On the DOJ’s Decision to Stop Using Private Prisons: Detention is Prison, Too. Let’s End It.

The Department of Justice announced today that it will stop outsourcing federal prisons to private prison companies due to extreme levels of physical, psychological, and sexual violence and death in these facilities. While this is the result of decades of abolitionist organizing, activists insist that we not let this news distract us: Private, for-profit prisons will continue to operate as immigration detention centers, which is the fastest-growing area of the private prison industry. And the struggle to abolish all prisons and prison profiteering continues.

As Aviva Shen from ThinkProgress writes:

“While the decision will affect 13 federal prisons currently operated by private companies, the bulk of federal private prisons aren’t run by DOJ. In fact, the industry’s biggest client is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — a separate agency that relies on private prisons to hold immigrants, often in appalling and unconstitutional conditions.”

DOG private prison shutdown

As Jacinta Gonzalez of #Not1More explains:

“Until private incarceration and detention is ended all together, these facilities will just be recycled between agencies.  Private companies today will be looking for new customers and the Obama administration needs to make sure that no other government agency will be their clients.”

#Not1More on DOJ decision

On the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to open a new private detention center in Texas for transgender detaineesIsa Noyola of the Transgender Law Center says:

“Authorities’ statement that one center will be safer than another doesn’t address that the system of detention is an act of violence on transgender people who came to this country fleeing it. DHS should stop its plan to open a new private facility in Texas and stop its practice of detaining us altogether. We do not simply want the violence committed by a corporation to be inflicted on us by the state. We want transgender and LGBTQ to be free and for the systems that criminalize and cage us to be put to an end.”

In an article in Truthout, Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, says,

“This is another example of a more symbolic prison reform, which is what the prison reforms of the last few years have been… It makes a difference to some people’s lives, but it is nowhere near the sweeping and realizable changes that are needed.”

Below, watch “Queer Liberation: No Prisons, No Borders,” a video addressing these issues, by BCRW Creative Director Hope Dector and BCRW Activist Fellow Dean Spade:

As Angélica Cházaro reminds us:

“Prison isn’t good for anyone and detention is prison. Prison is prison. Let’s end that.”

Positivity Activism and Disability Justice: An Interview with Xian Horn

Xian HornCan you describe some of the work that you do?

Sure….In a nutshell: I run workshops on beauty and self-esteem, because I believe it is an essential human right to recognize our gifts and beauty. As a teacher, blogger, and speaker, I’m a storyteller whose stories ideally serve as a reflection of others and the audience. But my lived experience as a work in progress and any residual “wisdom,” allows me to wear many different hats. The week I met you speaking at Barnard for the Women Action and the Media Conference, I also spoke at the Williamstown Theater Festival at Williams College, representing a group called Diversability at a Tech Conference. I was also a willing guinea pig and judge for a project last year called the Connect Ability Challenge with AT&T. This project served as a launching point for the development of assistive tech. I love that the work is so varied because I always learn something new. I see my work as serving and connecting to people, lifting us up, sharing things I believe in, and helping others to see beauty and humanity more clearly both individually and universally.

How did you become involved in positivity activism?

Although it might sound like a hokey term, positivity activism is about awareness and empowerment. Growing up people always told me I was positive because I smiled and laughed a lot, although it was not something I was conscious of. While I may have been ridiculously positive and confident as a child, in my teens and early 20s I was still seen as positive outwardly, but had no clue why people saw me that way: inside I was a ball of insecurities – not as a person with disabilities – oddly – but just as a girl becoming woman, as someone with a people pleasing problem. I was someone who was deeply afraid of rejection. Positivity activism for me is not about being happy all the time, or never feeling upset or angry, it’s about the conscious, even defiant choice to find the light in dark situations and times; about not letting a negative situation or person take your power, or pull you under. It’s about trusting that no matter what life looks like now, your lowest point is not forever and can catapult you to your highest. It’s about moving forward anyway; making a choice to see the best and brightest in situations and people and not letting a current bad situation sour what you can do from now on, and what’s waiting for you in the future. This is also how we can work to conquer self-esteem issues. No matter what voice inside tells us we are not enough, no matter what other people may say, we are beautiful as is. We can grow, change, and become better. We can make an active choice to shift our focus to possibilities rather than disappointments. Rejection, tragedy and injustice, are all vital experiences that can empower us to be greater, kinder, and more aware of who we want to be. Rejection, tragedy and injustice can be our stepping stool to the next level of who we become individually and culturally.

