t4t triptych: the concept, the erotic, and the technique
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
1. The concept.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve often found myself turning to books by trans writers. Books can become wordy wormholes. For a spell, I inhabited other brains. I teleported. I loosened my reins. I became briefly tethered to another. I traveled time.
If you aren’t trans, I’m here to tell you that many of us can travel time. Sort of. It’s not an accident that the Wachowski sisters invented bullet time. Time moves differently for many of us. As Jack Halberstam (2005: 152) writes, “queer temporality disrupts the normative narratives of time that form the base of nearly every definition of human.” Indeed, as Casey Plett’s (2018: 11) main character in Little Fish says in its opening paragraph, “Age is completely different for trans people.” Another character adds, “I wonder if cis people think about their past in the same way we do” (12). We warp time. Or maybe time warps us. Or both.
I want to talk about that fleeting moment when a t4t jolt stoppers time.
I want to talk about that ineffable, expansive feeling that flashes in those t4t moments. It happens when you encounter words or an idea and something unexpectedly thrums inside you.
It can feel like being held or beheld by the universe. It can feel like a secret note has been dropped into your lap. It often feels tied to serendipity and synchronicity. It’s rooted in connection and recognition. It’s adjacent to a mind meld or a collective unconscious.
I want a word for this slippery, elusive feeling.
If you are reading this, I will assume you have a complicated gender. The ethos of this piece is t4t, but it’s also t2t. I’m writing for you and to you.
Perhaps your gender burbles and gushes like a fountain. As William Blake ( 1994: 8) writes, “The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.” If cis folks insist on funneling gender into two concrete, inflexible categories, our too-muchness will slosh over the edges of these unnatural, human-made (and aptly-named) cisterns. Even when we use a just-sharpened #2 HB pencil, our too-muchness often will not “scan properly” on institutional bubble sheets. As Arielle Twist (2019: 29) writes in her poem “The Girls”: “I am the kind of girl you found love with in those dark holes / love that you abandoned for being too much / too trans? too brown? too fat? too femme? too tall? / I am the kind of girl who knows I am too much.”
At times, I puzzle over what connects us besides our complicated genders. Adair, Awkward-Rich, and Marvin (2020: 311) have sharply characterized us as “a heterogenous group of racialized, class-oppressed, disabled, and otherwise marginal figures who should be thought of as a group, not by the fact of their genders but by their shared need to surmount serious deficits of institutional access.” We often have to persuade people (especially people with power) that we exist. Indeed, our existence often feels provisional. We know what it’s like to be told that “we are impossible people who cannot exist, cannot be seen, cannot be classified, and cannot fit anywhere” (Spade 2015: 19).
I’m inclined to say that it’s not our gender identities or our bodies that bind trans folks; it’s the tendrils of transphobia. Or maybe we’re connected by our ongoing existence despite our perceived impossibleness — our shared we’re-still-fucking-here[i] platypusian impossibleness — like the underground mycorrhizal networks that “link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species” (Jabr 2020). As Deleuze and Guattari (1988: 15) note, "Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots, adventitious growths and rhizomes." An ecology of transness with hormones and rhizomes.
I think of signals and cues within marginalized groups that go undetected by outsiders, as when Billy-Ray Belcourt (2020: 8) writes that attempts to quash Indigenous joy are met with “an underground activity, a fugitive cooperative of feeling, a commune of love that isn’t to be perceived by the dominant eye.”
Much of the trans writing that I gravitate towards is imbued with an underground, fugitive feeling. Subtle signals and cues abound. It’s not quite echolocation or murmuration, but there are echoes and murmurs. In t4t and t2t writing, there’s an intimacy and a potency.
Here, I can’t help thinking about olfactory eavesdropping, which involves signals and cues (such as feathers or pheromones) being interpreted by unintended recipients across species (e.g., Nieh et al. 2004; Lichtenberg et al. 2011). While the intended recipients of my writing are trans, I’m also happy to be read by people with genders that are easy-peasy, fresh-and-squeezy. (Some of my best friends have tidy genders!)
In fact, I think it’s important to read work that’s not written for you. There’s something profound about being invited to eavesdrop on conversations among marginalized communities. It’s a gesture of generosity. As Casey Plett has aptly stated, “when groups of marginalized people write for themselves, it isn’t just incredibly powerful and emotional, I would argue it makes for a better book; it makes for better art” (Horn 2018).
So, yes, I’ve been casting around for a word or phrase to describe the serendipitous moment that sometimes flashes between folks with complicated genders. Sometimes it’s glimpsing yourself in a novel; sometimes it’s an aside in an essay that seems to have been left for you to read at that exact moment. It can feel as though time expands and collapses in that moment, like you’re in a Wong Kar-Wai film. You’re offered an attenuated moment crammed with furtive connectedness.
I’ll give you a few examples that may help to illustrate:
In a preface to her first novella The Masker, Torrey Peters (2016a: 1) states that Sybil Lamb’s "novels and zines were some of the first where I glimpsed the possibility like: Whoa, this is what’s possible when trans women write for trans women, rather than a larger commercial market."[ii]
In the editor’s note to We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan 1961-1991, Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma (Sullivan 2019: 13) write, “We uncovered what kind of book we were assembling together from the passages that made each of us spark.”
In LOTE by Shola von Reinhold (2020: 30-31), the novel’s narrator Mathilda describes the sensations she feels when discovering a new “Transfixion,” which occur when encountering remnants of the extravagant and flamboyant Bright Young Things from the 1920s: “humming beneath the high fine rush — probably not dissimilar to holy rapture — was an almost violent familiarity. The feeling of not only recognising, but of having been recognised.”
