Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Intersex (for lack of a better word)

Intersex (for lack of a better word)
Thea Hillman

Published by Manic D Press

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

“I believe in speaking to people in a language they’ll understand. I’ve got CAH [congenital adrenal hyperplasia] when I talk to doctors; I’m intersex when I talk to activists; I’ve got a medical condition when I talk to my boss.” (“Condition,” 148)

What about when Thea Hillman talks to her audience – whether live or reading? Intersex (for lack of a better word) is a story of, literally, coming to terms (or, better, defining one’s own terms rather than being defined by someone else’s), first with a childhood diagnosis of CAH, then through her own shifting gender and sexual identities, and continuously with perceptions both within and outside her social worlds of family, friends and, increasingly, the interlocking sex-radical/queer/trans/intersex communities of the Bay Area. Intersex, far from being a three-act Hollywood melodrama of finding (or accepting) oneself/falling in love/reuniting with family/triumphing over (or through) the medical establishment/insert autobiographical cliché here, is a radical adventure through narrative instability and the erotics of constant redefinition.

Told in fragments each titled by, and circling around, a single word (starting with “Haircut” and ending with “C/leaving”), Intersex is an openwork text full of better words that – as Hillman suggests – speak vividly to different listeners of subjective and social experiences around the slippage, claiming and shifting of identity. Pieces such as “Opinion” (an op-ed on Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex) and “Already” (a scorching erotic encounter) differently but consistently apply careful pressure to the word intersex as a portmanteau that contains “a bunch of people who have a variety of bodies, some radically different from each other, and even more different experiences” (148).

So, for lack of a better word, the book could have been called Human. There’s something for everyone here: family Christmases and sex parties rub up alongside each other provocatively; school bullies and shit bosses are seen off, years – but only pages – later, by activist community; the ordinary misery of break-ups mingles with the extraordinary trauma of invasive medical encounters. The second half of the book, in pieces like “Allies,” “Out,” and “Community,” explore the tension between waving intersex aloft as a banner under which a community can gather in order to educate and create change, and its inexactness.

That inexactness creates the space for Intersex: for its tapestry of individual, contradictory, telling details that, told with such precision and care, texture a life (Gram’s Alzheimer’s, the anal fins of mosquito fish, Queeruption), and for Hillman’s ability to combine skilfully the telling of a tale and the revelation of its import, not only for people living sex and gender differently, but for what those experiences might bring to the political sphere at large.

In “War,” Hillman writes: “Being in love is the opposite of being at war… I take the war on terror personally because the war on terror is really a war on difference, because my body strikes terror in the hearts of other Americans. My body and the bodies of the people I love are the most intimate sites of American imperialism” (95-96). Thea Hillman is who we need in the battle for hearts and minds.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review drop, anchor by Ben Barton

drop, anchor
Ben Barton

Published by erbacce-press

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Ben Barton’s poems construct a portrait of an individual starting from birth through the course of life encountering lovers and enduring the death of family members. There is an immediate sense of the fragility of life in the opening poem ‘The Re-Birth Remembered’ which describes how the narrator was born alongside a twin who was still born. That one should be taken home to be swaddled and loved while the other is shut in the dark and buried, their fates decided by trivial chance, seems an intolerable injustice that makes the narrator demand that they both be remembered.

These restrained poems don’t strive for deeper meaning because the profundity is there in the situation or encounter. Each is charged with an emotion refracted through a snapshot of a particular situation. From ecstatic bliss “ten thousand sparklers went off in my head” to the pulsing everydayness of desire “I like to watch the men’s crotches bobbing with the tarmac bumps,” the grave humour of hiding from landlords demanding money “too scared, even to piss in the centre of the bowl” and the bitterness of loss/missed opportunities “Another year has passed without you here.” These poems create feelings which resonate and an ambiguity about the choices one should make.

Ben Barton

Civil partnerships don’t necessarily make gay domestic harmony just because a contract has been signed. Although no one actually believes making a life-long commitment instantly resolves all those messy relationship problems (what David McConnell refers to as the “enchanted bed” of marriage), there is a buoyancy of feeling and vague expectation of unanimity between partners caused from legal reform which allows same sex couples to experience something akin to marriage. The happy gay home is called into question in the poem ‘Pink House.’ Small seemingly trivial arguments can erupt into bigger issues and it ends with the heavily ironic thought “Homo sweet homo.”

Like the final poem which describes a casual encounter: “It’s time to go home I guess,” the reader is left with a sense of longing for more. With a new book of poetry and a string of super 8 films in production the prolific poet/film-maker Ben Barton doesn’t seem to be slowing down. See for current events and projects.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Velvet Mafia, Ganymede Stories One and the anthologies From Boys to Men, Between Men 2 and 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everyone Must Read.


Saturday, January 09, 2010

Review: The Phoenix by Ruth Sims

The Phoenix
by Ruth Sims

Published by Lethe Press

Reviewed by Liam Tullberg

The Phoenix is a richly-written Victorian saga that explores the lengths one will go to for true love.

At the heart of the novel is Jack Rourke, a strong-willed, morally-malleable young man destined to escape his impoverished and abusive homelife. The death of his sickly twin, Michael, at an early age ignites a fury in Jack that leads him to murder his cruel, tyrannical father. On the run, he disappears into the winding streets of London and soon finds the home and family he never had in the local theatre where, with the help of kindly Lizbet, he is reborn as Kit St. Denys.

