I’m wearing a tie for the first time, a flash of red under a graduation gown. It has given me a license to peek and poke at those around me. Bombastic side-eye. Not that kind of reading. I dig around in my tote bag and pull out my copy of For Now by Eileen Myles, a bit wet from the dregs of my stowed coffee cup. Who brings a book to their university graduation? A crit lit student, for sure. None of us escape cliche, trying to has become a cliche. Embrace it? Or maybe, take after Eileen and move quickly onto the next shimmering thing so you won’t notice. I’ve never been good at that.
I read Ender Başkan‘s latest piece in Overland today, titled Poetry can already be free. It was broken into fragments of when my boss wasn’t watching, I think Ender would have approved of this. The line that fucked me up was: “Can anyone who has settled down play a part in unsettling Australia?” And I’ve been thinking for a while now, can anyone simultaneously hold the desire to unsettle and settle down? This is probably (somewhat embarrassingly) self-centred because at the same time as my current creative and academic opportunities, I have been offered a very stable, full-time, desk job at the council.
I recently finished The Ginger Child by Patrick Flanery, the husband of my honours supervisor. I told myself I wouldn't read it until I had graduated because I knew it was about them wanting to adopt a child. Against my better judgment, I couldn’t resist sending my old supervisor Ender’s article. I didn’t tell him that it was because I had read his husband’s book (and in my defence, the ebook was available for immediate download on Libby). I asked him his thoughts on whether those who have settled down can play any part in unsettling. He hasn’t responded yet. I’m partly hoping he never does — although that’s not in his nature— because if he does, I don’t know how I’ll resist telling him to show Patrick that episode of Round the Twist. You know the one, where Pete falls pregnant by a tree spirit and gives birth to a slimy green baby by burping it out in the school sick bay. “It reminds me of Partick’s chapter where he connects the Alien film franchise to his desire to father queerly,” I could say. Instead, I said “I guess, I’m selfishly wondering if the joy theorist can have their utopian potentialities and a stable income too.”
Last month my book club read Motherhood by Sheila Heti. It was divisive but that's not saying much because most of them are. Our group’s opinions (or at least the passion of our opinions) are often loosely divided by those who went on to do further study and those who now work full time. Maybe that’s not a fair or kind judgment. Perhaps it’s also blatantly untrue because now that I think about it, one of our most outspoken works at a law firm. The first time I met him, he near yelled across a seminar room that the Annie Ernaux novella we were studying was “a monstrosity”. One time our book club chose Red White and Royal Blue “for some fun”, and he came with a 90-slide PowerPoint presentation explaining why it was sex-negative. A monstrosity of its own kind. But this portrait doesn’t do him justice. That was the best book club we’ve ever had. Just because he is opinionated doesn’t make him a non-generous nor entertaining critic. He cares deeply, he can’t help it it seems and I admire his self-assurance. I should tell him that. I’m dwelling again, forgive me.
Back to Motherhood, I feel far too young to have an opinion. Even though I’m older than my parents were when they had me. In the novel, Heti writes,
“There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”
Ah, the terfs would lap this up, I think. I’m disturbed by my knee jerk homogenisation of feminism. It’s sad but perhaps a sign of the times that when I read something overtly -white- feminist, my terf radar pings. They can’t take everything. They haven’t. Raise your hand if you’re a feminist and you don’t believe trans people are oppressing you. I know you’re out there. Am I in that camp? I’m probably a feminist by default or birth right but I don’t care to further emancipate the white, supposedly female parts of me so it feels pretty soggy, as far as hills to die on go. It’s hard to feel that I’m still a feminist when the loudest so-called feminists are actively fighting against my and my community’s humanity.
I want there to be more footbridges built between feminism and queer theory. I’m not sure I’m equipped to build one, but maybe taking the council job could help me bypass the building permits? Because oddly enough I think Motherhood could be a step. Later in the book, the protagonist laments that she envies gay men who, she says, never have to come out as not wanting children. I wonder what my supervisor and his husband — who spent almost five years trying to navigate the UK’s foster care system with the dream of becoming fathers — would have to say. If I remember correctly, the protagonist corrects herself and says most men, generally speaking, don't have to justify why they don’t want children. Regardless, the protagonist is implicitly saying if gay men don’t, then why must I, a cis, straight(ish) woman, have to? As if it's a blessing to be deemed unfit or dangerous to parent children. I say straight ish because at one point she says that having a threesome with a woman and her long term boyfriend was the best sex she’s ever had and that feels kinda gay, don’t you think?
