Philadelphia: Birthplace of the American Revolutions

My poorly shot panorama of the day’s speakers and organizers

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the national day of recognition that honors him, writers and readers across the United States gathered in the spirit of Writers Resist, a movement born out of the need to protect democracy and the spirit of justice following the 2016 election.

I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised (cue obligatory recitation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). It stands to reason that I’m biased in favor of my hometown’s importance, but truly no city encapsulates America like Philly. We are the nation’s first capital, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the finish line of the Underground Railroad, a key battleground in the war for LGBTQ+ rights, a haven for writers and artists of all stripes. The America I love and seek to protect would not exist without Philadelphia.

The Writers Resist event in Philadelphia was hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage and organized by Alicia Askenase, Nathaniel Popkin, and Stephanie Feldman, and featured readings from some of Philadelphia’s most prolific writers, reading poetry, petitions, and speeches from some of history’s bravest and most iconic speakers, some who were famous, some who simply deserve to be.

Six of the 36 readings were first given in Philadelphia, including the Resolution for Declaration of Women’s Rights, given during the centennial by the National Woman Suffrage Association, read by Lise Funderburg, and FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech for renomination, read by Lori Tharpe.

Most stirring, for me, was Lauren Grodstein’s rendition of Jameson Fitzpatrick’s 2016 poem “I Woke Up”. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who recognize that our identities, our passions, our very existences are political, and those who have yet to realize it.

In being political, one of the most important things to realize is that not all of our political perceptions are the same, and the beautiful diversity showcased on Sunday illustrated such. Men spoke women’s words, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian voices co-mingled with each other’s wisdom, disabled people offered each other solidarity, queer people and their allies spoke their truths to a crowd 300 strong.

Words, of course, will not be enough going forward. There must be action and resistance if justice is to be both won and preserved. But words are the genesis of movement. Stories are our empathy, articles are our information, media is our ability to connect. Revolutions do not happen without writers, and writers do not have a voice without readers.

Learn more about the movement at WritersResist.com and see a full list of the readings at #WritersResistPHL*

*Before Joey Sweeney opened with the Bob Dylan song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, he noted that the song selection was chosen BEFORE #UrineGate broke.

Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

October and LGBTQ History

           

         

       

October, by dint of the plethora of pumpkin and apple treats available, lush fall foliage, and, of course, Halloween, a nationwide Comic-con, has been my favorite month since I was a weird little kid who took being called “witch” as a compliment. Twenty years later and nothing has changed, but October holds great importance for me and for women in general. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, both of which have made innumerable efforts in helping individuals and families heal.

October also holds the distinction of being the time of year that honors LGBTQIA+ history. We have our parades in June, we flaunt our flags and celebrate our milestones, but October is a time to reflect on the history that makes our celebration possible.

Throughout this past year I’ve read some extraordinary words from lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women. Some I would’ve read anyway, some I discovered during this project, but all of them are voices we wouldn’t have without the efforts of civil rights leaders and pioneers who came before.

Jenny Lawson is a Texas-based writer whose daily life and musings provided enough fodder for not one, but two, bestselling memoirs. She’s created an online community for the support and care of people living with mental illness, and has learned (and taught others) how to laugh at life’s absurdities. Her book Furiously Happy was reviewed on June 14. Learn more about her at The Bloggess.

Noelle Stevenson is a writer, artist, and cartoonist who got her start as a fan artist. She created the cover art for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and is the co-creator of Lumberjanes. Her graphic novel Nimona was reviewed on June 29. Learn more about her at Gingerhaze.

Janet Mock is a writer and TV personality from Honolulu. She also worked as a contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine and is a noted transgender rights activist who was name-checked on the Emmy-nominated webseries Her Story, which she also helped crowdfund. Her memoir Redefining Realness was reviewed on March 9. Learn more about her at JanetMock.com.

Molly Crabapple is a world-traveling journalist and artist who has covered the trials in Guatanamo Bay, Occupy Wall Street, and scenes from the Syrian War. She has contributed to VICE magazine and founded Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, with installations in MoMA. Her memoir Drawing Blood was reviewed on May 5. Learn more about her at The Art of Molly Crabapple.

