Where I’m going with #refugepoetry next

The short version: I’m switching from sprint mode to marathon mode. I’ll keep writing postcard poetry (and taking prompts and donations) until I either hit 100 poems, or hit £1000, at which point I’ll declare victory in my own personal iteration of NaPoWriMo and send the money off to Refuge. Sponsor me and you’ll get either get a poem written to your prompt sent to you on a postcard, or you can claim an existing (unclaimed) poem written for this challenge and I’ll send you that. If you can’t spare the money, prompt me anyway – you won’t get the card, but you will probably get the poem posted online at some point.

As anyone watching my Twitter or the Tumblr for my #refugepoetry output will have noticed, I did not in fact produce 100 poems on the 15th OR raise £1000. But I’m actually alright with that – “shoot for the moon; even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” and all that. And honestly, I’m pleased with myself for prioritising the Life Stuff which came up – namely a trip to the doctor and some flat viewings arranged by my housemate-to-be – and not beating myself up for failing to meet my very ambitious target. Particularly since my achievements from that day included successfully finding somewhere new to live, and writing five poems – one of which I also turned into a rough recording, and two of which got gleefully shared around Twitter and Facebook by the recipients and their friends. Five long poems is perhaps not as numerically impressive as 100 long ones, but I’m really rather pleased with some of them – The Dragon Queen will definitely get an airing at future slams! I then wrote a further four poems on the 16th, but the 17th (and 18th so far) are been poem-free.

So, where next? I didn’t hit my target, but I want to continue raising money and writing poetry for people (particularly since I have a lot of prompts I’ve not yet honoured). I am really enjoying writing poetry to prompts. Sharing my work online like this – in text form on a blog, rather than as a recording on Soundcloud or text published in an online magazine – is quite out of my comfort zone, but I think that’s good for me. As above, I’m going to keep going with this – until I either hit 100 poems or £1000. I will try to post roughly one poem a day, even if I have to compose it on my phone while on the Tube or something, and I’ll also aim to have one or two days where I attempt another write-a-thon sprint towards the finish line.

If you’ve enjoyed the poetry I’ve produced so far, please do share it around and point people towards the fundraising page! The list below will be updated regularly with links to newly-added poems.

#1 Prompt: “eating ice-cream on a rainy day”
#2 Unprompted, first line: “i remember jane in the rich red room”
#3 Unprompted, first line: “Jesse was the kind of guy”
#4 Prompt: “Mer-rabbit?”
#5 Prompt: “unapologetic dragon or accidental femme fatale”
#6 Unprompted, exercise in misheard voice/text software, first line: “Middleton roses and whiskers on kittens”
#7 Unprompted, first line: “The fog flattens you”
#8: Unprompted, blackout poem, first line: “The moment the air is clear”
#9 … nothing yet!

“Frozen” – why I hated it on first watching

[This is the first in a series of three posts about Frozen. I’ve only just seen it, and as someone with a deep and abiding interest in women and their representation within fairytales, I have a lot of thoughts about it. This post discusses my gut reaction – that it’s an absolute failure of a film – and compares it with recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. The second post will look at alternate perspectives on Frozen, examining other ways that it has been read and received by women, queer people, and abuse survivors. The third post will be an exploration of Frozen as it could have been, if the valuable subtexts of the film had been brought out and explored more satisfyingly.]

So, I’ve finally watched Frozen. And… wow. I hated it. Not just because of the shoddy animation or the gaping plot-holes or the poor world-building. (Or the lyrics, with gems like “who knew we had so many plates?”, “don’t know if I’m elated or gassy”, and  “the past is in the past”…) No, what really gets me is the way that despite the way it’s been touted as a progressive and/or feminist film due to the focus on a relationship between sisters, it (in my view) actually way more regressive than any other recent Disney films (and indeed several much older ones).

First off, Dani Colman has written this very detailed examination of why Frozen fails as a progressive film on every count. I really recommend reading it, as it articulates many of the reasons why I found this film deeply unsatisfying, and I’ll be building on some of her points here. (But also, it’s not a perfect article – as I’ll discuss in post #2). Colman writes:

Frozen creates the clever illusion of its own progressiveness by subtly degrading what came before it to make itself look more enlightened by comparison. In doing so, it not only treads upon a rich history of compelling heroines in much better films; it manages to get away with being good enough.

In the rest of the article, she compares Frozen‘s heroines with classic Disney princesses like Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan – demonstrating that most of these characters have far more agency and personality than either Anna or Elsa. I’m going to focus instead on how Frozen compares to more recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. This post contains spoilers for all three!

All three films deal with themes of imprisonment and freedom, the nature of love, and the importance of familial love as well as (or instead of) romantic love. Frozen had the potential to do really interesting things – and the original Andersen story, The Snow Queen, has a host of amazing female characters. Even having abandoned most of the Andersen plot, Frozen could have been brilliant – an look at what enforced separation does to sibling love, of how a difference in power can change relationships, of the ways that women are taught to be silent and still and emotionless, of what it’s like to grow up being abused by well-meaning parents. But at every point where it could have done something interesting or complex, it just… doesn’t. And it’s not enough to say that this is “just a kid’s film, so it doesn’t matter” – I’ve been picking holes in Disney since I was little, so don’t tell me that children don’t notice this stuff! Frozen seems particularly egregious having come after Brave and Tangled, both of which managed to be far more complex and emotionally realistic. (Which is not to say that I think either of these films are perfect – they definitely do have their problems, and those deserve critical engagement as well – but even with the recognition that they are flawed, I still think that Frozen doesn’t measure up even slightly.)

The thrust of my argument is this: Frozen is a failed attempt to re-create what was good about Brave and Tangled.

So – Elsa is locked in her room for most of her life, and Anna is confined to the castle for three years between her parents’ death and her sister “coming of age” so she can become queen. Let’s compare this to Tangled: Rapunzel has been locked up for her whole life as a young girl, and (like Anna) she’s conventionally feminine and a little bit clumsy – but unlike either Elsa or Anna, she has hobbies and interests. In the song “When Will My Life Begin?” we see her baking, reading, knitting, painting, playing music, doing ballet, playing games, and a whole load of other hobbies – and later we learn she’s also been charting stars! She’s smart,  and curious about the world beyond the tower. We see something similar in Brave: while Merida is not locked up per se, she is subject to pressure to remain at home and behave more like a traditional princess. And there’s something else going on here: both Rapunzel and Merida actively fight against the walls within which they’re being kept. We never see any sort of resistance or agency from Anna or Elsa – the closest thing we get to seeing Elsa express any contrarian desires is when she tells her parents not to touch her because she’s afraid she’ll hurt them (and this is after several years of being conditioned to believe that she is dangerous and people should be afraid of her). And Anna – if she loves her sister so much that she’ll ride out into a blizzard to save her without even stopping to put on some warm clothes, I find it hard to believe that she’s spent several years being foiled by a closed door. Sure, we have a montage of Anna knocking forlornly at Elsa’s door as she grows up, but… seriously, she never slipped a note under that door? Never made a rope out of bedsheets and tried to swing in through Elsa’s window? For that matter, did Elsa literally never come out of that room until she came of age? Were there not even any family dinners? Did Anna never have a chance to talk to Elsa about this, or think to ask her parents what on earth had just happened and why the family was suddenly acting as though her sister was a monster? At no point do either Elsa or Anna seem to display curiosity, resourcefulness, or any desire/ability to change things – they both seem to accept their respective fates of being locked in an empty room and locked in a nearly-empty castle with nothing but sadness and resignation. The only way I can make sense of this is if they’re both already seriously hurt and traumatised – which leads me to the next point…

