A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Exhuming Transgenre Ties

Ames Hawkins, Columbia College Chicago

(Published April 20, 2016)

Download Audio Text/Transcript

January 26, 2015

Dear Viewer/Reader,

Two days ago, I left the cold of Chicago for the warmth of Nosara, Costa Rica, the location from which I write to you now. When I left, the sky was the same color as the pavement, that salt-streaked mottled grey, a sign of the depth of winter. Here, the sky looks more like it did that warm October Sunday when my friends Trauman and Katelyn, my son and I drove up to the Kate Ostermann Beach (the gay beach), on the Western side of Lake Michigan, to shoot Excavating Transgenre Ties, the film you are about to, or may have already, just watched.

Have you ever tried something just for the heck of it, just because you wanted to? This film is such an attempt—a trying out, a trying to figure out—what a creative-critical multimodal piece could look like, could be. A first iteration of this piece, in the more classic ‘read-aloud-to-an-audience-what-you’ve written’ format was delivered in May 2014, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, at the Trans Genre Writing Conference. Three co-presenters and I provided answers, in round-robin format, to four self-imposed questions regarding the panel title: Fucking Gender; Fucking Form.

What became clear to me, as I read aloud/performed my answers (two of which reappear in this film, parts three and five, the list and the letter, respectively), is that all four of us, identifying somewhere on a transgender/genderqueer spectrum, had different stories leading us to the ways we think about our relationship to language and to writing: to gender and genre.

Duh, you say. Well, yeah, I guess so. You could argue that every single person who comes to writing follows their own path, creates their own story. But what interested me was my constant desire to mess (perhaps fuck, though the politics of this word are complicated and I am now thinking consciously about the offensive/aggressive/violent nature of this term), with form. What compels me is that I don’t primarily identify—as do the other three panelists—as a creative writer, but I have, for the past eight years, been in connection with this field, publishing in the genre of creative nonfiction.

I’m an academic by training. I have degrees in American Culture (A.B.), Popular Culture (M.A.), and English (Ph.D. in the field of Composition and Rhetoric). Knowing this, you might wonder: How did you end up presenting at creative writing conferences? I don’t usually tell people, but for some reason, I trust you, so, I feel comfortable in telling you my secret: I so dislike writing in academic prose that I began searching for alternative ways of writing, for permission to experiment with and in rhetorical form/s.

As academically trained rhetoricians are wont to do, rather than provide you further explanation, I find it appropriate to continue to answer by offering additional questions, the same questions I’ve been asking myself for the past eight years: Does my desire to mess with form, to cross form, to transgenre: is this related in any way to my complicated relationship with and to gender? Which scholars, theorists, writers have made an impact on who I am as a writer and thinker? When and how did I come to reject –for myself, not as a form with its own merits—what we might understand as standard academic writing? Is there anywhere in the academy that would be interested in my desire to produce creative-critical transgenre work? Even more: Would anyone care that these are the questions that interest me? Who would care if I did the work of offering up answers to questions like these?

Like I said, I’d been rolling around in the space of these questions for years. Doing what I could, here and there, to write and research in ways that fulfill and satisfy me. Then, an interesting thing happened. A good friend of mine told me about the Cultural Rhetorics Conference at MSU. I read the call. And then re-read the call. And then read it again. And again. And again. And again. I had no idea what the heck Cultural Rhetorics is/was/were at this point. (I got my PhD in 2001 so the closest thing I knew to compare it with was material rhetoric). But I could see, in the description, a fissure, a gap: possibility for presentation and acceptance of different formats, different ideas, different forms. “I’ve had this idea for a long time,” I said. “I want to make a film. Do you think this is a conference that would accommodate, even understand work that comes in multi-modal form?” “I think they would be open to it, yeah,” he said.

So, I sent in a proposal. I read most of it now and cringe. My proposal is, well, vague. And, largely inaccurate. I don’t end up talking about Harriet Tubman or Shel Silverstein, though I say I will. I don’t directly engage with the likes of Mary Daly, “Braiding and Braving her words with and within transgender theory and black feminist/feminist of color writing.” And whether I successfully transform, “our relationship to transgenre writing through their/her/his and our collective relationship(s) bodies multiply, celestially designed,” is for you to, dear reader, decide. I’m not even sure what that means anymore, but I do recall the sensation, the passion, the desire to try and move academic writing into places and spaces that take into direct account lived experience: writing not only as a way to express bodily sensation, but writing as body: bodies of/in/and writing. My body as it might be, as it is: transgenre.