How do you think your work in positivity activism intersects (or is similar to) your work in disability activism?

I think for me my positivity activist mindset has helped me never to focus on or languish in what’s not right about disability issues or issues in general, but motivates me to be part of the solution and work to champion change. It gives me courage to tell my story (I always had debilitating stage fright before I realized I had a really good reason to take the stage – one that was not about me at all) in hopes that it will empower someone else to do the same. It allows me to think of the ski poles that I walk with as part of the wings that make me soar! Positivity activism is a lens through which I own the beauty of my story and hear others stories.

As a person with cerebral palsy, I’m frequently told microaggressions. How do you go about navigating statements like these?

I always view these misunderstandings and misconceptions as an opportunity to change perspectives and flip the original narrative. Either by asking a question in a non-accusatory or non-judgmental way like: “Interesting. What does disability look like to you?” However they answer, you have the power to flip those expectations or perceptions with your response. You have already broken their mold of what disability is to that person, by being smarter or looking different in their estimation, so you are already breaking stereotypes. I love surprising and confusing people, it helps to illuminate new awareness or change mindsets. I also have the right to ignore what was said or how something is framed, and use it as an opportunity to make my own statement.

One day I walked into a store and a very stressed woman looked at me angrily and said “What’s wrong with you???” I had answered nicer versions of this question before, so without thinking I said what I usually say, “I have Cerebral Palsy and it’s the blessing of my life. Thank you very much for asking.” I smiled genuinely and turned to walk away. She suddenly burst into tears and apologized. She then told me she just been laid off and had just had the worst day. We talked for a long time, hugged, and ended up becoming Facebook friends. If I had responded aggressively back, I’m pretty sure that things could have been very different. I have enough confidence in my disability not to let others change what is true for me. We control our own narrative whether people get it or not. Our presence alone is an education. But we cannot assume people can read our minds, or that they must all instinctively know how to treat us. We set that standard.

Additionally, how do we make people more aware about the wide-range of disabilities?

First, I think we must encourage people of all disabilities to share their lives and stories – on a stage, in a blog, on Youtube, in film, even in a personal journal. Then, where possible, share these things with others. For example, the ongoing ReelAbilities Film Festival showcases a variety of disabilities and perspectives in the films selected, and could be great place to start. They have screenings all over the country now.

I’m really interested in the concept of “self-care.” How does the ideology relate to your experience with disability?

It is central to my evolution as person with a disability. I didn’t realize until I was about 25, that because I never saw my disability as an issue, I had essentially ignored my body completely. I was a hippie in some ways, so I dressed kinda sloppy and my hair was always in knots. I hated my feet too. When I started running workshops on beauty and self-esteem, I knew I had to walk the talk. I started getting pedicures just for me (to show my feet some love). I got rid of my jeans and shoes full of holes (I drag my left foot, so after a month or two of wear, there was always a new hole popping up)! I got my hair done more often. I can honestly say I like my feet now – progress – and that self-care gave way to self-acceptance and celebration. I still think I have a long way to go and I’m very honest with my students about that.

As an aspiring writer, I’m interested in the importance of complicating traditional narratives. When I see a disabled person in the media, which is a rare occurrence, they are often involved in a narrative in which they gladly “overcome” their disability, or they achieve superhuman achievements regardless of the hurdles that their disability presents. How do you think we can challenge these harmful narratives?

I personally don’t think there’s anything harmful in being superhuman in overcoming something (especially a negative or damaging mindset), but I do think patronizing narratives where a person is almost like a puppy, or anything “Us vs. Them” has to go! We all want the same things: to be loved, a voice that is heard (even if we cannot speak), and a purpose. So, one way is to create more honest narratives from direct sources, to connect the audience to the universal as we celebrate difference. We can educate people who intend on being allies as to why certain things may be problematic for true portrayal. We can speak up and have conversations rather than diatribes.
Venting makes us feel better, but it may not help others to receive the message. I think it’s more beneficial to engage with people and hope the message ushers in awareness or change.

What do you see as an alternative to this? (I’d love to see more movies, music, blogs, art produced by disabled folks).