Anna and Elsa’s family situation is highly disturbing, and this is never expressly marked as abusive. Again, let’s break out the Tangled comparison: Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel in that tower all her life because she wants to exploit the magic properties of Rapunzel’s hair. When we first meet her, Rapunzel has to an extent internalised the idea that she needs to stay in the tower to stay safe, saying “I like it in here, and so do you! Come on, Pascale, it’s not so bad in there”. When we see her interactions with Mother Gothel both in conversation and in the  villain song “Mother Knows Best”, it becomes clear why: because Mother Gothel has been systematically undermining Rapunzel’s confidence in herself. It’s a pretty chilling depiction of emotional abuse, and I am SO GLAD it exists in a popular children’s film, because it’s expressly modelling what abuse can look like – and might, perhaps, help kids better recognise abuse if it happens to them. And then let’s think about the mother/daughter relationship in Brave – in which Elinor’s desire to keep Merida indoors and marry her off stems from a sense of duty and political necessity rather than from selfish or cruel reasons. Elinor begins as a domestic antagonist, but the heart of the movie is about how these two very different women with different priorities come to understand each other, and negotiate a compromise between duty and freedom. It’s fantastic and it made me cry.

Now let’s look at what happens in Frozen. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna when they’re playing – and since it’s a magic wound, instead of going to whatever Arendelle’s equivalent of A&E is, they ride off to find the trolls (who seem to actually understand magic). What happens next is creepy on so many levels. The lead troll does some magic memory-altering on Anna, without getting meaningful consent from her parents – he just does it. He tells Elsa that fear will be her enemy, and then the proceeds to scare the bejeezus out of her with a prophetic light show. And then he tells Elsa that she will need learn to control her powers! Here’s the basic reaction I’d expect from sensible and loving parents:

“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! Perhaps you could recommend us a magic-user who could teach her how to do this? Like a wizard tutor, or something? Maybe she could stay with you, since you’re clearly a pretty short ride away from our palace, and you seem to know how this magic stuff works? How about some of you come stay in the palace for a bit and keep an eye on her, show her how to control this stuff? Or we could just bring her down for some supervised lessons once a week? Either way, since this girl is the future queen and all, we definitely want to make sure she grows up healthy and stable and in control of her magic – and I mean, just from a practical point of view, having an awesome sorceress queen would probably do wonders in terms of discouraging people from invading our kingdom. Also, thanks for altering our other daughter’s memories to remove the ice-magic stuck in her head – it wasn’t great that you didn’t check with us first, but if that was the only way to save her life, then I trust your magical/medical opinion! But just so you know, once she’s a bit older we’re going to sit her and Elsa down and explain about all of this: because even if Anna didn’t get a say in this happening to her, she has a right to know her history, and we respect her autonomy as a human being.”

But instead we get:

“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! I guess what we should do is lock her in an empty room for the rest of her life, keep her as isolated from human contact as possible, actively teach her to fear her powers, and get her to internalise the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ every time her ~emotions~ get out of hand! It’s not like she needs love or intellectual stimulation or compassion or guidance or anything. And as for Anna, well, we’ll just send away pretty much all the palace staff and leave her to wander aimlessly around the castle with no friends, and never explain to her what’s happened, so she grows up feeling that her sister suddenly came to hate her for no reason. That’ll work, right? What could possibly go wrong?”

They lock their daughter up, teach her to repress her powers rather than control them, never ever explain to Anna what on earth is going on, and generally behave in a way that suggests they have no respect for the basic humanity of their children. So far, so fairytale – bad and/or absent parents are a mainstay of the genre. But the thing is, the horrifying way they treat their daughters is never ever coded as abusive. This is a massive step back from Tangled‘s emotionally realistic portrayal of parent/child abuse, or Brave‘s complex exploration of a difficult but basically loving parent/child relationship.

The problems with Frozen‘s portrayal of family don’t end there: while I know that it’s not exactly unheard-of for Disney movies to require suspension of disbelief, when watching Frozen I found it impossible not to poke the cardboard walls. Why? Because the entire plot hinges on a family structure (and for that matter, a governmental structure) that makes no sense. This isn’t as dire a problem as the two I discuss above – independent-heroine-by-numbers and abject failure to acknowledge that the family is abusive as hell – but I think it bears thinking about in the context of a film that has been lauded for elevating ‘true love’ between siblings to the position normally occupied by romantic love. When the king and queen die, what on earth happens to the kingdom? Who is running it? It can’t be that everything just shuts down, because the Duke of Weselton talks about Arendelle as a trading partner. I’d expect there to be someone – an aunt, an uncle, a distant cousin – who is taking the reins until Elsa comes of age and is allowed to be queen. But if there is, we don’t see them. Ever. And it seems pretty likely that there aren’t any, since when Anna runs off after Elsa, she is somehow able to make Hans the temporary regent of her kingdom – and another noble tells him “if anything happens to the princess, you are all Arendelle has left”. (And later, he is seemingly able to convincingly claim the throne on the basis of his verbal account that he and Anna said their marriage vows just before she died in his arms. What?) Furthermore – in all those three years, who was still keeping Anna locked indoors? I can just about believe that Elsa has at this point been sufficiently traumatised that she stays locked up – although again, if Anna loves her sister so much, before the film starts she’s had three years free of parental supervision during which she could have reached out to her – but what’s stopping Anna from going out to see the world, or at least her immediate surroundings? (Also, on the subject of abusive families – Kristoff brings home a female friend, and his adoptive family’s response is to sing a song about how gross and awful he is, but how she can fix him if she marries him? And then tries to trick them into getting married? I just… wow, no.)

Who knew that ice magic could also do lipstick and eyeshadow?

Who knew that ice magic could also do lipstick and eyeshadow?

