, I’d call this “feminist erotica” (and here I can’t remember if Colette refers to her work as such, but I certainly would), in that it does not rely on dehumanizing the participants for its effects. In fact, the narrator and the women with whom she deals are allowed to be relentlessly human: confused, inarticulate about their feelings at times, proud, sometimes in the wrong, sometimes behaving badly, but still stubbornly doing it, complex, sympathetic, smart-and-stupid, real women. Plus, they’re too old and their bodies too lived-in to be porn vixens. Zia, the ex-wife who comes closest to being a villain in this story, is given the same attention and intelligence in her portrayal: the reader understands her more as a complex, angry, hurt, relatively powerless woman trying the only avenues she knows to get what she needs, rather than as a villain. I think of her more as the narrator’s antagonist; she’s the fly in the ointment, sure, but a sympathetic fly.

In fact, the only characters here who even skirt—excuse the pun—the edges of being stock are the story’s two most relevant men (the narrator’s ex-husband and her current lover), a turnabout kind of condition that could feel quite Ha-Ha-Now-YOU-be-a-substanceless-trope-for-a-change-satisfying though not necessarily right (in the way that audiences are supposed to cheer when the Scooby-Doo villain gets a bucket of paint dumped on his head), but the novel avoids this trap, stays feminist, and fleshes these guys out, too. They’re not the simple villains we’re inclined to make of them, there’s no just desserts here, or grand ironies, or, for that matter, paint buckets; there’s just real, complex people getting by in the ways they know how.

These characters, in other words, are not paper dolls—one always has the feeling, when reading, of having stumbled on a secret, of being let in to spy on something real and fraught and difficult that will go on whether or not one’s watching.

But you can’t, in the end, help but watch anyway.

Miss Constantine, if you’re nasty

Or, On Choosing My Pen Name

My given name isn’t Alysia. Well, not technically: it’s not my given first name, not the name by which most friends know me. It’s my middle name (the one trace of my Greek ethnicity given in my moniker). And Constantine isn’t my given last name, but it’s a pared-down version.

My Father-the-Greek originally had a 16-letter last name, but changed it when he immigrated to America so that American Bureaucracy could handle it. Most American forms weren’t built, at least in the 1960s, to accommodate such a ridiculously long (by American standards) family name. They expected Miller or Jackson, maybe even Kuntz, but certainly not LotsaSyllablesadopoulos. So he shortened it from 16 letters to 4 letters. A simple spelling. De-ethnicitized. Which, apparently, most Americans can’t figure out, because it gets mispronounced or misspelled on the daily.

My given first name isn’t Greek. It isn’t even Scottish, which is my mother’s heritage. It’s not “American,” either (whatever that would be). It’s German.

Which means my full given name is German NoEthnicity and, along with the fact that I’ve colored my hair lavender-on-white, means I really have little trace of either ethnic heritage–neither my mother’s muddled Scottish-American-mix nor my father’s You-WILL-Go-to-Greek-School-Twice-a-Week-Immigrant-Greek.

I feel more Greek-American than Scottish-American, in large part because, culturally, our family lived as Greek-Americans. We ate Greek home cooking. I went to Greek school (my dad actually was one of the teachers.) We spoke a Greek-English pidgen at home. Many of our family friends were called Mrs. Thea or Mr. Yannis (Greek kids respectfully call familiar adults Mr./Mrs. Firstname). There was more than one thing in our house emblazoned with the Greek flag. (That may have had something to do with the fact that the Scottish part is several generations back, but my dad immigrated in his twenties from Greece and that whole side of our family is still there. Plus, my dad is olive-brown-skinned and heavily-accented, and nobody ever discriminated against my mother for being ethnically Scottish (a concomitant discrimination based on being ethnically Greek has been happening to my dad since he immigrated in the 1960s. Although it still happens now, the treatment of my father has become less about job and social discrimination than it has about finding him delightfully “ethnic” and asking his advice about to which Lebanese restaurant one should go (I know he’s not Lebanese, but apparently, to many Americans, swarthy people are all the same.).).)

In school, we read non-white/non-American stuff for “color,” as a kind of sauce-on-the-side addition to the Real Stuff. (I know even including the “color” was progressive back then.) But the Real Stuff, the stuff the SAT and the GRE covered, was written largely by white American and British men. Though it sometimes involved a character who was, like my dad, “ethnic,” that character usually Meant Something. (And although this condition was common for “swarthy” folk, it was far more common for ethnically-more-othered people who did not pass as white. (I was, depending on the occasion, sometimes treated as “ethnic” and sometimes as white, and usually had the option to pass, especially if I could avoid giving my name or introducing my dad.) It was a problem which was more pervasive and more insidious for my friends who were racially marked in a way I was not. How tiring, always to have to be Significant or else be invisible.) My education, and the subsequent testing thereof, in large part, was entirely “Call Me Ishmael.”

