Discovery and Redefinition: Creating Openness and Agency via Queer Growth Routes
The following is the graduate class I gave on queer narrative structures and how and why the queer writer might choose to depart from conventions.
So picture, for a second, a sidewalk. There’s a crack in the pavement. Picture the dandelion finding its way out of the crack. The flower finds its way out into any one of infinite positions in the air, away from those two pieces of sidewalk. It finds, in effect, a growth route. That’s probably the simplest metaphor I can think of to describe breaking conventions: how a character does it in the story, and how we do it as writers.
In storytelling, I’m interested in that “growth route,” that decision to make our own way and as a result, retain a sense of agency. A vote in how our lives go, how our stories get told.
I come to the topic not just as a queer writer, a novelist who wants to do fun things with the form, but also as a book editor. I’ve spent almost 20 years talking about the narrative arc and I’m sick of it. It doesn’t fit. It comes with strings, and it’s often pulling characters and the story in ways that feel obligatory and predictable. And I’ve spent my time in this program thinking about other options.
MOVING FROM CONVENTIONAL TO OPEN NARRATIVES
Here’s Jane Alison, author of Meader, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in narrative. She writes about patterns of tension and attention that propel the narrative. I’m not here to talk about narrative structure, but I mention her because she has something insightful to say about the narrative arc.
Curiously, for centuries there’s been a single path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—indeed, one that aspiring writers are told to follow: the dramatic arc. A situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides. If you ask Google how to structure a story, your face will be hammered with pictures of arcs, triangles, pyramids. … In twenty years of teaching I’ve seen one smart, edgy young writer after another sleepwalk into the arc. They feel obliged to create “rising conflict” and “climax” and “resolution,” no matter how much they’re faking it.
Or as Alexander Chee writes in “How to Unlearn Everything”:
In general, the beginner fiction that writers produce is what they think a story looks like. Those stories are often not really stories — they are ways of performing their relationship to power.
Sleepwalk into. Not really stories. These are uneasy warnings. And as I writer (and editor), I’ve experienced this uneasiness at times, seeing the promise of a new story or chapter begin to slowly suffocate under… something. And inversely, I’ve experienced the thrill of breaking the rules and discovering that the story or chapter works on terms all its own. And as I dove into reading queer lives and narratives, I began to see a few—not patterns, quite—but guiding lights that helped me listen to my own experiences and hear my own voice in my novel. Growth routes.
One first principle: Getting away from the demands that a conventional narrative arc place on character development doesn’t mean somehow ascertaining what those demands are and then just doing the opposite. Real departure means moving away from that kind of binary altogether, getting away from is/is-not.
So as it happens, queer theory has spent a lot of time troubling binaries. Here’s a quick, skipping-stone overview.
QUEERING QUEER (Q-SQUARED?)
After being rescued from its derogatory life as a noun, queer’s later life as an adjective and verb often seems independent from its original connotations of the uncanny, the strange, the unexpected. But these are qualities I’m interested in, particularly as effects on the reader as a result of a text’s resistance to closed narratives. I don’t use queer or “queer theory” as an exact substitute for gay and lesbian, or as a fixed identity category, but rather as a “site of permanent becoming” (Edelman 1995 in Giffney 2004). In my writing and reading, queerness represents the possibility of better solutions in our world and in our writing, and gaining a language for our experiences. It’s a means to push back against oppressive routines in life and living, and to create more room. It’s a vessel for our wonderment. Whenever our work as writers is to critique old forms and imagine something new—i.e., something better suited to our spiritual and physical survival—queerness is generative and optimistic. As a value, queerness can challenge received ideas about colonialism, patriarchy, gender, ability, and language itself: big ideas that rest, first and last, on the freedom of the human body and its experiences.
Now how do we get that on the page? How do we take its lessons, troubleshoot our own work, and let our writing bloom?
I’m going to look at four texts. There’s a lot of overlap between what they do and how they do it, but I want to focus on three aspects from queer theory that manifest in these texts and can help us.
First is the idea of roles. Specifically, how they’re a source of conflict—something to push against—and how they’re signaled in narrative. We’ll look at Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt for this one, and again in talking about Carmen Maria Machado’s “Especially Heinous.”
Second is the great gift of instability. In other words, if you play more than one role, who are you? Here’s where character agency comes in. But it can be tricky to write. We’ll look at Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl in a minute.
