[Nightboat Books; 2021]
One of the less charming features of queer community in the twenty-first century is that every Pride month a bunch of us log on Twitter to argue about who gets to claim the lesbian community as their own. Bisexual cis women? Trans women? Trans men who used to be lesbians? As a member of the latter group, this line of questioning bores me to no end; as if lesbianism and lesbian community could be so essential, so isolated, so sanitized, or so singular. Instead, I am much more interested in lesbian ways of being in the world, the feeling of lesbianism — call it a lesbian affect. How to describe that feeling? I’d say it’s a sense of being awestruck, lust bordering on worship; it’s being thrilled or, equally, bummed out by your invisibility to the masses; being drunk on the absurdity and lawlessness of your body; it’s building up your softness or toughness for another dyke to love; it’s pulsing-rough waves of intuition. Of course, Lorde said it better (Speak earth and bless me with what is richest/make sky honey flow out of my hips). Myles said it better (Parts/of your/body I think/of as stripes/which I have/learned to/love along). More recently, Torrey Peters’ novel, Detransition, Baby (All week they texted each other and it was breath play — a tiny suffocation veering towards death between every blip of dopamine-bestowing communication) and Andrea Long Chu’s essay, “On Liking Women” (I sat, and I listened, and I waited, patiently, for that wayward electric pulse that passes unplanned between one bare upper arm to another on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday evening), said it better. These are the precious, rare resources I return to when I want to get in touch with the feeling of lesbianism. And I’m thrilled to add Camille Roy’s new prose collection, Honey Mine, to that glowing list.
Honey Mine mashes together linear narrative, poetry, epistolary, and essay to form a heterogeneous compilation of stories one might expect from a key writer of the New Narrative movement. Roy’s prose is rigorous and lyrical; some sentences are so musical and bursting with feeling I had to put the book down just to digest them. “I didn’t feel nervous anymore,” Roy writes in “Isher House,” one of the more straightforward stories from the collection about breaking into an abandoned mansion on the South Side of Chicago. “I’d blasted into one of those time-stopped nuggets, giddy and criminal, yet loaded with the luxury of the pause.” I take this line not just as a beautiful description of the joys of breaking the law but also the joys of one’s earliest lesbian feelings. What is your first kiss with a girl but a glorious rush of access to those things that governmental and parental oppression forbid?
The crystalline, perfectly-tuned prose and charming characters of Honey Mine are more than enough, I think, to leave any reader happy; but for those with any relationship to lesbianism, past or present, this book is a new sacred text. In my particular case, I see my transmasculinity as an extension of my butch lesbianism — lesbianism is the foundation of my transness. The characters in Honey Mine are explicitly not trans, but Honey Mine renders lesbianism as an expansive mode of engagement with the world that lesbians past, present and future may access. This book archives what it’s experientally like to live a life as a lesbian and in a lesbian community, rather than just talking about who is or isn’t a lesbian online.
Due to Roy’s “lived” intentionality, the lesbians of Honey Mine are, in a word, underground: “It was a convergence of collectives, prostitutes, union organizers, drag shows, radicals with history in violent parts of the Weather Movement, and bar life,” Roy recalls of the era’s lesbian community in her essay, “Under Grid: An Obscure Manifesto.” And it is this very underground quality that allows the term “lesbian” to exist in relation to, but not centered in, womanhood, or at least conventional womanhood. This conception of lesbian is not necessarily trans, but it’s not racing towards cisness either. This reminds me of the lesbianism I inhabited as a teenager in the late 2000s and early 2010s: butch and Jewish at an all-girls school, but middle-class and in the thick of the fight for marriage equality. I was not at all underground, but I didn’t like to think of myself as a ‘woman-loving-woman’ either. I had one God: fucking girls. My body was all wrong, a burden; I tried to ignore it in bed so I could better focus on my partner — her body perfect, her pleasure easy. Roy puts it better in the book’s first story, “Agatha Letters:”
Mostly, it’s boring to be a girl. You are a prisoner of your girlish appearance. You can’t get outside . . . I never said no, or yes. I trembled constantly, a hungry ghost.
