Estrangement: Queerness, Disassociation

To estrange oneself from aspects of their history is a means of self-protection. In the case of Mala Ramchandin, it’s that her older coping self, Mala, acts explicitly as a guardian and protector to her imaginary, estranged self, and disassociating her emotional selves allows both her traumatic self to be comforted by a sisterly figure, and for her in the present day to avoid the subject. To Mala, coping is being afforded moments of levity in which she, and her history, can exist without the context of her traumas and simultaneously continue to navigate a reality (her home) in which the context is ever relevant. Through this, she is able to compartmentalize (literally—her father was placed in a compartment), and she is rendered stiff and withdrawn when the compartment is forced open, so that nobody can attempt to pry it open further.

Yet, another example of estrangement in the novel is the narrator’s concealment of their own true gender and named identity by the point of its conclusion: we aren’t afforded the knowledge of what it is that lies beneath the veil of “Tyler,” or “Ty,” but we learn that something is there. Closeting, and estrangement from the public underneath a gender-compliant face acts as a means of protection so that the true, queer identity can exist without the context of transphobia (that context being someone like Toby, for example). To quote:

“Lately restraint and I have been hostile strangers to one another. I find myself defying caution.” (246)

Restraint, and caution, here, is the “putting on” of Tyler, the gendered face which protects the narrator from having to navigate dangerous contexts. Mala, being aware of disassociation and the estrangement of the self, is the first to nurture a different context in their moments alone together (a place where nobody is asking any questions, and a place where they are given a reason or an excuse to wear the women’s nursing outfit). The narrator’s defining moment in part V is when they finally declares, and formally accepts Otoh’s presence as an environment where they can declare themself without Tyler’s protection.

Sunken Treasures much like Your Own

The opening stanza of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” starts with a list of preparations: a book of myths, a film camera, a knife, and a “body-armor of black rubber” (5) which makes them look “absurd” (6) and awkward (7). They then enunciate that their task is theirs and theirs alone, contrasting themself from Cousteau’s journeys into the ocean, “assiduous” (9) and well staffed with a team in comparison. The speaker is out of their depth (regardless of how well prepared they may be), and vulnerable. This vulnerability is exemplified in following stanzas, through simile: “I crawl like an insect” (30), and through imagery “black I am blacking out” (36). Throughout it all they also associate themself with the shipwreck itself: “We know what it is for, // we who have used it.” (17, 18), “We are, I am, you are”. The reality, the “thing itself” of the shipwreck erased and lost in the retold story of the shipwreck (“the myth”), contains “our name,” according to the speaker. The amount of danger and anticipation signalled in the desperation, helplessness, and vulnerability portrayed in their own preparation is for fear that they may end up like the shipwreck itself: “we are the half-destroyed instruments // that once held to a course // of the water-eaten log // the fouled compass.”

The story of shipwreck omits the reality of the things that were lost, among them the speaker’s—and their companions’—names, and in omitting the detail, or the details being lost and waterlogged, becomes mythologized: the poem speaks of historical erasure, and the (often intentional and malicious) loss of intimate, raw sentiment and reality in the transformation of lived experiences into history. In being erased from history, the speaker, and their associates, whether they be predecessors or contemporaries find their names and intimate, lived realities lost, damaged, waterlogged, with no story being left behind to preserve them, only a mythologized version of events which might not even acknowledge that they ever even existed.

Being Queer in the 21st century is to find the history of our predecessors and companions shrouded in mystery and haze, their lived realities lost to us and history books and biography books only sufficing to tell a myth based on the hint of a fact. We see ghosts of an implication: evidence to suggest this-or-that scientist or painter was gay, often conclusive, yet never scholarly integrated with the culturally significant mythologies we’ve created around them. The raw loss and devastation caused by the AIDS crisis, our names mythologized into obscurity in the version the general population continues to be taught, also. To be queer is to know that we are as vulnerable as the ships that have sunk before us, that our names and lived realities could one day be lost to time like our predecessors. To be queer is to “[load] the camera, and check the edge of the knife blade,” to “put on the body-armor of black rubber,” and diving into the wreck.

Blood, Water, and the Body in Between

“Her hair was shining with bright drops of rain, the rain ran down her breasts, their outline clear through her wet muslin dress.” (85)

Winterson introduces Louise to the narrator as rain after a drought. Each subsequent encounter is further marked with the appearance of rain (54, 72), and the honeymoon period that follows the fulfilment of their affair is depicted as “The wettest June on record. We made love every day.” (20)

To the narrator, Louise is a tactile wetness that writes along the skin: the platonic lunch charged with sexual tension right before the start of their affair culminates in their first touch, incited by “viscous juices” dribbling down her chin, and the narrator rushing to steal the napkin for the opportunity to dab it away (37). Her “outline” is first revealed to them as the rain runs down her figure.

“Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead. (123)

The dichotomy of “dermis” and “epidermis”—the living body and the dead cells of the surface of the skin is one that’s complicated by Louise’s cancer—because her body has turned on itself, the epidermis, while already dead, is the only part of her—because they lack “blood vessels or nerve endings,” untouched by her illness (123). The narrator, as a “creature who feeds at your hand,” who “rub(s) away” at the “dead you,” is at a constant struggle to dig skin-deep, yearning to feel life at their fingertips (124). Yet the core of Louise’s being hides death, while the dead epidermis appears more lively than her condition truly implies. This is mirrored in the plot and Louise and the narrator’s character development: Louise, who is asymptomatic, fails to show any sign of illness on the outside, while intimacy and authenticity reveals to the narrator that she no longer has very long to live.

The only part of Louise that is neither dead nor dying, then, is the thin layer of skin cells at the apex of the dermis which meets the epidermis, a layer that can’t feel the narrator, nor be felt by them, but which becomes visible to them in the glow of wet skin, because as water is absorbed by the pores of the skin it makes it reflective, and its reflectiveness the light bounces in and out of the surface of the skin. The water is what enables Louise to appear in the fullness of her life, and Louise, in turn, refers to the narrator themselves as this water: “You are a pool of clear water where the light plays.” (85)