The view from my balcony last night.
Today I was sitting at my writing desk, overlooking the snow, trying to translate all the beautiful things in my head into words, remembering Iran and Belize and all the people I love, and I grabbed my headphones and listened to this and buried my face in my hands and cried.
This happens almost every day. At least one moment of panic that I won’t get the chance to live as long as I need to live to do all the things I need to do.
I used to not want to be here. I wanted to be with my mother, wherever she was.
And now I think of how happy she must be, that I love life this much, to cry like this.
As promised, at my paperback release party, I talked about Novel #2.
I told the crowd where it came from. How the first time I went into the cave, the beam of my headlamp fell on a thing that sparkled in the dark like a star, and it had a reddish color, as if it were Mars or Aldebaran or Antares. My guide showed me what I was actually looking at: the compound eye of a cave spider. But I couldn’t shake the certainty that I had been looking at a star underground, even though I knew that was impossible.
The name of the next novel is The Actual Star.
It is set in and around the cave Actun Tunichil Muknal in the years 1012, 2012, and 3012, following three incarnations of three people.
Here are some things that will be in it:
Brane theory. A global network of sea trails. The ancient Maya ball game. Archaeoastronomy. Simulacra and simulation. The future of the Americas. Travel as a religion. Death by jaguar. The mathematics of sacrifice. Anal sex. Displacement exercises. Venusian cycles. Tourist psychology. The heat death of the universe. Cave monsters. The decoherence of meaning. Voluntary brain tumors. The philosophy of teleportation. Flash floods. The chirality of perception. Schism and ecumenism. The universe as hologram. Petals of water coursing down the flowstone.
And this is how it begins: a letter from 3012, addressed to mi familia de la carretera.
My family of the road.
It’s Ash Wednesday, and my Dad is still in the hospital. We didn’t think it likely that they’d have matches lying around the recovery wing (much less last year’s dried palm leaves), so we texted Pam. She brought three burned matches in a plastic baggie. I crushed the tips and then poured the grit into my palm, which we daubed our fingers in and anointed each other in a circle: Dad did me, I did Pam, Pam did Dad. We used the words Dad wrote down in a notebook: Pulvis es, et in pulverem reveretere. Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
The ashes are almost invisible on my forehead now. Snowflakes are swirling outside my window. Dad is in good hands, being transferred to a rehab facility where he can do some physical therapy before the next step. What’s the next step?…that’s a big question my family is figuring out right now. Your prayers, love, and good wishes are most welcome.
Friends: Paperback Release Day is HERE.
This week is a media blitz. For starters, here’s this interview with Jeff VanderMeer in Electric Literature, in which I swear a lot. And though we had to cancel the release party at Letters Bookshop, we’ve rescheduled it for a mere two days later, Thursday 2/19, 7pm, and it will INCLUDE: Mardi Gras beads, Krispy Kreme, Prom dresses, wine, reading, singing, signing, and arm-wrestling.
Coming attractions, to be posted on this blog as they come, are as follows:
A podcast with Justin Landon and Ferrett Steinmetz on Tor.com.
A playlist to accompany the novel on Largehearted Boy.
A podcast with Mahvesh Murad on Tor.com.
A short story forthcoming in The Baffler.
An article forthcoming in Wired.
A very exciting announcement.
Watch this space, amigas.
Photo: empty chairs in Houghton Chapel, Wellesley. Reunion 2013.
Early one spring morning in my sophomore year at Wellesley, before dawn, I was on the roof of Cazenove dormitory with my friend Ashley. We were continuing a conversation that had begun in the dining hall the previous night. We hadn’t slept.
We were arguing about gender. On this point, she was far more critical of Wellesley than I. She paced the roof, expressing her frustration the limits of our college’s touted “tolerance.”
I didn’t understand. I said, “So…you’re saying any man who gets sex reassignment surgery should also be admitted to Wellesley?”
“No,” she said firmly. “I’m saying anyone who thinks of themselves as a woman should be admitted to Wellesley.”
And with that one sentence, sex and gender unhooked in my mind as neatly as a necklace clasp.
