Content warning: while not graphic, this essay does mention and discuss sexual abuse.
“There is nothing abusive about this scene,” I typed in an email to a journal that wanted to publish my short story “We Had No Rules.” “I think there is a complexity around queer sex that you are missing.” The journal’s editorial board had some questions about the “sex” scene, as they called it. I fired off a response.
I started writing and placing stories from what is now my collection We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press, May 2020) in 2012, and at this point I was very used to getting what I deemed homophobic comments on my stories. I had a number of experiences where I was told “we need you to remove this scene or we won’t publish it” or “we need this character’s sexuality to be less foreground.” I was feeling exhausted and righteous from it all.
In the story in question, a sixteen-year-old chooses to run away from their homophobic home to live with their sister, who had been kicked out for being gay, 6 years before. There is one rule: the narrator can’t fuck their roommates. Then enter Jill, the twenty something non binary femme of their dreams, who brings the narrator’s hand inside her in a “purely instructional” lesson on how to find someone else’s g spot, insisting the whole time that what’s happening isn’t sex.
The journal agreed to publish it as it was, even though a board member insisted a few more times, that what was happening was abuse. I ignored it.
I consider fiction dangerous. Not readily because it is raw and pushes boundaries, but because it so often doesn’t. It is, more often than not, an opportunity to lie about what isn’t there or to manipulate the reader into thinking the world is more hopeful than it is. We want to be lied to. And as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know clearly that there is no one who wants to be lied to more than the families where this happens. And, at least in my case, I needed to be lied to as a survivor for years.
This lying doesn’t always come out of cruelty, but out of a self-preservation or ignorance. For instance, the experience I had, of sexual abuse between children, as a form of care and intimacy, while surviving a parent who is violent and mentally unwell, can be flattened and brushed off as “just has bad blood” or a “is a nympho” or that I must have brought this upon myself. I think of this kind of narrative building when a five year old on my block screams out, “Happy Birthday, America” on the 4th of July. Despite the violence and horror that this country has always wrought, worse than anything I could see in a scary movie — there is a desire to believe that it is worth something. That we can be patriots, that we can manipulate the story of Thanksgiving into a day of sharing rather than a tribute day Puritans gave to their god for a plague that ran through the Wapanoag tribe.
I consider fiction dangerous. Not readily because it is raw and pushes boundaries, but because it so often doesn’t.
When I started writing We Had No Rules I was coming off of the realization that my homophobia and desire to be recognized by the homophobic mainstream literary world was keeping me from writing authentically. My imagination became radicalized and I delved into it to explore all the voices, all the aspects of my queerness that had been silenced by my fear.
I wanted to live through my fiction. So I took the kind of narratives that often held white middle class straight people and populated them with white middle class queers, and I suddenly realized our complicity in systems of violence were even more apparent. If a middle aged white lesbian abuses power just like a middle aged white straight man, does it get read the same way? If a twenty-something roommate who is a man “instructs” another 16-year-old roommate who is a woman on how to touch his dick and tells her it isn’t sex, how is it different than if we set this story amongst queer, woman-identified people during the current era of our nostalgia: the 90s? It reveals that even though the cultural story around abuse of power may have changed, the actual culture hasn’t yet. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, even though I was appalled by the actions of the characters in my stories, I didn’t get a little turned on as I wrote them.
A few years after I published my story — the one the editor had called out as including abuse — I was getting ready to go to a tribute reading for June Jordan. It was hot in my attic bedroom, when I dropped my towel and looked at my phone and saw a long text from a loved one apologizing for abusing me. I had confusing memories that I was just starting to recall. The story in my head always was that I was a disgusting sex fiend. I asked if they had been abused by a different person who I knew had caused me harm and we got on the phone.
“What I did was abuse,” they said. “I was a decade older than you. I was too young, they said, to be giving consent.” In fact, I was so young I couldn’t actually speak yet.
In The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson says of fiction, “I became a poet because I didn’t want to tell stories. As far as I could tell, stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain[… ]they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it.” As a product of the MFA, I can speak first hand about how we get away so often by just telling the story that people want to hear, with different characters and locations. We comfort each other by either confirming the stories we want to hear and are used to hearing, or creating stories that pretend the world isn’t crushing us.
