Re-Visioning the Bible in Martha Moody

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” (Adrienne Rich, “‘When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision,” 11)

Martha Moody is rich with reimagined Bible stories, both within the story proper and Amanda’s own writing. As Amanda writes her own stories, she combines, alters, and revises biblical stories to give them a new meaning. Between pages 121-124, Amanda presents a story about Martha Moody, Azreal the winged cow, and a group of men outside Martha’s store; this story contains biblical references to the golden calf (Exodus 32), to Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22), and it even presents Martha as a Christ figure at the end. The way Amanda reimagines the golden calf story is especially interesting to me, and it fits well with Adrienne Rich’s claim that the act of “re-vision… is an act of survival,” as Amanda takes a violent story and rewrites its ending to ensure everyone survives.

In the biblical account, Moses, leader of the Israelite nation, has gone up to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, leaving his brother, the head priest Aaron, in charge of the people. As they wait for Moses to return, the people grow impatient and uncertain as to what has happened to Moses, and finally ask Aaron to make them a new god. Aaron commands them to give him all their gold jewelry and proceeds to melt it down and form it into an idol in the shape of a calf. Upon returning to the camp, Moses sees the calf and the people worshipping it; Exodus 32:20 describes his reaction: “And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.” Though harsh, this is not the Israelites’ only punishment. Moses stands at the outskirts of the camp and calls, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me” (Ex. 32:26). He commands everyone who follows him to “go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor” (Ex. 32:27). Three thousand people die as a result. However, this still isn’t enough: “the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made” (Ex. 32:35).

Amanda uses elements from this story in her own writing, but her re-vision of it replaces Aaron with Martha Moody. The Israelites’ demand “Come, make us gods who will go before us” (Ex. 32:1) becomes the men of the town asking Martha, “Could you give us an image of God we could care about?” (Stinson 122). This request is, itself, a desire for re-vision – for a new image of God in a form that suits the people’s wants and needs. Azreal (in Islam theology, the angel of death; in Amanda’s stories, a winged cow) joins Martha and tells her, echoing Exodus, “Tell them to take off their golden earrings and bring them to you” (122). In a move that reminds the reader of modern heteronormative gender standards, the sheriff hears this and responds, “Um, Ma’am. None of us wear earrings. If you could wait for us to go home and talk to our wives, we could come up with a pile of gold, I’d guarantee” (122). It is at this point that the two stories diverge in a drastic way. Where the Exodus account shows a horrific massacre and a plague, Amanda’s story diminishes the violence; though the men are still ‘punished’ for their request in a way, there is no plague, no massacre, no death. Instead, watches, guns, spurs, coins, and belt buckles rise up in the air as if by magnetic force and pull the men into “a squirming pile… stuck together by the metal on their persons” (123). As they lie stuck together on the ground, the men witness another reimagined Old Testament story, as Martha and Azreal wrestle each other and evoke the image of Jacob wrestling with God. The wrestling match concludes with Martha flying away on Azreal’s back. As the two of them disappear, “the men found that they could untangle themselves, and they went home with whatever guns and watches they found stuck in their pockets” (124).

Returning to Adrienne Rich’s idea of re-vision as an act of survival, I think it is significant that Amanda references the story of the golden calf in her own writing. She takes a story set in a patriarchy and replaces the primary male figure with a woman shopkeeper; furthermore, she takes a violent, death-filled story and changes the ending to ensure everyone survives. While Rich’s arguments center around the survival of real women writers in a patriarchal society, her idea can be re-visioned to address the way Amanda’s stories are a reimagining of biblical accounts.

Sexuality and Gender in Cereus Blooms at Night

A few weeks ago, my mother and I had a conversation about the relationship between gender and sexuality. Specifically, she told me that the acronym LGBT confused her, and she didn’t understand why the T was included alongside the LGB. Why do we think of gender and sexuality as belonging under one umbrella? Why are straight trans people considered part of the same group as gay cis people? What connects them? This isn’t a question I’ve thought much about before, and I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I tend to consider gender and sexuality as inherently linked, in the way that a person’s sexuality relates to the gender(s) they’re attracted to, or how a person’s gender influences the way they define their sexuality. However, I think there is a deeper connection here than a simple reciprocal relationship, and I think Cereus Blooms at Night provides a good lens through which to explore this question. I want to use this text and the character of Tyler to explore how gender and sexuality are related, specifically in terms of Tyler’s own sexuality and gender identity. 

