Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness.

I’ve had a strange and sombre day. Surrounded by hundreds of books and thousands of pages of words, with a couple of vague essay ideas sketched into notebooks or percolating in fragmented Word documents, I found myself thinking: What is the point? What value is there in this mass of words, written and unwritten?

Certainly we all hit creative impasses, as writers and as readers, but the impact is stifling all the same. For those of us who traffic in words, what are we when they cease to flow?

I have frequently posited my literary intention as an act of writing myself into being. By that I mean that I am acutely aware of my life, my being in the world, as an unfinished process—as is, of course, every human existence—but for me that process has grown increasingly undefined and undefinable over the years. I’ve been hunting for an existential language. I have, at heart, hoped that in my words someone else might recognize themselves; that I might not feel so alone.I’ve been thinking a lot about what drives us to tell our own stories. Some might argue that it is an essential element of human nature. We are story telling creatures. But to what end is it helpful to try to impose a narrative on lived experience? And what do I hope to achieve writing personal essays when I don’t have a very strong personal memory? There are huge swathes of my life that I cannot clearly remember or that are buried beneath the distractions of mood disorder and the disorientation of decades of gender insecurity. If I cannot clearly remember who I was, how can I hope to uncover any truths about who I am?

It might be easier if I was inclined to fiction, to creating shadows and echoes of myself and allowing them their own experiences. Play with variations on a theme. But my imagination is tethered to the hollowness that troubles my inability to find comfort within this real life lived. The only life I have. Queered and queerless.

When I started writing and publishing essays after an extended period of closeted post-transition existence, I hoped and believed that I could reclaim for myself an identity and a sexuality I had buried. Four years later I own even less than I started with. How do you write about an increasingly meaningless way of being in the world? It’s not a happy story; not the trans narrative that finds a ready audience. From the moment one comes out as transgender, the story you can tell defines your validity and access to services and support. Twenty years ago that was a very specific story, one I could not tell and so I had to carve my own path. I should assume it’s better now, but with the explosion of trans discourse, the narrative essentially remains the same. At odds with my own.

What do I know? All I know is that in my experience, this journey is intrinsically incomplete and unresolvable, lonely, and, in the wrong situation, dangerous.

I have friends who question my continued efforts to find myself within a conversation that cannot contain me, especially when my search for queer comfort causes so me much pain. I have good people and good things in my life, but when your history and your body are skewed against the norm there is a driving need to find a chorus to which to add your voice. A chance to a love song even. No matter how hard I try to believe, I cannot dream there is one. At least not for me.

Who wants words to that effect? There is no catharsis in writing or reading to that end. There are simply words, strings of syllables leading nowhere, achieving nothing at the end of the day.

§

Of course, I will find refuge in books again. And I will write. I just wrote this. For what it’s worth.

A constant procession of ghosts: A reflection

August has passed, it seems, with little to show for itself. Smoky skies and an air quality rivalling that of some of the most polluted cities of the world curtailed much outdoor activity here. Further to the west, where the smoke originated and forests burned, it was worse. Now, as skies clear, temperatures are dropping and summer’s fading fast. Leaves are turning yellow. Autumn nears.

Two years ago today, September 1st 2016, a dear friend took her life. A second attempt after years of trying to fight off crushing bipolar depression. Unable to work and living on savings, treatment often meant driving to a public hospital, an hour each way. She lived in a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. We only met once. I spent a week with her in 2015, but from the moment we first met online, it was as if we had known each other forever. We could joke and riff off each other, falling into a regular routine as a dysfunctional divorced couple that often fooled others. In truth, we were bound by queerness, books, and bipolar disorder. Soul mates shipwrecked in our own lives.

But, of course, I couldn’t save her.

In the months before Ulla died I held a certain distance. I was reeling from the recent death of my mother, followed closely by that of my father. Knowing that she was fragile, and, after three years, still grieving her own mother, I was unable to reach out to her to seek or offer support. We were both drowning, but her sea was darker and more deadly. It had been for a long time.