I’m drawn to glimpses, sparks, humming familiarity and reversible recognition. I want a concept that is capacious and witchy. A concept that can encompass the bursts and stutters of bright and dim sparks of familiarity and recognition.
I think the first time I glimpsed this slutty, witchy concept of serendipitous t4t-cum-t2t connectedness was while reading Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, which is the book that changed everything for trans women fiction writers. Not only is it the book that cracked a thousand eggs, it’s also the epicenter of trans femme lit. Indeed, I’ve been known to describe myself as a “post-Nevada writer,” meaning I’m writing in the wake of this work. I’ll resist the urge to cite dozens of interviews and articles where other trans femme writers point to this book as foundational. I mean, no less an authority than Trish Salah (n.d.), whose book of poetry Wanting in Arabic was published a decade before Nevada, has stated, “Nevada is the first novel I read in which trans women were depicted believably and on our own terms. I should put quotation marks around the last part of that sentence because I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard it, or something very much like it, from other trans women.”
I read Imogen Binnie’s (2013: 5) Nevada around the time when I was transitioning and, a few pages into the book, I came across a passage that stunned me:
She laid it all out and connected all these dots: the sometimes I want to wear dresses dot, the I am addicted to masturbation dot, the I feel like I have been punched in the stomach when I see an un-self-conscious pretty girl dot, the I cried a lot when I was little and don’t think I’ve cried a lot since puberty dot. Lots of other dots. A constellation of dots. The oh man do I get more fucked up than I mean to, every time I start drinking dot. The I might hate sex dot. So she figured out that she was trans, told people she was changing her name, got on hormones, it was very difficult and rewarding and painful.
When I first realized I was trans, I jotted endless notes to try to explain myself to myself. I also delved into as many trans memoirs as I could. Cooper Lee Bombardier (2020: 256) accurately summarizes so many of the narratives that I read when he writes, “Early trans memoir threw a sheet over the ghost so it could be seen. It made our corporeal forms legible.” After reading a mess of trans memoirs, I realized that I didn’t want to write one. In fact, I found myself aghast at the thought of articulating the cut of my eggy jib for strangers.
Several months before reading Nevada, while I was still in the grips of my gender jotting, I wrote the following dot-related section in a Google doc (with a few especially sad and/or specific dots redacted):
I haven’t always known that I’m trans. I recognized my gender situation the way you might suddenly see a shape formed by dots on a page. Ah, so that’s what the pattern is!
Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot.
My first girlfriend wanted to give me a makeover, saying I’d look pretty as a girl. My heart trilled. I wanted to say yes. I said no. It seemed like the only option as a male, to dismiss the idea of being seen as effeminate. Dot.
In my first little ground floor apartment, I worked on a screenplay about a detective dating a trans woman. Dot.
A year later, I wrote a song called “When We Were a Girl.” Dot.
I made myself skirts out of black garbage bags, not knowing why. Dot.
I thought most men would have chosen to be women if they had the choice. Apparently, this isn’t the case. But I would have drank the girl Kool-Aid any day of the week. Dot.
More than once I considered dressing as a woman for Halloween. Not as a lark. I wanted people’s jaws to drop at how cute I looked. Dot.
The holy-goddamn-fuck feeling of reading Binnie’s connect-the-dots scene is deeply connected to this t4t concept. But I also see both of our dot realizations as indicative of something larger and shared. I’m tempted to zoom out and see a pattern within a pattern. Our two dots are part of a larger pointillist painting. (Yes, there may be some serious fractal shit at play, friends.) Imogen and I are two dots among dots. And that’s what made reading this scene feel so spooky and magical: I felt held and beheld by something beyond me. I felt connected. The phrase ‘fellow feeling’ comes to mind, but I need to torque it into ‘fellow femme feeling’ to make it feel better on my tongue. This fellow femme feeling finds a home under the umbrella of this elusive, as-yet-unnamed concept.[iii]
I also want this capacious concept to contain less gendery connections. During the pandemic, I felt as though trans writers counseled, communicated, commiserated, and conspired with me across time and space via the “body of [their] text[s]” (Ahmed 2017: 269).[iv]
For example, Kai Cheng Thom (2019: 31) said to me, “getting out is not abuse. freedom is not abuse. freedom is never abuse.” Of course, she didn’t literally say these words to me. I was alone in my apartment during the first pandemic lockdown when I read these words. But it felt like she was with me in my sorrow and panic. I’d put off reading her book I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World for a few months because I knew it was going to be intense. As a result, I read them at the perfect moment. It felt like she was giving me permission to let go of someone I once adored who had repeatedly lashed out at me in worse and worse ways. It was the first time in my life I’d ever blocked and banished anyone to protect myself. I’ve carried her wise counsel with me for over a year now, and I remain profoundly thankful for it.
A few months later, Kama La Mackerel (2020: 95) shared with me the secret of how they’d built “a femme armour” bound “with respect & dignity.” The concept of “femme armour” resonated deeply with me. One week before reading this passage, I’d gotten a tattoo of an armadillo on my right shoulder to remind me to pay attention to what my body tells me and that I sometimes need to protect my tender spots. In an instant, Kama made the armadillo’s armour itself femme, which altered and enhanced how I saw my own tattoo. I didn’t know Kama La Mackerel, but we participated in an online panel event together on “The New Face of Queer Lit” the same day their book ZOM-FAM happened to arrive in the mail. Ah, synchronicity. During that event, I discovered that Kama loved my novel, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian). It was the first time we’d ever spoken. Prior to describing the concept of “femme armour” in ZOM-FAM, Kama had been performing and displaying work about the concept for years. But I encountered it at the exact moment when I needed it.
