An essay by Leora Tanenbaum
Book collections are my pornography. I’m not interested in individual titles—anyone can pretend they’re reading Zadie Smith. What makes my pulse race is the ways in which people arrange their books. The care of the arrangement reveals the depth of the book collector as well as the ineffable character of the books themselves. During this pandemic, we now have the ability to scan—without the slightest shame—the book collections of Cate Blanchett, Stacey Abrams, and Prince Charles along with those of public health experts, political analysts, and social justice advocates. The visibility of print books has arrived at just the right time. With a president whose favorite books are the ones ghostwritten for him and is a self-proclaimed genius, our souls need to see books more than ever before.
Before the powerful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the news was depressingly the same every day for two months. For me, it was the book collections on display that added texture to that blur. Most celebrities, pundits, and experts display their titles in the usual position—spines out, lined up vertically. But some audaciously pile their books horizontally. Others arrange their books promiscuously, fitting them in at any angle wherever there’s a space. Some books have jackets; others are naked in cloth alone. The money shot is getting to see the contours of the bookcase itself—is the back covered, or is it open to the wall behind it? Freestanding or wall-mounted? Wood or laminate? Blonde, cherry, or walnut? If I knew you better, I would tell you which one I favor.
A tall, dark, and handsome bookcase supporting rows and rows of books is a sign of someone who takes knowledge and language seriously—a person with a rich interior life, who thinks deeply before taking action, who considers the effect their words have on other people. The irreverent filmmaker John Waters has said, “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t [spend the night with] them.” (He said it more succinctly.) A person who doesn’t read books, Waters suggests, isn’t someone you would want to connect with, even for one evening. A person without books lacks character. The physicality of print books is what’s important because print books are similar to people. When the book collector unpacks his library, wrote German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1931, he experiences “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” The “disorder of crates”—the collector’s books jostling with each other in jumbled chaos, different genres packed together—gives way to the “mild boredom of order” as books similar to each other—in subject matter, height, or another taxonomy—are lined up in straight, uniform rows. The symmetry of books lined up is beautiful, but only when something is askew—books on patriarchal religion next to those on feminism, or the price sticker from the local independent bookstore remained fixed to occasional spines.
Bookcases create a structure, a community, for books that otherwise would be solitary and perhaps overlooked. Out-of-print books are placed alongside bestsellers. When books huddle together, we can see their patterns. We see that books reveal stories of people unlike ourselves who live in ways not so different from our own, and stories of people exactly like ourselves who make choices that never would occur to us.
So, those of you interviewed on news programs or joining routine work video calls who choose to situate yourself with a backdrop of books: You are, in your way, everyday heroes to me and other book-lovers. You are covertly demonstrating the need to evaluate facts and lifting up the truth to be found in expertise. At this moment when elected leaders reject science, fail to heed history, and do not open themselves to empathy, your lens shows us what we need to see. Amid our current crises, reading books from beginning to end, sentence by sentence, committed to the experience of transformation and trusting the author to lead us to be and do better, is a radical act.
Leora Tanenbaum is the author of five books, most recently I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet. She is the editorial director of Catalyst.
Notes from the Pause By Laurie Stone
When we could still go out, we didn’t shut down anything.
On November 9, 2016, I thought we should stop what we were doing. Shut it down. Dogs should not go on with their doggy life, except actual dogs could go on being dogs. I thought we should stage a general strike against the thing that had happened, and lots of people on social media agreed, and we didn’t shut down anything. For three-plus years we have felt nauseous and dizzy, and we have loathed existence for continuing as if nothing mattered. People called the thing President Trump. The words president and Trump were nails in the head. There was only one subject: our passivity, and it was boring because no one had anything insightful to say about it. All other subjects were irrelevant, and we stopped thinking well. Our thinking was under a cloud. We probably could have stopped the thing that had happened, but people weren’t ready. I don’t know why. Let’s let it go.
The virus was a relief.
The virus was a different destructive thing to think about. It had no intentions. It didn’t produce our passivity. It wasn’t even alive. It ushered in the great pause in which we saw we didn’t miss the torpor we had been living in, and we tried not to get sick and die.
I was supposed to write something about women and Covid-19.
On May 25th, George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, was murdered while handcuffed and prone on a Minneapolis street by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes with the force of his two hundred pounds, while Floyd begged for his life, knowing he was being suffocated. Why this instance of racist brutality ended the torpor when stacks of racist killings and harms at borders and detention camps and on urban streets did not end the torpor is not knowable, and it doesn’t matter because the origin of a thing does not determine its course. The great resistance was launched just when it was most dangerous for people to gather, and something about the danger fed the excitement of moving into public space with other bodies you can smell and on whose skin you can see light fall. You need libido to overcome torpor.
