A personal turn

I started a blog with the intent of using writing to find a sense of purpose and direction–or rather, to hang on to my academic identity–while taking a break from formal study. That obviously did not go as planned. I realized, as my post-undergrad gap year progressed, that academic aspects of my life were not what needed attention. Literary commentary is a task I enjoy, but for now, there was more important work at hand: examining my personal values and desires outside of intellectualism.

Now, writing can have just as much of a role in personal discovery as in professional development, but I’ve never been particularly comfortable doing personal writing for public consumption. So instead of writing more blog posts, I journaled. In the months since graduation, I’ve filled hundreds of pages with the musings and ramblings that I suddenly have time for. And in so doing, I’ve learned things about myself and what I want, things that I hope to share here. This blog is taking a personal turn.

Of course, all that introspection has its downsides. I have at times dissected my emotions to the point where they didn’t feel real anymore, or worked myself into an unwarranted frenzy of anxiety. I’ve read obsessively on aspects of my identity that I’m trying to figure out. But this has all been necessary work.

I told myself when this “year off” began that I would use the time to learn to be alone again. To be not only separated from my friends, but without the constant hum of busyness that allows me to avoid my own thoughts while in school. I believe I am learning to live with myself, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I know much more about what I want from work, from relationships, and from my daily life. I’m by no means perfectly happy, and I’ve wasted plenty of time, but each day I’m making progress in figuring out how to live my life–and how to write about it.

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On writing and obsession

I find it ironic that, for all my talk of experience embodied in literature, my thoughts often seem to elude expression. Why do I so frequently feel that I cannot write what I’m thinking? Perhaps because, remaining unsaid, an idea exist only in its potential form. The nebulous is always, in a sense, beautiful; the sharply defined is open to criticism. Or maybe I’m simply acknowledging the struggle we all have to match internal to external–and to find words that feel like our own when it seems it’s all been said.

In my more grandiose moments, I liken this struggle to the strivings of Faustus or Frankenstein. The obsession with understanding and creation that goes into writing of any kind, and especially the personal and/or creative, seems to me to spring from the same impulse of which those two characters are extreme examples. We all wish for mastery, sometimes to the point of (self-)destruction. It’s easy to see the lure of such deep investment; it simplifies and gives a sense of purpose.

Contrary to the evidence of my infrequent writing on this blog, I have found myself obsessively absorbed in certain projects, especially my undergraduate thesis on Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. And in the words of Supernatural‘s Dean Winchester, it felt pure. (For the record, Dean was referring to Purgatory, which may be indicative of my belief that a certain amount of masochism is inherent in intense devotion to any project.) In those times of deeply engaged research and writing, I felt justified in shedding other concerns–like Frankenstein, “I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection [or inadequacy, anxiety, etc.] until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.” Of course, it was never quite that easy–life has a way of asserting itself, and even “impersonal” writing inevitably becomes very personal indeed if you keep at it long enough. What happens when I acknowledge that I am both writing to get away from myself and writing as myself?

Coming Home: Queer representation in science fiction and fantasy

The tagline of this blog speaks of the past, “embodied in language,” as that which shapes our lives. In my mind, however, language can embody not only our past, but also our present, our future, our possible and impossible. Narratives provide frames through which we can see ourselves as we might be.

Of course, part of that vision of possibility is being able to insert ourselves into the narratives we are offered—not so easy for those of us who don’t quite fit the “norm” (white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, etc.) in one way or another. If you belong to a marked identity category, chances are you will have more difficulty finding characters who resemble you. That’s not to say that we can’t connect to characters unlike us; people empathize across differences all the time! The problem is, most of that empathy goes one way, from “minority” to “majority”. As a queer woman, I can tell you that I am generally expected to content myself with overwhelmingly (and disproportionately) straight, male-dominated cultural productions. How exactly do you navigate an identity when there are so few variations to try on for size?

It’s no surprise, given this view, that I should love fantasy and science fiction. As Holly L. Derr recently wrote for Ms. Magazine, “In a made-up world, anything is possible. Speculative fiction exists to show not just who we are but also who we can be.” Creating new and different worlds means that we don’t have to live with prejudice and invisibility; we can build this world (or any other) as we would like to see it.

Fantasy is the first place that I came home to queerness. Although I now see the extent to which he plays into media stereotypes of gay men, Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel Ashkevron provided an important queer role model in my early adolescence. I empathized with him deeply, and despite not yet having identified my own sexuality, there was something about him that made me feel less alone. Vanyel may not have been a great character on which to base my identity development—the guy had a major martyr complex and was in many ways Too Good for This World—but he was eminently relatable. On some level, I think that most teenagers go through phases of wishing their lives measured up to their internal sense of drama. I certainly spent a lot of time thinking that my feelings would be easier to handle if I had some sort of existential justification. Vanyel had that in spades: doomed love, unbelievable power, and the responsibility to save people.