Eileen Myles (2017) writes, “The texts aren’t changing, but we are — and I think that changing lens is the thing that I’m alive in.” And that’s exactly it: all the works and words that I’m gesturing to were written months or years earlier. They are thoughts that were fixed as pixels or printed on paper long before I saw them, like light sent from distant stars. But these unchanging texts are changing me and changing the lens through which I view and live my life.
I have a podcast called t4t, which is about writing while trans. I’ve been able to interview some of the trans writers I’ve mentioned in this piece, including Casey Plett, Kama La Mackerel, and Torrey Peters. I didn’t really know any of them when I interviewed them. Maybe we’d exchanged a few messages or emails (Kama and Torrey) or we’d gone for drinks a couple of times (Casey). That said, I didn’t really know them. Well, that’s not true: I kind of did. We share a trans femme fellowship of sorts. We carry the shared knowledge in our bodies of what it’s like being visibly trans in the world, which becomes an unexpressed part of our conversational undertow.
On an episode of t4t, I asked McKenzie Wark about the acknowledgments in her book Reverse Cowgirl (2020: 199), where she thanks Torrey Peters “for wise counsel.” McKenzie told me about invaluable feedback Torrey had given her on Reverse Cowgirl, as well as avowing that Peters’s early novellas had given McKenzie glimmers of herself and how she might be trans. It also gave Wark (2021) a powerful concept:
Torrey writes about crossdressers and sort of explores what it's like for the crossdresser to think about themselves as trans. Like, that's a thing that comes up in at least two of her novellas, which came out before her novel [Detransition, Baby], which is fabulous, amazingly good. And I'm like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ You know, there's also a scene where some characters are having sex and just sort of says they're dissociated. And I'm like, ‘Oh, that's the word for that!’ I think a little abstractly, so I'm like, ‘Oh, I can understand the feeling and sense of that.’
Now I have a concept for it. That's what I've been doing all these years, except for those few special occasions? I've been ruminating on this for some years before, but I think that was when I finally had a concept for a thing, that I sort of had this inkling of, like, there's something I find when sex works, but there's all this when it doesn't. And here's this other concept where, yeah, I wasn't there. I just wasn't present. I was imagining I was the other person. So, yeah, the writing really helps.
Concepts like dissociation and femme armour help us to see the world differently. And I still don’t have a name for the concept I’m trying to describe, a concept that includes those glimmers of possibility and recognition McKenzie glimpsed in Torrey Peters’s early novellas.
What I like so much about fisting is the way a lover’s body opens to me, for me, with me, around me. I like the slow swell from a few fingers, to more fingers, to a wedge, to a fist. I like the stillness that comes when the tight knot of my fist slides into their body. I like how this blots out the rest of the world. I like being the root of the overwhelm. I like how we are connected in this deep way. I like the way it brushes against the limits of what bodies can do, of how it seems to be something we’re not supposed to do, of how it dapples pleasure with pain. I like how it can feel like a visceral conversation between bodies, a wordless dialogue of perversity and beauty.[v]
I want to be held, says the hand.
I want to hold you, says the hole, but I’m not sure you can fit inside me.
We’ve done this before, says the hand, but we can stop if I’m too much.
But I feel sort of empty, says the hole, and I want to feel full.
Oh, you are pulling me into you, says the hand.
Yes, come into my parlour, says the hole.
I feel snug and tingly in here, says the hand.
You feel like a heart, says the hole, but I am the pulse. [vi]
I want this concept I’ve been sketching to be inviting, to be capable of opening to contain pleasure and pain (which often occur simultaneously in these glimmers). I want it to be a concept that can hold too-much-ness and pulsing connectedness.[vii]
Suddenly, I flash on T Fleischmann (2019: 24) describing the scattered pearls from a necklace that broke while fisting someone, writing, “I appreciate this scattering because it helps me think of the pearls more directly, because I’ve been getting bored with metaphors anyway. I’ve decided that I don’t like them because one thing is never another thing, and it’s a lie to say something is anything but itself.” As Gertrude Stein ( 1993: 326) has been insisting for over a hundred years, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Fleischmann and Stein are, of course, right. Pearls are pearls, and roses are roses. They just are. But they can also be transmutable and metaphorical. A pearl is a pearl, but it can also be a dot or a word or a world. But there are limits to language, and I’m already worrying about fixing this slippery concept, pinning it down with a phrase; in other words, shucking the shell (and chucking the briny liquor and oyster) just to pluck the pearl. Now I’m reminded of SOPHIE’s album title, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides, its oiliness, its pearlescence, its inside-out-ness, its playful pun that’s both sexual and emotional.
Emily Drabinski (2013: 94) writes, “Libraries are also spaces of control, and not just controls about noise and food and when books are due. The materials themselves are linguistically controlled, corralled in classification structures that fix items in place, and they are described using controlled vocabularies that reduce and universalize language, remarkably resistant to change.”
I’m a librarian. Perhaps I should have mentioned this sooner. It’s hard to know what aspects of myself are pertinent. My life as a librarian may be another reason I ponder how language and concepts ossify.
Here are the existing options available to represent my transness using Library of Congress subject headings (with a parenthetical date for when each option was first introduced):
Male-to-female transsexuals (2006)
Transgender people (2007)
Transgender people's writings, Canadian (2008)
Transgender musician (2010)
Transgender women (2018)
Truth be told, I’m disappointed but not surprised by these fumbling, fusty attempts to classify trans identities, which often appear impossible and illegible to systems. As K. R. Roberto (2021: 135) writes, "An ideal trans taxonomy should begin by honoring the language used by the people whose lives it is meant to describe, but in practice, this language is contingent upon contexts and dimensions that have yet to be accurately or appropriately represented within library and archival praxis. It isn’t that trans subject terminology can’t fit into a classification model, it’s that the classification model can’t fit into trans terminology.”
