Dispatches from Rape Culture: The Prescient Vision of Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, reviewed by Hope Wabuke
Prose poetry has long had its detractors — poets who aver the prose poem is not poetic enough and prosists who aver the prose poem is too poetic. But the prose poem has persevered and become an established, accepted poetic form. Excellent work has been done in it — consider, for example, the recent prose poems of Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, Gregory Pardlo, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Terrance Hayes, just to name a few.
What remains fluid are the demarcations between the prose poem and the lyric essay, between the prose poem and the flash essay, between the prose poem and flash fiction. While there are those art objects that are clearly one or the other, many walk a fine line between one and the other, or between all four.
And yet, however, a claim can be made that in a time when increased space has been made for duality and multiplicity — socially, we are less single races and more and more bi-racial peoples; sexually, people identify less as heterosexual and more on a compendium of fluid and/or queer sexuality; tech-wise, we are neither human nor robot but a strange compound of living being in symbiosis with smartphone twenty-four hours a day — that the hybrid nature of the prose poem makes it the most authentic means of articulating our hybrid modern existences.
Living at the intersection of the prose poem and the flash essay, acclaimed poet Khadijah Queen’s latest offering, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, transcends both forms. Through the use of interconnected prose poems, Queen has crafted not just a poetry collection but a single, sustained lyric essay, heightened by stream of consciousness, present tense narrative, and lack of punctuation. Here is a narrative composed of singular prose poems strung like beads on a necklace.
The prose poem form allows poets to privilege clarity and poetic explication of idea, rather than stanza breaks, and other visual and structural markers of form. That is not to say that the prose poem is not concerned with poetic form; the prose poem is a poetic form. The box of text allows the poet to revel in imagery, diction, syntax, rhythm, line, and the musicality of language. Rhyme, too, takes on an organic, more nuanced and useful subtlety in the prose poem. Consider Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which allows the reader to focus on the explication of living under the pervasive, daily, soul-crushing weight of racism.
In the case of Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, the subject examined is rape culture. What is toxic masculinity? Queen’s text asks. How does it violate the lives of young girls and young women? How does celebrity culture enable male violence against women?
Queen writes a chilling depiction of how girls and women are always watched by men — even when too young to react to the male gaze with anything other than fear; how interactions can range from somewhat benign, to violent, to life-threatening. We remember the names, you see, of all the women who have been violated by men: the one in four American women who are raped each year; the one in three American women who are battered each year. The many, many women, killed each year, for simply saying no when approached by men.
I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men &What I Had On is a vivid, visceral articulation of living under this constant threat of sexual assault and sexual harassment our rape culture normalizes; of living with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted or harassed. Here, too, is the understanding of what girls and women do to negotiate, all day, every day, how to be safe from men who will do these things — whether bringing another woman to a work meeting that cannot be avoided, pursuing alternate employment, walking with keys or mace in hand, not going out alone at night, parking car under bright lights. The many invisible ways we try to keep ourselves safe are endless.
And sometimes, despite our best efforts, we cannot keep ourselves safe.
For just as Queen’s prose poems are imbued with the depth of intense imagistic saturation, so too does the violence of toxic masculinity imbue every aspect of our lives. We see Queen as a girl running from famous grown men who stare at her bottom, grope her, and make lewd comments. We see her think of her clothes as armor to protect her from the groping hands of strange men in cafeterias; we see her navigate the familiar gauntlet of the male gaze as “you can feel the men in the restaurant looking as you walk by but they don’t speak & you practice what you’ve learned you walk tall walk pageant straight & manage to eat greens & cornbread with whatever kind of grown women grace.”
Every aspect of I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men &What I Had On is supremely deliberate. Upon first viewing, the book stuns with its haunting black and white front cover from which peer only two eyes and a cheekbone, painted over by a wash of red. This articulates, again, the narrative theme of violence done to women by rape culture and the erasure of women and women’s voices by toxic masculinity. One can also, in the hint of eyes and sliver of cheekbone, see the iconic face of the late musician Prince, known for his support of women artists. Prince is, of course, featured in the book, as are Tupac, Josh Duhamel, Louis Farrakhan, LL Cool J, ½ Dead, DJ Quick, Dave Chappelle, and a host of other famous men the narrator interacts with.
Unlike the majority of the men in this narrative, however, the poem about Prince is not violent. Here, we see a woman basking in enjoyment at a musical concert with friends. Prince does not take; he asks — or rather, his people ask if Queen would like to come onstage with Prince, perhaps leading to after-show shenanigans. We see Queen think about this. We see her want to dance onstage, but cautious, very cautious, about what that could lead to — having now learned some things about the world of men. We see her say no, thank you. We see Prince (or his people) honor that no, and withdraw.
Unlike, too, other sections, in the book — for example, the men who grope Queen or expose themselves to her on the bus when she was twelve years old, the rapper and his crew who tried to break down the dressing room door on a music video shoot and force Queen and her sister to have sex with them, before they grab their shoes and leave the set. In this moment with Prince there is no overruling Queen’s no; her agency and control over her body is honored. There is no violence. A woman can be, can be seen, can speak, be heard, and go on her way, unmolested. But that this is the aberration, not the norm, speaks volumes about rape culture and toxic masculinity.
The positioning of the book vis-a-vis title also does two more things. It draws attention to the too-common first responses to stories of assault: What did she have on? What was she wearing? This mode of victim-blaming puts the onus on women to find ways to keep men from assaulting them, when the onus is on men to simply do one thing: not assault women. This also draws attention to a second response to stories of harassment: Well, why did she look so good if she didn’t want male attention?
