Nonfiction/Nonbinary Literary Identities: An Investigation of Contemporary Writers Queering Gen(der/re) in America

Chachi Hauser | April 2021

Chachi Hauser

A few years ago, I wrote in my journal a Judith Butler quote from her essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination:” gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original. I was immediately drawn to this concept because, from ages eight to eleven, I participated in what some might define as “drag.” I cut my hair short, I wore clothes from The Gap boys’ section, and sometimes I went into men’s restrooms with my friend, Alexis, who was similarly tomboyish. I used to think of this performance as a facet of our imaginary life—together, we imagined we were boys, like other children imagine they are princesses. Now, I know, our imaginary world was much larger than Alexis and me, as we’d unknowingly tapped into the collective imagination. We were questioning a world that had imagined us as girls in the first place.

David Lazar begins his piece, “Queering the Essay”: Genre and gender are indissolubly linked, etymologically intertwined.1 Both words seek to define, to create boundaries, to reinforce binaries. The tendency of both genre and gender to categorize calls for resistance from those who wish to form identities outside of or in opposition to societal binaries. In “Queering the Essay,” Lazar makes the argument that the literary form known as “the essay” has historically resisted classification and, therefore, is the queer genre. Nonfiction has always been a highly performative literary form—the writer’s voice and identity are crucial to the style of narrative progression the genre is often defined by. In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate asserts, “The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self.”2 Lopate writes of the intimacy of the genre and the essay’s impulse to expose the inner contradictions of the self, as if these different facets of the psyche are in conversation with one another. These contradictions drive the essay, a word whose origins are rooted in the old French essai, meaning “to try,” “to attempt.” Perhaps this penchant for the contradictory is what draws me to nonfiction and why so many of my favorite writers are (queer) essayists—Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich—writers who are well-known for performing their subversive identities. Nonfiction has also always been a genre welcoming to hybridity. Réda Bensmaïa in The Barthes Effect writes, “Since its elaboration by Montaigne in the Sixteenth Century, the literary essay has functioned as a kind of anti-genre, refusing confinement to a single or unified subject, defying rhetorical norms of plan and progression.”3

I wish to take David Lazar’s thesis even further, examining how several contemporary writers of “long-form nonfiction” as well as “fiction” enact nonbinary or queer identities through challenging genre. I will examine the different formal and stylistic strategies used by Maggie Nelson (she/her), T. Fleischmann (they/them), and Akwaeke Emezi (they/them) to illustrate gender as both a tangible and psychic place without boundaries. These authors exemplify how queer identities often involve different approaches to life narratives and, therefore, unique approaches to putting these ways of life into writing. In resisting genre, these writers work to—as Kate Bornstein puts it—transform gender into a dialectic as opposed to a binary.4

In her essay “My Dangerous Desires,” political organizer and lesbian sex radical Amber Hollibaugh writes, “No gender system is natural, no system of desire organic or removed from the way culture creates human experience. We are raised to become ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ and any rebellion against that still takes place within a constructed system of gender and erotic binaries—at least in white America.”5 Maggie Nelson’s most recent book of nonfiction, The Argonauts, is foregrounded not in a discussion of the queerness of Nelson’s own gender identity, but, instead, in the queerness of her desire—her sexual attraction to Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well other facets of desire not typically talked about or accepted by society. Early on in the book, Nelson recites an anecdote about a woman at a dinner party who asks Nelson if she’d been with other women before Harry. Nelson is taken aback by this line of inquiry, causing her to ask herself, among other questions, “Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady?”6 In the context of white America, Nelson’s romantic intentions related to Harry are considered queer, even if Nelson doesn’t see them as such; though she quickly remembers how eager the outside world is to interpret and judge the highly personal motivations, such as love and desire, of others. In The Argonauts, Nelson examines her desires, deemed “queer” by America, through her autotheoretical style (a term she says she stole from Paul Preciado’s Testo Junkie),7 weaving together personal writing and theoretical discourse. Though the narrative draws from her life, Nelson does not think of her work as memoir; she writes of speaking in this capacity at events as being “in drag as a ‘memoirist.’”8

Nonfiction has always been a highly performative literary form—the writer’s voice and identity are crucial to the style of narrative progression the genre is often defined by.

