The year I decided to become a mother I woke to sounds of children.
I lived next to a small church, a Pentecostal-type thing that hosted the occasional revival, which irritated me to no end as I sat at my desk desperately typing papers to turn into my graduate seminars on narrative theory and women’s studies. There must have been a preschool or a daycare because I could hear children playing outside in the spring as, just past dawn, I dragged my insomniac self out of bed.
I graduated fifteen years ago, which means it’s been a full fifteen years, too, since what I called “the baby plan” became a concrete thing. Back then, what I wanted to do felt revolutionary: have a baby deliberately outside the confines of a heterosexual relationship, still in my twenties. It wasn’t (as I later learned the lingo) ‘Plan B,’ but a very conscious decision sprung out of joy, not loss. I wanted a baby, not a partner. I kept magazines like Martha Stewart Baby and Hip Mama on my coffee table. I read everything I could get my hands on about being a single mother by choice, which wasn’t much at the time. If you wanted to read a mother memoir, you read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. Within a few years, motherhood memoirs exploded the market. But the book I needed to read was still years from publication: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
Tentatively, I want to say that The Argonauts might be the queerest book I have ever read. (What, of course, does that even mean? And who I am to say what is queer or not queer?) As Nikki Sullivan asks: “What do we mean when we use the term queer? Is queer an attitude, an identity, a particular approach to politics?" Indeed, she says the very attempt to “define what queer is” is itself “a decidedly un-queer thing to do."
While I do not readily identify as LGBTQ, being a single mother—deliberately, sperm-bank single—is still in 2016, but certainly in 2001, a queer thing to do.
Margaret Gibson reminds us, “it is a mistake to think that queering motherhood is only and inevitably a matter of addition, of bringing parents who identify as ‘queer’ and/or ‘trans’ into existing unyielding frameworks." Instead, she contends, “Queering motherhood can therefore start where any of the central gendered, sexual, relational, political, and/or symbolic components of ‘expected’ motherhood are challenged.”
All this is preamble to say I think a lot about what it means to have a “queer motherhood,” whether or not I am a queer mother, whether the narratives of motherhood I read and enjoy are in fact queer, whether or not the writer has chosen to package them that way. Although these are also narratives about lesbian motherhood, the issue for me here is less the marker of identity as sameness as oppositional to the mainstream.
Although there are as many definitions of “queer” as there are theorists who define it, I will invoke here the one from the introduction to the new volume Narrative Theory Unbound: “the sign for move(ment)s that challenge—and again, aim to understand, analyze, and rectify—heteronormative systems and practices and their attendant binary assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality."
Or, as David Halperin says, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.”
No doubt, Nelson’s book (which just won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism) is queer, or, at the very least, asks that readers situate it within and against a discourse of queerness. It refuses genre, or, alternatively, is such a hybrid thing, a trans thing, that it defies easy categorization. It is memoir and poetry, criticism and personal essay, series of fragments and book-length work. Its subject is and is not Nelson’s relationship with her partner, Harry, who also lives outside easy gender categorization (neither, or both, male and female), as does their marriage and their family. The Argonauts is and is not a memoir of queer motherhood. Or, perhaps more precisely, it is perhaps a queer memoir of motherhood. But I guess that depends on who is doing the labeling. Again: who am I to say?
When I set out to write, I had thought that the project of this essay would involve situating Nelson’s book in conversation with the genre of queer motherhood memoirs (meaning that both ways, the queerness as modifier for both memoir and motherhood) of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as a way of (1) offering a reading of Nelson’s marvelous work and (2) thinking about what it means to call something a queer motherhood memoir in the first place. (I am thinking of the title I might have written ten years ago: “toward a queer mother memoir.”)
Yet when discussing a book that is already anxious about questions of identity and genre (which are not, as it turns out, so dissimilar), I worry about what such a gesture might mean. While I find some value in thinking about these trends in memoir—books including Cherrie Moraga’s Waiting in the Wings (1997), Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions (1993) , Carole Maso’s The Room Lit by Roses (2000), Harlyn Aizley’s Buying Dad (2003), A.K. Summers’ Pregnant Butch (2014), and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Stuck in the Middle with You (2013), among others—I do not want to feign comprehensiveness and emphasize similarity and family resemblances of genre over dissimilarity. What I will say, tentatively, is that texts have in common (a) family building and mothering outside the confines of heterosexual partnerships and (b) a certain self-reflexiveness and awareness of narrative construction that is rendered invisible in other mother memoirs that we might usefully talk about. Written prior to the 2015 supreme court ruling about same-sex marriage, such moves undoubtedly have significant social and political implications, mostly notably the co-implicated attempts to address homophobia and to ‘normalize’ families headed by gay and lesbian parents. But mostly I want to talk about the radical potential (queerness) of Nelson’s project.
