Flexibility is at the heart of Maggie Nelson’s short but expansive book on queerness, family, and transition. A slow-burning hit in the US last year, The Argonauts is finally coming out this month in the UK. The book is part memoir, part criticism, and part love letter to her husband Harry Dodge, who is “you” throughout. The second person is an exercise in avoiding pronouns, as Dodge is transgender. But it is also a gesture of deep intimacy: “I want the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person never need apply.”
The title The Argonauts comes from Roland Barthes’ metaphor: even as the original pieces of the ship are replaced, it is still the Argo. For Nelson, the Argo is a metaphor for the self, the ways that humans are perpetually in transformation, always made new, even if they are called by the same names. Harry undergoes top surgery and begins to take T at the same time that Nelson is pregnant: “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male’, mine, more and more ‘female’. But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness.”
It is a book about family making. Queer people, Nelson notes, have a long history of “constructing their own families – be they composed of peers or mentors or lovers or ex-lovers or children or non-human animals”. But there’s a tension here, which Nelson draws out: Does being a happy family mean submitting to being like every other happy family, in the formulation of a certain dour Russian?
Queerness was so radical for so long, and now it is (at least in many places) suddenly, vibrantly acceptable. Nelson asks whether queerness, newly normal, has it lost its power as a force for change. And is marriage a kind of giving in, revoking one’s status as rebel, returning back to the warm arms of the option that’s been waiting for you all along: domesticity (and maternity)? “As more queers start having kids, will the presumed opposition [of queerness and procreation] simply wither away?” Nelson asks. “Will you miss it?”
When Nelson and Dodge marry, on the day before Prop 8 made it illegal in California, they feel caught between the homophobes on the one hand (marriage is between a man and a woman!) and the radical queers on the other (marriage is assimilation!): “Poor marriage! Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable).” But Nelson makes a strong case for how capacious queerness can be: that it should not exclude motherhood, for example, or domesticity, or marriage: “nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so- called radical, or the so- called normative.”
At one point in The Argonauts, Nelson recalls a panel with the artist Jane Gallop, who presents tender and vulnerable photographs of herself and her son. An art historian sitting on the panel begins by praising her, and then abruptly, coolly savages her: the excellence of her early work, she says, make it “deeply disturbing to behold the mediocrity, naïveté, and soft-mindedness” of the new work.
“The tacit undercurrent of her argument,” Nelson writes, “was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind.” Nelson didn’t have children then, but she was “enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity.”
Maggie Nelson’s fluid and permissive picture of family making forms a sharp contrast with another book about women and family structures, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, a collection of essays coming out in paperback next month. These writers (mostly women) have decided not to have children in a culture in which, as one essayist puts it, “a woman who confesses never to have felt the desire for a baby is considered a freak.” Most of the essayists have spent years defending this very personal decision to judgmental strangers. But the “knee-jerk quarantining” of the intellectual and the maternal Nelson identified pops up often in the less thoughtful essays in Selfish, edited by the (herself very nuanced) essayist Meghan Daum.
“I’ve never been good at small talk, or female conventionality,” explains the writer Laura Kipnis in what seems like a kind of covert boast. The phrase “female conventionality” almost spits with disdain. “Also, the mothers I met struck me as a strange and unenviable breed: harried, hampered, resentful,” she adds (the word “breed” seems a telling choice). This, I think, is a kind of respectability politics of gender – condemning the conventionally feminine in a (fruitless) attempt to be treated better by a society that considers female lesser. I’m not that kind of woman. I’m different (better).
Another essayist suggests writing and motherhood are mutually exclusive: “No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement… did not have children.” She clearly hasn’t read Maggie Nelson.
The tone of these essays wavers between apology (I do like children) and defiance (I have more important things to think about than diapers). It is difficult, I suppose, to defend a controversial personal decision without sounding defensive (it is idle to fault a net for having holes, Nelson likes to say). And it’s hard not to feel defensive when, as a childless woman, the whiff of the unfeminine, the pinched, and the barren, follows you around like shame. “As a woman who chooses to be childless, I have just one problem: other adults,” the essayist Danielle Henderson writes. If only we could live our lives and leave room for other people to live theirs.
I have recently discovered the joy of romantic domesticity, something I assumed until very lately was a shackle. I like to make him breakfast in the morning, egg yolk setting a sunrise orange while he’s in the shower. Here I am at the end of the day with the lasagna on the table, opening the door to his suit and briefcase. Should I feel bad about this? Part of me feels I should, and part of me is almost sick with joy. Feminism is about choices, my friends intone when I ask them. And then they add: “But I know exactly what you mean.”
You can’t win, you can’t have it all, but you can remember how varied and boundless your life can be, and disregard the voices scolding on every side – too liberated, not liberated, feminist, not feminist, queer, normative – the hard thing is to silence them all and listen to what you want. And then, hardest of all, give yourself permission to change your mind.
As Nelson puts it, “There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.”
The Argo, Jason’s ship, nips between the clashing rocks on its way to Colchis. Like an Argonaut, Maggie Nelson evades the rocks – convention on one side, the tyranny of the rebels on the other – to continue her journey, past the endless imperatives that govern a woman’s life. Past those rocks that, even if they don’t seem to, act in concert. Like the dove that guided the sailors through the rocks, she may lose a few tail feathers in the process, but, oh, to follow her to the open sea beyond – where, no doubt, fresh dangers wait.