But, as Édouard Glissant (1997: 190) has pointed out, there’s a value in opacity, in “subsistence within an irreducible singularity.” Further, there’s something exquisite about our own unknowability, as when Glissant (1997: 192) writes, "it does not disturb me to accept that there are places where my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it.”
Here, I'm reminded of Jules Gill-Peterson (2021) realizing while writing the preface to Histories of the Transgender Child, a book that took her five years to write, that she was trans. But I’m also reminded of her emphasis on “the value of not knowing,” of what might be called “the opacity of transness as an identity,” and the importance of “loving what we don’t know about ourselves.”
Then again, opacity, illegibility, and unknowability makes our existences more tenuous and at risk. As Maggie Nelson (2015: 4) writes, “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.”[viii]
When I chatted with Kama La Mackerel (2021) on my t4t podcast, they talked about the challenge of translating Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish of the Sea from English into French. Kama was tasked with finding a way to represent an ungendered child in French, which is, as they explained, a “heavily, heavily gendered language. And there is no true gender neutral pronoun in French.” One of the underlying challenges is that French is “an older, stronger, more stubborn dinosaur than English, even if the English empire was way bigger” and that “L'Académie Française (the French Academy) is still holding onto that language as the center of that imperial force.” In the end, Kama settled on the pronoun iel, which seems the most widely accepted. But they added, “we’re inventing this right now, so maybe in five years, that pronoun will be irrelevant and that's fine, you know. I'm not attached to it. I think that the most important part is for us collectively to do the work.” This is a good reminder that all we can do is try to find the best language we can for a given concept, recognizing that it may shift over time, as the world around it shifts.
It’s worth noting that ‘radical cataloger’ Sanford (Sandy) Berman (2007) suggested the subject heading ‘Anal fisting’ be added to the Library of Congress back in 2005, a heading that (like many of his suggestions) was rejected. That said, many other suggestions of his were eventually adopted as subject headings, including ‘Transgender people,' 'Intersex people,' 'Dildos,' 'Queer Theory,' and 'Strap-on sex.'[ix] As Melissa Adler (2017: 3) notes in Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge, a book-length study on the limits of library classification using the concept of perversity as a lens, "where we locate 'perverse' subjects, we find that that the classifications fail to capture them."
Swerving away from the Library of Congress subject headings, I turned to a more pervert-friendly tool, the Homosaurus (n.d.), which is bent on providing “a robust and cutting-edge vocabulary of LGBTQ terms that supports improved access to LGBTQ resources within cultural institutions.”
When I searched the term ‘Fisting,’ the Homosaurus offers a handful of broader, narrower, and related terms:
Broader terms: Anal sex, Manual sex, Vaginal sex
Narrower terms: Anal fisting, Vaginal fisting
Related terms: Fingering
(Use For: Fist fucking)
I bristle at the term ‘Vaginal fisting’ because I’ve had lovers who would never use the term ‘vagina’ to describe the opening where my fingers fit into them. The Homosaurus doesn’t even offer a ‘Use For: Front hole fisting; Bonus hole fisting,’ which wouldn’t have ameliorated the situation, but it would have foregrounded the deficiencies of their cis-centric subject term.[x]
All this talk of fisting reminds me that perversity might be an aspect of this concept. Our complicated genders are beyond the bounds of normalcy and seen as messy, strange, and perverse. Indeed, many foundational trans texts reflect and embrace this mixture of perversity and monstrosity in their titles, including Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” (1994) and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (1994).
This concept houses a furtiveness and a fugitiveness, sort of like that cute trans girl on the dancefloor with a shaved head, bruises under her fishnets, and a red handkerchief blooming from the left back pocket of her silver shorts. You and the trans girl share a discrete, coded look, one pervert recognizing another. This concept of ours may leave bruises, akin to the way Roland Barthes (1981: 27) saw the punctum of a photo as “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Our concept also needs to cut across the varying affordances and constraints of writing genres, just as that bruising moment pricks us and pauses us in our tracks. Indeed, our concept may also reflect Sandy Stone’s (1987) destabilizing concept of transness itself as a genre or “set of embodied texts [with] potential for productive disruption.”
At times, these glimmers feel less poignant and just bruise and prick us. I’m reminded of glimpsing what I found most shameful about myself in Torrey Peters’s early novellas. Some of it is seen in her characters’ covert crossdressing and resultant euphoric feelings of “pink fog” (Peters 2016a: 14). But I felt particularly seen in her insightful, painful depictions of internalized transphobia.