Inside the torpor, people used the words safe spaces and privilege a lot. When people talked about wanting a safe space, they weren’t thinking about the threat of murder by police that people of color, for example, are subject to just by being visible. They were saying something like, Don’t do or say things that are going to stir emotions in me I don’t want to feel. To have emotionally safe space means you are going to cancel out a lot of stuff other people do, and you are going to badger them for disturbing you. You are going to deaccession them, and remove them from circulation, and mark them as unfit for consumption not only by you but everyone. This approach became popular because people like to say what is best for other people. This is a reason dogs are preferable to people. They don’t have any idea what is best for you.
Some objects indeed have no place in public space— not because they add or detract from emotionally safe space but because they celebrate racism and sexism— such as monuments to the Confederacy and the statue removed from Central Park in 2018 of J. Marion Sims, known as “the father of gynecology,” who experimented on enslaved women.
In the place we live now, the place of a pandemic with so far no vaccine or effective treatment, combined with urgent and growing street protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter, combined with militarized police forces maiming and in some cases killing protesters, combined with a terrified president who summoned the National Guard to threaten and physically harm peacefully assembled citizens, combined with a pending election that feels to many people in danger of not occurring, combined with the possibility of civil war because Trump won’t leave office if voted out, the concept of emotionally safe space sounds like the punch line of a joke from a forgotten culture.
Just before the outbreak, we bought a house with dead-parent money no one else wanted because it had a serial-killer vibe, in the sense that dusty objects were tumbled in corners and the back yard had been used as a dump.
I was watering lettuce plants the other day when I found myself thinking about how the word privilege has replaced the words freedom and justice in the public conversation about social inequities. I started to think about privilege as a form of biological determinism. I think about biological determinism a lot because double standards—whereby X can and Y can’t—are propped up by the notion that people are born a certain way that inscribes their fate. They are born damned by their skin color, or sex, or erotic propensities, etc., or they are born saved (white, male, straight, able-bodied, etc.)—receiving all the goods of life and entitled to tell the rest of humanity what’s wrong with them.
When you are at the bottom, it’s fun as payback to hurl the word privilege around like a bucket of ice water to shut people up. It reverses the power dynamic of privilege, so that people with less social and economic clout have more moral authority to call the privileged corrupt. Lots of people with race and gender privilege are corrupt. Are they ineluctably corrupt? Some people say yes—male privilege makes you ineluctably sexist and white privilege ineluctably racist. In this view, there’s no escaping your classification at birth. What you can do about your privilege if you are white or male or straight, etc., is go from not seeing it to seeing it and feeling bad, although you still have it. You have it if you don’t know you have it, and you have it if you do know you have it.
If privilege is something you can’t scrape off, in what tangible ways does emphasizing this help people with less privilege? Do people with less privilege want more privilege or something else?
I think people who’ve had the short end of things want freedom and justice. They want personal freedom to live by their desires. They want social justice in the courts, fair access to jobs and housing, equal access to education and medical care. They want a world where the body you are born with and the culture that body was raised in do not create ipso facto advantage or disadvantage. They want to circulate in public space without being killed.
Speaking of women.
If you haven’t gotten your fill of female-suffering porn (mainly girl-on-girl torture) that is the substance of the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale, April brought you Mrs. America (FX), a nine-episode series centered on Phyllis Schlafly. Who? Schlafly was a profoundly uninteresting, dime-a-dozen misogynist living in bad faith who, in the 1970s, led mainly white Southern women in a campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Gloria Steinem told an interviewer for The Guardian that Schlafly didn’t change a single vote in the final defeat. Gloria, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and other feminists are depicted in the show, but the sum of their screen time barely equals the footage about Schlafly. The feminists are shown squabbling and struggling to learn party politics, as if their defeat was owing to their incompetence. In a reality I participated in, they did everything they could to rethink the world. It’s crazy to blame women for the hatred of women.
Did women in the early second wave movement need to learn from each other about class and race and sexuality and everything else up for grabs? We did. But that’s not the point. The point is that feminists didn’t lose what they never had to begin with. The point was and remains that hatred of women is more powerful, better funded, more experienced, meaner, more bitter, more vicious, and more lunatic than opposition to it. Misogyny is also loaded with women recruited to preserve the same and the safe. No one gains status in the world by promoting the rights of women.