I’m also really bothered by what feels like casual misogyny – I love flawed heroines, I honestly do, but I feel like there’s a running theme of women being coded as over-emotional, even hysterical, and incapable of taking command or acting sensibly.  (I’ll go into this in more detail in blog post #2).  There’s also the way that “being free” and “being conventionally sexy” are conflated.  In “Let It Go”, the song in which Elsa finally claims her powers and expresses her individuality, she also gives herself a magical makeover and winds up looking like a classic femme fatale, with a long slinky sequinned split-to-the-thigh dress, dramatic makeup, and a new sexy wiggle in her walk. I am very much in favour of people dressing however they want, and I don’t for a moment think that expressing femininity makes someone unfeminist – but I do feel like this scene is worryingly invested in the “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy, as well as the idea that performing femininity/sexiness is inherently liberating (rather than liberation being found in having the choice to do so or not). “Elsa’s become empowered – quick, make her sexy!” For a film that is supposedly progressive, I feel it falls back on a lot of reductive and harmful tropes about women.

The final thing I wanted to talk about is how this fits in with the Disney Princess marketing machine. To quote Colman again:

Throwing the doors open to women with a new generation of intelligent, capable female characters who are not defined by whom they fall in love with is a smart move, and Disney knows it. That’s why Disney has been beating the “More Feminism” drum for years now: not because they believe it, but because the children of millenials are being brought up in homes that champion intelligent, outspoken women, and that’s where the ticket sales are coming from. But Disney has, and has always had, a fine line to tread between breaking new ground, and maintaining the comfort of tradition, or it risks losing the millions in ticket sales and merchandise that comes from the old vanguard.[…]

Whether you loved or hated Frozen, it should be impossible to deny that it is preceded by a rich history of animated films that champion bravery, intelligence, strength and agency in their heroines far more effectively than it does. Yet denying it we are, in droves, and sometime since Frozen’s release the praise heaped upon it reached such a critical mass that it somehow has made us forget that Belle left both home and the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life; that Mulan risked death on the battlefield and execution for treason to protect her family; that Esmeralda chose immolation rather than give herself to a man she despised; that the archetypal Prince Charming hasn’t been seen in a Disney film since The Little Mermaid; and that no Disney heroine except Anna — even Ariel — has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959.

I think this hits the nail on the head: in order for each new Disney princess film to be seen a step forward in terms of awesome heroines, without actually doing something new or revolutionary, it needs to put down the films that came before it. I absolutely don’t think that Disney’s oeuvre is a shining example of feminism, and beyond the lens of gender there are swathes of problems as regards racial stereotyping, investment in the beauty myth, heteronormativity, and so on. This is the two-pronged power of the Disney Princesses merchandising machine: with one hand they flatten out every previous princess into a hyperfeminine, glitter-covered version, appearance-focused iteration of the original character; with the other hand, they sell their newest creation as the most daring, the most independent, the most ground-breaking yet.  Seriously, look at this picture – to take the two most obvious examples, Mulan spends most of the film wearing armour and passing as a boy, yet in Disney Princesses merchandise she’s wearing an even fussier version the type of clothes she hates so much that there’s a song about it; Rapunzel ends the film with short brown hair but is depicted all through the Disney branding with her flowing golden locks… There was some backlash a while ago when a prettied-up version of Merida was added to the ensemble, but again, while Merida was definitely an important step forward in many ways, the objection to the Merida redesign again served to elide all the ways that so many of her predecessors – Mulan, Belle, Tiana, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas… – were themselves “girlified” by the Disney Princesses branding.

disney princesses

And so – Frozen has been sold as, and received as, something new. Is it more feminist just because there are two princesses instead of one – even though neither of them seem to have personalities or interests or consistent psychologies? Is it queerer than usual because the central story is a love story between two women – even though they’re sisters, with a sketched-in relationship that seems based on their both liking snowmen and chocolate? Does it skewer the love-at-first sight trope by undercutting the relationship between Anna and Hans – even though it then goes on to have Anna and Kristoff fall for each other in a similarly short space of time? Well… no. I really don’t think it does. (And again, other Disney films do it better – Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog both do far more interesting things with the idea of what constitutes a princess; Tangled has a lot to say in terms of challenging traditional gender roles (particularly in how it undercuts traditional ideas of masculinity); if you want characters falling in love that isn’t “at first sight” then what about Beauty and the Beast?)  I think that what is happening here is something rather more cynical: that, having seen the success of Brave and Tangled, the two most recent princess movies with resourceful heroines and fresh (or at least, more nuanced) perspectives on love and family, Frozen is an attempt to recreate that success without doing any of the emotional or intellectual work required to create a groundbreaking film (or even just a compelling film). Frozen is Tangled-by-numbers, a shallow and formulaic attempt to cash in on the current enthusiasm for more ‘independent’ heroines.

But wait – there’s more! In the course of writing this blog, I also asked my Facebook friends: if you like Frozen, tell me why? The ensuing discussion was really interesting and I now feel like I understand more about why this film was so well-received by lots of my feminist and queer friends, people whose opinions I respect. However, as this blog post is already well over 3000 words, I’m going to leave this one here – stay tuned for another post soon, which will discuss Frozen in terms of queerness, survivorhood, and the value in having fallible protagonists! (And because I’m a ridiculous human being who apparently has a lot of feelings about women in fairy tales (who knew?), there is also a third post on the way, in which I explore how Frozen could have been a far better movie by bringing out the more interesting things buried in the subtext.)

Quick note: on creativity and “creative people”

This morning, in my travels through social media, I stumbled into a discussion about creativity and what it means to be an artist. Much of it rang true: that it’s increasingly difficult to make a living purely from your art; that success or failure in your chosen art form is tied in to a deeply personal sense of self and self-worth; that creating can feel as though it is essential to your life. Yup.

However, there was also a note to some of the comments that made me feel very uncomfortable – the idea that being an artist is something mysterious and ineffable and special, that “the average office-worker” just can’t comprehend. Underlying this sort of attitude is a number of assumptions, all of which are (in my view) utterly busted:

– That nobody who works in an office could have a deep, personal, important connection with their work. (I’ve had an office job which involved doing outreach for the transgender community, something I’d already been doing for free as an activist; another friend of mine currently has an amazing office job recovering and recording the lives of people who lived through WW1 and she is working on making public erased histories of women and people of colour; yet another works on improving services for survivors of abuse and violence… working in an office environment does not equate to doing a job which is meaningless or dull – and even if it did, you are more than your job – see next point!)

– That “office worker” and “artist” are mutually-exclusive categories. (Does my bill-paying day job stop me from being an artist? Does it unpublish my poetry, undo my performances, cancel out the hours I dedicate to my writing?)

– That there are Creative People, and Non-Creative People, existing in two separate and essentialised categories.

This last one is a real sticking-point for me.  I do not think this is a useful division to put up. I think that there are some people who have found a medium (or several) that works for them, and it’s a medium that is generally recognised as Art by the society in which they live, and they have either been encouraged in it or fell in love with it enough to work on it without encouragement, and they’re public about their relationship with it. And then there are people who don’t meet all these criteria – but that doesn’t mean they’re not creative.

