Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the drill. August 2017, the month that was.

As August draws to a close, and September opens, I have some thoughts about the pressures of prescribed reading and the complicated emotion of loss.

Joseph Schreiber 2017

At the outset of the month I pulled out a selection of potential books to choose from for Women in Translation month. I knew that with several review related reading projects underway I was unlikely to get to more than a few titles. I managed three: one of my must-reads (Carmen Boullosa’s Before), one that was somewhat disappointing (Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am), and one late addition (Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers). However, I found that many of the books I tried to pick up did not work at all for me— that is, they were not right for right now. Feeling that I ought to try to manage one more before the month was out I found myself frozen, almost unable to read anything… I had to stop and remind myself what such reading projects are all about.

Raising the awareness of the fact that fewer female writers are translated is important, as is celebrating the terrific authors who may not be well known. It never hurts to look at one’s reading habits and challenge one’s self. But it is another thing to get stressed and defensive. And that is what happens when I start to measure my reading by gender. I will admit, more male than female authors line my shelves. I have addressed this fact before in other posts. I also wrote about how for the better part of two decades I read almost exclusively female writers in an essay for Literary Hub last year. For a long time, I hoped that by filling my head with female voices I would find my own. And, of course, I never did. The sense of myself as male was unassailable. Seventeen years ago I set off on a course to realign my presented and internal gender. And here I am.

At this point, I like to think that the gender of the authors I read is secondary, although I will admit to a growing need to connect with gender-queered and gender non-conforming perspectives. Most specifically I am drawn to writing that is challenging, exploring style and form. In recent months, some of those writers have, in fact, been women in translation—Fleur Jaeggy, Can Xue, Marie Ndiaye. Before next August rolls around again I am certain there will be more. And I know for a fact I will be turning to some intriguing experimental female writers writing in English. But, as a person with a differently gendered history, gender is a complicated, messy space of being. Whenever I start to feel the burden of gender pressing on me from the outside, the existential anxiety (and anger) that haunts me is stirred.

So, let me read—as and how I need to read.

But my own self-imposed reading ambitions are not the only pressures that have weighed on me this past month. My brothers and I listed our parents’ house and it sold within one week. With the possession date looming we made several trips to clear the house out and, on the final visit, I found my mother’s nail file. She carried this file with its ivory coloured handle and tattered red plastic sheath for decades. Just looking at it I see her hands. It is perhaps the single most important keepsake I have. More than anything it reminds that she is well and truly gone.

When I first came out to my mother, back when transgender was just beginning to draw some serious public attention, she asked for some time to process what I had shared, but promised that she loved me unconditionally. And she never let me down. She was my advocate, my best friend, the one person I could call for comfort and reassurance, no matter what. I was otherwise alone. There were no local supports, I faced the challenges of being a single male parent of two children with learning disabilities, I experienced a breakdown, the loss of a career, and a life-threatening health crisis. Even though she was unable to travel far near the end, she phoned me every week without fail, and I spent as much time as I could with her and my father in their final months.

When my parents died last year, my mother’s death opened an intangible void.

My parents’ house. Our last day there.

I did, however, still have one faint, yet vital lifeline—a friend in South Africa, the closest queer friend I have ever had. Bookish and bipolar, like me, she was a sort of soul mate even though we only met in person once when I visited her in 2015. But as I was tumbling, she was falling further and farther. One year ago today, September 1, Ulla took her own life. Images of the rugged Indian Ocean shoreline near her home have been seeping into my dreams. As we spread our parents’ ashes before leaving their property for the last time, all I could think of was Ulla’s being spread on the beach. I couldn’t touch the urn. My son spread my share.

Eastern Cape, South Africa

Suddenly I am doubly aware of how alone I am. How alone I have been and how weary I am.

The intersection of Pride Week, rather than providing a distraction, exacerbates the sense of loss. I cannot imagine anything lonelier than a mass of shiny happy people. I did excuse myself from the volunteer commitments I had made and now I am free to avoid the parade as I usually do. I also happened to have a doctor’s appointment so I spoke to him about my recent depressive dips and my frustration with the reality of long-term trans loneliness that nobody talks about, that isn’t fashionable, that doesn’t fit the script.

Sometimes loss feels less like a temporary passage, than a layering, compounded, defining quality of life.

Welcome to my closed space reality:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so on.

Note: I should have included a link to the requiem I wrote for my friend. This piece was published at Sultan’s Seal last November, is constructed of salvaged language, and features photographs from my visit to South Africa.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

17 thoughts on “Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the drill. August 2017, the month that was.”

