2020 is drawing to a close, and as arbitrary as time is, this is our last post of the year here on Books Beyond Binaries! First things first: if you’re here, that means that you’re seeking our new banner! I could not be more thrilled with the result of this year’s refresh, thanks to Oaky, a non-binary, Latino, concept artist and illustrator, who created this awesome new look for the blog going into 2021!
In today’s post, lots of new resources to share (as you can see) for books to read from trans and/or non-binary authors from 2020 and going into 2021, including this list of 2020 debuts from trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming authors from the Chicago Review of Books.
Otherwise, this post is all about the Big Feels, which seems appropriate for the end of 2020. I review a new poetry collection called Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by torrin a. greathouse, and we are super excited to host a post from #SpineSquad author A. J. Vrana on writing for emotional impact.
As always, when we feature books by non-Black authors in this space, we also offer recs of books by Black authors to accompany them. For my part, I want to recommend my favourite book that I read this year, Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi.
A personal request for support…
Before I kick off this post, I’m going to use this space to make a small ask for support. For those of you who don’t know, I’m completing my PhD studies right now. I was supposed to have defended my dissertation in December, but due to an administrative error at the School of Graduate Studies at my institution, and delays within my committee caused by COVID, I am being forced to take an extra term in order to be able to complete my studies. All of this, despite my having met every deadline and requirement thrown at me in 2020, has been really challenging to come to terms with. In addition, this situation comes with a whopping, unexpected, $2300 price tag that I am completely unable to afford. As a new agent and having lost my bookstore income due to the pandemic, I am just making enough money with freelancing and agenting to stay out of debt, and my department is not offering me any financial support for this extra semester of studies. If you are interested and able, there are three ways you can support me, a disabled trans student trying my best to have my work over the past seven years of study recognized. One, I have a crowdfunding campaign that you can donate to, two, you can hire me to edit your work or the work of an aspiring writer in your life, three, you can share these links (and the blog!) within your networks. Thank you in advance! 💜
Review: WOUND FROM THE MOUTH OF A WOUND, by torrin a. greathouse
A few months ago, I was approached by Claire Laine, a publicist of Milkweed Editions, one of my favourite independent publishers, to review the poetry collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by torrin a. greathouse, which comes out tomorrow: December 22nd, 2020. torrin’s online bios describe her as a transgender cripple-punk and poet.
I am a person with Big Feelings, so sometimes I struggle to read poetry, because when it is done well, it feels like every syllable is an emotional gut-punch. That said, I love poetry for the same reason. Two of my favourite books of all time are a place called NO HOMELAND by Kai Cheng Thom, and Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Both of these collections absolutely gutted me. The blurb for torrin’s collection calls it, “A versatile missive written from the intersections of gender, disability, trauma, and survival.” I felt confident when I accepted the offer to review that this book would soon join Kai and Leah’s in my heart.
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound is the winner of the 2020 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, and has already received many glowing reviews and recommendations from Refinery29, NBC Out, Book Marks, Lambda, and the Chicago Review of Books. I’m afraid that Books Beyond Binaries won’t be the source of a dissenting opinion in this case. I do feel that I should, however, note that I am not a poetry expert, so I come to this review purely as a reader. If my thoughts in this post lack precision or technicality, I apologize in advance for that.
The collection opens with six verses inspired by a 2008 sculpture of Medusa carved by Luciano Garbati. The statue itself is fairly unadorned, a rendition in bronze of the woman with hair of snakes, unapologetically holding in one hand a blade, and in the other hand the severed head of a man. This sculpture is a response and inversion of another work that resides in Garbati’s hometown in Italy, near Florence, a statue by Benvenuto Cellini, called Perseus with the head of Medusa. In torrin’s collection, they use accessible, but poignant, imagery to write about this sculpture as a symbol of rape culture, and how that culture bleeds into the lives of children who are the product of traumatic experiences. Garbati’s sculpture has been reinterpreted again as the stunning cover art for this collection.
The first formal section of this book begins with a quote. I was charmed by this, because coincidentally, shortly before reading Wound, I connected with queer Palestinian poet George Abraham after the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, in the hopes of featuring them and their poetry in this space soon. His collection, Birthright, is available now.