Stylistically, The Argonauts is much like a very long essay, the 143 pages of the book made up of paragraphs and stand-alone sentences, separated by breaks; it does not contain chapters or headings to clearly delineate the sections. Some of the paragraphs are separated by slightly larger pauses than others, signifying section breaks, though the difference in spacing is so small, it’s hard for the eye to pick up on. From paragraph to paragraph, Nelson queers time and space, fluidly moving back and forth through her life from the beginning of her relationship with Harry in 2007 to present day (2015). She signals these changes in time by grounding the reader with a short sentence or phrase that says when the event happened. As a reader, I quickly became accustomed to this style, accepting the narrative would be driven by cerebral and emotional associations rather than a linear timeline.

The Argonauts begins in a style that Nelson revisits throughout the book that I think of as her “love letter” mode. Addressing her partner Harry in second person, Nelson writes of the beginning of their relationship, the first paragraph of the book detailing when the words I love you tumble out of Nelson’s mouth, “the first time you fuck me in the ass.”9 Using the second person, Nelson is not only able to write very intimately, but she also avoids gendered pronouns. This grammatical choice becomes a part of the narrative—almost an inside joke with the reader—when Nelson reveals a few pages later she still doesn’t know Harry’s pronoun and is too scared to ask even when they’re planning on moving in together. “I’ve become a quick study in pronoun avoidance,”10 she writes. Like Anne Garréta’s French “Oulipo” novel Sphinx (1986), which avoids using any gendered language about the two protagonists of the love story, the use of the second person in The Argonauts also removes whatever gendered expectations the reader might have of courtship. The second person places the reader within the romantic discourse as a participant, encouraging them to relate to the romance on a personal level. Nelson comes back to the love letter mode throughout the book, describing the progression of their relationship, including the coinciding of Nelson’s pregnancy with their son Iggy and Harry’s decision to transition.11 She even writes one of the last paragraphs of the book in this style, though this time the “you” stands in for her son Iggy. Again, Nelson’s use of second person queers expectations of the love letter, blurring the boundaries between romantic and maternal love, an idea she addresses throughout the book. In responding to a sidebar called “Sexual Feelings While Breastfeeding,” in Dr. Sears’s The Baby Book, Nelson writes: “But how can it be a mix-up, if it’s the same hormones? How does one go about partitioning one sexual feeling off from another, presumably more ‘real’ sexual feeling? Or, more to the point, why the partition? It isn’t like a love affair. It is a love affair.”12

Nelson incorporates theory into the narrative by embedding it in the personal. From the beginning of the book, Nelson makes it clear that, in her life, there is little separation between the intimate and the theoretical. This is a point Nelson and Harry disagree about from the very start of their relationship, Harry arguing that words are not good enough. Nelson writes, in love letter mode, “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again.”13 Nelson writes about how she tries to convince Harry otherwise, reading Ludwig Wittgenstein aloud to him and sending him a Roland Barthes quote about how the subject who says “I love you” is like the Argonaut replacing a ship’s parts throughout a voyage without renaming the vessel. Since the theoretical is intrinsic to Nelson’s retelling of her relationship with Harry, and the first quotes she cites are in this context, the reader understands the connection between the personal and theoretical modes and adapts to her autotheoretical style. Throughout the book, Nelson slips into her prose quotes from writers, philosophers, and other artists and intellectuals, italicizing the quotations and placing the names of the quoted in the margin beside their words. This style calls to mind one of the first writers Nelson quotes in the book, Roland Barthes, and how he structures, among other works, A Lover’s Discourse.