When an accident on stage brings Dr Nicholas Stuart into Kit’s life, the attraction for both men is immediate and, despite themselves, they are irreversibly drawn together, their stark contrasts the ground on which their relationship is built; Kit gregarious and creative, Nicholas withdrawn and logical. Their affair appears doomed from the start, their inner conflicts as strong as those around them in a society in which homosexuality could lead to imprisonment and social exile. Sims writes these issues with compassion and clarity, not allowing historical fact to slow or impend upon the engagement and enjoyment of fiction.

While Jack is clearly the protagonist of The Phoenix, Sims has created a truly empathetic, plausible character in the initially arid, insular Nicholas. Introduced through his fervently religious family, Nicholas’s cold character thaws out on every page and he is a character with whom one wills Kit to share his life. His wife, Brownlyn, is also written with tenderness and not allowed to become the caricature harpy that would no doubt have made the reader’s emotions towards her two-dimensional at best.

Throughout the novel, it’s clear to see that, for both Kit and Nicholas, the bond of family is near-impossible to break. Kit cannot shake the feeling that, as his father had always told him, he is worthy of nothing, and Nicholas is forever bound by the guilt born of his family’s religion. It is within these flaws that their love and need for one another grows and the novel reaches a dramatic, unforgettable ending.

The Phoenix is an engaging and exciting read that is written with enough historical detail to create a picture in the readers’ mind’s eye, but not so much as to distract from the excellent characters and winding plot. Likewise, the dialogue feels true to the period, but is not cumbersome or difficult to manage.

While the story of The Phoenix may be set in the late 19th Century, it’s one of love, lust and loss that is as pertinent as present day tales. Each of us has our demons and it is how we exorcise them that tells the truth about our character.

Liam Tullberg is a Bristol-based author currently working on his novel, From the Darkness, and can be contacted through


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Film Review: All Over Me

All Over Me
dir. Alex Sichel

Peccadillo Pictures DVD

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

In her autobio-stage show Paradoxical Undressing, Kristin Hersh tells the story of an early show with Throwing Muses, the band she put together with her sister Tanya Donnelly when they were still in high school in the early 1980s. Coming offstage after playing a spot in a punk show, the band encountered a fan who asked, “What did you say your band name is? Throwing Up Mucus?” There’s a gulf between what he thought he heard with his punk ears on and the nascent riot grrrl protest of the band’s actual name – but there’s also a truth. Riot grrrl, inspired by punk and feminist performance art in equal measures, threw the concept of the muse out the window with songs that often threw bodily fluids and processes in audience’s faces; metaphorically, for the most part, although Donita Sparks from L7 did throw a bloody tampon into the crowd at Reading in 1992. Embodiment, angst, rage, wild emotion: all those things girls were supposed to keep under wraps burned through in the long hot summers after the ’87 crash.

Riding the crest of riot grrrl, All Over Me brings feminist protest and adolescent vomit in equal measures as it plunges the viewer into the woozy world of Hell’s Kitchen summer with fifteen year olds Claudia (Alison Folland, who popped up in I’m Not There alongside Kim Gordon), known as Claude, and Ellen (Tara Subkoff, a New York hipster who’s in We Live in Public). They’re trying to form their own band, inspired by Helium (lead singer Mary Timony appears in the film as a member of the comedically-named grrrl band CoochiePop), Patti Smith, Babes in Toyland, and Sleater Kinney, who all appear on the soundtrack. Ellen’s a little distracted by neighbourhood bad boy Mark (Cole Hauser, who went on to play tough in the Riddick films and K-Ville), while Claude’s a little distracted by Ellen’s distraction. While Ellen goes boy-crazy (literally, as Mark turns her on to coke and booze), Claude finds herself drawn to pink-haired guitarist Lucy (Leisha Hailey, who grew up to become Alice on The L Word). What seems like a classic love triangle is given edge and dimension when Mark is unsettled by Claude’s new neighbour, Luke (Pat Briggs, lead singer of Psychotica), a queer musician who has befriended Claude’s shy workmate Jesse (Wilson Cruz, aka Ricky from My So Called Life).

Hello? How have you not bought the DVD already? Riot grrrl, Wilson Cruz, Leisha Hailey with pink hair, and thanks to Lisa Cholodenko and Maria Maggenti in the credits… As if that’s not enough, Sylvia Sichel pens dialogue that sounds, yknow, how actual teenagers, like, speak or whatever, while her sister Alex keeps the camera intimate and mobile, like a more chilled-out Spike Lee joint. Unlike the Campion sisters, they weren’t able to sustain their filmmaking partnership, only creating this jewel of a film. Maybe that’s because it’s so of its time and place: a time when grrrls could do anything and everyone pitched in to help. Maybe it’s just me (I’m listening to Helium as I write this) but somehow All Over Me’s timeliness is also its timelessness, in the way that the music brings the swirl of adolescent feeling to the surface.

This is the ur-queer film, way more so (and way less pretentious) than Go Fish – and possibly the only film ever to catch the moment of infinite possibility that was mid-nineties riot grrrl, capturing how it felt to be bouncing up and down in a club full of grrrls in ripped jeans and home-cut hair, comparing guitar licks with boys wearing nail varnish. Claude might be broke, but she has an electric guitar, roller skates, Patti Smith on CD, and a paintbox. Long before Naomi was dreaming of Emily to the strains of Sleater Kinney on Skins, the Sichel Sisters (director Alex and writer Sylvia) were doing it for themselves, setting queer teenage hearts aflame with a film that’s part love story, part rocking soundtrack and all heart. These girls rule!

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at