As a trans person with chronic pain, my body is not always a comfortable home. It feels, sometimes, as though it might not belong to me at all, like I am a spectral voyeur spying on this squishy pile of limbs from a foot or two behind my own shoulder. I fog the mirror with the hot breath of my own name, trying to slip back into myself, only to step away feeling even more alien. Other times, I am distressingly aware of a single part: the slightly too long fingernail, the slippery trail of sweat down the trench of my spine, or the squeeze of my jaw, clenched like a fist.
My favorite books of all time–the bruises I keep pressing again and again–are those that make me feel, while I read them, a little more corporeal. These are books that don’t flinch away from deviant hungers. They pop zits and fuck awkwardly and drip with salty kisses and eager hands. Reading them has not only made me a better writer of bodies; it has given me permission to experience the fullness of my own queer body. I offer this list as a prayer for my fellow body-havers out there; I hope you feel it.
Body as Haunted
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
The baby’s head is bothering me, because it’s like a piece of fruit gone bad. I understand that, now, in the middle of this endless desert of sound. It’s like the soft spot on the peach that you can just plunge your thumb into, with no questions asked, with not so much as a how-do-you-do. I’m not going to, but I want to, and the urge is so serious that I put her down. She screams louder. I pick her up and lean her against me, whispering, “I love you, baby, and I am not going to hurt you,” but the first thing is a lie and the second thing might be a lie, but I’m just not sure. I should have the urge to protect her, but all I can think about is that soft spot, that place where I could hurt her if I tried, where I could hurt her if I wanted to. — “Mothers,” p. 48
Carmen Maria Machado is an expert painter of bodily pleasures, and her prose throbs with slick crotches and knotty nipples, the “seawater and muscle and bone” flavor of oysters, the “floral, chemical smell of clean clothes.” But what truly sets her apart is her ability to look just as tenderly at the forbidden, taboo, and disgusting, writing unflinchingly of “limb[s] of pus and blood” from lanced “abjections,” of fevers, and dripping noses, and vomit-stained garments.
Her writing finds our bodies in all of their grime and glory, and, throughout many of her stories, people are their own hauntings. In “Particularly Heinous,” our crime-solving protagonists are stalked and tormented by their own doppelgängers; in “Eight Bites,” a woman is haunted by the soft, dripping weight that she abandoned in pursuit of thinness. Sometimes, like in “Mothers,” these hauntings are internal, intrusive thoughts daring us to feel the soft give of an infant’s skull under our thumbs. She unburies the grotesque urges buzzing beneath our skin and lays them gently next to the joy and sweat and blood that fill us up, letting us languish in the familiar strangeness of having a human body.
Machado dares us to look plainly at even our most monstrous reflections. “Twist me, and turn me, and show me the elf. I looked in the water and saw Myself.”
Prompt: Write about a character with a haunted body. What would it take to exorcize it?
Body as Animal
Justin Torres, We the Animals
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. —p. 1
Justin Torres avoids the all-too-common traps of writing children as either naive innocents or pretentious little adults; the collective narrators of We the Animals are at once tender and ravenous, scratching desperately for food and noise and comfort, scrapping and pushing for contact and body heat in a home with two complex and unpredictable parents. Like most children, they are unselfconsciously strange and macabre, at different points staging their mothers birth by covering her in ketchup, reenacting their parents’ fights and reconciliations, and performing black magic.
Torres invites his readers into the bloody, beating heart of a family: at once a collection of ravenous animals and a cohesive emotional unit, a sweating ecosystem of love and lust and violence and need, at once hungry, tender, brutal, and beautiful.
Prompt: Write about a character chasing a particular sensation that they crave.
Body as Transformation
Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
He knew Robin would see his dark nipples through the white, and went bigger, his breasts heavy against the cotton. He absorbed his extremities, slurped in facial hair, body hair, cock, balls, and stood loosely in the doorframe.
Robin matched him, but sweeter, more feminine. Paul couldn’t look away, couldn’t believe he was being allowed to look.