In The Barthes Effect, Réda Bensmaïa suggests that Barthes brought the essay to a new status, as a “reflective text,” a style Nelson is certainly playing on. Bensmaïa writes of Barthes’s contribution to the essay, “This genre judged ‘unclassifiable’ for a long time, was finally able to make its ‘theoretical entrance’ into the history of literature and the theory of literary genres.” In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes weaves in quotations and theories of other writers, discussing how lovers speak a language that is not their own, a lonely language addressed to the self and to an imagined beloved. Like Nelson, Barthes includes personal narratives and anecdotes in his reflections on the subject of love. In a section titled, “The Absent One,” Barthes writes about how someone speaks when their lover is absent, and he relates to this topic from his personal experience, comparing his longing for a lover to the longing he felt for his absent mother when he was a child. As Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his introduction to A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes “queers amorousness,”14 just as Nelson does in The Argonauts. Both writers not only queer ideas of desire, but they also challenge accepted notions of genre, hoping to carve out a literary arena without binaries, which is likely one of the reasons Nelson responds to and references Barthes in her own work.

Nelson’s writing proves the value in what is deemed dangerous, what is deemed queer, writing towards a more expansive, fluid literary style.

In The Argonauts, Nelson uses an autotheoretical style to queer nonfiction in both style and subject matter. Her writing expands and defies definitions of memoir, theory, and “the essay,” just as she upends American ideas about identity, desire, and family. Nelson even queers one of the tenets of heteronormativity; pregnancy, by comparing and contrasting her changing body to Harry’s body on T, and discussing her surprise that her body could create the male body of her son.15 Just like the Argonaut’s vessel, the bodies of Nelson and Harry shift and change over the course of the book—Nelson seems to concede to Harry, wondering what the use of words is, if we continue to name these bodies the same thing even after their journeys.

Bensmaïa quotes Pascal and Malebranche, “The essay is a degenerate, impossible genre, not very serious and even dangerous.”16 Nelson writes against these kinds of opinions or, perhaps, she’s fueled by them. Just as “the pregnant body in public is also obscene,”17 Nelson’s writing proves the value in what is deemed dangerous, what is deemed queer, writing towards a more expansive, fluid literary style.

In The Barthes Effect, Réda Bensmaïa posits, “Among all the terms that relate to literary genres, the word essay is certainly the one that has given rise to the most confusion in the history of literature…”18 T. Fleischmann toys with this confusion, calling their Syzygy, Beauty, an “essay,” though, formally, the work is unlike what is usually meant by the word. In “Queer and Now,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, somewhat controversially, of “queer” identity, “A hypothesis worth making explicit: that there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person. One possible corollary: that what it takes—all it takes—to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is that impulsion to use it in the first person.”19 Perhaps, then, all it takes for the lyrical Syzygy, Beauty to truly be an essay is for Fleischmann to use the word in the first person, defining their work as such. As form is often used to dictate genre, Fleischmann challenges typical notions of nonfiction, combining poetry, art criticism, and personal narrative in a series of vignettes, enacting a queer literary identity. As John D’Agata writes in Lifespan of a Fact, Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty works to show that “An essay is not a vehicle for facts, nor information, nor verifiable experience. An essay is an experience—and a very human one at that.”20

In Syzygy, Beauty, each page contains a brief paragraph of lyrical prose. Similar to Maggie Nelson’s Jane—which collages poetry, dream accounts, documentary sources, and narrative memoir—Fleischmann relies heavily on a poetic mode to express the personal. Audre Lorde writes, “And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.”21 Fleischmann’s poetry contains the erotic quality spoken about by Lorde, conjuring desire, loneliness, the tickle of high grass, a feather bed. The word “syzygy” means the alignment of celestial bodies in a gravitational system (for example, during an eclipse), repeating relationships in mathematics, as well as complimentary (male/female) pairings in Gnosticism. “Sometimes two objects become one object, not as a hybrid or duality but as a new thought that consumes both,”22 Fleischmann writes on the second page of the book. Each page, each vignette, is an object—like a piece of art in a gallery—all of the objects coming together to make up a new thought, which is the larger essay. There are no chapters or section breaks, simply 110 pages of free-floating paragraphs of prose, like a collection of poems with no titles. Fleischmann uses repetition, almost mathematically, of imagery and words to create themes, which run through the larger essay, a web of links which tie the larger piece together like a net.

