Monday, May 23, 2016

T Clutch Fleischmann: A Ninja Turtle Theory of a Trans Essay

When I was a kid I had a lot of Ninja Turtles, that Ninja Turtle sewer playset, and my sister in her room across the hall had Barbies. I would go across the hall and get the Barbies and they would play with the Ninja Turtles. They rarely went on action adventures but instead I scripted elaborate emotional and social dynamics that they then had to navigate, often shot through with vaguely romantic or sexual tensions. Turtles and Barbies pining for Turtles and Barbies. The playset wasn’t very large so they were always kind of crowded together anyway, and the inside of it was too small for a Barbie so they were always on the street above. I think of this as the first instance of writing in my life.

Barbies are significantly taller than Ninja Turtles, and the Ninja Turtles were pretty much all guys and the Barbies were pretty much all girls. In Brooklyn a year ago I was standing on a street with some friends and there was a sewer beneath us. I was with the guy I love, who has some Ninja Turtle tattoos and sometimes puts on a Ninja Turtle costume to go get groceries and run errands and that sort of thing, just because he does stuff like that. All the guys were short and all the girls were tall and we had an elaborate emotional and social dynamic, often shot through with romantic and sexual tensions. I remembered that I imagined this a long time ago, in my first instance of writing. Time felt very unstable in a way that gave me pleasure.

From what is available to us in our immediate surroundings we can begin to imagine. Imagination can then become the movement between those immediate surroundings and a future immediacy that could not have been reached without departing into fancy. Was I playing with (writing) the Turtles and Barbies in this way because it was the most available outlet for me to imagine a trans sociality and romantic community, not yet having those ideas or words but still having the forms for them within me? Did the repetitive act of writing these Turtles and Barbies, almost by coincidence, open up a space of familiarity and tenderness through which I could then enter the real space twenty-five years later, trans people I love standing above a sewer? What I want to focus on, regardless, is that the imagination touches each of these moments and complicates them both.


I’m rebranding this blog series away from the queer essay and into the trans essay. In part this is because I stopped identifying as queer some time ago and so curating a queer series feels a bit awkward. In part this is because the way I understand queer no longer feels useful or accurate to my own trans body, sexuality, and imagination, which is a commentary on my self and not on the word or the identity or being of queerness, which I still love. I like a thing if it takes me somewhere.

I want to have the conversation about trans essays for simple and selfish reasons, that I think about being trans a lot and I think about essays a lot and I want to better think of those two things together. This is not a simple overlap, however, placing trans on top of essay or essay on top of trans. I think of Joy Ladin’s ideas about poetry—she says “Trans poetics aren’t a matter of poetic content. Poems that describe or refer to trans experience may not utilize trans poetics—and poems that are not about the trans experience may.” I think of what makes the essay interesting to me as an art form, which is time, desire, longing, repetition, honesty, embodiment, the self, and the world outside of the self. I think of what is important to me about being trans, which is time, desire, longing, repetition, honesty, embodiment, the self, and the world outside of the self. I don’t think the sameness of those lists is a coincidence.


A lot of people have asked me recently for suggestions of trans writers. This is great, I want to give them suggestions, I want more people to read us. Please keep asking me. What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t already reading a giant pile of trans writers. The trans writers are my favorites and there are so many of us. If I only read trans writers for the rest of my life I wouldn’t get through everyone I wanted to. Trans writers are doing so much for essays even if most people in essay world are willfully ignoring that fact.


I’m still trying to talk about that thing with my Ninja Turtles. We have the self, we have the world around us, and we have our imagination. The world around us tells us many things about itself or about us that are not true. This is the case for all people, and also these lies might take very specific and even deadly forms for trans people. The truths in the world are often concealed or not quite truths yet. The imagination is the thing that moves us into those truths, by which I mean the imagination is one of the most powerful forms of truth. This is the motion of the essay. It is also the motion of my body.


Jamie Berrout’s Incomplete Short Stories and Essays. Sandy Stone’s performance lectures. Chase Joynt and Mike Hoolboom’s You Only Live Twice. The play between all the kinds of writing Trish Salah does. Oli Rodriguez and the Papi Project. Mirha-Soleil Ross and Xanthra MacKay’s Gender Troublemakers. I still don’t understand why Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw isn’t considered a seminal text when we talk about genre and hybridity in nonfiction. Everything manuel arturo abreu is doing in different forms. Everything Michá Cardenas is doing in different forms. Some of niv Acosta’s dance. Some of Wu Tsang’s videos. Torrey Peters is writing for trans girls and her writing changed beautifully for that. Ralph Werner’s 1918 Autobiography of an Androgyne is a memoir and it is radically disruptive and weird. The way Qwo-Li Driskill writes history. Old Vaginal Davis zines. Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities. The games and texts of Merritt Kopas. I read Kazim Ali’s Wind Instrument in a car and then read it again. Chloe Dzubilo’s work. Susan Stryker talking to Frankenstein.

This is some of what has moved my thinking into imagination lately, when thinking about all of these things.


Over in literary nonfiction MFA world we tend to only look at a few things, or in a few small directions. It’s making us boring. It’s making us miss a lot of what is happening. We still need our imaginations.


Essays move from one question not to an answer but to a new question. I forget who said that to me first but it is a thing I repeat quite often. My embodiment and lived experiences do not provide me with answers, but deeper and more complex ways to think questions.

I am not interested, not really, in trying to figure out what a trans essay is, no more than I am interested in figuring out what an essay is or what trans is. If we try to define what those things are we are doing ourselves a disservice. We cannot hurt the trans essay, but we can limit our own thinking in such a way that we prevent ourselves from experiencing what the trans essay might do, which is both everything and anything. We can limit this thinking by stopping it at genre, at identity, at truth, or we can expand that thinking by allowing genre, identity, and truth to play their mischievous roles alongside all the rest of it, the words and the pages and the stages and the bodies and the other people who have read those books and the books we haven’t read yet. The trans essay isn’t about figuring out the relationship between my Ninja Turtles and this guy I love, the trans essay is the pleasure of the movement from plastic to body, which is a sort of time-travelling stumble of a dance. Stumbling on.


Mainstream publishing has largely limited itself to memoirs by trans people. This is assumedly born out of an interest in the titillation of looking at trans people’s lives and saying, Oh, isn’t that so unique. I used to have no interest whatsoever in memoir and now I understand it as radical, important, capable of changing both the way I think about writing and the way I think in general.

I used to be very tired of all the asterisks in all the essays. Right now they are helping me move my body.

I used to try to figure out what writing did instead of trying to figure out ways for writing to do.


How do we move from here? There isn’t much of an established theory, nor really authorities, in trans essays. We should preserve that. We should talk to as many people as we can. We should talk about being trans and writing and trans writing and we should talk about everything but those things too. We should move, but not toward anything we know. We should maybe not even know how we are moving when we do, just that within us is an impulse to move.

I want to hear from trans writers who are interested in this. I hope you will email me and say hello. I want to get some toys from across the hall and then find ourselves, as if by magic, one day standing atop a sewer together.

T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay. They really do hope you will email them: tee.fleischmann [at] gmail.

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