Wound is a collection of short works in verse, prose, and essay formats. There are five sections total. I am amazed by the efficiency of torrin’s collection. This is writing that works hard. In the first section, she tackles themes including motherhood, infant loss, and parentage; a relatable yet brief critique of the medical model of disability; the sterile experience of medical transition and the scientific fragility of physiological gender; sex and trauma; finally, and most resonant for me in this section, the radiant, emotional impact of medical transition. These themes unravel at a pace that is perfectly possible to keep up with, and with moments of startlingly beautiful imagery. Often, I find myself lost in poetry, but in this section, I rather found myself awash in it.
Mirroring the first section, the second begins with a quote (this time from Jillian Weiss), and a section of prose. The themes from the first section thrum throughout this book, with occasional meditations on body image and eating disorders, morality, addiction and blackouts, etymology, fear… torrin pulls absolutely zero punches in unraveling what I can only assume are their reflections on personal experiences on the page.
My personal favourite piece in this collection, and one that I am eager to share with the world, is the poem That’s So Lame, which addresses the casual violence of ableist language. It is searing, relatable, and communicates so much that is difficult to articulate in such a short space. It is both beautiful, and functional, and such a valuable tool, I think, for social justice and for literature.
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse launches tomorrow, and if you are able to purchase it from an independent bookstore, you have the opportunity to support a trans, disabled author, an independent not-for-profit press, and an independent small business, all at the same time. This collection, despite dealing with impactful themes, is not a chore to read. It is accessible and easy to follow, overflowing with evocative imagery, and it filled me with the sense of empowerment that one might get from watching a beautiful flower emerge from a crack in the concrete. Works like these are how the light gets in. I’m very grateful for Claire and torrin sharing this book with me, and with Books Beyond Binaries, and I hope that many of our readers will indulge in this incredible collection this winter.
Writing for Emotional Impact, by A. J. Vrana
A. J. Vrana’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to read alongside this post is from non-binary author Rivers Solomon, The Deep.
As a reader, there is no better experience than being emotionally moved while devouring a good book. The written word is, after all, intended for communication, and more often than not, what writers want is to make their readers think and feel a certain way. This is especially true in the world of fiction and memoire writing, where readers expect to be drawn into the story and to grow attached to the characters.
However, if you’re an author, you know that it’s not easy getting people to notice your book, and it can be even harder to get them invested. The world is full of different kinds of people, which means not everyone will pick up what you put down. Nonetheless, at the heart of authorial passion is the desire to have your story emotionally resonate with as many people as possible.
Okay, great, but how does one convey emotion through writing? We know beautiful prose when we see it, but how do we emulate it? How do we communicate the rawest parts of ourselves authentically and effectively? This is no small or easy task, but there are techniques that can help. In this piece, I will share four tricks I’ve picked up.
The very structure of a sentence—its length, syntax, and punctuation—can impact the way it is received be a reader. The way writing flows from word to word, sentence to sentence, conveys a lot about the writer’s intentions. For example, short, choppy sentences can be great for communicating strong, sudden emotions like distress, confusion, and pain (in the negative) or excitement, anticipation, and joy (in the positive). Although I am generally not an advocate of using sentence fragments, the occasional fragment can be very effective in communicating a strong emotion—the caveat being that it’s used occasionally. Let’s look at a few examples:
It came from within, this furious, bone-deep itch. Thousands of tiny needle-point legs, trampling on nerves. They burned and screeched, demanding nails on flesh.
In the above example, I’m describing someone in distress. I would assume that a person experiencing this level of discomfort wouldn’t be able to think or narrate in fully formed, complex sentences because of their emotional state, so their thoughts would come out choppy and somewhat fragmented. Keeping the sentences short ensures a snappy, urgent pace that puts the reader on edge. Now let’s look at another example:
She stood there—a ghost returned from the grave. Only she wasn’t a ghost. She was flesh and blood. She was family, and she was alive.
In this example, we have someone seeing a loved one they thought was dead. Although this is definitely a happier occasion, it is nonetheless riddled with complex emotions. Seeing someone you’ve grieved over is still quite traumatic and stressful, even if you are happy to see them! Similar to the previous example, I would assume that the person in question wouldn’t really have it in them to form long, eloquent sentences when first seeing a family member who is presumed dead. The short sentences mimic their tattered emotional state: shocked, confused, uncertain, but ultimately relieved or happy.
