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Tag Archives: personal

I was born in New York City in 1972, and it rained a lot.

15 Nov

To write about Valerie’s letter, and then go silent, seems a special type of horror. This week has been a special type of horror. There isn’t, in some ways, much to say.

This isn’t, by the way, about policy. I am not, for example, concerned we are about to return to the Reagan and Thatcher years, as terrible as they were, as desperate and as full of death. I am concerned that we will return to what we thought the Reagan and Thatcher years were, that we will live in the literature and the songs and the films we produced in that time. That things will be like Valerie’s letter.

In the last week, what I have been struck by in moments quieter and calmer, has been a sense of continuity. I asked my father about his father, in case I am eligible for Italian citizenship. His name was Vincenzo when he came here. At Ellis Island it was changed to James. He married, had children, and then went back to care for a sister, before returning here again. We’re trying to figure out the years. We’re trying to figure out if my father – who complained when I moved back to Brooklyn because his parents spent so many years trying to get out of Brooklyn – can help me go back to Italy, if I need to.

So many people I talk to have this sense of return. Of continuity. Of generational wisdom, of the ways we can be buoyed by both children and loss.

If the end result of this political period is simply that I look silly, that I worried for nothing, that it was all just a bit crass and not to my taste, I will be overjoyed. But in the meantime, I am – like so many others – looking to who I once was to figure out who I will be.

We say, easily, that what is happening right now is not normal. In many senses, this is entirely true. In other ways though, we must acknowledge that this moment of uncertainty is entirely normal. Fascism seems to rear its head when we begin to forget its last appearances, and in times of trouble, people look close to home, to their families and their neighbors, in both worry and hope.

Because writing speeches is kind of what I do tonally, this piece should end with a call to action. I can tell you to volunteer, to donate, to speak up against hate, and to call your representatives in Congress. I’m doing all those things, and I hope you will do whichever of those you can too.

But my call to action today is simpler. Smaller. More basic. And vitally necessary:

Trust your gut.

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The story is the most important thing.

5 Nov

Every year on November 5, I post Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I never meant for it to be a tradition — one year it was a whim, and for a few years after that that someone would ask about it or say they looked forward to it, and then it just became a thing.

Some years, I’ve just posted the letter. Some years, I’ve written more. But no year has been quite like this year, and I’ve been noodling at the edges of this post for months. Don’t get excited about that. That doesn’t necessarily herald fine writing, probably quite the opposite. It’s just a way of saying 2016 has been a long, strange, horrible slog for me too. And then on Tuesday we vote.

If you follow my Twitter you know I talk about this election a lot and work with data regards it, as I have for many elections previous. You probably also know that I love politics as a sport, and suffer from the same disease  much of our media does — a bias towards strong narrative, towards anxiety, towards running up to the cliff edge but not going over it.

Which makes it pretty hard to say, This is election is really scary. This is not hyperbole. You need to pay attention. Especially when half of the discussions about Trump seem to come down to whether he’s an actual fascist or just stylistically fascist as if one of those scenarios is going to turn out totally okay if he wins the presidency.

Look, 2016 has been a weird year full of heartbreak and loss. Change too — some of it good, and none of it that I’m ready for yet. Over and over again, terror felt like my watch word – medical terror, financial terror, political terror. The terror too of being left behind. Of not being enough. Of failing. And failure.

Meanwhile, Brexit’s a nightmare; Trump is unthinkable; and a regional political scandal involving someone I went to university with has forced me to relive the very chunk of time in which I first encountered V for Vendetta. That, too, was not a good year.

Valerie’s Letter – and Valerie herself – always fascinated me for how it, and she, are a demand for humanity against all evidence to the contrary. It is certitude in the face of gaslighting, identity in the face of how easily our bodies are discounted, dissembled, and dissolved. Valerie’s letter says, No. I am not who you say I am. I am who I say I am. I am who my story says I am. I may be a writer, but that is something very hard for me.

Writing is swimming against the tide.

It is for me I know I know I know I am not a person and I know I know I know I am not good and I know I know it is because I am queer and have a cunt and believe I am something other than the things that have happened to me and have a right to say all of it regardless of your contempt or the lack of simplicity and purity in anything that I’ve ever done or anything that I ever am.

It’s the drowning breath. It’s not yet. It is the reminder I am nowhere as near okay or as functional as I can mostly pretend to be. It is about mortality and precariousness.

So here’s what I want to say about Valerie’s Letter this year: The story is the most important thing. Your story is the most important thing.

