In Whose Image: Trans and Genderqueer Writers on Magic, Spirituality, and (the Bodies of) G-d: My AWP Talk on Magical Realism Magic, and Trans Identity

(Delivered at the 2016 AWP, 4/1/2016. Please note that it was written for speaking, not publication, so I’ve not completely cleaned up grammar and formatting.)

Thank you everyone for coming! Gosh, it’s the last day of the AWP. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with the AWP. I think I feel that way with a lot of things that purport to have a purpose, but are often chaotic, huge, and relentless.

One realizes this is self-selected space–a place away from places. In this hermetically sealed oversized glass terrarium next to Hooters, we’re not really seeing the full everywhere glory of Los Angeles. This space was carefully edited to serve a purpose. For that purpose we paid to enter, both with our talents, ambitions, and either departmental funding or our own hard-earned cash (which is still tax-deductable).

And so we come in here, with lanyards and tote bags and thoughts about being writers and seeing some panels and readings and BOOM!

“Where’s my friends?”
“Who’s reading?”
“Why didn’t I get asked to read?”
“Where’s my friends?”
“OMG, he’s cute!”
“Nah—he’s old!”
“Old can be cute!”

Find a plug for your phone, get overloaded in the book fair, hunt celebrities—start your writer’s day with a healthy serving of Joyce Carol Oates! And somewhere amongst the yoga classes, the overpriced tacos, the open bar at the reception—and realizing you’ll never unsee that author you have idolized dancing to Gangnam Style—wherever your purpose lies, well—good luck finding it.

And where the hell are my friends?

And yet, at times, the AWP can be simple and clear. Time stops. You have a nice talk with a real live publisher who actually talks back. You make a friend. You discover amazing translations of Japanese poetry. And you realize, with all the bread and circuses, some experiences within this space are still real, and necessary.

I value moments like, this. Of congruence, clarity, Suddenly I feel wanted, loved.  It’s a lot like the satisfaction I get when I write—in fact, this is probably the single biggest reason I keep coming back to the craft.

Because for me, writing is a type of meditation, worship. And because I am queer—it serves to reason that my meditations and prayers will be queer, as well.

 *****

Yet, one thing I have noticed is how, as a trans person, so many of my most basic questions are not addressed by most Existing Cosmologies.  What makes questions about being trans so basic? Well, being trans, more than anything else, is the reason I am at risk for being mistreated, injured, murdered, raped, or even worse, disowned from my family and being unable to find love.  So, gosh, you know what, I’d like some answers, please.

Existing religions, however, do not do a very good job of explaining why sex and gender exist. God creates man, then woman, But why? 

Somewhere between “and then there was light” and “yo, don’t eat pork, and go circumcise yourselves” was the man and woman thing. Male and female happen—but WHY do they happen? Cis folk don’t really notice this omission—since they don’t tend to question their gender so much.

 But trans people do. Not merely why did god make man and woman—but why did god make sex and gender, anyway?

For me, religion and god and spirituality—those concepts in which so much of the world places its faith and relies on for meaning—somehow stop just where the basic trans questions begin. Primordial births are usually weird births from ice, births from ribs, belly buttons. Births from sea foam, births from shafts of light. Births from migraine headaches. Disembodied words. Non linear religions like Buddhism can be even worse—no need for birth or death…there’s always been this gender binary, it’s natural—which makes me even more of an outlier.

Even if we are not actively questioning, trans bodies themselves are artifacts of a paradox—an omission—that indicates an extraordinary deficiency in these religions—for to account for trans and genderqueer identity requires a more nuanced origin tale than merely acknowledging dichotomy. Why were we made?

The old saying is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Perhaps this is part of why cisfolk seem so insistent about examining us, questioning us, testing us for this or that dysphoria or trauma—basically–there must be something that fucked you up like this, right?

Which might be part of why cis folks find us so primally, transgressively, extraordinarily odd.

 At best cisfolk may place trans with the magical, the fae. “Put them with the unicorns and mermaids.  Two spirits. Shape changers. Mediums. Kuan Yin had a great transition, right? The apostle John sort of. Mermaids all over the place.