However, short sentences aren’t the only ones that can convey emotion. Longer, occasionally even rambling sentences can communicate scrambled thoughts, worry, or exasperation. For example, someone trying to recount a highly stressful or exciting event might narrate in run-on sentences. The same could be said of someone who is overstimulated or has had too much caffeine! Here’s an example:
I put the key in the ignition, then turned it—the key, I mean—and then the engine revved like usual, but as soon as I switched the gear, I heard this noise like someone had dropped a glass from the roof, and then there was this bang and a sputter, and I could smell smoke, so I panicked and hit the breaks even though the car wasn’t moving because I was scared, you know?
The sentence above is narrated in the first person from someone who is frazzled after their car broke down (and who knows what happened before then!). The sentence is longer than any sentence should be, frankly, but the use of punctuation makes it manageable to read/ However, occasionally, using sentences like this is fine because they can effectively convey the person’s emotional state.
Be methodical about word choice. Sometimes, the right words can go a long way in creating a specific emotion. For example, if I say someone is ‘angry,’ it doesn’t really evoke much of an image, but it I say someone is ‘seething,’ my brain conjures a specific image of a pot about to boil over. It gives me the distinct sense that something bad is about to happen—like someone might lose their temper and lash out. In comparison, the adjective ‘angry’ has very little impact.
Here is another example: if someone is drunk, rather than describing their gait as ‘clumsy’ or ‘uncoordinated,’ you can describe them as ‘shambling.’
“They shambled down the hill” is far more evocative than, “They walked clumsily down the hill,” or, “Their gait was uncoordinated as they walked.”
Metaphors and Similes
Perhaps one of my favourite techniques for evoking emotion is using similes and metaphors to conjure a specific image in the reader’s mind. The fact is, direct, simple language often does not create emotional impact the same way that abstract images do. When we write about something directly, it may engender intellectual understanding, but it rarely provokes empathy from the reader.
Metaphors and similes are a great way to communicate how something feels without saying it directly. Because direct and clinical descriptions are so endemic to how we communicate on a daily basis, we are desensitized to their impact. For example, when a friend has a bad day at work, they might say, “I was so annoyed,” and then go on to explain why. We hear this so often that it has almost no meaning and falls flat when encountered in prose.
However, metaphors and similes give us a tool for creative expression for emotions we all experience; they defamiliarize us from the simplicity of loaded terms like ‘anger’ and ‘happiness.’ They offer us a specific and tangible image with which we can better understand the power of what is being conveyed.
For example, saying someone is “unpredictable” doesn’t really evoke any particular emotional response from me as a reader. However, if we say that someone is “like a tornado in the middle of the night,” we can insinuate that they are unpredictable based on culturally shared knowledge and symbolism around tornados: they are highly unpredictable and destructive storms with an erratic path, and the idea of one dropping from the sky after dark is especially terrifying because everything is less visible and less certain when the sun goes down. In other words, it’s the image, not the adjective, that evokes feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and anxiety. Through the image, we create an empathic connection with the subject of the writing. As a result, we genuinely feel that the person being written about is unpredictable.
Ah yes, the mind-body dualism. Whoever came up with it did some serious damage to how we think of ourselves. In reality, the border between mind and body is paper thin, and anyone who has ever had anxiety (aka all of us) can confirm this. Our emotions manifest through our bodies, and more often than not, bodies speak what we cannot.
For this exact reason, using the body as a tool to convey emotion is far more effective than direct, clinical description. Many of you will have encountered this advice in the form of “show, don’t tell.” For example, rather than telling your reader that someone is grief-stricken, show them through body language.
Does their face twist with realization? Do they curl in on themselves, seeking comfort and safety? Do they flee their immediate surroundings? Do they grab a drink or light a cigarette with a trembling hand? What does their voice sound like? Does it come out rough like sandpaper? Are they swallowing rapidly, mouth parched? Are their eyes red from tears and sleeplessness? Do shadows cling beneath them?
When you find yourself writing a scene that demands emotional impact, try to make those emotions visceral by focusing on the body. Embodied experience is the most tangible way we relate to the world, and it is also one of the best tools for communicating what lies beneath the skin.
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