In Celebration of Hybridity (Part 2) –Erin Stalcup

Transcendence of Binaries

Postcolonial critic Declan Kiberd applies Frantz Fanon’s three stages of decolonization—occupation, nationalism, liberation—to the Irish context, and writes, “But nationalism, as Fanon warned, is not liberation, since it still persists in defining itself in categories imposed by the colonizer. A revolution couched in such terms is taken away from a people even as they perform it: it is only in breaking out of the binaries, through to a third point of transcendence, that freedom can be won” (184).

Binaries I want to transcend:
Academic versus personal writing.
Public versus private writing.
Political versus personal writing.
Realism versus irrealism.
Genre versus literary fiction.
Fiction versus nonfiction.
Prose versus poetry.
Narrative versus poetics.

Gloria Anzaldúa celebrates nepantla, “a Nahuatl word for the space between two bodies of water, the space between two worlds.” (237). Hélène Cixous celebrates naphtha, a liquid explosive, which “will spread, throughout the world” (1947).

In Bending Genre, Kazim Ali asserts that writing is “part eros, part riot” (34). And he writes:

There are two political realities tied to truth to which the essay as a form is obligated to respond. The first is that authoritative fact, both historically and today, has been used to silence and exclude significant numbers of people, whether forcing immigrants to lie in order to stay alive and safe or perpetuating the idea that transgender people are lying when we assert our own identities and bodies (to give only two examples). The second is that the process of asserting individual truths, of ‘speaking your truth,’ has been a powerful social and political tool in the modern world. These are realities to which the essay is always responding, not by discounting truth, but by acknowledging and embracing the power of truths, and by using the shifting, hidden, exposed, and expansive truths of the margin as collective tools to help us better understand the world, rather than lifting up a blunt instrument meant to convince others that our experience is the right experience. (45)

I believe all the forms of fiction are obligated to respond to these political realities, as well.

 

In Bending Genre, Mary Capello wonders if creative nonfiction is a literary cyborg (67).

In her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway writes:

‘[W]omen of color’ might be understood as a cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities. […] Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. […] The poetry and stories of U.S. women of color are repeatedly about writing, about access to the power to signify; but this time that power must be neither phallic nor innocent. Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. (2293)

 

Haraway offers her cyborg imagery as “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia” (2299). Heteroglossia is an apt synonym for any kind of hybrid writing.

Richard Rodriguez argues: “You cannot speak more than one language at a time. There’s no such thing. It’s like being bisexual; you just can’t do it. You can perform architecturally. You can perform, but you can’t be truly bisexual, you can’t be bilingual. There’s no such thing” (qtd. in Lim 533).

Hybrid texts help us get out of binary thinking.

Mary Capello writes, “Hybrid: the new form made possible when areas of thought and experience sequestered in life are allowed to share a space in art” (67).

Hybrid writing is genre-queer, so can make space for genderqueer, bisexual, biracial, bilingual, pomo and poco texts.

If you read this and decide I’m genderqueer, bisexual, biracial, bilingual, you’d be wrong. If you read this and decide I care about those ideas and identities, you’d be right.

I see through postmodern and postcolonial eyes, yes.

 

Against Reading Art for Autobiography: A Case Study

Genre-queer and genderqueer writing has been around for a very long time.

William Shakespeare’s book of sonnets is dedicated “To Mr. W.H.” The first 126 are addressed to a young man, while 127-152 are addressed to a dark lady. Critics have been trying to decipher what this tells us about William Shakespeare’s life since the book was published in 1609. I argue that Oscar Wilde’s book of fiction, The Portrait of Mr. W.H., offer the best critical lens through which to view the poems: looking for evidence about Shakespeare himself in his art will lead to madness and death.[1]

The truest moment in Wilde’s text is this: “Art, even art of the fullest scope and widest vision, can never really show us the external world. All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognizance. […] It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves” (242). I do not know if Oscar Wilde believed this—that art should be read for what it tells us about us, not what it tells us about its maker (all art, fiction or poetry or nonfiction)—but I know that I do, and many critics unfortunately do not.