Additionally, her choice to use the term ‘come out’ feels pointed. First off, the protagonist could come out as not wanting children. Not being able to come out isn’t really what’s stopping her, it’s actually her own indecision on the matter. It’s strange to me that she’s acting like she would be pioneering women “coming out” as being childless by choice when they already do that, I’ve seen it. Further, the irony is, that if she did “come out”, she’d be met by the fact that coming out is not the single one-and-done event she craves. Coming out is experienced repeatedly, literally every time you meet someone new, or change GPs, or are asked what your thesis topic was. How swiftly, dare we say carelessly, Heti connects her childless by-choice feminism to a vague, caricature of queerness.
I don’t know how much Heti has engaged with queer theory, she could be queer herself for all I know; and I want to believe that living in a queer body grants you more knowledge than reading every word Judith Butler has ever written. Let’s go, queer praxis! However, if Heti was thinking about queer theory while writing Motherhood, she doesn’t make it obvious. Actually, more novels need a “what I was reading while writing this” bibliography tacked on the end. One of my friends called me to talk about Motherhood, she said the references to gay men turned the whole book sour for her. I went on a rant about the need for feminism to engage with more queer theory.
Unknowingly, I think Heti —via the protagonist— expresses a frustration against compulsory reproduction, which is very similar to that of the queer antisocial theorists of the 90s. I think she should read some Edelman, Halberstam, and Muñoz and then maybe she'd find a queer utopia of her own… perhaps one where she can have the best sex of her life every time because her horrible boyfriend isn’t there but their unicorn is. I’m not saying being gay can solve the problems feminists seek to solve but… Do you remember that viral tweet, “Being a straight woman is wild because you have to date your only natural predator”? It’s still true and sad and scary. It’s traumatic, I know even from my short stint at it, but being queer or a terf can’t and shouldn’t be offered as a solution to dating your predator. However, I do think, feminists and queer utopianists could actualise a new world of relation together. Or at least write some amazing books about it.
One of my favourite Eileen Myles quotes comes from their memoir, Chelsea Girls and goes:
“I have waited all my life for permission. I feel it growing in my breast. A war is storming and it is being me and I am moving my forces into light.”
What are you reading?
What I was reading while writing this:
Ender Başkan, What I’m Reading. Meanjin, 26 October, 2022. https://meanjin.com.au/blog/what-im-reading-ender-baskan/
Ender Başkan, Poetry can already be free. Overland, 21 April 2023. https://overland.org.au/2023/04/poetry-can-already-be-free/
Patrick Flanery, The Ginger Child: On Family, Loss and Adoption. Atlantic Books, 2019.
Patrick Flanery, Interior: Monkeyboy. Grata, 13 July 2016. https://granta.com/interior-monkeyboy/
Shelia Heti, Motherhood. Henry Holt and Co, 2018.
Elieen Myles, Chelsea Girls. Ecco, 1994.
Eileen Myles, For Now (Why I Write). Yale University Press, 2021.
Or watch them give the talk here:
Jay Prosser, ‘Queer Feminism and Critical Impropiety: Transgender and Transitional Object?’ in The Transgender Studies Reader. Routledge 2006, page 277-280. Read for free here.
Jessi Roti, ‘Emily Blue Searches for Queer Utopia on Forthcoming Pop Project The Afterlove’, AudioFemme, 16 Feb 2021, https://www.audiofemme.com/playing-chicago-emily-blue-the-afterlove/
Alex Vadukul, ‘Eileen Myles Watches Over an Ever-Changing New York’, The New York Times, 18 May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/18/style/eileen-myles-watches-over-an-ever-changing-new-york.html
Round the Twist, Season 3 Episode 1: The Big Burp:
The Gay and Wonderous Life of Caleb Gallo. Season 1 Episode 1-5.
Since posting this, I can’t stop thinking about Eileen Myles referring to themself as a “Trans feminist” and how, to them this doesn’t define who they are but rather what they want in the world. What do I want in the world? How much of where we settle and what we want to unsettle defines who we are?
I also regret skipping over the centrality of (so called) Australia in Ender’s original question and article overall. Further, the particular implications that the term “settling” has in this place.
'it feels pretty soggy, as far as hills to die on go' HEAVEN. All of it. Heaven.