On unruly bodies and how to cope with being in-between

staff note

“Orient/Occident, archaic/modern, rural/urban, fundamentalism/enlightenment, Islam/Europe, past/future. By embodying the unstable relationship between these supposed opposites, racialized Europeans occupy a heterotopic space: in the present but at odds with what is considered possible. Their lived reality produces narratives that can only be heterotopic in their focus, not on gaining a legitimate place within the national space/time, but on showing its artificiality and on negotiating various spaces at the same time.” — Fatima El-Tayeb, queer diaspora studies scholar, UC San Diego

When I began questioning my sexuality as 13 or 14 year-old, the imperative question was “Why am I the way I am?” I believed that the end of my inner turmoil was contingent on answering this question in some way, preferably with a concise answer. But I found myself caught up in descriptors, with the names I’d rotate between never sticking and always lacking the explanatory power that I sought. Gay? No. Bisexual? Maybe. Queer? And what about gender identity and/or expression? Woman but butch? No. Woman but femme? No. Woman but neither? Or, perhaps, woman who’s too afraid to figure out what the hell is going on? 

I’ve spent six or seven years attempting unsuccessfully to figure out the answer to these questions, and I’m starting to settle on the possibility that perhaps my whole set-up, from the get-go, was flawed. I’d presumed that questioning was a means to some later stability guaranteed by my maturation, and that its realization would be indicated by my finding the right self-descriptor. But the better question was, and is: Can this turmoil, this questioning, ever end? Or does its purpose go beyond being a mere rung on a ladder?

As a brown, queer, Muslim American woman, I live in an external state of contradiction that I consider to be part and parcel with my inability to find a stable gender identity and sexuality to map onto my own body. I’ll play chicken-or-the-egg games with myself: Is my inability to make sense of my own body borne out of my living at the intersection of a supposedly dichotomous East/West? Or, is my inability to own and proudly represent any sort of coherent, self-contained immigrant identity a result of my failure to make sense of something so fundamental as my own, living, breathing human body?

When doing research on immigrant identity, I once met an individual who argued that it was the children of immigrants, not immigrants themselves, who are deviant and dangerous. “They have cognitive dissonance,” they said, because they are caught between two countries, unable to confer allegiance to one or the other. I deemed the comment prejudiced (perhaps a bit self-righteously) and preemptively discarded it. But I later met an immigrant father who asserted that first-generation kids’ struggles with identity merited greater empathy, not derision, and something I’d never expected to come full circle suddenly did so. It was like flipping between the two faces of a coin passed between palms, a truth revealed in the fleeting transition between two states. I’ve at times wondered whether I’ve fulfilled the prophecy of cognitive dissonance, and whether that makes me deviant or pitiable. Or, perhaps as I’ve done with my body, I should just label the aberrant space I inhabit “queer” and pretend that naming it is enough to explain it. 

“I think after a certain amount of lived time — not being recognized, or, floating in between periods of recognition, makes maintaining a consistent body hard … Edge-walking (in an identity way) produces porous bodies partly because some residue of the imprint made by how others see you, no matter how “off” it might be, also sticks, begins to inform your actions, your sense of self.” — Jess Arndt, author of short story collection "Large Animals”

Much of my attempts at figuring myself out have involved trying to parse between the internal and the external, an effort I now realize is trivial. I just can’t tell the difference between the two. And Judith Butler would say that that’s the point, that trying to do so is completely futile, that body and identity is society. “What’s me?” and “What’s affected me?” are easy to ask but difficult to answer, because oftentimes they are one and the same. Different influences overlap in a way that makes it impossible for me to make sense of myself and my body, to figure out what, if anything at all, can be salvaged under the weight of those external forces. Would I still be queer if I was born and raised in my parents’ country? If I were more religious? If I were blonde and white and American would I still be queer? Would I still be me? If I grew out my moustache and body hair would I still recognize myself in the mirror? Would I like what I’d see? 

My attempts to make sense of my body have been obscured and complicated by my living between supposed opposites. I cannot tell the difference among external influences, let alone between them and the idealized, unadulterated me that I’ve perpetually sought out. I fear the consequences of growing out my body hair and moustache not merely because it will challenge my self-conception of womanhood, one that hangs more on the thin thread of convention than any sort of internal consensus, but also because it will embody the unique shame of being a hairy brown body in a Western world. Body hair on brown bodies is not only unwomanly, but it is uncouth, uncultured, dirty and barbarian in a way that has been racialized and colonialized. And even if I can semantically differ between these forces, my fear feels like a homogenization of them all, a general pulse that traces back to nowhere in particular. As Roxane Gay has written, the shame of an unruly, undisciplined body can feel so visceral that it seems to come from within. 

“The world [I’m working toward] would be one where each of us moves from a place that recognizes radical relationality — the ways in which our fates are deeply intertwined with all other things, all other beings, human and nonhuman, around us … What would it mean to live your life knowing that your life is radically bound up, intimately bound up, with those who seem so distant from you? I think you’d have to move in a really different way, make really different decisions in your life.” — Gayatri Gopinath, queer diaspora scholar, New York University

Dichotomies and categories are the organizing principles we use to make sense of ourselves, to identify ourselves and to recognize our allegiances. But, if as Fatima El-Tayeb suggests, my embodying supposed opposites reveals the artificiality of their distinction, then I must lack a vocabulary by which to definitively and absolutely identify myself. I am neither East nor West, immigrant nor American, masculine nor feminine. I am somewhere in-between, but “in-between” is a flimsy descriptor (to say nothing of its inability to explain) because it doesn’t describe me as I am. it describes me in relation to others, in relation to some artificially imposed binary. And “queer” isn’t much more helpful, either, because it describes a subject relationally to the norm, outside of it or as some funhouse mirror version of it. 

If searching for the clear-cut stability of categorization is futile, then how am I to make sense of myself? What language is there available to me, and what, if anything, can I hold on to? Will new linguistic possibilities arise? Or, is it even necessary for me to find that kind of stability? Is a a life of fluidity, of self mixed with everything else, one that is feasible? The thought of an identity that must be considered relationally — in order to be considered at all — terrifies me. Independence is an impossibility that I crave but must cope without. Networks of race, gender, colonialism, immigration, sexuality — everything — are too expansive to ever comprehend, and myself as a relation would be situated as a knot at their intersection. It’s possible that I’d end up being incomprehensible, too. The questioning becomes no longer a stepping stone to some greater, larger resolution, but the answer itself. The idea feels radical enough to be inconceivable, but the desire for some schema, some sense of self-understanding, is enough to carry me away.


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