I need to say something about the Karen thing flying around. It’s difficult to swat back at it because it’s pretty funny. A Karen is not only blond and white and a soccer mom, she’s an antivaxxer! She’s dumb as a stump. And yes, such humans exist. But for fuck’s sake the Karen-ing is also a way to beat up women as the most wickedly clueless racists in the heap, while, in reality, all the stupidity of all the Karens in the world doesn’t come close to the homicidal destruction wrought by one Donald. I say this including the 911 call made by Amy Cooper in Central Park against bird-watcher Christian Cooper, who captured her on videotape. The issue here was Amy Cooper’s racism, not her femaleness, but they got lumped together in coverage of the incident as if they were part and parcel of each other, as if she was more despicable because she was female. She expressed her white supremacy, absolutely, but the hatred she stirred is like the daily reminders we hear that 47 percent of white women voted for Trump with no mention that 62 percent of white men voted for him. Because men are being men and well, you know, everyone expects them to be despicable? Karen-ing, like Becky-ing, goes viral because it’s fun to hate women. You can’t disappoint anyone with misogyny except feminists.
Wherever I find myself, I want to hold your hand, you own me, I would do anything for you, I will buy you a drink if there is an After.
I remember riding in the back of a van. The image just came to me. I was seated beside a guy who was handsome, an actor maybe, uncertain of his future, very handsome and kind in some sense I cannot put my finger on. It’s very late, maybe three in the morning, and the other waiters are sleeping. They are dead tired, and the handsome man and I are touching each other slowly in the rhythm of the ride and kissing. We have worked a party in Westchester or maybe further away, and I don’t know why this happens. I’m fifty-four. He’s thirtysomething, and the sadness of catering floats around us. It floats around the guests, too, the sense of a social occasion no one really wants to be at, and the kissing quiets something and arouses something, not just desire, something soft and inexplicable, and I know why I am remembering this in Covid time.
Last night I learned a friend had died in Rome. I had coffee with her a year ago in Soho, at a fancy place with good biscotti. She told me she had received a diagnosis that made walking difficult. She didn’t know how long she would live. A few years ago, the man I live with and I visited her in Rome, climbing steps to get to her house, up and up we went, only to find more stairs. I have been thinking about blood. The idea that the people we are related to are closer to us than the people we meet along the way in life. I mention blood because I think it’s a story made up to sell tribes and clans to people, because tribes and clans serve the interests of I don’t know who, but still it’s a story I don’t believe. The people I have known who are not blood and whom I have loved: oh my god, so much more significant to me, really, if you add up the numbers.
Capitalism is the opiate of the masses.
Protest in the streets is everything for upending the thing that has happened to us. The pandemic is in only its early stage. It will take years to run its course, if that’s possible. Advising any kind of reopening of society for the sake of commerce without the guarantee of social distancing and masks is a death lottery backed by zero science. In the US, at least, guaranteeing social distancing and masks is unenforceable. A government that cared about its population would pay people to stay home instead of making them choose between feeding themselves and their families and risking infection or spreading a virulent disease. To deter the resistance, the police at demonstrations are often unmasked and, at least at present, refusing to process the people they arrest in a timely fashion in order to make social distancing impossible for them. The calculation will fail to stop the wave of resistance, and people will have a harder time avoiding contagion and passing it along. We will vote. We will be a force with a large, communal drive, and safety will not be available. It has taken all this time for so many people to say stop, this has to stop, we will not stop saying this has to stop.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, about which Masha Gessen recently wrote in The New Yorker, “The title of the book references one of the central arguments of 1960s feminism, from which Stone hails intellectually: “The personal is political.” It also describes our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished—and suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.” Her 2019 essays about the MeToo movement and Valerie Solanas originally published in the Women’s Review of Books feature prominently in the collection.
Female Husbands: A Trans History By Jen Manion
Reviewed by James Yukiko Mulder
On July 16, 1746, a gregarious traveling quack doctor by the name of Charles Hamilton married Mary Price in Wells, England. After nearly two months of marriage, Price reported her husband to the authorities with a startling claim: She had only just discovered that Hamilton was not a man.
The story raises a myriad of questions. How did Hamilton, assigned female at birth, come to live and work as a man? Why did Hamilton, despite the risks of being outed by an intimate partner, decide to get married anyway? How could Price claim not to have known, despite having been sexually involved with her husband for two months? Jen Manion handles these questions with genuine care and thoughtful attention in Female Husbands: A Trans History. Though the eighteenth-century press viewed Hamilton with a sort of fascinated anxiety, in Female Husbands, we are treated to a version of the story that sees Hamilton as a sympathetic subject rather than an object of curiosity. Manion’s thorough historical research reveals that Hamilton’s choices were likely shaped as much by social and economic constraints as they were by sexuality or gender identity. Hamilton’s profession, for instance, allowed for more freedom and mobility than the occupations available to women. With manhood came the ability to travel alone and unsupervised, and it opened up economic opportunities that would have been foreclosed to women. At the same time, such a life also risked loneliness and isolation; any intimacy Hamilton indulged in had the potential to disclose their sex and thereby jeopardize their social standing.