I’d love to see that too and it’s one of the reasons I joined the ReelAbilities Film Festival Film Selection Committee for the first time this year. I wanted to learn more about what’s out there about people with disabilities; and by far, I find documentaries the most powerful space where I can learn the most firsthand, about disabilities other than my own. And the fact there have been a record number of submissions in the last year, means more narratives are being created and shared worldwide. That is a beautiful sign that we are headed in the right direction!

How do we disrupt the one-dimensional narratives that are prevalent in our own community, specifically those relating to race, class, and gender?

In adding dimension, I think focusing on the universal and simply by displaying more fully who we are, our values, and why we love what we love, our beliefs, dimensions will develop and shine; it’s easy to focus on one note, or make snap judgments, but if we dig deeper: share family life, our favorite music, books, sports, authors, philosophers, or details of our spiritual life or personal struggles, we are not defined by cultural labels, but become, and are portrayed as our more authentic selves, more vivid, and more like Hyperspace (many, many, more dimensions and galaxies within one)!

Speaker Comments from “The Argonauts: A Salon in Honor of Maggie Nelson”

The Argonauts: A Salon in Honor of Maggie Nelson from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

View more videos from BCRW here.

Featuring Maggie Nelson in conversation with Christina Crosby, Saidiya Hartman, Sam Huber, and Heather Love. Moderated by Tina Campt.

In her widely acclaimed memoir, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes, “There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” Defying traditional genres, Nelson powerfully weaves theory into a narrative of queer relations and family-making, juxtaposing such supposed opposites as transgressive and normative politics, reproductive and sodomitical motherhood, intellectual and domestic life to tell a different kind of story. BCRW’s sixth annual book salon celebrates Nelson’s remarkable exploration of intimacy, writing, and life-making.

Read the comments from our speakers:

Christina Crosby
Sam Huber
Saidiya Hartman
Heather Love

Christina Crosby:

Maggie was my student at Wesleyan University in the early 1990s, as you may already know, because she says so in The Argonauts – first she took Feminist Theory with me, and then I advised her honors thesis, titled “The Performance of Intimacy,” a study of Sylvia Plath’s and Ann Sexton’s poetry and the critical reception of their work. Too many critics, I learned, made the lazy mistake of thinking that they knew the women because they knew their poetry, as if obliqueness of poetic address didn’t matter. Sometimes I think of writing as an alchemical process or a crucible– lyric poetry compresses and transforms. The word poetry is derived from the Greek “poiesis,” a creation, which in turn derives from the verb form “to make, produce, compose, write.” Poetry remakes the world by its very address.

I came late to this fuller appreciation of confessional poetry, a classification that misleads from the get-go. Last year at a BCRW salon on my memoir, A Body, Undone, Maggie rightly recalled that I had agreed to work with her only after briskly declaring my lack of interest in confessional poetry. At the salon, Maggie then crowed just a little over my coming so lately to appreciate what she had known all along. In fact, I had to eat to eat humble pie long ago, because Maggie’s thesis taught me how small-minded I had been – consider this poem, for example: “Villanelle to the Critic.” Its first line reads, “This is not a poem. What’s more, I’m a liar.” Of course Maggie chose one of the most rigorous of poetic forms to make this declaration, one that forces the critic to embrace complexity, even contradiction, and undoes any thought of representational transparency.

After I broke my neck and was hospitalized, Maggie drove up from New York City every Saturday to give my lover Janet a break from visiting me in the rehab hospital. Those five months in the hospital extended and deepened our friendship. Then she got a job teaching at Wesleyan for a year. I continued very slowly to recover my health – by 8 o’clock in the evening I had to lie down. Maggie was spending a lot of time with Janet and me, helping us both, and that evening lay down beside me to talk about poetry. I was so happy to have that conversation, which took me out of myself.

In The Argonauts, Maggie characterizes her marriage to Harry by quoting what Deleuze has to say about “nuptials”: “there are no longer binary machines – question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc. this could be what a conversation is – simply the outline of a becoming” (7). I’m allergic to marriage, but not to nuptials, because conversations are an undoing that converts the participants who are in the process of exchanging of words and ideas, changing them as they speak. I’m quite sure that the close and loving conversations I had with Maggie after I was injured – when we lived in an unprecedented intimacy with each other – changed me so that when I needed to I could begin to write in a confessional mode myself. Thank the stars above!