With my parents’ sudden and tightly timed deaths, I had imagined the possibility of an exercise of writing immediate grief—echoing Barthes and Handke—but the burdens of being an executor distorted and distended the mourning experience and, for the most part, these losses remain unwritten. Then again, my parents were in their eighties with long lives, well-lived, behind them. My friend’s death, at forty-six, was more complex. I knew it had to be addressed, not simply for myself but for a community of followers who responded to her actions intently and personally. It took three months to salvage words and craft a 300-word piece which was published, with my own photographs, in late November of 2016. Each time I come back to this eulogy I realize how much of my immediate grief is contained there, perfected and concise.

Who, and what, in the end, do we write grief for? If we are looking for catharsis, a way to move beyond grief, we may be disappointed. Perhaps grief simply moves with us, evolving and softening over time.

If Ulla’s death sits especially heavily at this time of year, at the moment there is an extra weight. Earlier this month, my son’s best friend lost a difficult battle with opioid addiction. He had been at our house quite a bit in the last weeks, and although clean at the time, he was really struggling. My son is devastated. He’s been seeking refuge in alcohol and routinely breaks down in a flood of tears and despair. His sister and I feel a loss too; Dylan was a common presence in our lives over the past twelve years, but to be honest, in recent times I wasn’t always happy to see him on the doorstep. He and Thomas have both, at twenty-eight, been fighting their own mental health and addiction issues for a long time. And they were not always good for each other. They could be up all night arguing—usually about politics, but sometimes about really “important” matters like the difference between a canon and fugue. Things could get violent. One morning Thomas broke his hand on Dylan’s head (and glasses). But music was their real bond. They wrote and recorded songs together and spent hours busking on street corners over the years. They believed in each other when neither could believe in himself.

As a parent it is agonizing to watch my child in pain and know that his is a mourning song I cannot write.

*

As September begins, I am aware more than ever that we are surrounded by a constant procession of ghosts. I’ve bought a two-bed flat and, at the moment, I’m deeply engaged in the process of emptying out closets, cupboards and rooms of accumulated stuff so that, by October 1st, my house will be empty and I will be settling into a much smaller space. The sheer volume of junk that needs to be dumped, donated, or moved is overwhelming. And with it, reminders of the losses of the last few decades keep resurfacing when I least expect it.

Out in my unfinished garage where I have amassed a mound of old, damaged furniture and broken objects waiting for pick up, I found a windshield propped against the wall. I have no idea what it was for or why it is there, but I know it was something my father must have picked up and forgotten. I’m surprised how much of him I couldn’t part with after his death—his Russian literature, a bust of Beethoven, a grandfather clock—all tangible reminders of a man who was so elusive, so hard to know.

Of my mother, there are few objects I wanted to bring home but her presence permeates so much of my life. Especially the one I tried to live in her image. As a girl and woman. Packing up children’s clothing for donation I find the beautiful outfits she crafted for her precious granddaughter—lined coats, fancy dresses—her attentions to Ginny’s wardrobe becoming ever more feminine as I, her only daughter, transitioned to male. I also unearth all the outfits I myself made for both my children in their early years when I was still determined to play the part birth had granted me. A part that, ultimately, has nothing to do with gender at all. I truly enjoyed creating beautiful things for my children. It just didn’t alter the sense that I wasn’t female.

And so, this house is also haunted by ghosts of myself, the selves I wanted to be, the self I became while living here. The self I still don’t know what to do with. I haven’t even uncovered the boxes filled with all my childhood photographs or angst-ridden adolescent writing. But documents with my old names, once-treasured possessions, and even a wedding dress have been revealed. Some will be retained, others hastily stuffed in bags and carted off to Goodwill.

Then last night, another more recent, unresolved ghost emerged. In a closet I found a manual from a leadership workshop I took a number of years back. At that time I was confident, more secure in my sense of self than I would ever be. My transition, in my mind, was complete and a success. But within a few years, my brief, yet promising, career in not-for-profit management would be destroyed by circumstance and my own mental illness. A loss I still have not come to terms with and yet it seems like something that belonged to another person. As if my life has just been a series of reincarnations that seem to leave me no wiser or further ahead.

And no more certain who I am.