I come at these questions as a writer and scholar of memoir and narrative, with an interest in sexuality, feminism, and motherhood outside the mainstream. I am also an occasional and reluctant literary critic, more invested in asking questions than providing answers, digression and fragment, multiplicity rather than singularity. (Queer enough?)
It has been roughly twenty years since the publication of Cherrie Moraga’s Waiting in the Wings, her self-proclaimed memoir of “queer motherhood.” I pause to mention this because it’s in the subtitle, announcing the book’s participation in a genre, identifying its author and her project. That is, the book self-identifies as queer. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, by contrast, does not have such an identifying subtitle and yet Nelson’s book (perhaps because it is lacking such a subtitle?) is arguably much more queer. (Queerer? Anyhoo.) Recently I had the occasion to teach Moraga’s book (Nelson’s wasn’t yet in print) and, much to my surprise, students railed against it. What makes this queer? I mean, they said, she tells us it’s queer, and she’s a lesbian and all, but does that make the memoir queer? Does that make her motherhood queer? Indeed.
(Of course one might say that what’s transgressive and necessary in 1997 is less transgressive and already done in 2016. Thank you, Cherrie Moraga, for paving the way.)
Briefly, a summary: Moraga’s book spans pregnancy and new motherhood, including her son Rafael’s long stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. Its narrative arc or plot is thus largely familiar for readers for pregnancy memoir: Moraga conceives immediately, despite being told by a fertility specialist that she’s older and probably would not; her pregnancy proceeds with small bumps until finally she gives birth to her son, three months premature. Rafael’s health is rocky. His long hospital stay offers an occasion for Moraga to reflect on their family as her lesbian partner is denied access to Rafael in the hospital as the non-bio mom or “co-mother”:
 I can’t protect her from the pain she experiences each time they make her the outlaw. I’m the dyke in the matter, I tell myself. I’m the one who’s supposed to be on the outside. But not now. As Rafael’s biological mother I am surrounded by acceptance at the hospital, until Ella walks in and we are again the lesbian couple, the queer moms—exoticized or ostracized.
While this quotation nods to one of the unabashedly “queer” moments of the book, it also works rhetorically to normalize their family for mainstream readers, through sentimental illustration of mothers’ devotion to their son. Eventually, Rafael stabilizes, and Moraga brings the baby home to raise with her partner. In its narrative progression, it could be almost any “momoir,” other than the fact that the protagonist is self-identified butch.
It’s this destabilization of gender that allows Moraga to reflect on the relationship between her queerness and her pregnancy, locating a kind of sexuality in gestation that confronts heteronormative assumptions about the status of pregnancy, and which mainstream pregnancy manuals and memoirs would probably repress. Describing a moment of auto-eroticism during her second trimester, for example, Moraga writes: “I cry for this life, this miracle, this sexuality that is happening to me unlike any I have experienced. The slightest contact evokes a response. Touching myself, remembering Ella touching me.” Here, Moraga locates the erotic in the pregnancy itself; grammatically, she links gestation and sexual desire. And while it is possible to read this moment as a reference to heightened sex drive experienced by many pregnant women, Moraga’s sentence also reminds readers of the complicated relationship between sex and reproduction within the context of a lesbian relationship. Ella’s touch did not, could not, lead to Rafael’s conception, as the book’s very first sentence (“lesbians do not make babies with their lovers”) testifies. Even as the pregnancy reminds her of her lover, it is her own body that triggers her desire. It’s in these moments that the book feels most like the memoir of queer motherhood its subtitle proclaims.
Twenty years later, The Argonauts circles these questions. To what extent is maternal eroticism also the site of queer maternity? Is the maternal body always already queer and/or essentially conventional?
Where Moraga offers a diaristic, dated account, Nelson works through fragments, eschews chronology. There is a major thread that follows her pregnancy with Iggy alongside her partner’s undergoing top surgery, a conversation about their getting married on the eve of Prop 8 in California, a self-consciousness about family building when the partner exists in a space between male and female and has a young son already, making Nelson a stepmother before she is biological mother. Nelson’s book, that is, I have no trouble calling queer, as it is a radically fraught memoir on the level of style (is it memoir? Is it criticism? Is it prose poetry? All and none of the above?) and also queer on the level of content, and yet Nelson is so skittish—rightly—about identity markers and labels that I wonder what it means to even attempt to define it. Its goal is certainly not to produce a “queer motherhood memoir,” and yet if I were to hand you an example of one, I’d put Nelson at the very top of the list.
Why the insistence on labeling when the writer herself evades labels? What is the value in carving out a queer motherhood memoir? What’s at stake, that is, in genre? (And in queering genre?) The short version: it’s political and pragmatic. (Or, more cynically, it’s about marketing.) Generic markers allow the audience who needs to find the book find it. It does the work of representation, in this case making visible the narratives of alternative families.
What it would have meant to me, at twenty-seven, to find a story like mine in the library stacks. Why I read and reread Carole Maso’s The Room Lit by Roses that year, even though its answers were not the ones I needed. They were the closest I could find.