I learned that Maggie was unafraid of my injured body, and able to witness my pain and grief without protecting herself by focusing on future recovery. She can bear witness. This is quite remarkable quality, a radical openness. Maggie admires Roland Barthes and his commitment to “the neutral,” which allows him to seek to understand without claiming to know. Maggie’s artistic practice is similarly committed to regarding without judgment in order to see what’s before her. As she has continued writing, she has increasingly found the form necessary for her content – the outline of a becoming that cannot be catalogued by genre. Yet even in her first books of lyric poetry, you can see the qualities I’m trying to describe.

Her 2007 book of poetry, Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press) has a group of poems titled “The Hospital for Special Care,” including this five line poem,   “Morning En Route to the Hospital.”

Snow wafts off the little lake
along Route 66, momentarily encasing the car

in a trance of glitter

Live with your puny, vulnerable self
Live with her

Whether a trance of glitter or the devastation of injury, in a moment all can change. Your whole life can come undone. We aren’t given to contemplation in the rush and demand of everyday life. Maggie’s artistic practice requires and creates a stillness. Slow down. Think through. Live with. Be open, be vulnerable.

I’ve taken enormous pleasure in her success as a writer, and I’ve watched as The Argonauts has cut through the water, running before the wind of each successive review. This evening I’m wagering that there’s something to be learned about that remarkable book of “auto-theory” by looking back to Maggie’s earlier work. I’ve read every book she’s published, and can see a plumb line dropped from the deck of the Argo running through them all. As an artist, Maggie is willing to take risks because she trusts in her medium.

The speaker of her early books of poetry regards life with bold and open curiosity. This stance requires a certain fearlessness, and a willingness to “reckon,” as Maggie says, with what you see. Maggie’s fearlessness has to do with the rigor of her artistic practice, which is a demanding one. She reports in The Argonauts that she sometimes finds herself laboring “grimly” over her sentences, wondering if any language offers the needful form (52). Her practice makes no claim for emotional transparency (as if one can simply know one’s own, or another’s, emotions). What art can do is hold open a space in which we – the writer and the reader – don’t know, and in that not knowing can address things that are opaque. Holding open a space to engage the world without attempting to know it fully creates possibility. Her artistic practice makes a space for interactions that undo the known landscape, the one covered by cliché. She is open to exploring the sometimes explosive intimacies of the everyday – not every conversation is a happy one –, and she does not hide, conceal, sidestep, or evade what she finds there.

From her earliest published writing this is true, as in the poem “Motel Story” from the 1996 Soft Skull Press book Not Sisters that she published with Cynthia Nelson. Here are the first lines:

We were in the middle of something big.
The United States, for example. I
was in a new bed in a new room. We
had a key, something to misplace and find.
All night we had heard a banging next door,
of intimacy or imprisonment.
. . .

In the middle of something big, whether middle-America or an interior landscape, she will not shy from uncertainty tinged with a threat – is it intimacy? Or imprisonment? Can you tell the difference? Will she find the key?

The speakers of her poems stay open to possibility, as in these lines from SUBWAY IN MARCH, 5:45 PM in Shiner (Hanging Loose Press, 2001).

… All these permutations of esteem and ridicule
when all I want is to stay focused on everyday life

What other kind of life is there?
All the world knows it, it’s a miracle

The blue womb of evening
The nimble sparrow, the smug duck in the pond

The eruption of flowering quince
O shackle us to the rock of it

You would think that representing everyday life is easy, because there it is before you, but the apostrophe “O shackle us to the rock of it” tells us otherwise. It is the work of Prometheus, punished by Zeus because he brings fire to humankind. The poet lights up life, come what may.

I’m sharing these lines with you to indicate in the sketchiest possible way the qualities of Maggie’s first three books of poetry. The books that followed – Jane: a Murder (2005), The Red Parts (2007), Bluets (2009), The Art of Cruelty (2011), explore the wet, bloody, sometimes thrilling and often terrifying underside of lives lived in extremis, where pain cannot be relieved, unassuageable grief cannot be comforted, and death is close at hand. These investigations require in equal part precision of observation and a speaker willing to travel to the edge and regard the blankness beyond. From Jane: a murder on, Maggie has trusted in her art to give form to life riven open.

