Safety and Normalcy

I came out at 14, and I wasn’t scared. I’m fortunate enough to have parents who treated the announcement of my queerness like the announcement of my favorite color. It was a part of me and that was that. Years later, I had a conversation with my mother about when I came out, and about queerness in general. She told me that while she would never change me or my identity when I came out to her, she had a moment of fear. She said, “For a moment my heart sank because I knew that your life just became less safe.” I was less safe because I had admitted that I wasn’t normal. That unfortunate equivalency stems directly from the stigmas that result in microaggressions and violence. Warner, in The Trouble with Normal, calls this stigmatization a sense of pseudo-morality where “people think not only that their own way of living is right, but that it should be everyone else’s moral standard as well” (Warner, 4.) This sense of correctness and self-righteousness is easy for individuals to defend, cherry-picking passages of religious text or warping secular arguments to provide a sense of evidence. This perceived moral high ground provides the precipice where people outside the bounds of normal stand. If I stray from heteronormativity in public, I risk verbal or physical abuse. Even an act as simple as holding my partner’s hand on public transportation could incite a violent reaction from someone who perceives my existence as immoral. And, perhaps even worse, if I were to experience violence based on my sexuality and expression of it, in some places my attacker might never face repercussions. They could plead a case of panic, say that the shock of my queerness led them to their actions and that they cannot be held accountable for that abuse. And some judges and juries that would allow that because to them it is not unreasonable that my perceived lack of morality should incite violence. In a way, I become the criminal, although my “crime might be harmless difference” (Warner, 5) and I am shamed and deprived of dignity. However, that shame and fear also deprive me of my identity. My life is less safe because I maintain my identity, but my life would not be mine if I did not.


Lucifer and His Spiders

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune tells the story of a caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) and his experience on his latest assignment. He travels to a unique orphanage with six children: Talia, a gnome; Phee, a forest sprite; Theodore, a wyvern; Chauncey, of an unknown species; Sal, a shifter; and finally, Lucifer (Lucy), the Antichrist. These children are all incredibly powerful, in a world where magic is considered dangerous. This allegory allows us to examine the traumas experienced by minority groups. Using Cvetkovich’s analysis of trauma in “An Archive of Feelings” we can examine Klune’s characters’ experiences with trauma.

Lucy is six years old, yet he needs routine reminders that he is more than his origins: “I learned once again that I’m not just the sum of my parts” (Klune, 105.) While Lucy is told this daily in a place where he is safe and cared for, the traumas from his past, even at his young age, obviously still affect him. We can examine the moments “of extreme trauma alongside moments of everyday emotional distress that are often the only sign that trauma’s effects are still being felt” (Cvetkovich, 3) in Lucy’s life. Lucy struggles to see his identity beyond the apocalyptic monster assigned to him by society and his heritage. He imagines this as his brain being filled “with spiders burrowing their eggs in the gray matter. Soon they’ll hatch and consume me.” (Klune, 155.) While this seems like Lucy’s everyday bluster hellfire and damnation, this runs deeper. His nightmares, filled with these spiders and their webs trapping (Klune, 244) demonstrate his continued trauma. Lucy believes that the spider eggs will hatch, and he will inevitably become what society fears: The Antichrist. These fears are exacerbated by the bigotry he encounters outside of the island. Lucy describes the island as “the only place in the world where I don’t have to worry about priests trying to stick a cross on my face to cast my soul back into the pits of hell” (Klune 109-110.) While this seems humorous first, it becomes a horrifying reality when a man traps Lucy, a six-year-old child, into a locked room and attempts to exorcise him (Klune, 245.) This type of aggression feeds into his personal trauma.

Using children such as Lucy demonstrates the horrific combination of social traumas, motivated by bigotry, and personal traumas. We as an audience cannot blame Lucy for being who he is because he’s six, and we are much less willing to blame children for simply existing than we are for adults. It is much more difficult to justify this bigotry for most people. Additionally, the personal traumas endured by Lucy and the others are made that much more tragic due to their youth. Their age also allows for a different look at how these traumas affect them, as they are more willing to express themselves and their feelings if they feel that they are safe to do so. This allegory leads to questions about why people face these forms of bigotry for existing and how societal discrimination and hate worsens personal trauma.