Compared with and to what I, in collaboration with three other humans, actually made, I realize that part of the problem is in being able to talk about forms that we’re discovering and inventing as we go. Before I read even one piece on the subject (my friend would subsequently send me a list of articles and books that are understood as relevant to the larger project of Cultural Rhetorics), I proposed, “As an offering of what cultural rhetorics might look like, how cultural rhetorics might be a way to imagine ourselves beyond the constraints of traditional academic prose, this scholarly performance juxtaposes digitally projected words/images with Ames’ voice and body movements, not only in order to explore a particular idea, but as a way of doing politics; making theory.” This is a sentence I can now, having read the piece by The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab, stand by. Given, as they state, that, “The practice of story is integral to doing cultural rhetorics,” Exhuming Transgenre Ties “does” Cultural Rhetorics. It presents a number of stories—those that I tell you here, in my voice, in the context of many of the other stories/books I’ve read. These are (some of) the stories that create a context for the creative-critical writer/scholar I have become.

It is story that matters here. In Exhuming Transgenre Ties (ETT), I offer stories of my relationship to and with the regularly repeated practice of putting on a tie. Through this multi-modal composition, I argue that the bodily enactment of tying a tie, of marking my female-born body as genderqueer/masculine/transgender, is an “everyday practice” that is the foundation of and for my writing and work.

In ETT, I offer the history of the tie, and in so doing place my stories in relationship with, and to, my position as both privileged WASP and oppressed transgender/genderqueer person. The tie, as material rhetorical object, narrates its own version of my experience within a multiply-situated subjectivity; through the both/and symbol of the tie I am connected to, “multiple discourses at the same time.”

In crafting creative nonfiction pieces to provide narrative structure for ETT, I offer the viewer/reader personal, lyrical translations of my relationship with and to transgender/genderqueer writers. Prior to this exhumation, this was a particular past I hadn’t before been able—perhaps allowed myself?—to see. The digging, an action performed with my hands, is also connected to the physical act of writing. Then in this piece, in collaboration with others—my co-makers and other scholars and writers—I tie together a range of ideas using the same hands that each day knowingly knot ties.

Through this piece, I offer my story as an invitation for all writers to experiment (regardless of their gender) with transgenre writing. I especially offer those who see themselves as transgenre writers an opportunity to exhume their own connections to gender and genre and offer their stories as well. I offer ETT as one place from which we may begin engaging conversations about creative-critical form in academic, transgenre writing, transgender/genderqueer bodies of/and work.

As transgenre writer I might tranform these ideas thusly:

I offer; this is an offering.

I offer: I, of this body: my transgenre literatures.

This is an offering to the ancestors, those creating possibility of a legacy for transgenre forms.

Translation: It would mean the world to me if you, whoever you are, you who see yourself here, perhaps, (but not necessarily), in the book titles and ties; in your relationship to land, sand, and sun. If you would (as an acknowledgement of your acceptance of this piece as my gift for you), present back to all of us your story as well. Your tales of coming, or wanting to come; your pressures and pressings into transgenre writing, your movement toward creative-critical forms. Won’t you dig up your own story and stories as it/they make/s sense, to and for you? Please allow them to take shape in whatever form/s you need and want it/them to be and become.?

What else do I want to tell you? That I had an amazing time presenting this piece at the Cultural Rhetorics Conference. That when I presented there, an audience listened as I read aloud the pieces I recorded for the film, and watched as I put on and removed a series of different shirts and ties, illustrating for the audience the repetition of my everyday practice. That the energy I felt in the auditorium invigorated me in a way I’d never before experienced at an academic conference. That I have the same anxiety about presenting this piece to be considered for the special edition of Enculturation as I did when I wrote the proposal. That the difference now is that rather than being imagined, the piece has been made: it exists. And, that I have two amazing friends and my son (who did all of the editing and a great part of the filming) to thank for its existence.

In other words, I am grateful: for them, for this opportunity to try something out, for the possibility that someone else might see this and think, “I have had this idea . . . ” And give it a try. This is the potential I see in the academic project that folks are calling Cultural Rhetorics: the power of story, the potential in form. I hope for you the freedom and confidence to feel your way in and through bodies of/and water and/as words, flesh and/as knowledge, literature and/as land. I urge you to try, should you so choose, your own hand(s) at making in/of/with whatever works as/for you/r gender/genre expression.

In other words: Dig into your own desires. Exhume your own truth and/as content. Excavate your love with/in form.

With gratitude and appreciation,