That voice drops out of that body: I get the sense of trying to hold a whole birthday cake on a single-ply paper napkin.
The limbs of that body are sticks. If it were a boy, it’d be told to lift some weights and gain more muscle. If it were a female, it’d be told to eat some food and get some curves. I know that that grey sweater is a cashmere Marc Jacobs sweatshirt (even on 60 percent off sale, cost a pretty penny) but on that body it looks like what I was afraid it would look like, a cross between a wimpy football player and Warner Bros. era Joan Crawford. Which would be fine except I was going for the look I always go for: Bettie Page in repose had she been 28 years old in 1994.
That voice is so low, lower than I remember it. I know I have a low voice, the voice I was genetically programmed for, and I’ve not been unhappy with it. When I was a DJ at the University of Virginia’s student radio station (for a whole month: my show was the unwanted early Sunday morning slot and I couldn’t get up at 7:00 to save my life: an hour of dead-air time: I was fired—from a volunteer job!), the woman who trained me said I had a “Venus Flytrap” voice. “Venus Flytrap” was the character played by Tim Reid on the late 70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.
How perfect is that: a man named Venus! I love that compliment still not because my voice sounded like the race I most closely identify with (African-American) but also because it got linked, through that character, to the kind of femininity towards which I strive: a bizarrely beautiful flower that eats little bugs that try to eat it.
But loving that voice is one thing; seeing that voice is another. The voice and the body together formed a drag queen. As soon as that vision hobbles over to the stage, it begins to whooping and kvetching sugary tourettes. For the next half hour, it’s like the voice is the body’s muppeteer, the femme cadencing of the unobviably deep male voice snapping the neck into endless hair-tossing, yanking the hand to hair-swiping, and at one point, even pulling up the mini Bardot-bump at the back of the head. My mother, who recently watched this video, said, “I didn’t really get the content of what you were reading, but it was so chic when you kept touching your hair. Your hand moved really elegantly.” In fact, she did get the content of the words that my deep drag queen voice was puking into the coiled microphone in front of me. This is my mode of femme realness performance: eyes cast down, reading into the microphone, fingers in hair: the shy book-obsessed kid who turned his shyness into a career and gender. With that voice and the body, my presentation of work at an academic conference turns me not into a scholar but as writer-as-drag queen.
The complete video of my draggy reading:
I wrote the story “Gertrude Ederle,” last spring in California, during my half-sabbatical from RISD. It’s one of four stories I wrote during those five months. I hadn’t written fiction since my second year in graduate school, when I was so unhappy and disillusioned that I had to punch out a 300-page novel in a three-month spurt. The unpublished novel now sits like a miscarried fetus in the back of my hard drive, and my Ph.D. was finished and received. But just when I was materially settled, I began feeling the same kind of desperation again, and so I had to go back to writing fiction. Not necessarily to build a new offshoot of a career, but just so I can live.
I presented “Gertrude Ederle” earlier this month at Princeton as a part of a conference called “Too Cute: American Style and the New Asian Cool,” and watching the video of my reading is like, PRINCETON IS BURNING! If drag queens crystallize their identity through lip-synching diva songs, then I become a drag queen by lip-synching my own piece of fiction. I’ve lived with my femininity for so long I forgot that I only know how this femininity feels against the underside of my skin; I didn’t really know its performative force. At first I was horrified, but gradually it sunk in, and by the end, I was quite tickled by this femme monster before me. I actually felt as I did the first time I saw Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning.
Paris is Burning documents black and Latin transsexuals and drag queens in late 80s Harlem, and the kind of nurturing underground community they created as a permeable but steely barrier to the racism and homophobia that was the material reality of their daily lives. One of the most important aspects of this community was the idea of the “House,” which is described in the film by the late great Dorian Corey, alternately as “a gay street gang” and “family.” The leader of such a house is a “Mother.” But the Mother does not become the Mother through democracy—not the traditional kind of democracy, anyway. The houses get started by drag queens who “make a name for themselves” in the ball circuit: she is a great voguer, an extradecaden self-presenter, a hyperreal femme: she is one who overachieves in the discipline of drag femininity. She becomes Mother because she votes herself as Mother. I say she “votes herself” rather than “declares herself” because her creating her house is an act of faith: her self-naming, and naming her house after that self-naming, is a performance of the faith she has in collecting the “children” who would vote for her.
So today, humbly following in the grand tradition of Saint Laurent and Xtravaganza, I’d like to announce my candidacy for Motherhood. I am the Mother of the House of Schecter. I know there are children out there. Formal recruitment will begin soon, but in the meantime, if you are reading this and like it, click on my haggy picture on the sidebar to my facebook page and fan up! I’ll be adding recruitment info about the House of Schecter...as soon as I figure it all out!!!! The shade of my pancake foundation is the English language. I vogue to the rhythm of syntax. I tuck my tool into the crevices of my sentences.
As the legendary Mothers transformed their bodies through performances of femaleness, I do so upon my prose. In my teens, I was frightened of transsexualism surgery. In my tweenties, I couldn’t afford transsexualism surgery. In my twenties, I got married and didn’t need transsexualism surgery. Now in my thirties, I know that the best transsexualism surgery for me involves not the technology of knife, laser and silicone, but the prosthetic technology of prose. I cut and inject my body with my words, and with that embodiment comes dissipation. Dissipation, blissful dissipation. With my prose, I dissipate my physical body into emotional and conceptual molecules; when I don’t feel my body, I know my words are working. They shatter scatter my fleshly body. When that’s done, I know there’s a boy out there who will see my body and want to hold it because he will see not maleness, but what I see, a hollowware for femininity.