Reading Honey Mine, and afterward, I’m haunted by Roy’s hungry ghost. I was that ghost: hungry, frustrated, presumedly doomed. Roy’s characters constantly empty themselves of ideas about their own bodies — how they should be, how they should behave, or what they should feel — to make room for more lust, more desire. Compare the dissociation in the previous lines to later in “Agatha Letters” when Camille (the name of the protagonist in most of Honey Mine’s stories) talks about sex with her butch, sex worker lover, Dusty:
Dusty was the whiplash who connected Camille’s pieces. Camille was Dusty’s little hole though which events streamed . . . Kisses leapt out of her throat, scribbles leaked from the fingertips. Her hand floated away from her body and covered Dusty’s mouth, to prevent any of those words from leaking out.
Throughout Honey Mine, the path to embodiment is, always, having sex with women. There is no other course, and who would want there to be? This is lesbianism as I knew it when I came out at fifteen: lesbianism as vocation. Even now, as a transsexual man on T with a sexuality that has broadened to embrace all genders, this dysphoric and worshipful lesbian mood (particularly a butch-for-femme lesbian mood) is the foundation for how I talk, fuck, walk — all of it. I didn’t transition until I was twenty-two because figuring out my own body was never as urgent as figuring out the women I wanted to love. And, from loving women, the rest of my life flowed; or as Roy puts it even more directly, in an italicized fragment from my favorite story in the collection (which is a strange pastiche of poetry and fiction on narrative-as-seduction titled “Sex Talk (With Abigail Child)”):
“What of the desire for another—not to be loved, but to love? Do I want to recognize me in the lover? Do I want love to recognize me? Do I seek to be lost in love? To be its familiar?”
This quote speaks to a lesbianism that doesn’t just accommodate dysphoria but embraces it as a site for truth-telling and pleasure. This is a lesbianism that’s bored with everything that isn’t about lesbians, and generally sort of depressed because we’re feeling so deeply in bodies that will never look precisely how we want. “Life is just whatever happens,” Camille says in “Perils.” “And if it’s not something I want, does anyone care?” It’s this invisibility to the masses, though, that Roy cites as the condition for fulfilling lesbianism’s potential for radical moments of connection and building community. Which is what makes it disappointing, then, how moments in Honey Mine seek to actively distance the characters from any relationship with transsexuals or transsexuality — a given character is “not a man, not a transsexual”, stating “but manhood sounds so much more succinct than adulthood. And womanhood, what is that?” Even more clarifying is a brief, dismissive mention in “Lynette #1” of an ex-girlfriend’s coworker who “started on hormones and grew breasts . . . and asked her to call him Luann . . . when I saw him he seemed unsettled, more vagueness across his face.” It reads as disingenuous that the communities depicted in Honey Mine would not cherish transsexuals of all genders, that they could not relate to our dysphoria or the radical potential of our bodies’ illegibility.
The final piece in Honey Mine, “Afterword”, is a meditation on Roy’s late partner of 36 years, Angie, and the insensitive questions Roy has fielded about Angie’s gender identity in the aftermath of her death. It is of course inane and unfair for others to recast a butch lesbian as trans whether after her death or while she is living. And, in a similar vein, I would never argue that any of the lesbian characters in Honey Mine are trans. I want to honor Roy’s desire to not get too deep into the weeds on “Afterword” (she ends the essay stating she wants “to create silence around [herself] on these matters, not discourse”), but I must still acknowledge the condescension towards trans people that happens in other, earlier, areas of the book. To me, this othering of trans people pits cis lesbians and trans people of all genders against each other, and isn’t this what fuels such tedious discourse in the first place? Arguing that one group is gayer, or more feminist, or more dysphoric, or more authentic, or more radical, or more transgressive than the other? Can’t we all just hang out and make fun of The L Word together?
Yet, despite this tension, I’m still compelled to read the lesbianism on offer in Honey Mine as spacious and friendly to lesbians of all genders, myself included; like with so many other books and movies and TV shows I’ve loved, I’m going to knowingly ignore the reactionary elements and micro-aggressions so I can enjoy the heart of the thing, the big beautiful idea that’s, for me, more potent than the biases. Honey Mine’s lesbianism is the lesbianism I knew before I knew anything else; the lesbianism that saved me from half-living or suicide; the lesbianism that Roy exalts so exactly as “tiny, insouciant, and sharp enough to cut.” This is the lesbianism that powers Honey Mine’s loud, ecstatic heart and — if I might be so bold — the lesbianism that powers mine.
Max Delsohn is a writer from Seattle, Washington. Their writing appears in or is forthcoming from VICE, The Rumpus, Passages North and Triangle House, among other places. They are an incoming MFA candidate in fiction at Syracuse University. Follow them on Twitter @fakejewishboy or go to www.maxdelsohn.com.