I firmly believe that all people have the potential to be creative. And I say this not just as a point of ideology, but from the perspective of someone who once spent a significant amount of their spare time running art classes for little kids. There were kids who didn’t want to talk much, or who zoomed around the classroom and wouldn’t sit down, or who tried to pick arguments with their peers and teachers: but all of them, at the end of the day, made something and had fun doing so. From my experience,  I think it’s the case that little kids are much less self-conscious about making art than older people: it’s only once they get older, and some of them have been encouraged and some have been shut down, that you start to see people who are put into the category of “not creative”, whether that’s because they’ve been told they’re not talented enough to succeed and so they stop trying, or because their creativity is expressed in a medium that isn’t seen as “proper art”.

But creativity is (and should be) for EVERYONE. And some people come to it early, and some late, and some not at all – but I just do not believe that there are people who have absolutely no creative spark in them, somewhere.

Edited to add: while it’s about maths rather than the arts, this article about children being praised for “gifts” vs “skills” feels very relevant, in terms of the discourse of innate ability and there being people who “have it” or don’t.

Also, when I finished writing this entry, I didn’t really have a pithy final sentence with which to make a final flourish, but I think this Twitter conversation with Goldfish has provided it:

@goldfish: “On Creativity & Creative People”  @hel_gurney is spot-on about there being nothing magical about artists
@hel_gurney: .@goldfish Or perhaps, that art is a kind of magic that anyone can do 🙂 Thank you lots for your tweet and comment!
@goldfish: Yes – that’s a much better way of putting it!

So there we go: art is a kind of magic that anyone can do. Go forth, and find new spells to learn and love.

Three resolutions for 2014

Well – it’s 2014, and so I’m going to post my resolutions for the year.

I do have mixed feelings about the institution of New Year’s Resolutions – I feel like they’re often adopted with a sense of explicit ‘permission’ to have failed by February, because hey, nobody ever really sticks to new year’s resolutions, right? At least in my experience, there’s a pervading view of the new year’s resolution as being meant in the same spirit as someone with a hangover saying “I’ll never drink again – I mean it this time!” – an sort of expression of “wow, I sure did indulge over Christmas / drop the ball on my plans for last year / waste a lot of time playing Minesweeper – better sort myself out!” with the understanding that things will drift back towards the status quo eventually. But on the other hand, my 2013 ended on quite a low note, with grief and illness knocking the wind out of my sails, so even the illusion of a fresh start as dictated by numbers on a calendar feels like a good thing. I also think there is a certain symbolic value in taking stock and making plans at the time of year when the days around me begin to lengthen once more and I emerge from a form of hibernation. There is a lot that I would like to do and learn and make, and I want to make 2014 a year in which these things happen. So I’ve actually been thinking about resolutions since the beginning of December, and trying to work on the foundations for the year ahead as much as I’m able to.

Anyway. I have resolved that I will:

1. De-centre whiteness in the media that I consume.
Read more books by people of colour; watch more films/television shows by and starring people of colour; actively seek out artists of colour who are currently performing in the spoken word and live music scenes. If I get The Cutlery Drawer up and running again, make sure that people of colour are represented in the lineups. I reached the conclusion that this was an important thing for me to do some while ago, and I would like to be held accountable in this regard, which is why I’m making this resolution publicly. In the light of the shocking racism that’s already being enacted by white feminists this year (seriously! It’s been two days!) this feels even more crucial: I need to address my white privilege. And that doesn’t mean reading about the existence of structural racism, shaking my head with disapproval at the injustice, and then saying “okay, all done here!” It doesn’t even just mean calling out racism in fellow white people when I see it. It means recognising that I am entrenched in a white-supremacist society which systematically devalues the creative and intellectual work of people of colour, relegating this work to a ‘specialist’ interest.* It means accepting the fact that by consuming media and creative work without addressing the white-supremacist nature of the creative industries, I am tacitly supporting racism. It means making the effort to actually hear the voices of people of colour – political voices, artistic voices, voices that speak from and to a vastness of experiences which my white privilege means I can ignore. It’s not enough to follow blogs and tweets by people of colour, when of the 22 books (poetry, fiction, and academia) I finished reading this year, only two were written by authors of colour. (I haven’t been tracking my film/TV/music consumption in the same way, so I don’t have numbers, but: those are also for the most part pretty damn white.) So, in 2014: engage, engage, engage with the creative and intellectual work of people of colour, and de-centre the whiteness which currently dominates my media landscape.

*Which, y’know, sounds rather like the grossly racist and classist claim that the word “intersectionality” (coined by a woman of colour to articulate her experience of oppression!) is too ‘academic’ and ‘specialist’ for working-class white women to understand… oh but wait, it’s alright, because those claims are now being swept under the rug as part of the vile meme about ‘reclaiming’ intersectionality (from women of colour who are being framed as ‘abusers’!). Urgh.

2. Focus on my writing, and getting it out there.
Draw up a plan for the year – make sure I’m writing, recording, researching, performing, and submitting work to magazines/anthologies. Go back to having a calendar of poetry/fiction submission deadlines, and send out work regularly. A couple of specific ambitions: headline a poetry night; get at least three things published (including at least one piece of fiction); have the fairytales collection approaching completion (or at least, comprising over 10 finished and fully edited short stories); be somehow involved in next year’s Crick Crack fairytale show. In line with resolution number 1, engage with criticisms of white authors/authorship, and with ways to keep my work from being white-dominated/white-centric (e.g. Lena Dunham’s Girls – Racialicious is currently down but that post is still readable on the Wayback Machine) while also not crossing into cultural appropriation or exotification (e.g. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl).

3. Take care of myself.
I went into more detail with this one on Facebook – but essentially, recognising that I have limited time, energy, and emotional resources, and allocating these to the things that matter most to me. This includes getting back into a good self-care routine (which I rather lost in November, due to a friend’s death and getting various kinds of ill again) which in turn includes allowing myself to relax and have ‘off’ days; maintaining physiotherapy and enjoyable forms of exercise (swimming, dance, and hiking – but only when I can do these things); regularly planning and cooking meals which are nutritious, and tasty; doing a sufficient amount of work in my day job; doing creative things which aren’t tied to ideas about ‘success’ or my future as a writer/performer (e.g. getting back into handcrafting things, which I’ve been doing a bit of over the holidays and really enjoying).

So, that’s my 2014. How about yours?

In memory of a friend.

[Written two days ago.]

It has been ten days since you left us. I still can’t quite believe you’re gone.

