Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Meaning of 'Queer'

I grew up in a very Catholic family at the turn of the twenty-first century in New York State. The periscope through which I perceived the world during the formative years of my life was colored by the Puritanical monochrome of what the adults in my life believed to be natural, decent, and necessary. Despite the best efforts of my guardians, a burgeoning rainbow lit up inside me (pun intended), present in even my earliest memories. But I was not queer until I began to express that rainbow, and so to push this already tortured allegory just a little further, it isn’t the mere presence of an internal rainbow that makes one queer, but what one does with it.

In “What Is This Thing Called Queer?,” Cherry Smith offers a brief history of LGBTQ community and activism, including the origin of the word queer as a sort of umbrella slur against the community, but now its meanings are still widely disputed and therefore open to infinite correct interpretations.

As a slur, queer was also used to describe illness or drunkenness, and was derived to describe us from these undesirable connotations. Smith guides readers to the conclusion that there is no universal definition of queer, nor universal acceptance of the term as reclaimable. Some of us happily describe ourselves as queer and some never will, and that’s okay. Queer has to do with structures of power, specifically those who live outside it; in its ambiguity, queer takes down boundaries and binaries and heralds in a “radical questioning of social and cultural norms” (Smith 280). Even in the most intimate settings, to queer or to be queer is radically political.

Despite the nebulosity surrounding the word queer itself, Smith does not lose focus of queer’s importance. She states, “Each time the word ‘queer’ is used it defines a strategy, an attitude, a reference to other identities and a new self-understanding” (Smith 280). Smith is telling us that we need to be mindful of how we use queer, so that its great power is not wasted; queer should be used to beget the main concomitant outcome that is natural to itself: the building of coalition and community.

Queerness can be found at the intersection between joy and otherness. In a sense, it does not have to refer to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity/ presentation at all. Many other facets of identity fall outside what Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm,” an idealized expression of humanity often held up as a default, which typically encompasses attributes like straightness, cisgenderism, whiteness, middle-class-ness/ wealth, able-bodiedness, maleness, education, neurotypicality, Christianity, thinness, never having been a sex worker, and having been born in the global north. In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” a chapter in her book of essays Sister Outsider, Lorde tells us that most, if not all people, fall outside the mythical norm at some point in their lives. Lorde states:

“Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ …It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising.” (Lorde 116)

What Lorde appears to be suggesting in this passage is that we all perhaps lean toward queerness in various ways. Queerness for Lorde could be seen as the simple doing away with hierarchy, the awareness that difference should not stop us from showing up and standing up for other people who face different oppressions than we do.

The seemingly boundless applicability of queer that can be deduced in considering Lorde’s “mythical norm” calls to mind one specific line in the essay Queerness as Horizon by José Esteban Muñoz, which has now challenged me for the space of a year. Muñoz argues, “queerness is not yet here; it is, in the language of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a potentiality” (Muñoz). Queerness should be a universal aspiration because it represents universal safety and signals belonging and cared-for-ness for everyone on earth. It is anti-capitalist and anti-meritocracy. We can get there; to do so, we only have to change the entire world.

Definitions of queer, of life at the margins of society, and of socialist revolution usually contain similar sentiments to so many other social movements from throughout history because queers of any persuasion are minorities. The Puerto Rican human rights organization the Young Lords stated it succinctly in their 13-Point Program: “We each organize our people, but our fights are against the same oppression and we will defeat it together” (Young Lords). The Young Lords were never alone in this philosophy, though their elegant phrasing helps drive home the idea that we are all Davids up against Goliaths, and our only hope is in each other.

As Audre Lorde herself put it in her poem “A Litany for Survival,” “we were never meant to survive” (Lorde). Queer is our ability to thrive in the face of the hierarchy that has tried so many times to kill us, body and soul. Queer is strength in coalition and community. To queer or to be queer is to insist upon joy among other human rights. Queer is a refusal to submit.



WORKS CITED

Lorde, A. (1984). “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider:
Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press. Freedom, CA.

Lorde, A. “A Litany for Survival.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147275/a-litany-for-survival.

Muñoz, J. E. “Queerness as Horizon: Utopian Hermeneutics in the Face of Gay Pragmatism.” A
Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Edited by G. E. Haggerty and M. McGarry. 24 August, 2007. Blackwell Publishing.