He shifted into leatherman: darker arm hair, a bulge in his crotch, muscles popping. Robin shifted too, slight but wiry, some lucky matador. Paul saw a small mound grow in Robin’s pants, just the soft presence of a penis, and felt his own pants tighten in response. —p. 316-317
In Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, our eponymous protagonist, Paul Polydoris, possesses a mystical power: the ability to change his body at will. In the hands of a straight cis author, a character with such a power might become a spy or a jewel thief, or, conversely, they might spend long chapters wishing they were a normal boy/girl, or worse, running from federal agents who want to dissect them to use their blood to make military-grade camouflage. Lucky for all of us, Lawlor is not such an author, and Paul mostly uses his talent to travel through the queer scene in the early 90’s having as much gay sex as possible.
Through Paul, we are able to experience gay leather bars, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and a mélange of hot queer sex, “being penetrated by punk” as a hot rock star rails him with a strap on, hooking up in bars, and engaging in the age-old pastime of gay longing, all amidst the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. Paul’s power grants him free passage through these distinct realms; his transness and gender fluidity are precious gifts.
In a world where trans bodies are so often despised, pitied, and medicalized, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a refreshing gasp of air, a love letter to trans bodies and pleasure.
Prompt: A character is given a potion that will allow them to change one thing about themself. What is it? OR: Write a character with a beautiful power.
Body as Lore
K-Ming Chang, Gods of Want
They brought gifts, fistfuls of worms and a downed telephone pole. They ate the cake and told us it was dry and asphalt-like. They farted in the minister’s face and shattered a stained glass window depicting a nativity scene and said it was our fault Mary was beheaded and baby Jesus was crushed into an anthill of sand. They stole the cutlery, and I later found all the salad forks stabbed into trees along the street, sap rusting on the trunks. When the ceremony moved outside, some of them attempted to straddle clouds and deliver a speech, but then it started to rain, a rain that fell thick as unpinned hair, tangling everywhere. —“The Chorus of Dead Cousins,” p. 8
In Gods of Want, thumbs are licked, nicked, and severed; mouths are shriveled with kisses and torn out of faces; children are eggs kept safe in the warmth of their aunt’s armpits, carried by goats who have licked cum off their mother’s palms, born singing. In the magical worlds that Chang constructs, the inanimate is made corporeal. “Air turn[s] to fur,” train rails are “raised like molars…spit-slick” and “greased with blood,” and the northern lights are the sky “having bad breath…spitting its stars like teeth.”
Like in many classic folktales, characters are often nameless, or referred to only based on a particular relationship, like the sixth brother, or the fifteenth widow. Chang’s prose, too, is lyrical, unsettling, and fast-paced. Magic and strangeness are rarely commented upon, and lives start and end in just a few sharp words. In this collection, as in her first novel, Bestiary, Chang is creating a new mythos of queer bodies, writing them into stories that feel both stingingly new and, somehow, already worn with age.
Prompt: Write a fairy tale or myth about birth, a body, or a traumatic event.
Body as Storm
Julián Delgado Lopera, Fiebre Tropical
Right before the rain the humidity intensified, the soil-smell mixed with garbage-smell almost unbearable. Sweat a constant, all the way to my butthole. Dampened skin, fishlike. Water came from all places: the ocean, the sky, the puddles, our armpits, our hands, our asses. Our eyes. Lluvia tropical is nature’s violence. And here it was a lluvia tropical on acid, a fiebre tropial. Tropical fever for days. —p.13
In Fiebre Tropical, words pour rhythmically from the pages, at times cascading in sheets (“[t]he broken air conditioner above the TV, the flowery couch, La Tata half-drunk directing me in this holy radionovela brought to you by Female Sadness Incorporated”), at others, dripping forth at a gentler tempo. There is no arbitrary border separating humans from nature; rain is God’s tears, or sweat, or piss. Delgado Lopera’s characters enjoy the pain of scratching mosquito bites, the feeling of saliva on their earlobes, and the drops of sweat on their crush’s upper lip.
Our narrator, Francisca, explores her adolescent gender and sexuality in a way that is neither after-school special twee nor wrought with queer trauma. She meets expectations for compulsory femininity with eye-rolling compliance, smearing lipstick on at her mother’s behest until she looks like she’s “eaten red paint,” or ignores them entirely. She makes herself a pink dick out of a cherry condom; she refuses to shave her bush (“for what?”); she lets her tongue explore a boy’s mouth “like a worm in a cave” while they both fantasize about a different girl.
Bodies in Fiebre Tropical are as awkward as they are awe-inspiring, and Delgado Lopera writes them boldly and without fear. After all, why would the sky be ashamed of the rain?
Prompt: Go somewhere and feel something strong. Then write about it. (Or not!)