Category Archives: Memoir

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Some books simply come into your subconscious awareness without you seemingly noticing. I had seen various tweets, articles and the like all talking about Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts but it was an article in The Pool that suddenly made me desperate to read it. I think that same article, and the background bubble and buzz around the book, also sparked the interest in quite a few people at the same time as spookily I spoke to two people on a single day who had also bought it on the same day and from the same bookshop in London, spooky.

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Melville House UK, 2016, paperback, memoir/non fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.

If the description of Maggie Nelson’s autobiographical The Argonauts had simply been described as a woman’s journey falling in love and having a baby, it is unlikely that I would have read it. Do not get me wrong, I think women having babies is a real miracle (I seriously considered becoming a midwife six years ago) however there is something about the falling in love and trying to have a baby story that feels a bit done. This could not be further from the truth in the case of The Argonauts, so thank goodness the aforementioned article in The Pool said ‘her extraordinary book about queer family-making’ because this is a subject that I do not think has been written about or discussed enough, certainly not in the amazing way in which Nelson delivers (pun not intended) this book of bite sized thoughts, feelings, moments, questions and observations which form a work that will leave your head buzzing with ideas, information and avenues to question and explore. Oh yes, it is one of those kinds of books.

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? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special – a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.

With The Argonauts Maggie Nelson shares with us her relationship with her partner Harry and her pregnancy with their son Iggy. At the time that Maggie was pregnant and going through all sorts of changes so was Harry as he was undergoing the hormones, medication and some of the surgery of his transition. They were both also transitioning in their relationship, from that instant attraction and initial lustful sex life to marriage, which neither of them ever thought they would do, and onto becoming a family, not just with their own child but with Harry’s son from a previous relationship. This time of great (in happiness, scale and scope) change brings with it all sorts of questions for Maggie but also many memories of her own childhood and her preconceived notions of what makes a marriage, a family, a spouse and a mother. It is these conversations with, and notes to, herself that make up the book; these also make for some of the most brilliant writing you will come across in quite some time.

What I think I liked the most about the book initially was Nelson’s frankness, which only gets more frank as she writes on. In fact almost nothing is off limits. This is not in some wild and wacky, also known as really annoying, memoirs that hope to tantalise and shock you with its direct look at LGBT issues, feminism, literature, death, love, lust, stalking, families, sex. This is a writer who is putting their life out there not to make yours better, though it very well might, but to get a conversation going and one that seriously needs to be had about all sorts of things that you didn’t even realise you wanted to talk about, and still might not (the fisting, ha) but most importantly some of the things that you really, really do. Like queer families and what it is really like to be a part of one as well as the transgender conversation which seems to be going on everywhere but feels a little safe and mainstream (overall, not completely) rather than frank and unflinching, which Nelson brings you unabashed whilst at the same time with heart, humanity, warmth, experience and intelligence.

What I liked most overall about the book was Nelson’s intellect. What I loved about it doubly is that she doesn’t expect you to be as intellectual as she is (thank goodness in my case) or that her thoughts are the be all and end all on the subject. Though when I say subjects there are so many subjects covered in The Argonauts it is pretty much impossible to write them all down, hence why I haven’t as I also really, really want you to go and read the bloody book, but if I can I will explain why her intellect and thoughts appealed to me so much.

Books teach us all sorts, often unwittingly, which is part and parcel of what makes them such marvellous things. With The Argonauts I felt like someone had, painlessly, taken the top of my skull off and was filling my brain with light and ideas and thoughts and conversations that my whole head started to buzz and tingle in a most pleasant way. That may sound like I had one too many lemsips when I was ill last week but it is true. As Maggie starts on the sound board of her pregnancy, Harry’s transitioning and their new family, we fly off in all directions and look at all sorts of things, with quotes from all sorts of brainiac’s who Nelson also makes so understandable. We follow all the directions her brain sparks off into. We have some incredibly heartbreaking moments like Harry’s mother’s death, all the times that they don’t get pregnant, the creepy stalker. We have all the happy ones, Iggy’s birth (told in glorious frankness), the first moments of a great love, all the hope. What we always come back to, and what everything boils down to is kindness, openness, respect and love. That is what this book really taught me.

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.”

I have kind of said everything and nothing about The Argonauts here. I think overall though this is a good thing because a) I can never do justice to a book like this b) I just want you all to go and read it so you too can have the experience and the ‘I just need to put down this book and have a little think’ moments and then come back and talk to me about it. Which is Nelson’s agenda here fully accomplished frankly; as this is a book that starts a conversation that we all need to be having, openly and unapologetically. So come on, go and read it then let’s talk…

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie Nelson, Melville House UK, Memoir, Non Fiction, Review

Becoming Unbecoming – Una

I am trying to remember when it was that I became convinced that Becoming Unbecoming was essential as part of my reading year. I think Emma Jane Unsworth might have mentioned it when I saw her last, which would make sense as she is quoted on the cover of my edition. I know I heard the author on BBC Woman’s Hour, of which I am one of the 40% of male listeners. Why it became an internal insistence in my brain that I must buy it and read it though I am not sure. Maybe it was just a hunch? If so, I must follow them more often because Becoming Unbecoming will no doubt be one of my books of the year.

