It’s August in New York, when it’s humid and sultry, but blessedly easy to get a restaurant reservation since anyone who can go to the beach is at the beach.
When I moved to Manhattan from Fargo in early 1993, I was surprised by this and many New York City norms. At work, for instance, I discovered that waitressing three nights a week at the Lion’s Head (or, for that matter, babysitting for my boss’s kids) paid better than my coveted job as an editorial assistant at Ms. magazine. I was also perplexed by “Summer Fridays,” that every psychotherapist left town for the month of August (which seemed dangerous), and how easy it was to read other people’s books standing crammed on the subway each day.
Whether reading over someone’s shoulder or carrying my own, I remember these “big” feminist-y books from the 1990s vividly, as I was building my library: The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, The Secret History, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Killing the Black Body, The Morning After, Listen Up, Cunt, Slut!, and Black, White, Jewish. I acquired a first edition of Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions (1978) for a dollar on one of those bootleg reseller tables that were all over my neighborhood then. Ditto a hardcover of Ti-Grace Atkinson’s Amazon Odyssey (1974), a relic of a time before “Amazon” was synonymous with capitalist overkill. In fact, those itinerant resellers were the scourge of writers back then, because no royalties could be collected on a used book, so I always felt a little sheepish when I indulged. But many of these books were out of print, and I was hungry for original sources of women’s liberation movement history.
This issue of the Women’s Review of Books features new work from some of those storied second-wave radicals I sought out in the 1990s, including Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz. A review of Ortiz’s argument against the “nation of immigrants” trope starts on page five, and Judy Grahn’s latest collection of verse, Eruptions of Inanna, is discussed on page twenty-eight. As usual, Katha Pollitt’s curation of poems for this issue reveals not just her authority as a brilliant writer of verse, but her commitment to poetry’s ability to delight and illuminate. Meanwhile, the contributions of second-wave feminism’s beneficiaries are considered in Jacqueline Zeisloft’s review of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Ariel Kim’s assessment of Ace, in which journalist Angela Chen theorizes the capaciousness of asexuality, frames and critiques “compulsory sexuality” as a norm, and Heather Hewett surveys memoirs about parenting trans kids, a genre that emerged in 2013 and is rapidly developing.
Times change. Once a West Village writer’s haunt, the Lion’s Head closed in 1996. Ms. is now a quarterly published in Beverly Hills by the non-profit Feminist Majority Foundation. Gazing at smartphones long ago replaced reading physical books for most straphangers, and I can find cursory synopses of every second-wave theory, book, or feminist’s life on the internet, taking some of the thrill of discovery out of finding an out-of-print book on a table in Union Square. But those Summer Fridays and the August exodus of therapists and other New Yorkers remain.
Nantucket, August 12
Transforming Parenthood By Heather Hewett
Transgender children are in the news. This is, at best, a mixed state of affairs. A recent spate of documentaries, including the 2020 HBO film, Transhood, aims to provide less sensationalistic and more nuanced storytelling than previous mainstream media coverage, with trans youth sometimes acting as authors or co-creators. But increased visibility in both traditional and social media has met with backlash. Conservative pundits and state lawmakers across the US have targeted trans and non-binary children in a record number of bills seeking to end access to gender-affirming medical care for minors (puberty blockers and hormones) and policing youth sports (preventing trans kids from playing on teams aligned with their gender).
Bobbing in this sea of headlines is a growing number of memoirs written by parents of transgender kids. Five years ago, when one of my children told me that he was transgender, there were only five published memoirs about raising a trans child; today, this number has more than doubled. They are all written by heterosexual cisgender parents, most of whom are white (four are writers of color). In nearly all cases, they did not know what “transgender” meant or even how to understand what their child was telling them. But all of them—nearly— come around to believe their child, accept them, and embark on the social and emotional journey of raising a trans child. (Calling these books “parent” memoirs is a bit of a fiction; they are all primarily written by mothers, either because the labor of parenting remains gendered female, or because even when parenting itself is shared more equally, writing about it remains gendered female.) The latest of these is among the best—Marlo Mack’s How to Be a Girl: A Mother’s Memoir of Raising her Transgender Daughter, which starts when Mack’s three-year-old child frantically begs her to “put me back” in her tummy so that “I can come out again as a girl.”
Mack is a talented multimedia storyteller. “Gendermom,” her blog, began when she could only find a “handful of blogs about feminine boys like the one in the My Princess Boy picture book my child had hurled across the room.” She subsequently launched a podcast in 2014, a collaborative effort featuring smart, honest narration about raising a trans daughter as a divorced mom and the lisping, animated voice of her daughter “M.” Mack approached her storytelling with vulnerability and a sense of wonder, and the podcast feels intimate— when I listen, I imagine Mack perched at her kitchen table at the end of a day of work, as she shares her worries and weaves other people’s perspectives into conversations with her daughter. At the same time, the podcast maintains both high production values and a clear line around her daughter’s privacy (all names, including her own, are pseudonyms).
The longer format of a book allows the author to explore more fully the first year after her daughter announced her gender, a confusing time only alluded to in her podcast and now covered in the first two chapters. In the written memoir, oral elements of the podcast and Audible version are replaced by sidebars with snippets of dialogue, text boxes with excerpts of articles and medical research, M.’s childhood drawings, and her mother’s whimsical cartoons. It’s like Mack is trying to nudge the memoir form outwards in order to capture her daughter’s spirit and bring in some of the voices that have informed their journey. These additions give the chronological, private drama of memoir a larger context. Mack’s storytelling is sprinkled with the kind of helpful explanations one might find in a parenting advice book, a common feature of these memoirs. While a few of the books get bogged down by the incorporation of expert advice, Mack’s touch is light, like a friend making a wholehearted suggestion over coffee. Consider the book’s “how to” chapter titles: some provide excellent advice for all parents (“Take a deep breath,” “Let go”); some are particularly important for cis parents of trans kids (“Question everything,” “Find a role model”); some give an accurate appraisal of what’s necessary for the job (“Secure the perimeter,” “Fight back”).