Maggie was young in years when she began working on Jane, a murder, and when she finished, her writing had changed. She was no longer writing a book of lyric poetry. Instead, she transforms Jane’s journal entries into lyric poetry by a process of selection and lineation. Paragraphs of prose from newspapers, letters, and in Maggie’s own voice mingle with the poetry. In the end, the speaker and her subject are so intimately related that distinguishing between them – pulling them apart to see light between them, saying, this is Jane and this here is Maggie – becomes impossible and perhaps irrelevant. Such is the promiscuity of unconscious life. Such is the effect of Maggie’s innovations in form. The last two stanzas/paragraphs are these:

I go on and I don’t know whether I’m going into darkness or into light and joy, she thinks as she walks further down the road.

Above her, the sun is still trying to burn through the mist. Strange, she thinks, how the sun so often appears as a pale circle, not the orgy of unthinkable fire that it is.

Fannie Howe writes of Jane: a murder, “This true story of murder and childhood beats down the last sparks in the cremains of genre with grace and appetite.” In all the books that follow, Maggie finds the form that she needs. Necessity is the mother of invention. The Argonauts sets sail from there.

Sam Huber:

When I reviewed The Argonauts for Feministing nearly a year ago, I admitted two things about which I immediately felt self-conscious, if not quite ambivalent or regretful: the first was my earnest enthusiasm for the book, my deeply felt pleasure and optimism in reading it; the second was that pleasure’s only significant qualification, my fear that the book’s account of home and family-making might be taken as permission by straight people and certain queers to skip the anti-normativity Maggie lovingly critiques in confirmation of their existing ways of loving and thinking and doing (or not doing) politics.

Regarding the first: I became self-conscious about declaring my joy because of a temperamental aversion to self-exposure, sure, but also because some queers I know have since posed as too cool—that is to say, too queer—for this particular readerly affect, especially in response to this universally beloved book. That pose of too-cool or too-queer is related, of course, to all of those other boxes on the radicalism checklist that The Argonauts would gently shake us loose of: like the right things, but don’t be taken over by them; always be ready with an analysis; never be caught not-knowing or not-having-anticipated (those persistent trademarks of paranoid reading as Sedgwick originally articulated it); be wary of beauty, of naturalized bodies, of the instrumentalization of queer pain. These are all demands I have made of myself and others and that I continue to make in situations that call for it, and my self-consciousness stemmed from the worry that I should have known to demand them here, that my pleasure in The Argonauts was indulgent or unguarded. God forbid.

How thrilling, then, to reread this book nearly a year later and find that it inspires the same joy, the same excessive attachment. I am grateful to The Argonauts for continuing to catch me off guard, for reminding me of the pleasures of defenseless awe. Among the many gifts of this book is its expansive vocabulary for happiness; pleasure demands due diligence, and Maggie delivers. Some of her most beautiful sentences enjoin us to own the wonder we feel in reading them: “So far as I can tell, most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself. Some would call that an ethics.” Maggie is not describing her own writing here, but she may as well have been; how could these sentences not gratify writer and reader both? The quote leads me back to a favorite charge of Sedgwick’s, which I don’t think appears in The Argonauts but which haunted my reading of it and was welcome company. In A Dialogue on Love, which Maggie of The Argonauts tries to read in a too-hot tent on a Fort Lauderdale beach while Harry recovers from top surgery, Sedgwick describes the joy she takes in the many stuffed pandas that populate her living room: “It seems so obvious that the more such images there are, the happier. And it means a lot, to be happy. It may even mean: to be good. […] It never seems sensible to pass along moral injunctions. I sometimes think that beyond the Golden Rule, / the only one that / matters is this: If you can / be happy, you should.”

Again, Maggie: “Some would call that an ethics.” Is this sentence about relating or about writing? is a fun game to play with this book, because it can be so difficult. Nelson’s initial defense of language is notably queer, in Sedgwick’s sense: she argues “for plethora, for kaleidoscopic shifting, for excess.” And that game should be hard, because this is also a book about reading, or the challenge of how to relate to a text (yourself or another’s), of what to do with the stuff we read. At Feministing I called the book “a thrilling realization of that effort so central to so many queer and feminist lives: the effort to live (with) our theory. Nelson demonstrates at the level of form how our interpretive vocabularies can alternately illuminate and fail to apprehend the primary text of lived experience, and how the texts that sustain us dovetail with or chafe against all the other stuff we are sustaining.” In hindsight that sounds a bit too binary: here is the text, here is the life, here’s how they meet, and so on. The books we read, just like the bodies we write about and theorize, do not just carry us or get carried. The meeting is far messier; it challenges my command of language, but luckily we now have Maggie’s: “We develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off us. Eventually, we call that snowball a self (Argo).”