Fleishmann writes in first person, often addressing—much like Nelson’s love letter mode in The Argonauts—a romantic interest in second person. The first paragraph of the book is written in this style, beginning, “There are so many things about you that people don’t notice because you are pretty.”23 Later, we discover the object of Fleishmann’s desire is someone who has a boyfriend, complicating the idea of romance— Fleishmann’s romance is not a pairing but, instead, made up of three characters. In the second paragraph of the book, Fleishmann writes about Meret Oppenheim’s Object, introducing the element of art criticism, which is woven throughout Syzygy, Beauty. In many of the segments, Fleishmann discusses Oppenheim and her piece called Object—a teacup, saucer, and spoon made of gazelle fur—along with other artists and their work such as Louise Bourgeois’s structures called The Cells, Tracey Emin’s tent titled, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, Grayson Perry’s vases, and Carolee Schneemann’s group performance “Meat Joy.” All of the works of art Fleishmann mentions are objects, none of them are paintings or carved figurative sculptures. In the video of Schneemann’s performance “Meat Joy,” the objects are barely clothed male and female bodies, which crawl about, rubbing against each other as well as against pieces of meat, wet paint, rope, and other props. Just as in another hybrid literary work, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Fleishmann interweaves the love letter form with thoughts and theories on works of art. In her “remarkable study in female abjection,”24 Kraus’s letters to Dick morph from intimate declarations of desire into essays, weaving the personal with art criticism and formal analysis. In both Kraus’s and Fleischmann’s work, the formal analysis becomes a love letter of its own, a love letter to an artist, an object, a lover—as if all of these are one and the same. Just like Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Kraus and Fleischmann seem to be critiquing the love letter by overly embracing the aspect of the love pronouncement that is for the speaker and not for the beloved, who has been made an imaginary object in the process of writing about them. Fleischmann writes, “By describing something we place it at a distance…I write down 102 words that say what I see when I see you…How does it feel to know you are something I look at?”25

Fleischmann uses repetition, almost mathematically, of imagery and words to create themes which run through the larger essay, a web of links which tie the larger piece together like a net.

Theorist Jack Halberstam argues that queerness isn’t “simply a configuration of body, identity and desire, but that queerness actually names a different relationship to time and space.”26 By this he means queerness often has something to do with different ways of thinking about life narratives, subcultures, mobility, and otherwise; for example, Halberstam talks about how young queer people of his generation didn’t identify with marriage and so it was surprising for him to see this become a sincerely sought-after activist goal. In talking about representation in art, Halberstam argues for rendering trans* bodies through abstraction, through “unleashed representations of an unknowable, unlocatable body…”27 In Syzygy, Beauty, Fleischmann queers time and space, representing the body, the home, and other tangible objects as fluid, without boundaries. Fleischmann also writes a queer life narrative, one with multiple partners (of different/unidentifiable genders), itinerancy, and the construction of a house for oneself (instead of for a conjugal family). As Halberstam suggests, Fleischmann abstracts the body in many ways throughout Syzygy, Beauty, just as the short written pieces themselves—flashes of thoughts and images—come together to make the abstracted body of the essay. Over the course of the book, Fleischmann describes their own body as “a fleshy thing…tall and filled with citrus,” as a piece of art, as a “not a male body except in the sense that it is male,”28 and compares their body to a ghost, an apparition, a blessing. Fleischmann writes, “…and if we died in an embrace paleontologists of the future might think we were of one body,” erasing the boundaries between their own body and the body of their lover. Through these images, Fleischmann creates an abstract portrait of the body, just as they construct an abstracted depiction of the house they are in the process of building/re-building29 and the homes they float between. “Not living anywhere, there is always the chance that I will leave and the chance that I will come back,”30 Fleischmann says, continuing to return to this theme throughout the book. Fleischmann often draws comparisons between the home and the body—this theme of physical transience, then, is another form of gender fluidity. Fleischmann never provides visual images of the work discussed in the book and so even the art is abstracted and is, instead, made up of Fleischmann’s created, written images.31 Fleischmann combines the collection of artworks discussed in Syzygy, Beauty into a new thought, one which consumes all of the works.