Digression: I’m writing a chunk of this at the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Convention in Los Angeles where I have seen Nelson (in leather pants!) read a small bit of The Argonauts—the bit about being under “placental observation” after some bleeding and the making of milk prior to her son’s birth—the reading enjoyable but less interesting ultimately than the conversation that followed, in which one of the fellow panelists chided Nelson for having a PhD in literature of all things (a tired AWP line). Happily, she refused the binary of putting critical work on one side and creative work on the other. I don’t see the difference, I think is what she said. I almost stood up and cheered. The Argonauts is always both/and. Nelson is both/and. I hope this paper too is both/and. How else could it do justice to Nelson’s work? That is, generically in this world where the major conventions for writers (AWP) and literary critics (Modern Language Association) are held separate, where writers and critics submit to different journals, the work of someone like Nelson (poet/memoirist/critic) is unquestionably queer.
Of course what is most queer about Nelson’s work is exactly what makes it difficult to use any label, including ‘queer’ itself. Nelson refuses all binaries: critical and creative, male and female, straight and lesbian. Significantly, for Nelson, even the idea of “trans” is problematic; what of being always in between? Reading the work of Catherine Opie, Nelson writes: “it’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing." Other memoirs arguably put a straight box on a queer story; for instance, writer and transgender advocate Jennifer Finney Boylan works very hard in She’s Not There and Stuck in the Middle with You to show mainstream readers just how “normal” she and her family are. Yes, she’s gone from being “Daddy” to “Maddy,” but she’s still in love, married to Deirdre, her sons have grown up well-adjusted and gone to college and everything’s turned out great; check out photos of the family on her website. To be sure, there’s significant value in that normalizing move, reassuring a trans-/homo-phobic American culture that THE FAMILY writ large is not in question. It’s a much-needed narrative and, as all Boylan’s work, delightful to read, but is it “queer” beyond its author’s identification?
(Forgive me the rhetorical questions; arguing against the queerness of a queer figurehead is not really the point.)
I am tempted to say, as I am always tempted to say, the problem is Narrative (yes, the capital ‘N’ is deliberate). The very word “queer” might also be read I think as transgressive or perhaps anti-narrative, because narrative, as Judith Roof explains in Come As You Are, has already been knit so tightly to heterosexuality that to go against one is seemingly to go against the other. As she contends, “it is impossible to think about narrative without engaging ideologies of sexuality.” Nelson puts it this way, speaking of hers and Harry’s inclinations as readers: “That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—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 about to see out, to get out."
Because there was no book that said what I needed it to say, I wrote my own. What it means to go to the fertility specialist in your twenties and start looking at profiles for donor sperm, in a state that spawned George Bush. I had no choice but to call it Texas Girl.  Of course, my own narrative--queer as it is in its choices--is also very traditional in its structure. You could plot Freitag’s triangle with it, crisis and happy ending and all that. Perhaps that is impossible to avoid.
What of narrative’s inescapability?
I am interested in the fragment as a mode that disrupts narrative trajectories, that in its fissures and parataxis asks readers to stitch the fragments together, to hold them apart. In both Bluets and The Argonauts in lieu of sustained argument and/or narrative Nelson offers short sections that refuse and question chronology, that push readers to think about what holds them together and keeps them apart. I am tempted to say that this choice is part of the book’s queerness, its hybridity, refusing a totalizing or master narrative, both ideologically and structurally.
Nelson’s book takes its title from the idea of “argo,” identities built from and in pieces, a process of transformation and reinvention, performativity. Writing of Roland Barthes’ Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Nelson says “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." The metaphor of the Argo, then, is a metaphor of the fragmentary nature of identity, its performativity, an avowal of the fragment itself. A book in pieces. The Argonauts are the lovers and the Argonauts are collectors of fragments, selves shored up by the bits. Thinking of Eve Sedgwick on queerness, Nelson quotes ‘Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant…Keenly it is relational, and strange.’ Nelson continues “She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder—a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do—they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive." The Argo, then, is the figure of queerness itself.
I am getting to something resembling an argument, built out of molten or shifting parts.
Through its fragments The Argonauts foregrounds questions of identity, the way the self is constructed, as well as queerness, pregnancy, domesticity. It is and is not a queer mother memoir, or perhaps it’s queerness lies in locating in its relation to the usual trajectory of the momoir: the pregnancy, labor, and birth, with a few strategic complications and disruptions along the way.
If Nelson’s is a queer motherhood memoir, what does it mean to be a “motherhood memoir” in the first place? Who gets to write them and how? To queer the genre is to make a claim about what the genre is, after all.
