The following is an excerpt that I selected for a reading at the Poetic Research Bureau for Timeless Infinite Light’s Vengeance Tour. At the time that I selected the reading, I hadn’t been told what ‘vengeance’ referred to, but after the election the term took on a new meaning. The excerpt is from a long-form essay I am currently working on in which I explore how popular science fiction and fantasy continues to inform and pluck from queer tropes and ideals.
I attended a writing conference wherein a friend of mine participated on a panel of divining poets. One of them relayed a lesson from a former mentor: “When seeking a reader, go to the one with the forked tongue,” she said, “one who straddles worlds, occupies the gaps.” I thought first of body modification and tongue splitting: go to the reader who draws her fantasy into shared reality. I’d been teasing myself by researching the cost and recovery time of having one’s ears pointed like an elf, and her words seemed delivered from the very heart of the galaxy, speaking to everyone and myself alone all at once. Leave the world by stripping yourself of its limits.
Some years ago I was visiting old friends in Chicago. An ex of mine, a soft-spoken little Satanist, sat across from me on the couch before we were supposed to go out to dinner with a few others, discussing where my next tattoo might have the best effect. I’d seen this particular tattoo on others, notably across the belly of adult actor and model Robert Ridgway in a photoset indelibly printed across the minds of many tumblring gays. The Satanist picked up an inky black pen and wrote the word FAGGOT in block letters on the side of my shaved head, just above my ear, about the length of a golf pencil. It looked real, and gorgeous and I was smitten. As a test, we took pictures and sent it to my three sisters. We all went to dinner laughing, wondering when I’d make it permanent.
Japanese author Yukio Mishima spent his life fawning over boy corpses, famously citing his early encounter with a painting of Saint Sebastian, tied up and shot through with arrows, as a lifelong influence. So too did his obsession extend to his own body. Sun and Steel is his manifesto on bodybuilding. In 100 pages he explains that the body is a vessel for pure wordless expression. Once sufficiently rippled, he staged a series of photographs wherein he played the role of his beloved Saint Sebastian, arms tied up over his head, his muscle-clad body stretched as a canvas for the arrows in his side, belly, and armpit. He glistens silver against the black tree to which he is tied, backlit with a similar silver light, as if, in death, he is free from the shadowy tangle of the forest and one with the glowing mist drifting through it.
His romance with death manifested in characters who lived and died by romantic codes of honor, divinity, and ancient custom. They quietly observe the world around them over the course of his novels, carving out their inner worlds and shaping their personal philosophies until, in some fantastic reveal, the inner world suddenly bursts outward, as when the stuttering acolyte sets fire to his beloved temple in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, or when the pair of lovers disembowel themselves in Patriotism, the Rite of Love and Death. Paul Shrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters builds on the theory that the author’s suicide was his fiction becoming reality, intercutting the final scenes of four of his books with the moment that Mishima’s blade bit through his own belly.
Some critics have read Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed as an Afrocentrist re-writing of American history. The story begins during the African Diaspora, featuring a healer and shapeshifter, Anyanwu, who uses her total command over her body at a cellular level to heal her people from injury and disease, protect them in the form of a leopard. She is coerced from her village by a brutally efficient slave trader and eugenicist, Doro, himself a naked consciousness able to jump from body to body, overtaking one and leaving his last empty and crumbled to the floor. The two become lovers and travel to an infant United States, seeking others like them and reproducing in the myriad shapes available to them, spawning what eventually becomes, far into the future, a globally dominant race of superhumans.
The shapeshifter begins her journey as a village healer, but she eventually becomes a symbol of the pre-civil war American Dream. Taking the occasional form of a white man, she marries a wealthy young woman and owns a plantation, purchases and frees slaves and former sex workers and others with psychic afflictions in search of honest work and community. She derives her considerable income from the bounty of sunken ships she plunders in her dolphin form, and over 600 years spawns countless children who become productive members of society all over the country. Her ability to heal, protect, and transform in body and culture connected her witch nature with the the purest of American ideals skewed just so.
Virginia Woolf’s foray into fantasy also concerns an immortal metamorph, this one a British aristocrat and emissary to Turkey named Orlando who decides he does not wish to participate in the killing that is required of men at war. He wakes the next morning as a woman. She is quite pleased with the transformation and lives for another 300 years.
