Friday, June 23, 2006

Drag King Dreams

When I bought Leslie Feinberg’s latest book, Drag King Dreams, I had no idea what it was about. I didn’t even buy it because of the mention of “drag king” in its title, despite my own interests and research related to drag kings. (I did want to patronize the feminist bookstore I was at, Charis, and I did want to support Feinberg, whose earlier novel, Stone Butch Blues, I thoroughly enjoyed, and whose speeches in Transliberation: Beyond Pink or Blue I regularly assign to students.)

I’ve been holding onto the novel since March, and finally made time to read it on this latest trip to the SF Bay Area. The timing of it all has actually been quite uncanny. Not only was the DC Dyke March theme this year to “End the Apathy,” but most of my NWSA conference experience revolved around taking more ownership of and getting more involved in the organization, plus this weekend marks the SF trans rally and march, as well as the SF dyke rally and march. So, in lots of ways this trip has been all about building community, organizing, and practicing activism, which are strong currents in Feinberg’s Drag King Dreams.

More specifically, Drag King Dreams traces the journeys of the protagonist, Max Rabinowitz.

Some of these journeys are late night/early morning commutes to and from the bar where Max works. Seemingly innocuous, Feinberg illustrates the way such commutes, which are humdrum for most, are fraught with threats and dangers, often harmful, and sometimes deadly for Max and others like him.

Some of the trips Max takes are virtual ones into a universe where even with created, cyber bodies, we manage to socialize in ways that marginalize those who are perceived as different, but where outsiders pulling from a bank of shared signs still manage to find one another and connect. These virtual worlds are also places where Max learns that though there are rules in place that have determined and constructed the worlds as such, there are other rules and ways to re-construct and build them alternatively.

Then there are the emotional journeys Max takes towards and away from his friends, those he’s chosen as his family. At times the bonds of love among Max and his friends are so fierce that it’s almost impossible to imagine a tighter knit, more committed, or stronger community. The way in which they pull together to protect, support, and encourage one another is a testament to the deep power of such unselfish love. And yet despite Feinberg’s inclusion of this much needed glimpse into an ideal, sometimes utopian love, ze also reflects other elements of hir characters’ humanity—their bursts of anger, moments of desire-driven jealousy, they fear-filled recoil from others’ touches, etc. Overall, Feinberg paints hir characters in all their marvelous complexities, while never letting go of the conviction that unity is possible. In the end Max’s final moves are closer towards his friends, the larger community, and perhaps most significantly towards himself.

It is these interpersonal and intrapersonal journeys throughout Drag King Dreams that showcase Feinberg’s ability to tell an important and touching story about the intertwined lives we live, and the need for us to join in struggle with one another, fighting the wars (literal and metaphorical alike) side-by-side until justice is achieved. Ze doesn’t make it seem as if such coalitions are easy, but does tell hir story so well that despite the difficulties, we are utterly convinced of the absolute necessity of just complicated, hard work.

(I must make clear here that these are but a minor fraction of the various journeys Feinberg takes readers on in this novel...there are just too many gems in this book to write about them all here--I will say, though, that other journeys of note included lingual journeys through Yiddish chronicling Max's connections to his Jewishness and journeys through addiction, recovery, and the accompanying struggles towards serenity.)

Feinberg’s writing is beyond compelling, and anyone who finishes reading this book and isn’t moved to action of some kind, well…just isn’t awake.

Some passages that spoke to me in particular:
Feinberg, Leslie. Drag King Dreams. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006.

(59) “Don’t be afraid of the truth. Be afraid of the lies.”

(82) “I step into the show and feel my rigid, robotic body soften into skin and supple muscle. I lean my hands against the chipped porcelain tiles and let the water run over my scalp, my eyes closed behind the waterfall. I wash off the grime, physical and emotional, one layer at a time. I swish droplets in my mouth and spit out the grit of the things I haven’t said into the water swirling down the drain.”

(93) “Everyone always tell me it was their computer that screwed up. I like people who admit it was user error.”

(119) “Maybe I’m not just different. Maybe I’m strange.”

(125) “’The human eye can only pick up about 256 colors in the spectrum.’
‘Then why bother with millions, Hesh?’
Heshie looks exasperated. He holds up his hands in front of him as though he were holding the planet between his palms. ‘Because the universe has that many colors, even if we don’t perceive them all. It’s about true life; it’s about reality—the real world—whether we see it or not.’”

(188) “I can’t recall how long it’s been since I danced with anyone. And it’s been much, much longer than that since anyone held me in their arms, let me press my body against theirs.
For just a moment, I feel almost human.”


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