“We have been busy accumulating solace.
Make us afraid of how we were.”
–Rumi, The Book of Love (trans. Coleman Banks)
Fiction, Coffee, Love
“We have been busy accumulating solace.
Make us afraid of how we were.”
–Rumi, The Book of Love (trans. Coleman Banks)
So yet another older white dude family member recently complained to me that “in his day” folks who didn’t fit the gender binary didn’t exist. “People were men or women. That’s it,” he said. Lots to unpack there, but I want to start with the “back in the day” idea that “men” and “women” are ideas that have been around since God started doodling genitals in the Garden of Eden
So, I’m writing a historical novel about a trans priest—a man assigned female at birth and called by God to enter the priesthood—in 14th century France. Not that fourteenth century France would’ve had the word “trans”, of course. So, on that count, I’m writing fiction. Except if you take out the word “trans” and just say “male priest who was assigned as a woman at birth,” you’re being 100% historically accurate. Don’t believe me? Ask the ACTUAL JESUITS.
You ready? Buckle up.
We begin with St. Ignatius of Loyola, a strange, scrawny aristocrat with an eating disorder whose heart burned with love for Our Lady. Let’s call him Iggy. He founded a religious order called the Society of Jesus—we call them Jesuits.
A woman named Isabella Roser wrote a letter to St. Iggy; she was being victimized by some malicious gossip. How should she take the high road with these absolute bitches? Encouraging her to stay strong in her faith, Ignatius launches into a story about some Franciscan monks who dined at a local house regularly. A daughter of that house grew up “extremely fond of that monastery and the house of St. Francis”—so much so that the “daughter of the house” dresses as a boy and makes application to join the monastery. The monastery admits him (and let’s note that Ignatius refers to the “daughter” as “boy” and “him” throughout this entire narrative as soon as he’s admitted to orders). So this friar becomes well-known and travels around preaching the gospel, and on one journey, a girl at a way house falls in love with the friar (“or rather,” Ignatius writes, “the devil entered into this girl”) and she attempts to seduce the friar. [Note that Iggy is NOT progressive in his views celibacy in the priesthood.] The friar sends the girl away, and bish gets steamed and goes for revenge by claiming that this friar made her pregnant. The Guardian of the town grabs the friar and puts him in stocks in the town center to be publicly shamed, but—and here’s Iggy’s moral of the story—the friar “did not justify himself to anyone, but discoursed with his Creator and Lord within his soul.” After his punishment, he returns to the monastery, where he lives out his life in piety and only after he dies do they “discover. . . that he was a woman and not a man, and consequently that calumny was lifted from him. Thus all the friars marveled and praised his innocence and holiness more than they had blamed his supposed guilt.”
So, here’s the deal with this weird story. The point of the story isn’t that a woman can be a monk but that this particular friar’s unconventional path to becoming a brother, combined with his humility and trust in God, meant that he did not need to fear gossip. So, yeah, not…ah, not exactly the expected moral of the story from the FOUNDER OF THE FREAKING JESUITS.
But was Iggy weirdly progressive regarding gender vs. sex? That would be a no. The thing is, medieval Europeans had a firm grasp of the difference between sex and gender—even if they expressed it in ways that seem ultra weird to us now.
BUCKLE UP AGAIN. We’re talking penises and saints. For early Christian Europeans, a body’s sex was a condition that affected the body’s social role, but social role (i.e. gender) can be malleable. And gender trumps assigned sex. So, if I’m born in a body assigned “woman” at birth, but fulfill a male gender role, I can traverse the spectrum from female to male “sex.”
Let’s talk St. Perpetua. She’s a young Christian mother who is arrested and about to be tortured to death for her faith. So Christ sends her a vision to strengthen and encourage her. In that vision, she is transformed into a (male) martyr. Based on her vision, Perpetua knows that she can become man enough be martyred…and so she is. AND she’s the patron saint for expectant mothers, because she’s a young mother. So her vision where she gets a dick as a gift from God to encourage her is a really fascinating insight into how sex and gender work in the early church. Only men can access the holiest of places, because the male body is most like God’s. But never fear! With enough faith, even a female body might achieve penis-hood.