I’ve lingered in joy, so I’ll be brief on the topic of my second self-consciousness, the one about straight critics and readers being introduced to queer anti-normativity belatedly, through its disavowal, and the misreadings that might ensue. Over the last few weeks I’ve reread every review I could dig up to see if my fear was responsive to a real phenomenon or just an attempt to preempt one. Much in these reviews is commendable, and almost all have expanded my appreciation for The Argonauts in some way. I am grateful for them, and to their authors, and I am by no means exempt from the inevitable distortions of the form. But my fears were not completely paranoid, and I did not have to look hard to find phrasings that made me bristle. I’ll refrain from quoting them, and instead appropriate a pleasurable formulation of Maggie’s, about bad fiction: these inevitable distortions are what I “hate about [Maggie says fiction; here let’s say criticism], or at least crappy [criticism]—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.” In this instance you can probably guess what our false choices are: resistance or conformity, radicalism or normativity, promiscuity or family, polemic or nuance, and (the unspoken false choice underlying so many others) youth or maturity.

So my anxiety was not unfounded, but what only became clear in hindsight is that its stronger motives lay elsewhere. This fear of hetero-critical misreading, when I am being most honest, was largely defensive, or territorial, or both: I wanted the book to belong to me, or to my us, and not to self-satisfied straight people relieved by the reparative turn. That proprietary identification—no, no, Maggie gets me—seems (if you’ll permit an unscientific observation) to be fairly common, or at least more common for The Argonauts than for the still too few other books that inspire similar claims in my social worlds. This is at once fitting and perverse. Fitting, given the book’s capaciousness and generosity, its inviting warmth. Perverse, because it seems to me that this kind of attachment—one that polices the attachments of others to this or their own objects—is something the book at once recognizes and resists. But also perverse because of how much greater are the pleasures of sharing this book than of owning it. I loved the month during which my Instagram and Twitter feeds were clogged with quotes and adoring pictures of this now-iconic cover next to someone’s omelet or iced coffee or window or cat; I loved that a friend insisted on pulling her copy out at the diner where we were having one of those long, semi-annual catch-up lunches to read me an entire paragraph from the section about abortion: Of course it’s a child, she exclaimed, nearly in tears, and of course it’s a choice.

So I am trying to let go of any disciplinary hold I once claimed on this book, along with the fear of failing to rightly act on its lessons: “I’m not trying to fix that wrongness here. I’m just trying to let it hang out,” as Maggie writes. Perhaps the reductions charted above are traps not of criticism but of memory, summary, all of the ways we try to hold onto a book once it’s over and communicate it to others—hard enough for any book, and nearly impossible for this one. But failure, I think it’s fair to say, is a judgment that lies outside or in the wake of this book’s terms. So too does instruction; as Maggie told one interviewer, “I don’t teach (save when I actually teach).” Pace Maggie, I am still learning with and from this book. We might find one answer to the problem of its inevitable distortion by criticism and memory in another of the book’s named pleasures, that of resisting the impulse toward evasion and lingering instead on fertile ground, in joy: “The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations […] write [or read] the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisions constitute a life.”

Or as she puts it elsewhere: “Sometimes one has to know something many times over.” It is the nature of The Argonauts that we will never have fully failed it, or finished succeeding.

Saidiya Hartman, “An Ethics of the Ordinary”

The fierceness of The Argonauts resides not in what it reveals, but what it invites, the ways in which it solicits us and stages encounter: a slip, a cut, an abrasion, a proximity in which sameness is not the requirement of relation, but rather as Harry puts it, the sense of having been entangled in all these worlds right from the beginning. The book is lucid and difficult; unease and estrangement are the price exacted for entering its pages and the rewards of reading are as troubling as they are illuminating.

While the beauty of the text—its rigor and economy of statement; its enactment of collective utterance; its powerful and exacting prose—is noteworthy, what I find most compelling about The Argonauts, a book, commonly and perhaps troublingly, described as being about “family and love,” are the risks it poses in opening up the question of relation. Argonauts unflinchingly examines:

The ways in which devotion can feel like violation

Representation yield its opposite– to be radically unheld

And the dispossessive character of narration be experienced by the “I” and the “you” as injury as well as gift.