Smith, C. “What Is This Thing Called Queer?” (1996). The Material Queer: a LesBiGay
Cultural Studies Reader. Edited by D. Morton. Harper Collins. New York, NY.

Young Lords Party, The. (n.d.). 13-Point Program and Platform. In University of Virginia. The
Sixties Project, University of Virginia. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/Young_Lords_platform.html

Monday, November 11, 2019

Arrival Songs: Derdriu

So NaNoWriMo is going surprisingly well. I am eleven days into Arrival Songs: Derdriu, and I really couldn't be happier with my decision to explore her early life for NaNo this month. It has been a really hard year for me, writing-wise. But Derdriu is an incredibly special character to me; she is my favorite thing I ever made. To be fair, she's also had a good deal of "making power" over me too.

I was a little bit intimidated, truth be known, to write extensively about Derdriu before Angela, but it's been incredibly rewarding, and I know that adding so much foundational content on the character of Derdriu at this stage will only serve to enrich the rest of the series as a whole. In the scene I've decided to paste below, she's about 15, and has just arrived on Locusta's doorstep. Childhood Derdriu is very interesting to me, perhaps because she was more ostensibly lesbian than Childhood Charlotte ever had the nerve to be. 

Perhaps the most important thing to me about my Derdriu is that I can always count on her to call me home. Please enjoy this very rough chapter from Arrival Songs: Derdriu. ♥️ CV

~ ♆ ~

Derdriu by Charlotte Victoria (2019)