“How many times is something performed before there is a very real consistency to it, and how many times more?”32 Fleischmann writes. Each piece—or poem, or object–in Syzygy, Beauty is performing an identity, gaining a consistency but one that is still abstract, cloud-like. Fleischmann interrupts the writing style and pattern of the book only once, with a list. Throughout the book, Fleischmann references “102 words” written about the addressed lover and, on pages sixty-three to sixty-eight, Fleischmann finally reveals this list. Each line in the list begins with “you” or “your,” and the sentences are varying lengths, but for the most part are fairly short. Fleischmann again uses repetition, constructing the identity of their lover, “you,” through physical descriptions and by describing their actions. The physical descriptions used by Fleischmann are highly poetic, and so it’s still hard to picture this “you” spoken of, though it’s clear Fleischmann greatly admires their looks and behavior. The list ends with: “You are prettier than I, prettier than I, prettier than I.”33 Again queering the love letter, this list of their lover’s characteristics inspires not only adoration, but also a level of jealousy from Fleischmann because this person possesses gendered qualities Fleischmann wishes to have. Though jealous, the tone is not angry and is still admiring, as if through loving this person, Fleischmann wishes in some senses to become them—it’s a love pronouncement that is also queer. In Syzygy, Beauty, Fleischmann constructs a fluid sense of identity, a sense of home, love, art, and genre that is malleable, abstract, an “open mesh of possibilities.”34

“The other mode of consciousness facilitates images from the soul and the unconscious through dreams and the imagination. Its work is labeled ‘fiction,’ make-believe, wish-fulfillment,”35 writes Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. She speaks of otherworldly experiences she’s had and how, like other Indigenous peoples and Mexicans, she tended to write these experiences off as superstition because of what she was taught by “white rationality.” Anzaldúa discusses how genre can be used to devalue nondominant belief-systems, how genre can be employed to control people, taking power away from them and their stories. Akwaeke Emezi’s project The Unblinding is described in Emezi’s artist statement online as “a series of self portraits created over a span of seven years, depicting an ogbanje’s progression from unawareness to clarity around its nature as an embodied spirit.”36 Included within The Unblinding project are a series of paintings, a collection of video art, and Emezi’s autobiographical novel Freshwater. Emezi, a Tamil and Igbo writer and artist born in Nigeria, identifies as nonbinary transgender and as an ogbanje, a spirit born into a human body. In their nonfiction essay for The Cut called “Transition,” Emezi writes about how the different aspects of their identity intersect and inform one another. In “Transition,” Emezi also writes about the steps they are taking to change their body to more accurately reflect their in-betweenness. There are many similarities between Emezi’s nonfiction essay and their book Freshwater, considered a fictional novel; according to Broadly, Emezi is often asked why they didn’t just write a memoir. Emezi says, “There are times where you adjust elements of a story, because you want to make the feel of it more accurate. A story can be true without necessarily sticking straight to the facts.’”37 In “The True Disclaimer,” Janet Burroway writes, “A fantasy within the facts usually tells us more about the writer than about the person, place, or thing described.”38 In their work, Emezi queers genre, suggesting, like Burroway, that imaginative spaces can sometimes contain more emotional truth than nonfiction and demonstrating how genre can be used to expand our notions of reality.