And then there is my own addiction: books. Spread through three rooms, with most shelves double stacked, I shudder to think how many boxes there will be. No mercy for old magazines and outdated textbooks. They are bound for the recycling bin. But every time I scan my bookcases to collect charity sale donations, my decisions about what to hold on to shift. My anthropology and ecology texts are now gone, but my philosophy, classics and ancient Near Eastern history volumes remain. I notice that so many of the books I bought during my years of bookstore employment in the early 80s are still valued, even if I didn’t appreciate some for decades after purchase, whereas the literary bestsellers I devoured in my thirties and forties have been, and are, regularly pruned and sent off to new homes. Some of the obsessive tangents reflected in my collection are held dear, others are an embarrassment.

The books we read, and perhaps even more tellingly, the books we buy with the intention to read them, reveal a lot about who we are, who we want to be, and who we want others to imagine we are. More ghosts in our own lives.

And I suppose moving is one more opportunity to encounter, reshape, and even resolve a few of those ghosts—our own and those of others whom time, distance, or death have taken away.

Maybe even grieve.

To sing the song unsung: A personal answer to Singed by Daniela Cascella

The voice soundless and then, records unheard, song unsung, voice also unsung
dipped enshrouded ensheathed enlandscaped tongueless tongueless tied no story no record.

Daniela Cascella is a literary ecstatic. She engages with the word—written, spoken, sung, depicted—at an essential point of being, at that place where the spirit, soul, or daimon resides.

She listens into the silences, to the whispers and echoes, to the frayed edges of meaning. As a native Italian who writes in English, she attends to the spaces between languages, bending and folding her adopted tongue to affect fractured layers of intent. To open yourself to reading her is to be challenged to read and write with a new sensitivity to sound, voice and significance.

If I sound like an enthusiast, I am. Daniela (if this was a review rather than an answer I would refer to her by her last name—I will honour her instead, as Brazil honours Clarice) has been a vital friend and mentor over the past year and half since I first came to know her. As an essayist, my primary goal is to reach toward an articulation of the ineffable, to give voice to an existence, not between languages, but between gendered experience in a way that gets closer to an expression of being as I understand it than the common dialogue surrounding trans identity allows. I have no idea if that is an attainable goal, but Daniela’s essays and meditations thrill, inspire and ignite me.

Inspire and ignite me.

Ignite.

Her latest book, Singed, takes its title from permutations of sing: sing, singed, sung. It opens with the account of a fire. A few months ago the room at the top of our house caught fire. A large number of books and cds were lost to the flames. I first read of these burned books from a PDF of the text. I responded with horror; I felt wrenched with every title. Returning to this accounting on the printed page a few weeks later, I sensed an exaltation, a calling forth, a rising to a challenge, a refrain to be reclaimed amidst the losses. And that is what Singed is. As Daniela sifts through the ashes and embers, sings through the ashes and embers, she calls forward precious voices—Clarice Lispector, Teresa of Ávila, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Elfriede Jelinek, Marlene van Niekerk, Isak Dinesen, Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann and more—chanelling their words and their attempts to speak to otherness. Hers is a reading as inhabiting the spaces between words.  The observations she makes and questions she asks, hang in the air, inviting her reader to ponder the unspeakable and challenge the constraints placed on how we’ve been taught to read and to write.

Woven through her literary explorations, are reflections on music and art. These excursions help frame, and reframe, a multi-dimensional engagement with the written word. Hearing, seeing, and speaking are essential activities, as are silence, emptiness, and unfinished forms. A sigh, for example, Clarice’s in particular, which Cascella (at this moment, this feels like a review) first encounters listening to Lispector’s last recorded interview, inspires an intuitive and rhythmic engagement with the works of other writers, a series of echo and dub sessions on the page. The experience of reading and writing a review of Marlene van Niekerk’s The Swan Whisperer, a short tale in which a young student loses himself in his endeavour to transcribe the language of swans, leaves her spellbound, speechless and wordless, unable to write for months. Of that interlude she says:

Today I know that the silence I experienced was a deep working of the stuff that makes writing be. It was the encounter with the substance that eludes you and that causes such physical turmoil when you grasp it in other words, in words you read in a poem or hear in a song, and you recognize their subject as yours.

And the connections she draws when writing across languages are illuminating, especially for those of us who are unilingual. In an essay about Fleur Jaeggy’s as yet untranslated novel, Le statue d’acqua, Cascella writes:

Where did the spirit of the world hide that night its reservoir of dreamers?