There are two main elements to Tyler’s queerness: his* attraction to men, and his femininity. Tyler seems to have become comfortable with his sexuality before the text begins, and though he never explicitly labels himself as “gay” or “queer” or even “attracted to men,” neither does he hide his sexuality or speak around the moments when it comes to the surface of the text. While his attraction to men is made very explicit early on in the text (at the moment when the officers bring Mala to the Alms House [9-10], and when the doctor arrives to examine her [22]), his femininity starts out as more implicit, shown through his preference for a traditionally feminine career and his lack of traditional masculine abilities (his account of the physical labor he was assigned at the Alms House especially affirms this [10]). It wasn’t until Mala steals the nurse’s dress for him (75-78) that I began to consider his identity as other than an effeminate gay man. As the text progresses, Tyler’s femininity and non-normative gender identity become more and more explicit, until the very end of the book when he puts on makeup and the nurse’s dress to meet Otoh and Ambrose, appearing the most feminine that he has throughout the entire text (247). 

Tyler’s experience with gender and the social repercussions of not conforming to heteronormativity reflect our own society and recent attitudes around queer identities, specifically in the way people tend to be more comfortable with queer sexualities than with queer gender identities. I think the reason Tyler is more explicit about his sexuality than his gender identity is because gender can be a difficult concept to tear away from heteronormative ideals, more so than sexuality. Identifying as a man who is attracted to other men begins to align Tyler with (straight) women and starts chipping away at the boundaries of heteronormativity. Once he is comfortable with his attraction to men, he can begin exploring what his femininity might mean – and that is the journey his narration shows the readers. 


* The first question I had when considering Tyler’s identity is what pronouns to use. Because the text primarily identifies him as male, I could use masculine pronouns for him; however, I could just as easily read the ending of the text as a declaration of identity, and argue that Tyler’s feminine presentation is a sign to use she/her pronouns. Or, I could read the ambiguity of Tyler’s gender as a reason to use they/them pronouns. For the sake of clarity, and because Tyler presents as a man for the majority of the text, I decided to use he/him pronouns to refer to him. However, it appears that the text would just as easily support a different set of pronouns. 

The Terrible Slopes of Time

Once Geryon had gone

With his fourth-grade class to view a pair of beluga whales newly captured 

From the upper rapids of the Churchill River. 

Afterwards at night he would lie on his bed with his eyes open thinking of 

The whales afloat

In the moonless tank where their tails touched the wall – as alive as he was 

On their side 

Of the terrible slopes of time. What is time made of? Geryon said suddenly

Turning to the yellowbeard who

Looked at him surprised. Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction. 

Just a meaning that 

We impose upon motion. But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean. 

Wouldn’t want to be late 

For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.

Autobiography of Red, 90  

The moment before this passage, Geryon sees a list of names belonging to “professors detained or disappeared” hanging on the wall, and tries not to focus on any one of them in particular. He wonders, “Suppose it was the name of someone alive. In a room or in pain or waiting to die” (90). This thought plunges him into the memory of his fourth-grade field trip, and Geryon sees a connection between missing people, “alive… in a room or in pain or waiting to die,” and the captured whales, who are also alive, in an enclosed tank, their freedom taken from them, waiting to die. I struggled to understand the lines “as alive as he was/on their side/of the terrible slopes of time,” but I think they show Geryon identifying with the whales and their lack of freedom, and places him at the same point as the whales in their respective timelines. I imagine “the terrible slopes of time” as a mountain, or a roller coaster – beginning at the bottom with birth, climbing to the peak, and falling downward towards death. If Geryon is as alive as the whales are, and he is on their side of the slopes of time, does that mean that both he and the whales are on the downward slope, heading toward death? Is that how Geryon imagines his life progressing, as a fourth-grader lying in bed late at night – a captive in a cage, already falling down the “terrible slopes of time”? I’m reminded of the moment earlier in the text when Geryon, his brother, and their babysitter are discussing weapons, and Geryon says his favorite weapon is a cage (33). At various moments throughout the text, Geryon seems preoccupied with cages and captivity, and here he connects that feeling of being caged with ideas about time. 