Here are three examples of how internalized transphobia appears in Peters’s novella Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, which is about trans women creating a pandemic that turns everyone trans:
“When I first learned the term brick for those square never-will-be-passable trans women, it was auxiliary to an explanation for another term, masonry: as in brick-on-brick love — only bricks get stuck to other bricks. Except what do you do with the meanness of the word masonry itself — it was other trans women, the only ones that bricks could supposedly trust, who came up with that hilariously cruel slang. Brick-on-brick betrayal. But we have to understand each other well to be so cruel.” (Peters 2016a: 42-43)
“I remember how I used to be before the contagion. Embarrassed to be seen with another trans woman, for fear that her transness would reveal my transness and we’d both get clocked. T4T is an ideal, I guess, and we fall short of it most of the time. But that’s better than before. All it took was the end of the world to make that happen.” (54-55)
“[Lexi] had always known what I wouldn’t admit: I had been embarrassed of her. I had thought of myself as too pretty, too high-class and educated, too smart to be stuck with her, except for during my moments of weakness, neediness, or loneliness. I had been ashamed of the ways that I was like her, ashamed of the ways our transness made us sisters, if not lovers.” (64-65)
When I chatted with Torrey Peters (2021) on my podcast, she revealed that after creating the cover for the novella, she realized she still had a lot of work to do around her own notions of t4t and trans women:
“One of the fun things about Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones was realizing that the act of creating a cover was itself a commentary on how I felt about the book; it would reveal things to me about how I felt. So, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones has a dead pig on the cover with ‘t4t’ tattooed on the forehead and it's pretty grimy. I literally went to the butcher and bought a suckling pig and did a stick-and-poke on the dead pig's face. It's not Photoshopped; I did it. And then I cooked the pig, I ate the pig, and I took pictures of it, y'know, to make little art things throughout the book. And when I was done, I was like, 'This doesn't feel like an homage to t4t.' Some people took it as an homage, but if I was to say t4t as an homage, I wouldn't put it on the face of a dead pig - like, a dead animal in the first place, and, of all the animals, a dead pig. And I was like, 'Oh, I have more complicated feelings about trans girl sociality and punk ethos and stuff like that. This revealed something to me. I had a sort of slogan I learned that I was supposed to say, but the fact that this felt like the way that I wanted to express it visually taught me something."
Sometimes we will write something and see these glimmers rippling in our own work. Sometimes those ripples will be bruises that tell us we still have work to do. And sometimes these ripples will uncover things that weren’t quite within our grasp before they spilled onto the page, as when Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (2020: 251) writes, “Isn’t this the point of writing — the gasp of recognition, the recognition of the gasp?”
As a librarian, I may tilt towards connection more than most folks. As the librarian Bunny Watson (played by Katherine Hepburn) says in the film Desk Set (1957), “I associate many things with many things.” I worry that perhaps I’m finding phantom patterns. There’s a word for that feeling when you see connections that don’t exist: pareidolia.
But the more I contemplate this, the more I see that this isn’t a case of pareidolia. I’ve seen too many conceptual dots, an entire “constellation of dots” (Binnie 2013: 5). And I’ve had readers point to portions of my novel that pricked them, bruised them, felt poignant to them, scenes that felt like secret notes dropped into their laps.
In fact, Autostraddle published a conversation between Drew Gregory and Abeni Jones about my novel yesterday. (Yes, that’s right: yesterday. My novel came out a year and a half ago.) Gregory and Jones are both trans women writers and a number of t4t glimmers surfaced in their conversation. Towards the end of their chat, Abeni says (Gregory 2021), “You know, I was just looking over our convo, and I started by saying, ‘I didn’t see much of myself in the protagonist,’ but actually … I see a lot of myself in the protagonist. And I think in the same way that others are unknowable, so are we ourselves." Looking more widely at trans femme writers, Drew (Gregory 2021) states, "Reading good fiction by trans women has made me realize so many of my ‘why am I like this??’ things are connected to my transness. That I’m not actually that unique, that alone. That so many of us deal with similar problems and have similar feelings even if the specifics of our lives vary. It’s really comforting."
And these serendipitous and synchronous t4t moments keep happening in texts and in real life. When I’d nearly finished the first draft of this piece, I messaged another trans writer to see if she’d take a look at it. I knew at least a dozen other trans writers better than I knew her, and we’d never exchanged work before. But for some reason, I knew that she was who I should reach out to for feedback. She messaged back, “Omg Hazel, you are on a brain wavelength with me! There’s a three poem section in the book I’m working on called ‘t4t triptych,’ so I feel like I’m already with you on that gut feeling.”
Pamphila was a Greek encyclopedist from the first century. Her main work was called Historical Notes, a 33-volume encyclopedia that she said included everything noteworthy her husband and other men had said in her presence. She organized the entries based on when she heard them because she felt that structure would be more pleasing than imposing order. Pamphila described her method of organizing her books as ‘poikilia,’ which suggests weaving or embroidery (Adler 2019: 67-70). Anne Carson (Sappho 2003: 357) has defined ‘poikilia’ as “many-colored, spotted, dappled, variegated, intricate, embroidered, inlaid, highly wrought, complicated, changeful, diverse, abstruse, ambiguous, subtle.”
Poikilia also contains a sense of femininity, changeability and illegibility. Indeed, poikilia figures prominently “in accounts of feminine deception" (Lather 2016: 90). In addition, its “varied, glistening, and durable radiance" (Grand‐Clément 2015: 410) in “armor can inspire terror or wonder as well as enhance the beauty of its wearer" (Lather 2016: 55). Here, I’m reminded of the concept of “femme armour” (La Mackerel 2020: 95), as well as Kama La Mackerel (2021) telling me that “having physically, viscerally worked with textiles,” they wanted with their book ZOM-FAM “to bring that feeling into the text and think of the text as a form of textual and textural weaving.”