I do not want to posit big overly antagonistic claims, like motherhood memoirs are all written by white middle-class straight women. While there is undoubtedly some truth to this claim, my own experience of mother memoirs, as both reader and writer, has already been focused on the lesbian, on the single mother, on the transgendered parent, on issues currently called “intersectionality.” But I do want to think about what it means to situate Nelson’s book within/against the context of a genre, one that is arguably—if growing—still marginalized.
I read Nelson’s book differently when I read it alongside Moraga than Anne Carson, say. There is something rhetorical and pragmatic about genre. To borrow from Fredric Jameson: it’s an intellectual “scaffold” to be put in place until the work is done."
Some ground rules: I would venture to say that most mother memoirs are written by women, about the experience of motherhood, for women who are mothers, or contemplating motherhood. Their nonfiction status--the idea that the mother memoir can tell us something of the “truths” of motherhood—is part of their appeal. As motherhood scholars Andrea O’Reilly and Elizabeth Podnieks note in their introduction to Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts, “[a]utobiography (including diary and memoir) is an especially valuable arena in which we can register and understand the ways that women inscribe an ‘I’ or series of ‘Is’ in the authoring of their own maternal selves, accounting for and expressing awareness of factors such as the body, sexuality, gender, race, class, and nationhood." Within a recognizable narrative arc—usually beginning with either intellectual or literal conception, moving through pregnancy, birth, and early postpartum period—we also have mother memoirs that consider infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, postpartum depression, pregnancy with mental illness, addiction. These too intersect with motherhood. The mother memoir is already not singular. But, still, there is something radical in Nelson’s approach.
Within a culture that celebrates “Mothers’ Day” with Hallmark cards and heart necklaces, Nelson’s book refuses sentimentality: it uses words like “ass-licking,” places them side by side with motherhood. It’s all body; she mentions gaining fifty-four pounds during her pregnancy. The book is excessive in some ways, grotesque. I could not love it more. As Nelson writes, “the pregnant body in public is also obscene. It radiates a kind of smug autoeroticism." If its obscenity lies in its sexuality and largesse, the maternal body here is also, radically, anti-heteronormative. Pregnancy might be positioned as sexy, but it is not the result of having had sex. When a trip to the doctor’s office and a vial of sperm is required, sex, reproduction, and gender are, in this space, deliciously troubled.
Smug, yes. Daring to have sex for pleasure, not for babies. Daring to have babies for themselves, not to codify heterosexuality.
This should not come as a surprise to Nelson’s reader. After all, she writes on the first page of the book: “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. Does it get any better?”
Does it get any better, indeed.
With this beginning, Nelson’s book offers a queer opening into—or, an opening into queer—questions of identity, domesticity, the maternal body, and eroticism.
But, Nelson confesses, she has an “identity phobia." The book, which begins toward the beginning of her relationship with Harry, worries about the problem of pronouns, the inadequacy of language to characterize her partner. “It’s not really my shame or befuddlement—it’s more like I’m ashamed for (or simply pissed at) the person who keeps making all the wrong presumptions and has to be corrected, but who can’t be corrected because the words are not good enough." The answer, Nelson tells us, “isn’t just into introduce new words (boi, cis-gendered, andro-fag) and then set out to reify their meanings."
Nelson considers the relationship between queerness, pregnancy, and heteronormativity, asking “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state, and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity."
Again: how can the pregnant body be both inherently queer and also the ultimate conformity? What does it mean for Nelson, for Moraga, for Maso, for me, to play the part of a pregnant woman?
Reflecting on a holiday image of her family captured on a photo mug, Nelson writes: “In the photo I’m seven months pregnant with what will become Iggy, wearing a high ponytail and leopard print dress; Harry and his son are wearing matching dark suits, looking dashing. We’re standing in front of the mantel at my mother’s house, which has monogrammed stockings hanging from it. We look happy." A friend says, unsolicited, “I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life." But why, Nelson asks. Is it the mug? The tradition of the holiday photo? The fact of the pregnancy itself? Paraphrasing Butler, Nelson asks, “When or how do new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements and when or how do they radically recontextualize them in a way that constitutes a rethinking of kinship? How can you tell."
Is that holiday photo inevitably a performance? Of what exactly?
Speaking of her son in utero, Nelson writes “Let him stay oblivious—for the first and last time, perhaps—to the task of performing a self for others, to the fact that we develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting of us. Eventually, we call that snowball a self (Argo)."
While pregnant, I was assumed to be something other than what I am. So what?
Tentatively: if the work of queer theory is to trouble among other things heteronormativity, there is perhaps no better space in which to do that than in queer pregnancy, as it illustrates the slippage and difference even between reproduction, heterosexual sex acts, and the broader institutions of heteronormative gender roles. What of the woman who conceives with her trans/ungendered partner using a third party’s sperm? All old assumptions and narratives out the window.
Thus, single or lesbian motherhood in particular Nelson says, quoting Julia Kristeva, “can be seen as [one] of the most violent forms taken by the rejection of the symbolic…as well as one of the most fervent divinations of maternal power—all of which cannot help but trouble an entire legal and moral order without, however, proposing an alternative to it."