Vulnerability is a key dimension of its ethics of writing; it welcomes readers and encounters that might rearrange and transform its organizing terms and challenge its investments. It does this, to quote Eve Sedgwick, by allowing “queer to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation” and by retaining a sense of the fugitive. The Argonauts forms of address are multiple; and in its many solicitations and elaborations of becoming and undoing and becoming—embraces and enacts dissent/friction/ antagonism. This is one of the things I love most about The Argonauts—its willingness to approach those who want to come into the house only to fuck it up, mess with it, run away with your stuff. It takes pleasure in discomfort, pushes your face into it, and troubles any effort to cordon off the homonormative from the privileged terms that stand as its opposite—radical, resistant.

Alongside the rigor and economy of its statements and the beauty of its citations, which adorn the page like tattoos or jewels, making knowledge into ornament, by transforming what too often becomes a turgid form of scholarly orthodoxy and reproduction of intellectual hierarchy into collaborative practice and collective utterance. The notes mark and memorialize engagement and they are placeholders for an open-ended and on-going conversation in which we are asked to take part. The exchanges occur between interlocutors who rarely meet, Lucille Clifton and Gilles Deleuze together in a dance of becoming:

turning out of the

white cage, turning out of the

lady cage

turning at last

on a stem like a black fruit

in my own season

at last

The Combahee River Statement brushes up against Touching Feeling. Nelson’s many gendered mothers recast our intellectual genealogies, imagining encounters across her library and excavating the possibilities of the might have been. One enters The Argonauts in media res; it is clear that many conversations, much rumination, and many books precede its startling and beautiful first paragraph. But there will be no ground clearing here, no placement or contextualization of the works addressed, no justification of this promiscuous ensemble, only the call to enter a dialogue staged between intimates and lovers, defined as such by an affinity of thought, a line of flight.

In writing a feminist account of intimacy described variously as nuptials, kinship, family and affiliation, Nelson traces the entanglements of the ordinary—from the work of ordinary language, that is, the ways in which the inexpressible is contained in the expressed, believing words are good enough to express love, and to describe and reimagine the world; to the good enough devotion of the mother; to a more socially capacious practice of care— all of which might be characterized by lines of affiliation that run “loose and hot.”

When I taught The Argonauts in a graduate seminar on feminist practice, we examined what the ordinary yields here . . .the unfolding of the possible, the coming into being of collectivities unanticipated, forms of experience and becoming able to escape the grids and taxonomies that organize thought and regulate life, the ordinary devotion that enables care in the context of enormous brutality. One student, Erica, noted that “Argonauts gives us so much more than we ask for or may even want, performing a radical openness that has the capacity to compel us to another kind of critical practice. Nelson is on a journey and she wants to, with our help, to take us there.” She heard the promise of Mavis Staple’s “I’ll Take You There” in Nelson’s words. What we both discerned was the invitation, the open hand.

It is this that solicits me—one of the mother-dispossessed into a terrain that has some familiar signposts, but, which is at the same time, strangely unfamiliar. I see things I know and recognize and things that are strange, that I have never experienced and find hard to imagine, things that frighten and estrange me—like a soldier saluting an expecting mother, compromised and radiant, with the promise of a futurity.

Compromised and radiant—Nelson calls attention to the misrecognition, to the script in which she is mistakenly and willingly cast, acknowledging it, call attention to the “seduction of normalcy,” and divesting from it by announcing it. A hand raised in salute—the arrest of militarized recognition—keeping America beautiful. There it was—the slip, the cut, the prick.

The salute, the recognition of the state in the family-building project, even if in misrecognition of what looks like “reproductive futurity,” but isn’t quite, arrested me. That salute bringing to mind a different set of hands raised in the air, walking backward toward a police care, not shouting, “Don’t shoot,” but “My children, children. You’re terrorizing my children.” This mother is the flesh of the black asterisk I would affix to the words queer maternity, queer family. A mother already imagined and implicitly embraced by Nelson, but certainly one never saluted, and only addressed as problem, as criminal, as source of disorder, as baby maker, as embodiment of the monstrous.

No territory is more fraught for a black queer/feminist critic than maternity– the radically disparate forms of maternity and the futures represented or foreclosed by it.