You were kind and generous and open-hearted, to an extent far beyond most people I know. You were incredibly smart, and you wrote with a fluency and clarity I greatly admired. You were imaginative and you were witty: even now, with the memories edged with sadness, I can’t help but laugh when I recall the things you said. You were at the centre of a whirlwind of people who adored you. You were endlessly supportive and unapologetically unique. You were so many things, and I don’t know how to list them all without triteness, don’t know how to conjure your essence in words on a screen for people who will now never be lucky enough to meet you. Words are how I cope, but here, words fail me again and again.

Something pure and simple, then: you were an amazing friend, and I will never forget you.

We met back when I lived in London, the first time round. You and two of my friends were at a metal gig in town; I’d offered the three of you a place to crash. You stretched on my sofa like a cat, ready to sleep, and watched as a housemate juggled glass balls.

A long while later, you told me that I’d seemed like an alien that evening. That there was hardly any overlap in our respective frames of reference – that back then, you couldn’t imagine us becoming close friends. You were glad you’d been wrong, and so was I.

This past year was the year we were closest. You cleaved your way through the silence, came out with it all in public: illness. Depression. Suicide attempts. It was just over a year ago that you told the world about this. We reached out for each other in ways we hadn’t quite done before – after all, I was mired in illness too. We made plans with each other, little schedules and lists to get through things day by day. You started seeing doctors, getting tested, searching for a diagnosis that would explain what was happening to your body. You were clambering your way back up. We had a plan to go to a certain place together for dinner, once you were sure about handling the walk.

The last time I saw you, it was a perfect few days. Another visit to your home. We shopped together and cooked together. Walking to the shops and back was a triumph. (Walking there, we laughed at the difference between our canes – unlike yours, mine didn’t have claw feet – the poor thing couldn’t even stand up by itself! How could I expect it to help me walk if it couldn’t even stand? And we talked about the strangeness of people, how we were all still confused little primates at heart. You remarked “and look at you, extruding protein strands from your scalp like some sort of monkey!” and I doubled over laughing.) There was stew, chocolate cake, apple crumble. There were enthusiastic music recommendations, cuddles with the cat, video games from a bygone era. There were funny movies and nostalgic television shows – and there was the roleplaying game. The game I’d been running for you and your housemates was my first time as a GM: I was so excited about all the plot that was to be unfurled for your character, and so were you. We talked about the game a lot, and you read and re-read the sourcebook. The last message I sent you (which you never saw) was to say that I’d confirmed the next dates I could come to visit: and we’d chat and cook and shop once more, and I’d run the game’s next session.

You were very tired by the time I left. I remember how you said that before previous attempts, you’d subtly said your goodbyes to everyone you cared about. I now wonder if you’d tired yourself out over those few days because you knew you wouldn’t be around much longer. I wonder if, when you hugged me goodbye at the door, you already knew it was going to be the last time we saw each other. I wonder if that perfect visit was so perfect because it was a final farewell, a secret send-off for our friendship.

It sounds ridiculous, but when I heard the news, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I sat down with a thud as the voice on the phone reiterated that it was true. There was proof of your existence all over my memories – all over my inbox, in the little morsels of hope and happiness you’d sent me every day or two. Beautiful pictures, funny stories, words of affection. I’d heard from you only the day before. How could you suddenly be gone, just like that? How could you just not exist any more? I’m still struggling to comprehend it.

They will bury you this Thursday – your birthday. Your friends will still be celebrating your life together on that day, even though you will not be there to hear us, and even though we will also have to bid you goodbye. The time you have lived in this world was not wasted and will not be forgotten. We will remember you as the loving, joyous, insightful person that you were. We will take these bright fragments of memory forward with us into the long cold winter nights that glower over our beds, into the springs and summers and autumns and winters that will come after, and we will not forget.

Poetry, ponies, potpourri

Busy, busy, busy.

It’s coming up on a year since the knock to my health – the one that laid me out for a huge chunk of time, right into the early months of 2013. That’s a strange thought. I am very glad to be out of the woods, back on the horse, and all the other proverbial things. It’s hard not to feel like I’m still desperately playing catch-up. But even if that is what I’m doing, I think it’s gone pretty well so far. I’m living primarily in London again, which feels like a smart move – partway between Oxford and Brighton, my old home and my ‘adopted’ home, so I’m doing less of the suitcase-nomad thing.

Poster for 'Bifrost' - the Nine Worlds queer cabaret night!

Poster for ‘Bifrost’ – the Nine Worlds queer cabaret night!

I’m getting back onto the poetry performance circuit – a couple of open mic performances, some poems as part of Lashings sets, and (most excitingly) not only the fundraiser for Brighton’s first Trans Pride, but on the stage at Trans Pride itself. I’m heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe later this month, and I’m hoping to do some poetry sets as well as being in the Lashings show (follow it on @lashingsofgb and #FannyWhittington!). Oh, and then there’s the very exciting event depicted in the poster to the right – Bifröst! I’m super stoked to be performing at the cabaret night put on by the Queer Fandom track at Nine Worlds. And just look at that beautiful poster – all credit to Tori Truslow, track organiser.

Staying on the topic of Nine Worlds, I’ll be speaking at the convention proper as well as performing in the queer cabaret – I’m delivering a paper about Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World as part of the SF&F Academia track (Saturday, 10:00-10:30, Royal C&D), and participating in the ‘Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary’ panel on the Queer Fandom track (Sunday, 10:00-11:15, Britannia).

I haven’t yet decided on all the panels and events I’ll be attending: it’s absolutely packed with amazing stuff, and I’m sure no matter what I choose I’ll be missing out on some brilliant discussions. The Nine Worlds programme pretty much defines ’embarrassment of riches’.

Queen Chrysalis - MLP villain and (IMO) goth style icon

Queen Chrysalis – MLP villain and (IMO) goth style icon

And after a little bit of worrying about whether I’ll still look like a Serious Academic or not, I’ve decided, to hell with it, I’m also going to cosplay. As a villain. From the My Little Pony reboot. Mostly because I love green-and-black outfits, and villainy – but also because damn it, artefacts of popular media and media aimed at children are interesting and just as worthy of critical engagement as more traditional/literary texts, and there’s nothing wrong with dressing up. (I’m taking inspiration from the brilliant Marta Wasik, who at Roles 2013 delivered her paper “Fairy-Tale Feminists? Interrogating the contemporary representation of girlhood though the figure of the Disney Princess” while wearing a glittery tiara.) So I’ll be spending Saturday looking like a humanoid approximation of this creature on the left. I need to get hold of some fangs.

What else has been going on? Well, speaking at the last Transpose (about two crypto-queer historical figures) went very well – in fact, it was on the strength of that talk that I was booked at Nine Worlds. I’m eagerly awaiting the next Transpose, where – if you’re very lucky – you may get to hear a new fairytale or two. The rest is pretty quotidian stuff – settling in to my new place, catching up with old friends, doing various things for my health, and so on. And as always there’s the thinking and writing – I’ve got quite a few half-written blog posts waiting to surface, and bits and pieces of poetry that are slowly taking shape. I’m looking forward to getting more things finished.