Third is about opening up language. In other words, to the extent that language is thought, and that power relations around gender, race, sexuality, age, etc., can be encoded in how we use language, we need to be intentional. I’ll talk about it in more detail using Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
These techniques that we’ll talk about help us—and our characters—depart from conventional or normative ideas about what a character is, how they should develop, and even what a story is and how it should develop. This is in service of telling things as they are rather than as we are told they should look or be. These signals are also fun to play around with in our own writing as prompts, exercises, or legit moves in the story.
This essay is about growth routes—remember that dandelion. We’re finding our path out of “sleepwalker” territory, away from what conventions have schooled us to do. I’m going to talk about four texts, two that find “informal” growth routes, two that find “formal” growth routes. (Real quick: informal elements are what’s in the story. Formal elements are how the story is told (Dobyns 1990)). These are loose categories, however, and as you might expect, queer texts don’t want to be pinned down too much. All of these texts demonstrate to a greater or lesser degree almost all the features we’ll talk about here, and there are so many more that we don’t have time to talk about. But let’s do our best.
Roles are a source of conflict. One of the sort of “features of life” that queer theory interrogates is the idea of roles and what they implicitly assume we’ll do in order to live in some kind of harmony with our social context. Traditionally we can say the same thing about characters in conventional narratives. You want to write about an island of cloned dinosaurs, one of your characters is a geneticist. You want to write a novel whose climactic scene involves the titular character who all along has a strangely high voice and he’s able to speak perfect Vietnamese to a bunch of children in the Vietnam war to save their lives, you create an Owen Meany. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what if your character doesn’t want to take instructions from your plot arc?
In queer, character-driven narratives—your people might instead be threatened by conventions and expectations, and to write about that, we need some way of figuring the initial problem. To go back to the flower metaphor, your character is stuck in some kind of concrete, doesn’t have the language or vision for what living any other way looks like, but can’t stay there. Some new way is required, and must be invented within the narrative.
Two motifs come up a lot. Claustrophobia and mirrors.
On the first page of The Price of Salt, we meet Therese, a seasonal retail worker in Frankenberg’s department store. The narration is in fairly close third person and through free indirect discourse we learn that Therese thinks of the store as “a single huge machine.”
“It was that the store intensified things that had always bothered her, as long as she could remember. It was the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done—…the sense that everyone was incommunicado with everyone else and living on an entirely wrong plane, so that the meaning, the message, the love, or whatever it was that each life contained, never could find its expression.”
It’s hard to find a more straightforward statement of the character’s lack of power, and these lines come in the first pages. Highsmith is using the story’s informal content to show Therese’s predicament, and in the same chapter, she supports it with additional informal content that will also carry through to her growth route. There isn’t anything tricky about this kind of writing; but it’s important to note when it’s there because it clearly and urgently sets up the stakes. Therese is stuck in a kind of deadness. There’s nowhere to go.
The novel follows a love affair with a woman who comes into the department store, but this is the early 1950s. Therese isn’t out to herself, isn’t even aware of what she feels until after she’s encountered this woman, Carol, a few times. But Highsmith wants us to have an inkling of the possibility of relief from the deadness Therese’s situation imposes on her, and she does so even before she encounters Carol the first time.
Here’s the moment of the growth route’s appearance: Therese looks in the mirror while wearing a borrowed dress that briefly transforms her. “It was the dress of queens in fairy tales, of a red deeper than blood,” and it has the effect of “surprisingly” revealing a different person in the mirror: “[S]he wore no more lipstick than she might if someone had kissed her. She wished she could kiss the person in the mirror and make her come to life…” (11). Mirrors and reflections appear very often in queer stories, I’m realizing, and serve to represent an awakening and reconsideration of body and self. The narrator even describes the moment as “Herself meeting herself” (10).
In many ways, The Price of Salt does follow Aristotle’s original arc for tragedy, but the story has a happy ending, and that was remarkable for a lesbian novel in its time. But again, these are techniques that LGBT stories have made use of, refined, and evolved, but they matter wherever you have a body in some state of urgent becoming.
So if we take from Highsmith two general, informal techniques that indicate stuckness, a tension between the character and their role, their imposed identity… what next? If your character stays stuck, they’re just a victim. How do you show a growth route? This is where the promise of queer narratives as a model becomes really broadly applicable—they’re not just about sexual orientation or gender identity, can really help us center our character’s development. I’ll talk about some techniques for examining your character separate from any particular role.