Mack is not alone in writing a memoir with the goal of educating others; it’s a necessary part of parenting a trans kid, and one of the reasons why so many of these moms write about their experiences in memoir (along with blogs, YouTube, and Medium, all of which launched several of them on their writerly projects). But not everyone writes as well as Mack. Her prose is accessible and smart, by turns witty and searching, with memorable phrases scattered throughout: her daughter “shrugged off boyhood like a scratchy sweater”; extended family and adult friends “slowly succumb ... to the new name and pronouns” because M. is “slowly wearing them all down, like the drip-drip-drip of water against a rock.” She covers territory familiar to many readers (what is gender?) and specific to raising a trans child: Is the best approach full disclosure with other parents, or following the dictum that it is nobody’s business because “private parts should remain private”? (After being shamed by a fellow preschool parent, Mack wonders: “Had it been a mistake not to formally announce, and account for, the presence of a penis? Was that my job? Was that that my child’s job? Would it always be?”) And what do you do when your kid wants to share her “secret” with her best friends, but then the friendships change, and some of the kids tell? What message are you sending to your own child with the word “secret,” anyway?
No one can answer Mack’s questions. The “child experts” around her (principals, teachers, school counselors) know nothing “about a kid like mine” and expect her and her ex-husband to tell them what to do; and some of the parenting advice they receive in the beginning turns out to be wrong, as when a psychologist who is “an expert on kids and gender” tells them that the majority of transgender kids stop identifying as trans when they are older. (Mack subsequently learns that this statistic is based on flawed research.) Ultimately, it is not other “experts” but her child’s experience that convinces her they are on the right path:
Whether I was up against skeptical relatives, psychologists with fancy titles and mommy issues, or random readers of my blog, at the end of the day, my best evidence was my seven-year-old herself—and the fact that she was happy in the completest possible sense: content, unworried, playful, loving, curious and excited about the possibilities of each new day. And so were the other young transgender children I had met, once they were heard and seen for who they said they were.
Memoirs like How to Be a Girl combine the incontrovertible evidence of experience, accurate information, and solidarity for families struggling to understand their children. They counter the misinformation and bigotry that casts trans identity as a radical ideology parents impose on their kids or a superficial fad. Part of the labor of these books is “proving” that our trans children are real.
Histories of the Transgender Child, Jules Gill-Peterson’s research in the medical archive, presents evidence of trans youth in the early twentieth century. But if trans children have always been with us (albeit under the radar) other things have changed: the language we use to conceptualize and name gender identity; the psychological diagnoses we use to understand transgender experience; the existence of gender clinics for trans youth; the idea that parenting is an intensive, child-centered endeavor. Contemporary memoirs about raising trans kids document a first generation, but only of sorts: trans children whose parents supported them, often when very young, not only privately but also publicly; who have had access to medical care and interventions; whose parents advocated for their acceptance; and whose lives have caught the interest of publishing companies, media outlets, and audiences. This is a relatively small segment of trans children and families. These memoirs do not chart the lives of children who cannot gain access to clinics, or perhaps choose not to; who express their gender identities in spaces not controlled by caregiving adults and medical professionals; whose lives (along with their parents’) might be too complicated to fit neatly into the space afforded by memoir, or are simply not ready for the scrutiny of media, for any of the reasons why a young person might not be.
Collectively, nearly all of these memoirs are rooted in cisgender expectations—there would be no story without normative social expectations about gender. The conflict begins with a gender mismatch and the ensuing confusion, and the resolution comes with some combination of acceptance, understanding, and love. If the parents were fully accepting of their trans child from the beginning—excited, even, to discover that their child was transgender—these memoirs would be very different. As readers, we know that parents will accept their children, but the trajectory can sometimes feel slow, even painful. In Found in Transition, Paria Hassouri—a pediatrician who tells her thirteen-year-old that people “don’t just suddenly realize that they are trans”—suffers so many bouts of tears that I grew impatient. Hassouri later deeply laments the year she spends refusing to believe her child. “This response will remain one of my biggest regrets in life,” she writes, and by book’s end, I had to respect her brutal honesty.
Hassouri’s book is one of three most recently published memoirs (including Mack’s) that chart the experience of raising transgender girls, but most are about transgender boys. Only one—Julie Tarney’s My Son Wears Heels— narrates the experience of raising a nonbinary, “gender creative” child. (Lori Duron’s Raising My Rainbow also uses “gender creative” to describe her son.) In other words, the vast majority of these memoirs chart the movement of transgender youth in one of two directions—from male to female, or female to male—as opposed to those who do not conform to binary gender, or who move in more than one direction. Somewhere, I trust, a parent (perhaps even a dad) is working on this book.
As the repetition of certain words in the subtitles suggest—journey, transformation, evolution—it is the mothers here who change, perhaps even more than the children who are simply telling the adults around them who they are. (Their male partners also change, some of them more slowly, and some of them—Mack’s ex—more quickly.) These transformations involve individual variations. For example, in What We Will Become, Mimi Lemay deftly interweaves chapters about her own Ultra-Orthodox Jewish childhood with the struggle to understand her two-year-old. The resulting narrative, part memoir and also (in her words) “a mystery, a ghost story, and a love story,” is richly layered. While the trajectory of resistance followed by acceptance is familiar, the meaning Lemay derives from her experience is uniquely hers. It was her own break from Orthodox Judaism, she concludes, “that brought this child to me, not as a punishment but as a most sacred gift.”
