Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
“How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that shit stays messy?”
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
“If the story of surviving abuse, of being queer, isn’t about getting to normal as the end goal. Isn’t just sheets and towels and a long, quiet Valium calm. Isn’t disaster and death and everything we run from either. Isn’t anything we could have predicted, isn’t anything predictable. What comes after the disaster we keep surviving every day?”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Dirty River
With the recent national legalization of same-sex marriage and increased transgender cultural visibility, it feels like the country has been celebrating an “it got better” narrative about LGBT people that oversimplifies and ignores the intersectionality of queer people’s lives. The story goes like this: It used to be hard to be LGBT, but now everything is better because if you’re gay, you can get married. If you’re born into the “wrong” body, you can transition into the right one.
While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work of activists who helped usher in various legislative changes, surrounded by depictions of gay sameness, I was thrilled to read two brilliant new books that came out this year by queer women: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s extended essay on queer kinship, and Dirty River, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinsha’s lyrical memoir. Both books challenge the “it gets better” narrative through their non-linear style and their complex subject matter.
The Argonauts reads like a mesmerizing conversation between Nelson, the reader, and the various cultural theorists she cites in the margins. Drawing from her own experiences, Nelson challenges the idea that queer people’s lives can fit into simple categories. In her memoir, Piepzna-Samarasinha tells her story of healing in fragments and poems. She contests the simplistic narrative of survivors who start out wounded and end up cured. Although they are approaching their stories from different identities and perspectives, both Nelson and Piepzna-Samarasinha break down cultural binaries as they lift up what has been undervalued and relegated to the realm of femininity: domesticity, caretaking, and radical receptivity.
Referencing everything from queer porn to academic theory, Nelson narrates a love story about her romantic partnership with the dashing gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge. But she describes this relationship in order to consider larger questions about how we can create queer family and kinship outside of the bounds of heterosexual tradition. In particular, she is interested in what happens when happens when queerness collides with cultural institutions such as marriage, domesticity, and motherhood.
From the moment he first fucks her in the ass, Nelson confesses her love for Dodge, and they begin navigating various transitions in their lives and bodies. They move in together, along with Dodge’s son from a previous relationship, get gay-married right before Prop. 8 temporarily outlaws gay marriage in California, and endure many arduous rounds of IVF before Nelson gets pregnant and gives birth to their son, Iggy. After years of chest binding, Dodge gets chest reconstruction surgery and starts taking testosterone, although he insists that he is not on his “way anywhere,” while Nelson experiences the vicissitudes of pregnancy and then motherhood.
Nelson uses these transformations to make visible the often invisible webs of human interdependency and finds profound meaning in the seemingly mundane moments of domestic life. Watching her son Iggy pause in the doorway before he crawls out into the backyard, she anticipates following him outside to ensure that he doesn’t put anything inappropriate in his mouth. Addressing the reader, she reminds us that we, too, are only alive because we were lucky enough to have someone control what went in our mouths when we were small. Although compulsory motherhood is often glorified, Nelson highlights how both mainstream culture and radical queer culture often devalue the actual practice of caretaking without which none of us would be here.
Indeed, while Nelson absolutely agrees with critiques of the mainstream gay rights movement for pouring endless money and energy into being included into oppressive institutions—such as marriage and the military—she also warns us about the danger of creating a queer identity based solely in opposition to who we are not. Bringing fresh perspective to the marriage debate, she quotes Pema Chodron about how we must each decide for ourselves when we’re using things to protect our egos and when we are “opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is—working with, rather than struggling against it.”
The point of queerness, as Nelson sees it, is to keep opening up to the dazzling array of possibilities for kinship, instead of closing ourselves down by policing the boundaries of what is queer. When we posit queerness as the antithesis of heterosexuality, we create an unnecessary binary that separates us from anything we deem heteronormative, which can include parenting. For example, Nelson describes getting turned away from her friend’s queer burlesque show when she and Dodge try to bring 5-month-old Iggy with them. When she challenges his decision, the bouncer informs them that the mere presence of their baby would disrupt the show’s “cabaret” atmosphere. This separation of queerness from childrearing ends up devaluing the actual practice of queer parenting.
Nelson is most eloquent about the productive possibilities of queering parenthood when she describes attending a friend’s 2013 photo installation called “Puppies and Babies.” The show displays photos of the artist’s friends with—you guessed it—puppies and babies. Glancing at the photos of caretakers—some nude, some not—with their human and animal dependents, Nelson ponders the long history of how queers have constructed our own families with lovers, ex-lovers, friends, animals, and yes, kids. As she looks at the photos of pregnant women in the exhibit, she reflects on how “any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical and the so-called normative.”
