In an interview recently, someone asked me why, in my book What Big Teeth, I never directly describe the process by which characters transform into werewolves. They simply change, leaving behind a pile of clothes like a shed snakeskin. Even when my protagonist presses her sister to describe the process, their conversation takes place in the realm of metaphor:
I sat down carefully on the edge of the bed and tried to figure out how to ask her what it felt like to change your shape.
“It’s a bit like turning yourself inside out,” Luma said, after I tried asking three or four different ways. “Or like turning your insides into a disguise, and then tucking your disguise into your insides.”
“It’s like a disguise?” I said. “It seems a little more complicated than that.” “It’s . . .” She left the brushing and rummaged in the toy box she still kept beside her bed. I felt embarrassed for her. She came out with a cloth doll in a long dress.
“Flip up her skirt,” she ordered, and, still not understanding, I did. Underneath was another head and torso of a doll. The skirt, turned inside out, was a different color. The doll, upside down, a different woman.
“It’s like that,” she said. “Only faster.”
I looked at Luma, in her white slip with her layers of blotted pink and red lipsticks staining her sharp teeth. I tried to imagine where the other creature was.
This missing description was by design on my part, and I am happy that someone caught it. A pitfall of writing horror is examining a monster too closely. Whenever a horror movie lingers too long, in good light, on a monster, the seams become obvious. We spot the CGI, or in older work, the zipper. The fear is dispelled, along with our belief. But there is an additional reason for me, which is that I always want to afford the monstrous body a little bit more ambiguity, a little more privacy, than I think readers will expect.
Ambiguity is the friend of the monster. It is also the friend of the marginal, because the monster, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen tells us in his essay “Monster Culture,” is “never created ex nihilo, but through a process of fragmentation and recombination in which elements are extracted ‘from various forms’ (including–indeed, especially–marginalized social groups) and then assembled as the monster.” The monster is itself a marginal creature, existing on the “borders of the possible.” I would add to that: a monster is right at the border of the human.
My mother used to say that “dirt is matter out of place.” So too, a monster is a person where a person should not be. Anyone who has ever run into another human at twilight, in a place where you were not expecting to see another human (leaning casually next to a garbage can, or in a part of the woods you thought of as ‘your’ property) knows the fear that results from that ambiguity, the monstrousness of our lanky forms. A monster is often: encountering a person where you expected there to be no-person. What you expected to see instead (nothing, an animal, an object) is almost irrelevant.
That process–of being startled to encounter a person where you expected none–is one that I think can be liberating, as much as it is terrifying. It can be a process of confronting your own assumptions. And so I am often skeptical of examining things with an eye toward shedding light on them, making them readily intelligible and thus easier to ignore or to feel safe around. So too: the process of rendering everything clear, of shedding light on something, is only good if you are confident that you are the person with your hand on the light switch, and that there is nothing small and skittering and darkness-loving about yourself. That the light will reveal everything in the other, and nothing in you.
At the university where I teach, there’s general consensus that we should not ask students to reveal their pronouns, but that we teachers should share our pronouns when we introduce ourselves to students so that they feel comfortable doing so, to model the behavior. The assumption this policy makes is that faculty aren’t subject to some of the same pressures to keep quiet that students are, and that disclosing our pronouns wouldn’t put us under scrutiny. We are often quick to assume that we know, in a given room, who the marginalized are. So too: in the world of fiction, there’s a clamor for #ownvoices stories, which can sometimes turn into a clamor for people to expose themselves for examination. Are you really queer? Are you now or have you ever been a survivor of domestic violence? What gender are you? What gender is your protagonist? Is this character in your story meant to be a parable? Of what? If so, you must tell us. This discussion can devolve further into prescriptions about which types of queer people are allowed to call themselves which types of slurs, which is based on an insistence that, say, a bisexual cannot also be a lesbian, or that a woman cannot possibly be a faggot. This, to me, feels like it does a disservice to the mutability of our attractions, our capacity for transformation.
I think that queer people do ourselves a disservice when we insist, always, on clarity and specificity. When we want to strip away the shadows of subtext and euphemism and the deliberately-unclear description. Mutability and ambiguity are a protective mechanism. The earliest queer books I read were not obviously queer books, and there’s a reason for that: they were easier to get hold of without attracting suspicion.
But mutability is not just about camouflage. “By revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential, the monster threatens to destroy not just individual members of a society, but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed,” says Cohen. This mutability is the very thing I love about being queer. I am not bound by the limitations of the body into which I was born; in the dark with a lover, I am a being of imagination, not bound by previously-discussed rules of transformation. This is a strength, and not one to be traded in without careful consideration. By tidying ourselves neatly into terms and categories, we become identifiable interest groups and niche markets. We show them our zippers, and they unzip us with ease.