The memoirs chart the authors’ moves from ignorance to allyship and activism (and for a few, add a plank in their professional platforms). Marsha Aizumi cannot deny the urge to “change the world” once her college son has transitioned, even though she is more comfortable being nonconfrontational. She chronicles her reluctant journey to activism in the second half of Two Spirits, One Heart. At an LGBTQ march in D.C., far out of her comfort zone, she worries about what her Japanese ancestors might think; but then she realizes, “What my conservative ancestors may have thought, I needed to cast aside. I was here to march with my son.” Aizumi writes about how she and her son must navigate how to do activism on the same issues, but separately—after all, he is the one who is transgender—and eventually she focuses on LGBTQ issues in the Asian-American / Pacific Islander community in California and across the US. Similarly, Jodie Patterson explores the connections and fissures between the Black community and trans identity in The Bold World—a memoir with a recently released companion volume for preschoolers, the picture book Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope. Patterson is now a speaker and a prominent activist with national LGBTQ organizations.
Mack’s memoir details the fight against a bathroom bill in Washington state, part of the first wave of anti-transgender legislation. She also writes about collaborating with adult trans activists, something that not all cisgender parents manage to do. Readers who wish to understand the impact of politics on transgender youth should read Rebekah Robertson’s About a Girl, which recounts the fight against an Australian precedent that gave the family court system the authority to make decisions concerning medical interventions for trans minors. Robertson is clear about how a process meant to “protect” youth did exactly the opposite: “Georgie had no agency over her body. As her parents, we had no power either,” Robertson writes. Their judicial appeals, combined with a nationwide media advocacy campaign, ultimately lead to legal reform— but the fight also leaves them personally exhausted and traumatized.
One cannot deny the parallels with the current deluge of bills in the US, many of them using the language of “protection” to take away the ability of trans youth, their families, and their doctors to make decisions about their bodies. Robertson’s memoir sounds a warning bell about the harms that barriers like these will undoubtedly inflict on kids.
What power does a memoir have at a moment like ours? Can it counter conservative political narratives about trans youth? Can it nudge open the space of possibility to make room for more stories, more representations, more understanding? Halfway through her memoir, in a lovely chapter titled “Learn,” Mack describes her desire to better understand what her child might be going through. She begins to read memoirs authored by trans female writers. But when she talks with her friends, none of them have heard of any trans women, even those who had written bestselling books or had been in the headlines in the past. “It seemed that each generation had to rediscover transgender people afresh,” Mack writes, shocked to discover a “veil of near-absolute silence regarding their existence.”
If this cultural silence can be broken, we’ll need more than a handful of memoirs about trans kids written by their parents. We’ll need to read books written by trans authors, such as Cooper Lee Bombardier and Janet Mock, and many more. We’ll also need the stories of trans children, those who hover in the historical archives and those who are alive today. Maybe then our combined voices can shatter the silence. Maybe then we can celebrate the gift of trans kids and love them for who they are.
Heather Hewett is a co-editor of #MeToo and Literary Studies: Reading, Writing, and Teaching about Sexual Violence and Rape Culture (Bloomsbury, 2021). She is an associate professor and chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and an affiliate of the English Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She reviewed The Bold World in the March/April 2019 issue of WRB.
By Kathleen Rooney, Linda Bamber, Linda Pastan, and Hilma Wolitzer
Commentary by Katha Pollitt
Lake Michigan churns like a washing machine today. Buckets of rain mean I remain indoors. The distant thunder of the toilet flushing. The sky out the window a moody adolescent.
When was the last time I just sat by a tree?
Why do the woods have a neck anyway?
A week past the vernal equinox, it stays too cold for green buds or bugs.
When it comes to alcohol and cookies, why are grasshoppers minty?
Convolvulus is a gnarly name for morning glory. Ranunculus same, but for buttercups.
In Chicago, we call plastic bags blowing across the sidewalk Jewel tumbleweeds.
The wind runs up the street on invisible feet. Its breath is the shepherd, the debris its sheep.
There won’t be any sunset to speak of today, but all it would have said is Et in Arcadia ego.
Canada geese make a V in the sky, a reminder that in the end, victory shall be theirs.
Stare too long at a screen and the heart grows pathetic: misanthropic hamster, jogging on a wheel.
an idle merriment, nymphs and swains, ever attain on purpose what nature achieves spontaneously?
When I can’t visit nature, nature visits me: the fattest sparrow on the bare ash tree.
The etymology of economy lies in household management; thrift.
I’m not into real estate fantasies, but I can see the appeal of a cottage with a slate roof, copper gutters, and period shutters. A place to shut in, shut out, shut down.
Shut up: my comeback to Mammonites demanding blood sacrifice to the death cult.
Why should I die for the economy when it would never do the same for me?
Please respect others and only take what you need: the rule on complimentary tampons and pads in the bathrooms is basically my plan for the entire economy.
The tragedy of waste. The waste of tragedy.
Can material loss yield spiritual gain? Probably so, but not automatically.
What would you make if you didn’t have to make money?
I don’t want to go back to business as usual. I want to give business as usual the business.
France last executed someone by guillotine in 1977.
Freeze and put your hand where I can see it! (I said that to the invisible hand of the market.)
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s, 2017) and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020).
Kathleen Rooney’s poems are sharp and spiky, situated somewhere between comedy and rage. They take on big subjects: capitalism and its exhausting cruelties in “The Production and Consumption of Goods and Services”; alienation from nature in “Pastoral.” What does it say about modernity that the ocean can be compared to a washing machine? Rooney asks deep questions: “What would you make if you didn’t have to make money?” Not what would you do, but what would you create, invent, produce instead of moneymaking, which is not really making at all? (The very word “poem” comes from the ancient Greek verb that means “to make.”) I love Rooney’s funny questions that set language on its ear: “Why do the woods have a neck anyway?” Why indeed? Perhaps because we try to humanize the world outside us, to blend ourselves into it: the toilet flushes “like distant thunder,” the sky is “a moody adolescent.” There’s a kind of whimsical, feminist-Marxist sensibility at work in Rooney’s poems: “Please respect others and only take what you need: the rule on complimentary tampons and pads in the bathrooms is basically my plan for the entire economy.” A hilarious example old Karl would never have come up with.