Me and my loved one had the same abuser, though it took different forms for each of us. I sat there sweating, completely naked, my curly hair frizzing from the heat, and I felt my whole life story tip me over. I was nauseous, many thoughts spun through my head and one of the prominent ones that rose to the surface was:
That editor was right.
That scene might not be meant as abuse, but it borders on it because of the power dynamic and the uncertainty of consent.
I was sexual before I could talk. It was meant as care.
I don’t know the difference between abuse and care.
I can not put more stories out into the world that might confirm for someone that what is happening in their lives is better than it is.
I revised every story in the collection from this lens. I feel responsibility for this, but not shame. How would I know the difference between abuse and care in my life? Even if someone grew up in settings where this didn’t take place, it’s nobody is immune to American culture, where we are given a narrative of normalized abuse again and again. The abuse in the family, the abuse between one another is first learned by the abuse of the state.
I don’t only mean the abuse of power and violence of specific men against women, but the way in which the horrors of slavery have never fully been addressed with reparations to Black Americans, or how the American government continually initiates war, or the way that it completely ignores a public health crisis. Or the fact that the police force was created to patrol enslaved peoples and squash rebellions and keep all people — but especially Black and Indigenous people — in a constant state of terror. And public opinion is just now getting around to the idea that there might be a problem with police. If we all truly understood the difference between abuse and care, we wouldn’t demand prison for our enemies. We wouldn’t get away with ignoring survivors and we wouldn’t be so easily assuaged by someone getting cancelled.
We would believe the actual fact that, as Mariame Kaba put in her New York Times opinion piece “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” that “there is not a single era in United States History in which the police were not a force of violence against Black people.” I don’t know anyone who has ever been helped by the police, and yet this narrative that we will be in a crime-filled chaos if we don’t have the police pervades our thinking. Many of us literally can’t imagine it. For many Americans people being “helped by the police” means watching someone be criminalized, or carried off to jail or murdered. It is terrifying to think of the ways that the narratives we construct in fiction may enhance this inability to imagine anything outside of the systems we live in, or to even question them.
It is terrifying to think of the ways that the narratives we construct in fiction may enhance this inability to imagine anything outside of the systems we live in, or to even question them.
We are ready for the simplest storyline because we do not know how to hold the complexity of generations of hurt and trauma. The #MeToo movement has left me distraught whenever I go online. So often, we cause harm because we simply don’t know that it’s harm; we were treated with harm as children and translated it as care. We go to the narrative of cancelling and punishment because we are tired of being forced to forgive our abusers, when no one around us reckons with the initial hurt that was caused. And people rarely want to take accountability because they themselves were harmed in this way long — or not so — long ago. We can consider Junot Diaz’s disclosure of the abuse he experienced as a child, and how it was presented as a way to absolve him of true accountability, rather than an owning of and calling forth of the cyclical nature of sexual violence in direct ways that validated the experience of those he later harmed.
The biggest way I’ve grown as a writer through this story collection, is to examine when I’m only telling a story on the surface, when I simply just want something to be true — when I don’t consider the ways that I might be crafting a narrative that recreates my own power, not seeing another character’s source of pain. I knew, at least in the short story “We Had No Rules”, that the older sister wouldn’t be able to put a name to the confusing scenario that had taken place between her younger sibling and the roommate. And that it was very likely she would come up with a more innocent scenario — a kiss, was that all? How quickly the younger sibling agrees.
In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s opinion piece for the New York Times “The Hollowness of This Too Shall Pass” she writes of our current COVID-19 crisis and our inability to say that this will pass, that things will go back to normal. “This crisis is different. First there is the reality of this virus, an infection that most reports suggest will not necessarily end, will instead recur, reverberate, return through our communities again and again. And then there is the irreparable tear to daily life that occurs under quarantine. For the millions of people who were just thrown into economic ruin, there will not be a return to normal.”