Before you ask, since you’ve probably seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, no, we did not have a thing about Windex. Except for cleaning glass. (I have been asked that at least once a month since that movie came out, and just found out the joke, having finally watched it just two weeks ago.)

All this is to say that, while I identify as first-gen and grew up very “ethnic” (please hear me laughing as I use that Whitebread Nose-Wrinkling Euphemism for “Not Us”), you wouldn’t know it now. Not by my name, not by my appearance. Maybe by my cooking. Maybe by the tiny Greek-New Yorker inflection that happens to my speech when I talk fast. But not by my name.

I know they say that a rose by any other name would smell as Greek, but that’s not true in my case. So I decided to take the pen name I did because I wanted to re-Greek myself, to undo in a small way the efforts of my father to fit in as an American which, in the 1960s, meant erasing a large part of his identity. Since I’m not having children to carry forth the Greek bloodline (for shame, this is a horrible thing for a Greek-American girl to do), I wanted, at least, to do this.

See, by attempting to Americanize himself, my dad, who is by American standards “swarthy” in sunless winter and nut-brown in summer, only called attention to our difference. The kids at school, the neighbors, storekeepers at the mall, everyone looked at us as the “No Cigar” family (as in “close, but no cigar”), a mild version of Homi Bhabha’s “not quite/not white” (I say “mild” because, while our ethnicity made us “not white” in most neighbors’ eyes, we were still considered–and treated as–“more white” than my ethnically Asian or South-Indian or Black friends). We were the Mockolate of American families.

I grew up, as a result, with a “thing” about authenticity. I received daily messages that I and my family were not “real” Americans (read: white), and yet many of the Greek kids didn’t consider me “Greek enough” because of my white American-born mother. I was constantly trying to prove myself authentic to both camps, shuttling between them, trying to be both Greek enough and American enough to get by. (It may be why, in part, I resisted coming out as a lesbian until I was out of that awful midwestern whitebread neighborhood, because that would have been just one more strike against me, and to boot, would have fulfilled the Amazon/Lesbos stereotype.)

Now, older, settled into both my ethnic mixedness and my queerness (and most every other -ness I’ve got going on), I’m pretty sure I could handle those whitebread ninnies. They don’t hold power over me any more. And I’m less worried about critics trouncing my work as a novelist. Plus, most people know both my given and pen names anyway (I guess I still shuttle between identities). People often use the metaphor of “embracing” to describe that process of accepting (and even celebrating, promoting) something, but I feel like that doesn’t quite do the trick. I don’t want to say I’ve “embraced” my ethnicity or my queerness like it’s some homeless guy one charitably agrees to hug or some smelly leper-cat one loves anyway. I’ve come to love myself because of my Greekness and queerness, rather than despite it.

So come correct. Don’t be the American asshat who, upon hearing I’m Greek-American, asks me about that movie, or wants to know about whether we had a thing for Windex. We used a K-mart off-brand, and it wouldn’t really live up to the hilarious “ethnic” stereotype.

And call me Alysia.

 

What Do You Do If You Swallow Poison?

When I was 15, I was, like many a teen girl in the ‘80s, a babysitter. My regulars included a family who lived down the street, the D— family, whose children were John, Stevie and Diana, ranging from 8 to 3 years old. This essay is about the night John, the older boy, almost died.

They were good kids: nice, friendly, smart, and generally pretty well-behaved. Generally. Because watching three kids at once is… a tougher job than most 15-year-olds should handle. On the night in question, I’d shoveled them all into footie pajamas, gotten teeth brushed, and herded them into bed on schedule, then settled myself on the living room couch to do homework and wait for their parents to come home. I was probably struggling over some math or other, probably something with triangles or exponents, though I have no memory of it. I had probably poured myself a glass of contraband Diet Coke or Tab and curled my socked feet underneath me and snuggled back into the cushions. Not twenty minutes passed, however, before the night collapsed into chaos.

John came thundering down the stairs and asked me, clearly trying to sound casual, what you do if you swallow poison.

