The Fluidity of Gender Roles in the California Gold Rush

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As many of you know, I wrote an acid western, and anti-western a few years ago which will be published in February. And not a small part of that acid western conveys queer themes — which may seem antithetical to the western genre. I beg to differ.

The typical Western features any number of problematic tropes–savage Indians, noble expansionists, women as saint or prostitute. But one of the most enduring is the hyper-masculine cowboy. The epitome of male energy, the cowboy swaggers about defending the sanctity of women, engaging in good-guy/bad-guy shootouts, looking and acting stoic. The cowboy was brave, pioneering, resourceful, a hard worker and occasionally a hardscrabble philosopher about all these things–all that a man should be. And the cowboy is certainly, undoubtedly straight.

Bullshit.

For various reasons, the Old West, especially the Old West of the California Gold Rush, was a queer place. For one, compulsive heterosexuality was an import of colonialism (a pretty poor one, when the chips were stacked against it, as we will discuss in a moment). Before colonization of the west, many indigenous peoples of North America had firmly entrenched gender roles called “two-spirit” (among other gender-variant positions in their societies). Two-spirit people were, simply put, bodies that hosted both a masculine and feminine spirit. Two-spirit people moved between traditional gender roles, and dress, and often had specially assigned social roles. The role has been reclaimed today as a First Nations/Native American queer identity.

As for the men who traveled to the West from various other places, the hyper-male cowboys of the traditional Western–women often didn’t make the journey with them. With this lack of female-identified people among their camps, some men took on those roles–often men of color, disabled men, and men of lower social standing. Journals of the time are ripe with homoeroticism, and cross-dressing was not infrequent. As it turns out, that masculine man of the Saturday matinee needed someone to cook, to clean, to love him. And as white women were few and far between, and women of color were often erased completely, other men were often the ones to fill that role.

The Old West has been handed to us as a time of total yang, of a masculine energy so complete that it supposedly formed a nation. In reality, the California Gold Rush was a time when the roles of gender were blurred, and seen as the largely false social construct they are in many ways. When I chose to write a novel in that time period, it was this blurring and uncertainty that I chose to focus on. In doing so, in creating an anti-western, I think I give a more accurate portrayal of the time than many books and movies considered iconic of that time period.

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Book Jacket Copy!!!

The Director of Sales and Marketing from my publisher just emailed me with this book jacket copy. It’s gonna be what goes on the back cover of my book when it comes out next February. I’m so excited to share it here!

 

A tale that turns the American western on its head.

 

California, late 1848. A nameless saloonkeeper has been alone for months while his wife, Joanna, is in Coloma caring for her ailing mother. Joanna’s letters, which tell of her mother’s nervous health crisis and the destruction of the surrounding land, have become darker and stranger. Meanwhile, the saloonkeeper witnesses several unexplainable events—voices speaking in strange languages in places where he sees only familiar faces, the mysterious death of a creekful of fish, a Stranger with a mouthful of gold teeth, and a dying Native American man who trails white feathers everywhere he goes.

 

The fields of Sutter’s Fort, near where Joanna is staying, haunt the saloonkeeper’s dreams, and soon he decides he must leave the sanctuary of his saloon and travel to her. Caught up in a journey north, the saloonkeeper witnesses the sometimes horrifying, senselessly violent shifting Gold Rush landscape. Amidst the chaos, he finds his only refuge in thoughts of Joanna. But when his troubled past emerges in glimpses he struggles to repress, the nameless traveler is left with a decision that will change not only his life but the lives of everyone around him.

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I’ll Surreal Your Ism

Here’s a snippet from a short story I just started writing, and a picture of a cat for your viewing pleasure. :)

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The kitchen table was a chasm above which floated their coffee cups, the sugar bowl, their plates of eggs, their napkins. Neither of them could reach a hand across it to touch the other, neither could reach around the sides where the absence in one empty chair was wider and deeper even than the hole between them. They went on eating, slowly, raising forks to mouths, as if the void were not there.

 

“Pass me the ketchup,” Paul said, reaching.

 

Emily’s hand across the chasm was pale, soft. She held the bottle in a light grip, and he could see how little she cared that at any moment it might slip from her hand and fall forever.

 

“Thank you,” he whispered. It echoed all the way down the hole despite the low volume of his voice, bouncing as it went.

 

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

 

Paul’s face began to burn as the sentiment repeated itself over and over.

 

“Stop,” he whispered.

 

Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.

 

Across the table, Emily stared on as if only silence were ringing around them. She reached above the chasm wordlessly and picked up a newspaper that floated there. Once, when they were first together, they had done crossword puzzles at moments like this. That had stopped for years years ago, but in the new quiet, Emily had tried to resume their old habit. She picked the paper up now, folding it over itself so that the black and white squares glared up from it, lighter in their contrast than the grainy newsprint should have allowed. A wan smile crossed her face.

 

“Eight letters, second letter ‘e,’ ends with ‘d,’” she said. “’Left desolate or alone.’”

 

“Abandoned, rejected, neglected,” he thought aloud, knowing they were all wrong. The hole between them replied to these thoughtless attempts with silence.

 

“Bereaved,” he replied, finally, with the conviction of a kill stroke.

 

Bereaved. Bereaved. Bereaved. Bereaved.

 

Emily filled in the letters and put the paper down where the table should have been. Where the paper floated quietly.

 

*

 

 

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Book Haul

Here’s another one. I’m picking up books faster than I can read them. But this time around there’s Murakami, Calvino, Flann O’Brien, and more. How could I resissssssst?