And now I hear Édouard Glissant (1997: 190) reminding me that “Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.” It’s the texture and the variegatedness of poikilia that makes it so difficult to reduce and to apprehend; it’s allusiveness and its elusiveness are found in “the inlaying and juxtaposition of varied materials, the organizing of patterns, or the meshing of colored threads” (Grand‐Clément 2015: 410). Indeed, Melissa Adler (2019: 69) has observed how “the expansiveness and slipperiness of the term makes it a rather queer concept.”[xi]
Poikilia can also describe creatures whose appearances are hard to read, such “snakes whose bodies are covered with rings and scales, birds with a variegated plumage, and animals with a mottled coat, such as the fawn or the panther" (Grand‐Clément 2015: 407). Because of its unknowableness and inscrutability, "poikilia contributed to the visual experience of feminine adornment and how it triggers erotic desire" (Lather 2016: 81). Many people, particularly men, often see its combination of femininity, unknowability, beauty, cunning, and changeability as terribly threatening. For example, Plato didn’t trust its “shimmering, tantalizing façade” (Lather 2016: 212). This underlying femme mystery often provokes an urge for masc mastery. Julietta Singh (2018: 34) has articulated “the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonial practice framed precisely and most effectively through the mastering of the female body. This body reflected for the colonizer a barbarous patriarchy that itself needed to be brought to full submission.” Unsurprisingly, I see a connection between how trans women are currently perceived and poikilia’s ancient associations with femininity, too-much-ness, changeability, and deceptiveness.
As a woman writer who wrote a queer novel in the form of an encyclopedia, I feel compelled to comment on how strangely familiar Pamphila and her organizational method of poikilia feel to me. I see her as a femme encyclopedist ancestor who wrote in a way that resembled weaving. The narrative of Vivian and Zelda in my novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) was written by tugging at threads in the surrounding encyclopedia entries. For example, the twitching tail of a horse named Inky is mentioned in an encyclopedia entry, which segues into Zelda’s discovery of Vivian’s collection of butt plugs, including two with bushy tails (Plante 2019: 87-88). Indeed, I just realized that Inky is a “piebald horse” (87). ‘Piebald,’ of course, is synonymous with the first four words Anne Carson (Sappho 2003: 357) listed in her definition of ‘poikilia’: “many-colored, spotted, dappled, variegated.”
Even my method for writing this essay about a slippery t4t concept feels rooted in this weaving, as I seek to draw connections, to “associate many things with many things,” to connect “a constellation of dots.” It’s not surprising that poikilia’s "Indo‐European root, *peik‐/pik‐,” means “‘to prick, to mark,’ ‘to cut, to incise’” (Grand‐Clément 2015: 406). It is a method that pricks us, that bruises us, that feels poignant to us. As Eva Hayward notes on her methodology for writing “Lessons from a Starfish” (2013: 179), “I am not creating a new narrative; rather, I’m simply pulling at the stitches of ongoing processes. I am not here to confess, but to confect; I bear witness through relating.”
And perhaps we arrive back at how time bends for trans folks or how we are bent by time. In that frozen moment of frisson and recognition, we feel held and beheld. And I find myself still want a name for that elusive, serendipitous moment, a way to express an expansive concept that is slutty, witchy, open, swervy. perverse, and connective. A name for the thrumming thing that happens in t4t interstices. A name for that bruising, poignant dappled t4t flutter.
And perhaps the phrase ‘dappled flutter’ gestures at this fleeting, expansive concept. The word ‘dappled’ suggests many of the associations with ‘poikilia’; it is slippery, variegated, complicated, changeable, and inscrutable. Its meaning stems from dots and conveys multiplicity and irreducibility. And ‘flutter’ suggests a feeling (e.g., the flutter of butterflies in your stomach) and temporality (e.g., the ‘wow and flutter’ of a turntable’s frequency wobble, the flutter of an eyelash).
And, just like that, after tumbling through time and an array of trans texts, I’ve found at a phrase that – for me at least – perhaps points to that ineffable dappled t4t flutter.
2. The erotic.
At the start of 2020, I decided to write a short story to submit to an anthology of trans smut. (If you are unfamiliar with the language and dynamics of publishing, it’s definitely got a D/s vibe. Prepare to submit.) The anthology was a follow-up to Nerve Endings: The New Trans Erotic, a book Tobi Hill-Meyer (2017: xi) edited “because sexuality is such a charged subject for trans people. For one, sexualized transphobia is used to deny our rights, alternatively painting us as either threateningly hypersexual or pityingly impotent. But although our experiences around sex are such a critical part of our oppression, they’re also a critical part of our liberation. The greatest sources of our trauma can also be our greatest sites of healing.” Even though I hadn’t written any short fiction in years (and had never really tried my hand at writing smut), I knew I was going to try to whip up some smut for this anthology.
Around the same time, I reread Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which reaffirmed the importance of infusing my work with joy and pleasure. The bodies of trans women are so often depicted as scary and undesirable. Fuck that. As Lorde (2007: 57) writes, “Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.” Lorde likens the erotic to the small, concentrated dot of yellow that could be spread through a packet of margarine to give it color, writing “I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience” (57). While writing that short story, I found myself wanting to suffuse my life and my art with shameless erotic energy.
At some point, I found myself writing a new novel, which was increasingly flooded with sex scenes. When it started to feel a tad excessive, John Elizabeth Stintzi (2020: 77) reminded me via their novel Vanishing Monuments: “One thing I’ve learned about art,” they said to me, “is that whenever you see smoke, you should chase it to the fire before the fuel is gone.” I took this wise counsel to heart and realized that, while I wasn’t sure why there was so much trans smut in my novel-in-progress, I needed to keep following that smutty smoke before the fire went out.
One of the things that I want to do in my work is to show the everydayness of trans women giving and receiving pleasure with and through their bodies. I want to see flawed characters living their lives. In the second half of my next novel, the narrator is a trans femme musician named Tracy who leaves town to deal with a fucked-up romantic breakup. We see her texting with her friends, writing songs, talking to her therapist, hanging out with folks, having sex. I really wanted to see Tracy healing through sex, especially sex with other trans women. And I wanted the sex to be shameless and rooted in pleasure. I’m reminded of a song by the band Wares called “Surrender Into Waiting Arms.”[xii] I adore this song. It speaks to a desire that I have for shameless pleasure, safety, and surrender. The entire song resonates deeply for me (including the majestic instrumental sections), but the following lines feel particularly apt today: “Drop my shade of innocence, / I'll take no shame when I ask for it. / Won't you ask for what you will?” One of the best experiences in the world is being able to ask a lover for what you want without shame.