Hearth and Quest

“Love it was that drove them forth. Love that brought them home again. Love hardened their hands against the oar and heated their sinews against the rain. The journeys they made were beyond common sense; who leaves the hearth for the open sea? Especially without a compass, especially in winter, especially alone. What you risk reveals what you value. In the presence of love, hearth and quest become one” (Winterson, 81)

Carson’s little red monster Geryon journeys several times for love, or at least for infatuation. “Sometimes a journey makes itself necessary” (Carson, 46) is stated in the section “Hades”, where Geryon runs away for a time to Herakles’ home to see the volcano. This escapade, while brief, made in Geryon’s teen years is his first journey for love. It is a literal, physical journey to the other end of the island, but I think it also represents a more metaphorical move as well. Geryon is entirely infatuated by Herakles, so he makes a knee-jerk choice to follow him, regardless of the consequences that might arise from that move. One of the consequences, Geryon foresaw and was willing to take, upsetting his mother. But Geryon also got his heart broken on that trip. But from that moment, Geryon places his bets with Herakles, in Winterson’s words, “what you risk reveals what you value” (Winterson, 81).

Years later, Geryon’s priorities remain the same. He hurls himself into another spur of the moment journey with Herakles “beyond common sense” (Winterson, 81). This time, however, Geryon’s choice is even more unusual. Herakles is in a relationship with Ancash, and it has been years since the two were together. Geryon knows both of these facts and still goes to Peru with the pair. He even questions his own motives, “Lima is terrible, he thought, why am I here?” (Carson, 124). Yet Geryon stays because of his desire to be near Herakles. I think “In the presence of love, hearth and quest become one” (Winterson, 81) is a fitting summary of Geryon’s motives. For most of his life, Geryon has felt alone and adrift. But in Peru during this wild unplanned quest to go see a volcano, Geryon has a few moments of contentment and belonging. He seems to find his hearth flying above the volcano and standing in front of the burning bakery.

There is a geographical and temporal irregularity and queerness in Geryon’s actions. When we see choices like his made in romantic movies or novels, we remark on how unrealistic they are. In our day-to-day lives in a temporally and geographically heteronormative society, we don’t go on spur of the moment adventures with our exes and their current partners. But that reluctance falls in line with a normative timeline, where you settle down with someone who has a common geographic convenience to you. They go to the same college, or you work at the same place, live in the same town, or have another shared connection in the way your life is lived. And we don’t interfere with other people’s relationships; polyamory, cheating, even flirting with someone in a relationship are all frowned upon by “nice” society. But both Geryon and our narrator rebel against that. This action that defies social norms and works against traditional conceptions of romance or love are inherently queer and breed new ideas of who we are “allowed” to love.

The Palimpsest

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book” (89).

Winterson describes the body as a palimpsest, a manuscript so worked over that the original text gets erased or covered to make way for new texts. This might connect to how Winterson tells the story. The narrator has a new story being written with Louise, but the “old text” of past relationships still appears both in the narrator’s recollection, but also their repeated patterns. These repeated patterns might relate to the visible traces of past writing on the manuscript that this the body, the remnants of the same tale. These visible traces of the narrator’s experience cause repeated patterns, they enter into a second relationship with a married woman when they begin their affair with Louise, but they had promised not to make that mistake after Bathsheba. But the old text shines through, and the narrator falls into old habits. The writing changes, in the narrator’s case, the writing on the body changes the most with their relationships. The palimpsest can also contain drawings, “I will find a map as likely as any treasure hunt. I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will” (pg 20). So, the new writing on the narrator’s body and their experience with Louise covers and writes over their experience with Jacquelin or Frank or Inge. Additionally, the concept of the body as a palimpsest, rather than a simple book or poem, is important. While in many ways, this seems like a minute difference, it is a critical one. In normal books or essays, you never see the draft, you only see the finished product. But the body is a palimpsest, the old text that came before might fade, or might be scrubbed away, but traces remain. Your past experiences don’t go away. This connects to Sedgwick’s idea of survival. We survive into our experience, not through or past it. The affects are lifelong, even if we gain new experiences. Considering the body as palimpsest, where your life and experience is written on your body, in your skin can help us understand identity. Winterson gives the narrator very few defining characteristics, the narrator has no gender, we don’t know their age, and their occupation is vague. What we as readers do know, is the narrator’s experience. The moments that are written on their body. This provides a different way of defining and describing our identities. They encompass more than our gender, our age, who we love or don’t love, or what our jobs are. Our identities are greatly shaped by our experiences, how we heal from them or grow because of them. We can use this idea to further our understanding of identity and how to write and explain it. While words used to describe identity: sexual or gender orientation, age, nationality, and others are useful, experience can provide deeper insight into our identities and how they blend with our lives.