Friday, February 15, 2008

Of Knots and Narratives

In the Acknowledgments section of her novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name Vendela Vida says, “Thanks to… Galen Strawson, whose essay “Against Narrativity,” published in Ratio, made me curious about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present. In trying to answer that question, this novel emerged.” Now I'm curious to read Strawson's essay.

But Vida’s novel, which I finished reading earlier this week, is about the search of a young woman named Clarissa Iverton for her biological dad. Her quest lead her to Scandinavia where unexpected answers raise new questions as well as stories that refuse narration. In part this refusal stems from literal language barriers, translation difficulties from Norwegian into English. But more fundamentally the gap between experience and story emerges out of trauma. The closer Clarissa gets to those who know from whence she came, the less narration is possible.

When I came upon Vida’s comment about “the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present” I couldn’t help but think of another group who for a long time were actively encouraged to view their lives in just that way. Historically, those of us who transitioned were told to leave our cites and towns, to get rid of old photos, even create false narratives of origin in order to start completely afresh. When I first heard about such practices in the course of my research and discernment about transition, I was horrified. My personal and family history has long been extremely important to me, the idea of leaving it behind anathema. That remains true for me, and thankfully I never experienced any official pressure to think or behave otherwise.

But what strikes me now, about six years post transition, is how ruptures between past and present need not be consciously practiced to appear in one’s life. I had no idea how challenging it would be to find narrative patterns for some experiences. Some of these occurrences are mundane. Maybe in the barber shop the man telling me about raising his son will reference something that of course we both know from growing up (only I don’t). Or I’ll overhear dads in the locker room pronounce boys so much easier to raise and girls infinitely more complicated (I think of my CPE supervisor’s line about those who assume). I once even had a fellow priest—a man who knew I was trans—remark to me, as I bungled the knot in my cincture, “Come on, you should remember this from the Scouts!” I’m 99.9% sure he didn’t mean the Girl Scouts, which I left after one year in which we learned exactly two knots, the Square Knot and the Granny (the latter of which is, tellingly, an imperfect version of the former).

The everyday gaps can be profound enough, but to me the biggest chasms can characterize certain sorts of memories. The ones that pertain to having grown up a tomboy, and later, a young woman who dared to do things that men did and was proud of it. At different times in my life I have made meaning of the disjunctions between myself and my contexts in different ways. Is being a tomboy a precursor to being a butch lesbian? To being a strong woman (regardless of sexual orientation)? To being a genderqueer man? Certainly, when asking such a question about any little girl the answer can be any of the above. But when in one’s own, single life the answer is in fact all of the above, any one narrative of meaning can prove a bit challenging. There can be a temptation to overwrite each successive interpretive wave: I thought I was just a burgeoning feminist but really I was a lesbian (like one of my favorite Allison Bechdel cartoons of a girl decked out in baseball finery, “G is for Gretchen who knew at age seven”); I thought I was a lesbian but really I was a transman. I refuse to overwrite the ways I have made meaning of my life in previous years—or meanings I have yet to make. They are all present like layers of sedimentary rock, to use a Judith Butler concept I find clarifying.

Jennifer Finney Boylan struggles magnificently with the past-present gap in her most recent memoir I’m Looking Through You. The discontinuities of her memories appear as ghosts whom she literally sees (but doesn’t believe in) at various points. One ghost even images the disconnected quality of her memories: as the spectre approaches her bed, it “clicks” on and off, appearing in a space, then disappearing, emerging a bit closer, and so on, until it hovers before her. Particularly given the melancholic trajectory of her narrative(s), Boylan's pause, early on in the book, to distance herself from gender theory is odd and counterproductive.

Sedementation and haunting both make a great deal of sense to me as ways to render disconnects between past and present, but I need more. I need vehicles that can create space for the unfolding of life, in all its twists and paradoxes, as a narrative vessel—indeed, part of a much broader craft. That’s where I find religious traditions a help. Such traditions often have repositories of narratives, some of which may contradict one another or contain strange gaps even as they overlap and/or fit into a wider whole. The concept of “Midrash” in Judaism, for instance, refers to a kind of narrative embroidery of gaps or inconsistencies in a biblical story. The four canonical gospels in Christianity (not to mention the numerous other gospels) also contain aporia. In broad-brush strokes, they tell the same basic trajectory of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but not all of the accounts line up. Each gospel is founded upon what are called “passion narratives,” originally oral traditions shared among community members grappling with political oppression, unfathomable loss and—before long-- irrepressibly strange newness of life. You can try to create a single narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—and in fact early Syriac Christians had such an attempt in Trajan’s Diatesseron—but if you do, you will be favoring some vignettes over others, overwriting the slippages. I find the simultaneity of narrative continuity and incommensurable discontinuity both fascinating and helpful. Rendered in that way, the good news can become a kind of wailing wall, a body both wounded and raised, a repository for the lost stories of one’s life, the ones that refuse anything approaching linear representation. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the right to overwrite or turn away from a history too painful to bear. That’s exactly what Clarissa Iverton does, like her mother before her. I myself prefer to preserve actively a view—or views-- backwards as well as forwards, despite the gaps and chasms, seeking to locate paradoxes of truth as slivers of a much larger, Passion-filled, Mystery.

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