My friend A--another single mother by choice--likes to say that she wanted to have a baby, not a political statement. But, I want to insist, it’s a baby and a political statement. You know this clearly enough when the reproductive endocrinologist with the teeny gold cross around her neck gives you the squint eye when you tell her, in all your twenty-nine year-old seriousness (in her office in that very conservative state) that yes, you want to have a baby on your own, and she proceeds to check the boxes on the forms that will tell your insurance company you are dealing with “male factor infertility,” and need to use donor sperm. Just down the road, the hospital refused to allow single women to undergo in vitro fertilization.
In a heteronormative culture wherein sexuality is assumed to be reproductive, using assisted reproductive technology to have a baby, for its own sake, troubles the “legal and moral order.”
Nelson says that her work is written “in public,” which I take to be not only a comment about where Nelson does her writing (I try to picture her in a café, or maybe a bar, with a notebook) but the kind of work her writing does. To write a memoir is to make your private life, a version of your private life, public. And perhaps this is why I want more (from) queer mother memoirs than records of morning sickness and mundane gestational anxiety. Why there is something too precious for me in Carole Maso’s Room Lit by Roses which I read that year I was writing a dissertation on anti-narrative and choosing to become a mother, events which, from a distance of fifteen years, seem to be one and the same.
If Nelson describes herself as “in drag as a memoirist," it is clear that genre as well as gender is performative. Genre, like gender, is shored up over time, “congealed” (as Butler says in Gender Trouble) into something that looks stable but is really fragmentary, in pieces.
What would it mean to write a memoir that testifies to the fragmentary, performative nature of the self?
What would it mean to write an essay not as teleological argument, in meaty paragraphs with tidy transitions, but as a series of fragments?
Or, in other words, writing about the performative nature of identity itself requires performativity. The fragment (argo) as the foundation of queer theory.
If, as Roof has suggested, “narratives are enabled by identifications and identifications are produced by narratives” (“Girl” 10), then it only seems appropriate that trouble with identity is also trouble with narrative. A queer identity requires a queer narrative.
Let me say that again. A queer identity requires a queer narrative.
There is more to be said about the fragment as a feminist critical practice.
Doled out among the fragments (argos)—hers and mine— there is a narrative in The Argonauts about Nelson’s relation to domesticity or, perhaps more accurately, Nelson’s changing relation to domestic life.
“And then, just like that, I was folding your son’s laundry. He had just turned three. Such little socks! Such little underwear!”
Nelson recognizes early that the intellectual, the feminist, and the domestic are not by definition oppositional. Listening to Jane Gallop as a graduate student, Nelson says: “I didn’t have a baby then, nor did I have any designs on having one. Nor have I ever been what you might call a baby person…even urgings toward ‘self-care’ often irritate or mystify me). But I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity."
It is thus perhaps not surprising that, describing herself in labor, Nelson and her partner arrange their bookshelves. This moment seems critical and highly metaphorical, laboring among books: “I keep sitting down to rest amid the books on the floor, arranging them into piles by genre, then by country. More pains. All these beautiful pages."
Nelson’s rearranging here is synecdoche for the project of The Argonauts, which worries about genre, which is to say identity and categorization. Nelson troubles the relationship between queerness and maternity. It is also a space wherein the bodily, the domestic, and the intellectual converge, like Nelson’s laboring body seated amidst her books.
The maternal, Nelson reminds us, is a vital site of critical interrogation. This is not unlike the moment, set up earlier, wherein Nelson describes using a laminated page from the New York Times listing her as a Guggenheim winner as placemat under her son’s high chair. The domestic and the intellectual rub against each other, in pieces. They co-exist.
Pieced together through fragments, The Argonauts refuses chronology. As in this instance with the Guggenheim placement, we know of Nelson parenting Iggy long before she gives us the narrative of Iggy’s conception and birth. Such chronological disruption questions the teleological impulse. Iggy’s coming into being is one piece of the ship (Argo) but not its entirety.
“I labor grimly on these sentences, wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness (fidelity to sense-making, to assertion, to argument, however loose)."
Nelson labors on sentences. Nelson labors among sentences. Nelson’s birth is a site of intellectual as well as physical labor.
It is thus Nelson’s discomfort with narrative, with identity, indeed with language itself, that makes The Argonauts such a remarkable and paradoxical accomplishment.
“On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible—on the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live. Becoming."
The fragments perhaps are meant to mark, that is perform, an idea (argument?) becoming (argo).
For theorist Annamarie Jagose, “Queer is an ongoing and necessarily unfixed site of engagement and contestation."
To mark Nelson’s book as “queer mother memoir,” then I should say something about what a “mother memoir” is and how it might be “queer” or “queered.” This is the idea in becoming, through fragments.