GetInline

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Mad Women as Muse

As I’ve been reading about Finnegans Wake, I’ve come across a topic that I’ve never heard of before, one that has been closely guarded by the estate of James Joyce. It’s not unknown that Joyce had daughter, Lucia, who suffered from mental illness. But a book that came out a few years back (resulting in the Joyce estate suing the author) suggests that Finnegans Wake was inspired by a secret language that Joyce shared with Lucia.

Lucia Joyce, who spent 30 years locked away in a mental hospital while her father completed Finnegans Wake, was apparently the light of her father’s life, and a huge inspiration to him. He called her “wonder wild,” and, according to her, she never spent time with her father without him taking notes on her language and behavior.

This got me thinking about women deemed “crazy,” and how they have acted as muses to famous writers. Because of the way society has treated women and the mentally ill, many of these women were locked up (like Lucia) or died tragically. But the works they inspired remain as testaments to their beauty and spirit.

Here’s a short list of them:

LUCIA JOYCE, FINNEGANS WAKE

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Many people see Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife, the love of his life, and the recipient of many dirty letters, as the main inspiration in his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But biographer Carol Shloss claims that Joyce’s masterwork is inspired largely by Lucia’s nascent dance career that ended with her descent into mental illness. She claims that the final, famous words ”My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair!” Allegedly, part of the reason that Lucia was locked away was that the people in Joyce’s life feared that she was disrupting the work of a genius, and that he would never finish Finnegans Wake because of her. But, for Joyce’s part, he loved and believed in his daughter’s genius, not madness, until his dying day.

ZELDA FITZGERALD, TENDER IS THE NIGHT

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Though works of Zelda Fitzgerald have emerged in the time since her death, her talent was overshadowed by her husband’s in her lifetime. But F. Scott Fitzgerald considered himself a wasted talent, and blamed that partly on his wife’s mental illness (called schizophrenia at the time). Tender is the Night, his fourth and final book, follows a couple’s struggled with a wife’s mental illness, which ruins her husband. 

SYLVIA PLATH, “FINAL LETTER” and “THE CITY”

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This entry is almost a footnote, since Plath’s own inspired work The Bell Jar stands as the best testament to her mental illness. But it shouldn’t go without saying that the husband she left behind, Ted Hughes, wrote many poems about her life and death, some of which were only unearthed a few years ago. One of these, “Last Letter” begins with the haunting line “What happened that night, your final night?/ Double, treble exposure over everything.”

That’s just a short list, and certainly not a complete one. There are so many more women considered “mad” who either wrote or inspired great works. You have to wonder what would have happened to these inspiring, inspired women if they were alive today, and if they would have suffered the same sad fates. Would they have been just relegated to the role of muse, or created (like Plath did) their own beauty from their madness?

A critic once famously noted that Lucia’s talent might make James Joyce known as her father, rather than her as his daughter. The lack of historical understanding of mental illness, and perhaps her role as a woman made it so that this never happened. Even Sylvia Plath, who lived later and was certainly a force, in the end became outlived by her famous husband–a tragic story often used to caution creative women rather than the poet laureate Hughes became.

These women were victims to mental illness, yes, but were they also, in a way, victims of the people who immortalized them? Did the act of being inspired by these women help relegate them to hospital and suicide rather than lead role in their own lives?

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Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake….Or Not

I like to challenge myself as a writer and reader. The novel I wrote last year started as a challenge in a writing class to create something in a genre I’d never written in before. I wasn’t content to do the 500 word assignment, but had to finish the novel.

And then there was NaNoWriMo. I decided to join in with all the other NaNos and write every day, for 30 days, until I had 50,000 words. And I did it.

It’s been a few months since November, and now I’m up for a new challenge. And when I came across the Roland McHugh book Annotations to Finnegans Wake, I thought–what the hell. The book has been on my shelf since my last year of college. I’ve only ever picked it up and read a line here and there, enjoying the word play and poetry. But what if I tried to read it cover to cover? Could I do it? Would it take the rest of my life? Would it make me lose what little was left of my mind?

Two days later (and only two and a half pages into the book), I am scribbling in the margins, referring obsessively to the annotations, and actually….dare I say it…enjoying the book.

Yes, me. I like something James Joyce did.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

It’s often senseless. In fact, the first line of the introduction of the copy I have says, “There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is ‘about’ anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, ‘readable.’”

But it’s beautiful. Take, for example:

What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods! Brekkek Kekkek Kekkek Kekkek! Koax Koax Koax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod’s brood, be my fear!  Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms, appalling. Killykillkilly: a toll, a toll.

The scene describes a battle of gods, something off of Mt. Olympus. But it is described in words that no one ever dreamed of–or perhaps which James Joyce vividly did dream of, as the book is reported to be Joyce’s interpretation of the dream state.

So far, two pages in, I have no idea what’s going on, other than we’re learning about the fall of Finnegan (who stuck his head underwater to wash away fate, and the water evaporated, FYI). But it’s really, really beautiful.

You win this round, James Joyce. But I still haven’t forgiven you for the nightmares you gave me with those poop letters. 51ZWM2BWY0L

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Book Haul!

Over the last year and a half since I’ve been interning in publishing and working in a bookstore, I’ve acquired more books than I ever have at any other point in my life. I mean, I’ve gone in to interview for jobs and walked out with a bag full of books in my hand. It’s pretty much what I’ve always dreamed of.

So I think, in light of all these new books, I’ll start posting Book Hauls, something that I’ve seen on Tumblr and other places where book nerds like me drool over their new acquisitions. And my most recent Book Haul looks like this:

photo(7)I think this particular Book Haul is pretty representative of my love of queer writers (Burroughs, Foucault, and Genet) and experimental writers (Burroughs, O’Brien, Barthelme, and DeLillo). In fact, I’d say that this book haul is pretty representative of the things I read the most!

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