According to Noreen Doody, critics have “expressed frustration that Wilde does not clearly indicate whether or not he believes in his own erudite theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (132), even though it is not Wilde’s theory, it is his fictional characters’ theory. Richard Halpern writes, “[T]he logic of the story insists that Wilde can convince others of the theory only if he does not believe in the theory himself” (43). But in The Portrait of Mr. W.H., the characters are not synonymous with Wilde. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, “Oscar Wilde feels free to extend his authoritative insight into the speaker” (36). But, of course, Oscar Wilde does not do this within the book of fiction he wrote, his invented narrator does.

Oscar Wilde’s next novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, led to doubts about his own sexuality, then criminal trials, then his imprisonment.

People have done the same with Shakespeare.

Joseph Pequigney argues that there is homosexual sex in the sonnets, then applies his argument about the sonnets to Shakespeare’s life. He begins tentatively: “If he ever wrote autobiographically, he did so here” (5). Since Pequigney is not certain the sonnets are autobiography, he says he will refer to the “speaker, persona, or poet, rather than Shakespeare” (5), then loses track of his own method and writes that “Shakespeare is in love with the young man” (65). He argues W.S. is bisexual, and W.H. is homosexual (154), and ends his study by insisting that “the treatment of erotic experience […] most likely reflects that of the author, the persona being created in his image and likeness” (224).[2]

Pequigney argues that both Shakespeare and Freud agree that homosexuality is “nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation or illness” (100). While I wholeheartedly agree, those thoughts cannot be attributed to Shakespeare in 1609—Pequigney never addresses the fact that Shakespeare would not have had Freudian understandings of desire, and he did not have access to terms or even concepts like bisexuality and homosexuality. A 2011 anthology punnily entitled Shakesqueer seeks to remedy the anachronism of using current concepts of sexuality to understand writings from an era that had no such conceptions. Madhavi Menon argues that “Shakespeare is queer even though neither he nor a single one of his characters is historically homosexual” (12); Shakespeare “never came out as gay—or, rather, we cannot tell, and that is what makes him so queer” (Menon 4). Menon’s academic anthology “showcases varied ideas on queerness, engaging not just sexual identities, but also race, temporality, performance, adaptations, and psychoanalysis” (25). For her, Shakespeare’s texts are queer, not queered—meaning we do not have to do it to them, they are already doing it themselves.

Yes, all writing is autobiography. But reading for autobiography is the least interesting this to read for.

Another way of saying this: I don’t care how much time James Frey spent in prison, or whatever that debate was about.

Wilde and Shakepeare’s texts are both genre-queer. The sonnets are not genre-queer because they’re both autobiography and poetry, as far as I’m concerned, but because they are doing new things within a genre. Shakespeare didn’t create the sonnet, but he used the constraints with such flexibility and grace and humor and wildness that the form became named for him. Wilde’s text transcends genre: his fiction about another author’s actual poems is the best academic writing out there. Walter Benjamin in Shields: “All great works of literature dissolve a genre or invent one.”

Aside from telling us anything about the author’s queerness, both texts are genderqueer.

Wilde first: Cyril Graham believed “it was better to be good-looking than to be good”

(170), and his good looks are rare: he was “somewhat effeminate” (167), but talented at masculine things like fencing and riding. Erskine found him “handsome, not merely pretty,” as well as “splendid,” “fascinating,” “willful,” and “petulant” (170). Cyril played all the girl’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays, and Erskine says, “Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen” (171). “[A]mbiguity of the sexes” is fascinating to Wilde’s characters, and they admire the ways the stage “suggested a new and delightful type of girlhood or womanhood” (218). Cyril is very much like the Mr. W.H. imagined in Wilde’s text, the boy-actor who plays the girl’s roles, worthy of devotion and even obsession. This Mr. W.H.—whether actual boy-actor or no—is celebrated in the sonnets for similar reasons. Sonnet 20 is the strangest, most erotic poem in the text. Here is what it says:

