When I first read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I stopped only twice: once to cry, and once to squeal.
“It’s us,” I texted my significant other, my heart full of love that this existed and rage that I had never seen anything else like it. “It’s a story like ours.”
To say The Argonauts is neatly “about” something would be an oversight of its complicated, intersecting, and messy narrative structure. It is deeply personal yet persistently aware of looming social systems, informal yet theoretical. In just the first paragraph, Nelson references Samuel Beckett, queerness, anal sex, and the unexpected joy of falling into love. This, for me, is its charm. I had been looking for a queer love story that expanded upon rather than simplified what I felt, that unfolded more questions, and The Argonauts became that musing.
The love story is that of Nelson herself and her gender-nonconforming partner Harry Dodge. Over the book, we watch Nelson’s body change from pregnancy and Dodge’s from testosterone shots, their stories mirroring and moving between each other. But the love story is also that of myself and the person I was dating when I read The Argonauts, that of a cis woman with her own form of physical dysphoria (in Nelson’s case, maternity; in my own, chronic pain) looking over the wide expanse of what it means to live in a radically changing body while quietly caring for someone who doesn’t fit into a simple gender binary. It’s an homage to the soft moments, the internal struggles, the steps forward—knowledge that can only come from someone living the story.
And there’s a vivid story to be lived and told about building queer and genderqueer relationships. Recently, at the doctor’s office for an annual checkup, I was handed a survey that asked my gender and sexual orientation. The options for gender: male, female, transgender, or other. (There’s much to be said about the separation of “transgender” from the traditionally binary genders in itself, the distinction of “transgender women” and “women” as if distinct categories.) The options for genders you experience attraction towards: male, female, or unsure.
I want to say that I felt furious for all the identities left in the unspoken white space, wrote in “people of all genders,” proved that nonconforming gender and romantic attraction aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, I felt empty—I already knew this. I already knew how many times I witnessed the small gasp of surprise on someone’s face when I used “they” for my partner, even when that someone already knew I was queer, how many times the obsession with one person’s nonconforming body usurped even the potential of imagining their body intertwined with another.
In the end, I circled only “unsure,” as in not in one defined place, as in fluid, as in genderfluid. And, in coming to the same realization that I had so many times before about our society’s inability to view gender nonconforming individuals as viable romantic partners, I thought of my favorite quote from Nelson: “One may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”
I reread The Argonauts that night, mulling not just over Nelson’s words but others, too. Some reviewers claimed to love the book but rambled on about her lyrical prose and deft handling of motherhood without ever explicitly mentioning gender. Others were more forthright that they thought her subject material was taboo and appalling, railing against a supposed loss of—ironically—family values. Mostly, they reminded me why I needed Nelson’s words: the true bias out there, the anger that emerges when someone simply tells their own truth.
But some reviews were spectacular, embracing Nelson like I did. They furthered her story, uplifted her voice, reminded me that there is and has always been more support than I could see. Black Warrior Review called her “above all… not a hidden principle or a thesis or a construct,” but instead “a living voice,” the face of queer family-making and maturity pulling you by the hand throughout her journey and the hope of your future journey, too. All together, “she takes us in… and she will take you in without questioning why you are there, too.” Because it was never just me in my room alone with The Argonauts. It was never just me alone in this narrative, in this experience, even when it felt that way. There were always more stories out there, more discussion that needed to happen, more people to be taken in. The Argonauts was the catalyst for those accounts to emerge, the one act of representation that lodged the door open and allowed me and others to represent ourselves too, to make ourselves seen to the larger world.
And I reread my old writing, my own reviews of Nelson scrawled in the margins. I had filled the book with Post-It notes and underlined phrases and exclamation points, all written to my partner about our experiences together. I don’t know if they ever read the book after I gave it to them and before they gave it back with boxes full of my shirts and other trinkets they no longer wanted around—that wasn’t the point. The point was that it was there for them to read if they did want it, there for me before I even knew it was exactly what I wanted, and there for so many others, a story that resisted expectations and carved a new space for gender nonconformity and romance not just together but as the same entity.
Which is why representation matters so much: it connects us to stories that validate our existence, stories that open new worlds and make them understandable, stories that show us our common humanity and link us together. It proves to us, in Nelson’s words, that “we are for another or by virtue of each other, not in a single instance, but from the start and always.” That we are here, and have always been here, and will always continue to love, despite everything.