I don’t want to play around with words all day.
After 4 pm I want to be Picasso at Antibes
fighting an imaginary bull
in front of dinner guests (assembled by his wife Francoise)
waving a cape, and dressed
in undershorts alone.
(Francoise, with whom
he’ll make love later.) (If he feels like making love.)
he’ll paint more bulls.
Now that you’re old
you were never young. Do you understand?
Also, when you die
you’re not immediately gone
but what’s left is brief
like the vibration of a twig when a bird
lifts off. Now there’s a sudden crunch
of gravel in the driveway
hidden by the neighbor’s house; and now
about a dozen crows
are screaming and shouting at once.
When you’re old, as I was saying . . .
After death . . .
Oh, what utter nonsense!
Linda Bamber is a Professor of English at Tufts University. Her poetry collection, Metropolitan Tang, is from David R. Godine, as is her fiction collection, Taking What I Like.
I’ve loved Linda Bamber’s poems for many years, for their delicacy, their watchful, edgy humor, their resistance to cliché, not just in language but also in thought and feeling. She always resists the easy way out. “Metaphysics” gives us the beautiful image of an afterlife “brief / like the vibration of a twig when a bird / lifts off”—but just as you’re charmed and comforted by that simile, the cacophony of real birds—crows, no less, the traditional bird of death—makes the poet lose her train of thought and exasperatedly reject the image as “utter nonsense.” In “Portrait of the Artist (with Wife)” Bamber takes a comic swipe at Picasso—his genius, his egotism, his easy dominance of Francoise, arranger of dinner parties and provider of sex—but also admits she envies him. There’s a complicated feminism here, so much more interesting than merely attacking Dead White Men for their conceit and self-centered exploitation of women’s energies. Because what woman, in some corner of her mind, would not want to “be like Picasso at Antibes,” at least a little bit?
I’m still looking
for the translation where
she says no to Vronsky;
where despite Chekhov,
a dangerous train at the beginning
doesn’t have to mean death by train
at the end. Meanwhile I can
concentrate on Levin and Kitty,
on that happy domesticity
we all surely wish for.
In Russia, the temperatures of passion
and weather are both extreme.
I must wrap
my delicate hands in a muff
to keep out the cold.
I must let my desires
not between the covers
of a carved, four-poster bed,
but between the worn covers
of this book.
Linda Pastan’s sixteenth book, Almost an Elegy: New and Later Selected Poems, will be published in 2022 by W.W. Norton.
"I have a natural impulse to condense,” Linda Pastan has said of herself. Pastan’s poems are usually short, colloquial, intense. (She is also, fortunately for us, prolific: her next book will be her sixteenth.) “Rereading Anna Karenina for the Fifth Time” says so much in so few words: who hasn’t read Tolstoy’s great novel of a woman doomed by her adulterous passion for a worthless man and wished for a different ending? There’s a reason, though, that the novel is not called Kitty and Levin—as Tolstoy himself acknowledged in the novel’s famous first line about happy families being all alike, the story of two well-suited, loving, conventional people is just not as compelling as that of the discontented wife who strikes out on her own, knowing her whole society will condemn her as it would not condemn a man. “I must let my desires / burn safely,” Pastan warns herself, by reading instead of experiencing. But also, I would add, by writing poems like this one, at once chaste and passionate.
Don’t just lie there! Keep moving and
you won’t ever stop. The law of perpetual
motion or something. Then I remember
how we used to say so-and-so had dropped
dead, as if fallen from the great height
of felt life, and that motion, like emotion,
always has a fixed shelf life, even as we
travel our lighted rooms and the world.
Hilma Wolitzer’s novels include An Available Man, Hearts, and The Doctor’s Daughter. Her most recent book is Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.
Hilma Wolitzer is one lucky writer—not only has she had a long career as a novelist and author of short stories, but she writes poems as well. I’m jealous. “Sometimes I tell myself” is a like a little time bomb—abrupt, with an aftershock. Don’t we all secretly tell ourselves that we can postpone death, maybe almost forever? “Don’t just lie there!” Exercise! Move! Stay active! Travel! We go to great lengths to forget about the “fixed shelf life.” Even the phrase sounds so shabby and depressing, as if in the end we are all just slowly spoiling cartons of milk. Fortunately, there are also “lighted rooms and the world.” Reasons for living.
Those cartons of milk remind me to mention Wolitzer’s new publication, Today a Woman Went Mad at the Supermarket, short stories mostly from the 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement was taking off. Read them for their compassion, their sharp observations and flashes of icy wit—reminders both of how far we have come and how far we have to go.
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex By Angela Chen
Reviewed by Ariel Kim
Shondaland has bestowed upon audiences many masterful, binge-worthy episodes of television, from the sharp and unceasing plot twists in Scandal to the heart-stopping drama of Grey’s Anatomy. One of the most memorable lines of the latter, delivered in a quieter, albeit no less emotionally charged moment, is when Cristina Yang says to Meredith Grey, “You’re my person.”
In her latest work, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, Angela Chen offers this fictional relationship between two women who occupy “the social space between ‘friend’ and ‘romantic partner’” to convey an example of “queerplatonic partners.” The idea of queerplatonic partners (or QPP) originated in asexual and aromantic communities, as “a way to acknowledge each other’s importance in a way that is rare for relationships that aren’t explicitly romantic, in a society where romance is at the center of how people relate.” Given the rather narrow conception of relationships in the mainstream, as Chen maintains, the “queer” element of QPP is not necessarily about genders or being gay—it is about “queering that social border” and developing “more precise language to fit the range of roles that people can occupy in our lives, roles more varied than the few words available.”