Now that mass media has opened up the violent narrative of current and past policing, there is no returning to normal. To do so is to be complicit in murder and terror. Murder, terror and “power over” is the water we drink as Americans and the air we breath. When our literature or media ignores this, does it reveal how much we are comforted by violence because it is familiar? How ready we are to accept the familiar, rather than confront the possibility of a new unknown?
I thought about this when I watched Portrait of A Lady on Fire. I’ve seen it three times, twice in the theater once at home on Hulu. I’m a sucker for desire and longing and how their push-pull is distinct yet linked, and this movie did everything right for me. I was ready for that lesbian gaze.
When it premiered on Hulu, I readied the house for a perfect viewing experience. I turned off all the lights, I arranged the couches just so, and everyone in my house came upstairs. None of them had seen it before and I was high off of their first time experience. I was so excited when it was done and they oohed and awed and then my best friend — who has the best brain I know and who has been working around the clock to ensure janitors are recognized as essential workers and receive pay and sick leave — brought up her criticism.
“I don’t like how that worker was treated,” she said. She is referring to the moment when the maid, Sophie, who has just had an abortion, is roused out of bed because her boss, Hélöise, has suddenly had the urge to recreate the abortion scene and have her other worker (and lover) paint it. “She’s not getting paid for that,” my friend said. “No one asked her if this is okay. She did it because she was supposed to.”
I thought about how I had gone along with it because the scene was beautiful and, of course, a worker who has just had an abortion would be roused by her mistress and be demanded to work. It was familiar and my brain was likely eased by that familiarity. There is a sense of togetherness in their shared moments, but in the end, the other two women are always in a position of power over the maid.
As a self-declared Sciama-Head I want to believe that the filmmaker knows this and saw this because it fits into the “Yes And” theme of her film. The anticipation and the loss exist at the same time, life and death nestle next to each other, inequality and moments of erotic creation pose in front of a fire. But what if Sophie had refused to be painted? What if she refused to be roused? What would that do to Hélöise’s idea of what’s shared? Would she see the illusion? To actually have equality, Hélöise would have to give up power and also be aware of how much power she has over someone else’s body, even in a misogynistic society that limits her own. Hélöise has more power than she realizes and her desire for equality is not amongst all women, but of women of her class.
In my story, I initially wanted a sex scene with questionable consent to be okay and be accepted as sexy and quirky. This is because almost every sexual experience since I was a child until I was 34 had questionable consent — I’m 38 now. I wanted to write this short fiction because I wanted to claim it and have power over it. It’s an understandable action, but I surrendered my power as a writer, when I allowed a narrative of joy to whitewash a narratives of harm. I relied on this society’s limiting view of harm to do the writing for me. The true work was in returning to that story, and every story in the collection, to examine where I was relying on something that was actually violence and taking control of the narrative by bringing the reader’s awareness to it. As a storyteller, I must be aware of the stories my characters are concocting of their experience. I have to manage perspectives so that the reader can see all the various stories at work, especially the systems of oppression that layer and blind fold us, the way we currently mask our mouths and noses.
I developed many stories to survive an abusive parent: that I came into the world too sexual, that my desire is too much and I need to hold myself back, that I don’t deserve to come, that it doesn’t matter if I don’t like something because I’ll learn to like it — I’ll learn. That I need to apologize and apologize, crying outside a door until I black out, because I need to be forgiven because “what will I do if you don’t love me anymore? I don’t even know what I’m apologizing for but I need you to love me.”
We know these narratives. They’re familiar. They set us up to believe it doesn’t matter when the police tear gassed the crowd marching in Seattle at 11th and Pine, that gas wafted up and choked people in their apartments. Because it was the protestors’ fault, wasn’t it? The rubber bullets, the missing eyes, the asthma attacks, the cardiac arrest. The police chief in Seattle stated, “if the City Council takes [teargas] away, we’re back to batons and devices like that.”
They’ll show us how to love it. They’ll teach us. We’re gonna miss choking on the gas when they’re done with us. I want to see these “devices” laid out on a table. How will we continue to codify these tools and when will the stories we tell finally betray them? 🌋
Edited by Kamala Puligandla