To a certain extent, I’m writing to conjure a world that I wish existed, a world where trans women can love and fuck without being bogged down by shame and (internal and external) transphobia.[xiii] I long for stories that show trans women as hilarious, smart, and messy, not to mention desirable, loveable, and fuckable. The scene from my novel-in-progress that I’ve included below between Tracy (the narrator) and Luna feels like it’s in that realm.
I met Luna for our first date in a coffee shop. Our chemistry was fizzy as fuck. Her playfulness and toppy energy undid me. Before long, we were back at her place, my clothing strewn from her front door to her bedroom. She made it clear that she didn’t want to be touched in certain places or in certain ways. (It’s always refreshing when a new lover can be open about what they do or don’t want, instead of having to sort things out by trial and error.) In the blink of an eye, I felt myself opening up to her as she eased a wet finger into me, felt her ever-so-slowly stroking me inside, felt myself start to pulsate with want.
I felt swoony, like a chaste woman in a Victorian novel being seduced by a mysterious stranger with a crooked smile and a sultry voice. She kissed the tingly spot near my ear. She said softly and slowly, How do you want me to fuck you?
I settled back into myself. Oh, I said. I hesitated. Well, um, how would you feel about wearing a harness?
I’d feel great about it, but I’m not sure how my aubergine will feel about it. Depends on the harness.
She’d already told me she wanted me to refer to her genitals as her aubergine. Another lover had come up with the term and she adored it. What’s not to love about the slippery soft sound of the French word for eggplant?
She slid her finger out of my cunt, and I dug out my leather harness, along with a dildo.
I totally get it if this doesn’t work for you or your aubergine, I said. My harness can be a bit fiddly, but it’s pretty good for all sorts of anatomies. We’ll see. And this. This is a special dildo. It comes from a mould of my aubergine before I got a pussy.
Oh, fuck! Are you serious?! I love that!
I had an artist friend make a mould and I got a bunch of them made up. It’s cool, right?
So fucking cool! Wow! Now I really wanna fuck you with it.
Luna stepped into the harness and started cinching the straps. This was clearly not her first strap-on rodeo. Her rounded tummy looked really hot above the leather straps and the dildo. She used one of her fingers to pull down the head of the dildo before letting it go. It sprang up and she laughed. Boing! she said. This is fun! The harness feels good. You look so hot lying on your back like that. Do you want me to fuck you?
Uh huh. And, like that, she was cupping my cunt. Then, she was sliding a finger inside me. And now two fingers. I could feel the dil against my leg.
She went down on me for a while before kneeling and resting the head of the dil against my pussy. How’s this? she asked. I nodded enthusiastically, grinding myself against her. Do you want some lube? I shook my head. She laughed. Yeah, she said, you seem pretty wet. I was getting impatient to be fucked. I said, Can you just, uh —
And then, I felt her sliding in and filling me. Oh, fuck. I felt myself opening up for her. She pinned my hands above my head. Oh, fuck. I felt her weight as she started moving in and out of me. Oh, goddamn oh fucking goddamn. I adjusted myself so she could fuck me a bit deeper. I wrapped my legs around hers. She let go of my hands, held herself aloft, somehow managed to take one of my nipples into her mouth, biting me gently. I imagined her standing in front of me, imagined kissing her aubergine from its base to its head, imagined taking it into my mouth, sliding my tongue along the underside to that soft, sensitive spot near the head. I remembered how amazing it felt sometimes to have my aubergine inside a lover’s warm wet mouth. I reached down and applied a little pressure to my clit with my middle finger and started toggling back and forth, back and forth. Oh fuck, oh fuck. Luna started fucking me harder. I looked up and she was grinning down at me. I pulled her on top of me so I could feel her weight bearing down on me as I came.
Afterwards, she undid the straps and dropped the harness and dildo on the floor. I did all the work, she said, so I think you can wash that. I laughed. I can do that, I said. Can you hold me now? I pressed my back up against her and she spooned me, cupping one of my breasts. I loved that, I said. She dotted my back with kisses. Mmm hmm, she murmured.
Do you know Bailey Jay? Luna asked.
Do you know Bailey Jay? she asked again. She does porn.
Oh, right. Yeah. Kinda. Not personally. But, yeah. Why?
I was just thinking about something she tweeted. She said something about how much CBT had helped her. And then she had a follow-up tweet, explaining that when she said CBT had helped her, she meant cognitive behavioral therapy, not cock and ball torture.
I laughed. Wow, so random. Why were you thinking about that?
I dunno. We were talking about trauma earlier.
I think she also said that if cock and ball torture helped other people that was cool, but it wasn’t the kind of CBT that did wonders for her.
That was good of her. I removed Luna’s hand from my breast, kissed it, and put it back in place. What can I do for you? I asked. What would feel good for you? I turned my head slightly to try to make eye contact.
Um. Well, I kind of like being muffed. I can do it to myself or you can help, if you want.
Oh, right. Yeah, I’m down to help. I turned on my side to face her. You’ll have to remind me. It’s been a while.