Malinda Lo is a noted YA novelist who has won awards for her work in expanding diversity among novels and authors for young adult works and her journalist contributions for AfterEllen.com. She attended Wellesley and has graduate degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Her novel Ash was reviewed on April 26. Learn more about her at MalindaLo.com.

Alison Bechdel is a noted cartoonist who is best known for her webcomic Dykes to Watch Out For. She’s also the creator of the ubiquitous Bechdel Test, used to gauge the nature of an individual film’s female roles. She grew up in her family’s funeral home in rural Pennsylvania. Her graphic memoir Fun Home was reviewed on July 7. Learn more about her at Dykes to Watch Out For.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a novelist and college professor who has been featured on multiple platforms as a transgender rights activist. She is a contributing writer for Medium.com and serves on GLAAD’s national board of directors. Her memoir She’s Not There was reviewed on July 5. Learn more about her at There from Here.

Amanda Palmer is a performance artist and musician from Boston. She was half of the indie groups The Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn, as well as an established solo act. She’s a noted feminist and activist who lives in the artist’s collective the Cloud Club and who was recruited for a TED talk. Her memoir The Art of Asking was reviewed on June 24. Learn more about her at Amanda Palmer.

Sara Benincasa is an essayist and humorist. She is a former teacher with an MA in secondary education who has also worked as a radio/TV/web personality. She has brought national attention to the experiences of people living with mental illness. Her essay collection Real Artists Have Day Jobs was reviewed on August 26. Learn more about her at Sara Benincasa.

Kitty Shields is a recent MFA graduate from Philadelphia. She is a celebrated designer, artist, short story writer, and bookbinder. She’s currently at work on her first novel. Her short story “The Great Hunger” was reviewed on July 18. Learn more about her at KittyShields.com.

Tig Notaro is a stand-up comedian, radio host, writer and actress from Mississippi. She won a Grammy for her performance that detailed her experiences with chronic illness that coincided with the loss of her mother. She recently released an Amazon series based on her life. Her memoir I’m Just a Person was reviewed on September 14. Learn more about her at TigNation.

Laura Jane Grace is a musician and lead singer of punk group Against Me! She’s also a noted trans activist and blogger for Noisey who made headlines for burning her birth certificate in North Carolina to protest the discriminatory HB2 law. She was also the hostess of the Emmy-nominated webseries True Trans. Her memoir TRANNY is due November 15. Learn more about her at Mandatory Happiness.

 

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller

Available for purchase here.

Witchcraft, whether the clear dichotomy between Glinda and the named-by-another-author-a-century-later Elphaba, the rich spectacle of Harry Potter, or the cheesy lightness of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has been one of fantasy fiction’s primary go-to’s to illustrate not only female power, but how it is perceived by society (Both the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are outranked by a fraudulent balloon man, the most impressive witch of her generation is the sidekick to the famous main character, and the pretty, bubbly blonde is somehow a social outcast).

Small surprise then, that the dawn of witchcraft in the life of a previously perceived “muggle” girl, so often coincides with puberty. For all I love YA, I would never relive my teenage years. Teens have the bodies of adults and are pressured to have their same wisdom, but are constantly told to occupy the same roles they held as children. It’s just like witches–all the power, minus the free will.

Kyle Hiller writes a stunning first person narrative of a girl caught in the worlds of young adolescence and witchcraft, with incredible insight. In The Recital, Edith Solstice is an ordinary girl, with a father who is revealed to be less and less extraordinary through her eyes as the story unfolds. She’s a middle child living a life so typical of Philadelphia Catholic girlhood I could’ve been reading about my own family. Hiller nails how even in a city as large and diverse as Philly, neighborhoods function, for both good and ill, as small towns. Edith is sheltered and occasionally innocently insensitive, and her problems are the problems of typical kids: an unrequited crush, a dramatic falling out between her parents, the gawkiness of being torn between childish needs and adult desires. And she’s a witch.

