writing X Marks The Dress: A Registry with Kristina Marie Darling
Writing X Marks The Dress: A Registry was an act of aggression. I was angry while I was writing the book, and scared that this anger would seep into the text. Of course it did, immediately, with the first poem (which was the first thing I wrote). I understand now that my anger is exactly what's keeping readers interested; the violence and grief in the text is compelling. My anger was political and personal, but mostly political. As a lesbian, it angers me that I've been excluded from legal marriage in the United States. As a feminist, I have mixed feelings about marriage; rituals like the white dress and giving away the bride speak to women's subordination and lack of agency. As a queer activist, I'm suspicious of the focus on same-sex marriage as the primary goal of the mainstream (very assimilationist) Gay/Lesbian rights movement. I believe all people should have access to health care, for example; this shouldn't be tied to who you fuck, who you live with, or whether you have children.
The concept of the wedding registry has always bothered me: why is it okay to ask people for presents; why do people feel they deserve gifts because they are lucky enough to get legally married? What does it mean to pre-select your own gifts; what does it mean to narrow the range of gifts according to what a particular store is selling? The lack of imagination and sense of entitlement around many registries is offensive to me both aesthetically and politically. In truth I feel alienated by a lot of common rituals that people accept without question, but this one's a doozie. So when Kristina and I started writing, I knew I wanted to use the theme of the wedding registry to question, rather than endorse, the heterosexual Romance plot and the wedding industrial complex.
As Kristina and I brainstormed our project, I set a complex limitation for myself: I decided that in our first sequence of call-and-response prose poems, I would write in the voice of the male character, the husband. And almost immediately my personal political anger turned into violent gestures in the character's voice. If I were a man, no way would I be this man; he's very much a fictional creation. I worked with his anger for a while, and Kristina challenged me by creating a female character, a wife, who has to respond to her husband's behavior. She didn't shy away; her character feels trapped, but begins plotting her escape. In this way the call-and-response sequence felt almost scary to write, because I'd created such an unlikable voice, and I knew this meant Kristina would have to respond to this voice, react to it.
I knew my character needed a motivation for his emotion; I also wanted the text to incorporate queer culture. I decided that he was transgender, and specifically invested in gender reassignment, in changing his biological body. His anger was linked to the closet, to feeling trapped in a fake marriage. He longed to shed his biological body and transition to the female body that felt innate to him. His inability to come out to his wife led him to seek a mistress, who loved him as both the woman he would become and the man he was, biologically and socially. In creating this character, I again put Kristina in a complex place: she had to decide how his wife would react. We were working with aesthetic choices here, not politically correct or therapeutically correct mandates. And our characters didn't always make the right choices. They hurt each other, they hurt themselves. It was fun to write such a tangled story, but I also felt shadowed by anxiety that people would evaluate the manuscript as transphobic: that my queer community, my trans friends and family, would feel I had betrayed them by making a transgender character such a jerk.
I should add that I think many heterosexual white male writers are not burdened by this political anxiety when they write. Their freedom is to write without worrying that a specific marginalized community is going to turn on them for misrepresentation or some political offense. It's just ironic to me that here I am, a queer writer and feminist activist who has devoted her life to her community, and I'm shadowed by this sense that somehow I'm not good enough for my community; that I'm going to be attacked (verbally) within my community; that my own queer or feminist community will reject my art. Maybe this is an aside, but lesbians in particular are really bad about attacking each other's art as politically insufficient and I hope this changes.
For queer lives to become real to the heterosexual public, they need to be multi-dimensional. They need to feel believable. And there are jerks of all sexual orientations and gender identities! My character isn't a jerk because he's transgender; he's a jerk because, well, he's a jerk; and he's trapped in the closet in a marriage with a woman he knows won't accept his transition; and he's using his mistress to shore up his identity, all while keeping her a secret from his wife. He's a jerk because he's given in to assimilationist norms of sex, gender, and sexuality, while hiding a painful secret and leading a mind-numbingly boring double life. He's a jerk for common reasons. He's miserable, misunderstood, and trapped.
I wanted my character to question the value of marriage in both a heterosexual and a queer context; to exist as a complicated human being. I do worry I've hurt someone's feelings or crossed some kind of political line. But I hope readers will understand that to create characters who are purely good is limiting to an artist. Art must contain the whole range of human emotion and the whole range of human experience.
I'm happy to respond personally to anyone with questions about my aesthetic choices, too. Here's my email. Feel free to start a conversation: carolannguess (at) gmail (dot) com
Carol Guess is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Switch, Tinderbox Lawn, and Doll Studies: Forensics. Forthcoming books include collaborations with Kristina Marie Darling, Kelly Magee, and Daniela Olszewska. Follow her here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com