A woman’s appearance, Queen tells us, can — and is — for the woman herself. She dresses, wears makeup or not, styles her hair or not, for herself; not for the male gaze; not as an invitation.
Queen’s constant attention to these two details: what she wore, and how men behaved around her, center each poem. Queen is clear to note, for those victim-blaming voices, the times she wears baggy clothes and is sexually harassed as much as when she wears dresses, out celebrating with friends. She details her reaction to the gaze of these men, and what happens next. Their interactions are nearly always instigated by the men. They nearly all include a sexually predatory aspect, no matter how young Queen is. There is an arc to Queen’s responses: at first unaware, her discomfort; empowered by agency, saying “no;” the moments when the agency of her “no” is overpowered by male and the moments where her “no” is heard and respected; the rare moments when an interaction with a famous man does not veer into dangerous, predatory, masculine behavior.
Like Citizen, Queen’s text is a poetic deconstruction of a larger idea: in this case, the entitlement and ownership men feel over women’s bodies. Through the repetition of one poem after another in this vein, the text reflects the constant, unending pressure of this violence throughout one’s entire life. Science and medicine have just begun to study the health effects of living under the constant stress of macro and micro aggressions due to race and gender — from PTSD to high blood pressure. Queen’s work adds to this conversation, melding science and lived experience into art. I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On is as much damnation as interrogation. It is not that one young woman has had to live with so much through her short forty years of life. It is that all women live this every day.
This documentation of sexual assault by famous men is not an exercise in self-aggrandizement, ego-tripping, or self-victimization (more common responses to women speaking out about sexual assault). Los Angeles is not an easy city to be a girl or a young woman in. Fame and money brings a certain kind of masculine entitlement. Beauty is worshiped. There is a culture of certain bodies being public spaces — the men hollering at women out windows on a regular basis. All this, of course, already emboldened by the constant predatory nature of the male gaze and toxic masculinity. Growing up in Los Angeles, in the presence of wealthy, famous men who felt ownership over female bodies — and acted accordingly — this was Queen’s daily experience. But toxic masculinity and rape culture extend all over the world. Consider the global range of the hashtag #MeToo, to articulate the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment that nearly all women experience.
The #MeToo campaign, as we know, was instigated by Tarana Burke, an African American woman, but was not propelled into mainstream consciousness until popularized by a white woman, Alyssa Milano. Syncing with the public reveal and confirmation of sexual harassment by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo became the slogan of an eruption in our culture where, for the first time, a critical mass of women spoke up about sexual assault and harassment — and something was finally done.
However, there are different aspects that arise depending upon the woman’s identity. Despite its founder, many black women were not believed with #MeToo, were not given the same space to speak out as white women were by all genders. Consider how actress Andrea Perrineau’s admission of sexual assault was summarily dismissed by white feminist icon Lena Dunham. Consider, too, how it was actress Lupita N’yong’o’s claim of sexual assault, along with her fellow woman of color Selma Hayek, were the ones Weinstein took the time to refute.
But it is worth noting that, for the first time, many famous, wealthy, powerful white men have lost their jobs for assaulting women — although it remains to be seen how long before they are forgiven, and find new jobs in the industry.
It is worth noting, too, that none of these men have gone to jail — including those running for office, and endorsed by the Republican party.
Yet for Queen, the most violent act of sexual assault occurs not in the world of famous men in media that she has chronicled so intensely in this narrative, but in the world of literature, where she has made her home, where she should be safe. It is another poet who commits the ultimate violation at a writing conference, pushing her “into a hotel closet” and grabbing her “breasts so hard it hurt” until she “screamed as loud as [she] could in his face when he wouldn’t stop.” This man is unnamed; here, the sparseness of the language creates a minimalist intensity that focuses the action solely on the two characters, allowing the reader to identify with Queen in this moment and feel the horror of the violence, allowing the unnamed man to be a stand-in for all the other unnamed and named men who have, and continue to, assault and harass women.
Queen is careful to end on a hopeful note. In her last two poems, epilogues of a sort, she is older. She is turning forty, and at peace, returned home to Los Angeles with her son to celebrate with friends and love herself. She is grateful for the life she has lived; grateful for the lessons, but would not, perhaps, live them again. She reckons with the meaning of her name, identity, and selfhood. She has come of age through living under the violence of the male gaze. Somehow, she has survived and learned to see and be herself.
The horrors of 2017 — a president who brags of “grabbing women by the pussy” on trial for sexual assault and child molestation; a much more prolific child molester endorsed by the Republican party for political office; swarms of men in various fields accused of (and admitting to) sexual harassment and sexual assault, among others, are not developments Khadijah Queen could not have foretold when she published this personal excavation of rape culture and toxic masculinity. But it is eerily prescient.
With this fall’s and winter’s cultural optics razor-focused on the topics Queen explores, it is surprising that a book so relevant and engaging should not have had more presence this year; perhaps this is because I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On was released in early March, more than a few months before the public consciousness made room for dialogue about sexual assault and sexual harassment. Perhaps it is, as actress Tessa Thompson and other black women writers, artists, and activists have noted that black women “aren’t invited into enough safe spaces / listened to when we speak up / considered in the conversation of gender equality enough.”
Hopefully this erasure of black women’s voices in this important conversation will not always be the case; Queen’s voice on these issues is one that is necessary, haunting, and profound. An essential, riveting read.