Edith has two mentors on her path to mastering magic: her best friend Lenore, and Lenore’s mother, Miss Karen. The crux of the conflict in Edith’s story is both magical and mundane–she hurt a classmate with her powers during an argument, and seeks to make amends. It’s a telling theme for the story–we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes, even the ones we didn’t intend to make. Edith relays a microaggression she once showed this classmate early on, by the end of the novel recognizing it as such and owing up to the fact that she was a bully, whether or not she intended to be.

There are many intriguing subplots to The Recital: what qualifies as “good”, what grief does to our mindset, especially when left unprocessed, the agony of first romance, the double agony of a first romance being a recognition of one’s own queerness. There’s a sequel hook, perhaps even a series hook, towards the end, and I am eager to delve deeper into Edith’s powers.

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

Available for purchase here.

Sometimes I feel like a walking garbage heap of a human being. This feeling usually surfaces while I’m reading the memoir of a contemporary woman, one who has spent our equivalent time on earth seeing the world, creating art, and fighting for the rights of humanity while I’ve spent that same time acquiring massive student debt and failing to master parallel parking. Yes, I can also throw myself a mad pity party.

Then there are memoirs like Tig Notaro’s, which details not her accomplishments (star of comedy, podcast, film, and music, not to mention her recently released Amazon series One Mississippi, which I binged over the weekend, thankyouverymuch), but rather the brief period of her life when she was assaulted with personal tragedy every time she turned around.

To wit: she was diagnosed with Colistridium difficile, a bacterial intestinal infection that can range from uncomfortable to fatal (Notaro’s nearly killed her), breast cancer showed up to attack while her immune system was still compromised, and her relationship was falling apart. And then, the ultimate tragedy, from which no medical treatments could rescue her–a freak accident claimed her mother’s life.

Notaro deserves a medal and a standing ovation for still standing after all she managed to pack into her 200 plus page memoir, and she exhibits enormous kindness towards the important people in her life, even as she bares open and dissects her complicated relationships with them in order to make some semblance of sense of her life.

She’s also bracingly honest. She treats herself as a character in her own story, and bares open her own flaws–the beginning concerns a lot of her early childhood, where she ditched school and ultimately dropped out, while still caring for her hard-partying mom.

I was raised to believe that the airing of dirty laundry spoke poorly of the one shaking the sheets, but I grew up to be a writer. Words are powerful and important. When written down, they are meditative and long-lasting, giving a voice to lived experience and creating a community across space and time, a collection of letters that let us know we are not alone and others are hearing us, listening, empathizing. Notaro’s words will prove healing for generations to come, but it is her unique voice that saved her from succumbing to the tragedies she was surrounded by. It’s important to share a story for the sake of others, but it’s equally important to speak for your own sake.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Available for purchase here.

As a child I envied Harry Potter’s magical abilities, the Pevensie children’s gateway to Narnia, and even Anne Shirley’s freedom to float down the creek in a barge of her own making, the fact that it almost ended in tragedy be damned. As an adult, I envy the fictional characters their financial problems, which can always be resolved within about 300 pages. (And yes, I’m disappointed in myself, too.)

As someone drowning in student debt and trying to fit an adult’s life into a shoestring paycheck, I would be elated to deal with the problems of the Plumb clan, who all have the kind of money problems brought on by an abundance of wealth in the first place. The titular nest is their collective inheritance, which they are months from receiving, and which has been jeopardized by eldest son Leo, who spends the novel chasing validation and other ways to caress his own ego. His sister Bea is the opposite–she’s surviving, but not thriving the way someone with her talent should.

Jack is not quite as spectacular as his siblings, and just smart enough to resent them for it. Melody doesn’t shine, but has no aspirations to, and is all the better off for it, both as a person and a character. She shows the most growth, and has a better grasp of the value of a dollar than any of her siblings. Luckily, of all of them, she’s the only parent, so the kids in the story have the benefit of a well-adjusted parent, at least.

The siblings, all in their forties, are already distant at the start of the novel, but the wedge created by the precarious state of their inheritance only serves to exacerbate the four decades of rivalries and resentments, and it’s in those moments that the average reader finds these would-be millionaires recognizable and relatable. There’s also a great subplot with Melody’s daughter exploring her sexuality that feels organic and real, despite the busyness of the narrative.