In the writ(h)ing tentacles of the Verse Kraken: fairytales, the Tempest, writing on skin

(Sorry for the title – I couldn’t resist…)

So, a lot has been going on for me lately, but in this blog I’m going to write about one exciting thing in particular – Verse Kraken.

Verse Kraken describes itself as a ‘journal of hybrid art’, and the first issue was launched on Thursday at an event in London. The editors, Tori Truslow and Claire Trévien also organised a three-day residential writing retreat, at which I had an absolutely amazing time (and wrote an incredible amount of fairytales).

So – first off – if you want to read the first issue of Verse Kraken, the online edition is here. Each issue collects responses to three ‘spurs’: in this instance, a silent film version of The Tempest, a short fairytale about a girl transformed into a fish, and a photograph of the heavily-tattooed Maud Wagner. Collaboration and hybrid forms are encouraged, and the use of spurs rather than a single theme allows a lot of variety (translation and adaptation are amazing things for creativity!) while also retaining some amount of cohesion. My own submission – a visual poem about how bodies and skin can be ‘read’ (and misread), inspired by the Wagner photograph – didn’t make the cut, but considering the high quality of the magazine, I don’t feel bad about that. (Although if anyone can think of another publication it might work for, please drop me a line!) At the launch, we also got to see the offline edition – rather than a traditional magazine format, it’s a little box of treasures, with text and image individually presented as tiny booklets and prints, and a CD with the audiovisual contributions. It’s a lovely way of organising the pieces – like the online hypertextual version, it allows the reader to browse without having a particular order dictated.

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

The launch event featured readings from the first issue, as well as some more interactive elements. James Webster offered temporary tattoos with kraken-themed fragments of poetry on them, which proved immensely popular by the end of the evening – see attached photo of me and Dana Bubulj showing off our newly-decorated skin! (I’m currently really interested in the poetics of skin, and writing-on-skin and art-on-skin as ways of changing how the body is read, so this was an unexpected treat for me! The temporary tattoo is still around, and last night at the FWSA Conference 2013 (where I was performing with Lashings) I had a few people wondering whether the words across my chest were ‘real’ or not! I’m sorry to have missed Claire O’Callaghan’s paper at the conference, as it sounded like it had interesting things to say about tattoos as ‘challenge’/ ‘provocation’ with regards to the male gaze… But anyway, I think a post about skin is something for another time!) The Verse Kraken launch also held an ‘ekphrastic poetry/art challenge’ with a physical copy of the first issue as a prize: audience members were invited to treat the readings as ‘spurs’ of their own, and spend the interval creating responses to them in a different form. I was very pleased to win this, with my response to James Webster and Dana Bubulj’s ‘Bound’ (a curse-poem about the imprisonment of Sycorax, based of course on the Tempest spur). For posterity, here’s the piece of five-minute flash-fiction that won me a box of kraken treasure:

My father said, “don’t go out at night. The wild woods on this isle would set you shrieking. The trees there whisper, tendril-torn, gnarled like ancient flesh. In one of them a witch sleeps.”

My father said, “the howling sobbing child you think you see is but a wraith. He is the substance of your bad dreams. But still, upon this isle, dreams may have teeth. Stay safe. Stay in the cave.”

My father said, “no need to touch the books. They are but dusty-dry sheafs of words that have nothing to tell you. Your grubby hands might stain them; and besides, they are not yours to read. I may show you some pictures if you are very good.”

My father said, “dear girl, if nothing else, you will be safe.”

All the words I knew were the ones he had stuffed into my mouth. But my dreams beyond language dragged me from my bed, our cave, the safe side of the isle. I awoke scrabbling at the roots of a crooked tree. My fingers ran with blood – nails torn, the bark bleeding too. In speech without words, the witch was calling me, and I would come.

I whispered to the knotted trunk, “I am here. Teach me.”

I didn’t give it a title at the time, but retroactively I think ‘Miranda’s Dream’ works as well as anything else. Like Webster, I’m very interested in the backstory of The Tempest – probably even more interested in it that the contents of the actual play! During my MA year I wrote a 15-minute script (in iambic pentameter!) which explored that backstory – it was going to be put on as part of the ‘Shakespearian Shorts’ show put on by the university drama society, but unfortunately cast illness prevented this from happening. The Tempest is definitely something I want to come back to, though – I think that looking at the interactions between Prospero/Miranda/Caliban/Ariel are really fruitful for thinking about the divide-and-conquer methods of kyriarchy. I’m very excited by Sophie Mayer and Jacqueline Wright’s film project, The Storm, which is coming out of their Verse Kraken piece ‘How To Curse’ – a lesbian Caliban! (Oh, and while we’re talking about female Calibans, here’s another recommendation: Kate Tempest, ‘What We Came After’. Kate Tempest is one of the first slam poets I ever saw, and I adore her work. This video is less loud and raw and ragged than her live performances – qualities which I absolutely love – but the poem remains incredible.)

So, now onto the other exciting Verse Kraken thing – the writer’s retreat. It was the first creative retreat I’d been on, and it was perfect. After a week containing my last days officially working on All About Trans, the debut performance of Fanny Whittington at the Oxford Fringe, speaking at ‘Being Ourselves’, and some high-intensity personal stuff – well, spending three days living in a quiet farmhouse with a small group of creative people was exactly what I needed. It was a perfect mixture of relaxing and hard-working: expressly having no job except from writing seems to be something that really works for me, so I’ll definitely be making an effort to set aside days/weekends again in future. The surroundings were utterly beautiful, the pool was surprisingly conducive to creativity (we all did a lot of thinking about mermaids…), and there was (in my opinion) exactly the right balance between structured workshop time and free time to relax or engage with our own projects. The workshops were very creative, encouraging us to engage with different senses, media, and sources – and there was also a weekend-long project that paired us randomly to work on collaborations. (I worked on a short and spooky screenplay with Jacqueline Wright, of the aforementioned lesbian Caliban project!) I’m unsure how much detail to go into about the workshops – I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who might go on a future one! – but basically, it felt like the equivalent of a full MOT for my writing-brain, with its focus on unlocking as many different ways of being creative as possible.

I think the best thing that I’ve taken away from this retreat is the idea that I don’t need to just wait for inspiration to strike – it doesn’t need to be primarily bursts of late-night manic-creativity where I need to write this amazing idea down now now now – but rather, there’s a tonne of enjoyable ways of getting myself into the right mindset for writing other than those bolt-from-the-blue moments, and that inspiration can be taken from unlikely sources. Or perhaps, the best thing I’ve taken is the reminder that I can write passably good things very quickly – I hadn’t really written poetry or fiction on a tight time limit for years, and those moments of being put under time pressure in the workshops resulted in some things that I’m really quite proud of. (Had it not been for these workshops, I’m not sure how confident I would have been in my ability to write flash-fiction at the launch!)