When the norms of critical essays expect paragraphs, fragments are queer.
If I have suggested that genre is pragmatic, I want to return again the question of the queer mother memoir. What is at stake. What is the value of the label, especially as Nelson herself is a reluctant memoirist (despite having written three books that are arguably memoir, at least in part). Discussing queer memoir generally, Julie Avril Minich contends (following Paul Monette), that queer memoir and autobiography “are an antidote to the hate-filled ‘lies’ of a homophobic America." Beyond such providing positive representations of queer subjects, Minich provocatively raises the question “if we imagine queerness as more than just sexual object choice, we might wonder if there is a formal or thematic distinction to queer writing." Looking at examples by Monette, Audre Lorde, Samuel Delaney and others, she says “they are concerned with lives that do not proceed through the traditional life events associated with heteronormative constructions of time and produce texts that are similarly punctuated and interrupted in unexpected ways."
Juxtaposing an image of her cervix during insemination against a discussion of Lee Edelman’s seminal work in queer theory, Nelson writes: “Reproductive futurism needs no more disciplines. But basking in the punk allure of ‘no future’ won’t suffice either…Fuck them, I say."
Fragments too punctuate and interrupt in unexpected ways.
The motherhood memoir, according to Dymond and Wiley, “is a site for self-representation of the mother as she negotiates her multiple roles and how her roles are interpellated by the other aspects of her subjectivity."
The Argonauts gains a sense of urgency as Nelson moves toward the narrative of the birth of her son. The narrative, largely, of family-building outside the mainstream, one that “queers” gender, domesticity, and Narrative writ large. The pregnant body, she reminmonths of becoming, Nelson writes, “you pass as a guy; I, as pregnant…On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging."
In pieces, Nelson tells the story of her son Igasho’s birth and naming: “something about identity was loose and hot in our house."
“[O]ne of the gifts of genderqueer family making,” Nelson writes, “is the revelation of caretaking as detachable from—and attachable to—any gender, any sentient being."
The paradox: “Never in my life have I felt more prochoice than when I was pregnant. And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception." In Nelson’s book, pregnancy is anything but smugly heteronormative. That is its significance and its charm.
In pieces, Nelson asks her reader to think about maternal eroticism: “How does one go about partitioning one sexual feeling off from another, presumably more ‘real’ sexual feeling? Or, more to the point, why the partition? It isn’t like a love affair. It is a love affair." “Even if I do feel turned on while I’m breast-feeding or rocking him to sleep, I don’t feel the need to do anything about it (and if I did, it wouldn’t be with him)."
There’s much more to be said, though Nelson doesn’t say it. The mother-child relationship here is not the result of and modeled after a romance between heterosexual parents; the mother-child dyad is itself complete. “I have my baby, and my baby has me. It is a buoyant eros, an eros without teleology."
There’s much Nelson won’t say, though she gestures toward it: “I am not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin; it’s not precious or rich to me."
It’s a book of fragments and gestures, petit recits, without the drama and overreaching.
“[I]n practice,” she says, “I am more of a serial minimalist—an employee, however productive, of the condensary."
“I didn’t know then Barthes’s book The Neutral, but if I had, it would have been my anthem—the Neutral being that which, in the face of dogmatism, the menacing pressure to take sides, offers novel responses: to flee, to escape, to demur, to shift or refuse terms, to disengage, to turn away."
In The Argonauts, Nelson refuses binary and argument.
In this essay, I hope I too have refused binary and argument, settling for something more fragmentary and queer.
I went looking for books on queer motherhood, on motherhood outside the mainstream, and at long last, I found Maggie Nelson. While I do not know this with definitive certainty, I suspect it is the only prize-winning book of criticism (criticism!) to reference transvaginal ultrasounds and intrauterine insemination. It is and is not a memoir; it is and is not about motherhood. And perhaps this both/and liminality in itself marks The Argonauts as queer.
Nelson writes on queer family building: “any bodily experience can be made new and strange…nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it…no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative."
In the end, the label doesn’t matter except that in labeling, in identifying, in specifying genre, the book will find its way to the readers who need it most.
That is, the visibility of Nelson’s book and publicity surrounding it allow it to be seen both by the women and couples who are desperate for narratives of alternative family and also more generally to make that story public. In the most basic terms: Nelson’s work, which has won acclaim as both National Book Critics Circle award winner and MacArthur genius grant, is more visible than many other queer mother memoirs, published in smaller presses without major marketing support.
Moraga’s book, significant as it is, is no longer in print. It is hard to find the narratives you need. Sometimes you need to write your own. I did.
After what feels like a lifetime of infertility and loss, my children are now 12 and 4. I wake to the sounds of children not outside my window but in the rooms next to mine. After I drive them across town to the middle school, the preschool, I drive home. Make a cup of coffee. Sit down to read and write.
I write prose poems. I write criticism and memoir. I try to stay in the liminal spaces between.
