Sailing with The Argonauts by Efemia Chela

Actually, no one is inspired by anyone except his own self and his own anguish
—Eugène Ionesco

The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press 2016

Christmas is my straightest time of year and it is then that I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I am bi but I have to be straight at Christmas. It’s someone else’s Christmas wish. There isn’t any other choice. My parents are what I’d describe as Christian Fundamentalists. Somehow I’m always at home to deck the halls (which we don’t actually do to avoid the sin of excess), having boomeranged back there after my once bright and seemingly permanent plans for the year have failed again:

A Short History
2013: Retrenchment
2014: Severe depressive episode
2015: Not so big in Japan
2016: Can’t remember. Won’t remember.

My people are the people my parents make fun of on a good day, and revile and accuse of all manner of arbitrary things openly on a bad day. According to my mother, Trump, Brexit and trans bathroom rights suggest the end is near and Jesus is coming. She can’t wait to meet him.

We are at the mall and it is clogged with people taking selfies in front of a giant fake albino Christmas tree. It’s baubled and tinsled. They are all getting in the way of each other. Stray arms and legs cross the borders of pictures and smartphones in front of the alien tree. The uniqueness of each of their photos is disturbed but they carry on. This is not a season when anything makes sense. When we are inside Edgars on our way to buy sensible underwear (because that is fitting for an unmarried woman like me), not a present (because the commercialisation of Christmas increases Satan’s power over us), I detour to the MAC counter. Along with the fronts of local butcheries, where Afrikaans butchies with binding, board shorts and flat caps slouch, this is the queerest part of Pretoria. Or at least the most openly queer. I am delighted by rows of make-up and the hope of non-heterosexual outlooks on life (read: gossip and sex tips).

My mother, out of her element under the bright lights, clubby music and make-up, refuses to be served by the queen in black pleather shorts who’s about to give her her goddamn life honey and make her face werk, girl with the best coral lipstick for her BAMF melanin das poppin’. Her face deflates like a collapsing bouncy house. She clutches her handbag, leaning away as her eyes bulge. I stand in front of her and pout with my eyes closed. I’ll try the colour. I pretend I’m kissing a girl. I open my eyes and look in the mirror. There is no other girl and the colour looks awful on me. She complains the whole car ride home, and in the following weeks, to everyone who will listen and especially those who won’t.

When I cannot bear to hear the story again I go to my room, to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. The volume is slim but it contains multitudes. Completely genre-queer, it melds a letter to her lover, remembrances, polemic, philosophy and gender theory. All seamlessly. Densely packed with thought-provoking ideas, the book is written in a steady chapterless stream, each daring proposal and paragraph reaching for the next. The shoulders of the people she stands on gird the margins, making endless further reading inevitable. This is a book of revelations.

Viewed from one angle, it is the story of Maggie falling in love with Harry and his transition from woman to gender fluid, leaning more male. Maggie also falls pregnant, discovering the double queerness in hosting a future person. The love between Maggie and Harry changes throughout the book, as their emotional, physical and physiological states are in flux. The idea of love changing is less controversial than gay rights but a phenomenon that society fears just as much. Thousands of songs are about perfect love being the same, never-changing, endless (that plastic Christmas tree). Static yet alive, ever fresh, like some sort of GM food. Maggie debates this and makes her truth, by way of Roland Barthes, clear early on — love will change and that is not wrong:

[…] the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you’, its meaning must be renewed by each use, as the very task of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.
— Roland Barthes

Maggie makes the renewing of love sound not Sisyphean, but like a natural buffing and refining. A comforting habit, like massaging your scalp while washing your hair. Natural incidence. Things will roughen again. Your scalp will flake and locks will get oily but that is alright, there is pleasure in the repetition. This is love freed of an overarching goal.

The book is similarly free. Maggie’s playfulness with form makes it feel like she isn’t trying to lure us towards a neat conclusion. Is an overriding conclusion even possible if, in a mere 143 pages, the author journeys through life (the birth of her son, Iggy), death (of radical queerness and her mother-in-law) and her concern at the under-exploration of the female anus in criticism? After all, she says: ‘my writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty’. And it is this trait that makes the book so successful. Maggie’s uncertainty triggers her universal questioning, which covers everything from the most complex ideas to the most fundamental: language.

The keel of The Argonauts is language: Maggie’s wrestling with language; names of states of being; changing legal names; names people call you. Someone called me a writer, once. Someone said, writing is about putting into words things that can’t be put into words, once.