What does agency mean? In this context, the idea of agency is tied up with the process of becoming itself. Of moving through roles and finding the indefinite but consistent self between them. We feel mostly constant within ourselves (hopefully), but at the same time, we aren’t static, our world isn’t static, our relationships aren’t static. We don’t want our characters to be static, either, even though they should seem ineffably somehow consistent even though narrative is about changing states. How do we navigate this reality in prose?
Andrea Lawlor offers us an unusual and helpful case in their thrillingly thorough exploration of queerness, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl.
About a half-block from the corner of West Hawthorne and Lake Shore Drive, Paul stopped and stood cartoonishly behind a tree. What was he even doing? He was developing a side stitch. He should go back to the clubs and find someone to take him home, so he’d have a place to sleep for the next few hours. He could see the youth at the end of the block, and he felt again the strange compulsion to follow. But he didn’t want to scare the kid off. He paused for a moment to give himself the appearance of a girl, tomboyish in his jeans but not butch, not threatening. Then he sprinted down the block. … The youth turned back to raise an eyebrow at Paul. Paul recognized, with a start, that the youth was now, without question, a girl. As surely as he had changed, so had the youth.
In this passage, Lawlor’s character Paul has traveled to the Chicago gay bars from Iowa City and he’s had a crazy night, but now he’s chasing someone. So to understand why, Paul is defined by his in-betweenness: he literally shape-shifts between sexes and morphs his body to match whatever performance of gender, sexuality, and subculture suits his curiosity. So in this case, where’s the growth route? What could this character possibly need to escape or surmount if he is apparently nothing but flexible, queer, and able to fit in anywhere (at least in white spaces in American society)? He’s all “growth route,” right?
Instability/Journeys as external growth routes: As Paul is on the move between place, persona, and gender—peak instability—he encounters (in this youth that he’s chasing) a reflection of what is particular to him. The question points us a feature of instability, which can be a weakness in picaresque narratives, where a character goes from place to place, experience to experience, and the story’s energy is on the immersion rather than on what accrues to the character. Our interest here is, Where does real growth and rediscovery happen? Implicit in that, are two useful techniques—one external, and one internal.
In the passage we read, he’s just encountered for the first time in his life someone with the same ability. He chases the character Robin into a park, sees that he’s become a she, and Robin gets away—they won’t finally face each other until much later, in San Francisco. But in this sort of unstable situation where Paul is a stranger in a strange place, Paul encounters a kind of reflection of himself.
But here’s what important: Journeys happen at the novel’s big turning points. It’s a complex moment: freighted with positive and negative connotations, but what it also is is a moment of new recognition, complicating Paul’s identity by making him at once less special but also newly in relation to his talent.
Journeys—to Chicago, Providence, and San Francisco—have a way of sifting up these salient positives and negatives for Paul, as they do for other characters in other narratives. (Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Andre Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, etc.) By breaking our characters out of their roles and environments, we can learn a lot about them as they move through new constellations.
Decentering self via intertextuality–the internal growth routes: The second technique that shows up in Paul is a technique that… I really love! It’s the idea of decentering the self, breaking down the authority of a cohesive ego. Queerness loves to complicate singular authority: the perceived authority of the top of a hierarchy, of a singular narrative voice, even of what a singular self or body means. In part because authorities are problematic and violent, and their power seeps into ways of thinking about the world, queerness wants to reopen the ways we think about ourselves and the world… and take back agency in our lives. How can we make that happen for our characters on the page?
In narrative, this can happen in a lot of ways—informally and especially formally—but I’ll just focus on INTERTEXTUALITY because it’s the one that is the most broadly applicable. (This is a pragmatic approach to the subject.) Along with claustrophobia, mirrors, and journeys that create productive instability, intertextuality shows up in a ton of queer stories.
Remember, intertextuality is just a fancy word for using other texts in your writing. Doing it in a way that we readers know you’re drawing from books out in our world. It’s kind of like breaking the fourth wall, even just a little bit—beginning to poke little pinholes in it. That’s a formal technique, but as it turns out, it can also do some informal work on your character, too, as it does for Paul.
Shortly after an episode of indifferently procrastinating calling his old friend Tony back, which results in missing the chance to speak to Tony before he dies of an AIDS complications, we get this passage of Paul beginning to really read for the first time in his life.
