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The Essays in “Wanting” Show the Power of Vulnerability

Although I have many of them at any given time, I don’t usually speak my desires out loud. Of course, I’m open with my partner about the things I want and need to function in the world, in our little world together, and I’m open with her about my romantic and sexual desires. But my desires for the things I want and need outside of that little world? Talking to other people about them? It’s a constant battle to unlearn some of the more harmful self-preservation related behaviors that came from growing up in the kind of home I did in the broader culture we’re forced to be part of every day. My friends joke that it’s my Taurus instinct to be so elusive about the things I want, but having weighed all the options, it always feels safest to keep them to myself.

As Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters write in the introduction to their new anthology, Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, “Desire is messy. And raw. And irrational. And often embarrassing in its effacement, in the way it takes over and leaves us cracked open.” I think it’s obvious I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more than I already do. Most of the time, my desires seem simultaneously too simple and far too large for my small life. And speaking them out loud feels like I’m giving away a piece of myself I can’t get back. We can say we want things all we want, but it doesn’t mean we’ll get them, especially if those desires extend far beyond our individual control. So what then?

This tension, it turns out, is part of the reason Kahn and McMasters put together the anthology in the first place. They write, “For an impulse that inherently requires another object or person or idea, the experience of desire is internal and intimate. Ultimately, there is nothing more personal than one’s desires, except sharing it. Our desires — and speaking them aloud — make us powerful.” In Wanting, the essays don’t just address sexual desires, as some people might assume from the title. Instead, they discuss desires of all kinds: time and money, having children and families, being a caretaker, having the freedom to express oneself fully, shielding young people from the horrors of violence, buying a car, relishing the possibilities new love brings with it, and ushering in the start of a better world, among other different kinds of yearning. In fact, some of my favorite essays in the collection, with the exception of two, address desires far outside of sexual and romantic wants and needs.

In Rena Priest’s essay, “Desire in the City of Subdued Excitement,” she writes about putting a pair of black cowboy boots on her Christmas wish list because of what those cowboy boots represent to her and in American culture. As a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest doesn’t want the boots for reasons related to just fashion. She wants them so she can feel a type of power that is often associated with the men who wore them:

The opposite of a cowboy is an Indian woman. I exist in the aftermath and ruin wrought  by cowboys. Call it cultural appropriation. I want to dress up and play at cowboy culture. I desire the power available to the self-assured cowboys of the American West. The kind of arrogance required to swagger in, take what I want from this world, and feel 100 percent entitled to it. Entitled to do genocide. Entitled to cause the extinction of people, their customs, cultures, food sources, extinction of lifeways, extinction of entire populations of fish, animals…fuck ‘em all. If I want it, I’m takin it. If you’re in my way, you can get the fuck out or die. Howdy, y’all! Yeehaw!

But for Priest, the desire doesn’t stop there. In truly heart-wrenching prose, she goes on to describe how her desires technically have nothing to do with the boots at all. She wants to write without the baggage of Indigenous oppression and the difficulty of Indigenous resistance against that oppression. She wants Indigenous people to be given the land back so that they can maintain their rightful stewardship of it. Most of all, she wants people to live “in a respectful, reciprocal way with the beings with whom they shared the earth” as they did before the settlers came and she hopes that continuously putting these reminders into the world might help bring that time back.

Aracelis Girmay’s essay, “From Woe to Wonder,” takes similar aim at the racist and colonial violence that is continually happening in the U.S. and maintained by the existence of it. Girmay writes about the impact the murder of Eric Garner had on her, how the perpetual violence against the Black people of this country makes her scared for herself, for her kids, and for everyone she loves. Girmay stresses that she shouldn’t have to reveal these horrific truths to her children simply because they aren’t white, but she also points out how she cannot imagine letting them live in the world without the tools to fight against it. After learning about some of the ingenious ways enslaved people kept themselves alive, Girmay realizes she can’t tell her children about the gruesome parts of their history without also telling them about these people who, against all odds, figured out how to resist and fight back against their oppression in many different ways: “It occurs to me that what I want right now for my children is to equip them with fight and armor and space for dreaming in the long, constant work of our trying to get free.”