Reclaiming both pregnancy and motherhood from their desexualized idealized states, she moves seamlessly from waxing poetic about ass-fucking to describing tender parenting moments, juxtaposing Iggy’s birth with the death of Dodge’s mom. While Nelson imagined that giving birth would make her feel invincible, like fisting does, she acknowledges that her body continues to feel fragile long after her labor. She discusses with Dodge the possibility of reframing fragility as hot and sexy. Nelson wants a life that isn’t defined by what our culture—straight or queer—deems valuable or radical.
Like Nelson, Piepzna-Samarasinha challenges traditional narratives around gender, domesticity, and motherhood with a more specific focus on her journey to separate from her abusive mother and give birth to herself as a mixed brown, working class, disabled femme. She begins by laying out very clearly what Dirty River is not: it’s not one of those “brutal pastel-covered incest books of the lesbian, feminist ‘70s or ‘80s. It’s not an incest horror book, and it’s not palatable either.” Dirty River kicks off with Piepzna-Samarasinha hopping on a Greyhound bus in 1996 to escape to Toronto, where she will join her queer brown lover to sleep on a plum-colored futon, drink café con leche in chipped cups, listen to Wu Tang Clan, and most importantly, leave her parents behind.
As she comes to terms with the legacy of her mother, Piepzna-Samarasinha rejects the good/evil binary and instead portrays her mother as a complex and flawed woman who taught her the exact survival skills she would later use to escape and create her own life. Determined to catapult Piepzna-Samarasinha out of their impoverished town and into college, her working-class mother encourages Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing, sends her to poetry camp, and teaches her how to score the best bargains at Filene’s Basement.
Yet we learn about another side to their relationship through the story of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s hair. While her Sri Lankan father is distant and harsh, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s white mother is intrusive and controlling; she combs Piepzna-Samarasinha’s hair so hard that her scalp bleeds. Her mother’s attempts to straighten her curly hair are attempts to deny her difference, and she will later cry when her daughter grows up to call herself a woman of color. She will not let Piepzna-Samarasinha shut the door to her room, and she abuses her both emotionally and physically: “She is the hole in your hips, the core of hurricane that would mess up your life and make you crazy, in ragged pieces, for years and years, under all your carefully groomed, holding it together straight A face.”
Piepzna-Samarasinha lifts up the importance of caretaking, like Nelson does, but her focus is on healing through rebirthing herself. In an amethyst room, the color of the womb that she imagines would have carried her if her mother had been a woman of color, she regrows herself like a starfish, finding exquisite pleasure in being able to shut the door behind her whenever she feels like it. Although she is barely eking out a living, while experiencing chronic fatigue and solitude, she finds grace in the details of domesticity, which include “dandelion turning into medicine in a jar. One pair of pants. Unanswered letters in a box. An old computer with some poems on it.”
Healing for Piepzna-Samarasinha also comes through exploring her mixed-race Sri Lankan identity and finding “her brown.” Connecting with other queers of color, she teaches herself to cook Sri Lankan food, to imitate dance moves at queer Asian parties, and to style her hair. Although she struggles with the shame of not knowing her culture and feeling like a fake, Piepzna-Samarasinha determinedly keeps choosing to speak to her ancestors through the “brown ink” of their faces and celebrate Diwali with her chosen family. When a South Asian lover compliments her “pretty Desi hair,” it’s like coming home to a place she never knew existed.
Piepzna-Samarasinha does enough healing so that she can choose to remain open, even when it would be easier to close off and shut down in response to an unfriendly world. Just as Nelson reclaims the power of her vulnerable body post-pregnancy, Piepzna-Samarasinha reclaims the power of her identity as a femme bottom in the face of misogyny. For years, she was embarrassed about this identity. “What is more common, what is more despised? Than a girl with her legs open. Wanting something. Just wanting,” she writes. But Piepzna-Samarasinha concludes that her desire represents hopefulness when she arrives at this question: “But what if there’s nothing more precious than a femme with their legs open? if our opening is a prayer it is for a world where opening without rape is possible.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from both The Argonauts and Dirty River, it’s a lesson about remaining open to all the wonderful, messy, queer possibilities in a world that would rather shove us into a box and shut the lid. By sharing what they’ve learned on their personal journeys, Nelson and Piepzna-Samarasinha offer us a collective roadmap for living untamed, uncategorizable lives. This map has no beginning or end, but it points us clearly in the direction of opening and yet more opening. There’s no better conclusion than Piepzna-Samarasinha’s own words: “Choose. Every second. I choose to stay here. I learn to stay here. I choose to open every single second/ led to this.”