So the tl;dr version is this: gender and sex are not, and never have been, simple and easy binary categories. And even ultra weird patriarchal religious fanatics in early Christian history understood this. Because, I guess, the short-short version is this: human sexes and genders are ultra weird and sex and gender are very unstable ideas. Let’s all hoist some freak flags and be sex-amazing and gender-awesome.
For further reading:
For St. Ignatius’s letter to Isabella Roser, see Fr. Hugo Rahner, S.J. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Letters to Women. pp. 266-68.
For more on St. Perpetua, here’s a fun place to start: https://engenderedideas.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/gender-transformation-perpetua-while-staying-a-woman-2/
I’ve got a stack of to-be-read summer fun books as high as my mounting existential dread as summer draws to a close, but I wanted to offer my takes on two summer fun books I did manage to read and can highly recommend. On the surface, they seem like an odd couple—one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer, and a new, indie book by a new indie author. One a righteously bombastic thriller, the other a sensitive queer romance. But they’re both my type of book, and maybe they’re yours. Do you like books that are rough at the edges but with prose like good whiskey? Do you like books that drag you into their dark depths and swallow you whole, only to spit you out at the last word, leaving you breathless and—not happy, exactly, but shaken, changed, for the better? Both of these books are that type, and they’re great summer reads because they’re that “compulsively readable”—they’re the type you want to read, that doesn’t feel like you’re in a Great Texts class, no offense to those books (which I also love, but, eh, you know).
Adrian McKinty’s The Chain is basically winning the buzz wars this summer—and rightly so. It’s a taut thriller with a protagonist too human and vulnerable and perfect not to root for. Cancer survivor (or did she survive it?) Rachel, recently divorced, finds herself in the midst of every parent’s worst nightmare: her young daughter is kidnapped. And Rachel is now a link on The Chain. The diabolical plot of the Chain (you must pay an affordable sum but then kidnap someone else’s child and continue the chain before yours is released) is a wicked bit of torturous fantasy—what we fear most playing out before our eyes. Look, you can read more extensive reviews that go through the plot elsewhere. There are two things I want to say about this book to make my case for why you, why everyone, should read this book.
First, McKinty manages what few thriller writers do: it’s a thriller, sure enough, but it’s a realistic portrait of what trauma does to human bodies and brains. It’s about bed wetting, fragmented attention spans, that cataclysmic hyper-vigilance that drains the world of its color and holds you prisoner long after you’ve been released—holds you prisoner until you realize that trauma is the guard who never releases you. Not until you heal, on your own, your trauma never your fault but your healing always your responsibility. In some ways, a “summer read” that throws such heavy shit at you is difficult to talk yourself into. But I think those of us who love thrillers, mysteries, and so forth would do ourselves good to remember what it is that we’re reading: trauma. The point is not to escape. The point is to build a new world after the old has been destroyed.
The second thing I want to talk about is McKinty’s other books. Seriously. You should read The Chain, sure, but it’s honestly not as good as his other books. That’s not a slam to this book; it’s hyping his other books, which are OHMYGODGOOD. You really, really need to read the first novel in his first series, Dead I Well May Be. And then you need to read the whole Dead trilogy. And keep going. McKinty’s a fierce, lyrical, relentlessly dark writer who understands human frailty and fear and faith better than most any novelist writing today. I discovered Dead I Well May Be in a public library when I was eighteen years old, just a bit younger than the protagonist. I started reading that book, and really fucking hated the protagonist. (You will too, I promise.) By the end of the book, I didn’t hate him any less but god, I couldn’t look away from him. Not because he was redeemed—he wasn’t—but because he was a shabby, selfish, angry kid who was also relentless, resilient, funny as hell, and a bit mentally off. He does find a measure of redemption through the rest of the trilogy (hope that’s not a spoiler) but the real payoff in those books is two-fold: McKinty writes gorgeous prose, and he writes beautifully broken people. I say beautifully broken because they’re not traumatized innocents—they’re compromised, ordinary people who struggle to make good choices but who are nevertheless called upon to do extraordinary things. And sometimes the most extraordinary thing is being okay with not being okay. McKinty writes wild, ferocious, larger-than-life adventures about life-sized people.