In Freshwater, Emezi uses narration to shift our perception of the individual self. The book begins, “The first time our mother came for us, we screamed.”39 The first section of the novel is narrated entirely from the perspective of the spirits who are born into the body of Ada from the moment she emerges from her mother’s body—they speak as a “we” and refer to the protagonist of the novel as “the Ada,” the flesh and bones container within which they live, as they tell the story of her childhood. When “the Ada” is sixteen years old, she travels from her birthplace of Nigeria to America to go to college, and it is at a small school in Virginia that another self is born inside of Ada’s body due to a traumatic experience with a guy. When Ada’s boyfriend repeatedly rapes her and then tells her she needs to start taking birth control, despite the fact that she has expressed to him her commitment to her religion and to abstinence, Ada screams and screams until Asughara is born inside of her. Asughara is another spirit, separate from the “we” of previous chapters. “Of course I came. Why wouldn’t I?”40 Asughara asks upon arrival. In the section of the novel following Ada’s rape and subsequent panic attack, Asughara narrates in first person singular about how she makes Ada take more control in her relationships with young men—at times, to a point of cruelty. Asughara makes Ada sleep with particular guys to make people close to them jealous and makes her break the heart of a person who really loves her and whom she might have loved back. Asughara drives Ada to cut herself and to exhibit suicidal tendencies because of Asughara’s otherworldly need to be fed with blood. She is the part of Ada that both protects her and harms her—she is the part of ourselves we can’t comprehend and we label “self-destructive.” Emezi uses Ada’s spirit selves to reinterpret symptoms—such as anxiety, depression, and depersonalization—that happen to people who experience the kind of sexual assault experienced by Ada’s body.

In Freshwater, Emezi also uses another spirit character, called Saint Vincent, to represent Ada’s gender fluidity. Saint Vincent causes Ada to get a breast reduction, to make love to women, and to honor the parts of herself that are, by the rules of society’s binary system, more male. In “Transition,” Emezi writes about their real-life breast reduction and removal of their uterus, saying, “the surgeries were a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ogbanje; a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature.”41 In reading Freshwater, I came to realize what Emezi meant by identifying as an ogbanje—I came to understand Emezi’s unique way of seeing the human psyche as a world of spirits, spirits who are trapped in the container of a body for the time being.

Nelson, Fleischmann, and Emezi reinforce how crucial it is to write these queer gardens into being—in creating their own visions of a new, nonbinary reality, these writers have also given me, the reader, somewhere safe to rest as well.

In his essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin writes about how the artist’s intention as well as burden in life is that they must cultivate a state of being alone. They are alone, Baldwin posits, because they see and understand the reality of world in a way society refuses to accept. It’s the job of the artist to attempt to reveal this deeper, unseen reality to others. Baldwin finishes his essay: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”42 Emezi’s approach is not only unique in its form—the use of multiple point-of-view narrations to speak for/from inside the body of the same protagonist—but is also radical in its message about the self. Emezi gives power to these spirits, all of the complicated parts of their character, Ada, and