A maternity threatened not by the seductions of normalcy, but poverty, the police, the state, the new and multiple forms of social enclosure, and the uneven distribution of death. This is the maternity that covers one’s children in a shroud. The not-mothers of the global south harvesting and selling their eggs like another mono-crop of the plantation economy, the Caribbean and Philippina nannies providing ordinary devotion for minimal wages, the extended webs of kinship and affiliation always called “out of their name” as disorder, female-headed, and in-crisis.

I wanted to push this world inside the pages of the Argonauts, to make explicit the latent embrace of Nelson’s lovely prose. I wanted to make the book mine. To undertake again the labor of love and care, danger and risk, with these queer mothers in mind. What I most admire about the Argonauts is that I feel the works invites me to do so. It cultivates the necessity and discomfort of dis-identification. Its notion of the queer is capacious enough to embrace all varieties of the gender non-conforming, all the shades of queer kin, and the anomalous intimacies that have never been and never will be faithful to the text of daddy, mommy, me.

The black asterisk of queer maternity is a way of underlining the care, violently extracted and freely given, by the omitted, the unattested, the much loved and many gendered mothers. The Argos in holding “all kinds of resistances and fractures and mismatching” has the capacity to hold them too.

Heather Love, Working on the Argo

A lot of friends recommended The Argonauts to me when it came out. Or rather, they urged it on me—they were adamant. Because of my interest in queer and feminist criticism; because I have been living for the past 12 years as a queer stepparent; because I came late to family life, and with reservations. Here was a book about language, genderqueerness, pregnancy, aging, friendship, shame, sex, and the body, with large doses of Winnicott and Sedgwick thrown in—and it borrowed the aphoristic and allusive form of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. This one’s for you.

My friends only worried about one thing, but they all worried about it: would I be put off by the happy ending? Good point. Because I take A Lover’s Discourse very seriously. My aesthetic, my idea of romance, my queer identity, my identity period took root in that vale of tears: “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.”[1] Or, again: “Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?” (23) You can go a long way down this road. Barthes did, and I sometimes think, why not follow him?

When The Argonauts begins, it looks like we are headed there:

October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles, as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall.[2]

It is this inadvertent “I love you” that leads Nelson to Barthes, and to her book’s title:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever 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 to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’ (5)

Barthes knew a thing or two about feral vulnerability: just before his meditation on the Argo, he writes: “There’s no help for it: I love you is a demand: hence it can only embarrass anyone who receives it, except the Mother—and except God!”[3] We are familiar with this Barthes, Barthes the Embarrassed, Barthes the mother-lover, unconsoled and unconsolable. But, it is also Barthes who writes, “And then, the scene changes” (114)—and this is what gets us to the Argo and to the prospect of endless renewal as “the very task of love” (114).

There is a scene change in The Argonauts too. Picking up again with that copy of Beckett by the bedside, things take a turn:

You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? You asked, then stuck around for an answer. (3)

Is it better to last than to burn? For those of us addicted to loss, magnetized by the image of impossible love, the traditional answer is: no way. I think Nelson holds open this possibility for us: Does it get any better than these few shadowy minutes? Does it need to? But she also suggests that there may be another way. While refusing the regime of the viable as a Good Thing—as the Good Thing—we might be able to stick around and enjoy the fruits of HARD TO GET.

This is a potent fantasy, but I suppose this is what worried my friends: would I be able to make this scene? In reality I am already there—I stuck around, and I have a steady job replacing parts on the Argo. And this is why I think this book got to me so much, it pressed on a fault line between what I still glorify/mourn as a romantic ideal and how I actually live. The Argonauts offers me an image of happiness, about the only way I can take it—with a heavy undertow of ambivalence, doubt, and self-harm. It’s both my personal history and my dedication to a queer literary tradition that makes me think that love that excludes betrayal is betrayal.

When I read The Argonauts last summer, a few things happened. I wrote to my department to ask them if I could change my teaching for the spring: I wanted to teach something new: “The Queer Novel and the Marriage Plot” and end it with this book. I thought, here is a queer marriage plot, a book I can bear to teach at the end of a course that includes The Well of Loneliness, The Price of Salt, and Giovanni’s Room. I also passed the book around to several friends. Now I was the adamant one: I wanted everyone I know to read it immediately. I like this copy more now that it has made the rounds. When I opened it last week to get ready for tonight, an orange paper heart fell out—a gift from someone, somewhere, back down along the line.

[1] Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010 [1977/1978]), 40.

[2] Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015), 3.

[3] Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010 [1975/1977]), 112.