She rolled onto her back. I watched as she slowly slid a finger into one of her sockets. She started moving her finger. She moaned. Parts of my brain lit up. I used to fuck myself that way sometimes and had even taught a lover or two how to muff me. I distantly remembered there was often a mixture of pain and pleasure that came from being fucked in my sockets. But I also derived a distinct trans femme joy from being penetrated there. I remembered one cis femme in particular who had a holy-fuck-this-is-so-amazing-and-hot response when I showed her how to finger my sockets.
Luna slid her finger out and asked me if I was game to try fingering both her holes.
Yes! I said. I’m in. Or I’ll be in soon. I laughed. She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
Just fuck me, she said.
She talked me through it as I fitted my fingers into the sockets on either side of her aubergine.
Oh, that’s good, she said. Just. Uh huh. Oh, god.
It was coming back to me. Like riding a bike, except with orifices and orgasms.
Hey, I said, where are you? Are you in your body?
Mmm? Yes, I’m here, Luna said.
Oh, good. This is nice.
We were spooning. She was small spoon, even though she had a few inches on me. I kept glancing down at the stray hair spilling out of her armpit. I was reminded of the cover for Patti Smith’s Easter, where she’s raising one of her arms to reveal a small nest of hair in her armpit. In retrospect, that’s the one spot where I regret getting laser because a thatch of armpit hair on a femme is actually really hot. It offsets the softness.
Luna squeezed my hand, which was cupping one of her breasts and pushed her ass against me.
I feel super calm here with you, I said. All soft and shimmery.
Yes, she said. So nice. She paused. I think I snore.
Oh, okay. Me too. I kissed her shoulder. I think I do too. At least that’s what I’ve heard.
The novel-in-progress that includes the scene above started tumbling out of me in mid-March 2020, shortly after the first Covid-19 lockdown where I live. I just looked back at earlier drafts of my manuscript to pinpoint the moment when this scene started to germinate.
Here’s a quick timeline of stray notes to myself that coalesced into this scene:
1) April 29: “She had a dildo made of her aubergine? Multiples? Gave one to her lover?”
2) May 5: “Muffing. Thatch of armpit hair.”
3) August 8: “Heather. Luna? (her own dil; aubergine; muffing; etc.)”
4) August 23: “Luna. (toppy; T’s own dil; aubergine, but she doesn’t want it to be touched; muffing; etc.); Bailey Jay + CBT tweet?”
1) I liked the idea of Tracy (i.e., the narrator; ‘T’ in the fourth note above) calling her genitals an ‘aubergine,’ but that felt like a placeholder, something I’d circle back to as the story unfolded. At some point, I decided she’d gotten a dildo made from an impression of her cock before she had vaginoplasty, probably because I now wish I’d had this done.
2) My previous novel included a muffing scene in its earliest drafts, but I cut it in while overhauling the book because it felt wrong. (In the end, I decided not to mention any of the trans characters’ genitals. I wanted to leave it indeterminate because it wasn’t important to the story. I also wanted to leave a lot of gaps in that novel because it was already overflowing with ideas.) But I knew this novel would include at least one muffing scene.
3) Initially, the trans girl with Tracy in this scene was called Heather, but I never loved that name for her. Over time, she became Luna, who used the term ‘aubergine’ to describe her genitals.
4) Eventually, I saw Luna more clearly. Her goofy toppiness, her disinterest in having her aubergine touched, that she enjoyed being muffed, that she might bring up a tweet by Bailey Jay that floated into her mind while cuddling with Tracy after they’d fucked.
When I wrote this scene over the course of a few days towards the end of August 2020, I tried to let it unfold the way it wanted to unfold. That may sound witchy and weird, but it’s also true. The best writing I’ve done in the last few years has happened when I’ve opened myself up and listened to what characters want, how they talk, how they interact with one another. I watched Tracy tilt towards Luna with desire. I saw Luna’s eyes light up when Tracy introduced her custom dil. I felt Luna’s discomfort at how harnesses sometimes rubbed uncomfortably against her aubergine. I watched Luna fuck Tracy. I noticed that Tracy automatically adopted the word ‘aubergine’ for the entire time she was with Luna, even when she was just thinking about Luna’s genitals.
While writing the novel, I remembered seeing that tweet about CBT from Bailey Jay. It kept coming back to me, so I made a note about it. When Luna mentioned that tweet to Tracy, I suddenly realized that she was introducing a mess of ideas to their post-coital chat, including social media, trans porn, cognitive behavioral therapy, kink, and trauma. I knew that I didn’t want Luna and Tracy to unpack all of those things; I just wanted to watch how this quiet moment between two trans femmes would unfold.
Writing the muffing scene, I flashed on showing a cis partner how to muff me. As I visualized fitting my fingers into another trans woman’s sockets, I thought about the knowledge of pain and pleasure that we hold in our bodies.[xiv] I sensed regions of my brain lighting up as I remembered how it felt to be muffed.
After writing the sentence “Like riding a bike, except with orifices and orgasms,” I knew I had to jump ahead to the final moment between Tracy and Luna. I wanted that moment to be tender and for them to mention being in their bodies. I wanted to convey that they were both spent and satisfied and comfy. I also wanted to thread tiny details from my experiences as a trans woman giving and receiving pleasure through my body, in part because I thought trans femme readers might glimpse themselves in these dappled t4t flutters.[xv]
Now, I notice that the acronym for dappled t4t flutter is DTF. But, of course, it is. After all, so many of us come to transness through glimmers and flutters flowing from sex. I glance at a stack of books in front of me and spot at least three recent titles by trans women that tie realizations of their transness to sex or porn: Andrea Long Chu’s Females (2019), McKenzie Wark’s Reverse Cowgirl (2020), and Ana Valens’ Tumblr Porn (2020).
3. The technique.