Bogi Takács’s “Three Partitions,” and the rabbinical approaches to nonbinary gender

Caveat: I am a close friend of Bogi, and so this is not an objective review (if such is even possible), but rather a combination of dialogue, musings, and disputation.

“The Three Partitions” is story is important for me to discuss, my friendship with Bogi aside, because it combines some elements much on my mind these days: nonbinary gender, and traditional communities and their power to norm and exclude.

The story is set on an unnamed planet colonized by Orthodox Jews from Mars, who are clearly Hassidic, and have a Rebbe – one assumes a requisite wonder-working Rebbe, or at least one telepathically proficient – on Mars. In order to be able to live on the planet, the Jews must establish a kind of symbiosis with the planetmind. This is to be achieved by allowing one member of the congregation, Adira, to undergo something akin to blending with the planetmind, and become the bridge between it and the community of humans.

There’s only one problem: after the blending, Adira becomes bigender, a shape-shifter who can be both male and female.

[spoilers below]

The SFnal Orthodox Jewish community is not equipped to deal with that. But deal with it they must – because the community must help Adira maintain her shape through their expectations. Instead, they exclude – overtly, through constructing an additional partition just for Adira (in addition to the one that separates men from women), and covertly – through silences, disapproving glances, and many other acts of exclusion that ring absolutely true to me as a genderqueer person who used to be on the fringes of a number of Orthodox communities. The women still allow Adira and her friend Chani, the narrator, into their spaces, but this is done coldly and grudgingly. Still, they used to be female-assigned, they appear female-assigned, at least one of them identifies as a woman, and both Adira and Chani use the pronoun “she” (there are no non-binary pronouns in Hebrew), and therefore appearances at least can in principle be maintained (mar’it ayin, appearance, is of primary importance to many Orthodox communities. Something must be not just halachically permissible, but also appear to be so – thus, in the early days of veggie burgers, there were many issues and some rulings to not eat veggie burgers with cheese – not because it’s not kosher – no milk and meat blending was involved – but because it could appear to not be kosher). However, it is not clear to me whether Adira the shapechanger would be even grudgingly admitted without the koshere bsule (‘a kosher virgin’) Chani to chaperone her.

Chani is worried about her friend. She is worried about all the standard things one worries about in such a community. How will Adira be able to marry? Childbirth does not come up, but it should have, because marriage and children are at the cornerstone of one’s identity in an Orthodox community. Halachically though, an androgynos – i.e. a person who is intersex, one of the two Talmudic non-binary genders – is not allowed to marry. Though Jewish Law recognizes non-binary people, it does not seem to allow normalcy of communal and family life to nonbinary people.

Exclusion and cold, grudging acceptance are not enough to maintain Adira’s shape. Chani plans a dangerous trick to show the community how much they stand to lose by rejecting Adira – hoping to fear-trip them in to acceptance. The events unfold in such a way that another nonbinary person joins Adira – Shai, previously male-assigned and now a shapechanger who is bigender, or perhaps Talmudically an androgynos. The story ends optimistically : the community is open to a greater acceptance of these nonbinary people, perhaps because there is a distinct possibility that more and more people will undergo blending with the planetmind. And the addition of Shai solves (at least in Chani’s mind) the problem of marriage – the two nonbinary people can now marry each other, and ascribe to normalcy as historically male and female; perhaps it is one of the ways in which the society maintains their shape through their expectations.

As nonbinary people and readers familiar and sympathetic with nonbinary issues, we might perhaps wish for an acceptance of nonbinary people as normal, but I judge this to be entirely true to form: we are to be shaped by expectations into specific cishet gender and sexual identities even if we do not embody them, and perhaps especially if we do not embody them. Nonbinary options exist and are acknowledged, but the shape to be maintained is a binary one.If I have qualms with this story, it’s that I’d like these tensions to be a tad more explicit. I’d like perhaps to have known what language these Jews speak, with perhaps more play with nonbinary pronouns in that daily language versus the binary gender of Hebrew. It is also possible that, unlike most Hassidic people, they speak Hebrew in daily life as well as during study and prayer – the story is ambiguous on that score, but if they do, there would not be a nonbinary option for them, as the whole grammatical system of Hebrew is binary-gendered, not just the pronouns.

