The first time I read Lord of the Rings, I was annoyed by the anal description of the Shire and abandoned it.
My mother insisted that this trilogy of books had saved her life, and I just needed to push forward. At the time, I had discovered the magic of reading, but I could not yet comprehend how a fictional world could become your home and give you strength in times of need. I obeyed, but it was mainly to prove her wrong. And then I met Gandalf, and Tom Bombadil, and Aragorn. From the second Aragorn the wanderer came into my life, I felt relieved – he, too, made the choice to be a nomad who explored the Earth, told the truth as it was, protected the defenseless ones, and honored the elders and the traditions. There was such an obvious resemblance between us. As I kept reading, I fell in love with Arwen; I faced the demons of Rohan; with white knuckles, and my heart beating too fast, I entered the cave of ghosts. I helped in all the battles. I broke Eowyn’s heart. And, finally, I built a home.
Since then, I have seen many movies making fun of the sensitive nerds who have a hard time at school and take refuge in imaginary worlds. I never identified with those people, and yet, now that I tell this story, I admit that I owe my sanity to fantasy worlds. I remember that my family was puzzled by how often I read Harry Potter; every time a new book of the series came out, I started all over again, from the first volume. So, I have read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone seven times, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets six times, and so on, and so forth. For some reason, I believe that would make J.K. Rowling happy, maybe because it has a sense of magic to it. I would read the adventures of my sister-in-arms Hermione, and her friends, Harry and Ron, while brushing my teeth, walking to school, and also secretly after curfew and early in the morning. With Harry Potter, no matter where I opened any of the books, I was home, and I was safe. I knew the geography of the castle. I studied the main courses of magic by adding up all the information I could find in the novels. I waited for my Hogwarts letter, but never resented not getting it. (Last year, the love of my life had a Hogwarts letter made for me, with my name and my address, and deposited it on my bed – as you may guess, I am marrying him.
Harry Potter changed my relationship to reality and fiction, because it was such a widespread phenomenon that I wasn’t considered a freak for going back in again and again. I could talk to friends about the world and the characters. Practicing spells was a kids’ game. I was allowed to consider the pros and cons of the different modes of transportation – broom, train, flying car, Floo Powder, Thestral. As much as my longing for the Shire and Lothlorien was a shameful secret (I come from a family of intellectuals, and fantasy literature is not favorably looked upon), Hogwarts was instead the first imaginary world I shared with other people. I subscribed to writing forums, where we would create our own character within Hogwarts, and then develop adventures. Real human beings and I were interacting inside my home, and I felt closer to them than to most of my schoolmates. On those forums, I had a voice, a style, a personality. Being a hard-worker, who wrote a lot and with regularity, was appreciated. Being specific about what the tavern looked like, or what the forest smelled like, was rewarded.
My fictional refuge had been somewhat validated, and from there, I braved other worlds and quests. Discovering Eragon was, at first, the secret of the dragon egg in my house, then the guilt and the training with a tough mentor, and finally the transformation from a small life to an international trip across borders. My favorite passage that I kept coming back to was the training of Eragon at the Elves’ domain. He knew much about socializing, fighting, being discreet, negotiating. What he didn’t know yet was connection. Alone, the book in my hands, I craved connection on another level, something profound and true that I didn’t find often amongst my peers. When Eragon was ordered to sit down in silence, to meditate, and to feel the ants walking and working, to listen to all sounds without exception, I felt shivers and shudders. I discovered much later that these messages are repeated by calm voices in guided meditations. For me, though, the spirituality behind Eragon’s new behavior overwhelmed me with hope: it suggested that true magic was attainable through sitting down, and, with discipline and patience, opening yourself up to the world.
So far, I had learnt from Aragorn’s integrity and sense of duty, Hermione’s straightforwardness and perseverance, and Eragon’s curiosity and bravery. In each of those universes, the rules had been simple – good versus evil. My beliefs were the right ones. I just had to grow enough to share them with others and make them win over darkness.
Then, with Tales of the Otori, everything changed. Suddenly, the hero had a million mentors from different families with extensive backgrounds. Diverse magical powers were born from specific paths. Every quick judgment about a character representing “good” or “evil” was contradicted. I was constantly surprised, shocked, and taught to search for nuances, to look beyond appearances. In a way, all the nuances I had been running away from, all the complications, the grey areas, were coming back in the fictional world. The advantage is that they were explained. I could track down the why and how of my mistakes and the power of my individual choices. When the hero chose wrong, I paled at the harshness of the consequences, and then was captivated by how he rebuilt himself and his environment. I discovered that love and identity were worth fighting for and were a construction that I had to come back to every single day.