While I don’t normally post my poetry online, I’m going to make an exception for this next one. In Claire’s workshop on form, we were asked to spend 10 minutes transposing a poem from one form to another. From the poems we were given, I chose Eaven Boland’s long free-verse poem ‘Amber’ – it’s a beautiful autumnal poem about mourning and loss, and it’s readable online at The Atlantic magazine – and adapted it into sonnet form.

This plastic gold which grieving trees once wept,

which I now hold, which in its heart is holding

the feathers, leaves, and seeds which have long slept:

is honeyed sunlight, slow-dripped and enfolding.

What reason knows: the dead have left the living.

Those who have passed shall not be seen again.

Clean gulps of air – the sky, bright and forgiving –

our meetings here have moved from ‘now’ to ‘then’.

Yet in the flawed translucence of the amber,

the ornament that you once passed to me –

the life that froze, the insects, vines that clamber –

all that which breathed and moved is there to see.

Though you are absent from this fine September,

I hold you as in amber, and remember.

Other fruit of the workshops included more poetry of various kinds, a map of my childhood imagination (that was a fun workshop!), some fragments of a short story, and the seed of an idea that became another mermaid-focused fairytale. Unlike ‘The Girl and the Mermaid’, this one – I’m calling it ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ – is much more of a direct reply to (and deconstruction of) the famous Andersen tale, as well as being about embodiment and the often-coercive nature of gender roles. All of my free writing-time went on the fairytale collection – as well as ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ I wrote two more stories (plus the collaboration with Jacqueline, which (given its subject) may well end up in the collection too). A bit of polishing after the retreat and I think they’re done – my fairytales project is growing, and I’m really excited about it.

So, basically – many thanks to Claire and Tori for their awesome work on Verse Kraken, which has been challenging and inspiring me (and many others) to new creative heights. Long may its inky tentacles continue to ensnare us. 😉

Adventures in trans advocacy

So, I’m suddenly doing a lot of speaking and writing about trans things, in new and exciting contexts – and here’s a blog about it!

In short: I went on the radio, met some BBC executives, spoke at a conference on genderqueer, and am participating in an online education project! For the longer version, read on…

I’ve started interning with On Road Media, with the remit of working on Phase Two of their ‘Trans Media Action‘ project. Phase One was hosting ‘Trans Camp’, where media professionals and trans people spent a day workshopping ideas on improving trans representation – one of the things that came out of it was the Trans Comedy Award, which is offering up to £5000 for a comic script that portrays trans people in a positive light. I know some really talented trans people who have submitted their scripts to this, and I’m excited to see what comes of it – the scripts are being judged by trans people, so I’m confident they won’t let anything hateful slip through the net.

Phase Two is titled ‘All About Trans’, and as such, there’s a new website (and the Twitter account has been renamed). ‘All About Trans’ involves facilitating interactions between media professionals and trans people, in a friendly and low-pressure environment, allowing them to collect on a human level.  So, I’ve been doing research and writing for the site, as well as some photography and design work. You can look at the site and see pictures I’ve taken! Also, you can see my face. (I did a double-take where there was a picture of me and other volunteers as one of the (cycling) header images. I’ve no idea how long it’ll be there, but… yes. There we go. I’m the one with the really long hair.)

As part of working with On Road Media, I’ve already had some amazing opportunities to talk about genderqueer identity. On my first day, I accompanied Alana (from On Road) and Jamie (from The Test Shot) to a radio interview on Resonance FM! We were interviewed by Rosie Wilby on ‘Out in South London’, and I answered some questions about genderqueer, language, and feminism. You can listen to it here on the Out in South London site, or directly on SoundCloud (we’re 37 minutes in). And last Tuesday, I went on the very first interaction – meeting BBC executives in the London Aquarium. It’s been written up on the On Road site, and I might write about it myself at some point. I feel really pleased that I got to speak about genderqueer to someone who’d never encountered the term before, and who was so willing to listen – and I think we also got along pretty well, chatting about poetry and mythmaking and the world of performance. (He quoted T.S. Eliot at me – I finished the line. That was probably my favourite non-trans-related moment.)

On Road Media work aside, I also was delighted to be a speaker at (and ad-hoc assistant organiser of) the ‘Spotlight on Genderqueer‘ conference at the University of Warwick. I gave my paper on genderqueer historiography as the first paper after the introduction and keynote (you can read the abstract here), and then spent the rest of the conference frantically live-tweeting, and doing tech support and organisation in the background, having been drafted in to help with setup and operation the day before (alongside Kat Gupta, who was an absolute hero). It was an utterly brilliant day, with some fascinating and thought-provoking papers – and if you wish you could have been there, despair not! There’s a comprehensive Storify put together by Dr Caroline Walters, and videos (recorded by Alex Drummond) with transcripts will eventually be available on the website. In the evening, we went straight into the  corresponding arts event ‘Fork the Binary‘, put together by me and conference organiser Ruth Pearce under the aegis of our various promoter labels, The Cutlery Drawer and Rolling Head. It was a night of diverse acts from trans, queer, and (predominantly) genderqueer artists, and I bloody loved it. (I did at one point nearly collapse from a combination of tiredness and a bump on the head, but still, it was excellent.)

Finally, I’m taking part in the next of CN Lester’s Q&A projects – this time, with questions being directed to a panel of people who identify in ways other than uncomplicatedly ‘male’ or ‘female’. Please go and ask us questions here – it closes on May 8th!

(As for NUS LGBT Conference – well, it had some very proud moments for trans people, and some very dark moments. I’ll leave that entry for another time!)

* I spent perhaps too long working out whether to say ‘advocacy’ or ‘activism’; I do consider myself a trans activist (and a queer activist, and a feminist activist), but I think the contents of this blog come more under ‘advocacy’.

Trans names, elf names, ‘silly’ names

There are some long and relatively serious blog posts in the pipeline – a write-up of the political/emotional rollercoaster that was NUS LGBT Conference, maybe a similar entry on NUS Women’s Conference, some information about the very exciting things I’m doing for Trans Media Action, a follow-up post to my coming out post – but in the meantime, here are some frivolous (and hopefully amusing) thoughts about names.

I’ve been chatting about names and naming with my friends recently – it’s an issue pretty close to my heart, and something I find very interesting. One thing that’s been coming up a lot is trans names – how naming oneself can be incredibly powerful and important, but also, how it can sometimes take you to uncomfortable places. In my previous post I linked to an entry at Trans Culture titled “you definitely named yourself” – it’s a collection of thoughts from different people about trends in self-naming (particularly among transmasculine people), and whether having an unusual name or fashionable name can somehow ‘out’ someone as having named themself, and as such, as trans.