Geryon’s thoughts suddenly jolt him back to the present moment with a question: what is time made of? I think there is a connection here between time, cages, and queerness, and “the yellowbeard” helps to put it into words. “Time is an abstraction,” he says – time is just a concept, with no meaning beyond that which people impose upon it. This imposed meaning, however, is central to existence within a cis- and heteronormative society. The yellowbeard’s next comment shows that although he recognizes time as an abstraction, he is still bound by its practical purpose: “‘But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean./Wouldn’t want to be late/For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.” The yellowbeard, like the vast majority of people, experiences time as a practical measurement of motion, which he has to adhere to for his own sake and the sake of others. I think Geryon, on the other hand, experiences time in a less straightforward, more queer way. In “In a Queer Time and Place,” Halberstam argues that queer experiences of time oppose a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ timeline of birth, marriage, reproduction, old age, and finally death – Geryon’s “terrible slopes of time.” To a fourth-grader witnessing “newly captured” whales and suddenly aware that they will likely spend the rest of their lives in captivity, this ‘normal’ timeline may feel like a cage. However, the moments of Geryon’s adult life that Carson presents align with Halberstam’s ideas about queer time: “queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” (Halberstam 1). Autobiography of Red shows Geryon as an adult whose future timeline does not conform to “those paradigmatic markers of life experience – namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam 2); rather than settle down, get married, have children, and eventually die, Geryon travels the world, asks strangers what time means to them, captures his life in photographs, and outlives the end of his biography.

Jacqueline and ‘Normal’

“I wanted the clichés, the armchair. I wanted the broad road and twenty-twenty vision. What’s wrong with that? It’s called growing up. Maybe most people gloss their comforts with a patina of romance but it soon wears off. They’re in it for the long haul; the expanding waistline and the little semi in the suburbs. What’s wrong with that? Late-night TV and snoring side by side into the millennium. Till death us do part. Anniversary darling? What’s wrong with that?” (Winterson, 26)

This passage comes at a point in Winterson’s text where the narrator has just met Jacqueline and is trying to decide whether a relationship with her is what she wants and/or needs. Jacqueline is different from anyone the narrator has previously been with: “She worked nine to five Monday to Friday, drove a Mini and got her reading from book clubs. She exhibited no fetishes, foibles, freak-outs or fuck-ups. Above all she was single and she had always been single. No children and no husband” (26). Jacqueline is strikingly normal and mundane, and as the narrator considers their past relationships, they find themself wanting to test the waters of normalcy. They are thinking in circles, considering what they want, what they need, what they should want, and how being with Jacqueline will be different. Deep down, however, they know a relationship with her will never be fulfilling. The repeated question “what’s wrong with that?” clues the reader in to the narrator’s anxieties around long-term commitment and their fear of an unsatisfying relationship, and shows that they are questioning whether they can really be happy with Jacqueline. The narrator seems to be trying to convince themselves that “growing up” and settling into a comfortable, clichéd relationship isn’t actually that bad; however, the way they imagine that relationship reveals a different story, as they describe a loss of romance, growing old with their partner, and having nothing more exciting than late-night TV and anniversaries to look forward to. The relationship becomes stagnant, unchanging, and boring. “What’s wrong with that?” the narrator asks themself. Nothing, except that a stagnant, boring relationship is at odds with what they really want. 

When considering this passage alongside ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘queerness’ as imagined by Warner and Rubin, it becomes apparent that the narrator is trying to reconcile their queerness with the desire to conform to given norms. Though the narrator’s gender and sexuality are never revealed, they fit into several categories in the “outer limits” or “bad/abnormal/unnatural” section of Rubin’s sexual hierarchy. They are unmarried, promiscuous, and their sex life is focused on pleasure rather than procreation; regardless of their gender, they have had relationships with both men and women, and thus can also fit into the category of homosexuality. Jaqueline, on the other hand, seems to fall into more of the “good/normal/natural” categories, though not entirely. Her sexuality is rather complex, as she is introduced as “the mistress of one of [the narrator’s friends] the confidante of both… She traded sex and sympathy for £50 to tide her over the weekend and a square meal on Sunday” (25). She therefore fits the “commercial” and (potentially) “sadomasochistic” categories in Rubin’s sexual hierarchy. Yet the narrator believes a relationship with her will be calm, clichéd, and normal, to the point of boredom. There is no passion between the two of them, and once together, their sex life becomes stagnant (28); it doesn’t seem too much to assume, considering the boredom and lack of romance, that it is private and vanilla as well. The narrator wants to try this calm, mundane kind of relationship with Jacqueline, seeing it and her as a welcome respite from the affairs they have had in the past. The problem is, the narrator is lying to themself on some level. They insist that they want “the clichés, the armchair,” when in reality, they will eventually become bored and frustrated with Jacqueline and her mundanity and leave her, choosing Louise and queerness over Jacqueline and normalcy.