In 1996, author K.A. Applegate extended the concept of metamorphosis as a civic duty into a series of fifty four books. Written for young adult audiences, The Animorphs never receive proper recognition for having laid the groundwork for bloody teen books like The Hunger Games. The series follows five children after they encounter a crashed alien ship. Inside they find a blue centaur-like creature who offers them the power to transform into any animal they lay their hands on. As they defend the planet from an invisible alien invasion, they are forced to take the lives of mind controlled slaves on a weekly basis, and the author makes sure they feel the weight of every drop of blood they spill. They transform into gorillas and tigers, wild horses and birds of prey, insects, porpoises, and alien bodies from across the galaxy. By the end of the series, one has been decapitated, one spends his life in the shape of a red-tailed hawk, and one is tried as a war criminal before training Black Ops soldiers on a secret base in the desert, all of this before they’ve turned 19. In the end, they gather once more for a one way mission to rescue a former ally. It is implied that their ship is consumed by a cosmic consciousness they encounter at the center of the galaxy.
It is a common trope of animal-transformative science fiction that, in the morph, the human mind and the animal mind exist side by side. There is an intense pleasure in the discovery and use of the new senses and abilities of these animals, whether it’s the ant’s chemical flow of information from their bodies or the falcon’s boundless vision. The trope, though, is that the animal mind is always on the verge of using this pleasure to overpower the human mind. There’s a joy in living in the present, by instinct alone, with only the most immediate senses and memories at hand, much like the Fairy Country where one is trapped forever if they eat any of the food. There’s also a sense of belonging when surrounded by your animal brethren in this simplicity. Annie Dillard writes about an encounter with a weasel wherein their eyes are locked and their minds become linked. She sees into his mind, through his eyes, and she sees the present entire. Her heart longs to be consumed by it. Octavia Butler’s Anyanwu, having never seen the sea, swims in the shape of a dolphin after tasting one’s flesh while on board the ship that takes her to America. She follows the slave ship closely but notes a pod of dolphins following too. She joins them and they communicate through clicks and skin-to-skin contact. It is only moments before she shares their sense of human enemy, before she’s chosen a mate. She is resistant when she is called out of the water. For the Animorphs, this danger has consequences– spend more than two hours in a morph and you are trapped, a risk that is doubled by the intensity of animal instinct up against the human mind.
There is a literary link between metamorphosis and civic duty that I have yet to fully untangle. When I imagine my own transformation it is a selfish act, fulfilling my own fantasies. I look forward to a day when we can truly hack our bodies as described in the dystopia of The Hunger Games, where people can dye their skin an iridescent blue, affix whiskers to their faces, become whatever they imagine. Were the procedure available, I would trade my legs for the back end of a small horse, or the maybe that of a great furry goat. I’d keep my cock but the rest would be replaced with back-bent legs, cloven hooves and a short tail, like Mr. Tumnus. Or I’d enhance my limbs to imitate that of a tree swinging ape. There’s a famous episode of My Crazy Obsession about a cute teen fag who crafts beautiful silicone mermaid fins. He spends his free time swimming loops through a slow, deep bend of a river fed by a waterfall. His boyfriend is interviewed beside the river as the merboy swims, and he seems mystified as to what this does for his lover, acknowledging that it has nothing to do with him, but not without clear affection for the quirk. Now the merboy mass produces these fins and sells them to little girls and grown men alike. I’ve wanted one for years.
We hadn’t yet ordered our drinks when my sisters started texting their replies to the image of fake tattoo, still printed on the side of my skull. They came one after the other. One asked if I was going to kill myself, another just replied with a jaw-dropped emoji, and the last said that the image had made her cry.
Today, I still fantasize about all of the ways I can make the word FAGGOT less scary. But why shouldn’t it be scary? Perhaps I should simply get an illustration of a bundle of sticks over my heart in lieu of the slur. Or there’s the work of illustrator Francisco Hurtz, his perfect little line drawings of faggots naked, mutated and fused together, dancing in rings. He’s challenged his fans to print his drawings onto their bodies and he’ll consider them original works. CA Conrad guest lectured a class in which he mentioned that homosexuals were once root gatherers for witches, hence “faggot” was born. I almost cried when I’d heard this. I don’t know where he got it, such a fact flies in the face of the kind of the “unknown-ness” surrounding the practices of old-world witches, but I loved it anyway.
Clay Kerrigan is a poet, writer, teacher, and ritual artist living in Los Angeles, where he received his MFA at CalArts. He is a staff writer at End/Pain, a copy editor for Litmus Press, and an adjunct writing instructor. He is currently at work on a book of short stories titled Brothers Kissing, and a long-form essay currently titled Notes On World Building.