  1. I’m sorry you’ve had such a difficult month, underpinned by a series of difficult experiences in life. Isolation is tough to deal with and even tougher to break out of. I can see how WIT month could be challenging for you. As, I suppose, a cis-gendered women it is, to me, a demand, a refusal to those people who continue to tell women the world over what they cannot do, and Pride, I think, comes from the same kind of place it is a demand to the world not to dismiss or reject or degrade people on account of their sexuality. I think Pride originally came from a place of deep anger and righteous rage, but things have changed and I can see how the happy clappy has taken over. As it happens my daughter and I were in our local city over Pride weekend and it was lovely, lovely to see so many people openly celebrating LGBT culture when we have come from a place so different, yet the parade was hijacked by corporations and that took a lot of the shine off it.
    Perhaps what you need right now is a different narrative? A narrative more closely aligned to what you’ve experienced, because whilst we can’t always connect with an individual in the way that we need or hope, literature offers us so many narratives that it can help us feel less alone. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City might be a good read, or Close to the Knives, the memoir by David Wojnarowicz both of which confront isolation from a perspective which might be closer (if not identical) to your own experience?
    Irrespective, I hope you find some comfort and a place from which you can move forward. Take care of yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I do love Olivia Laing’s Lonely City and her identity does mirror mine although I transitioned. We had a brief chat on Twitter once and I passed her my essay on the body which she liked. My issues with the LGBT “community” and Pride are deeper. For all the talk of love and diversity one can find, especially in my age range, as much racism, classism, ageism, sexism and transphobia, if not more, than in the general community. As a gay-identified transgender man, my prospects are limited and sometimes that really hurts. I pass, I look like I belong, but do not feel it. I stay on the periphery. The complication at the moment is simply the anniversary of such significant losses in my life. It all seemed to come together this month.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I can understand that it must be even more difficult to handle when the community with which we most relate remains inaccessible because irrespective of the rhetoric (which makes us believe it will be different) you find exactly the things they’re supposed to oppose not just in evidence but magnified. I can understand how upsetting that must be. It is hard to live on the interstices. I really hope you can find a place of belonging, even if it’s a small one, and acceptance.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You know, I have to thank you for this conversation over my past two posts. I had a busy day with a lot of driving and I really had time to think about your comments and it has occurred to me what is amiss for me that I am then projecting back as frustration with the “community,” focusing on the negative experiences I’ve had. I’ve met other queer folk who, like me, feel more comfortable and accepted by their straight friends. But I also have LGBT friends who build their entire social networks around other LGBT people even if they have nothing in common. One of my friends invited everyone she knows to her parties and when I go I hope there is someone I know well so I have someone to talk to. Otherwise I’m bored stupid and I go home wondering why I can’t connect! Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not lonely, but friendships with others are, for me, always best based on common experience/interest over sexuality/gender.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a truely horrid year you had. I didn’t know about your friend in South Africa. Was this the friend you went to see and then returned home to your medical emergency? With two events in close proximity and then your parent’s death it’s really little wonder that you have experienced depression and anxiety. You are only human and have taken a huge bashing psychologically and physically. To feel lonely and then be confronted by groups of happy people must make it even worse so cancelling your involvement in the Pride activities was probably a good idea. I wish I could reach out and give you a big hug to help you through the bad times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your good thoughts. Writing this post has helped me sort and process some of the emotions that were getting all tangled up—grief has its own agenda and, yes there are layers of grief. My visit and cardiac arrest were in 2015, my friend’s suicide was last year. I knew she was struggling and at times I have worried that I abandoned her a little, not wishing to weigh her down with my loss when she had never healed from the loss of her own mother. Of course, no one could have saved her, but her death crushed me all the same. I wrote a piece for her for which I added a link above. I’ve been retweeting that link (it’s on another site) all day and returning to it has helped—even if it still chokes me up so.