Indeed, the result of Price’s complaint against Hamilton was a harsh and fairly straightforward punishment: six months of hard labor and humiliating public whippings. But the question of what Hamilton was being punished for was far less straightforward. Court records show that there was debate over what to call Hamilton’s crime, as well as over what the crime actually was in the first place. What was most troubling to the court, it seems, was Hamilton’s ability to please their wife sexually, with some combination of know-how and subterfuge such that Price found nothing in their intimacies to suggest that her husband might not be sexed male. Hamilton’s apparent success at embodying and performing the role of a husband was subsequently punished under the Vagrancy Act of 1744, a law intended to maintain order, often by punishing those who transgressed gender and sexual norms. Hamilton, along with the other gender-crossing figures in the book, is described as “transing” gender, a term that Manion describes in this way: “To say someone ‘transed’ or was ‘transing’ gender signifies a process or practice without claiming to understand what it meant to that person or asserting any kind of fixed identity on them. In this way, we might view the subjects of this book as traveling through life, establishing an ongoing and ever-unfolding relationship with gender, rather than viewing them as simply shifting between two unchanging binaries.”
The body of research represented in this book is impressive in its scope. Manion guides us through a truly vast amount of historical documentation, including newspapers, court records, and other printed materials from 1746 to 1910. Manion meticulously reassembles the life stories of well over a dozen female-assigned individuals who lived, worked, and in some cases got married, as men. The most impactful feature of the book, though, is that, despite the fact that historical records “usually mock and trivialize” those who challenged the expectations of their assigned sex, Manion nonetheless hopes that “by reading against the grain and approaching the material and above all the subjects with compassion, we can see the full humanity and vulnerability of those who have gone before us.” This book’s trans history might not, as Manion puts it, “tell a feel-good story,” but Manion’s skill and care as a narrator of this story is palpable throughout the book. In Female Husbands, these figures from the historical past are shown to be complex, often ingenious individuals who labored to maintain the stability of their various social and economic positions and proved resilient when their lives and bodies were placed under public scrutiny.
Manion’s book is readable and narrative; it manages to be both easily accessible to a casual reader and enlightening for a scholar of trans and queer history. We learn how transing gender was negotiated, talked about, and understood in the context of its particular historical moment. We also learn about the evolution of gender and sex more broadly, as Manion tracks changing ideas about what separates women from men, and what constitutes a punishable transgression of the gender binary.
She pieces together this history of trans lives from an abundance of archival documents, but the book also attends to the things that are missing from the historical record. Manion limns these gaps in the archive with compelling, informed speculation. In reference to James Howe, a respected tavernkeeper who was blackmailed into returning to life as a woman after living for decades as a man, Manion speculates, “What motivated Howe to live as a man? The answer given in the press to this question must be read with skepticism. It may have been made up by the person writing the news story. It may have been manipulated strategically by Howe after they were outed. It may have been the truth.” Another recurring absence in the history of female husbands are the motivations and experiences of the female wives who married them. In the case of James Allen, who was accidentally killed while working for an English ship-builder in 1829, for instance, Allen’s widow Abigail was forced to attest that she lacked any knowledge of her husband’s assigned sex. Abigail’s declaration of ignorance was likely motivated by concern for her own safety as well as financial difficulty, as her testimony appears to have helped her to avoid social abuse and to procure the insurance money she desperately needed following the death of her husband. This erasure of what Abigail might have known or felt for her husband effectively overwrites the possibility of sexual intimacy between the two, leaving a hole in the historical record of James and Abigail Allen’s marriage. As Manion points out, “From the perspective of queer and trans history, acceptance of the notion that these relationships were asexual had a devastating function by erasing the significance of sexual intimacy and emphasizing a husband’s inability to satisfy their wife.”
Manion is thus attuned to the limitations of the historical record and language to accurately represent trans lives. Naturally, this requires addressing the ways in which gendered language was used in the press to depict those who transed gender. Even the simple choice of which pronouns to use to describe a person could become a source of contention, as when the coroner examining James Allen’s body avowed, “I call the deceased ‘he,’ because I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.” Female Husbands refuses to assign these subjects a singular gendered pronoun when describing them, instead opting to refer to the subjects of the book with the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” This practice highlights the limitations of gendered pronouns for representing individuals whose lives often moved “across and in-between gender roles in a space we simply don’t have adequate language for.”