The porous blank portions between the words in The Water Statues soak up Jaeggy’s discomfortable writing. They enfold the space of space, or as Gass wrote of Rilke’s Innerweltraum, the space made by Being’s breathing… Not just the space we call consciousness, but the space where we retire in order to avoid a feeling… These spaces are always palpable as though space were smoke, or the mountains of the heart where the last of the hamlet of feeling may be discerned. The blank spaces host echoes, speech where speech ends, the voices of ancestors. Jaeggy herself has acknowledged, in discussing herself hearing writing in between German and Italian, that German is the language of her dreams…

Voices and echoes, and echoes of voices.

Repetition of a refrain.

Call and answer.

If reading Daniela Cascella’s work—including her earlier books, En Abîme and F.M.R.L.— has nurtured in me an alertness to sound in language and imagery, and an awareness of voice, more explicitly a desire to voice what is known without words, Daniela, as a friend and fellow writer, has personally encouraged me to incorporate more photographs (or a photographic sensibility?) into the presentation of my writing—a process I am still just beginning to explore.

But take this image:

July, 2015, mid-winter in Cape Town. This is the Company’s Garden, with the iconic façade of Table Mountain looming in the background. On that white columned building in the distance, if you could see it, is a poster advertising William Kentridge’s multi-media installation, The Refusal of Time. That is the South African National Gallery and this is my last full day in the city. I made my way through the gallery in near isolation and as I passed into the room containing the Kentridge exhibit, the recorded rhythms of metronomes and bellows were triggered and seemed, in the moment, to be contained within this dark space where I experienced the entire presentation alone, surrounded by noise and images, free to wander and absorb the full sensory explosion unhindered. Later, as I explored the rest of the gallery, I realized that the sounds and rhythms of the exhibit resounded and echoed through the entire building, enhancing my sensory appreciation of every photograph, painting and artwork I saw. I cannot think back on that visit to the gallery without hearing and feeling, the steady cadence, the heartbeat, of The Refusal of Time.

But that’s not all, and this where I answer Daniela Cascella and Singed. When we first connected, we shared our mutual appreciation of Marlene van Niekerk—The Swan Whisperer and her monumental novel, Agaat. It is a trace of the latter work I carried with me during my stay in Cape Town. Every time I came into the bowl from my B&B in Sea Point and saw Table Mountain stretching out before me, I could not help but hear the awed voice of the young Agaat after a trip to the cape with her mistress: “I saw Table Mountain.”

I saw Table Mountain.

 That young girl’s voice echoed in my head. Agaat’s voice became my voice. The voice of a past part of myself.

I saw Table Mountain.

 That afternoon, I sat in the café in the Garden, with Kentridge’s metronomes and Agaat’s wonder punctuating every breath, and started to write. I was, I believed, at the beginning of a process of writing my way back through the year that had just passed, from the breaking point of a serious manic episode to the renewal of a sense of self identity and an clear understanding of the unfinished business of being differently gendered in the world. A neat, circular journey  that would, in the writing, lead to healing.

As if.

Life (and death) still held lessons I could not, in that moment, anticipate.

Today, the pen still hesitates on the page. Small forays have been made, but I am only beginning to learn to listen to the voices I am trying to transcribe, the voices of the selves I am and used to be—girl, woman, man.

Somewhere, in the distance, I am calling back the beat of the metronome and a child’s voice: I saw Table Mountain. That child is me. In Cape Town I believed I could rewind time, solstice to solstice, one year back to the day I left my job,  and move on from there.

No.

I need to go back farther. Back into my past and listen for that child’s voice, the child who had a feeling, but no words to express it. To gather what one can know in absence of language, to salvage words from the margins of memories. Attend to that distant silence.

So much has passed in the two and a half years since I took this photograph. I almost died, then both of my parents faded rapidly and were suddenly gone, and the friend who drew me to South Africa committed suicide.

Just when I thought I was ready to write, my life caught fire and burned for over a year. Now it is time to sift through the ashes and embers, re-enter the remembering, and embrace the discomfortable, pen to paper.

Singed by Daniela Cascella is published by Equus Press.

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.

