There’s a quote that’s stuck with me this past month or so, and it’s from the writer, Saidiya Hartman, whose book, ‘Lose Your Mother’ has me gripped this January.
Elsewhere, in another one of her works, she’s posed the question:
‘How do we tell impossible stories, and how do we listen to images of intentionally muted subjects? ‘
She’s written about her quest to find a form of kinship in the communities her ancestors were enslaved (and stolen from) as they were forced to go to the Americas on slave ships.
It’s an impossible story because as it unfolds, her lineage becomes more, not less, elusive.
Beyond her great-grandparents, it’s an impossibility she can ever know from whom she inherited her traits, or her name, let alone her family story.
The quest for meaning, returning to West Africa three or four hundred years after her ancestors were stolen from the northern Ghanaian bush, and three or four centuries after they were imprisoned in forts on the Gold Coast, can never be satisfied.
African Americans’ historic hope that crossing the Atlantic will heal historic wounds, will always, forever, prove elusive [this is my admittedly simplistic reading of her arguments].
Travelling from New York City to Accra, reclamation is impossible to achieve, she seems to argue. If one aim of her’s by living and working in Ghana is to reliably reconcile herself to her history, in place of consoling words and memorials, she finds grim and perverse indifference to her tragic story. She comes across Ghanaians who’ve had enough of weeping Americans. Their stories are rooted in the troubles of today.
There is no reconciliation to be found; the slave trade is no less incomprehensible now than it was when Wilberforce was petitioning Parliamentarians. Everyone who lost out then continues to be lost to history now.
What’s muted in the archive?
I came across the quote on ‘impossible stories’ in Carmen Maria Machado’s genre-bending and queer-as-fuck memoir, In the Dream House.
To put it another way, she first rages, and then assiduously critiques, why stories that highlight exceptional wrongdoing, are erased so wilfully.
Are queer people who experience abuse in same-sex relationships believed when they tell their stories? Is the domestic abuse they experience less credible than, say, the abuse experienced by straight people? Why isn’t there a research archive on the scale of this abuse, or the factors that might give rise to it?
What’s muted in the archive, and what urgently needs to be dragged out?
I was reminded of Frederick Douglass’s story when reading Hartman, and to a lesser degree when I read Carmen Maria Machado. He was such an incisive and effective orator, Northerners from New England couldn’t believe he was once himself a slave. His story was exceptional, but he had to fight for it to be heard, and even when it was heard, it was doubted.
Frederick Douglass’s backers cautioned him that his powers of oratory could confuse otherwise sympathetic crowds. Douglass needed to sound less eloquent, these abolitionists argued, as his audiences might not believe such a seemingly cultured man could have once lived in conditions of serfdom.
Toni Morrison wanted Douglass’s story, and others like his, to be located in the canon, not just within her literary lineage, but in our shared collective consciousness about what slavery is and how black Americans have written with agency for centuries. Sadly, some memoirs are suppressed and rejected on account of who the memoirist is.
Referring to Douglass’s story, or Carmen Maria Machado’s story of terrible abuse in a same-sex relationship, I can repeat once more…
We mustn’t let our unique histories fade.
We mustn’t resign ourselves to the fate that our stories don’t matter, or won’t get read, or that in times of social and political strife, they’ll inevitably face getting censored.
All too often, the saying goes, history is written by the victors. Our accounts of our own lives might well face censure. But say we don’t first keep an account of our story – an oppressive history, say – then our stories will surely disappear as soon as our lives fade.
There’s a different kind of healing
As a coach who works with clients keen to reflect on, understand and rewrite their stories, I am always humbled to learn there’s a different kind of healing that we can achieve by simply writing about the incomprehensibility of our stories.
We can find solace in simply sharing what we’ve failed to heal.
Research shows that traumatic events can immobilise those regions of the brain which we need to put words to our experiences, and therefore understand them. For those of us with a history of trauma, writing can be a valuable catalyst for healing and recovery. Through writing, we can begin to cultivate linguistic control over the trauma and reorganise our story, in the supportive presence of like-minded peers
Our stories might be impossible to comprehend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find the art in trying to tell them.
Our Many Queer Stories
Elsewhere, we could wrestle with stories that seem impossible to write or voice. They might be fanciful, not ferocious. Perhaps they represent something so utterly queer, we can’t (yet) grapple with what it might mean for us to tell them.
Perhaps our ‘impossible stories’ are impossible precisely because we cannot conceive where or how they could exist. They are the stories so outside the locus of our everyday environment, or routine, that we’ve only observed or heard them in our dreams.