Furthermore, Manion’s close attention to the language of the press reveals far more than the insufficiency of a binary system of gender. This is nowhere more evident than in the story of Charles Williams, a maritime laborer who came to the attention of the press during the early nineteenth century. At this time, newspapers commonly filled their pages with stories of “female sailors” who transed gender and sought employment at sea. Importantly, Williams’s story was circulated in relation to the attention-grabbing term “female sailor,” which would have been familiar to readers of the period, but every version of Williams’ story was quick to identify Williams as black. The unavoidable fact that race was insistently foregrounded in accounts of Williams’s life signals that the “female sailor” was, in Manion’s words, “fundamentally and implicitly a category bounded by whiteness, reserved for and used to describe the kinds of freedom that white people assigned female achieved when they passed as white men.” The term “female husband” was used in a similar way to refer to an implicitly white form of masculinity and mobility. The history of transing gender in the US and UK, in other words, cannot be written without accounting for the ways in which colonialism, racism, and the construction of whiteness are inextricable from gendered social norms and even gendered language throughout this history.
Female Husbands offers a nuanced survey of both famed and forgotten figures in the history of transing gender. As a trans reader myself, I turned the pages of this book with a growing sense of relief. In negotiating my own gender identity and expression, I have frequently been in the position to feel as though I have run afoul of the rules of gender, or that I have failed to live up to the social expectations of my own gender. As a result, seeing this expansive history of cross-gender identification come to life in Manion’s capable hands was a genuinely affecting experience. It is hard to remain anxious about living up to a gendered standard when faced with so much historical evidence to confirm that the language and rules of gender are and always have been idiosyncratic at best, and cruelly exclusionary at worst.
Manion’s firm belief that these stories can productively “confound our contemporary notions of gender identity” even as they “offer us a window onto our collective past—and future” is, in short, convincing. This book will jostle your assumptions about what constitutes gender and, further, how gender shapes and is shaped by history—exactly what Manion intends it to do.
James Yukiko Mulder is a Boston-based academic whose current book project focuses on trans history and seventeenth-century literature. He also has an article about rude noises, bad smells, and bodily orifices on the early modern British stage forthcoming in SEL: Studies of English Literature 1500-1900.
The Death of Vivek Oji By Akwaeke Emezi
Reviewed by Noelle McManus
The very first chapter of The Death of Vivek Oji is a single sentence: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” On the next page, we meet Vivek’s father, Chika, and Chika’s mother, Ahunna. But where is Vivek? What has—or will—become of him? Nonbinary author Akwaeke Emezi holds off on answering these questions, weaving the story of a life rather than a singular event. Before we learn exactly what happened on the day the market burned, we must first know Chika and his wife, Kavita. We must know their nephew, Osita. We must know the foreign Nigerwives, local girls Elizabeth and Juju, religious Aunty Mary, and the Nigerian towns they all live in. Only then can we truly know Vivek and how he died.
The Death of Vivek Oji—Emezi’s second adult novel, following Freshwater in 2018—is a story told in hindsight, each character looking back at what has transpired. Chapters alternate in point of view: sometimes they are narrated in a sweeping thirdperson that follows the characters in their guilt or grieving; sometimes in Osita’s bewildered, mournful revelations about his relationship with his cousin; sometimes in short, whispering messages from Vivek himself, from beyond the grave. In the first chapter that he narrates, Vivek poses, “If nobody sees you, are you still there?” Even in life, he toes the line of transparency. He was born on the day his grandmother passed away and possesses the same scar she had on the bottom of her foot. “Birthdays and deathdays [are] all tangled up in each other,” Emezi writes, and Vivek stands with one leg on either side.
On one perfectly sunny day, Vivek remarks to Osita how loud the rain is. After stating that there is no rain, Osita notes: “when I touched the cotton of his shirt and the bone of his joint underneath, his eyes rolled up into the white and his body flopped sideways, falling against the mattress. ‘Oh,’ he said, and dropped his shoulders. Then, almost to himself: ‘This thing again.’” Thus marks the beginning of what Vivek flippantly refers to as “blackouts,” moments in which he seems transported to another place entirely, “walking as if he was drunk, staggering and stumbling, his lips moving slowly and soundlessly.” Some characters ponder the similarities between Vivek and his grandmother Ahunna, though they dismiss any idea of reincarnation decisively: “Vivek was a boy and not a girl…” And when he begins to grow his hair long, to “[look] like a prophet,” to adorn himself with his mother’s jewelry, the adults in his life continue to believe that his episodes are just that, that his strange behavior is only a phase—“the verge of a nervous breakdown”—and that one day he will realize the wrongness of his actions.
