No World For Us: Broken Girls and Embodied Trauma in Porpentine’s “Psycho Nymph Exile”

Trans Girl knows a secret story — secret not only because she doesn’t tell it, but also because nobody wants to listen. It’s the story of what happens after she is driven out of a family that doesn’t want her, after she finds her way into “radical” communities that promise her safety, love and political empowerment. Those communities take her in, exploit her brilliance, assault her body, use her up, throw her away. She goes from magical symbol of the queer revolution to twice-outcast, doubly unloved. She becomes useless, becomes trash. Still, somehow, she survives.

In Psycho Nymph Exile, a speculative fiction multi-media storytelling experience that spans an online game, hypertext poetry, stickers (!) and a novella containing the central narrative, trans femme video game genius and self-described “America’s sweetheart” Porpentine Charity Heartscape takes the secret story and explodes it into a kaleidoscope of image, sound, heartrending prose, radioactive razor shards and toxic bodily fluids. The truth is all there, but shattered, rearranged for maximum sensory and emotional impact. Porpentine travels through a landscape of combat and broken flesh, unanchored in time or place, to map the effects of trauma on the bodies of the exiled.

“I’m interested in bodies that no longer have the thing that was supposed to be their primary reason for living,” Porpentine told Autostraddle. “A crystal, a womb, reflexes, membership in an institution. ‘Useless’ women. What they are left with is themselves. How frightening.”

Psycho Nymph Exile tells the love/trauma tale of Vellus Sadowary, a trans girl (Porpentine never uses the word “trans” to describe her narrator, and instead refers to her as a “hormone cyborg”) who lives in an all-female interdimensional reality where magical girls — think superheroes of the Sailor Moon variety — and giant living woman-shaped bioweapons roam the skies, locked in constant warfare. Vellus’s girlfriend and sole companion, Isidol, is an ex-magical girl whose crystal (the source of her magic) has been cut out of her body while she was asleep.

At the story’s beginning, Vellus is the pilot of one such “biomecha” weapon and a member of the prestigious Academy, a shadowy institution described only as “the most desirable place on earth, where we fly our giant war machines and hang out with friends with cool hair.” After a horrific accident (or perhaps sabotage) during which Vellus loses control of her biomecha during a mission, she is stripped of her position, viciously abused by her former comrades-in-arms and banished.

“Community [is] a golden sphere at the center of a deadly maze,” Porpentine says. And indeed, the parallels between Vellus’s experiences and to the collective gaslighting, abuse and ultimate rejection that so frequently happen to vulnerable people in tightly knit communities seems unmistakeable — especially paired with Porpentine’s critical essay “Hot Allostatic Load,” a more straightforward take on abuse, exile and trauma in queer communities. In Psycho Nymph Exile, she writes:

“It was the three months of solitary, or recommended rest, they called it, as she slowly figured out they didn’t want her to recount the incident as it had happened, but in a way that molded the incident into an unfortunate anomaly […] It was the disgust of the other academy members, the punitive sexual assault, and how so many of these things originated in people who had been ‘good’ to her before.”

Afterwards, impoverished and purposeless in a hostile world, Vellus is left to gather the fragmented pieces of her life. “When I was a kid, learning that people could be imprisoned for extended periods of time felt like the surest sign that this world is actually hell, and it felt insane that everyone else didn’t walk around filled with constant despair at the thought of it,” says Porpentine. In Vellus’s insane post-exile world, trauma is the only constant. Indeed, trauma suffuses every part of Pysycho Nymph Exile, from its motifs of monstrous body horror to its non-linear narrative structure to its hauntingly disaffected prose, which moves seemingly at random between first person narrative, third person narrative and textbook-style descriptions. For this is what trauma does: it breaks one’s sense of self and time, renders one’s perceptions of the body as hideous and harmful and cuts off all emotions save for terror and rage.

Porpentine goes a step even further, embodying trauma as a sort of character in the story as a biological disease winkingly named “DTSP” (Despair Syndrome with Temporal Purge), complete with a clinical symptomatology:

“Future death

Temporal displacement

Life-death

Psycho-irradiation

Pheromone poisoning […]

It is uncertain how people acquire DSTP. It seems entirely random. An innocent enough rape could be occurring when a beam of light falls from the sky and strikes a woman in the head, irradiating every cell of her body. Even women who have been utterly ostracized from society have developed this disease, in the absence of all contact.”

Every survivor of traumatic violence, trans or cis, will recognize themself in the description of DTSP, which Porpentine states that she chose to describe as a physical (rather than mental) illness simply “because people say it isn’t real. ”

In Psycho Nymph Exile, Porpentine builds a nightmare universe that is also oddly soothing in its willingness to take on unspeakable truths in the form of heightened, monstrous reality that, in the end, is not so much more monstrous than “true” reality at all. And, as with nightmares, the potential for allegory and allusion are endless: Porpentine’s giant biomechas driven by pilots who are only partially in control at best may be understood as references to dyshoria, while the endless war against an unknowable enemy whose face is identical to one’s own could be representative of the bottomless pit of ideological warfare in which the contemporary world is currently embroiled. Is the Academy queer community, or is it the school-to-prison pipeline, or is it the military industrial complex, or is it all three at the same time?

In some ways, it doesn’t really matter. Porpentine’s central thread tracks universal questions: Who are we, and what are we capable of, in exile? Without our defining relationships and the values that were supposed to give us a reason for living? What can we become? What are we worth, aside from what we can do or give to the community?

Psycho Nymph Exile is at its best when Porpentine is world-building with her signature aesthetic flair and attention to (horrific) details, or when fearlessly excavating sociopolitical dynamics where other writers might fear to tread. The online interactive pieces — “Probiotic River Therapy” in particular — are hauntingly beautiful, sensory evocations of trauma and dissociation.

However, the prose is sometimes surprisingly dense. A lot, perhaps too much, gets packed into the 188-page novella, and comprehension of the motifs require a bit too much “insider” knowledge of anime and cyberpunk tropes that might limit accessibility to readers with whom the story’s emotional arc might otherwise resonate. Additionally, the romantic relationship between Vellus and Isidol feels a bit underdeveloped; it’s hard to say what draws them to one another, aside from mutual brokenness (and in a narrative strewn with broken girls, one wants to know more).

But then, romance is secondary to the project of Psycho Nymph Exile: this is not, after all, anything close to a conventional narrative. It is a cartography of brokenness, an answer to the questions that no one wants to ask: What happens after exile? What happens to the girls who become trash?

Trans Girl knows a secret story: It is secret because no one wants it told. It is the story of how she survived, after all. And after she tells it, no one knows what she might become.


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Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, social worker and lasagna lover based in Toronto and Montreal, unceded Indigenous territories. Her work has been published and performed widely in print, online, and on stages across Turtle Island. Her Lambda Award-nominated first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir was released by Arsenal Pulp Press in November 2016. Her debut poetry collection, a place called No Homeland, was released by Arsenal Pulp Press in April 2017.

Kai has written 7 articles for us.

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