[Samuel R. Delaney had] busted through everything in his way, and on the other side he’d found morning orgies inside trucks by the docks. Delany at nineteen had seen hundreds of men fucking and had jumped in, had been pure body. Paul at nineteen had seen hundreds of people lying down in the streets, dying-in, and had run away.
The next day, Paul snuck out Borderlands/La Frontera, then Close to the Knives, then Sita, then Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, then Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, then The Devil Finds Work, then The Naked Civil Servant, then In the Life, then Violet to Vita, and on and on through every queer life on the shelf.
… “You’re a changed man,” said Ruffles one morning, desultorily pouring cornflakes into a bowl.
“I’m not a man,” said Paul. (298)
Exposing himself to these texts, these lives, Paul confronts a significant obstacle in the novel that stands in the way of escape from his horror and grief: himself. This builds on my point that his growth route necessarily leads away from the self. To confront this failure of himself, Paul actively seeks experiences that aren’t his own. He wants to experience, consider, and compare his life to the queer lives of others—becoming more than just himself. It’s a narrative move consistent with Lawlor’s portrait of queerness as decentered and unstable.
Claustrophobia, mirrors and doubles, journeys, and intertextuality are some mechanisms of character discovery, of teasing them out of the bud, so to speak. They’re techniques to be used in a story’s informal content to help you break away from conventional narrative expectations of character development.
But we’re starting to gravitate toward formal elements now. By this point, maybe you’re getting a sort of working sense of queerness—it’s okay if it still feels sort of many-tentacled and indistinct. For our purposes, it’s a zip code, not an exact address, and it’s fine if we’re just here and moving around in it.
By way of principles, we’ve talked about roles, instability, and undermining singular authority.
Formally, it gets fun when we do those things to a text. When the narrative form itself is what gets unstable. Capturing that motion means getting creative with the language of the story, and with its structure.
OCEAN VUONG’S FORMAL QUEERING
You might have heard the phrase in workshop that a story or poem “teaches you how to read it.” Ocean Vuong levels up in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to seek a language that draws on the broader notion of queerness—and its essential instability. He’s after a language (or languages) that acknowledge implicitly that no border is fixed, not even the one between one body and another or between self and environment, or between poetry and prose. That meaning and identity are, above all, relative and relational.
In Lawlor, Paul uses the elements fashion or mix tapes as signifiers of meaning. Much as the characters of queer narratives begin to create languages for themselves to say something unique, Vuong develops a sophisticated system of animal motifs, anecdotes, and insider language that he uses recursively throughout his nonlinear narrative. The novel’s narrator is first-person, a speaker, essentially. And this speaker has a lot to say about borders, bodies, sentences, war, immigration, and class. But let’s be interested in how he says it for a moment, and find in the text a micro-example of how the voice enacts the speaker’s ethos that our words exist in relation to our bodies. This is a speaker who is concerned that the word laughter is trapped inside the word slaughter; a narrator who, in most of the novel’s 70 instances of the word word ties language somehow to the body, to the physical world. A language lined with flesh, as Roland Barthes described a kind of writing voice in The Pleasure of the Text.
So while I was counting words—thank you e-books—I took an interest in the word already. It appears 66 times in the novel. For those of you who don’t routinely count the adverbs in what you read, you’ll want to know that this is double or more the number of times it appears in any other text I discuss in this class, and the novel is shorter. So it’s an important and interesting word, already, this adverb.
Adverbs are relational.
Adverb: typically used as a modifier (of a verb, adjective…phrase, clause, or sentence) expressing some relation of manner, quality, place, circumstance, cause, degree, or time.
In short, I can’t think of a better kind of word to embody the principles of queer narrative. Queer, being relational and relative. Narrative, about shifts of state over time.
Vuong’s adverb of choice, as I said, is already. It shows up quietly, often, establishing states in relation to one another, assisting in creating a sense of the character’s home life over time in a nonlinear highly selected narrative. For instance:
It’s already night by the time I get off at Hartford’s Union Station. (166)
…I tried to teach you to read the way Mrs. Callahan taught me, my lips to your ear, my hand on yours, the words moving underneath the shadows we made. But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered. (5)
[After trying to reverse top/bottom roles with his first lover, Trevor] I had thought sex was to breach new ground, despite terror, that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply. But I was wrong. The rules, they were already inside us. (120)
The stakes for this adverb are variously small and large throughout the novel. It indicates simple relations in time, to situations of great gravity that speak to the way we inherit expectations from our cultural surroundings.