But Emezi does not allow that to happen. The Nigeria they brings us is one characterized not only by political turmoil, but also by powerful, tight-knit LGBT youth. Vivek, undoubtedly queer from the start, finds hope and community in his gay friends. Even Osita, who at first proclaims his disgust with Vivek’s lifestyle, later reveals his own struggles with sexuality. “Do you even know what I’m like?” Vivek challenges Osita at one point, though his words seem to be directed somewhere past his cousin; earlier, in his own narration, Vivek admits that “every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.” Their group of friends stands outside society in the same way that Vivek stands outside reality, outside life, and they cling fiercely to each other because of it. They may not share his near-clairvoyance, but they all possess the gift of seeing the unseen. Of understanding the existence of a vibrant, beautiful current running under their country’s surface.
The Death of Vivek Oji’s interlacing of queerness and fantasy provides important commentary on the indescribable beauty of our differences. Considering Vivek’s life, Osita recalls “when he danced and the girls danced with him and I thought, God forgive me, I really love him, I really do.” Emezi does little to condemn the taboos presented to the reader—cheating, violence, incest. They aim to remind us that there is light to be found, even in the face of horror. Among all the pain and tragedy, there is beauty, peace, and dancing.
Even so, clouds of great sorrow cover the skies. Vivek’s mother Kavita is inconsolable after his death, frantically searching for information everyone else seems to be withholding. “Her questions were real,” Emezi writes. “Who had returned Vivek’s body to their door? Who stripped off their child’s clothes, wrapped him in akwete, and delivered him like a parcel, like a gift, a bloody surprise? Who had broken his head?” At his burial, she watches a group of men kill a goat; she vomits. Death begets death; blood begets blood. This loss begets terrible, terrible suffering. As far as we can understand from the start, a boy has been lost to a world that did not understand him. But, as the story progresses, Emezi shows us again that there is more than meets the eye. No explanation can describe what has truly transpired. “The words had departed from their origins,” Kavita realizes in her mourning. “They were diluted, denatured.”
Is there an inherent tragedy in queerness? An inherent joy? Emezi asks us these questions and never truly gives a reply. What Emezi has created in The Death of Vivek Oji is an opportunity for the reader to cast their own judgments. Emezi has things to say on Vivek’s sexual and gender identity, certainly, just as they have things to say about his national, his ethnic (half-Nigerian, half-Indian), and his cultural identities. Still—as central as his death is to the book—we are never told, exactly, what it means that Vivek is dead. Does it mean anything at all, or is the end of his story just a sequence of accidents and regret?
I fell so deeply in love with his wit, mystery, and radical confidence; I couldn’t help but think that he deserved more, not only from society, but from the book professing itself to tell his story. Maybe I was meant to feel this frustration. Maybe Emezi wants the reader to know the fury brought about by senseless prejudice. Maybe, then, I am the one looking past the meaning. Even Vivek himself seems uncertain: “Perhaps I had just become the fulcrum, the point on which everything hinged, the turning. I don’t know.”
Which of the characters are supported? Which are pitied? How much will readers decide for themselves? In The Death of Vivek Oji, Emezi does not point one way. Among all the enigma and intrigue, though, is a doting portrait of queer, middle-class life in Nigeria, a love song for the outcasts. One of the author’s dedications at the end of the book reads, “To all the queer and gendervariant people back home, especially those making new worlds for us, jisie ike. What a world it will be.”
And what a world they have already made, where, when a queer teenager dies, their parents exclaim, “We failed, don’t you see? We didn’t see him and we failed.” Where invisibility is known and recognized. Where LGBT youth are doors into another state of consciousness. In a narrative reminiscent of (and inspired by) Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the end is there from the start, whether we recognize it or not. Pain and love and loss lock hands, and the world moves on cruelly.
We must understand this in order to understand Vivek. And we must understand that his reality is our reality: The fantasy only stretches so far.
Noelle McManus is a student of Linguistics and Spanish at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as well as an editorial assistant for the Women’s Review of Books.
The Mirror and the Light By Hilary Mantel
Reviewed by Charis Caputo
In 2013, Hilary Mantel caused a bit of a scandal in the British press when she called Kate Middleton “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own,” her “only point and purpose being to give birth. The comments were made in a lecture on the history of the royal body for the London Review of Books, in which Mantel decimates the monarchy as an antiquated, patriarchal institution that turns persons into “carriers of bloodlines” and “collections of organs.” Even today, she argues, “a royal lady is a royal vagina.”
And no reign was more “gynecological” than that of Henry VIII, a king who destroyed one wife after another in his quest for a viable male heir. Thus, Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, though taking place entirely and deeply in the consciousness of the unlikely protagonist Thomas Cromwell (the son of an abusive blacksmith, who transcended his common upbringing to serve as Henry’s secretary and right-hand advisor during the decade that spanned the king’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon, consequent break with the pope, and subsequent three marriages) is primarily a story about gender, sexuality, and the reproductive body. As Cromwell himself puts it: “It’s all about women. What else is it about?”