Looking back in anger: A personal reflection on World Bipolar Day

You might as well haul up
This wave’s green peak on wire
To prevent fall, or anchor the fluent air
In quartz, as crack your skull to keep
These two most perishable lovers from the touch
That will kindle angels’ envy, scorch and drop
Their fond hearts charred as any match.

Seek no stony camera-eye to fix
The passing dazzle of each face
In black and white, or put on ice
Mouth’s instant flare for future looks;
Stars shoot their petals, and suns run to seed,
However you may sweat to hold such darling wrecks
Hived like honey in your head.

—from Sylvia Plath, “Epitaph for Flower and Fire”

I have known mania, and the imagery in this poem sparks with an intensity that excites and disturbs. When I encounter the words of one of the many poets known (or thought) to share (or have shared) the same affliction, I often find an undercurrent that causes me to flinch for just a second. Not that it diminishes the beauty or power of their words in any way—it is rather an echo in the dark, a faint recognition flashing by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2012

It is World Bipolar Day, and this is the first time I have stopped to recognize the fact. I have spoken in, and around, my own bipolar diagnosis, but I have never addressed it formally in my writing. Even now I find myself uncomfortable discussing it. On the one hand, I am fortunate. I respond well to medication. I am, to use that distasteful term, “high-functioning.” But I do harbor a deep anger toward this condition that was part of my life many years before I finally careened through a brutal month of manic psychosis and found myself committed, and ultimately diagnosed, at the age of 36. I was, in classic bipolar fashion, the last person to suspect that I had a mental illness. Even though I, and those around me, knew something was terribly wrong, the stigma and lack of understanding around mood disorders—not to mention the radically impaired insight the sufferer has when they are ill—stands as a barrier to timely intervention. And then there is the matter of actually accessing care. One almost has to crash completely—by which time it can be too late.

Between my first manic episode in 1997 and the second in 2014, I experienced more than sixteen years of stability. I transitioned, became a single male parent, built a career out of nothing, and eventually became the Program Manager at an agency dedicated to working with survivors of acquired brain injury. I loved my job. Looking back, I can now see how the last few years of that period were marked by an increasing tendency toward hypomania. With my psychiatrist’s support I cut my medication back. And then things started to fall apart at work—things beyond my control, but it fell to me to try to pull things together. Then I started to fall apart at work, until I spiraled into full blown mania. Not psychotic, but it matters little. The damage was done.

The agency I worked for, dedicated as they are to supporting clients with disabilities including co-morbid mental illnesses, treated me with distrust bordering on contempt. My only contact with them has been conducted through a workplace advocate and my insurance worker. When return to work was discussed they refused to consider any possibility that I could work there again. Almost three years later with long term disability finally at an end, they still have my personal belongings.

Nine years of employment and dedication to that job now stand as a gaping hole in my life—a life already filled with gaping holes. And that is one of the reasons I hesitate to talk about mental illness (although I have never hidden my diagnosis). What can I say? Bipolar is not my identity any more than transgender is. Both fuck up your life. Leave wounds that do not heal. Find you fumbling through mid-life with little to show for your years but a lot of things you can’t talk about. And periods of time you cannot even remember.

So this is why I find it hard to write about my experience with mental illness. There was a time, following my diagnosis, that I devoured everything I could find, just as, a year later I hunted for books on gender identity. Two pieces of a puzzle I had inhabited—the periodic mood swings and the persistent, life-long feeling that I was not the female person everyone else knew me to be—had finally fallen into place. I had two, if you wish to be specific, explanations that come neatly labelled and defined within the covers of the DSM. It was, for a while, a source of relief.

Today I rarely read any literature that deals with mental illness or gender. But I am aware, more than ever, of being doubly stigmatized. And, most painfully, within the spaces where you would expect acceptance—in the human services profession and within the queer community. Thus the anger.

And what is this anger? Grief. The deep griefs I carry, layered now with more recent bereavements. It has become, for me, an existential bitterness that plagues me, an inauthenticity that defines the way I intersect with the world.

The legacy of mental illness is this: after diagnosis I was advised not to dwell on the disease, not to talk to others with bipolar; I was not deemed “sick” enough to warrant outpatient support or psychiatric follow up. I was left, like so many others, to flounder in the dark. It would take seventeen years and a spectacular career-destroying crash before I was able to access proper psychiatric and psychological support. I am still lucky. I am stabilized. And the forced detour into what may become an early semi-retirement has afforded me a space to write.