Flawed as they may have been, Vanyel and the other non-straight denizens of Lackey’s Velgarth provided some of my only clear representations of queerness for many years. (For the record, I started reading the Valdemar series at age 11, which was really too young for some aspects of the books, especially their representation of violence and abuse. I don’t regret it, even though a few passages bother me more now that I fully understand what’s going on.) It wasn’t until my mid-to-late teens that I began to find characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow, and I think I hit twenty before discovering the existence of YA fantasy with LGBT characters. Many of the latter novels have only come out in the last few years. I can still enjoy them, but what a world of different they might have made if I had had them as a young teen! In the interim, it took me a while longer to suss out my own identity, and my potential role models came increasingly from television rather than books. By the time I got around to watching Willow come out on Buffy, I knew why I was excited, although I hadn’t come out to anyone but myself. Once again, the sci-fi/fantasy world made Buffy into a realm where anything was possible. As recent essays on The Toast and Autostraddle note, Buffy is largely about constantly redefining your identity, something that I’ve done a lot of in the past few years.

My desire to see more of who I might become eventually led me away from my home territory of speculative fiction for a while as I came to terms with my bisexuality. I tried on so many narratives—The L Word, Glee, Sarah Waters novels, massive quantities of fanfiction—and in many ways that foray was good for me, because it taught me to find the representation that I needed in a much broader array of media. Recently, however, I’ve been returning to my old favorite genres, and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found. Even Jeanette Winterson writes science fiction these days, and authors like Malinda Lo and Lynn Flewelling are building fantasy worlds where queer sexualities are open and accepted. I am so excited to see the emergence of speculative fiction that not only includes queer people, but posits realities where we are truly free to be ourselves. I can’t wait to see what new worlds I’ll discover next!

Gaeilge más féidir: Reflecting on Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s Language, Resistance and Revival

I began this blog with the intent of using it to meditate on questions of language and literature in my life. The Irish language is, unquestionably, both a central piece of my own linguistic awareness and a lightning rod for complicated emotions among those who do (or purposefully don’t) speak it. Indeed, its long and storied past inspired Translations, the Brian Friel play from which I took my epigraph. Irish, Gaeilge, is curiously invisible to the outside world, spoken fluently by a relatively small number of Gaeilgeóirí. Yet its mark on those who use it seems more emotionally indelible than the sway of many other languages. Perhaps this influence is due to the language’s tie to a very specific identity and sense of belonging, perhaps to the precariousness of its continued existence. Whatever the reason, suffice it to say that Irish inspires some remarkably strong feelings.

It is strange to me to think that I began to learn Irish in earnest almost three years ago. The time seems both implausibly short and impossibly long. In that period, I have made many Irish-speaking friends and developed an immense respect for the language movement. While in the United States Irish can seem like an obscure hobby or a way of clinging to a fast-disappearing ethnic identity, in reality it is so much more than that. It belongs to a broader network of threatened languages, and like each and every one, it is valuable for both its beauty and its embodiment of a Weltenschauung other than that of colonial and neocolonial powers. The language belongs first and foremost to the Irish, but Irish Gaeilgeóirí have been remarkably welcoming of the interest shown by the diaspora and the broader world community in their language. I have come to see Gaeilge as a precious tool, snatched from colonial destruction only by Irish resilience and resistance.

Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh takes up the theme of resistance to colonial oppression in his newly-published Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. This work gives a brief history of both the Irish language movement and Irish republicanism (and particularly prison resistance), portraying the two as intimately connected throughout the twentieth century. While he includes a brief account of earlier history, Mac Ionnrachtaigh is most interested in the role which language-based resistance in Long Kesh prison has impacted cultural and political movements in the North of Ireland. The greatest strength of this section is undoubtedly the wealth of first-hand testimony which the author has gathered from former inmates and internees, a feat partially enabled by the fact that the author’s father, Terry Enright, was himself interned at Long Kesh. Language, Resistance and Revival thus provides a uniquely intimate account of the role which the Irish language played in the prison experience of republican internees and in their later reintegration into the outside community.

Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s book is both academic and unabashedly political. The theory-heavy first chapter draws on all the classic authors on colonialism and decolonization (Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Ngugi wa Thiong’o) as well as a range of Irish academics with whom I am less familiar. Although this section served to illuminate the author’s political vision for the book, I found it to be unnecessarily dense, due in part to a dearth of paraphrase and synthesis. While I deeply sympathize with a young academic’s need to justify everything s/he has to say, I do think that Mac Ionnrachtaigh could have put more of a personal touch on this theoretical exposition. The casual reader might wish to skip ahead to the more engaging personal accounts of later chapters, perhaps returning to the theory after gaining a handle on the practical details of the argument.

