Letter #5

But what exactly can words do?


but you already knew that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I feel as if I have no choice but to keep on writing, to continue performing my own rituals of consolidation and transformation since the usual mechanisms—namely, coming out stories, (religious) trauma narratives, and metronormative migrations—keep fumbling. But you already knew that too. Why else indulge me with your curious correspondence?

I’ve been in Taiwan for over two months now and I’ve been struggling to psychically reinvest myself in the worlds and projects around me. I think that part of what’s been so challenging is that I’m keenly aware that ritual consolidation here is perhaps even harder for me to come by than in the States. There’s a language barrier, of course, but then there’s also the simple matter of how certain regional racial formations in the US that have fundamentally framed my lived experience for so long are literally a world away now. Yet even in the States I never got very far with the task of legibility. And so I feel in disarray, stuck, hollow, some shell of myself lost in transit, floating out there on the Pacific, disconnected from my footsteps here in Taipei. And so I write.

But what exactly can words do? Can they actually open that space of appearance that I so desperately need? I’d like to think so, but to be honest I am struggling to do precisely that. Maybe it’s because my skills in what I guess would be called creative nonfiction are still developing. Maybe it’s because I haven’t fully flushed out the theoretical arguments framing my words. Maybe it’s because, as of late, I have turned away from theory. Probably some combination of the above. Let me give words another try:

Do you still remember this scene from college?

It’s your third year at the University of Virginia and you’re sitting on the side of the bed in that cavernous ground-level room on the side of the house. You and your three Christian housemates named this fellowship house “Gotham” in part because when you first moved in the fireplace at the far end of the room was plastic wrapped shut, as if to keep chimney bats out. The air feels frigid, the lighting dim, the space silent. The usual sound of worship music being practiced in the room above does not enter your cave tonight. You’re sitting on the side of the bed with your bare feet pressed against the carpet, that thin layer of deceiving texture atop cold concrete. You’re hunched over with your elbows on your knees and your hands clasped together, praying. If you hunched over any further, you would impale yourself on that throbbing erection jutting up from your sleeping shorts; or if you fell forward off the bed, the weight of your balls would crack open the floor. But instead, your crotch begins to heat up. Your prayer, an invitation for the Holy Spirit to have their way with you, is doing something. Your groin melts into a warm puddle of ecstatic surrender. You can no longer feel your genitals. It’s as if they fell into that puddle with a pleasant plop. Somewhere underwater, a thousand saints are fingering each other. Their communal moans light a fire between your legs. The puddle evaporates. The heat dissipates. Your flaccid cock lays limp alongside your slackened sack. You wrap yourself in your comforter and go to sleep—smiling, satisfied, touched.

Now how about this scene, three years later, from when I moved back to Charlottesville?

I was walking down the brickwork of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall when I suddenly lost all sensation in my left arm. I was leaving the 7th Annual CVille Pride Festival. It was my first Pride event and I went alone, just 23-year-old grad-school-drop-out-me. I saw some coworkers from the gay-owned bakery; we had a painfully shallow and terse interaction. I even saw my boss there as well and gave him a brief nodding hello. I walked by all of the booths and picked up some free gear. And then I left. A surge of sensationlessness emanated off of the rubber rainbow bracelet dangling on my left wrist. My left arm suddenly felt foreign to me. It was as if my body shrunk back deeper into itself, withdrew life from my left arm wishing it to fall off like the tail of a frightened lizard so that all of those hideous synthetic colors could fall off with it. How to account for such a drastic somatic response? I went into a coffee shop and took a seat facing the front windows. A group of queer youth skip by, temporary rainbow face tattoos punctuating their smiles with glitter. By this point, I had regained sensation in my arm, but could now only feel a deep urge to take the bracelet off. I did, and instantly felt better.