Now I need to find a way to write my way through this weight of grief. And begin to heal.

I’ll leave the last word to Sylvia Plath, with the final (fifth) stanza of the poem quoted above:

Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick,
Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen,
And a languor of wax congeals the vein
No matter how fiercely lit; staunch contracts break
And recoil in the altering light: the radiant limb
Blows ash in each lover’s eye; the ardent look
Blackens flesh to bone and devours them.

—You can find out more about the International Bipolar Foundation here, and a prose poem I wrote to honour a dear friend who lost her desperate and brave battle to bipolar last year can be found here.

Literature as Liberator: My contribution to the 2016-17 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this year I was invited by Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, to write a contribution for their 2016-2017 catalogue. Now the Seagull catalogue is never an ordinary publication. It is a lavishly illustrated volume featuring the stunning artwork of Sunandini Banerjee, and contributions from a wide range of writers, translators, and this year, a handful of humble book bloggers, myself included. When I agreed to try to put something together, Naveen sent me this year’s “Provocation”:

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

The body. The soul. Literature.

2016-11-09-17-33-54I knew immediately what I would write. I took themes that were spinning through my head, scratched out on notepads—unformed, but increasingly urgent ideas that I wanted to find a way to address in words—and placed them within the framework of an analogy I have long used to describe my experience of feeling that I did not belong in the body I was born in. This piece represents the first creative expression of the self, of my self, that I dared to offer for publication. Although I had addressed my gender-different history, my queerness, in the occasional blog post and review, I had never sought to open some of the deeper elements of being that have come to define—and trouble—my long-term experience of living in the world as a gay transgender man.

2016-11-09-17-28-08In the meantime, between writing and submitting my Seagull “response” and finally holding the published catalogue in my hands earlier this month, I published two critical pieces of writing. Your Body Will Betray You (Minor Literature[s] May 6, 2016) explores the body and being, while A Reader’s Journey Through Transition (Literary Hub October 25, 2016) takes a look at the urgency with which I attempted to read myself to a place of self understanding. I’m proud of both of these essays, but I must confess, there is a certain weariness that comes with writing so honestly about oneself, not to mention a creeping discomfort with being laid bare, as such. This is a reflection of my ongoing personal struggle with the value and efficacy of being out, and with the inevitable fatigue that comes with constantly having to come out, again and again.

If I had thought writing myself out in the world would help, I’m not sure it has. But then again, we are constantly reading and writing ourselves into being. It is a process, not an end. Like transition.

So, after a little consideration, I’m ready to reproduce my Seagull Books contribution here. Rest assured this is not an excuse not to request a copy of this amazing catalogue for yourself. A Seagull Books catalogue is a work of art and celebration of literature.

The seeds of both of my later essays are evident in the following parable, but this piece attempts to articulate my own experience of feeling “wrongly gendered.” You will note that it is not a question of outward expression—being differently gendered, as I know it, comes from inside, not from wanting to play with the toys or wear the clothing of the other “sex.”

Here, then is my contribution to the 2016-17 Seagull Catalogue, with endless gratitude to Naveen Kishore:

Literature as liberator, you suggest.

I am, I want to reply, inclined to agree.

But I would caution you that words can confine us, as readily as they can set us free. We can become entangled in meanings, lose ourselves in definitions, search in circles for explanations when all we know is that the words we hear don’t seem touch the heart of what or whom we seem to be. False trails can mislead, lead away from understanding, especially if the destination you seek is not marked on any of the maps you can find. You wander blind.

And, you speak of the transience of the body, its trajectory toward decline, deterioration and decay.

I would argue the body cannot be so easily discarded.

Let me reframe the imagery.

Accept, for the sake of argument that the body is the fragile housing of the mind and the mind is the intersection of the heart and the brain; and, as such, both are essential to the experience of being in the world. The soul then, or that spark by which we know we are alive, can be thought of as being-in-motion. And literature—the stories we tell, the stories we turn to—is an essential element of the process of understanding ourselves in the world.

We are reading and writing ourselves into being.  Always.

Let me tell you a story.

