Monday, 25 January 2016

Implosions in NY: my Jumbled Reflections on A Little Life

A Little Life isn’t the type of book you want to read alone. Or at least, you might read it alone, but then it winds its way into the fabric of your brain to such an extent that naturally you want to discuss it with others. I was about halfway through when I found myself tweeting that I cared for Jude St Francis —the unfortunate protagonist— as though he were my own child and could it get any more brutal? (Yes, in case you're wondering).
I naively thought, initially, that I was the only person who’d be talking to twitter about it. Then I saw lots of other tweets and felt as though we were all partaking in some kind of cyber bleeding heart cry-off about Jude’s life (which was probably far from most of ours) and I felt a bit cringy about the whole thing. But still, for me the point of literature (and art in general) has always been to make you feel. I know trashy page-turner detective novels do that, as do badly ghost-written misery memoirs with titles like Mommy, No, but what separates ‘A Little Life’ from those things is the way in which it creates such an epic, complex portrait of a person’s life whilst avoiding any clichés about redemption or a linear path to healing.

A blurby synopsis for the unfamiliar: A Little Life begins as though it is going to tell, equally, the stories of four male friends living in New York, all of them fresh out of a top university and on the road to star careers. There’s JB, a gay painter, the Brooklyn-born son of Haitian immigrants; Willem, an actor/waiter of working class Swedish/Icelandic origins who stopped talking to his parents after his disabled brother’s death; Malcolm, an architect with a trust fund; and Jude St Francis, about whom little to nothing is known. Jude is dubbed ‘the postman’ by JB who describes him as ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-sexual’ as his sexuality and ethnicity are a mystery. Indeed, almost everything about Jude is a mystery, particularly his life before college, yet it becomes apparent early on that Jude is deeply troubled. He has ‘episodes’ in which he is incapacitated owing to problems with his legs from an undisclosed accident, he self-harms regularly and brutally and his arms, leg and back are covered in scars. As the novel continues it hones in on Jude and details about the horrors he experienced in the first fifteen years of his life slowly unfold.
The author, Hanya Yanagihara, has been accused of being gratuitous with the novel. I am not really one for such arguments, but there were times reading it when I thought, ‘this is too much’. I don’t think anyone should have to censor themselves, but it did almost feel over the top how much abuse Jude experienced. Of course what he went through could happen to someone, but it’s almost like Yanagihara put him through every horrific thing a person could go through and then when she was done with that, she added some more.
So why would anyone want to read such a book? Why is this the most compelling book I have read in years? Well, it isn’t actually 730 pages of Jude being tortured, what happened to him in his early life does unfold slowly but it’s intercut with his adult life and is very much a book about how trauma lives on in a person if it is never confronted, how anger can implode and turn in on itself. Jude never directs his rage at those who harmed him, always at himself.
The self-loathing, anxiety and illumination of the way in which the past chokes us in the present is very universal and relatable, whether you have suffered anywhere near as much as Jude or not. Perhaps in some way the fact that Jude has seemingly gone through everything means a person can relate to him having gone through anything.

A Little Life is also very much a book about friendship, where a traditional sexual/romantic relationship is not at the centre. Jude and Willem do eventually become lovers, but one of the acts of love Willem imparts on Jude is ceasing to have sex with him when he realises it can only cause Jude pain. Hanya Yanagihara has said herself she doesn’t believe in marriage (always a stance that gets the thumbs up from me) and the book challenges the normative notion that to be whole as a person one must be in a sexual/romantic relationship, or that one must have sex, or that not enjoying it is a flaw to be corrected.
Even Willem and Jude’s relationship is an extension of their already deep friendship and whilst JB and Malcolm do not play as big a role in the novel as they appear to at the beginning, the importance of their relationships to each other and to Willem and Jude as friends, is just as important, if not more so, than their romantic relationships. In this way the novel is one of the best takes on queer, non-normative family since Michael Cunningham’s A Home At The End of the World (which fans of A Little Life should read if they haven’t already). Whilst A Little Life rejects any kind of redemption narrative, the moments of solace in Jude’s life are all provided through friendship.

Despite the gratuity of some of the book, I think there is a something pretty beautiful in the honesty it displays — life is sad, life is painful, life is difficult, trauma is hard to survive intact and always leaves an imprint. There is something sort of wonderful and cathartic in the rawness of confronting that head on without flinching.