I want to say something about queer motherhood memoirs. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts opens on my desk like a gift.
- The introduction to Justine Dymond and Nicole Willey’s edited collection Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives (Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, 2013) offers a useful roadmap to the development of the motherhood memoir as a discrete genre in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries.
- Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015).
- Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 43.
- Margaret Gibson, Queering Motherhood: Narrative and Theoretical Perspectives (Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, 2014), 5. Gibson’s collection offers a useful introduction to the issues that arise when maternity and queer theory are placed side by side. Some of the essays are practical, considering, for example, the question of whether, or, to what extent, LGBTQ parents have different “ideologies of motherhood” (4). But more expansively, Gibson’s book troubles the “classic” (her term) work of queer theory that has “largely operated outside the realm of the parental” (11). She pointedly says “provocative notions such as Lee Edelman’s objection to ‘reproductive futurity’—in which the symbolic Child is invoked as a futuristic rationale for existing subjugation—remain distantly removed from questions of how the reproduction and parenting of actual children might take place” (11). By contrast, Shelly M. Park’s similarly titled Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended, and Polygamous Families (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2013), is so limited in its focus on “polymaternal” (often adoptive or blended) families that it does not even consider single mothers, or the possibilities afforded by assisted reproductive technologies that allow single women, lesbians, and gay men to become parents (beyond a quick—odd—reference to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg as “a metaphor for lived relations of real mothering”) (174).
- Gibson, Queering, 6.
- Robin Warhol and Susan Snaider Lanser, eds. Narrative Theory Unbound (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), 2.
- David Halpernin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagioraphy (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1995), 62.
- See, for example, Harlyn Aizley, Buying Dad: One Woman’s Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2003); Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (New York: Broadway Books, 2014); Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (New York: Ballantine, 1994); Cherrie Moraga, Cherrie, Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1997); Carole Maso, The Room Lit by Roses (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000); A.K. Summers, Pregnant Butch (Berkeley, CA: Softskull Press, 2014).
- I should note that, within the context of this particular discussion, I am less concerned about the minute, if significant, distinctions between lesbian memoirs, queer memoirs, and transgender memoirs of motherhood, although there might well be important political implications to hold them distinct. Despite the proliferation of such memoirs, there has been little critical conversation surrounding them and most of it published within the already marginalized context of motherhood studies, rather than studies of autobiography/memoir/life-writing. See especially the essay by Kate McCullough “Of Woman (But Not Man or the Nuclear Family) Born: Motherhood Outside Institutionalized Heterosexuality” in From Motherhood to Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, edited by Andrea O’Reilly (New York: SUNY Press, 2004) and, more recently Dymond and Willey’s co-edited collection. For a broader consideration of the mother memoir, see Andrea O’Reilly, “The Motherhood Memoir and the ‘New Momism’: Biting the Hand that Feeds You,” in Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literature, ed. Elizabeth Podnieks and Andrea O’Reilly (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010).
- Moraga, Waiting in the Wings, 76.
- Ibid., 34.
- The fact that work on “maternal eroticism” is scant (to say the least) is itself symptomatic. In Joani Mortensen’s essay “Borders, Bodies, and Kindred Pleasures: Queering the Politics of Maternal Eroticism,” the author describes her work as “a potent antidote to the patriarchal heteronormative backlash against marrying the terms ‘maternal’ and ‘erotic’” (in Margaret Gibson, ed., Queering Motherhood: Narrative and Theoretical Perspectives [Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, 2014], 187). Additionally, she says, “Where mothers have been socially constructed as self-sacrificing, maternal eroticism suggests that mothers and their children are freer to enjoy a wider range of physical, emotional, spiritual and social relationships that are based in the attainment of nourishing, pleasurable, and enhanced consciousness within the geography of their shared and overlapping experiences of mothering and being mothered” (196). My concern here is the way that in both Moraga’s and Nelson’s texts, eroticism surrounding gestation and early motherhood is aligned, positively, with the rhetoric of queerness.
- As I have written elsewhere, Maso’s book is clearly written less for other mothers-to-be than for readers already familiar with her work--in particular, her innovative novels. While Room is not a typical plot-driven memoir of conception, pregnancy, and birth, it is largely chronological and largely follows that pattern. Still, it has too many detours, too many trips through other worlds—many references to poetry readings, grading student papers in the bathtub, and rather odd references to David Foster Wallace--to be readable by most women who are looking to read pregnancy memoirs. On the other side, though, it lacks the sustained discussion of Maso’s life situation to mark it as queer or lesbian.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 74.
- Boylan herself has become something of a celebrity, featured on Caitlyn Jenner’s TV show I Am Cait.
- Judith Roof, Come As You Are (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 24. Throughout Come As You Are Roof deploys the term “heteronarrative” to characterize their co-implication. Provocatively, she suggests “[w]e may now be facing a new shift in social orders from production capitalism to a commodity culture detached from labor; their overlap may effect a new narrative hybrid and shift narrative ideology” (40). Books like Nelson’s are, I think, evidence of this altern(arr)ative.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 82.