Because stories are weapons. And shields. Tools. Strategies and tactics. And I believe they can help save us from all sorts of things – from this particular tide of political darkness sweeping increasingly from country to country, from the hatred of our neighbors, from our own self-doubt, and from our own despair. I believe stories are what give us the power to fight when there are no other options, and I believe they are succor against the coming dark when there are even fewer options than that.

How will stories matter as this year comes to a close? As 2017 dawns as a messy aftermath or a darker road? I don’t know. In a year like 2016 — when I’m just trying to get through, when we’re all just trying to get through — I am not really sure that I care.

But I do know that I still exist.

And so do you.

And so does Valerie.

If you are a person with a say in your government, please use it.

Please vote.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

I enjoy being a girl… sometimes. Sort of.

13 May

I have a celebrity wife problem. As in, every time I crush on a male celebrity, I discover his wife is even hotter and more accomplished, and then wind up in this weird feeback loop with my gender presentation and my bizarreo Pride-and-Prejudice-with-different-dresses childhood (p.s. in this Jane Austen scenario, I’m Mary. In case you’ve forgotten, she’s the ugly one whose name you can’t remember).

So I was educated a certain way, to have a certain life — of heteronormativity, of wealth, of female endurance, and of utter accomplishment (although generally of the in-service-to-others-while-standing-in-a-shadow sort. Bonus points for helping to create the shadow).

And to be clear I don’t have and was never ever going to have that life. Like most everyone these days, I totally live paycheck-to-paycheck and not all the Latin classes and ballroom dancing of my childhood is ever going to change that. That doesn’t keep me from missing the fantasy though, from feeling as if I have always been in exile, even if the adult reality of my childhood upbringing would have strangled me dead.

But one thing that always made that exile both less relevant and easier to bear is my queerness, and, often, my masculine of center gender identity. Which seems perhaps a strange thing to say when I’ve been growing my hair out and wearing makeup every day.

Because my whole life, people have asked me if I’m a dude. It actually happens more when my hair is long, when I wear makeup. I don’t know if it’s because my femininity when I’ve got it going on is so performative, or if it’s just my willingness to take up space.

Basically I’m a person who often looks like a dude when she’s trying to look like a chick, and often looks like a chick when she’s trying to look like a dude. Are you confused? Sure. But try being me, at eight years old, when the other parents asked my mother how she got their son into the all-girls school we couldn’t afford. Please note, I’m an only child, assigned female at birth; there was no son.

At any rate. Being able to be both a boy and a girl has been — as an adult — one of the great blessings of my life. It’s an incredible amount of fun being me. And anything I’ve ever wanted in a man or a woman I’ve generally been able to find in myself. This has, in turn, lessened my sense of exile incredibly (if I am not just a girl, I do not just have to wait about to be chosen). It has salved me when I have felt like a failure.

Practically, through the years, what this has looked like to people outside myself is that I go through phases as said in that derogatory sense often leveled at the changeable. But we all go through phases — seriously, go look at what you were wearing in the ’90s; I’ll wait — and we all change a lot during our lives. Some of us more than others. But one luxury I do have now is to embrace it.

So, lately, I’ve been on this very feminine kick. And for that you can blame two things — celebrity wives and writing romance novels. In fact, I exist now in a world where it is often my job to consider and objectify men; hence those crushes and their lovely wives.

Yet the men I write are often less men I desire, and more men I am

Seriously.

In fact, Erin and I have a book coming out in March 2017 and I know my ex is going to see himself in one of the characters and it’s like, dude, no…no… that’s about me. I’m that guy. I’m Callum. Trust me.

So the outcome of writing down the men I am in these books is that I suddenly have all this room to be the women I am, or at least was raised to be. Just without the budget or the assistance or the rewards of even approaching the perfection all women — regardless of resources — are supposed to be striving for.

It’s kind of weird.

It sort of sucks.

And if I think about it too hard I become furious. At the rigged, unwinnable game; at how far women’s equality hasn’t come; at my recent collusion in it.  And at the inescapable black hole pull of it all. Do you know I actually got a beauty-related spam the other day about how curly girls like me should straighten and then re-curl their hair so they can look well-maintained and on-point?

Thankfully, I have my limits.

But lately I do wear eye shadow. I have perfume (Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb by day, Tom Ford Black Orchid by night. Not because you care, but because I needed to share the absurdity with you).

And I have realized than I am, actually, strikingly beautiful in all the too much of my face and my sadly-shaped eyes. I am that very creature of pride and endurance, elegance and sorrow, I was raised to be. But I am at least my own. And it brings me a lot of joy.

Except when it doesn’t.

Because unfortunately, this recent experience of being a girl means I have also become terrified of aging, am legitimately losing my mind over a dental appointment I have on Monday, and find myself in the middle of confronting for the first time in decades all the women I will never be.