The book also gives a pretty non-clichéd take on suicide, resisting a black and white idea of a better or worse option. Harold (a key figure in Jude’s life who adopts Jude in his thirties) says of his own desperate attempts to keep Jude alive: ‘. . . you can see that it is costing them, you can see how much they don’t want to be here, you can see that the mere act of existing is depleting for them, and then you have to tell yourself every day: I am doing the right thing.’ 

Thanks to hormones, I have been physically unable to cry since October (and I used to cry all the time) with only two exceptions, both when reading A Little Life. Reading it is sort of a traumatic experience but it’s also beautiful, enraging, devastating and enthralling; pretty much everything it is to be alive.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

I Identify as Ambivalent

I always swore that if I took Testosterone I would never be someone who constantly talks about it and posts about every little hair growth online complete with photos, blogs and vlogs. Three months on T, here I am doing exactly that. Well, sort of.

The main thing I have learnt so far from being on testosterone is that I am definitely not a man, or not just a man at least. I don’t know why T has taught me this but as soon as I started looking and sounding somewhat more masculine I realised that this is only a part of me.

I spoke in my last post about how when I was a teenager/in my early twenties I felt like a boy but didn’t give a shit about pronouns or what gender people thought I was, I was just me. I often got read as male and was happy about this but didn’t mind. I guess I feel that again now, in a weird way T has made me come back to that, and even when I stop T I think (hope) I can still retain those feelings.

I don’t think my identity has changed that much from when I was younger if I'm honest with myself. In the queer/trans scene I have at times felt pressure to put a rigid label on myself and who I am, but I still feel like a boy and a fag and a dyke, all of it. Everything I have ever been is still a part of me. To deny that would be to deny myself.

It hit home that I was not a man in an uncomfortable encounter with an older relative recently who asked me what I was, and, he said, sounding somewhat relieved, ‘You’re not a lesbian, I know that’ and then asked me why I didn’t just do things properly and have ‘the operation’ (he is one of the many who believe there is one mystical operation where you go in a woman and come out a man). To be fair to this relative, he was 90 and actually trying to be supportive and acknowledge who I was. Unfortunately the idea that me being a ‘normal man’ was preferable to me being a lesbian/queer twisted in my guts as wrong because (aside from the implication that being a lesbian was somehow bad) I knew, think I’ve always known, it’s more complex for me.

I am 32 year old teenage gay boy who also likes girls and has the same posters on my bedroom wall since sixteen years ago. I am a trans boy who likes being called 'he' but is still partly female and if anything I’ve said sounds contradictory then so what? We are all a walking mass of contradictions, I’ve never been very good at being at peace with mine, whether it be about gender or politics or anything else, there’s always been so much push and pull within me, often causing catharsis and slumps of depression and anxiety. All I’ve ever wanted was to render myself easily legible both to myself and others but I’ve realised these past few months I probably can’t. I don’t believe in any kind of essentialism, if you are trans and say you are purely a man or a woman then you are, but that isn’t me.

I relate to Mykki Blanco’s unwillingness to take on a gender narrative that doesn’t fit them, just because it would make things easier for everyone if they categorically stated a preferred pronoun, identity, etc. I relate to Justin Vivian Bond — their genderqueerness with a foot still firmly in queer fag culture, their playfulness, irreverence in performance and writing. I relate to something that is always on the outside.

TLDR: I identify as ambivalent.

Now here's a dark and twisted but also beautiful video from the indefinable courageous genius that is Mykki Blanco. Surely one of the best music videos from last year.

Side Notes

Since my voice got deeper on the T, Beat Happening are one of the few bands I can comfortably sing along to because of their, ahem, lo-fi style of singing and Calvin Johnson's deep voice. I mean, it's comfortable for me, possibly not for anyone listening. I have learnt to play Angel Gone on the ukulele and do so daily — my poor housemates. But I couldn't sing before T either — as long as my ability to shout tunelessly is intact I am happy.

Hormones affected me really quickly and I think my experience proves how little some of the psychiatrists who actually prescribe this stuff really understand. I’m happy with my changes so far but they did come about very fast and for most of the time I’ve been on the T (three months) I have taken half a sachet (ie half my daily prescribed dose) of testosterone gel. The ‘gender specialist’ psychiatrist I saw was pretty adamant that I should go on injections as gel ‘didn’t really do much’ but he grudgingly agreed to prescribe it at my insistence. Shows what he knew.