My mind wanders here because I’ve been grappling with how easily our stories get simplified into terms and tropes that travel counter the routes we intend. Consider how these two scenes interact in sequence: I’m a gay Christian whose false consciousness is so deep that I actually enjoy the traumatic experience of ‘praying the gay away’ (scene 1); I’m no longer Christian but am still conflicted, not fully cured of my internalized homophobia (scene 2). Do you see it? The Kuleshov Effect, yeah, but more importantly, how stifled everything is from the get-go around religion and sexuality? I know that the moment I open my mouth around certain experiences, my words betray me. I suppose it’s a professional hazard of sorts, that the spells of semiosis can and often do backfire. I’m telling the too damn tired story of some gay (ex-)Christian kid’s journey to self-acceptance. But that’s not at all the story that I am trying to tell. Fucking hell.

And here’s where my writing skills start to fall short. I don’t know how to properly resignify those scenes. I could interject some flashback shots into that first one—my feet on the carpet, my shoes digging into the dirt during recess as I swing my bodyweight forward, knocking out that fat bully who was giving me a hard time; my hands clasping themselves in prayer, my hands gripped around the neck of another big white boy that same year in 5th grade because all that fury had to go somewhere. I could add some voice-over narration to the second scene, something like “Do I really have anything in common with all these nice white folk?” or “What the fuck am I celebrating?” But even then, I’m not sure how successful I would be in steering the narrative.

Maybe some more voice-over.

Scene 1. I had experienced my sexuality up to that point exclusively as a vexed, fixed, and desirous rage toward larger white men, and so the context of the Asian ethnic specific campus ministry I became a part of afforded me a way to live out my so-called sexuality through a form of refusal, to reject the effects of racialization on my body’s relationship to other bodies, to reconcile the sense I’ve always had that something was amiss within myself, or rather, that the outside that I had been living as an inside was broken. The theological allure of a broken world created by an all-loving God who promised redemption, well, you know how that goes. Rather than bite the lips of my own psychic wounds, I could kiss the feet of God Incarnate. So that’s me, sitting alone on my bed in that cavernous room, the Holy Spirit going down on me.

Scene 2. They kept saying that I hate myself. I hate myself because of how this wound bleeds. I hate myself because I mopped up the blood with a Seamless Robe. They implored me to join their “Free & Family-Friendly Celebration of Equality, Diversity, & Love,” because that’s what I really need. They tell me that I don’t have to hate myself anymore. They have an idea of what “QPOC” entails, but this idea does not include me, or rather, includes me as respectable, US homonational, liberal multicultural color capital. But I won’t play this game, especially not on bougie brickwork. After all, I’m too busy hating myself because of how this wound bleeds, hating myself because I mopped up the blood with a Seamless Robe. Why waste my time here? I can’t cauterize shit with a “Made in Taiwan” flashdrive and a rubber rainbow bracelet anyways.

That’s a bit closer, but still not quite it. And then there’s the matter of the unarticulated theoretical arguments that frame these words. But to be honest, I’m so very tired of thinking about all this: about the history of race and the history of sexuality in the Atlantic world; about whiteness, white supremacy, honorary whiteness, whiteness as property, whiteness as debt, whiteness as hyperobject; about psychodynamic complexes and melancholic subjectivity; about erotic habitus and sexual scripts; about racial castration, Richard Fung’s penis, sticky rice politics, and the violences of remasculinization; about Gary Fisher. And even if I had the energy to work out some kind of theoretical argument about the analytic priority of racialization as the inaugural incision upon which other incisions such as gender and sexuality are staged, about gender normativity severely limiting the possibilities of desire, and about desire being inadequate for framing certain experiences of pleasure, would that change my legibility to the world? Or just plunge me deeper into obscure jargon?

It’s a good suggestion, your letter, but I’m not quite sure if I can write like that just yet. Do I feel anymore connected to myself at the end of this letter after giving words another try? It’s hard to say. These selected forays into the past are probably the closest I will get to ritual consolidation and narrative coherence for the time being. Hopefully it will be enough for me to move on and get back to language study and this new life here in Taipei. But it’s hard to say. Have I stitched together any new surfaces for contact with other people? Also hard to say. I’m having trouble with words again.

Ah shit. I haven’t even said anything about anthropology yet…


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