Imagine, for moment, a darkened room. The sole illumination is a candle burning against the insistent gloom.

A boy inhabits this space; it is the only space he has ever known. And he has known, for almost as long as he can remember that everyone he encounters, every person who stands at the threshold and beckons, is expecting someone else, someone he can only pretend to be. He decorates his room, he carries his candle into the corners to try to understand what secrets they might contain, he worries that his insecurities might be exposed. But, of course, it’s dark, and others tend to see only what they want to see.

As the boy grows, his room becomes a more distorted, distressing, disorienting place. He wonders what lessons he missed, why he is unable to learn to exist comfortably in this strange space.

He assumes he is at fault.

If only his candle burned brighter. If only his room was not so dark.

He continues to decorate and redecorate his room. He scours the books that line the shelves, listens to the music that fills the hollows. Somewhere, somewhere far away he senses there is an answer to his otherness but its truth escapes him. He seems to fall off the axis the wrong way. So he puts away the stories of his childhood, the ones he tried to emulate with his own tales of ordinary boys on heroic journeys to fight dragons, and tries to draw a new character, the one he is supposed to be. If he can tell this character’s story, find her voice, perhaps he can write himself into the woman everyone else anticipates, the woman everyone else sees.

But he cannot find the voice.

He puts down his pen, files the unfinished stories and poems. Or throws them away.

He goes to university. He reads more books. The unease intensifies, the books can only take him so far—he continually reaches a place where the road ends, where the bridge is washed out, where the trail fades away into the underbrush. And then he falls in love. If he can’t fix the persistent otherness, perhaps he can hide—in plain sight.

The years pass. And still his room is an alien space.

He plays by every rule he can imagine. Marriage. Children.

Until, one day, he finds a book. It’s not the answer, but it shatters something deep within, it whispers in the darkness, and the candle flickers briefly. So he reads more. He encounters words that catch him up, that lead him on. He reads more. The words, the words threaten to tear apart his world. He tries on stories; wonders if they fit, if they’ll finally help him understand the room that has, over the years, come to feel more like a prison than a body.

He longs to make his way home to a place he’s never been.

He reads more.

And at last he comes to understand that the only way to make sense of himself in the world—to touch the centre of his very own being-in-motion—is not to deny the man inside but to renovate the room. To step out of the shadows and acknowledge the person he has always been, celebrate him and let him live. The candle still burns, but the room is now bathed in natural light.

So yes, literature can illuminate the corners, crack the walls, break down the door to bring the essential being—the soul, if you like—into the light.

I know this in my bones. The story I just told you is mine.

Personal reflections on identity, for better or worse, on Canada Day

Today, July 1, is Canada Day.

Exactly one year ago I was in Cape Town. I arrived back in the city that day at 5:30 in the morning after seventeen hours on a bus from East London. Dragging my luggage with its maple leaf ID tags I encountered many who would note the flag and say “Ah, Canada, that’s just about the perfect country, isn’t it?” Invariably I was hearing this from black or coloured South Africans and, I have to confess, at that time in my country’s recent political history I was feeling most despondent, embarrassed even, to be Canadian. For the very first time in my life.

What a difference a year makes.

canada-159585_960_720Hard to measure the shifting sands in the glass but while our Federal election last year brought home to the ruling Conservative Party the cost of divisive politics, the limits of denial and disrespect, and the risk of stoking xenophobia to sway sympathies; we now seem more and more like an island in a sea of unrest. And, I don’t pretend that we are immune to hatred, or that we don’t have a legacy of shame four “our” treatment of the First Nations on this land, but this is a huge and vastly underpopulated place so there is greater room to breathe.

At least for now.

As Canadians we also have another advantage: an identity that is relatively amorphous, ambiguous, sometimes even apologetic. A contest held in 1972 on the CBC Radio program, This Country in Morning, famously invited listeners to finish the statement: As Canadian as ________. The winning entry?

As Canadian as possible under the circumstances. And proudly so, I say.

Which leads me to wonder about identity, a question that has been troubling me of late.