Armed with this new wisdom, I finally stumbled into the most magical universe of all: I followed the footsteps of Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. It started innocently enough as a children’s book – we were playing in the mud, defying authority, refusing baths, and asking too many questions. Then, we had a goal: it was good versus evil, and we needed to defeat the sinister Mrs. Coulter, and side with Lord Asriel. At the end of the first book, though, the turn was so violent that I had to read the scenes again and again until agreeing that, yes, Lyra and I had been betrayed. The greater good was presented as more important than the worth of an individual life and that conflict has since then fascinated me.
As we moved into the next volumes of the trilogy, Lyra and I understood the necessity of some sacrifices, but also the slow work of time when it came to forgiveness, studying, and even magic. There was something utterly delicate in how she fell in love and how she learned that a gift can be used in many different ways, and that it is up to us to use our resources in the best way we see fit.
Philip Pullman taught me best what freedom truly means and how it invokes our sense of responsibility. He also showed me the delicate balance between what must be done and what we want to do. I felt bittersweet wonder as I read the last chapter and I have never quite recovered. It has been the most intimate read of my life and I suspect it will always remain the most special universe I have ever visited. It is home, but it is also foreign, because, like reality, everything constantly moves: the borders, the power dynamics, and the people. There is a cycle and a stability with rules that cannot be altered, and there is free will and ethical dilemmas. In this world more than in any other, I had the privilege of learning how reality works – its religions, politics, relationships, and even life and death. In many ways, Philip Pullman became the mentor I had always been longing for.
Now I am twenty-five years old and still looking for answers and ways of looking at our world. Every time I walk into a bookstore, I touch the books, read the titles, waiting for one of them to call me. They often do, and every so often, I find new universes where I recognize the streets as if I had explored them by myself in another life. The last one to date is the gem La Passe-Miroir, a fantasy series by Christelle Dabos, and, amazingly enough, her first published work, where we follow a tough young woman, who can walk through mirrors and read the past of objects by touching them.
All I wish you now is that you find your own worlds and magic, mentors and maps, places where you feel at home, and journeys that teach you new ways to approach reality, with hope, humor, and tenderness.
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.
“Look,” said Ashley to Quinn, “you got the breasts. I want the belly part.”
“Fine,” said Quinn. “Fine, okay. So. ‘With his warm tongue, he found her navel again, and—’”
“Right. So, ‘With his warm tongue, David found her navel again, and . . .’”
I pulled a flat, mildewy pillow over my head, giggling hard in hopes of drowning this out before I died from a heart attack. We were all thirteenish and at band camp, years before anyone came to believe that there was anything sexy about band camp whatsoever. Ashley and Quinn, however, brought the sexiness wherever they went, being jointly and severally obsessed with David Bowie. They were reading sex scenes out loud from a novel, swapping in their own names and Mr. Bowie’s respectively. And whose fault was this?
“‘David brought his hand back up her inner thigh, feeling the special softness there, and over the springy curls of her mound—’”
It was my fault. I had brought this novel to camp with me. I had disclosed to other human beings that I had a copy of The Plains of Passage—one of the sequels to Jean M. Auel’s The Valley of Horses. And now they knew, now everyone was going to know, that I had a dirty book—
“Okay, is this the actual sex? We should both get part of the actual sex.”
The other girls were laughing, yes. They were laughing and blushing, but—I moved my eye from beneath the pillow—none of them were laughing at me.
Everyone who forms a theory of prehistoric life must sooner or later base it on what they privately believe about human nature.
Marija Gimbutas was a pioneering twentieth-century archaeologist whose life was torn apart by war. When her native Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, Gimbutas had to flee, carrying only her dissertation and her baby. After her years of struggle and gender discrimination, Gimbutas’s 1974 book The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe caught the zeitgeist like a spinnaker sail.
Gimbutas had studied prehistoric “Venus figurines” —small, anonymous, heavyset female statuettes, such as the Venus of Willendorf—as well as the warlike Indo-European cultures of the Bronze Age. According to Gimbutas, once upon a time, Paleolithic Europe had been inhabited by a race of peaceful goddess-worshipers. The Indo-Europeans swept in with their bronze, their chariots, and their patriarchy, breaking the scattered peoples of the Goddess and, in short, ruining everything. In the onrush of second-wave feminism and anti-war sentiment, Gimbutas’ theories had an immediate appeal to women inside and outside of the academy.
Around this time, Jean M. Auel, an accomplished Oregon businesswoman in her forties, sketched her first story about the prehistoric world. In 1980, she published her debut novel, Clan of the Cave Bear, in which an orphaned H. sapiens girl, Ayla, is raised by the Clan, a band of Neanderthals. The girl’s cleverness frightens and confuses the patriarchal Clan, who are genuinely incapable of learning anything new. Clan of the Cave Bear is now among the one hundred “best-loved books” listed by the PBS Great American Read, and it has become a minor classic of historical fiction.