Now, let me tell you, no babysitter wants to hear that question (it’s right up there with where do babies come from?). Though the kid insisted he had simply had a bad dream, it was immediately clear that it was a question motivated by some poison-swallowing event. To my credit, I only freaked out on him for a second before calling the poison control hotline (thank goodness the family had a magnet on the fridge with the phone number). While on hold, I managed to get him to admit the story: he’d had what he thought was a toothache and had snuck out of bed and gone rooting under the sink in his mother’s bathroom for a cure and had come up with her smelling salts, which were wrapped in gauze, leading him to believe they were some sort of dentist-related treatment, since the dentist seemed fond of gauze, and John had put one in his mouth and bitten down, thinking this would treat his toothache. (In case you have never been near smelling salts, they are usually made of ammonia, the strong smell of which is designed to jolt someone back to consciousness and, in this case, were in gauze-wrapped capsules to be snapped open for use, which does NOT involve putting them in one’s mouth, but simply holding the ammonia-leaking capsule under the woozy person’s nose.) When he bit down, he cracked open the capsule and tasted something caustic (ammonia, one assumes) and panicked.

By this time, the Poison People had answered the phone, and helped me determine that the smelling salts were probably old enough that the ammonia had sufficiently weakened so as to be smelly but relatively harmless. Had they been fresher, he could have gotten chemical burns in his mouth and throat, the Poison People said seriously.

So, the aftermath: I told the parents everything when they got home, and they continued to hire me for babysitting even after this. Not much, in other words, changed. I remained the industrious teen with a paltry social life, a high GPA and a savings account of earnings earmarked for college who went to art school on the weekends and played, very seriously, classical violin in a state symphony (this is all to say: NERD). But thirty years later, I’m still remembering John and his terrifying question: what do you do if you swallow poison?

I was the daughter of an American farmgirl and an immigrant Greek man, both of whom had gone through lots of higher education and worked their butts off enough to land us in a middle-class neighborhood with two malls and a conspiracy of racially-gerrymandering real estate agents past which my swarthy and heavily-accented father managed somehow to slip. This was probably not the best place for anyone, but surely not a fat, only-half-white-American, not-so-rich, smart queer girl. There was nobody, in the early 80s in gerrymandered middle-class Ohio, with whom I could commiserate. Or, at least, nobody who wanted to commiserate with me. (Oh, dear, the day I wore the skirt my dad’s sister sent from Greece, the one with the traditional embroidery and fringe, I endured SO MUCH fun-making from the Whitebread Racist Dicklords of that school… how did I not see that coming? How was I such a persistent nerd with an allergy to fitting in?)

My solution was to be a Good Girl: favorite student of every teacher, the Good Listener among my friends, and a parents’ well-behaved and well-closeted dream. It was the 80s, and it was Ohio. I really didn’t know there were other choices. I just wanted to survive high school and go somewhere better if I could find it.

Now, sitting happily in my own sunny little farmhouse home just north of NYC, still fat, still bookish, still queer (ish… I mean, I married my wife when it got legal, and that seems less queer, but still lesbian, I guess), still an immigrant’s daughter. Still, for all intents and purposes, a nerd, but proud, now, of the ways in which I’d not fit easily into that Whitebread middle-class Ohio Jerk-Factory neighborhood (I can boast the same great taste, now with 100% more walking cane). Still, I don’t have that fantasy some people have of going back, knowing what I know now, and showing them all (though Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion remains one of my all-time favorite films). I’m just glad I got out of there before the cruelty and ugliness of that place overwhelmed me.

It took me many, many years to understand myself outside the context in which I was raised, to be proud of my family’s ethnic difference, to call myself queer, to be brave enough not to need the validation of a husband and 2.5 kids and an SUV and a middle management job at Borden if I didn’t want it, to be okay with eating food in public instead of skipping meals (because that’s what Good Fat Girls do). I tried super-achieving, tried bulemia, tried therapy, tried activism, tried self-medicating, tried legally-prescribed medication. In the end, I think it was just a matter of time.

(It was a matter of aging into a phase in which nobody pays me much mind at all. This is the paradoxical freedom of being an American woman over 40: you’re no longer sexually objectifiable to the majority of straight culture, so almost nobody even sees you anymore and you gain the kind of freedom from surveillance that some people enjoy from birth. Of course, once almost nobody sees you anymore, then people look past you as if you’re not even there. It’s a choice, for many of us, between being too constantly visible or invisible.*)

(* This is the paradox with which I struggled a bit in Olympia Knife, my second novel. The two queer women at its center face this problem: Olympia, whenever she feels strong emotion, has bouts of invisibility, and Diamond, once she ages into love with a woman, loses gravity and starts floating away. Still, their relationship can happen in nearly total freedom because nobody really sees them when they are together.)

It took a lot of years, in other words, to detox from the American Dream in which I was raised and all the hateful messages I swallowed as a young, fat, queer, first-gen smart girl as a consequence. It took a lot of thought, therapy, distance, and work.

I know all of this storytelling fits together somehow, but I’m not sure how, exactly. I’m torn between thinking of little John’s smelling salts as a metaphor for something to wake me up, or the caustic thing that could have killed me. Either way, I think it’s his panicked question that rings relevant for me: What do you do if you swallow poison?