Devoted Tolkien nerd that I am, discussions of choosing names eventually lead (by a winding road) towards thinking about how names functioned in Middle Earth. There’s all sorts of really fascinating stuff in there, particularly with regards to elven names. I like the way that names were translated from Quenya to Sindarin as times changed, preserving the meaning but not the sound*; and the way that names could be given to someone by anyone, on the basis of their deeds or features, and how someone could become known by this new name instead of the birth name they were given at birth  – for example, Galadriel’s birth name was Nerwen (meaning ‘man-maiden’), but she’s usually referred to as  ‘Galadriel’, which is itself a Sindarin translation of the name ‘Alatariel’, which was the name given to her by her husband Celeborn. But the coolest thing (in my opinion) is the way that elf children get to name themselves, in a ceremony at roughly age seven – or once they have reached ‘lamatyvë’, meaning ‘the ability to take pleasure in language’. Isn’t that awesome? The chosen name, the name given at birth by the father, and (sometimes) a name dreamed or foreseen by the mother, were all equally ‘true’ names – and on top of that, an elf could gain several other names in the course of their life. (If you want to read more, for some reason a copy of Tolkien’s Laws and Customs of the Eldar is actually online in PDF format…)

But hang about. If I could have named myself at age seven, I’d probably be called something I’d now find intensely embarassing. I remember at around 10, insisting to a stranger that my name was actually Xamenthynia. And this, in turn, reminds me of a conversation I saw somewhere else quite a while ago – unfortunately I’m not able to credit it, as Google has turned up up nothing, so please tell me if you know where this is from! Somebody posited the idea of a world where everyone gets a free, no-questions-asked, totally-socially-acceptable name change every five years – and at no other time. I think this is at once a brilliant and dreadful idea: I’m imagining 10-year-olds cringing at being called ‘Princess Fluffle Kittycat’ and ‘Mippetty-dippetty-boo’; 15-year-olds grudgingly writing ‘Superman’ and ‘Plesiosaur’ on their exam papers; 20-year-olds delaying applying for jobs until they can stop being ‘Ravyn Darkfyre’ and ‘Crimsin Skye’…

And to bring things round full circle – it would hopefully put paid to dismissal of the legitimacy of trans names through their (real or perceived) eccentricity. It’s rather hard for you to tell a trans person off for being called ‘Braiden Skylar’ or ‘Algernon Quentin’ when it’s a matter of public record that before you were  ‘Dave’, you were ‘Blubble Fantastico’, ‘Rocketship’, ‘Damien Darkheart’, and ‘Aloysius’.

* Incidentally, I once spent some of a car journey making myself terribly amused by (approximately) translating the names of Tolkien’s elves into forms more appropriate for the irreverent roleplaying game “Elfs”. So Lothlorien is overseen by elven matriarch Shiny Head, her husband Metal Tree, and captain-of-the-guard Sneaky, Imladris is the home of Star Hole and his daughter Posh Girl… I have no idea if anyone else find this funny, but there we are.

Transparency: an inevitable announcement.

I’ve been advised by a friend that it’s a strain to be anything other than a whole person.

That is, in a way, the point of this blog. No more cordoning-off of the various parts of my life, this is where I aim to inhabit them all: vaguely-established activist, burgeoning poet and fiction-writer, life-long geek, aspiring academic, committed feminist, proud queer, and so on. And yet I’ve been walking a rather awkward line for some time, and I’m tired of doing so. Rather than try to keep a lid on this any longer – and given what I’m doing in public life anyway – I think it’s easier just to say things outright, here and now.

I’m trans.

I’m the Trans Rep on the NUS Women’s Committee, and I have been since 2011. I requested that official documents refer to me only by my initials, and as such, have been doing this job with a certain level of ‘incognito’ status that has been increasingly frustrating to maintain. The (apparently) contentious nature of this position being held by a female-assigned individual who identifies both as a woman and as trans has, ultimately, strengthened the campaign’s policy on trans inclusion.

Since then, however, I’ve become increasingly vocal about trans issues under my own name. If you look at this blog, you’ll see that I’m presenting workshops and academic papers about trans and genderqueer identities, that I’m writing on trans issues and trans representation, that I’m performing poetry at trans and queer events – that I am already very publicly aligned with a movement that treats the broad spectrum of trans identities with legitimacy and respect. I’m also speaking in my Trans Rep capacity on a panel at the upcoming NUS LGBT Conference, and am shortly to begin an internship working for Trans Media Action – both will, one way or another, probably involve an awful lot of social media. With all of that on the table, I feel I have reached a tipping-point: I can’t believe there are many people who would respect me as a cis ally doing this sort of work, but turn against me to discover that ‘trans’ is also a word I use to describe myself. And perhaps more to the point, I don’t really want those people in my life.

So.

I consider myself a woman in that it’s a term which more-or-less describes the gender role in which I live, the upbringing and socialisation I have experienced, the types of gendered oppression I face under patriarchy, and – inasmuch as one can use terms like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ to describe bodies in any sort of meaningful sense – the body which I inhabit.

I consider myself trans in that it’s a term which more-or-less describes my complex relationship with my body and with my gender presentation. Were I asked to use a more specific word, I’d go with genderqueer.

That is an accurate description of how things are for me right now – as with any other identity label, I use them descriptively rather than prescriptively. And that is about as much information as I feel like I owe the world at large right now.

Writing this blog entry for the public domain was surprisingly hard, given that I’ve been a vocal trans advocate for many years now and that I’ll often discuss my personal investment in this when in the rather more intimate context of my poetry readings or workshops. But I’m sure that for every friend or acquaintance reading this for whom it’s very old news indeed, there are a number of others scratching their heads. I am – honestly – not wanting anything out of this except to relinquish the sense of being constantly on my guard whenever I write publicly under my own name. The cat is out of the bag, and can now run off chasing leaves if it would like.

I would appreciate it if anyone who might want to get in touch to ask questions would take a moment or two to consider their tone, and perhaps see if those questions can be answered by reading that which is already out there. Below are a few (by no means comprehensive!) recommendations for starting points: I may add more later.

– A (still-running) series of questions from cis readers, answered at CN Lester’s blog by a panel of trans people and beginning with a list of 101 recommendations.

– Jack/Judith Halberstam (who has occupied and critically examined the ground between ‘butch’ and ‘trans’ for years) on pronouns.

– CN Lester again, with a tonne of amazing links: on ‘academic’ and ‘authentic’ understandings of oneself not being incompatible; on how appearance does not constitute identity; on dyadic terms being counterproductive; and since I’m linking to CN in a ridiculous frenzy already, you might as well read this one too. (And I’d also like to publicly thank CN: without their support, I wouldn’t be posting this today.)

– Brit Mandelo on navigating the space of ‘genderqueer’, and political identification as a woman. [Content note: instance of body-essentialist language; note added 29/03/13 14:40 after request in comments.]