I appreciate this opportunity to recover an essay. I think recovering is really important right now, recovering being reparations, no cops no borders, protect the water. Recovery is a moment to encounter history and memory, so I can be intentional—what am I learning? what structures this encounter? from what am I recovering? And from that knowledge I can build my way back to the present, moving to a revised understanding of my world. Essays are good tools for that urgent work.
I’m taking this opportunity to return to Sylvia Rivera’s “Queens in Exile: The Forgotten Ones.” In literary/academic spaces people sometimes talk about the essay as a thing that wanders, but I’m more interested in an essay that can get straight to the thing. Or maybe it’s not that it gets straight to the thing, although that’s good, but just that wandering doesn’t have to get anywhere, and I’m really eager to get somewhere.
I don’t think “Queens in Exile” is widely known, and not in any literary context. I encountered it first in the anthology GenderQueer edited by Riki Wilchins, Joan Nestle, and Clare Howell. I don’t like the word genderqueer for myself (or any word, actually) but I do like the subtitle which is “Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary” because I like the way “sexual” is used in it. There’s also an interview with JT Leroy in there about transness and gender but before people realized JT Leroy was a performance, so it’s an interview with a performance. Sylvia Rivera (read the essay now if you aren’t familiar) wrote “Queens in Exile” toward the end of her life—it starts when she’s a child and ends shortly before she dies. She writes about leaving home young, doing sex work on the streets, the Stonewall riots, starting Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Marsha P. Johnson, being a revolutionary with and without a movement, and houses full of trans women. Today, there is some solid media, research, and art available about both Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera thanks to the dedicated work of activists and artists like Reina Gossett. Within mainstream iterations, however, as the Stonewall Riots and narratives of gay rights have been historicized, Rivera has most often been misrepresented or written out of history, her life as a Latinx queen and street-based sex worker, her politics, causing a problem for those who want to write LGBTQ history as white, reformist, and assimilationist. Books like Eric Marcus’s 1992 collection Making History simultaneously include and dismiss Rivera from the start, and although characters somewhat based on her appear in film versions of the Stonewall Riots, Rivera’s own words remain pretty rare, which makes her essay particularly special.
I love the way prose moves when it comes from a person, when its motion is forward like a heartbeat talks. Essays pull the prose in close like that because they claim it. They are present with it. If you’re too purposeful with your wandering then you’re what, zig-zagging or escaping, darting forward or acting like a lightning bolt. Eager to get somewhere, anyway. Narrative prose is good for moving a figure through space and time, so I want to think about movement some, how or why I value that. There’s something about people rendering themselves in prose that just seems so important to me, I want to keep learning from how it works.
The prose in “Queens in Exile” moves ahead like that. It does a few things at once, like good autobiography does (I think it’s impossible to do just one thing at once). The essay opens with a blunt statement of loss—“My mother was 22 when she decided to off herself”—laying down some contextualizing facts before Rivera grounds the writing back in herself, closing the paragraph with the equally direct “I was 3 years old.” The pace keeps forward with a rapid clip, working what occurs, but also a bit later, through action, when another motion has already taken hold. After lingering over the taste of poison in sugared milk for a minute, the essay goes on—
Back in those days you had to wake a body for three days. It was like sheer torture, but in my mind she was sleeping. My grandmother told me after I was grown up more that I tried to wake her up, that I disturbed her in her coffin. One of the last things she told my grandmother on her deathbed was that she wanted to kill me because she knew I was going to have a hard life. And she pinpointed it, because it has not been an easy road. I’ve enjoyed the struggles, but I’ve also had my bouts of trying to kill myself.
The prose layers time, with death and life and sleep diving in and out of one another, and the occasion to recall the past necessitating an acknowledgment of what came later. Who is keeping someone alive here? Who is keeping who else dead? And it’s a hard truth found, if the essay genre has something to do with truth—a mother’s desire to kill her daughter, a daughter disturbing her mother’s coffin, and later acknowledging that desire, pinpointed, without dismissing it. Like in life, questions are experienced, not thought. What do we know, and what of the known do we reject?
The potential of essays exceeds far beyond the limitations of the literary, especially on the terms that the literary is defined in the academy. I know that when I’m writing into this blog I’m writing mainly to this conversation among academics and academic-adjacent types who love essays, which is great I love essays too. Of the things I’m spending my life doing essays is definitely one of them. I’m not claiming that Rivera called herself an essayist or that she would have thought about something like prose style in the way essayists tend to talk about it today. But “essays” have for some time been shaped in the academy—not as long as poetry or fiction, but in the slow proliferation of nonfiction MFA programs, ideas about form, voice, literary technique, canons, all of those things have been shaped a bit. You can go to many colleges today and learn what, that Lopate anthology, which is whatever, or take a workshop that reiterates a problematic model of discussion and critique, exclusionary to many marginalized students. I think the project of recovery, gratefully, suggests we need to look outside of whatever histories, canons, or forms of thought we already inhabit. That we need to recognize that today as always essays are a tool of active and radical social change, both within and beyond the literary. All I’m saying is I’ve learned more about prose style and the relation of the self to the world by closely reading Sylvia Rivera than I ever did reading Montaigne.