My eyes may have a natural sadness to their shape, but I also have a natural melancholy to my soul.

Meanwhile, I scroll through my Instagram account, comparing the true but heavily-curated version of my life presented therein with those of all the celebrity wives I follow (and let’s reiterate, I don’t envy them their men, just their support staff, their relation to the world, and all their seeming surety).

I suspect, more often than not, that we cry about the same things. And so, as I keep trying to figure out how to be a girl, I often wonder if any of them have ever been boys — the way I was at 8 and at 28. In that wondering, my exile from the gendered obstacle course of my childhood feels less pronounced.

But of course, that’s the funny thing about exile. The cure and the disease are so often the same.

Personal: Haven’t the foggiest what you will find here

29 Nov

Twenty years ago, I was a poet.  Longer ago than that even.

I began writing poetry in high school, as a teenager, took the gift of the Writers Market book for poetry my parents gave me each year and sent my words out.  Sometimes, people even published them.  And when I got on the Internet in 1990, and then joined a BBS which will not be named, I wrote my words there too.

I didn’t just write them.  I used them.  When I was in pain.  When I was angry.  When I was wrathful. When I had desire I did not know how to meet the consequences of; when lovers ignored me; when the politics of friendship confused me; when the cruelties of the Internet made me certain I was supposed to stop talking and just didn’t know how, I wrote and wrote and wrote.

Some more things got published.  Some more things got rejected.  I won some contests, performed at some poetry slams, got email from people I didn’t know: the father who shared one of my poems with his son after a first heartbreak; the man who worked at NASA and sent me pictures of the sky.

Eventually, the BBS died.  And eventually, I stopped writing, not just poetry, but everything.  It was easier; boys were more willing to date me; I could pretend I was normal, and there was a lot of lucrative to be had in the office drag dot.com glory of the late ’90s.

Eventually, though, I got back to words, or admitted, more readily, that I had never left them.  The boys were gone anyway.  So were the dot.coms, and the century, and the World Trade Center.

But while I came back to fiction and non-fiction, I never really came back to poetry.  I published something in Rattle on accident because of a friend, and I envisioned a poetry project or two I never felt able to execute on.

My brain has changed, and, by-and-large, it’s not something that really bothers me.  I’ve enough to do, as arguably evidenced by my complete inability to keep up with NaBloWriMo this nearly over month.

But in April of this year almost gone, an old friend from those days of being the girl who posted poetry on the Internet, found a stack of print outs from that BBS of my work.  She asked me if I wanted them, and I said, why not?

Until today, I hadn’t opened the envelope.

Some of the work I remember.  Some of it I don’t.  Much of what I’ve allowed myself to read has made me cringe.  In many cases, I am more interested by the evolution of my signature files on the pages as my sign-off migrate from Sinead O’Connor (“there is no other troy for me to burn”) to Kristen Hersh (“’til i wake your ghost”) to U2 (“i must be an acrobat, to look like this and act like that”) to things I no longer even know the source of without Googling (“you knew how easily i bruised; it’s a soreness i would never lose”).  Apparently that last one is Erica Jong.

It’s a weird stack of paper.  A hard read.  I don’t know if it tells me I was the poet I remember, that my resume says I was; or if I really wasn’t.  So few of these things would I say now, or say this way.

But there was one thing I did, a lot, when I was sad, and that was to write on this BBS, in the third person, about Little girl (“Little girl got to be pretty for a year…. Little girl has long legs.  Little girl has useful hands”). These were not poems, they were not meant as art.  They were pain and wrath and a desperate attempt to explain my feeling of being an object and to deflect — through a demonstration of my grief and otherness — cruelty that these posts, frankly, only invited.

I thought they were lost forever.  They might well have been, if not for my friend’s printouts and her offer to send them to me.  I’m grateful to have them now, to see the record, not of the writer I was, but of the girl I was at an age when I was discovering how the things I made people feel made them see themselves and the way I allowed myself to carry, or not carry, the consequences of that.

All of this really happened.  I was a writer, in that I wrote words that sometimes meant something to someone, often not in ways I intended.  And I suppose, I am one now, essentially in the same way.  But, wow, those two things aren’t really joined in time or subject or style or narrative technology.

There isn’t really a lesson in this, for me or for you.  It’s just 50 pages of words I don’t know if I’ll ever share with anyone ever again.  But once I did.

If anyone ever offers you an envelope from your past, say yes, I think.  Open it eventually.  Recognize that even when you were silent, you were always speaking.

The title of this entry is the opening of the note my friend enclosed with the printouts.