Two truths, no lies.
- I am an essayist who typically hates essay collections.
- Body Language is one of the best essay collections I’ve read in a long time.
Last month, Catapult released Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves, an essay collection edited by Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile. It took me a month to get through it and write this review. Not because it’s one of those dense “ugh I can’t believe I have to finish it” texts, but instead for all of the right reasons –– the essays demanded my attention not only to the carefully crafted sentences by the 30 writers featured in the collection but also to my own spatiality and presence in this world.
The diversity of identities within this collection is astounding in the best of ways. Bassey Ikpi writes about home, family, and skin in “Connecting the Dots.” Natalie Lima writes about the fetishization of fatness in her brilliant essay, “Smother Me.” Marcos Gonzalez’s “Papi Chulo Philosophies” is an ode to the complexities of relationships, perceptions, and tenderness. Bryan Washington’s “View from the Football Field; or What Happens When the Game is Over” tackles the nuances of the sport, Blackness, and southernness in America. Autostraddle alum, A.E. Osworth’s “In Certain Contexts, Out of Certain Mouths” is an essay on trans thirst-trapping that I have returned to over and over again since it was first published on Catapult back in 2020. Seeing it in print was just the affirmation I needed during an incredibly tough (but still hot) they/them summer. And of course, sure, I read this with all of my identities — Black, fat, queer, disabled, nonbinary, middle-class, etc. — and in many of the essays, I saw myself, my struggles, and lingering questions silently grapple with on a daily basis.
But perhaps seeing oneself completely in the wide spectrum of perspectives offered through Body Language isn’t the point. This collection isn’t just a mirror of readers’ own experiences or a window into another world. These essays in Body Language are tinted windows sitting on 24s, a fierce subwoofer booming in the back –– a vehicle demanding your engagement with its audacity, pushing you forward to a reckoning with your own body in this world. And reckon I did, fam.
In “Surviving Karen Medicine,” Dr. Destiny O. Birdsong writes about navigating the racist healthcare system as a Black woman living with an autoimmune disease. In her account of how she finally got the basic care she deserved, Birdsong offers a new take on ancestor Audre Lorde’s ideas about the master’s tools. “In some instances,” she writes, “they (the tools a Black woman uses for survival) are the master’s tools, finessed and repurposed” (p.114). I huffed at this until I read it enough times to reflect on it — on my success thus far, on how my mama and my grandmama (and hers) had survived.
I read Rachel Charlene Lewis’ “When Your Body is the Lesson” aloud to my wife as we drove across the country and abruptly paused halfway through.
“Can you imagine posing naked in front of all of those people? The vulnerability it must require just to help these folks hone their craft?” The utter confidence you have to have,” I thought aloud.
“You kind of do that though — like in your writing and teaching,” my wife responded.
Lewis’ detailing of how she contorted her body into new poses, etching her figure into the memories (and sketchbooks) of art students made me grapple with my own contortion. I thought about how much of the work I do as a writer and facilitator requires me to use my own body as a tool for others’ learning and development. It wasn’t a new revelation, but it was one I had buried deep beneath some other thoughts and experiences I’ve decided are unworthy of dwelling upon.
In many ways, this book is a shovel that is determined to unearth all of those pieces we have deemed inappropriate, uneasy, and too hard to face. Essays from Taylor Harris and M Crane (amongst others) depict the complexities of birthing and childrearing. There are also heartwrenching essays about the other side of life too — meditations and stories about dying, death, and grieving. The late Nina Riggs’ “The Crematorium” begins the entire book with an essay about her mother’s own death and her own impending final breath. She writes, “there are so many things that are worse than death: old grudges; a lovely life; insufficient self-awareness; severe constipation; a lack of curiosity; no sense of humor; this grim parking lot” (p. 8). And maybe she’s right — I spent at least five minutes thinking about the pain that I’d suffer if I walked around this damn earth severely constipated for all of my days — TERRIBLE. Others in Body Language deal with what comes after death, the coping and grieving we do as those who are left behind. “The Small Beauty of Funeral Sex” by s.e smith challenges society’s norms of mourning appopriately. Andrea Ruggirello’s “Camino de Santiago” shows us what happens when memories of loved ones, coincidences, and our adventures collide.
But we all know life isn’t just you’re born and then you die , so the majority of the collection deals with the messiness of the in-between — how our bodies struggle, survive, and thrive throughout this human experience; how they are perceived, erased, and omitted from consideration; how we fight for them to be seen; how we reckon with new challenges, failed dreams, and get to know curves, bones, scars, and skin again and again.