“YOU FORGET YOURSELF, NONA,” Locusta said venomously. “You will make that up to me, too.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “Eight hundred years more we’ll have to spend with one another, you and I. You can choose to hate me and make me your enemy, or you can try to show a little bit of gratitude. It makes no difference to me,” she added loftily, and Derdriu doubted this very much. “I do not require thanks.”
“Then why should we be thanking you on bended knee?” Derdriu asked, one eyebrow raised. “See, it seems to me that if you had rescued us from some shite, maybe then we ought to be thankful, but you’re saying you have as little choice in all of this as we do. And that being the case, you really should not have a problem with me simply going home to me poor old mum.”
“Derdriu–” Nona started, warningly.
“So…” Derdriu said, “I reckon I’ll just be going home, then. Unless you’re going to stop me.”
“You cannot leave the Undine Isles,” Locusta said. “You fall into the period of tenderfin containment until your one hundredth birthday.”
“So… if I am not a guest, and I am not allowed to leave but, as you are saying, I must remain here, then I reckon I’m a prisoner. Do prisoners often thank their captors in your experience, Locusta?”
Nona’s eyes had gone wide wide wide. Locusta turned to face Derdriu straight on. She had gone very pale and her lips had pressed into a hard, thin line.
“Nona, show Derdriu where she will be sleeping for the foreseeable eons,” said Locusta, her eyes sparkling madly and her lips curling wickedly upward.
“Oh!” Nona sighed, her shoulders dropping as though she were really relieved about something. Derdriu thought it was easy to imagine what: she wanted nothing more than she wanted to be out of Locusta’s presence as well. “, come with me, Derdriu.” She was already heading out of the room but her right hand flapped blindly behind her, feeling around for Derdriu’s hand to grasp. Derdriu slipped her hand into Nona’s and they were about to head up the stairs when Locusta made a strange, throat-clearing sound from behind them to get their attention, and they both turned around.
What now?
“What is the matter, Locusta?” Nona asked on tenterhooks.
She is not sleeping upstairs,” Locusta said, as though this was obvious. “Look at the state of her. It would be like having a man up there in our little henhouse. I can’t imagine any of the other ladies with whom we live would appreciate having a man in their spaces, catching them naked and free to prowl about upstairs as he likes while they sleep.”
“I am not a man,” Derdriu said firmly. “I am not referred to as a he, if it please you.”
“Well, it does not please me,” Locusta said and her voice rang out in the kitchen. She strode toward them and walked in a couple of slow, vultureish circles around them, inspecting Derdriu from every angle. “I must say that you confuse me, young Derdriu Ní Mháille. And you look confused.”
“I assure you,” said Derdriu, as evenly as she could, despite the fact that her hands were shaking with suppressed rage, “that I am not confused about anything.”
“You are,” said Locusta. For a moment, Derdriu stared at Locusta, unsure if she could respond without breaking a second chair over the regent’s head. She had never met someone so evil, or so infuriating. Her anger was pounding along with her pulse like a kettle drum in her brain. She knew the situation was not like to get any better now, but she could not imagine how it could get any worse. A second later, she realized this failure of imagination when Locusta added, “And you are going to give up that sword.”
“I am going to do no such thing,” Derdriu said. “It was me grandfather’s. I will never surrender it to the likes of you. You are unworthy to have it from me, and you never will. Mark me words.”
“Mark my words,” Locusta repeated.
Derdriu’s mind had just made itself up to kill this horrible person, but before she could draw forth her sword, she heard the door swing open behind her again, and she, Nona, and Locusta all turned to see who had come in.
At first, Derdriu thought that perhaps a lot of red cotton cloth had just blown in accidentally, but then some gnarled, wrinkled hands and a wizened brown face found their way out of the fabric and split into a wide grin at the sight of the three of them standing there. The old woman’s teeth were yellow and speckled with brown and gray, and they protruded from her mouth rather horsily when she smiled. Her long-nailed, arthritic-looking fingers clasped a knobbly wooden walking stick so that she looked a bit like a sorcerer. She appeared to place much of her weight on the stick by means of her hands because her knuckles were white with the effort to hold herself standing.
“Locusta!” she called in an airy and very geriatric-sounding voice, “I hope you did not forget the date of our appointment!”
“I have had it marked on my calendar for nearly four hundred years, Archsibyl,” Locusta said, putting on a frighteningly fake smile and moving to greet her guests.
The Archsibyl waved one of her hands enthusiastically, her eyes popping slightly with her happy expression, and then she overbalanced and went toppling into one of her younger fellows. The walking stick was sent askew, and it crashed into a large antique blue and white china vase, which teetered and tottered and fell to the floor with a resounding crash, where it shattered into several discrete pieces.
“It’s too bad you couldn’t have warned me to move my favorite vase,” she muttered so that only Nona and Derdriu could hear her.
The other red-robed women, of which there were two, looked much younger than the Archsibyl, and they carefully stood her back up again, but she still wobbled precariously.