A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion—

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a women wert thou first created,

Til nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine by thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Here’s what it means: The addressee—a man—has a woman’s face and a woman’s heart. “Hue” has two straightforward meanings, color and complexion, but it can also mean shape or appearance, so a “man in hue,” means the addressee has the color and complexion of a man, and also appears to be a man in form, but all hues are “in his controlling,” which implies he can control his own form and appearance, as well as that of others—he can make himself and others appear to be more or less male. “Control” has a second Renaissance meaning—to challenge or find fault. Therefore, this man also challenges the form and appearance of others, and while “hue” is not a specifically gendered word, given the context of the lines thus far this addressee can be read as someone who challenges the overly strict binary of gendered forms. Line 8 confirms this suspicion—the addressee “steals men’s eyes” and amazes “women’s souls,” confirming his power over both genders (“amaze” meant “infatuate” in Renaissance times, which implies that women do not simply admire this man; they desire him deep in their souls, alongside the men who stare when he walks by).

This womanly man is “the master mistress of [the speaker’s] passion.” This phrase not only conflates gender into one person, it also indicates mastery, so that the person being addressed is the most powerful of all the mistresses of the speaker’s passion, the most powerful of all the powerful females—which is in addition to, not to the exclusion of, being both a male master and a female master.

The next two sentences fully activate the sexuality that has been latent thus far. Line 9 claims that this addressee was first created “for a woman,” which can also be read that he was first made “to be a woman” (Booth 164). Yet, as nature “wrought” this creature in line 10, she so dotes on her that in line 11 she adds something that “defeat[s]” the speaker: “By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” “Thing” was a Renaissance euphemism for both penis and vulva, and while “nothing” specifically meant vulva (as well as “no thing”), when line 13 asserts that nature “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,” it becomes certain what the addition was—“prick” as a verb meant to mark something as different from the rest, and as a noun it already was slang for penis in 1609.

Here, a woman with a penis is a wonderful thing, not abhorred by nature or humans. And this dote-worthy creature is pricked out not just for the pleasure of one woman, but for multiple women. Delight and desire are everywhere in this poem, and shock is registered nowhere in it. The existence of this person who is made of both genders is a very good, powerful thing, exclusively posited in the positive. Themes that run throughout the sonnets—the singular obsession of desire, the dichotomies that exist both in ideas and in people in relationships, and the complications that arise from triangulation—all get unique treatment here, unique not only in the sonnets themselves, but in Renaissance poetry, and poetry since.

Don’t read to find out what I am. Read to find out what I care about, and how I think.

 

__________

[1] The theory in the novel is that the sonnets were written for William Hughes, the boy-actor who played the female roles in Shakespeare’s drama. To prove this, the characters quote eighty-five different sections of the sonnets throughout the novella. The originator, Cyril Graham, says his theory “evolved […] purely from the sonnets themselves, and depend[ed] for its acceptance not so much on demonstrable proof or formal evidence, but on a kind of spiritual and artistic sense” (177). Others besides Cyril need physical proof that Willie Hughes actually existed in order to believe, so Cyril has a portrait forged of Mr. W.H. This evidence convinces his dear friend, Erskine. When Erskine discovers the forgery, Cyril commits suicide. The unnamed narrator further develops Cyril’s theory, produces more internal evidence, convinces himself it is true, re-convinces Erskine it is true, then mysteriously stops believing it himself, leading Erskine to say he is going to commit suicide to prove his belief in the theory, but the narrator learns he in fact died of consumption.

[2] I prefer Richard Halpern’s treatment in his deliciously titled text, Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan, where he insists that there are repeated references to same-sex “practices” in the sonnets, and if modern readers ignore this they are “guilty of both homophobia and simple inaccuracy” (12), but the practices described in the sonnets tell us nothing about Shakespeare’s own sexuality. Stephen Booth makes the best argument for what the sonnets reveal: “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter” (548).

 

[More evidence on the matter will appear in Erin Stalcup’s last section–forthcoming Monday, January 5, 2015).

Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.

 

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In Celebration of Hybridity–Erin Stalcup

I am bitextual.

I write fiction and nonfiction. But mostly fiction. So I enter into Bending Genre wondering how to apply its lessons and conundrums to my own writing, how my fiction can get bent.

There are lots of facts in my fiction. Did you know that Einstein had a daughter? He never saw her after she was two years old, and none of us know what happened to her. So I speculate. Did you know that Isaac Newton didn’t only name gravity (I claim you can’t discover what is already there, and yes I apply that logic to the continent I live on), he also invented calculus? Did you know Isaac Newton believed counterfeiters should be hanged?

You might not learn these facts from my fiction because they’re a bit buried, and it’s so obvious I’m making so much up that you might not read for accuracy anywhere in there. In other stories I imagine what would happen if gravity stopped. A character invents the “Patrician Portion,” the percentage of tax dollars acquired through luxury purchases which is allocated to the military, a calculation that doesn’t exist in the so-called real world. I imagine real things—keening women, sky burial—happening in the United States, a place where they don’t. One character ghostwrites suicide notes. One of my stories is made up entirely of Missed Connection entries; most of them are written by me, some were cut and pasted from Craigslist. In one story a teenager and her father go on a road trip together and she sees someone commit suicide, and tells her father this, but doesn’t tell him about the much older man she’s been having sex with; when the story was published I told my mom that yes, I went on a road trip with my dad when I was a teenager but I wasn’t having sex and I didn’t see someone commit suicide and she said, “I know. If those things happened you would have told me by now.” In my fiction I imagine Galileo during his actual house arrest, as if a female physicist is reading his diaries, which, as far as we know, were never written. In the story someone says to her what was said to me when I studied physics: “How does it feel to be a female physicist? So rare?”

I quit physics to be a writer.

In my novella, a character discusses taking a class while he was in prison. His teacher brought pizza on the last day, and when she realizes she could have brought a lot more and the men would have eaten it, when she sees how politely they all make sure they get the same amount—six slices each, ¾ of a pie, each, but they would have eaten much, much more—she nearly cries. He’s since been released, and remembers that he wanted to walk out of the classroom, or maybe slap her, when she reacted that way. When she nearly cries for not bringing them enough food, eight pies for twelve men not enough, he both likes and despises her. That teacher is me. I do not know how my students felt about me when that happened.

Speculative fiction usually means irrealistic. Speculative nonfiction just means essay.

One way to view my novel-in-progress is to see it as a speculative essay that considers how we as a collective might respond to climate change, once we all admit it’s really happening. I’d like to believe I invented a genre: pre-apocalypse.

In the novel, a filmmaker makes a zombie movie about pigeons. In the speech before the premiere, he names all of his influences—and since the novel is set 20 years in the future, I got to make some up. He says we don’t need climatologists anymore, we need artists to respond to the beginning of the end of the world. I think we need both—more science, more art.

In the novel, I write from the point of view of a woman who grew up on the land I grew up on, but who isn’t me. Her land burned, mine hasn’t yet. I write from the perspective of characters unlike me: biracial, bisexual, bilingual, homeless, animal. I observe characters unlike myself: genderqueer, non-American, indigenous. Every character is a way of thinking about myself.

 

A Response to Reality Hunger

Bending Genre begins with David Shields’ Reality Hunger.

He writes: “Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends” (60). I fundamentally disagree.

The only genre distinctions I ever make: something labeled nonfiction means the author wants you to think it really happened, and something labeled fiction means the author wants you to read without worrying about whether or not this really happened. Neither label claims anything about the actuality of the events, just the expected perceptions.

David Shields writes, “Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction” (26). I hope some of the best nonfiction is being written as fiction, also.

David Shields writes, “The novel is dead” (115).

David Shields goes on to say, “Long live the antinovel, built from scraps” (115), but I don’t know why that has to be called an antinovel. He writes, “The novel isn’t dead”; it just isn’t as “central to the culture” as it once was (22). He says that the convention novel “ignor[es] the culture around” it (87). Maybe that’s why it’s not so central anymore.