This attention and intention towards language matters, she argues, because language is a form of power, especially considering how the vocabulary of sexuality and attraction often limits our understanding of our own experiences, both sexual and nonsexual. “Intimacy” can seem lewd; “passion” can become sexy; “excitement” can be viewed as indecent, uncomfortable; “pleasure” gets interpreted as “sexual,” as “romance.” And sexual attraction is distinct from sexual drive, separate from sexual behavior, independent from romantic orientation ... but “language traps us into thinking there is only one kind of pleasure and everything else is derivative.”
Chen opens by sharing her own odyssey of ace (or asexual) identity, which began not when she met her first love, Henry, at age twenty-one, but rather when she came across the definition of asexuality online, at age fourteen: “An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” But she did not change how she viewed herself in light of this definition, because she mistakenly conflated “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” with “a person who hates sex.” Since she felt that the idea of sex “held great promise,” she assumed that she was not asexual.
Chen uses her initial misinterpretation of language to highlight a dangerous aspect of asexuality: “it’s just logical enough that people assume they know what it is without doing any further research.” And therefore, on the flip side, “it is possible to be ace and not realize it, to see the word and still shrug and move on,” as she herself did. Misconceptions abound. Despite sexuality’s normative ubiquity within society, in which it is commonly and incorrectly assumed that everyone is allosexual (someone who experiences sexual attraction), Chen asserts that “few people think about sexuality and sexual attraction closely enough.”
Thus, in Ace, she embarks on an interdisciplinary examination of not only asexuality and the ace community, but also the collective obsession (and ignorance) regarding sexuality and desire in general. Part memoir and history, part reporting and research, part cultural analysis and call-to-action, Ace paints a more specific picture of asexuality as “an umbrella that covers different, diverse, and sometimes inconsistent experiences.”
For Chen, it wasn’t until two years after she and Henry had already parted ways that she began to understand her own experience—why the open relationship that Henry had pushed for while he was away at grad school had terrified her. When Chen tried to explain her fear that Henry would have been sexually attracted to someone else and cheated on her, a friend responded that, “it’s often just attraction. Physical. That happens all the time and you manage it ... Almost all the time it’s no big deal. We all learn to deal, you know?”
No, Chen did not know. She had never experienced “just attraction” as a physical impulse. She recounts, “I did not believe Henry when he claimed that wanting sex with others did not have to threaten me. When he talked about how everyone was sexually attracted to everyone else all the time, I could not understand attraction as anything but how I experienced it: emotional yearning—love, really—overpowering and overwhelming ... It sounds illogical now, and like incredible naivete, but for me, desire for love and desire for sex had always been one and the same, an unbreakable link. I had been curious about sex but had never wanted to have sex with any person before Henry.”
At the center of Chen's argument is also the insistence that this is ground for all of us to cover, together, whether we identify as ace or allo or aro or anything at all. Language, Chen argues, betrays all of us “by making sexual attraction the synonym for fulfillment and excitement itself.” When sexual attraction is consistently conflated with other emotions and experiences, constantly confused for other types of attraction and drive and desire, it causes problems of communication for everyone, not just aces.
Chen’s reporting and essays have previously appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the Paris Review, and more. Ace is her first book, and she writes from the intersection of her many identities: Asian, female, twenty-something, ace, New York City-based journalist, mentor, activist. In addition to offering an intimate lens into her own experiences as a member of the ace community, Chen also writes as a participant (and critic) of “mainstream” society, as an individual who continues to listen to and learn about the growing contemporary ace movement.
“Us,” therefore, denotes different perspectives at different moments throughout the book, and although it can become complex, Chen also does not allow us to forget her positionality within this conversation about asexuality’s implications and revelations for society. By counting herself among a more collective “we” in these ways, she emphasizes the multifaceted and intersectional and necessary complexities of thinking about desire.
In a series of succinct, thought-provoking statements, Chen invites us to embrace this complexity, because misconceptions about sexual behavior must be addressed directly if we are to move towards a level of precision that is truly just. “Sexuality is more than sexual orientation.” “Attraction is more than sexual attraction.” “Sexual attraction is not sex drive.” “Intimacy and sex are not the same.” “Touch doesn’t have to be a hierarchy.” She makes these seemingly minute but incredibly purposeful distinctions within the language of sexuality and attraction in order to clarify meaning—the radical sex ed vocab lesson that we didn’t realize we needed.
For example, defining asexuality typically forces individuals to “use the language of ‘lack,’ claiming [to be] legitimate in spite of being deficient.” This is an allo-centric definition, a deficit-based perspective that assigns false value to one, more “normal” experience of sexuality over another. And the culprit, the difficulty, is compulsory sexuality, which permeates societal narratives with the damaging assumption that “every normal person is sexual, that not wanting (socially approved) sex is unnatural.”
Chen, on the other hand, illustrates how sexual attraction across experiences and orientations can be described “via negativa, or explaining what it is not and what a lack of sexual attraction does not prevent us from doing.” It’s a slight shift, but a powerful one. All of the numerous categories of attraction—aesthetic, sexual, romantic, touch, sensual, emotional, intellectual, to name just a few—are distinct, specific, equivalent in connotation. The word asexual becomes value neutral.
But, it is also important to remember that this linguistic analysis is not “just an intellectual exercise.” Definitions alone are not enough to harness the power of language. The word asexual on its own “would be pointless if it only described an experience and did not connect me to people who helped make that experience legible ... the more important reason I identify as ace is because it has been useful for me.” Chen characterizes precision of language as a gift, rather than an obligation: asexuality is “a political label with a practical purpose.”
There are real, pressing implications for both personal and societal growth—unpacking the false hierarchies, dichotomies, and conflations in our language should compel us to also examine our desires with keener eyes. Through her vulnerable and vivid discourse, Chen models this mindful scrutiny—the “I used to think ... Now I think”—that true change necessitates. The goal is a sexually liberated society, in which “context matters, but there will be no sexual act that is inherently liberatory or inherently regressive, no sexual stereotypes of any kind ... We should ask people what they want and not be surprised by the answer.”