“AHH!” roared the Archsibyl, once she was back on her feet, and everyone, including her own companions, jumped slightly in startlement. “It’s you, then, isn’t it?” She was looking at Derdriu. “Yes. Of course it’s you. I have seen you before in my visions.”
“Your… visions?” Derdriu repeated. She wasn’t sure whether or not she ought to trust this Archsibyl, but at least the Archsibyl acted friendlier than Locusta, and wasn’t quite so worried about what things (or people) looked like. Derdriu eyed the hopeless fragments of vase on the ground and had to stifle a laugh. She had grown up with a psychic mother and she had every reason to suspect that the Archsibyl could indeed have warned Locusta to protect her favorite vase, but had perhaps chosen not to out of spite. She decided that whether or not she could trust the Archsibyl, she already liked her a lot.
“Yes, my visions, girl,” the Archsibyl said. “I have been waiting for you for three hundred and seventy-seven years. That was when I first saw you. I am Pythia, Archsibyl of Oculum Island, Speaker for the Order of Blood.”
“The Order of…? You first saw me three hundred and seventy-seven years ago?” Derdriu gaped. She didn’t know what to marvel at first. She realized that she must look ridiculous to these immortals, her mouth hanging open slightly and her breaths coming with difficulty. She was waving her hands slightly in front of her and not looking into anyone’s face. “Hold on, I just need to figure out – is that a smaller number in Irish?”
A clandestine look of amusement seemed to pass between Nona and the three assembled Sibyls.
“No, it was a warm evening late in the Spring of Cancer in the year 1236. I was alone in my solar reading the diaries of my predecessor, the good Archsibyl Delphina, when I was overcome with visions of you and all that you are going to do here in the Undine Isles. My visions of you were so powerful that I believe I may have permanently corrupted your ancestors. Your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, a woman called Niamh, first developed the gift of sight because of my visions. The gift became hereditary, at least down the female line. Your mother had it, you know, as did your grandmother, a woman called Geiléis Ní Mháille.”
“I never met me grandmother,” Derdriu said. “She died long before I was born, when me mother was a child herself.”
“Yes, Geiléis died in childbirth,” the Archsibyl agreed. “But she saw you, too. I wonder if you ever heard your mother talk of a prophesied hero who would carry the name Ní Mháille–” her eyes grew suddenly wide, “and oh! That sword, that sword!” She gestured excitedly at Starrfhiacail. “Oh, it doesn’t matter how long I’ve been doing this; it never fails to amaze me.”
“Carry the name Ní Mháille and Starrfhiacail where?” Derdriu pressed.
“Oh, you scamp, Derdriu! Certainly you must know that I can’t tell you that!” the Archsibyl cackled as though she were already very fond of Derdriu, which, Derdriu reasoned, she well may be, as she had known Derdriu for centuries before Derdriu had even come to exist. Recovering, she added, “the prophecy goes that the hero will carry the name and the blade to glory. But you have already heard that.” It was not a question.
“So you’ve had an appointment to meet me for three hundred and seventy-seven years?” Derdriu asked.
“Oh, yes,” said the Archsibyl, her wild eyebrows waggling happily as she nodded.
“Well, you have come at an opportune time, Archsibyl,” Nona slid into the conversation graciously. “Locusta was just going to tell Derdriu where she is to sleep for the rest of her thousand-year stay here at Ridley Island.”
Judging from the series of looks that now traversed Locusta’s face, she had just suffered a string of small aneurysms. And everyone did of course turn to look at Locusta at just such an exact moment as to catch the tail end of this process.
“Oh, lovely,” said the Archsibyl, expertly catching on to Nona’s hint. “We can all have a look at it.”
And so Locusta was forced to lead them all up the creaking wooden stairs to the most spacious room in the house. It had several large windows that looked out on the sea and on the side garden, and by the look of it, it was not yet regularly occupied.
“Ah, yes,” said the Archsibyl. “But this is positively quaint, Locusta! It will be a perfect environs in which for young Derdriu to spend her indentureship,” she added, turning and then speaking directly to Derdriu, “before you come to Oculum Island. It is just lofty enough to support your own burgeoning gift of sight.”
“I’m sorry?” said Derdriu. “I… Archsibyl, if you please, I do not possess me mother’s gift. I have never had a vision before. I cannot predict the future.”
“But you will,” the Archsibyl said dreamily.
“I don’t think so,” Derdriu said.  She took a gratuitous look at Locusta. “Perhaps I’m not woman enough after all.”
“The gift will develop here, Derdriu,” the Archsibyl said. “All mermaids have a gift. Yours will be the little push you need to follow many generations of your grandmothers in the gift of sight. And then, if you are willing, you will come to Oculum Island to live in eternal communion with the rest of our faith. You will choose an Order, either the Order of Blood, who wear these fabulous red robes, or the Order of Water, who wear blue and live their lives in sibylline enclosure, with the exception of their Speaker, who is allowed to move about as she sees fit.”
Derdriu did not know how to respond to this. She had no interest, of course, in being a part of a weird sybilline cult. At last – “I wear trousers,” she said, stupidly.
“Yes, we’d noticed,” Locusta muttered, rolling her eyes.