- Robin Silbergleid, Texas Girl: A Memoir (Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, 2014).
- Nelson, Argonauts, 5
- Ibid., 29.
- Consider, for example, Nicole Willey’s characterization: “sure there are a few authors who come immediately to mind, Rebecca Walker and ashe bandele to name two, but it is clear that the vast majority of women writers who are enjoying wider sales and name recognition in the motherhood memoir genre are white, middle-class women…and perhaps those words ‘motherhood’ and ‘memoir’ are an insight into part of the problem” (234). She continues, “I do not wish to impugn all white motherhood memoirs by suggesting that they are readily buying into Motherhood as an Institution and therefore their stories are easier published and sold. However, it is often the case that white motherhood memoirs are written by people who at least seem (on the surface—their subversion is often there) to be part of the comfortable confines of Motherhood” (235). Willey’s own essay thus looks back to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, arguing “African American women have been telling and writing their mothering stories as long as they’ve been mothering, but those stories are not always made public; therefore, they are often not available, and even more often they are not celebrated” (238). Such a critique is certainly valuable and addresses larger problems in the publishing industry. Yet at some point I wonder about the value of an identity-politics based criticism (or, “these stories have been left out”) as a critical model and, in fact, if part of the subversiveness of a book—like Nelson’s, say—is that it is both well received and published by an independent press that foregrounds innovative work.
- As Dymond and Willey rightly claim, the motherhood memoir is under-discussed within the field of life writing more broadly: “Even Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s excellent compendium Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, now in its second edition, only gives one sentence to the subgenre of motherhood memoir” (7). Their own book usefully extends the conversation but, it should be noted, contextualizes its project within motherhood studies specifically, as published by Demeter Press.
- Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981), 145.
- Andrea O’Reilly and Elizabeth Podnieks, Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literatures. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2010), 7.
- O’Reilly notes in her discussion of mother memoirs that the risk is that they reproduce the “momist” structures that seek to undermine maternal agency and replicate dominant familial and gender ideologies (that is to say, patriarchy). The term “momist” here comes from the work of Ann Douglas and Meredith Michaels in The Mommy Myth.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 90.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 111.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 95.
- Ibid., 78. The Argonauts is in turns both theoretically savvy and cranky about theory: “Honestly I find it more embarrassing than enraging to read Baudrillard, Zizek, Badiou, and other revered philosophers of the day pontificating on how we might save ourselves from the humanity-annihilating threat of the turkey baster (which no one uses, by the way; the preferred tool is an oral syringe) in order to protect the fate of this endangered ‘sexed being’ (79). While certainly I agree with Nelson about the conservatism of these theorists and indeed the suggestion that high theory can’t deal with the body, much less the queer body, I think if we understand narrative (the symbolic) and sexuality to be linked in theory if not also in practice, we also need to concede that queer family building does subvert the norm. But, that subversion should be read as a good, not anxiety-producing, thing.
- The very medical definition of infertility is tied to heteronormative assumptions: the inability to conceive a pregnancy after a year of unprotected sex. This limitation has unquestionable ramifications on access to medical care, and financial implications for single women, as well as gay and lesbian couples, attempting to conceive. At this writing, in 2016, the World Health Organization is finally undertaking a revision that is more inclusive.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 12.
- If Maso’s book is very compelling as an experimental, fragmented journal, its queerness lies largely in its narrative form, rather than its content. Where Nelson gives us some of the intricacies of insemination and the months of anxiety and difficulty, Maso views her pregnancy as fated, inevitable: “After one night, I was sure of it even then. Such was my improbable bravada.” And with such ease and charm in this self-proclaimed “fairy tale,” she has little consolation or sympathy for others: “On the street some women avert their eyes when they see me. I am a reminder of what they have failed to do.” Rather than exploring the queering of pregnancy, she mostly comments on getting what she calls “normal person credits” for her ordinary, suburban achievement. She largely leaves discussion of her partner out of the text. Even the act of getting a domestic partnership certificate, for what she describes as “practical reasons” rather than romantic ones, is accompanied by little fanfare and a mere short paragraph.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 114.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).
- Judith Roof, “The Girl I Never Want to Be: Identity, Identification, and Narrative,” in A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Martin Duberman (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 10.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 10.
- Ibid., 42.
- Ibid., 125.
- Ibid., 52.
- Ibid., 53.
- Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996), 11.
- Julie Minnich, “Writing Queer Lives: Autobiography and Memoir,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature, edited by Scott Herring (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015), 59.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 69.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 76-77.
- Dymond and Willey eds., Motherhood Memoirs, 10.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 83.
- Ibid., 135.
- Ibid., 72.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 44.
- Ibid., 123.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 112.
- Nelson, Argonauts, 72-73