Ode to Melissa Febos, or What I Read in a Month of Queer Feelings

Ode to Melissa Febos, or What I Read in a Month of Queer Feelings

The month of April is always an extra-queer month for me, due overwhelmingly to one wonderful event that happens in Vegas each year: ClexaCon. I’m a story junkie, and specifically a queer story junkie, so this convention where everyone is so queer and so beautiful and also story junkies is always a highlight of my year. But a weekend in the Gay Bubble is hard to recover from in an overwhelmingly straight world. Nothing against my straights, who I love, but there’s a special magic that can only happen in all-queer spaces, which are not spaces I’m in very often.

So it’s lucky that I took a 3-hour writing workshop at the end of March with Melissa Febos called Written on the Body: Corporeal Nonfictions. When I signed up for the workshop in December, I didn’t know who Melissa Febos was, even though it turns out I had her second memoir, Abandon Me, already on my shelf. I don’t remember when I bought it, but I must have seen it on the Queer Lit shelf at Elliott Bay, which is where I make most impulse purchases.

Long story short, despite how uninspired my writing was on that day, it was hands down the best writing class I’ve ever taken. I wish it could’ve gone on forever. We read from a packet of photocopied readings that was so thick it busted its staples; we wrote the scary body things and read them out loud; we laughed and cried, a group of total strangers guided by this funny, tender, lively and totally engaged person at the front of the room.

Writers can be so infuriatingly shy sometimes; I say this lovingly and place myself at the top of this list. We can get so caught up in our own heads that it feels impossible to see anything through the brain fog we’ve made. A great teacher can draw finger paintings in that condensation and help you see things differently, and Melissa Febos has a gift for doing just that.

So naturally I decided to scrap my neatly laid-out TBR pile and pick up Abandon Me instead. And y’all. This book seduced me. I was totally taken aback by how much I loved it, even though I already knew I was smitten with the author.

Also, it’s hella queer.

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Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos

Every story begins with an unraveling. This story starts with a kiss. Her mouth the soft nail on which my life snagged, and tore open.

Abandon Me opens with such a beautiful, quiet, intimate love scene between two women that I was honestly shocked. Melissa and the woman she’s with – yet unnamed but referred to as “my beloved” – read to each other in bed.

The river was brown and swollen from the rains, she continues. Cheek to her chest, I listen to more than the story. Her skin’s smell- salted honey, the smooth and muscle of our pressed thighs, the lull of sleep and our slowed pulses. They just became one. Just as the desert and the sky’s hundred-houred layers of color and the mountains and the dry tongue of road and the dead rattlesnake we found in it this morning – scaly rope fat enough to dock a boat – and the wide open parts of my chest become one. Enormous.

Through 16 more pages of The Book of Hours, the first essay/chapter of Abandon Me, we leave the bed and travel to Melissa’s childhood, meandering back to the present through Hemingway’s bullfight in The Story of Ferdinand, and end up back in the bed where

sweat gathers where my lover’s forearm crosses my hip, flexing with the motion of her hand on me… she dips her mouth in mine… the book falls. She does not tell me to read. She tells me, Come for me. And I do. There are no more words. I am the rushing animal she has made me: all marvel, all mathematical magic, and music. I am perfect.

Okay, so from page one, we have a wlw sex scene in which literature plays a prominent role in the eroticism; we have water and desert imagery that stretches from the writer’s childhood to the present; we have a classic work of literature as metaphor and red thread; and we have me, breathless, already so in.

I love reading and I read a lot of books that I like, but it is so rare to open a book for which I have very little context and no real expectations, and feel it crawl up underneath my sternum and settle underneath my heart.

Anyone who’s known me for more than 30 seconds knows how much I care about queer narratives in culture. My own coming out process, for lack of a better phrase, was catalyzed by seeing positive representation of queer women for the first time in my life in my mid 20s. Before that, I lived in a liberal but suffocatingly heteronormative world. I knew of no actual lesbians other than Ellen and my aunt, and the latter has no contact with my family for reasons I still don’t really understand. I believed every damaging stereotype of women who love women, and was therefore incredibly afraid of my own feelings, a chain I still struggle to break sometimes.

So when I see a TV show, movie, or read a book about a complex woman (or other gender besides cis male) with a compelling story who embraces their queerness but also has as many other layers as anyone, I glob on. I’m still making up for lost time when it comes to seeing and loving stories about people like me who exist in the world.

So yes, Abandon Me has some beautifully written and pretty hot wlw sex scenes, but my friends, this book is so much at once. The relationship that spins like a vortex at the center of, especially, the last essay (which is half of the book), is not exactly healthy. It’s incredibly obsessive and vandalizes the lovers’ lives. But even the harrowing parts are so perfectly rendered in language that they feel gorgeous at the same time as they are excruciating.