There is a series of advertisements running on the television for a company that, for a fee, will analyze your DNA and tell you what your ancestry is, in percentages, no doubt with colourful pie charts to justify the cost. Perhaps you’ve seen them or something similar. You know, there is, for example, a man who always believed he was of German heritage but thanks to a little DNA sleuthing he discovers he is Scottish. He promptly trades his lederhosen for a kilt. And there are other variations but you get the drift.

How can your DNA define your cultural and ethnic identity? It might and then again it might not. Peoples migrate, borders shift, cultures evolve. An aboriginal survivor of the 60’s Scoop that literally pulled First Nations youth out of their homes and communities and deposited them in white foster homes may justifiably have a need for healing and reconnection with their heritage, but a DNA test that simply reflects possible ancestral bloodlines going back centuries or longer does not tell you who you are. Cultural and ethnic identity are complex and cannot be understood divorced from lived experience.

As I find myself, midway upon my life’s journey, to paraphrase Dante, I carry two questions of identity that, to some degree, offer an understanding of myself that reaches back into childhood and adolescence. But even if they are grounded in some understanding of a genetic/epigenetic heritage I own, the degree to which they can and do form part of my identity is troublesome. Identity is, as far as I am concerned, a choice. That is not to say it is not grounded in fact and reality at some level, but what does it mean to say “I identify”? And how is that to be differentiated from “I am”?

I have bipolar disorder (I touch on this in some of my earliest blog posts) and I was born with a pervasive sense of a gendered self that was at odds with the sex/gender that I appeared to be (I address this most explicitly here). I did not begin to understand either of these facts until I was in my mid-30’s. But they are inextricable from my experience of myself in the world, they are formative and I have no idea what it would be like to have existed without either although I have learned, with greater or lesser success, to live with each one. Both are treated, neither is cured. I have written about both, but I would be hard pressed to say that I identify as either bipolar or transgender. Would someone identify as a diabetic? Would you say you identify as brown-eyed?

I know people who do hold a mental health diagnosis or a gender identity with pride. Perhaps I did too at one time. Perhaps I still do even though I don’t want to admit it.

Recently my psychiatrist suggested, having reviewed the only records she had from my past—the report of an inpatient stay during acute psychosis almost twenty years ago, the turning point at which I finally began to unravel the fractured and unhappy state against which I had raged for several years—that she did not believe I was bipolar. That cheerful announcement set off weeks of rumination in which I replayed all of the episodes of depression and hypomania I had surfed for so many years, blaming myself for a failure to commit to any single course of study or employment. I began to appreciate how my understanding of the place I find myself at this point is contingent on having an explanation, an illness to blame. Combined with acute gender dysphoria I can assuage the sense of failure that haunts me. Justify all the paths I took or did not take.

Or, as my therapist challenged me yesterday, have I been using bipolar as an excuse to avoid grieving the losses I have experienced?

I don’t even know how to begin to grieve and the thought terrifies me. And, if I find my way through it all, perhaps I will write about it. But I do believe it may be the one path I have not yet dared to take.

Finally, what of gender? That is a topic for many essays I’m afraid. My differently gendered existence is essential to who I am, but again, it is not my identity. If forced, I “identify” as male, but prefer to understand myself simply as a man, and every time I qualify myself by appending trans* I feel reduced, dehumanized. One only has to exist within the LGBTQ community, such as it is, as a man attracted to men, to feel the full force of transphobia from within. And to have transitioned when I did, before it was fashionable and trendy to be trans, other transgender men were often exceptionally homophobic toward anyone who identified as gay. For everyone who claims to defy gender binaries there is a whole cast of characters propping them back up. I’m probably in there myself.

pride-flag-meaningSo, although I tick three out of the five basic boxes in LGBTQ, I have no Pride. But then I have no shame either. And identify? Well, here I stand I can be no other. Even if I don’t feel I belong. June is always tough for me. This month with all the difficult emotions stirred by the Orlando shootings has been especially hard.

I actually do belong to an LGBTQ community and have good friends there. My very closest friends are all queer. And yet I always feel like I am on the outside looking in. An impostor. But in what way? And who decides who belongs and who does not? Even apparently marginalized groups seem to find a way to splinter and divide.

Which brings me full circle to the angry racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic aggression and violence that threatens us all, at a time and in a world in which we should know better.

At least, for now, and on this day, the one thing I can say is: I identify as a proud Canadian.