Chen herself has done this work of asking people what they want: over the course of writing Ace, she interviewed nearly a hundred people, honoring their stories as key sources of information and insight about asexuality. She reminds us that “tenured scholars are not the only people who produce knowledge or who deserve credit for their expertise.” The everyday and often anonymous activists who, “through intention and trial and error and sometimes pure accident,” built the foundations of the contemporary ace movement were largely facilitated by the proliferation of the internet and search engines and online forums, where people from all walks of life could share experiences, name feelings, and create new language “at a scale and volume that had not been possible before.” Therefore, although asexuality as it is defined today has most certainly existed throughout history, the contemporary ace movement is still relatively young. The ace worlds are growing.
The latter half of Ace focuses on examining the intersections of asexuality with other aspects of identity—feminism and femininity, race, gender, health and ability, relationships, and consent. Chen, in her skillful blend of academic research, detailed reporting, and personal reflection, interrogates all of the assumptions that prevent ace liberation and, by extension, she argues, sexual and romantic liberation for everyone. She tears apart the “political maturity narrative” of sexuality that perpetuates the distorted ideal of a feminist as someone who “has multiple orgasms and multiple partners and wants to abolish ICE.” Sex does not have to be at the center of feminism, and Chen “[does] not have time for those who would say that this calls my feminism into question.” Another false conflation, debunked.
She breaks down the ways in which asexuality is associated with whiteness, how the lack of positive, diverse representation of aces in popular culture reinforces stereotypes and compulsory sexuality. Desiring sex “should not be a requirement of health or humanity,” but the history of pharmaceuticals and eugenics in the United States also suggests otherwise. In the law, too, “romance is required for rights,” and Chen methodically disentangles these threads of sexuality and power and history that have a chokehold on asexual identity expression.
Although Chen does call for structural change and activism in response to the axes of oppression that a critical examination of asexuality highlights, Ace reads as less of a “how to do” manual, and more of a “how to think” guide. Just because “aces can point out contradictions around sexuality and language does not mean we need to solve them or that we are capable of doing so.” The language of attraction overlaps with and implicates the messy and multifaceted language of politics, personhood, privilege ... The work of dismantling pervasive, compulsory sexuality, thus, requires a collective effort. “A life of being understood without any uncomfortable conversations does not exist for anyone.”
Chen acknowledges, too, that “the lack of tidiness” inherent to the language of attraction frustrates her, both in her personal experiences—“the sole hookup of my life had been in pursuit of political growth, not for anything remotely close to pleasure ... [because] what I had called feminism was spite and fear disguised as performance”—and on a societal level, in which sexuality has become a muddled touchstone of identity. It will always be impossible to capture the vast and variable spectrum of sexual experience within a single term or a universally applicable description. Life is rarely so simple. Feelings—emotions, desires, attractions—seldom exist in a vacuum. The impossibility necessitates precision. We must “pay attention to these feelings, their weight and heft and experience, the way they enrich our lives and how each holds their own value” if we are to arrive at true sexual and romantic freedom.
After beginning Ace in the interrogative, Chen ends with the imperative. In her penetrating yet wittily kind voice, she describes many different visions of a sexually liberated society, if we could all just pay closer attention. She both imagines and demands a world through which each individual can move on their own terms, where any expression of orientation or attraction or desire can be as simple—as accepted and acceptable and easy and profound and taken at face value and understood—as “You’re my person.”
Ariel Kim is a graduate student at Harvard University and an English teacher. Her interests include education, social justice, and creative writing.
Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Reviewed by Andrew Needham
Dunbar-Ortiz asks, ‘Is it necessarily a good thing to feel ownership over a celebratory, white narrative of the American past?’
In early 2017, thousands of protesters trekked to JFK airport to attempt to force the release of travelers from eight predominantly Muslim nations from ICE detainment. The next day, my family and I joined tens of thousands of people in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, and listened to a range of speakers broadly decrying Donald Trump’s immigration policies. With the Statue of Liberty in the background, Senator Chuck Schumer proclaimed, “What we’re talking about here is that beautiful lady in the harbor—and what America is all about.”
Several weeks later, our family headed to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to finally see Hamilton. By that time, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical had become a central text of the burgeoning #Resistance after its stars implored vice-president elect Mike Pence to listen to “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious” about the new administration’s priorities. That night, as the first act ended with the Black and brown actors who played Hamilton and Lafayette declaring “Immigrants, we get the job done!” the entire audience rose in sustained applause.
In both of these venues, I witnessed and took part in an ideological formulation of the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz details in her new book, Not a Nation of Immigrants, this ideology emerged as a “mid 20th century revisionist origin story.” In an era of decolonization and civil rights protest, politicians such as (then) Senator John F. Kennedy and New York Representative Emanuel Celler positioned immigration, rather than slavery, colonialism, militarism, or even the state, as the force that had built American power. Dunbar-Ortiz’s radical movement bona fides are vast. She was a founder of the early women’s liberation group Cell 16, is a long-time activist in the international Indigenous movement, and author of the vital An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Her new book aims not to historically contextualize the “nation of immigrants” story but to undermine it, revealing how it obscures, most centrally, the United States’ founding as “an empire on conquered lands.” Grounded in a self-satisfied explanation of the US as the product of immigrant hard work and place- making, the “nation of immigrants” story masks, she writes, “the settler-colonial violence that established and maintained the United States and turns immigrants into settlers.”
Hamilton provides her initial foil. Dunbar-Ortiz questions the production’s underlying attempt to, in the words of Leslie Odom, Jr. (who inaugurated the role of Aaron Burr), “make hundreds of thousands of people of color feel a part of something we don’t often feel a part of.” Expansively surveying the historical Andrew Hamilton’s actions to centralize state authority, to facilitate capitalist power, and to build a nation on the imperial conquest of Native people, while challenging Hamilton’s portrait of him as an abolitionist and advocate of immigration, Dunbar-Ortiz asks, “Is it necessarily a good thing to feel ownership over a celebratory, white narrative of the American past?”