 

I believe, deeply, that the best fiction and the best nonfiction today deal with the real world, but make art out of it.

David Shields looks at the evidence, and is frustrated:

I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. […] It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always ‘about what they’re about’—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject. (118)

And: “[S]ome seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered” to conventional plot (17). And: “In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place” (176).

I don’t know if we’re just reading different books, but I look at the evidence and conclude that hybridity is alive and thriving.

Reality Hunger ends up being a memoir about a really smart man bored by most fiction. I’m excited by how much good writing there is in the world.

 

The first time I read Reality Hunger, I wrote in the margins: “I desperately want to write a book David Shields will fall in love with.”

David Shields says some things I really disagree with. “Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted” (124). But fiction can do this too!

“Essayists are a species of metaphysician […] Novelists go about the strenuous business of marrying and burying their people” (133). But I love metaphysics as much as I love physics!

“Someone once said to me, quoting someone or other, ‘Discursive thought is not fiction’s most effective tool; the interaction of characters is everything.’ This is when I knew I wasn’t a fiction writer, because discursive thought is what I read and write for” (145). You’ve been talking to the wrong person about fiction writing!

David Shields says some things I really agree with. “‘Fiction’/‘nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction” (63). “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative. (Is there even narrative?)” (110). “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre, or the means by which other genres speak to one another” (139). “[A]ll writing is autobiography” (152). “It’s all about you and yet somehow it’s not about you at all” (160).

 

Reality Hunger came out the same year as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has a (fake) Powerpoint presentation as a chapter; and as Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape From a Leper Colony, which, in part, imagines a false history of a real place. Since then, Kyle Minor published Praying Drunk, a book of “stories” that does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction within the same cover; and Tim Horvath published Understories, which includes nonnarrative studies of cities that don’t exist and a novella about the friendship between an invented person and Heidegger; and Claire Vaye Watkins published Battleborn, where the first story is about a character named Claire Watkins whose father was a part of the Manson gang and whose mother committed suicide—both true facts from the author’s life—who is visited by her half-sister, Razor Blade Baby, whose birth was assisted by Charles Manson’s use of a razorblade (the reality or not of which I have not looked up). Before Reality Hunger, Junot Díaz published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel with footnotes about Dominican history, and a lot of inaccurate references to videogames; and Kevin McIlvoy published a novella that is three revisions of an essay supposedly written by a fifth-grader, his teacher’s notes included; and Don DeLillo published Libra with this author’s note:

This is a work of imagination. While drawing from the historical record, I’ve made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination [of John F. Kennedy].

Any novel about a major unresolved event would aspire to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters. Among these invented characters are all officers of intelligence agencies and all organized crime figures, except for those who are part of the book’s background.

In a case in which rumors, facts, suspicions, official subterfuge, conflicting sets of evidence, and a dozen labyrinthine theories all mingle, sometimes indistinguishably, it may seem to some that a work of fiction is one more gloom in a chronicle of unknowing.

But because this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here—a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years. (458)

I’m not sure if these examples enhance David Shields’ argument, or not. They definitely strengthen mine: hybridity is alive and thriving, within the genre we typically refer to as fiction.

I am trying very hard to do in my fiction the things David Shields is looking for, and typically finds in nonfiction, because that’s the kind of writing I want to read.

But many (most?) people don’t want to read fiction like that.

Recent rejection letters I’ve gotten: “[Your story] offers a fascinating glimpse into an unusual profession, but the plot could use more work/development.” “Your writing is beautiful and the line you tread between reality and not-quite reality is very interesting. The end of the story, however, lacks the same grace and ease of storytelling.” “Readers generally admired this story for the writing—as well as the conceptual nature of the piece. However, we worried about thematic coherence and a narrative through line.”

 

[Speaking of narrative through-line, Stalcup’s essay will be posted in three sections. This section is the first.]

Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.