Which is why it’s frustrating to me that, fifteen years later, my alma mater is still debating the admission of trans students. Even as other women’s colleges—Simmons, Mills, Mount Holyoke—have thrown open the doors.
Wellesley was founded in 1875 by Pauline and Henry Fowle Durant for the purpose of educating women. But “woman” is a social construction, created for the purpose of allowing one acceptable way to be not-a-man. That’s why, to male supremacy, transgender people are such a threat: their existence threatens not only cis male supremacy, but the system that allows for people to be one and only one kind of controllable Other.
Continuing to admit only cis women to Wellesley is tantamount to conceding that that system is valid.
Wellesley shouldn’t just be a space for cis women, but for the entire diaspora of womanhood—women who were born female, women who were born male, men who were born female, and genderqueer persons. Membership is not compulsory, but available, to anyone who claims membership.
Who gets to decide the appropriateness of membership? They do. On an individual basis. And we get to honor it.
Because this is not an abstract question. This is a matter of life and death, about which trans people are best positioned to make decisions. The current rates of violence and discrimination against trans people are staggering. Ninety percent of trans youth are harassed or assaulted in high school; they are six times more likely to consider suicide.
I adore my alma mater. And I’ve defended the necessity of women’s institutions for years. But now—and partly because of the education I got at Wellesley—I recognize it as only the first step. In welcoming openly trans students, Wellesley would not be changing its mission; it would be honoring its mission far more directly than its founders were able to—by not just reacting to the system, but by changing the system itself.
I get why the Maya did termination rituals. Somehow it feels very wrong to dispose of an object, especially a beloved object or an object much-used, without some kind of ceremonial release.
I’ve become very attached to my Christmas tree. She’s my first one. Christmas has been really hard for the last several years, and this year was the first time I tried to be proactive in changing that. I was in thrall of her beauty when I first brought her home, and I will admit to you that for many nights, I would say good night to her, and leave the lights on so that I’d turn in my sleep and half-dream the glow from the other room, a constellation of colored stars.
Today I’ll take her down, and feel sad, even as I feel silly. Even as I know I can’t feel any other way.
Photo: ancient Maya bloodletting bowl. Credit, Museum of Science.
Recently I posted on Facebook about the contrast between what self-cutting “means” in contemporary United States culture versus ancient Maya culture. In our culture, self-cutting is a sign of mental unwellness. In ancient Maya society, self-cutting—or “bloodletting”—was the central ritual act that brought order to the universe.
I used to cut. Only a few times, in my twenties, when I found myself in a state of distress I couldn’t think my way out of. Usually I just pressed a sharp point into the heel of my palm until my breathing slowed, but twice, I cut glass and drew blood from my fingertip. I felt really bad about it, because it was supposed to be a sign of extreme mental illness. I tried to explain it to my family at one point (who were understandably upset): that I wasn’t trying to kill myself, or even hurt myself. I was trying to shock my body into another state. Like trying to divert a runaway train. And it turns out that cutting does just that, on the physiological level—it forces one’s body to pay attention to something else.
Of course, there’s a huge range of cutting behavior for different purposes. Mine was mild. Many who cut become addicted to the opioids that get released. I was very open about it with my therapist, who suggested other ways of shocking my body that weren’t potentially addictive or destructive: dunking my head in cold water, for example, which I’ve remembered ever since.
The ancient Maya didn’t seem to be concerned about addiction, though; or if they were, they called it something else. The practice was deeply respected and carefully regulated, at least among elites, to coincide with major calendar cycles and astronomical events. They did it on the tops of the great temples, piercing their ears or tongues or foreskins with obsidian blades, or rope threaded with a stingray spine, and let the blood gather in a bowl like the one shown above, or let it soak into bark paper which was then burned, or let it soak into white cloth to display to the masses gathered below. This act summoned their ancestors, breaking open time itself. Letting blood was a way of shocking their body into another state—the same base physical purpose that it serves today. But they saw it as opening a portal to the Otherworld.
I’m getting more and more excited about Novel #2. This is rich ground.