Other essays, like Karen Russell’s “Bodies of Water,” address the hope to stop other kinds of crises from completely destroying us. Russell, for instance, writes on the threat of climate change and pollution and how their impacts have shifted her relationship with Miami’s Biscayne Bay, the place where she grew up and spent time exploring with her friends in their early teens. The desire to return to the site of one glorious summer she spent biking all over Key Biscayne with her friends is tainted by the realities of the damage we’ve done to our environment: “The Biscayne Bay I’ve written about here is not a place to which I can return; in the past decade, eighty percent of its seagrass meadows — more than 25,000 acres — have died, and its famous aquamarine color belies the devastation of raw sewage, chemical runoff, global warming and acidification, toxic blooms of algae.”

In “When I Imagine the life I Want,” Larissa Pham discusses her desire for one seemingly simple thing: time to do whatever the hell she wants. As she describes her fantasy of having her own place to write in and paint in and just be by herself in, she reminds herself and us that time to do whatever the hell we want is so difficult to attain because we don’t live in a world that wants us to have it. By the end of the essay, her fantasy changes to something much larger: “When I imagine the life I want, I imagine the world changed. No jails, no fossil fuels, no billionaires. No private insurance, no fracking, no food instability. Living wages, dignified work, decency toward all living things. I imagine a world completely different from the one we have now, broken and remade.” Like Priest’s and Girmay’s essay, Pham’s and Russell’s essays advise us that some of our desires can’t be easily fulfilled. Some of them will take much more time, effort, camaraderie, and struggle to accomplish than we can ever imagine.

Kahn and McMasters balance these kinds of essays with ones that prove some desires can be acted on immediately and are within our power to fulfill ourselves. In Kristen Arnett’s “Being a Dad Means Respecting the Yard” — an essay that has stayed with me since its original publication in Catapult — she describes the process of transitioning from taking care of a yard to taking care of indoor potted plants. She aptly points out that caring for the things we hold most dear in our lives, including ourselves, often requires thoughtfulness, effort, and patience: “The world wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the potted plant that struggles to find the right amount of sun and shade out on my patio. It doesn’t know what it’s doing yet, and, frankly, neither do I.”

Amy Gall’s highly-relatable essay, “My Dick, Your Dick, Our Dick,” begins as an exploration of the first time she and a partner decided to incorporate a strap on into sexual experiences with one another but then extends into something much larger. Gall discusses the sexual politics of being read as butch/masculine and how often butch/masculine women are not allowed to speak or bring their sexual desires into existence and how that expectation made her afraid of doing the same for herself. Eventually, Gall meets a woman who forces her to rethink her how she felt about bringing her sexual yearnings to life:

“For so long, I had dismissed the parts of me that wanted to be an object of desire, telling myself that my worth lay in the pleasure I gave to other women. […] When I was suddenly faced with a person who actually wanted the soft, vulnerable — dare I say feminine — parts of me, who made me feel fuckable, it took time for the old stories to sieve their way out of me. And they never did completely. But as we kept having sex I began to feel relief instead of fear in giving up control. I began to appreciate the space it afforded me to start paying attention to what made my body feel good and not just my partner’s.”

After each essay finishes, you’re left with an overwhelming feeling of familiarity and compassion for the writers whose works are included in Wanting. The best essays in the collection, some of which I’ve included here, illustrate the myriad ways our cravings and our willingness to articulate them often lead to new understandings about ourselves, about the people around us, about the influence we have on the world around us, about how the world influences us, and about the opportunities available to us when we choose to share them. As I read through the collection, I was constantly reflecting on my own relationship to desire and how difficult it is for me to let those desires known. Knowing there are others who desire similarly helps make me feel more capable — and more enthusiastic — about fighting that battle against myself. Over and over again, the essays in Wanting prove Kahn and McMasters’s claim about the power of speaking our desires out loud is true, not just because it helps us fully realize them but because it gives other people power to do the same.


Wanting: Women Writing About Desire is out now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.

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