“Of course not human—thank god—but, gosh you should go to a drag show one day, they are soooo fab! Just like Angel in ‘Rent!’” Again, this is at best.

A worst—well, at worst, let’s just say it gets pretty bad.

*****

But, I am neither extraordinary nor odd to myself.  Even as I tell myself I am magic, just to have some sort of mythical genesis—I still must admit how, in my queerest femmest, asiannnest, trans-est self—how simply—simple—my life is to me.

Whatever struggle people have with the transgressive nature of transsexuality—I do not even perceive the conflict.  To myself, I’m not something odd—I just am. Anal sex, sex work. What the straight world defines as crossdressing—oooh kinky! Yeah, whatever. I have sex with a super hot asian tranny every time I masturbate.

So what do I yearn for? What do I pray for? What’s a fascinating fetish? Love. I pray for Trust. I pray that no one at the airport examines my ID too closely. I pray that today is not the day I get a call from somewhere saying someone I know just died. I pray I don’t die. Life.

Some readers find magic all over my work. Yet others have said my work barely hardly contains magic at all—that it’s even pastoral. I think all of my work is rife with divinity and magic, but I do understand the oversight, because I live within a culture and cosmology that sees ME as an oversight.

As a trans writer, when I dream—perhaps I dream of places that one may not even recognize as magic. When you are starving, having food is magical.  When you come from a population with such a depressingly high suicide rate, writing a happy childhood might as well be story of a wayward android lost in time.

*****

 In my world, there is a profound inversion of where one would find magic. I need magic not in deliverance from an enemy, or acquiring divine artifacts, or trips to outer space… I need magic for simply being allowed to be me.

 Who is suspected when they go to the bathroom? Who gets laughed at when they have a mammogram done?  Who else is expected to explain their genitals on a casual first date? Who needs to not simply have ID, but to have a doctor’s approval and visit to a judge to simply get their ID right?

Cisgender people, have you ever gotten laughed at simply because you had the audacity to go to the store and buy bread and orange juice?

It’s not that I need intervention/prophecy, either magical or divine, to conquer some quest or save the world.  The universe  hasn’t turned against us; we are in a universe that had no room for us in the first place.

And can some body, somewhere, simply give me a sign they care?

For me, magical realism, has always seemed not fantastical, but a very natural form.  In some ways, it resembles prayer, because it erases the line between the mundane and divine. One can even say it queers it. Yet beyond prayer or meditation, which reinforces the idea of supplication, the act of writing queers the creation itself, because the writer is now cast in the role of Creator, as Dharma, as well. And that is what makes it so cool. We can invoke the divine. But we can also, within our pages, be omniscient and build worlds.

As a queer writer, this is water in the desert. Magical realism allows me narrative agency, a space in to emphasize, capture, or create a world with personal clarity, and congruence. So, while to audiences, the earmarks of a magical realism, or religion, filled with angels or extra-dimensional aliens or the poetic justice of the dao may seem missing—

the magic and divinity is there, as unseen as overlooked as our own personal narratives,  And I believe writing worlds that recognize and invoke such interventions is an important statement that our dreams, prayers, our own unanswered questions and yearning for purpose and clear quiet spaces—matter, too.

Such a magical realism can play far-reaching roles in the lives, and the literatures of so many discarded people whom the world simply does not recognize.

*****

As queer, and trans, and especially as trans women of color, even a mundane life can seem magical. The magic of trans literature—through being unnoticed, or mistaken as even pastoral—ensorcells in every ordinary day, every simple hello. Every human interaction is witness to a shared existence and value —that give its trans writers and readers the same escapism, reward, and even hope that cisgender straight readers may get from UFOs, men in black, or finding the Holy Grail buried under a museum foyer.

When the world does not believe you, the simple act of trust is an evidence of a portal to the stars. When you think God has forsaken you, the simple pleasure of people listening to words you created, to stories you tell—is a sure sign you are somewhat divine.

Not a Universe accepts me this way nor even made me this way—but a Universe that wants me this way. That needs me this way.

That offers moments of congruence and clarity where I feel connected with someone or something that cares for me, that loves me, just as I am.

And if I cannot find it here in this glass terrarium next to the Hooters, I’ll spend this life trying to construct it on the page.