In spite of certain points of academic density, Language, Resistance and Revival engages earnestly with what the author perceives as the challenges currently facing the entwined republican and Irish-speaking communities of the North of Ireland. I had the pleasure of meeting Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh at a launching event for his book which took place in Amherst, Massachusetts this past spring; I was deeply impressed with him both as an academic and as an activist. His passion and his optimism for Gaeilge as a means to liberation shone through even better in person than on the page. Ultimately, it is people like Fergal who inspire me to keep working with and for the Irish language, because they remind me that it is neither irrelevant nor an impossible dream. I can claim no language other than English as my own, but I will gladly work on behalf of a community who has accepted me as warmly as have the Gaeilgeóirí.

Book cited: Mac Ionnrachtaigh, Fergal. Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 2013.

Reaction: Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism

I was first drawn to Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism (by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden) because of its title. Puppets? Religion? Italian names? It all sounded fun and vaguely creepy. Of course, the cover illustration of an angel with a demon looming behind didn’t hurt, especially with its beautiful combination of comic-book drawing style and religious iconography. As I flipped through the rest of the novella, I noted with regret that it was only sparsely illustrated in black and white, although these pictures too had their charm. But something else drew me in—the idea that puppets could be used to comment on free will in a religious context. In this, the book did not disappoint: as the jacket description hints, these puppets are not content to follow the dictates of their master. Yet even in the midst of their rebellion against their creator, we are led to ask—could they truly have done otherwise? Or was this simply in their nature?

I have read some reviews that criticize this novella for its uneven pacing. The buildup, they say, overwhelms the relatively terse climax. In some ways, this is true; we find out little of what happens to the characters in the aftermath. But in my view, the time spent getting to know those characters—Father Gaetano, Sister Victoria, Marcello, Sebastiano—is not wasted. Indeed, their struggles add to the book’s thematic exploration of faith and its loss, freedom and duty in a time of suffering. Should a man who entered the priesthood only to please his mother feel himself bound by his vow of celibacy? How can a child who has lost everything in the war love the god who allowed it to happen?

Beneath these questions lies one central quandary: if God made us, shaped our nature, then is it truly our fault that we rebel, or are we simply enacting that nature? Although I am an atheist, this question still fascinates me. It was fresh in my mind prior to reading Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, thanks in large part to my friend Emily Atkinson’s work on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. This Renaissance drama, with the makings of a morality play but the shape of a tragedy, offers Faustus up as a hero of sorts, in spite of his obvious transgression of God’s law in summoning the demon Mephostophilis. Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of delight, and although there are many points at which he tries to turn back, he proves unable to do so. As Emily points out, it seems that his very nature precludes true repentance: Faustus, whether he will or no, is bound to Hell.

In much the same way, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism leads us to question to what extent these characters—and puppets—have control over their transgressions, and how much is dictated by the nature given them by their creator, their puppet-master. Why make humans capable of curiosity, rebelliousness, even brutality, if not to see them use those things? In supposedly giving us free will, God gave his puppets the means to cut their strings—and then expected them not to.

In my opinion, this lovely little book is at once an exploration of and a parable for post-war disillusionment with God. Its setting, Sicily in the months following World War II, allows for an unusual perspective on a place profoundly impacted by the war. As might be expected, the characters grapple with the brutality they have witnessed and wonder how a just God could allow such a thing. The puppets, too, struggle with their god. Father Gaetano makes puppets whose nature it is to fight with one another (David and Goliath); he makes one of unshakeable faith and loyalty (Noah), and another destined to lead a rebellion against his creator (Lucifer). Of all the puppets, it is only the clown Pagliaccio, never altered by Gaetano, who acts with both independence and integrity. The other puppets existed before, as well, but Gaetano has changed them, and they now view him as their god. Pagliaccio can see the man for what he is: a force for change, but no deity.

While Mignola and Golden’s book is not unequivocally atheist, in depicting a crisis of faith, it calls on readers to reexamine their own beliefs. All this, while maintaining a simple, enchanting style, and clocking in at less than 200 pages! My sense is that it would be as inviting for children as it is fascinating or adults. Although it poses some difficult questions, these are not heavy-handed, and one could easily read it simply for the satisfaction of the story. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism is not a great book, but it is a good one. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a short, engaging read—possibly followed by a longer period of thought.

Works cited:

Atkinson, Emily. “‘Whither should I fly?’: The Limitations of Man, Magic, Language, and the Universe in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” BA honors thesis. Smith College, 2013.

Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. Illustrated by Mike Mignola. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.