Indeed, great swaths of the series’ first two books are devoted to debate over Catherine’s hymen (the annulment rested on proving she was not a virgin at the time of marriage) and Anne Boleyn’s deviant sexual appetites. The Mirror and the Light, the trilogy’s much anticipated conclusion, picks up at the moment the preceding novel left off: Anne Boleyn— the woman whom Henry broke with Rome to marry only three years prior— has just been executed for treason and adultery, a fate that Cromwell brought about with great expedience after the King grew tired of her disobedient attitude and failure to produce a son. This concluding novel traces Cromwell’s fall from the pinnacle of his power. Here we see him not only as Henry’s chief advisor, but simultaneously his Lord Privy Seal and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In this installment, Henry makes Cromwell a Baron, a member of the Garter, and, in the midst of civil unrest, his chief scapegoat. It is a moving narrative arc. Mantel has turned the oft-vilified Cromwell into a bizarrely compelling and omnicompetent hero of great psychological complexity, but here we witness his entanglement in the web of his own conflicting loyalties and realpolitik as he seems to take on a chief duty he does not relish or desire: “to get the king new wives and dispose of the old.”
Mantel, as a literary mind, is difficult to categorize. She is not just a skillful or stylish or insightful novelist—though she is all of those. She is what I would call a great novelist, “a prolific, protean figure,” as The Guardian has put it, one “who doesn’t fit many of the established pigeonholes for women writers.” Her material is both magisterial and intimate, historical and contemporary, ranging from European political history to 1980s Saudi Arabia to her own struggles with severe endometriosis. She never intended to pursue writing as a career until her mid-twenties, when, as the wife of a geologist researching in Botswana, she began her first novel: A Place of Greater Safety, a 700-plus-page fictional account of the French Revolution that took her a decade to write and a couple of decades to publish. In a Paris Review interview, she claims, “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.” Often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” Mantel achieved literary-star status about thirty years into her career with the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2013, two bestsellers that garnered her two Man Booker prizes. But if Mantel is no longer just a writer’s writer, you might still say she is a historian’s writer. Part of what makes the Wolf Hall trilogy so extraordinary is its fidelity to historical detail. Although the language is updated to strike a balance between authenticity and contemporary clarity—characters speak of women’s “courses” and “quims,” but you won’t see any thee’s, thou’s, or prithee’s—major events are never manufactured or distorted, and almost all characters are created from actual persons in the historical record. Mantel engages the past on its own terms, a less-than-fashionable approach in an era when most historical fiction of literary status uses speculative or postmodern distortions to elide the question of accuracy altogether. Nor does Wolf Hall have much in common with popular historical fiction. The novels’ sensory description is immersive and rich—vivid renderings of fine garments and cloth provide much sensual and thematic texture to The Mirror and the Light—yet tightly controlled, never a mere showcase of the author ’s research, as in the unwieldy popular fiction of, say, Diana Gabaldon. And unlike most novels about the Tudors, Mantel’s are not romances. There is plenty of sexual intrigue, but no bodice ripping to speak of, and indeed one The Royal Vagina The Mirror and the Light By Hilary Mantel New York, NY; Henry Holt and Company, 2020, 754 pp., $30.00, hardcover Reviewed by Charis Caputo of Cromwell’s gifts is to wrangle prurient stories of incest and cuckoldry into banal matters of law rather than of heart or libido.
Mantel herself sees her approach to historical fiction as sui generis. She makes the fiction flexible, fluid, allowing it to conform to events as they really happened, in all their awkwardness, without manufacturing drama or carving facts into a shapely narrative. Perhaps this is why the series clocks in at nearly 2,000 pages and still never feels longwinded. Her prose is relentlessly stylish, but her storytelling is fluid in the way that life is. In terms of genre, I think of the Cromwell novels as a cross between a classical tragedy that traces the rise and fall of its flawed hero; a gangster or noir story punctuated by a series of backroom deals made by unlikely allies; and a sprawling social novel that touches all spheres of sixteenth-century England—domestic, political, religious— sometimes all at once, as in this remarkable passage that pulls back from Cromwell’s dinner table to depict an imagined community in temporal and spiritual crisis:
They eat in contemplative silence: spiced venison, teal, partridges, and oranges thinsliced like sunbursts. A shaft of light makes its way over the fallen snow, picking a path to the year ahead. The court rides through the city of Westminster and east to Greenwich, a moving trail of darkness against the frost. The Thames is a long glimmer of ice: a road in a frozen desert, a trail into our future, a highway for our God.
