A.M. Tuomala

Myths and Morphemes

Tag: gender

Looking Back at the (Gendered) Face in the Mirror

In July of 2011, I made a post about my gender. I said, after quite a lot of irate ranting about V.S. Naipaul,

I can spend the rest of my life fighting for recognition of a genderqueer identity and not account it time ill-spent. I can fight to convince reviewers to call me sie or xie or zie, to speak of hir writing or zir writing, to create a space in their language for a gender that is neither male nor female but instead both or either or neither, and I would not account that time ill-spent. But if I choose those fights, I may inadvertently spend the rest of my life fighting against the recognition of a female identity, and I cannot brook that.

It’s now 2017, and this tension still pulls at me. I still feel myself tugged between wanting to defend the value of presenting as female in a patriarchal world, and wanting to be seen as I am: mostly neither male nor female, but sometimes one or the other by turns.

I am heavy, fleshy, smooth of face. I am no gamine androgyne, just a tailored blazer and a stick of eyeliner away from departing the gender spectrum entirely; even when I bind my chest, my curves are clearly visible. I have the kind of voice that might charitably be called “sweet,” no matter how I try to rough up the edges. Even among intimates whom I have trained for four years to call me “xie” or “he,” I am still called “she” more often than not. It still feels like misgendering. It has always felt like misgendering.

(These traits, of course, are only female-coded. Many men are fleshy and smooth of face. Many men have sweet voices. Many men have heavy breasts and wear binders, and perhaps they feel the same despair I do when their binders do nothing for them. And many people who — like me — are neither male nor female wind up being called by the wrong pronouns, mostly because we haven’t yet created cultural space for the right ones.)

In 2011, I knew myself to be genderfluid, but I didn’t train others to treat me as such. Now, though, it’s part of almost every social interaction. Greeting, hug, conversation about work, roll the dice, correct that persistent “she.” Wait for my turn in combat, roll the dice, have someone else remind another player that my character is a “he.” (So am I, that day. But that isn’t remarked upon.)

It’s exhausting, having to make myself recognized and present at every turn, even when I just want to relax and fade into the background. Correcting people kindly is exhausting. But every time someone remembers, every time someone else steps up to remind people of who I am, it feels worth the struggle.

I still believe that it is important for women to be recognized as writers. I still want to uphold the women who create the art I love, to celebrate their work, to spread the word of their contributions to everyone who doesn’t know them yet. I want to remind people of how valuable women writers are, for being women writers.

And now, six years later, I think that’s where I want to make my stand. I want to be the person who stands up for another person’s identity and says, “She is a woman who deserves respect.”

But I’m not a woman. I’m not a man, either. I’m only a person, and people like me deserve respect, too. That’s also a battle worth fighting.

Naming and Gendering the Author

There are better ways to start a post than with V.S. Naipaul, but few that give better context for my concerns on authorship and gender. Our names have a pleasing symmetry, with his “V.S.” and my “A.M.” His name, though, concludes with “-paul” — that archetypical church-father, that name shared by Beatles and Popes. My own name has the Finnish -la suffix, like power metal legend Tuomo Lassila‘s name. Like the suffix in Tuonela, the land of the dead, and the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland that tells of the land of heroes. It ends with an -a, which Romance languages have trained western readers to gender female.

In retrospect, it was inevitable that readers (and reviewers) would interpret “A.M. Tuomala” as a female person. Most readers, trained on Spanish and Italian and French, had no other linguistic context for the name. Perhaps an avid football aficionado might think of Jani Tuomala, or a Finn would recognize the name as his own or his neighbor’s, but otherwise, who would know? My grandmother used to tell me that people would pronounce her name almost correctly, although it was difficult to spell. “Except they’d pronounce it too-MA-la instead of TOO-ma-la, like it was a Spanish name.” It might be a modifier for a quarrelsome daughter: “hija tuomala,” that ill-behaved girlchild.

I write stories about women, too; I mustn’t forget that. Because only women write about women; men are interesting to everyone, but women are only interesting for women.

As a person who doesn’t identify as gendered, my deep uneasiness with this gendering of my author-self is partly personal. I see reviewers referring to “her writing,” and I experience a disconnect — “Who is she? What troublesome woman has made my writing her own?”

I have to acknowledge, though, that another part comes from the culture of sexism in which I live. It comes from the same place as V.S. Naipaul’s contemptuous pronouncement that no female writer in history could match him. It comes from the same place as Smurfette and all of her sisters, who must always be only women and never the helper or the fixer or the gutsy one or the engineer.

It comes from the place where my culture has always told me to stay, as in, “Stay in your place.”

Well, I’ll have none of that.

I can spend the rest of my life fighting for recognition of a genderqueer identity and not account it time ill-spent. I can fight to convince reviewers to call me sie or xie or zie, to speak of hir writing or zir writing, to create a space in their language for a gender that is neither male nor female but instead both or either or neither, and I would not account that time ill-spent. But if I choose those fights, I may inadvertently spend the rest of my life fighting against the recognition of a female identity, and I cannot brook that.

If A.M. Tuomala must be identified as a woman, I want her to be that troublesome woman, that ill-behaved girlchild. I want her to be a person in her own right, complex and difficult and impossible to condense into an archetype of femininity. Most of all, I want her to be a woman who makes myths of a place of heroes, who are men and women and neither.

© 2018 A.M. Tuomala

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