But then Vuong’s narrator begins to pick at that word consciously, to examine its value and meaning depending on its situation. Observe this sequence that unfolds over 11 pages late in the novel.
“Remember,” you said each morning before we stepped out in cold Connecticut air, “don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese.” (219)
[As he returns to Saigon for his grandmother’s funeral in his twenties]. Nearby, a small TV, propped on a plastic white dining table, displayed the lyrics to a Vietnamese pop song from the eighties.
You’re already Vietnamese. (224)
I remember you grabbing my shoulders. How it was pouring rain or it was snowing or the streets were flooded or the sky was the color of bruises. And you were kneeling on the sidewalk tying my powder-blue shoes, saying, “Remember. Remember. You’re already Vietnamese.” You’re already. You’re all ready.
Already gone. (230)
In this sequence, we see a deliberate transformation of this piece of language from external to internal, from mundane warning to psychically existential to a fundamental piece of the novel’s language. In the first appearance, it’s dialogue—out in the world, observable, drawing attention to something already obvious, which is that being a Vietnamese immigrant boy in Hartford, CT is something that draws attention to yourself in a white-majority area of the country.
In the second instance, the word appears in a line of internal dialogue. It remains embedded in its warning, as he’s thinking about it: but now, he’s a pretty thoroughly Americanize man visiting Saigon. The value of this warning has changed, become a possibility instead. He’s not been entirely severed from his original culture.
In the third instance, he revisits the original memory, adding sharper physical details around the moment as it reoccurs on many days, indistinct in time despite the distinct blue shoes. The new repetition within the dialogue begins to separate it from that reality, like a word played on loop till it starts to lose its meaning. Remember. Remember. You’re already Vietnamese. You’re already—here, syntax breaks down with a fragment—then the word itself splits apart: You’re all ready. It’s a statement that has gone in his mind from warning to a state of readiness, a person prepared to begin. Then the paragraph breaks, and the word returns: Already gone. A fragment, and also a statement of passing. Something has broken apart as soon as it coalesced.
If this isn’t an illustration on the page of a changing state, a portrayal of the implicit instability of both queerness and life in general, I don’t know what is. Vuong draws on language from the novel’s informal content and integrates it with the novel’s formal voice, to illustrate the novel’s intention—giving queerness agency.
At stake is the accurate rendering of human impulse and experience. Accomplishing that can be a guidelight in how we show a character navigating partial or temporary identities, and how we ourselves inhabit pieces of conventional narrative forms as we write, but nevertheless, aiming to make something new in the vast spaces between them. We too are looking for our growth routes.
CARMEN MARIA MACHADO AND QUEERING GENRE
I want to come back to the idea of roles for a second. And this time I want to talk about form.
“Especially Heinous” takes aim at normative expectations for society, women, and in this case, narrative itself. In order to critique the storytelling that delivers problematic, mainstream narratives about women and violence, she must play with formal narrative elements to move craft into the spotlight.
The self-explanatory subtitle of “Especially Heinous” is “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” and uses 272 actual episode titles from twelve seasons of the TV serial but uses the content of the mini-synopsis of each episode to thwart our expectations for what would credibly seem like a TV serial storyline. Rather than being entirely plot-driven, the story’s mini-synopses center absurdity, emotional grace notes, and private, disturbing supernatural phenomenon like doppelgängers and ghost girls with bells for eyes that crowd into Detective Benson’s apartment at night.
Far from being gimmicky, Machado’s structural choice creates room not only for informal growth routes like Benson’s first exploration of a relationship with a woman, but also for formal growth routes away from typical gender roles and the claustrophobic, two-dimensional narratives about sexual violence that are meant to be entertaining. The structure implicitly posits characters who are initially trapped in this sort of story, and then proceeds to resist, mock, shatter, and thwart the genre.
In the dominant mode of storytelling, a protagonist knows what they want and overcomes obstacles to get it. But when we tell stories about bodies and desires that won’t conform to traditional structures, how can we work with a sense of risk and playfulness to reject normative, closed notions of how characters “should” develop and how stories “should” be structured?
I hope you have a better understanding now of formal and informal craft elements that queer a narrative—disrupting traditional forms of character agency and authorial agency. Just as informal elements can depict characters discovering and redefining the terms of what they want and how to get it, writers can play with formal elements to illuminate or redefine what the reader thinks they know about how stories are told.