McKinty’s published with a Big 5 publisher now, and he’s earned the accolades through a decades-long career that hasn’t until The Chain seen the lift he deserves. On the other end of the spectrum, I just finished a novel by a debut indie novelist—no Big 5 marketing onslaught in sight, just a quiet slip of a novel that, much like McKinty’s, packs a supersized punch.
Estella Mirai’s The Stars May Rise and Fall is pitched as a gay retelling of Phantom of the Opera, but it’s got a spare elegance to it that makes it richer than the sum of its parts. Teru, the stage name for our protagonist, has come to Tokyo to perform glam metal visual kei music. (Full disclosure, I’d never even heard of this musical genre before—I’m more the actual-opera-in-a-really-opulent-theatre type, which, okay, is very annoying. Duly noted.) Teru is a more wary, world-weary ingénue than we’re used to, and Rei’s grim, scarred Phantom is both crueler on a small, petty human scale and more vulnerable and kind than we’re used to, as well.
If I’ve mentioned it’s based on the Phantom, then you can guess the rough outlines of the story, though the narrative line takes a departure pretty quickly that sets it on a unique trajectory. (Don’t worry, no spoilers.) The world of Japan’s glam metal scene is sparingly evoked. (Full disclosure, I don’t know anything about Mirai, except that it’s a pen name, and I don’t know if this book is #ownvoices in any way at all; I’m also not familiar with this music or with Tokyo itself. You get the point. I can’t speak to the authenticity or to the accuracy.)
The main thing that sets this novel apart is that the members of La Rose Verboten (the band), especially Teru and then Rei, are mortals in a messy world. Similarly to McKinty, there’s a haunting humanity here. When Teru sees Rei’s face for the first time (not a spoiler—come on, you know that happens), how he reacts is gutting. It’s awful. It makes you hate the protagonist, but only because you see yourself in him…and you wanted to see something lovelier. When he indulges in fantasy (and isn’t that what the Phantom story is all about—our proclivity to spin fantasies around the lives of others?), Teru half-recognizes his own indulgence. “His voice trembled on the final note, and he grimaced,” Mirai writes. “The half-fabricated tragedy had worked too well.”
Unlike the Opera, this novel isn’t an outright tragedy, but it also isn’t a frothy romance. It’s good, though. Really good.
So, go read them both. The Stars May Rise and Fall will satisfy your need for romance, and The Chain will satisfy your adrenaline craving, but they’re both so much richer, sadder, and more hopeful than either of those genres typically conveys. There’s only so much summer left; I recommend spending it reading beautifully crafted stories about how innocence is lost, and how something better can be forged in the ruins—something maybe like courage.
Pride month is drawing to a close. Here in the States, we memorialize the fight for equality, and that fierce riot led by trans women, lesbians, and gay men—Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Storme DeLarverie among so many others.
We celebrate Pride because we have to–because there are so many policies and places and people that still deny us, erase us, stamp us down.
I wanted to take a moment here to talk about the two reasons I write queer romance. My current work in progress is historical fiction with a trans protagonist, for example, and I’m writing it for two reasons. First, because historical fiction too rarely tells the stories that we know happened—the lives of non-gender-conforming or trans people. (Okay, some cultures have better track records than others when it comes to recognizing different genders and sexualities, but not my traditions–I’m European and Jewish ethnically, Christian by faith). But queer people have always been, well, queering things up in the church, the state, and the home.
And second, I want stories that don’t just pathologize who we are or were but tell our stories in ways that embed our lives into the vibrant fabric of human history. I want to write stories about queer and trans people loving and living.
That’s all; that’s what I wanted to say. Let’s all celebrate who we are, that we love, and that our love and our lives matter.