In the subsequent seven chapters, she shows that, while the immigrant experience has obviously been central to the history of the United States, immigration has always occurred on a topography created by settler-colonial violence and white supremacy. The chapters themselves, apart from the opening exploration of Hamilton, focus on the history of various immigrant groups, exploring the process by which, and problems inherent in, how the “nation of immigrants” trope obscures their (often inadvertent) participation in the erasure of US imperialism and Indigenous people themselves.
The chapters function largely as stand-alone essays, each introducing a term or frame that disrupts the sanitized version of US history. For instance, chapter two argues that “settler colonialism”—an iteration of colonialism that pursues the elimination of Indigenous people to invent “terra nullius, unpopulated land” that can be repopulated by immigrant settlers—was the central project of the US at its founding. The book’s remaining chapters analyze the histories of particular immigrant populations in relation to settler colonialism. Chapter three distinguishes enslaved Africans from the categories of immigrants, indentured servants, or settlers—renaming them “arrivants,” a term the African Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite introduced “to describe the status of African people forced into slavery in the Americas.” Exploring Scotch-Irish, Hispano, German, Irish, Italian, East Asian and Mexican migration, she argues that migrating to a nation formed by “the vortex of settler colonialism sucked immigrants through a kind of seasoning process of Americanization.” As they became “hyphenated Americans,” immigrants made homes and claimed belonging in a nation “founded as the first constitutional capitalist state and an empire on conquered lands.”
Dunbar-Ortiz, for the most part, does not castigate immigrants for this history. “By default, they became settlers,” she writes. She does, however, call attention to two distinct practices that particularly obscure the nature of immigration in a settler-colonial nation. First, immigrant groups that came to be regarded as White practiced “self-indigenization,” the claim of colonized territory as their affective homes, particularly when they themselves faced dispossession. Paying special attention to Scotch-Irish descendants in Appalachia and Hispano people in New Mexico, she suggests the claims of scholars and immigrants themselves to portray those populations as “native” reflects the “deep psychosis inherent in US settler colonialism” in which creating attachment to place “disappears the Native and bestows indigeneity upon these settlers.” Second, she argues the rhetoric of multiculturalism, emphasizing the contribution of more recent immigrant groups to the US, serves as a more recent “mechanism for avoiding acknowledgement of settler colonialism.”
Dunbar-Ortiz’s critiques of “self-indigenization” and multiculturalism together suggest the differences between her proposed revision of US national narrative and that of the 1619 Project, currently the subject of much right-wing ire. The 1619 Project poses an alternative to an ideology that saw national ideals of freedom and liberty emanating from White “founding fathers” and the documents they produced. Instead, it suggests freedom and liberty were defined by slavery and became meaningful only through the centuries of struggle of Black Americans against oppression. As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in the 1619 Project’s Pulitzer Prize-winning lead essay, “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” At its heart, then, the 1619 Project envisions a nation in which acknowledgement of history and political struggle can combine to change the meaning of the nation itself for the better.
Dunbar-Ortiz offers no such trajectory. Hannah-Jones’s formulation of Black struggle as a refining crucible for the nation’s ideals do not hold if the origin point of American history is not 1776 or 1619 but 1492. Multicultural inclusion in the national community, even multicultural refinement of national ideals, cannot salve the nation if “the fundamental unresolved issues” include Indigenous genocide as well as the continual denial of “Indigenous lands, treaties and sovereignty.” Settler colonialism is not, as Dunbar-Ortiz insists, a past oppression that can be overcome; instead, it is an ongoing structure inherent to the United States that makes complicit all those who live on Indigenous lands.
This is not an easy book to read. In certain chapters, its narrative leaps a century or more over the course of a section break, leaving the reader wondering at connections between, say, Irish immigrant politicians gaining control of Tammany Hall in 1872 and Irish construction workers beating anti-war protesters in Lower Manhattan in 1970. Dunbar-Ortiz also has a habit of naming writers she agrees with while using general terms such as “US historians” for those she sees as misguided. More centrally, the book leaves unanswered the fundamental question of “What is to be done?” Many Indigenous activists have taken “land back” as their prescription, but Dunbar-Ortiz does not, nor does she extensively explore how Indigenous people attempted to challenge dispossession and exclusion in the past.
Radically, this book requires the reader to reconsider our own #Resistance and to think through the implications of the fact that, for the vast majority of us, our homes, both as structures and as feelings of belonging, are built on land that was taken from Native people through coercion and violence. Dunbar-Ortiz powerfully shows how stories of the United States as melting pot, salad bowl, or even flawed-but-perfectible immigrant haven, have served to obscure not only empire but Native people themselves. Not a Nation of Immigrants is difficult to read because it should be.
Andrew Needham is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at NYU. He is the author of Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. (Princeton University Press, 2014) and co-editor of the forthcoming Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization (University of Oklahoma Press, 2022).
Boomerang / Bumerán By Achy Obejas
Reviewed by Noelle McManus
... Obejas experiments with articles and word-endings to create a semblance of what Spanish may look like in the future.
Estadounidense is the Spanish word for a person from the United States—something like United Statesian. Referring to oneself as americano as a way to convey the English word American is too vague; in Spanish, an American is someone from the Americas. There must be, then, some siblinghood between us, some severed familial connection. But we here in the United States—we amorphous mass of blood and cultures—strip the title from our siblings, try so hard to make it our own that no single word exists to call us what we really are. Estadounidense. The word is concise, genderless, humble.