The past, here, is a fully imagined universe, not a world seen only through some lens of the present. And thus it would not feel entirely accurate to call The Mirror and the Light a feminist novel. Indeed, the question of women and their private realities— so underrepresented in the historical record—poses a significant problem to Mantel’s aesthetics of the past. By her own admission, she labored to incorporate satisfying female characters into her revisions of A Place of Greater Safety. And yet women’s bodies constitute perhaps the most continuous theme of Mantel’s work. Throughout her career, she has written extensively and forcefully about the female body as sexual and reproductive object, both in fiction and memoir.
The hyper-observant Cromwell is himself sensitive to the subtlest details of women’s bodies and routines. In the novel’s opening pages, he notes how Anne’s ladies protect her lifeless body from male hands. He is ever attuned to any indications of pregnancy in queens and their ladies: the “hint of a double chin,” the unlacing of bodices. He navigates the court gossip about Henry’s “bedwork,” through which we get some of the novel’s funniest lines (going to bed with Henry is like “being slobbered over by a mastiff pup”), and pays so much attention to ladies’ needlework that he tells Queen Jane, “I will soon be so expert I’ll be able to ply the needle myself.” When Jane begins the childbirth that will prove fatal, Cromwell muses: “What is a woman’s life? Do not think, because she is not a man, she does not fight. The bedchamber is her tilting ground, where she shows her colors, and her theatre of war is the sealed room where she gives birth.”
It is difficult to think of the man responsible for Anne Boleyn’s execution as a great respecter of women, and yet, in Mantel’s imagining, Anne’s elimination is purely pragmatic for Cromwell, who regards her in the earlier novels as a kind of kindred spirit—a descendent of merchants who rose to nobility, a power player, a social climber wholly dependent on the favor of the king. His first blunder in this concluding novel is to scold his social superiors for not showing proper respect at her execution. Subsequently, his protection of various women puts him repeatedly at risk of Henry’s displeasure. The women he protects include the king’s daughter Mary, the king’s cousin (who has secretly married a man who will not enhance the royal stock), and his own illegitimate daughter, one of the series’ only purely invented characters, who appears as a kind of specter of a road not taken, a quieter, more domestic, more female-centric life.
Very early in the series, Cromwell’s wife and two legitimate daughters are carried off by successive waves of plague in brisk, heartbreaking scenes that convey the precarity of early modern life. Near the end of the series, he recalls wistfully that his household, before their deaths, had been “entirely given over to women.” Indeed, the Cromwell Mantel first introduced us to doted on his daughters, even teaching the eldest to read. He was a tender father and husband, a man bent on curbing his own worst tendencies in order not to pass on the violence his own father inflicted on him as a boy. He wondered respectfully at his wife’s sympathy for Queen Catherine: “Possibly it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that.” And even if Cromwell, more and more, weaponizes this kind of feminine sympathy, using it to recruit spies and manipulate witnesses, he does in fact see women as fully interior people.
In the end, Cromwell is deeply ambivalent towards women’s power, as he is deeply ambivalent towards hierarchy in general. In this way, the novels get not only at the materiality of the period, but its consciousness, in a way historical fiction rarely succeeds in doing. Cromwell and his contemporaries inhabit a cosmos that is ordered by successive levels of hierarchy: “the compacts that hold the world together … between ruler and ruled …between husband and wife.” To subvert these compacts is to sew cosmic chaos. And yet, sixteenth-century England was a weird, fluid place, a liminal culture negotiating absolutism and protocapitalism, magic and science, Catholicism and Protestantism. Cromwell instrumentalizes reformed religion, but he believes in it, too. In his subaltern boyhood, he internalized the egalitarian ethos of the gospelers: “God regards every sparrow that falls. From listening at a sermon, he recalled this text by heart.” It is perhaps partly this belief in his own spiritual equality that allows Cromwell to rise higher than any common man in England ever had. And yet, when his daughter asks him why he serves a king he does not agree with, he answers: “Who else should I serve? A man cannot be masterless.”
It is this deference to hierarchy, not just pragmatism or ambition, that allows Cromwell to destroy the real and symbolic body of a queen when it proves no longer useful to the realm. Of course, he too loses the king’s favor, gets sucked into the very absolutist machine he has helped to create. Yet the dazzling light of his own ambiguous consciousness persists into his last moments—the closing pages of The Mirror and the Light are some of the most moving free indirect discourse I have ever read—and he thinks repeatedly of Anne as he resigns himself to the same fate to which he consigned her. In the end, this is one of the greatest questions of the series: male or female, royal or common, in a world where life is cheap and bodies are instruments of power, what does it mean to have a personality of one’s own?
Charis Caputo is an MFA student in fiction at NYU and an editorial assistant for the Women’s Review of Books. She holds an MA in history from Loyola University Chicago.