also the spirit parts of themself as a writer. In doing so, Emezi challenges us to give the spirits inside ourselves more power and to listen to what they have to say to us about ourselves, despite how we understand our outward identities, despite the way society may view our bodies. In her foreword to Hollibaugh’s My Dangerous Desires, Dorothy Allison writes, “Too many of us lead lives that read like fiction to the general public.”43 In the book, Hollibaugh also writes quite a bit about how her imagination, daydreams, and fantasies were the most “expressive reality”44 she had, emphasizing the fact that, when society’s idea of reality doesn’t accept you and your identity, you have to make up a reality that will. Identifying as non-binary trans, as Emezi does, is often considered “fiction” by society45 and, therefore, writing one’s own life can feel like an act of fantasy. Emezi says of their book Freshwater, “It’s not othered, it’s not superstition, it’s not magical realism. It’s true.”46 There are other “fiction” writers who, like Emezi, challenge ideas of realism in their works about queer identities. In 1933, Gertrude Stein disrupted ideas of genre in writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas from the perspective of her life partner and naming it an autobiography. Virginia Woolf called her 1928 novel Orlando about a gender-shifting protagonist a “biography,” and it was also based heavily on the life of her lover, Vita Sackville West. Kai Cheng Thom’s 2016 book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir combines nonfiction, fiction, and poetry with elements of “magical realism” and fairy tale, questioning the tropes of the traditional transgender memoir. Andrea Lawlor’s 2017 debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl borrows from the author’s real-life experiences coming of age in the 1990s and also weaves short fables, pastiche, and essayistic musings with footnotes into the larger narrative. The book—which Lawlor says was influenced by Orlando—is about sex-obsessed Paul, who can morph his body and sex organs at will, successfully blending into situations and attracting those he desires, wherever he may be. “For some transgender writers, the labeling of books, by genre or otherwise, is as problematic as the typing of people,”47 writes Peter Haldeman in his 2018 New York Times article about contemporary trans authors. Haldeman writes about how genre can be used to “other” certain writers—such as LGBTQ writers or writers of science fiction, for example—sectioning their work off from the realm of the “literary.” In calling Freshwater a self-portrait, Emezi emphasizes the autobiographical aspects of the novel and questions society’s ‘typing’ of their work. Like Stein, Woolf, Thom, and Lawlor, Emezi utilizes fiction to challenge conceptions of realism, with regards to both genre and gender.

What I write has usually been defined—by others, not myself—to exist within the bounds of “creative nonfiction.” This is because what I write emerges from my own experiences, my personal view of how events have occurred and how I process them. Between the reader and I, there’s an implicit understanding: I’m attempting to portray events as they happened, from my perspective. This genre grants me power, giving me authority over the truth, at least my truth, and for some reason this scares me, maybe because my own truth seems murky even to me. Reading my own writing from over the years, I remember how many different kinds of people I’ve been, how many voices I’ve adopted, created, inhabited.48 Sometimes, also, this distinction, “nonfiction,” feels incredibly limiting in its perimeters. Robert Vivian talks about how category comes from the Greek kat?goría, meaning a public accusation.49 He says that to categorize a person or a piece of art is to speak against them. To confine oneself to the expectations of a genre, he posits, is to divide the self.

Wayne Koestenbaum writes of Barthes, “He longed for a space outside the doxa; this imagined space, where the battle between binaries (such as ‘male’ and ‘female’) has ceased to rage, he sometimes called the ‘neutral,’ and there he wanted to rest, like wounded Adonis in his garden.”50 In their writing, Nelson, Fleischmann, and Emezi all work toward creating this imagined/real space, where the boundaries between genres, genders, nationalities, psyches, and bodies distort, bleeding into one another, sometimes painfully, sometimes sensually, sometimes both. In The Argonauts, Nelson uses her autotheoretical style to carve out a space for the personal to exist together with theoretical, challenging ideas of what types of desire are valued in our society. In Syzygy, Beauty, Fleischmann demonstrates how “the essay” can be an experience, a performance of identity that is fluid, abstract, and highly artful. Emezi’s novel and self-portrait Freshwater exemplifies how fiction can be used to upend limiting interpretations of realism. If the space for your emotional truth doesn’t exit, Emezi suggests, you’ll have to invent that space—you’ll have to bend genre to fit your own reality. In this essay, I attempted to understand why these categories always bug me, hoping to learn of new ways to write without feeling constrained by binaries. Nelson, Fleischmann, and Emezi reinforce how crucial it is to write these queer gardens into being—in creating their own visions of a new, nonbinary reality, these writers have also given me, the reader, somewhere safe to rest as well.