Deep into the story, which rotates between all four siblings as well as Melody’s twin daughters pov’s, it becomes clear how members of the uppermost levels of the socioeconomic class are divorced from the reality of money, with no concept of how twenty dollars can mean the difference between staying afloat and drowning. Money is nothing more than a concept to them.

It begs the question of why we are allowing those people control over the economy, but as excellent as The Nest is, it can’t answer everything.

Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

Available for purchase here.

If you are a patient type of person, you can pace yourself by reading one of Benincasa’s essays every week. 52 essays–a year of quality, no-nonsense examination of life as an artist.

I read this book in a day and a half. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one I’m sorely lacking, if only because Benincasa is an incredible writer, and if there is such a thing as fate, her book came into my life at a good time. Writer friends of mine are seeing greater and more visible success with their work, while I feel stalled and blocked on mine. Artists are supposed to be collaborative, not competitive, but there’s a greater, human compulsion to compare ourselves with our compatriots, and it’s a struggle when you find yourself lacking.

Which is why Benincasa’s latest venture is a prescription strength cure for Imposter Syndrome, that insistent little voice in the head of everyone who dares to call themselves an artist (maybe other professions, too, I don’t know. I do know I never felt this way claiming myself as a teacher.) Real Artists Have Day Jobs is a reminder that creating art makes you an artist. Not supporting yourself with art, not having it recognized as such, not your first gallery show, publication, record/role/whatever. Most creators of art are working crap jobs with crap hours, living in tiny apartments or with family, and they are no less valid than artists who show at MoMA or write really excellent books.

Benincasa also gets personal, detailing her struggles with mental health and her experiences as being a part of what I call the invisible queer–queer identified people who “read” as straight, and come out over and over again throughout their lives, who have their identities invalidated when they enter certain relationships.

It’s also important to recognize that Benincasa needed to be her age and have her experiences in order to write this book. I felt a keen sense of failure when I turned thirty having not published a book or otherwise made a name for myself as a writer. After 29, nothing we do is really considered precocious or impressive for our ages. Young as I am, I no longer have the benefit of youth.

What I do have, thanks to my widening perspective due to this yearlong sojourn into the world of women writers, is the knowledge that I am ten years more accomplished and interesting than I was at twenty. I can cave under the weight of my lack of accomplishment now, or I can work steadily, knowing that my best is still ahead of me. I choose the latter.

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore

Available for purchase here.

There’s a lot to mock about hipsters. They (we) are aggressively ironic, nostalgic, and pretentious in their (our) passions. They (we) are overly precious about their (our) art and politics. Also, I promise to stop pretending not to be a hipster now.

Yes, I prefer the funky coffeehouse in my small town with its floral accented lattés and local artist displays to Starbucks. Not everybody has heard of my favorite band (although shame on them if they haven’t, because they are missing out). And music really does sound better on vinyl.

Hipsterdom is, in part, a reaction to the fact that my generation has been essentially priced out of the previous generation’s glossy, lavish lifestyle (see, Sex and the City) that was held up as the gold standard of success. So we took the leftovers and made them funky, cool, desirable. And Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is a love letter to the ethos of Brooklyn’s art and music scene.

In essence, Cudmore’s book is actually a murder mystery, with her hero Jett Bennett being embroiled in searching the history of her neighbor KitKat after she receives a cassette in the mail meant for the latter, and discovers KitKat dead in her kitchen.

The mixtape, as it turns out to be, not only provides clues to KitKat’s mystery-shrouded personal life but triggers a trip down romance lane for Jett. Every song is linked to epoch of KitKat’s past and a man from Jett’s. When she’s spurred to seek out her old flames, Jett learns more about herself and her past–and her needs–all while trying to exonerate KitKat’s boyfriend, the police’s prime suspect.