  3. Joe, don’t be hard on yourself because you’ve been through so much. I think you’ve done amazingly well to cope and yes, it must be hard to know where you stand in your skin right now. My Middle Child’s BFF at school was unhappy in her skin and became self-destructive and suicidal. Fortunately she had supportive parents and medics, and has just gone through gender realignment and is now happy in his new skin. A recent picture of him in the sea on a holiday with a huge grin on his face was one of the loveliest things we have seen. He is, however, only 25 and you presumably (I don’t wish to intrude and apologise if I’m wrong) had had much longer in the wrong skin before you went through your process. I imagine if you had had years of female experience, the adjustment must be mightily harder, especially when your support network diminishes. Hopefull as time goes on pain will fade and your life will take a positive turn. Meantime read what makes you happy and gives you pleasure and not what you think you should. Sending you a virtual hug from the UK. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen. My problems have nothing to do with years of female experience—in many ways that feels like another life and in other ways it’s an interesting metaphysical question. I transitioned at 40, 17 years ago. However, once I was living and passing as a man, my work necessitated that I keep my past a secret and my parenting role, now reframed, excluded me from the supports single “mothers” have. I have no regrets about my choices, I am very comfortable in my skin. But, the long term realities of living as a transgender man raises issues you cannot imagine when you start out. And at this point, even though I am healthy and have had a “successful” transition, I am angry and grieving the fact that my entire life has been governed and distorted by this misfit between sex and gender that can be eased but never resolved.


      1. I’m sure I *can’t* imagine what you have to deal with Joe, and I wish I could do something to help you. I feel angry that you have hide your past and also that your don’t get the support that parents in a female body do – a single parent of any gender needs support and it should be available to all. But I can understand it being frustrating having to have had so much of your life taken away by dealing with the issue. All I can say is hang in there – you do have people here who care about you, however distant we all are geographically. x


  4. Thank you for writing this. As a cis passing queer man who has written about his body issues here and there, I feel some of your loneliness, although the depth of your devastation appears to be enormous. I am thankful to be able to read this honest, beautiful text.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Marcel. I’ll admit I was really low when I began to write this piece, but getting it out and on the virtual page keeps me from swirling deeper into negative space. Doesn’t magically resolve things but helps me gain a little distance. Blog posts like this are a kind of thinking out loud and testing my comfort zone around exploring personal issues in a way that is honest but, hopefully, still maintains boundaries. I don’t know if you’ve read the body piece I wrote for Minor Literature[s] last year (it’s pinned to my Twitter timeline). It’s a very angry existential essay and much of my loneliness does arise out of that space, but of course it’s compounded by the loss of some key people in my life and an inability to connect on an intellectual and emotional level with people in my real life—which is exacerbated if I feel I should necessarily be finding those people within the LGBT community. Then of course I am reminded of the people I do have whether in person or afar.


    1. Fortunately Friday turned out to be very busy so I have not had time to dwell too much. But I have found comfort in returning to and sharing a prose poem I wrote for her in the months after her death (I added a link above). I’m so glad I have that raw and immediate piece, every time I go back to it hits me hard and makes me proud that I could offer her memory such a perfect elegy at once. And Beckett is always helpful…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It is a peculiarly horrid kind of loneliness to feel that one does not belong in the places in which one is most supposed to belong. Another layer of pain to isolate or to suffocate oneself (one’s self) with. Your piece about your friend and about your loss of her is lovely. The photographs are also striking. The one which really touches me is the one viewed through the shattered glass. I’m sure your visit with her was very important to her, too. But isn’t it sad that we cannot shake what we *have* done and offered, when the idea of what more we wish we’d done is too overwhelming, even though both are true, and likely parts of us can identify both as *being* true but cannot feel them equally. Reading Emily White’s book, Lonely, was very helpful for me; her experience and mine do not align in many ways, but it seems like her feeling does. And your essay/piece here does that for me, too. Perhaps there is strength to be found in the simple fact of saying “I feel alone” and to have someone say something, anything in response – even if the thing you want to say next is, still, “I feel alone”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments on my poem (and the photos). I am so proud of that piece and having it on another site, it always surprises me when I go there and read it. I do miss my friend, but I also respect her decision knowing how long and desperately she fought. All My Puny Sorrows was one of her favourite books (along with a serious dyke crush on Miriam Toews), and assisted suicide was a passionate subject for her as the illness worsened and treatments failed.

      As for loneliness, my most popular post ever, was one I wrote this past February when I was really struggling. The depth of response to that essay has been astounding. Even led to an excuse for me to travel to Australia and meet many of my online friends in person.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for sharing them. Toews’ novel was amazing. Part of me wondered at the acclaim, whether it gained so much attention more for its daring or whether that many people were truly pulled into the heart of the story and found something vital there. Either way, I was always pleased to see it being discussed/read and so unexpectedly widely. (I really liked her first book too: funny and challenging in its owy way, but not one which fits so well with the discussion here: the story of a single mother struggling to make ends meet and kept herself intact.) It does seem to be true, that vulnerability is coupled with strength and affording one’s self the opportunity for one can lead to the other. And, wow, Australia: how splendid!

        Liked by 1 person

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