Before long I learned that you had spent a lifetime devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow. We argued and argued on this account, full of fever, not malice. Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.
—Maggie Nelson

Maggie’s partner, Harry, expounds on this, the grand cruel irony of words: once things are named, they lose their mystery and power. But until they are named, it is as if they do not exist. Here I draw a parallel with being a bisexual femme or queer. My experience is murdered out; I don’t exist. I have long hair and visible breasts. With my lipstick collection, jewellery, skirts and lack of interest in sports, cars or carpentry, I pass as straight to most people. I don’t fit into their bank of clichés. This is not the droid they’re looking for.

Heteronormativity refuses to recognise ‘queer’ as ‘perpetual excitement’—what Maggie describes as a swirling maelstrom of resistance against various forms of oppression, shapeshifting placeholder that includes all types of people, orientations, sexual preferences and struggles. And frankly that queerness can be gay, in the happy sense of the word, which is something I don’t get to experience it as most of the time.

The general public, strung out on heteronormativity, assume I’m straight or just tell me I am, depending on how rude or how drunk they are. To stop my vulva from atrophying I have to prove that I’m gay. Something that is tricky to prove, short of being given a bedroom, a recording device and access to another person’s body (and still not a 100 per cent conclusive test). But even if I could prove I was gay, my reward for proving it would be reproach for being gay:

‘You could bring so much disease into our lesbian community fucking guys as well. That’s so selfish!’

‘Seriously?! I feel like this is something you’ll get over eventually.’

‘I don’t want to be dumped for a chick.’

Ebei!!! This is a perversion only Jesus can heal. I know this is not your portion. O! Eranom! The blood of the lamb … abeg.’

‘That’s not a real thing. It’s just a phase.’

‘Greedy aren’t we? Just pick one.’

I am reminded of Maggie’s comment when Harry starts taking testosterone: ‘visibility makes possible, but it also disciplines’. So mostly out of convenience I fake straight and shut that part of my life away. Quite awkwardly I am simultaneously desperate to be seen, and hidden by my own mouth’s silence and my two hands. Garden variety homosexuals get to come out once. Any other queer has to convert the world over and over again. It is exhausting unpaid labour, often painful and futile:

How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?
—Maggie Nelson

And that’s before we’ve even addressed class or race or ‘finding someone with whom my perversities are not only compatible but perfectly matched’. Sometimes when I walk past the white lesbians loitering outside the butcher’s, and there’s a woman I admire, I wonder—if we fucked would I be able to tell if it was BDSM or a lynching before it was too late?

I am mid-voyage on The Argonauts in the slide towards Christmas Sunday. I keep reading during small breaks in the preparations for a party I am increasingly nervous about. We will be twenty people in a small suburban house, being held to ransom in a heatwave. It’s all a bit too Tennessee Williams, even for me — and I love Tennessee Williams. A gathering of people in forced gestures of celebration after a wretched year. We have two lacklustre marriages and one openly failed one (courtesy of my family). There’s a dying family friend, the spectre of an absent father, a prodigal daughter (back from America). My halfployment and my cousin’s anxiety join the party. There are two people with disordered eating, only two bathrooms, eleven individual dishes, and me to host and pair wine with everything. It’s fucked. I start chasing Valium with wine as soon as I brush my teeth. I have read of terror being beautiful in literary fiction but this is real life; terror means my face is beautiful but my voice is sad and no one notices.

I will always aspire to contain my shit as best as I can …

When I read this quote, I am reminded of why I read. Reading allows me to be part of something, a community, even though I am almost always physically alone. Usually in bed. The most time I spend out of bed is the thirty minutes it takes to eat something and falsely assure everyone in the vicinity that I am completely alive and okay. Reading allows me to hope to be better, to reach the state of self in the second part of the same sentence:

… but I am no longer interested in hiding my dependencies
in an effort to appear superior to those who are more visibly undone or aching.
—Maggie Nelson

To be more radically queer regardless of the consequences and because of the consequences — a dissipation of my current ennui, a better life for myself and a more flexible world. Any book that authorises that is surely a golden fleece. The Argonauts is a touching more-than-memoir on living and loving in-between: in between life and death, male and female, law and lawlessness, love and indifference, language and ideas. I may be losing myself in heteronormativity, in a haze of Christmas lights, at this moment. But when I wake up hungover, dry-mouthed in bed, on Boxing Day or any day ever, I know can sail back into The Argonauts and rejoin the eternal quest.

Efemia Christiana Chela is Francophone & Contributing Editor for The Johannesburg Review of Books. Follow her on Twitter.