“Archsibyl,” Derdriu said, then decided that she ought to more carefully consider whatever it was that she was about to say, lest she offend the only powerful person here who did not seem set against her yet, “I don’t want to become a Sibyl.”
To her surprise, the Archsibyl offered up an uncharacteristically calm smile and simply said, “I know, dear. And against the counsel of some members of both my Order and the Order of Water, you have my word that I shall never force you. But when your visions start to come, we can help you. It might frighten you at first. Some of our Sibyls’ visions tend to come with an adverse effect. You may experience nausea, giddiness, oversleeping, insomnia, sleepwalking, shitting your pants, or seizures.”
“It sounds as though a lot could go wrong,” Derdriu said, grinning in spite of herself, and to her surprise, all of the Sibyls laughed. But then the Archsibyl became very serious again and looked up at Derdriu with an almost maternal sort of look in her cloudy eyes. She got very close to her. Derdriu wondered if the Archsibyl ever did anything to make her breath smell less horrifying, and doubted it.
“It will come to be, Derdriu,” she said esoterically. “But I want you to be as happy and as comfortable as you can be when it does happen.” She looked contentedly around the room, leaning on her gnarled walking stick with both hands. “I think a great deal of love will be given in this place.”
“But Archsibyl–” For the first time, one of the Archsibyl’s younger cohorts spoke up. Like her mistress, this sibyl wore a long, heavy robe of crimson so that only her face and hands were visible. She had tightly curly, frizzy copper-colored hair and a pinched-up face.
“Yes, Castalia? What is it?” the Archsibyl asked patiently, without looking back at her. Derdriu got the feeling that Sibyl Castalia questioned the Archsibyl a lot, and that even the Archsibyl may have found her a bit grating.
“Sibyls of Oculum Island are not to be given in marriage and are not to give of themselves in coitus.”
“And as we have just established, my good Sibyl, Derdriu is not one of us, which leaves her free to pursue the passions of her heart, and I would argue that it is important to the survival of all that she does so.”
Derdriu had no idea what they could possibly be talking about.
“I haven’t done anything,” she blurted out.
“No,” the Archsibyl agreed. “But you will have. Time is always shorter than we think, even, and in my opinion, most especially when one is dealing in centuries, not mere months or years. One day sooner than you could imagine, young Derdriu, all of this will become retrospect, and mark my words, it will feel to you like the blink of an eye.”
Derdriu did not know quite how to respond to that.
“Do you have any questions for me, Derdriu?” the Archsibyl asked, her eyes scanning her searchingly.
At first, Derdriu thought she could not possibly have anything to ask the Archsibyl, but then she remembered Starrfhiacail.
“Archsibyl, you and me mother and me grandmother all believed that I would carry me name and also me grandfather’s old sword to glory in the Undine Isles,” she said.
“Yes?” said the Archsibyl.
“Well, do you have any recommendations of what I could do with the sword in the event that it isn’t welcome here on Ridley Island?”
“Isn’t welcome?” the Archsibyl repeated, raising her wiry eyebrows considerably.
At this, Locusta gave a heavy sigh and snapped, “Oh, you can keep the damned sword in here, Derdriu.”
“Oh,” Derdriu said. That had been resolved a lot more simply than she had expected it to be. 
“See? Sorted!” said the Archsibyl. “If that is all then…” She turned to her companions. “Which of you has the homing bottles?”
“I do, Archsibyl,” chimed up the one who was not Castalia, presenting the Archsibyl with a wooden crate that clanked gently as it was transferred. The Archsibyl turned back to Derdriu with the crate in her surprisingly capable grip.
“These are called homing bottles,” the Archsibyl said. “Now, I want you to do me a favor, Derdriu. A compromise, since you are going to be living here and not with us. When you experience a vision, I want you to divulge its contents to me in writing. Place the parchment in one of these bottles, screw the cap on tight tight tight, and throw it into the sea. It will find me. Will you do that for me, dear?”
“Of course,” said Derdriu.
“Very good,” said the Archsibyl. “Then I don’t see any reason why it should be a problem that you are staying here.” She eyed Sibyl Castalia rather pointedly as she said this. “Come, Castalia, come, Cassandra. We must return to Oculum Island.” She turned back to the three Ridley Island mermaids. “Locusta Cassius, charmed as usual. Derdriu Ní Mháille, what an honor it has been!” And then she turned to Nona to make her final goodbye. “Nona Bastelica,” she breathed, coming close to Nona, and it was clear to Derdriu, at least, that Nona did not appreciate the reek of the Archsibyl’s breath. “Such a pity it is that this is the only time when you and I shall meet! You are so extraordinary, did you know? I am entrusting this child to you. We will show ourselves out,” she called to Locusta, and without a backward glance, the three of them retreated out of the room. Locusta stalked out a moment later, slamming the door behind her on Nona and Derdriu.
Derdriu watched the three Sibyls board their little boat and paddle back out to their greater ship. In a few minutes, it was on its way back toward the horizon line.
“Well,” said Nona, “we had better make this room fit for a permanent resident, then.”
“Nona?” Derdriu said, and Nona stopped where she stood. 
, my dear?”
“I just wanted to say thank you,” Derdriu said. “Thank you for helping me. I have a feeling the Archsibyl was right about you.”