Bogi’s story is not an indictment of the Orthodox way of life – it is written warmly, sometimes even tenderly, with an insider’s knowledge. The ending is optimistic. However, the author – a nonbinary person emself – ended up leaving Orthodoxy shortly after writing this piece, mostly over gender-related tensions. When I asked Bogi for an inspiration for this story, e told me that e’s read of an intersex person who received a rabbinical ruling about a separate partition. When the person inquired whether there were actually any communities with such a tripartite division, the rabbi confessed that such people usually end up not coming to shul at all. This, too, is true to form.

I want to trust the hopeful ending of the story, but I do not. The community only becomes more open to the possibility of nonbinary people when a male-assigned person undergoes a blending. This, too, is true to form, showing a hierarchy of genders within the binary. There is a relaxing of gendered restrictions – everybody is invited to study Gemara together – but, eh, I do not trust it. It is at least equally likely that the community would pack their bags indignantly and depart for Mars, where such unseemely blendings would not be required.

Poem sale, and a future kickstarter

My poem “Baba Yaga Tries to Donate Money” has been accepted for publication at Apex. I am very happy about this! This is a humorous (of sorts) poem about the perils of fundraising.

Speaking of fundraising, this June I am planning to kickstart for an anthology of short, weird, surrealist pieces of up to 1200 words long. The anthology is going to be called An Alphabet of Embers, it will have a cover illustrated by the amazing Galen Dara, and it will be published through Stone Bird Press. Watch this space for more updates!

Tidbits from around the web

Charlotte Ashley’s review column, Clavis Aurea, has migrated from Chizine to Apex. In her first Apex column, Charlotte writes about my story A City on Its Tentacles:

Rose Lemberg paints another ambiguous setting in her stunning story “A City on Its Tentacles” (Lackington’s #1). The City is Luba’s city, a wondrous place on the Undersea where poor people live in carved caves of limestone and the rich in towers of bright red coral. It is a world of sun and salt, music and mystery, and it is entirely a creation of Luba’s dreams, which she must give up in order to heal her daughter, Maya.

It is a very favorable review. It also highlights a certain reading of the story; and while there is no “correct” way to read the story, there are other possible readings. I am very thrilled to have this story reviewed. Many thanks to Charlotte Ashley, and to Ranylt Richildis for giving it a home :)

Goblin Fruit has a new issue. I have no work in it. It’s beautiful! I hope you read it.

Alex Dally Macfarlane has a Tor.com column today, “Post-Binary Gender in SF: Poetry’s Potential for Voice,” a part of her post-binary SF series. She highlights two poems from Stone Telling – Bogi Takács’s The Handcrafted Motions of Flight from Stone Telling 7, and Tori Truslow’s Terrunform (Stone Telling 6) – as well as Shweta Narayan’s Sheshnaag from Goblin Fruit. More Stone Telling poems are listed as Other Recommendations, along with Here, We Cross (a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling), which I edited. I might be slightly biased here. But, you know what, these are very good poems, the column offers an insightful analysis of these poems and so much more; and as for Here, We Cross, I am still very proud of it, and of the poets whose works are collected in it. I hope you take a look.

An audio reprint and a review

“Giant,” my magic realist flash piece about Alan Dundes, will be podcast at Toasted Cake. I love Tina Connoly’s podcast work, and am looking forward to hearing the story in that format.

Sofia Samatar has a lovely review of the first issue of Lackington’s magazine. She has this to say about my story:

A City on Its Tentacles, by Rose Lemberg

There is an octopus in the heart of the Undersea; its every tentacle carries a street, a city, and at night when its people light their reading lamps the octopus shimmers.” The story you tell might save someone. A Rose Lemberg story might save you.

Thank you, Sofia!

Replacing “old” with “hegemonic”

This is an expanded summary of what I said on Twitter (see under @roselemberg). 

Regarding various ongoing conversations in the SFF field, I see, from all sides, multiple references to the speakers’ ages (‘the Young’, ‘children’, the ‘Old’, ‘the Old Guard’, ‘they will die off’) that make me uncomfortable. I am convinced that these labels are unhelpful in both describing and understanding the processes of change in which we participate and which we are witnessing.

I’d like to replace the word “old” with  the word “hegemonic”. What we are seeing is not the “old” versus the”young”, but power brokers reluctant to share that power with those who, for various reasons (age not being one) have not been in hegemonic positions. Nobody is asking the power brokers to give up the power – just to share it. I believe that’s what the backlash is about.