There are many, many more layers to this memoir -- Febos brings us through her reunion with her birth father; her tender relationship with her brother; the loving yet painful childhood she experienced with her parents, one of whom is a sea captain who is gone for months at a time. She touches on her experience with dropping out of school at age 14, and her drug addiction (much more of this story is in her first memoir, Whip Smart).  Even her ode to tattoos, in All of Me, is engrossing:

I did not choose my female body. But I chose every image painted on it… Tattoos are a silent way to say: here are my wounds, my scars, my tender places. We are always doing this anyway, aren’t we? We leave clues and hope someone finds them, will care enough to follow. I’ve never been the type to spill my life story into a stranger’s ear. But there are other ways of undressing. In writing, I find the tender spot and start to push, to peel, to name. Then, I send it out into the world – pretty, throbbing thing; dulled by handling. Look at me, I say. No, look over there, at my image.

But listing off the events of her life can’t ever be as compelling as reading her portrait of them on the page. Febos is a gifted writer, and a passionate reader. Books and stories are her lifeblood, and she weaves a lot of them through her own narrative in this book. I find this extremely impressive, because writing about others’ writing can easily become dry. And despite the dry/wet dichotomy that serves as one of the many themes of this book, the writing itself is saturating all the way through.

Febos shows us her tender spots – hickies; tattoos; holes left by people and by missing identities and by drugs; obsessions with behaviors, literature, love, lust. She shows us her own body, written on like the animal skins of early stories; and written in, like all bodies, by the world. By baring herself, she allows the reader to explore abandonment, safety, autonomy, choice, obsession, identity, and love. And wow, what a ride.

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I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

This memoir by prolific UK novelist Maggie O’Farrell got a lot of hype, most of which I would say is deserved. I’d never heard of her before seeing this book all over booktube and Instagram at the beginning of the year. A couple of podcasts I listened to interviewed her and I was sufficiently intrigued by the premise: 17 chapters, each chronicling a near-death experience of varying severity. Sixteen of those brushes with death were experienced by the author, one by her daughter.

In reality, we’re all close to death every day, though how imminent it is can vary, and how imminent we think or know it is can vary even more.  Both O’Farrell and her daughter live with chronic health conditions; the author’s stem from childhood encephalitis, and her daughter’s from severe allergies that threaten her life daily. Among the chapters, classified by body part and not chronology, O’Farrell weaves her story with her body (not unlike Melissa Febos). With these corporeal vignettes, the reader gets to know the narrator in a deeper and broader way than the simple structure suggests. I loved this read, and highly recommend it to anyone whose identities are inextricably woven into their bodies (aka everyone).

Whip Smart by Melissa Febos

I’ve already gone on and on about how much I love this woman, and this book, while quite different from Abandon Me, is still totally gripping. There’s definitely a lot of insight into the world of kink/sub/dom culture, some of which is hilarious, some heartbreaking, some more than a little repulsive. But it’s Febos’ journey through addiction and learning her own inner landscape that makes it so compelling. And she was so young when all of this happened- literally in college. She aced everything in school while working as a domme and dealing with a heroin addiction. That’s a lot, and I’m so glad she found her way to a less addiction-driven life so she could share her stories with the world. Because she’s a literal intellectual, emotional and literary genius. (I get a little hyperbolic when I love things, and it’s rare for me to connect this much to all the work of any single author; examples are limited to Jesmyn Ward, Cheryl Strayed, Mary Oliver, Roxane Gay, Lindy West, Zora Neale Hurston, and some of my writer friends).

Audio

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

I had heard such great things about this memoir/essay collection (including a glowing recommendation from one of my favorite booktubers, Rincey Abraham). The central crux is about the author’s relationship to her parents and her cultural identity, and then her hetero dating and marriage stories. She’s very funny and I found it enjoyable, but ultimately a little boring. Do with that what you will.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Caitlin Doughty fan so I obviously loved listening to her narrate this fascinating journey through death culture all over the world. 10/10 like everything she does.

The Princess Diarist and Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

I’m not a Star Wars person, but Carrie Fisher is kind of a badass ultraqueen, and champion of hiding nothing when it comes to addiction, mental health, and the treatment of women in Hollywood. I really liked listening to her narrate both of these books, but I will say that the end of The Princess Diarist dragged on FOREVER. The entire last section was all recounting the things fans had said to her at conventions and it got so repetitive and boring that I almost didn’t finish the book. If you listen to/read this, I suggest just stopping after the diary entries (which are read by Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd to surprisingly great effect).

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

This is some high-key lesbian drama, y’all. This novel takes place mostly in the 1920s and centers on the relationship between 17-year-old (yikes) Rafaela Fano, an American in Paris, and the painter Tamara de Lempicka who is decidedly not 17 but is a real historical figure. Rafaela gets totally infatuated with Tamara because that’s how youth works I guess, and they are really entangled (literally and figuratively) for a while. Meanwhile a bunch of men constantly do annoying things and there’s a mystery subplot that happens, and then we jump forward in time and switch narrative point of view to Tamara’s reminiscing of everything that happened since she knew Rafaela. It’s pretty ridiculous and over-the-top but really entertaining, and a queer soap opera felt like just the balm I needed after ClexaCon weekend.

That’s it for this month’s reads! What have you been reading? Any good queer stories you want to share? Let me know!