With Boomerang / Bumerán, celebrated Cubano-Estadounidense poet Achy Obejas digs through English and Spanish language to make sense of this disconnect. She opens the book with an author’s note: “When I began curating, editing, and revising these poems, I realized I wanted to make the text as gender-free as reasonably possible.” Reasonably, here, is a key word; Spanish’s gendering of nouns makes this a formidable task. Obejas notes its difficulty and admits, “So this isn’t a completely gender-free text but is a mostly gender-free text.” Its English half uses singular “they”—a controversy made minuscule in the face of what must be changed in Spanish to provide gender neutrality. In the Spanish half of the book, in which each poem is translated painstakingly (and upside-down, so the reader must flip the book in order to switch languages), Obejas experiments with articles and word-endings to create a semblance of what Spanish may look like in the future. Even the Spanish phrases scattered about the English section test this method: “¡Es une soplo de la vida!” she exclaims in the prose-poem “Volver.” It’s a breath of life! she’s crying, the word for breath gender- neutral, but the word for life, curiously, still feminine.
“Reasonably” gender-free poems may truly be the only ones that can accurately express America (that is, the Americas) in its current state. Obejas, having moved to the US at the age of six, explores immigrant identity and the pain of leaving one’s homeland. “Volver” tells of a guilt-ridden return to Cuba. “We are all weeping because you weren’t here,” she imagines the passersby telling her, “we are wrecked because you weren’t here, how can we have talked about progress without your input ... ?” In another poem, “The President of Coca-Cola,” she uses the image of the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta as a stand-in for all Cuban-Americans. Who are the Cubans living in the United States, she wonders? What have they accomplished? Where would this country be without them? Of this Mendieta omni-figure, she writes:
She is the mayor of Wichita, the tender-hearted sibling of the late dictator, a glamorous fashion model, welfare recipient, emergency case in the emergency room, a soldier, dentist and historian, the host of a daily talk show on Telemundo who gulps down a milky Black Cow every day before taking calls.
In Spanish, however, Ana Mendieta is not gendered. Elle, not ella. Le presidente de le Coca-Cola, no one and everyone, “a mother of millions.” This genderlessness is somehow less jarring than the gender neutrality of objects, as in “The Land of Regal Elephants.” Even in the English version Obejas chants, “humo en le torre humo en les altes torres” (smoke in the tower smoke in the high towers). Normally, torre would be el torre, but here it is detached from its nonphysical gender. Le torre in le tierra de elefantes regies—phrases that initially tripped me up, made me reconsider how I perceive inanimate objects through Spanish’s binary lens. Why was I so ready to accept a person without gender but confused by a genderless thing? Obejas drove me to ask myself such questions, to consider the never-ending hypotheses of a language experiment in motion.
But, though the book is mostly genderless, it is not sexless. In “My Island Lover,” Obejas spins a fleshy, visceral image of une amante that can be either male or female, or both. They exist in the way a spirit might, traveling up and down the coast of the titular island (Cuba? the US? someplace else?), living through centuries, and communing with nature. “They have a ninety mile penis / they wield like an oar, / a baton, a staff,” Obejas writes, “to love a boy and / a woman who flew a raft, / a string of rainbow snails on a dead tree.” The subsequent poem, “Inner Core,” imagines sex between a couple as a meeting of two countries: “I kissed you to say sleep with me / and you pulled back the cover of our vast continental expanse, / stubbed your toe on my toe.” Obejas’s lesbian identity is foregrounded in her writing on sex, telling us of the women she sleeps with or watches in public. Desire is human, she insists, as natural as longing for a homeland. Sometimes, the two are intertwined. “I am her lover,” she coos in “The Public Place, After Olga Broumas,” “I am the woman she goes home to, going home.”
Because Boomerang / Bumerán is, at its core, about human connection, it must also be about the societies formed through these connections. Obejas mourns the victims of US-American ego and evil, including in multiple poems about mass shootings. In “The Ravages,” likely inspired by the 2015 Charleston church shooting, she writes,
we can see them in the parking lot
the ambulance, the paramedics
and shouting in a chorus now
don’t cry, don’t cry!
Obejas doesn’t shy away from confronting white supremacy, but she still edges carefully past it, prioritizing the voices and stories of its victims. This book is for the people hurting and fighting, not the system that oppresses them. In “The March,” she states this outright, saying, “What we want is an immediate stop to state brutality and the assassination of black people, and native people, and disabled people, and queer people and trans people, and women, and children ...” But, she shrewdly reminds us, protest is not enough; we must also learn the extent of our privilege and work to dismantle the damages caused by our ancestors. As she advises us in “You”: “hold on to the truth of how sometimes your people handled the lash, and sometimes you knotted the witch’s wrist, and sometimes loosed the guillotine and threw the match.”
Despite (or because of) its discussion of painful topics, Boomerang / Bumerán is at its core a book about love. Solidarity with foreign comrades, an intimate touch, calling someone what they want to be called: all are forms that love can take. Though distant from each other, human beings want to be known and understood. What Obejas refers to as “the sea / and the sea and the sea” in “The Man in White” becomes “le mar / y el mar y la mar”—a many-gendered, many-faced expanse spread out between us. We, too, are as vast as the oceans, and the words we call out to each other are attempts at comfort. Colonization has long since painted this land with blood, and Obejas reminds us that it is as vital to grieve with one another as it is to lift each other up. With Boomerang / Bumerán, Obejas wants to open our eyes to the past, remind us what we are. Estadounidenses. Cubanos. Gente de estes continentes hermanes, close enough to touch. As our societies change, so do our languages, and so do the ways in which we are intimate with one another. Obejas marches confidently to the edge of the future. She writes in the poem “Inner Core,” “Sleep with me / I said / swimming against the molten current / just fucking sleep with me.” The desperation and longing in those words ring eerily true in this lonely, aching era.
Noelle McManus is a writer and linguist from Long Island who specializes in Spanish and German. She is a frequent contributor to the Women’s Review of Books.