Just for fun, a scene from my work in progress, a historical novel about a trans inquisitor and the young lord who falls for him:
“You believe in it, don’t you, my lord?” The inquisitor looked at him. “A higher love, the beauty of the rose, the test of the true knight’s heart.”
Adhemar tried to make his face as stern as the inquisitor’s when he wasn’t bloody laughing. “You say you don’t? But you know the songs. So you must’ve heard or read them too.”
The inquisitor clapped a hand to Adhemar’s shoulder. His pale face was flushed pink with hilarity and his eyes were a thousand diamonds. “You are an innocent,” the inquisitor said. “And the church is sworn to protect innocents. So I cannot answer you.”
Adhemar swatted at him and the man slipped away like a vapor, laughing again. Adhemar found himself, against his will, grinning. His breath frosted in the air as he laughed at the absurdity of it all. And the most beautiful man he had ever seen laughed back at him, shaved head turned to gilt in the fresh sun, a creature of light and dark, a warrior’s heart in a monk’s robes and humble, mud-stained feet.
The last time I visited New Zealand was several years ago. I am scheduled to return there this year for work.
Hearing about the mosque shootings by a white supremacist terrorist this week broke my heart.
I don’t want it to be true that the horror of this past week hit me so keenly because it happened to people and places I’ve seen. But to a certain extent, it’s true.
It can be difficult to experience empathy for others with urgency or depth of conviction when the others are different from us, and different to the extent that we don’t have a way to imagine them, to imagine their ordinary lives. Martha Nussbaum, in Poetic Justice (1995), explains that one of the most dangerous realities in “today’s political life” is that “we lack the capacity to see one another as fully human.” Reading novels can intervene in our collective empathetic dullness. Novels are “disturbing in a way that history and social science writing are not,” she says (5).
Why? Because when we can easily imagine a person’s ordinary life, disruption and pain to their beautiful and utterly human self is more shocking, more devastating.
More specifically, I read romances because I want to walk into the worlds of others to learn the most fundamental truth about them: who they love, and how they love.
This week, I want to give a shout out to romance authors who I love who draw us into beautiful worlds that aren’t just telling the same happy ending-story for the same privileged white, cis-het white folks.
Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, and KJ Charles are burning up my bedside table with their wonderful romances. I could talk about them forever. Go read them. For a place to start, Milan’s Hold Me (Cyclone #2) is one of my all-time favorites, and a really nice romance in which the girl being trans is part of the story, as who we are is part of all of our stories, but it isn’t “the story,” because being trans isn’t a plot device.
And let’s talk neurodivergent–an issue that we just can’t seem to figure out how to talk about like humans on public media. Read Glitterland by Alexis Hall, whose hero has bipolar disorder and depression, and the Mnevermind series by Jordan Castillo Price whose hero is on the autism spectrum (and makes brilliant use of futuristic technology to discuss digital media and possibilities for neurodivergent-neurotypical communication).
I want to fall in love with places and people all over the world, in my own community and others, and I want to walk around with pieces of their stories in my heart so that every human tragedy in this world can break mine in an instant.
In my day job, I do research and write scholarly stuff. By night (and, you know, weekends, early mornings, and holidays) I scribble fiction. My work in progress is a medieval mystery about a brutal inquisitor hiding a dangerous secret and the young lord who must join his inquiry into a ritualistic murder in the south of France.
Imagine my joy when I got a travel grant from work that let me scope out bits of medieval Paris and Spain for research on my (sh!) fiction.
(Navarre Castle, Spain)
I got to sit in arrow apertures and read books about medieval inquisitors.
Walking the dimensions of thirteenth century manor halls and celebrating mass in chapels that would have looked, perhaps, not unlike their dark and Romanesque selves seven hundred years ago helps with descriptions.
But my favorite part of the trip was the walking. Hiking on foot up to and around Montserrat was, well, terrible (how out of shape am I?) but enlightening. How would it feel to walk these winding and steep routes not for a lark or for research, but because I had to?
If you write historical fiction, how do you research? What is the craziest thing you’ve uncovered, or the most difficult thing you’ve done to imagine your way backwards in time?