Using “old” or “young” to describe the various sides of this debate is not just inaccurate, it is hurtful. It hurts because it misrepresents that people of various ages are on both sides of this. Young people can and do align with the hegemonic positions; people in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond are working for greater diversity and more equal power-sharing in the field. Moreover, those positions are often not binary. There is great intersectionality in both power and its lack.

A very large issue I have with the label “olds” is that it overlooks that we – the non-hegemonic people of various stripes – also have elders. I do not want to ignore our roots, our trailblazers. What we are seeing is not a generational shift but the cumulative work of generations gaining momentum in the now. This momentum brings with it a shift towards greater acceptance of diversity and sharing of power. While generational trends are certainly there, that’s not what it is about at the core, as I see it.

I am also, to put it mildly, not keen on the “die-off” sentiment. I wish the power brokers would get it and share freely. It is not impossible. It has happened, and will continue happening.

On the other hand, power hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate. Which is why waiting for the current power brokers to “die off” is useless. Expecting for any power hierarchy to not self-perpetuate after the expected “die-off” is as futile as politely asking for the power.

Rethinking, reframing, and remaking the power structures; expanding discourse; having painful conversations and learning from them; forming alliances; empowering diverse voices through opportunities, including publishing opportunities (the more lucrative, the better); establishing venues; creating and maintaining our spaces; fighting for safety in our spaces; and of course, creating works of art and disseminating them – while upholding others – is how I see this change happening.

At its core, the change I hope for empowers and expands our field, enriches everyone who participates in it regardless of age and other variables. This change is already well underway.

The Rotten Leaf Cantata

Today, my poem “The Rotten Leaf Cantata” was published as a part of Strange Horizons speculative poetry issue. The issue looks wonderful – with editorial roundtable, reviews, and poetry. I am looking forward to reading it.

“The Rotten Leaf Cantata” is a divorce poem. It tore out of me, like my best work does sometimes, because I needed it, because it needed me. It contains a few lies and many truths. I am grateful to Sonya Taaffe, as well as to Sofia Samatar, Mike Allen, and others who supported me in the process of getting it out into the world. I hope you will find it meaningful as well.

P.S. The issue also contains a podcast of the featured work; you can listen to me read this poem out loud.

P.P.S. I did buy a chesterfield.

“A City on its Tentacles”

My short story “A City on its Tentacles” has appeared in the first issue of Lackington’s magazine. It is a very beautiful issue, and my story has been illustrated by the Hugo award-winning artist Galen Dara. The painting captures the story perfectly, and I am beyond pleased.

The issue also contains stories by Amal El-Mohtar, Erik Amundsen, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Helen Marshall, Kate Heartfield, and Christine Mischione, as well as art to accompany each piece. I am looking forward to many more issues of Lackington’s!

A smattering of good news, a whiff of controversy

The ToC for How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens (aka Immigrant SF) has been released, and it’s a thing of beauty. I am happy to share a ToC with Ken Liu, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Sonya Taaffe, Nisi Shawl, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Bogi Takács, Bryan Thao Worra, Zen Cho, and oh so many brilliant others.

In other news, my poem “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz” has been nominated for the Rhysling award. Thank you to the person who nominated it! I am noting that this is the sixth year in a row that my work’s been Rhysling-nominated, ever since I started publishing poetry; I am grateful to those who nominated me over the years.

The inaugural issue of Lackington’s is going to go live on Thursday, and I heard that my story will be illustrated by Galen Dara. I cannot wait! Behold the cover:

 

The cover of Lackington's #1

The cover of Lackington’s #1

 

Finally, the new wave of last year’s SFWA controversy. If you haven’t yet seen this and want to see for yourself, I recommend an entry by Natalie Luhrs. Natalie is on Twitter as @eilatan, and you should follow her there if you are so inclined, because she is awesome. I don’t think I have much to say beyond that, except that I was really, really disappointed to see CJ Cherryh’s signature. I used to own every book of hers. Some of these feet-of-clay moments are more painful than others.

Stone Telling 10: Body

The new Stone Telling is here, after a long wait. “Body” is a double issue with 23 poems, and it is especially hard-hittng.

We are now reading for ST11, so if we’ve never published you before, please send us your work. If we have published you before, please nudge other poets our way!

A short post

…to report two poetry acceptances. My poem “Landwork” will appear in Goblin Fruit (spring 2014), and my poem “The Three Immigrations” will be reprinted in How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens.

Happy new 2014, everyone!

 

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