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Myriad Editions, 2015, paperback, graphic novel/memoir, 224 pages, bought by myself for myself

Becoming Unbecoming is Una’s memoir of a very difficult and tumultuous time in her life. As the Yorkshire Ripper began his several years of killing women, Una herself was the victim of sexual abuse. Una looks back on this period in hindsight and looks at how the situation around the Yorkshire Ripper and the attitude towards predatory men and their victims not only caused the murder of many innocent women and the pain and loss to their families and loved ones, but how the ‘victim blaming’ culture of the time also affected people like Una who were the victims of crimes that went undetected/unsolved or people feared reporting.

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As you read on six strands form in your mind. The utter loneliness of a young girl who had been taken advantage of and why she didn’t want to speak out. The fear that spread for young girls everywhere at the time. The way in which so much innocence was lost at the time, not just in the victims and Una’s case but also in something prevalent in time, as highlighted by a small appearance from Jimmy Saville. The way prostitutes were portrayed by the press, and society succumbed, as almost being asked to be killed because of what they did for money. The inept way in which the police handled the case (in part because someone called a hoax, in part because they thought he was only killing prostitutes even when a victim was not one) and why people didn’t want to report it.

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And the sixth, I hadn’t miscounted, is how this is still in our society today all around the world. Una highlights how we often sit in shock at what is happening in other countries around the world to women (in Africa, Syria, I could go on) and yet how we somehow forget that it is going on in the western world too, often through the digital world but also in schools just as it did when she was younger. It is an important message about the state of misogyny which is still rife and why we need more books like this and more projects and reactionary endeavours like Everyday Sexism and the like.

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I like to think of myself as quite a forward thinking man, yet Una made me check something about myself that I hadn’t thought of before. Una talks about the keen interest in true crime especially in the cases of Peter Sutcliffe, Jack The Ripper, The Wests, where women are the victims. Now she isn’t judging readers on this, she is pondering it (I think). I then had this awful niggling doubt as to if that might be why I had initially felt I needed to read this book, because of the Yorkshire Ripper and my interest in him and some true crime.

Now before you jump the gun and go thinking the worst, there are a few reasons I have wanted to read around the Yorkshire Ripper. Firstly, you know that fear I mentioned earlier that young girls had at the time, my mother was 12 when Peter Sutcliffe and despite living several hundred miles away still remembers the fear in which she, her sisters and Mum all felt at the time. This has always stayed with me, how could someone cause such fear, what really happened. This I would say is more a history pondering than a true crime one. Secondly, I started (and had to put down but will try again) to read Dan Davies In Plain Sight, which won the Gordon Burn Prize this year and is about Jimmy Savile and mentions the Yorkshire Ripper also, it is a disturbing but important book about how we might spot predators and making sure they are not covered up. Thirdly, I went to a talk about I’m Jack which is a fictional account of the hoaxer I mentioned above and how it affected the case in such a disatourous way. I am now still debating in my head reading them as being some entertainment unwittingly at the expense of the victims or if it is about acknowledging awful acts in history and learning from them? I still have a lot of mulling over to do.

Sorry I got diverted there. As you can probably see Becoming Unbecoming is a memoir that will make you ponder, question and think. It does this in almost every frame and in the most subtle of ways. The best examples of this are the speech bubble which Una walks around with on her back (sometimes switched to wings) which as the story gets on gets larger with the burden she carries as she keeps the secrets within. There is also the way in which the story is interwoven into the artwork so you have to move the page around and really read it doubling the effect of the imagery as you see more and more. There is also the heart breaking ending, which actually made me cry, when Una looks at how her life has turned out so far and then ponders how the victims of Peter Sutcliffe’s might have turned out, an illustration of possibility for each. This really hits home not only at the loss of their lives but at the loss of any murder victims life and the loss of innocence of anyone who has been sexually abused, deeply affecting reading and imagery.

So as you can see Becoming Unbecoming is quite something. Una doesn’t like people to say she is brave for writing this book yet I think it is an incredibly brave act to use your experiences to highlight uncomfortable issues or important topics which need attention and debate; by default in doing so you open yourself up to scrutiny an opinion which must be a highly vulnerable position. Una is a very brave woman and Becoming Unbecoming is a very brave, important and thought provoking book. I urge you all to add it to your reading stacks and talk about it once you have.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Graphic Novels, Memoir, Myriad Editions, Review, Una