Yes, there’s mythology, fantasy, and sci-fi. Yes.
For millennia, philosophers and poets have made the seemingly impossible animate, exciting, and very real indeed.
And there are the stories that take the seemingly mundane, for example, a single day in the life of an otherwise boring man, and frame what’s pedestrian in marvellous new ways. Take Bloom’s stroll through the streets of Dublin. Ulysses anyone?
In James Joyce’s towering 1922 work, the mundane mixes with myth in impressive ways.
Few people regard it as a queer text, but to my mind, there was something very queer about how Joyce approached his subject.
What is it for a story to be ‘queer’?
I like one idea posited by You are here, the creative journal of the School of Geography at the University of Arizona. They’re currently running an edition of the journal where they are encouraging stories on ‘queer ecologies’.
They state they approach ‘queer ecologies’ as a ‘practice of reimagining’.
Here, the word ‘queer,’ begins from, but extends far beyond, matters of gender and sexuality. ‘Queer’ signals an act of unsettling, a disruption of norms and boundaries, a challenging of taken for granted categories and taxonomies. As an epistemological starting point, ‘queer’ signals a viewpoint beyond or outside of dominant perspectives, subjectivities, and worlds. It also signals an attention to identity, to gender and sexuality, but also to race, dis/ability, and other forms of social difference that shape our worlds and relations to each other.
The University of Arizona journal suggests we return to the early 16th-century definition of the word ‘queer’, considered to be from German quer ‘oblique, perverse’, but they emphasise that the origin is doubtful.
expressing a non-normative sexuality or gender
out of place; outside of a norm
to unsettle, disrupt, or muddy categories, norms, or boundaries (as a verb)
Virginia Woolf was queer in many ways, and surely one of her queerest characters is Clarissa Dalloway. Or rather, Mrs Dalloway is written ‘queerly’, as Woolf shifts from one form of narration to another, from soliloquy to interior monologue, and then to her own omniscient narrative perspective.
We all have it in us to tell ‘impossible stories’ – to invert inherited truths, to challenge the status quo, to imagine new worlds. Expressed another way, we all have it in us to tell queer stories: transgressive, once covert but now ready for the grand reveal.
I love to work with other writers to see what we can achieve when together we test ourselves – when we dig deep and identify our hidden stories.
Our stories can be outrageously outlandish and queer.
We can tell the ‘least original’ stories queerly.
Writing our many queer stories
This workshop will celebrate the fluidity of queer writing and will be of interest to writers working across multiple genres, fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.
In line with other recent London Lit Lab courses and workshops, such as those led by Tania Hershman, on ‘Hybrid Writing: Unbox your Words’ and Kylie Fitzpatrick, ‘Finding Your Voice: Reclaiming the Inner Writer’, it will celebrate intersectionality – plus writing that can’t be categorised.
While it will envelop short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, the emphasis will be on identifying and writing the stories we long to write, if only we are able to confront them, or stories we’ve buried, perhaps even from ourselves.
One debate that continues is whether LGBTQIA+ writers are ‘better off’ writing from the fringes or for the ‘mainstream’. My workshop works on the simple premise that we don’t need to strive for anything but authenticity.
Reconnecting queer writers to those stories they may have previously vetoed, for fear that they’re not ‘publishable’, or may be shameful, the workshop will draw on coaching principles to help participants consider why our inner critic might be wrong, and how, as LGBTQIA+ writers, we can be tender to ourselves.
Through exercises that gently question what we’re writing, and for whom, the workshop will enable participants to see the potential of their queerest stories, be they unvarnished memoirs, painful-to-write poetry, or genre-bending fiction. Whatever our concerns about the tastes of our audience, or the marketability of our prose, by the end of the workshop we will be committed to writing some of our boldest, bravest words.
With samples of writing from queer writers as diverse as Carmen Maria Machado, and the poet, Andrew McMillan, plus three exercises for participants to engage with, exploring our different creative ‘energies’ – tenderness and fierceness among them – the workshop ethos is that queer writing can be experimental and elastic.
Why are Carmen Maria Machado’s playful memoirs such a tantalising glimpse of what, with a little bit of gumption, a memoir can hope to achieve?
Why is Saidiya Hartman right to delve into her impossible story, whatever continues to elude her in terms of closure?
And why is a shamelessly self-absorbed work, such as Hervé Guibert’s ‘Crazy for Vincent’, a delicious ‘fuck you’ to anyone who craves a narrative, or a conventional plot?
I look forward to seeing you there