It is nearly too perfect that the French word genre denotes both literary genre and gender. For if Scott Esposito’s quietly powerful essays found in The Surrender do not defy genre, they certainly do reveal the plasticity of memoir and then stretch the form to its limits. Somewhat the same could be said for the author’s own exploration of gender.
In this book, the acclaimed critic sets before the reader a “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to inhabit the clothing, the actions, the spaces, and the identity of a woman. Yet instead of forming these facts into a chronological narrative, he rejects the constraints of beginnings, middles, and endings, and bravely allows for the openness of his own story.
There are both fiction and non-fiction books that recount the experiences of trans women. And you should read them. But I have trouble finding resonances between those books and this. The slowly softspoken prose, with its ebb and flow of emotional tides, is something I would be more likely to associate with music or poetry or a certain kind of literary theory. I was reminded less of Juliet Jacques’s Trans and more of Anohni’s (of Antony and the Johnsons) album I Am Bird Girl, or Barthes’s Discours amoureux.
The first essay “Skirmishes” begins in media res, at a moment when the author has made a commitment to “great indulgence” in the objects of his desire. Alternating between present and past, these narrative threads are woven together by careful descriptions of clothing articles and the events and thoughts that surround their wearing. These items echo one another. In the space of a few pages, we go from gazing along with Esposito into the mirror at an adult woman electrified by the “charge” of her ensemble to experiencing the pangs of a young boy captivated by his sister’s bra.
But there is a language of constraint that guides these descriptions, for women’s clothing is nothing if not “binding” after all. “The tights encased my legs, the panties clutching my hips and my ass, the corset squishing my waist, the bra hugging my chest, the skirt hanging around my waist, the sleeves pinning my arms.” But the first encounter with a bra, both delightful and shameful, also underscores such a tightness. “To actually feel it grabbing hold of my body. I twisted this way and that to better revel in its grip.” Much of this essay unfolds with the touch of fabric. But rather than gesture toward the outwardness of gender’s social construction, the draping of gender norms upon a body, the language of clothing points out the depth of this essay’s line of questioning: Which is more constraining – the wearing of women’s clothing or the denying of them?
It is in the second essay “The Last Redoubt” that Esposito’s insight as a critic comes to the fore, as he writes about Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up and aligns this story of mistaken identities with his own narrative of self-discovery. What does it mean to take on the truth of an identity that differs so greatly from the person reflected back by the world? Unlike the first essay, this portion of the book is propelled with page-turning velocity as it jumps between the trial of Hossain Sabzian, who impersonated the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Esposito’s revelation of his identity as a woman. Achieved within is one of those magical moments that I so love in good criticism, wherein a writer shows plainly that for those of us who exist in close proximity to the arts, cultural products such as film and literature are not merely about life. Rather we live in and through them. They make us, they guide us, they save us. “That film was perhaps the only thing that could have kept me safe that night.” Later, he will find language to live through other works, Hemingway’s and Derrida’s among them.
Throughout these essays, the guiding thought has been desire’s relation to identity. In the final essay “The Surrender” a hypothesis is reached. “There is no amount of existence as myself that will satisfy.” (And I think it is appropriate here to interject that Whitman’s proclamation “I am large; I contain multitudes” skirts my mind every time I reread this sentence.) Desire is often connected with things. We endlessly seem to want. And if I had any criticism of this book it would simply be that I was often somewhat baffled by this desire for the trappings of a female body when I myself find most of the materials of my gender so utterly irritating. Yet there is a discussion of nail polish which brings to light so perfectly the importance of these details. “I did not paint my nails out of a desire to defy convention, and I had no interest in impressing others with my transgression. I did it for the most natural reason I could imagine, to submit to truths that I knew should not be denied.” Objects are not important because they construct gender. They are important when they may be used to reflect an inner truth value.
That all identities are fluid is part of the point. That some desires remain fixed is the other. Navigating the inner structures of which desires change and which remain is at the very heart of this probing and compassionate exploration of all that facets that constitute a self.
I will be interested to see how this book is talked about, because Esposito does not make it easy. And all the better. He does not present us with a beginning-middle-end story that has proper terminology as its climax. “I do not believe I have a story. I have facts that make other facts possible. That is all.” Much may be learned from both the essays themselves and the difficulty of speaking about the fluidity of genre that they portray. My hope is that, by being immersed in this book, the reader also gains a little of the compassion toward the self that is so exquisitely modeled by Esposito in taking his own desires as a subject, while also learning compassion toward those who, like the author, have the courage to reveal the inadequacies of our social constructs in the face of the uniqueness and multiplicity of human desire.