Some of the great feminist points in the novel are when Jett calls out a catty misogynist for using feminism as a front for her cruelty, a stripper being fully fleshed out and presented as a real human character, Jett’s friend Sid being set up to fall into a Nice Guy trap but swerving into genuine nice guy territory, the implied incarceration of KitKat’s boyfriend due to his race,  and Jett herself learning to leave the past behind.

Her personal past. Not vinyl. Vinyl rules.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Available for purchase here.

Alison Bechdel is probably most famous for the Bechdel Test, which a piece of media cannot pass unless it has 1. Two or more female characters who 2. talk to each other about 3. something other than a man. It first premiered in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, one of the most iconic series for young queer girls everywhere.

Bechdel, is, of course, one of those once upon a time young queer girls, a landscape she navigated, unlike those of us who followed, without her work as a navigational tool, something we used to steer ourselves out of heteronormativity and into a more comfortable place in the world. So her graphic memoir, Fun Home, involves the pratfalls of growing up queer and isolated.

The titular fun home is actually Bechdel’s family-run funeral home, which was managed by Bechdel’s closeted English teacher father and brilliant actress mother. The dichotomy surrounding Bechdel’s father’s coming out and her own drives the focus of the story.

In the halcyon days of the seventies and eighties, while Bechdel was at college, her father Bruce was living out a life of suburban respectability on the surface while preying on teenage boys with alcohol and late night drives. Bechdel was caught up in the tail end of second wave feminism, finding her first love and coming out in spectacularly unspectacular fashion.

Bechdel and her father lived as each others’ foils long beyond their mirrored sexuality. Both suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, both were brilliant but stifled in their small town, but Bechdel is the light to her father’s dark. Bruce came out soon after his daughter, but died in a car accident almost immediately after, in what Bechdel theorized to be a suicide.

Bechdel could’ve taken a similar road, but she instead used her art and fine mind to forge ahead. She created a safe place for young queer kids and adults to find both solace and community. It’s been less than a month since the shootings in an Orlando gay club that claimed 49 lives. There have been countless bills proposed and passed that limit or destroy the rights of LGBTQIA people. We are reminded that there are too many people who hate us, who see us as less than human. Bechdel’s work is more important than ever in light of these events. It reminds us that even when we are persecuted, we are not alone.

And we are not immoral.

She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Available for purchase here.

When North Carolina passed its discriminatory HB 2 law this past spring, a bill that news outlets inaccurately referred to as the bathroom bill, but in reality prohibits trans and non-binary folk from suing on a state level for discrimination, there was a national outcry. Famous artists either boycotted their own scheduled performances in the state or donated the proceeds thereof to safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.

Such staunch support by mainstream and cisgender (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) of one of the most marginalized groups in our society would have been unfathomable even five years ago, and certainly in 2004 when Jennifer Finney Boylan released her memoir about growing up as a trans woman, including her medical transition that involved hormone replacement therapy and gender confirmation surgery, a process she began in her forties after twelve years of marriage, two children, and a successful career as a professor and novelist.

Boylan has one of the happiest “endings” of a trans person in mainstream zeitgeist. Her memoir exposed the realities of living as a transgender person that rivaled the toxic tropes perpetuated by Hollywood. Up until recently the primary image most Americans had of a trans person was the villain of Silence of the Lambs. In contrast to that poisonous stereotype, Boylan is educated and articulate, with a solid marriage and children who called her “Maddy” (Mommy + Daddy). More important than the dispelling of cisgender folks’ unhealthy assumptions about gender variant people, she was also a visible beacon for other trans people who deserved both representation and hope.

Boylan was also the recipient of some unhelpful advice from her doctors, who approached her treatment from the perspective that gender is a binary (it’s not), and that medical transition was her only choice, which fortunately was what she needed, but the idea that other gender variant people were receiving such a limiting message is almost as painful as the knowledge that it’s still happening more than a decade later.

Today, Boylan is one of the prominent leaders of the LGBTQ+ community, championing causes and writing eloquently about issues faced by the community. The world has a long way to go before queer and trans folks have the social equality they deserve and are entitled to, but thank goodness for Boylan’s bravery sixteen years ago, because she surely propelled the conversation forward.