Mountain/small rock, Laguna Beach, California, 4/3/16
Considering the controversy surrounding the Antioch Review’s publication of the article “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate,” by Daniel Harris, I thought of Maggie Nelson’s genre-bending memoir, The Argonauts. (You can read an overview of the Antioch Review controversy here.) (And I blogged a tiny bit about The Argonauts here.)
In The Argonauts I find a beautiful work of humanity. Reading it helped open my thinking about gender and the lack of imagination it takes to embrace the too-limiting gender binary. (As a writer and person who celebrates the human imagination, why should we only acknowledge two poles?) (I like to believe my mind and heart were already pretty open, but as a relatively straight, cisgendered woman, with a relatively well-understood path to walk, I have some distance to travel before I can truly understand less straightforward life narratives. As stories will do, reading the story of Maggie Nelson and Harry Dodge helped open me, helped me see a wider vista.) I recommend the book. In addition to its value as a work of social justice (and theory: it is quite accessible even to me, as someone outside of Theory) its lyricism is breathtaking.
What I find in Nelson’s book is a beautiful argument in favor of focusing on the particulars of being human, that specificity. For those of us who write fiction, this is an important part of creating character. (And as we create character in fiction, we have the opportunity to open the minds and hearts of our readers, to allow them to imagine another human’s inside terrain.)
Maybe the Antioch Review could invite Maggie Nelson to write for a future issue!
A stunning and exceptional book from Graywolf Press
I’m so grateful that my dear friend Melissa Tinker gave me a copy of Maggie Nelson’s amazing and gorgeous work of humanity otherwise known as The Argonauts. I adore this book, for about a million reasons. I have so much to say about it, and will, when time and thought allow. For now, here’s what I have stolen from the book today.
Sometimes as a writing warm-up, it’s useful to type up someone else’s well-written words. Today I typed up from p. 98 of The Argonauts. As someone who has struggled all my life with equivocating and unnecessary apologizing, this passage speaks to me.
Maggie Nelson writes:
“Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia. Barthes found the exit to this merry-go-round by reminding himself that ‘it is language which is assertive, not he.’ It is absurd, Barthes says, to try to flee from language’s assertive nature by ‘add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble.’
My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later an slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.
At times I grow tired of this approach, and all its gendered baggage. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost any work email I write; otherwise, each might begin, Sorry for the delay, Sorry for the confusion, Sorry for whatever. One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. (Monique Wittig). But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.”
—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 98