Right now I think that every person who is not already involved in a movement for liberation, a movement for prison abolition and an end to the illegal and disastrous actions of the United States military, to the divestment of resources away from corporations and toward building the sustainable autonomy of people, particularly in regions that have been devastated as a result of United States foreign policy and military actions, and by all this necessarily a movement to save the planet—anyone occupying privilege and not already involved in such a movement needs to seriously reconsider what they are doing with their lives right now. Like wake the fuck up. You need to stop and look at exactly what you are doing and who you are doing it for because all together now we need to build a different reality, an entire restructuring of society. It is absolutely unconscionable and disgraceful for those of us who live within society’s institutions to go on perpetuating systems of power without, at the very least, dispersing that power to people who are already doing the necessary work to save the planet from white supremacy, capitalism, and ongoing colonial violence. This was true before Trump was elected, but if the occasion of the election alerts people to action, that’s great, too, now is always a good time to act.
One of the things I’ve learned about prose style from Rivera is a way to consider which actions and experiences seem to have been set by others and which can be located in our own agency. There’s that boring workshop advice, show don’t tell, which I think is meant to push writers toward a form of prose recognizable from narrative fiction and away from a sort of chatty, direct form of address that seems vital to so many personal essays. Chatty, direct address is all over personal essays that we celebrate as essays—Didion in “Goodbye to All That” or the way The Devil Finds Work moves or New Narrative and so on. It’s a way of saying “this is what happened,” like the essay does, and because of this, the fact that something happened and that the writer has experienced that thing “happening” becomes central to the prose. In a personal essay, this intrinsic connection of lived experience to prose becomes the space of language. I am thankful that people tell me things that I don’t know.
The actions Rivera takes in “Queens in Exile” seem like the exact things someone should do (her missteps are rendered with love and acceptance, too), while it’s the mechanisms of a violent society that are suspect and subject to change, that should have their motivations questioned and their actions reconsidered. Like the relation of the self to language, the writer caught in prose that she is changing. This is a series about the advent so a good example comes from late in the essay, after the funeral of Amanda Milan, a twenty-five-year-old trans woman murdered in New York City. STAR has been closed down for years at this point and Marsha P. Johnson has died, and Rivera finds herself facing this reality, at once new and the same, with her partner Julia by her side.
And during the sermon Reverend Pat talked about the three kings. And he said, “Who are we to say the three kings were not three queens? Only queens would get up in the middle of the night and throw elaborate stuff into bags and travel to the other ends of the earth not knowing where they’re going, but they knew they had to be there. And they followed the star.”
So I told her, “We have to do it.”
That whole day was telling me what to do—the sermon and the fact that Amanda’s murderers were coming up for trial and we had not kept pressure and visibility on it. We were three queens following the STAR. And that’s it.
“…not knowing where they’re going, but they knew they had to be there” is maybe a better way to summarize what I mean when I say I’m not so excited about wandering essays. “We were three queens following the STAR. And that’s it.” Earlier in the essay Rivera gives a clear breakdown of what STAR did, which included renting a house from the Mafia to provide shelter for young trans women, Rivera and others hustling on the street to pay the rent, providing free childcare for their neighbors, stealing food and redistributing it to anyone who needed it, that sort of thing. One of the first times she waved the STAR banner was at a march against police repression organized by the Young Lords—“I was always there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us as human beings,” she explains elsewhere, which tells us as much about how gay liberation happened in the United States in the 20th century as just about any other history I’ve encountered.
Following a star/STAR, what is that movement like? What happens, if we follow this movement? If no one else is yelling about what is wrong, how does a person know when to start yelling? I’m so fucking mad lately, especially at my own impotence in stopping the atrocities carried out in my name. Another thing I learn about prose style from this essay is a reminder that my rubric of what is reasonable, what is measured, what is angry, what is tone, really, that this can evolve too. I’m less interested now in the kind of Beauty of the Lyric Essay that I used to love so much, mainly because I realized I was using suggestion, elision, abstraction, all these powerful tools, but using them to avoid things. Put some white space between “seed” and “flower” and you can suggest something has grown without having to think about how or why. Will seeds grow into flowers twenty years from now or will a nuclear winter have put an end to that? How many places in the world have already been so scorched by war and climate that seeds there are not today growing into flowers? These are real questions.
Recovery reminds me that the work has been well under way before me, I don’t even have to invent anything. “It’s a shame that more people in the trans community don’t open up houses like Rusty and Chelsea are doing with Transy House,” Rivera says toward the end of the essay, living now in a younger house inspired by STAR. Just like that, because of course it’s the thing to do. Just give people resources. So if I’m looking backward and wanting to connect this conversation about essays to something that hasn’t gotten enough attention, this is where I want to point us. I want us to celebrate this prose, the way it holds a life through thinking and language. I want to recognize that we can find exciting essays at the heart of all kinds of movements and we can learn from them. I want us to think about where we are moving, what our relation to our space is, our relation to this time. I want us to give up this idea of literary merit that we’ve forged in the academy, I never trusted it anyway, and the ivory tower is crumbling. The essay is a tool, look at how people have used it, what it has done already. I love essays. They have been one of the things that moved us toward a new world. They can be part of how we get to a new world again.