Chachi Hauser is a filmmaker and writer based in New Orleans. Her essays have appeared in Hobart, Crazyhorse, and Third Coast, and her films have screened internationally. Currently a producer on Sundance-supported documentary Hollow Tree, she recently received her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


  1. “David Lazar, “Queering the Essay,” The Essay Review (2013), .
  2. Philip Lopate, “Introduction,” The Art of the Personal Essay, (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), p. xliv.
  3. Réda Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987).
  4. Kate Bornstein’s Lecture at Houston Unity,
  5. Amber Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 264.
  6. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015), p. 8.
  7. Micah McCrary, “Riding the Blinds: Micah McCrary interviews Maggie Nelson,” Los Angeles Review of Books (26 April 2015),
  8. Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 114.
  9. Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 3.
  10. Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 7.
  11. Nelson, The Argonauts, 79: “2011, the summer of our changing bodies.”
  12. Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 44.
  13. Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 4
  14. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978/2010), xii.
  15. Nelson, The Argonauts, 87: “Many women I know have reported something of the same, even though they know this is the most ordinary of miracles. As my body made the male body, I felt the difference between male and female body melt further away.”
  16. Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect, p. 97.
  17. Nelson, The Argonauts, 90: “But pregnant body in public is also obscene. It radiates a kind of smug autoeroticism: an intimate relation is going on—one that is visible to others, but decisively excludes them.”
  18. Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect, p. 95.
  19. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now,” Tendencies (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 9.
  20. John D’Agata, Jim Fingal, Lifespan of a Fact (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2012), p. 111.
  21. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), p. 58.
  22. T. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty: an essay (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2012), p. 4.
  23. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, p. 3.
  24. Eileen Myles, “What about Chris?” (Foreword), I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), p. 13.
  25. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, p. 6. 
  26. Jack Halberstam’s lecture “Trans* Bodies and Power in the Age of Transgenderism” at Swarthmore College, .
  27. Ibid.
  28. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, p. 57.
  29. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, 59: “Before I described the house it already existed, I just had to say ‘house’ to get my purchase on it, to flaw it with my vision…This is the house where you don’t live with me. Down the creek is another house where you don’t live with me…”
  30. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, p. 16
  31. Clarice Lispector, Água Viva (New York: New Directions Books, 2012), 5: “Can what I painted on this canvas be put into words? Just as the silent word can be suggested by a musical sound.”
  32. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, p. 105.
  33. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty, p. 68.
  34. Sedgwick, “Queer and Now,” p. 8.
  35. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007), p. 59.
  36. Akwaeke Emezi, “Artist Statement,”
  37. Marta Baussels, “The Nonbinary Author Centering African Narratives Erased by Colonialism.” Broadly, Vice (21 February 2018), .
  38. Janet Burroway, “The True Disclaimer,”Now Write! Nonfiction (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2019).
  39. Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater (New York: Grove Press, 2018), p. 1.
  40. Emezi, Freshwater, p. 61.
  41. Akwaeke Emezi, “Transition,” The Cut, (New York Media LLC, 2019), .
  42. James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” Creative America, (New York: Ridge Press, 1962), p. 3.
  43. Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires, p. xviii.
  44. Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires, p. 25.
  45. Emezi, “Transition,” The Cut: “‘I’ve never heard of anyone like this,’ the surgeon told me. He was an old white man who had performed many surgeries on trans patients, from breast augmentations to double mastectomies. ‘Male to female, female to male, fine. But this in-between thing?’”
  46. Matthew Whitehouse, “akwaeke emezi: the ‘freshwater’ author standing on the edge and claiming it as central.” i-D, Vice (26 December 2018), .
  47. “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature,” The New York Times.
  48. Virginia Woolf, Orlando (Boston: Harcourt, 2006), 226. Virginia Woolf writes of Orlando towards the end of the ‘biography’: “For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.”
  49. Bob Vivian’s Lecture “Please Don’t Accuse Me of Genre” at Vermont College of Fine Arts
  50. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, p. xi.


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