Its sequel, The Valley of Horses, is not so much as a classic as a whisper among women, a shared secret in libraries and locker rooms. But it is this sequel, together with the subsequent books in the Earth’s Children series, that became legendary among female readers. In it, Ayla strikes out on her own and manages to make a living for herself until she meets another human for the first time, the comically handsome Jondalar. His people—as Gimbutas posited—worship the Great Earth Mother, Creator of all. Human cultures do not share a language, but because they share the Goddess, they live in peace throughout Europe. Ayla and Jondalar learn gingerly about each other’s worlds, culminating in Ayla’s detailed sexual awakening and Jondalar’s detailed falling in love.
And who could not love Ayla? She is the type specimen of the Canon Mary Sue—a flawless, feisty maiden, persecuted for her daring. At various points in the series, she invents horse-riding, fire-starting, the concept of sexual reproduction, and dogs. Jondalar has already invented having blue eyes and a large penis; Ayla helps him come up with the spear-thrower as well. They then take a leisurely three books to travel through Ice Age Europe to return to Jondalar’s people. Each book offers diminishing returns to the reader, and yet, taken together, they offered something that women of the 1980s apparently needed.
At that time, the hero of a romance novel was generally what modern authors call an “alpha-hole” —a cruel, self-absorbed rake. The heroine’s reward was that her persistence would unlock his heart and teach him to love. This is not a job that Ayla must do. Jondalar actually likes women; he accepts them as leaders and comrades, just as other men do. And, like all the Cro-Magnon peoples in Auel’s books, Jondalar views sex as a sacrament— “the Mother’s Gift of Pleasures.” The drawn-out sex scenes are repeated throughout the books, with as much tenderness on the fiftieth occasion as on the first.
The first time anyone else saw me naked, they laughed at me.
They were little boys who had threatened to hit my dog if I didn’t pull down my underwear. The association between taking off one’s clothes and being laughed at has remained strong in me ever since. I got more sex education on the fly from R. Crumb comics and dirty magazines. Sex, I gathered, was a nasty business, premised on one principle: make the joke or be the joke.
There are no jokes in the Earth’s Children series—at least, none that are funny. There is plenty of boisterous teasing, but nothing with actual bite. Something about this appealed to me. I did not exactly like the sex scenes. Even as a sheltered child, I suspected that the characters could not possibly bathe enough for all that. Yet the scenes depicted something I had never imagined: truly safe sex—respectful, reverent, healthy. Auel envisioned a world in which life was dangerous, but men were not, and a woman could lead a life of adventure with a partner, not for him or against him.
Once, I found a heavily used paperback of The Valley of Horses at a jumble sale. In the margins, someone had written “Turn to page 41,” “Turn to page 150,” and so forth. These instructions resulted in a simple tale of one woman surviving in the wilderness and domesticating animals, then meeting a nice fellow. Who gave these instructions and to whom, I cannot say. But it was clearly someone who recognized that the book could give more than it was famous for. Stripped of its sex scenes, it still offered hope—the hope that one woman, alone with her broken heart, could build a full life.
Hope, however, is not the same as quality.
The paperback edition of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s Reindeer Moon was stamped with FOR EVERYONE WHO LOVED THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR! It is decidedly not. Reindeer Moon is indeed a book about the adventures of a young woman thrown on her own resources in ancient Europe, but the heroine, Yanan, lives a grinding life of constant cold and hunger. Her clothes are ill-fitting; her companions are narrow and quarrelsome. Yanan too is passionate and defiant, but when it costs her dearly, fate does not reward her. Nor does struggle make her exceptional. When Yanan encounters a motherless wolf cub, her first instinct is to eat it.
Thomas, who spent some of her youth among modern hunter-gatherers, has more insight than Auel does into what truly motivates humans on the edge—not peace, love, and discovery, but warmth, blood, and fat. By the time I found Reindeer Moon, it reinforced what I understood then to be true: life is brutal, and any men who express interest in the ancient spirituality of the female body are trolling for tail.
It seemed unsafe to enjoy something like the Earth’s Children series. Women’s fantasies are used against them in a way that men’s never are. By the time I was in college, I had been sexually assaulted by someone who was, by all accounts, deeply in love with me, and I understood this to be my fault for being in love with him. I needed to prove two things—first, that I was to be taken seriously, and secondly, that I knew better to expect anything from men.
One way I have done this, over the years, is to make fun of the work of Jean M. Auel. I turned on the premise and the purple prose, mocking its sexiness and its ahistoricity. I wasn’t wrong, but I was also bridging a dark place—my own knowledge that sex, for me, had never been a joyful, celebratory, sacred act, and that I could not trust anyone who said it was.
I have, I think, been ungrateful. Auel offered me something that I once took gladly—a chance to imagine, free from the laughter of boys or men. Thousands of readers were able to enjoy the same peace, for a little while, and to learn a few things from Auel’s vast and diligent research. Every day, I struggle to imagine a simple story that is unclouded by discourse, by the weight of what I know the world to be. Auel could not only imagine such a story, she could write hundreds of thousands of words of it and cite her research. Auel depicted a world that was more than pain, and for this, I am glad.