Silence and the Next Generation

Yesterday, I completed my first reading of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s translation of Silence, a thirteenth-century French-language romance by one Heldris of Cornwall. The romance charts the story of Silentius/ia, a person of fluctuating gender presentation and identity. S/he is born to royal parents who decide to present their child as a boy to the kingdom. The reigning monarch has forbade women from inheriting property in his land, and so it behooves the child to present as a man. The narrator is aware of a possible contradiction between identity and presentation, referring to Silentius/ia (often simply referred to as Silence) as “the boy who was a girl” and variations thereof. The narrator switches between he/him and she/her pronouns for Silence whenever (presumably) he thinks it appropriate. This manifests when the child, having entered puberty, becomes the subject of a spirited debate between Nature and Nurture, both allegorical figures in the story. Nature would like for Silence to act “according to her nature” and engage in activities typical of young medieval women (spinning thread and staying out of the sun.) But Nurture, a figure representing the process that we today might call socialization, pushes Silence to continue living as a man–this s/he does to great success. Silence is skilled in minstrelsy, jousting, and warfare–all typically mens’ activities. S/he inspires a queen’s lust, traps the wizard Merlin, and reverses the law against women’s property rights. Oh, and s/he becomes Queen of England. While Silence is an altogether fanciful tale, I believe the author raises some serious questions about gender roles and inequalities as well as the smoke and mirrors of gender presentation. I’m not at a point in my analysis where I think I understand the author’s stance on the questions (presumed) he raises, not to mention my own opinion. More later when I reach that point.

Also, I began the sequel-of-sorts to Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, titled Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. This work is a collection of perspectives from both established and emerging gender outlaws, edited by Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. I’ve read nearly four perspectives thus far, and find each to be rich and illuminating. I’m excited to read the rest, as well as to track down my next two medieval targets: le Roman d’Eneas and Grisandole. 

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Gender Outlaws and Paper Conferences

I’ve finished Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, and overall I’m glad I took the time to learn from her perspective. Throughout her book, Kate mentions several sources from trans activists, scholars, etc. that I’m sure will become useful later on. I benefitted from reading her story in several ways: I had the experience of listening to a unique trans voice full of humor and a lust for life, I was able to read her breakout play Hidden: A Gender, and I got a sense of where the trans community was in the 1980s and ’90s–at least in Kate’s circles. I’ll be going over my notes in detail at a later time.

I was also forwarded a call for papers covering issues of gender and sexuality in French literature from the Middle Ages to today–how perfect is that? Proposals are due July 10. We shall see whether I can organize my thoughts and choose a topic before that time!

Update Time

Updates, updates, it’s time for updates!

Much has happened since I last posted. I finished my semester (hooray for being done with half of my undergrad career, small boo for having half left.) I completed the last steps to secure my participation in an abroad program this coming fall (details to follow.) And I assembled new sources for the beginnings of summer research!

Right now I’m knee-deep in Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. While the work is dated, the account is still honest and will be a useful companion to Gender Outlaws, a sequel of sorts that I have in the queue. This book makes for thought-provoking reading, and the style is more easily-comprehensible for me than some of the scholarship I’ll be reading. In other words, it’s nice to alternate this work with readings from Silence, a French medieval romance edited and translated by Sarah Roche-Mahdi. I’m attempting to use the English translation to help me understand the Old French, and it’s proving a worthy headache.

In the next few weeks, I hope to find more (modern) French-language scholarship as well as trans-focused research. I’m scouring libraries every chance I get, and hoping to purchase a library card for a local big-name university. Today, though, was a stop in a public library near where I’m staying. The one tangentially-related source I found, Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, mentioned transgender identity on around six pages of multiple hundreds. This paucity of trans-relevant information in a book published only six years ago could have disappointed me; instead it was a good wake-up call about the kind of search I will have to make for information pertaining to my thesis.

Made a Friend!

As of today, I have two prospective thesis advisers for my project! In addition to the adviser who helped me formulate the initial idea for the project, I have someone on board who is a professor in the Department of French Studies at my college and also serves on the Advisory Committee for the Department of the Study of Women and Gender (or at least I think that’s what he officially does–I know that he has a thumb in each of those pies.) He and I had a very productive conversation–we went over the syllabus for a class he’ll be teaching in the fall on immigration and sexuality in modern France, and he showed me his fresh new book (no joke, he opened a cardboard box full of first editions and handed one to me!) After talking with him, I am inspired to expand the scope of my thesis project to include writings from what is now the Middle East in addition to France. There was a great deal of cultural exchange between the two regions during my time period of interest, and it would be very interesting to compare attitudes on gender identity and expression in both areas. I now have a thesis committee of two, and stacks of books recommended by each of them. Can’t wait to dive in once my term papers are submitted!

Somewhat-Related Research

Apologies for this segue into material only tangentially-related to my thesis research, but I’ve had a really exciting development in regards to my French term paper.

A professor at a neighboring college (and the director of an Early Music group I sing with) has just linked me to a project he and several other scholars undertook with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities some years ago. It’s called “Teaching the Medieval Lyric with Modern Technology” and it basically involves uploading texts, recordings, source materials, and research on composers within the wide category of French medieval lyric (everyone from the troubadors to Guillaume de Machaut.) In other words, a goldmine for the kind of material I’ll need for my term paper (and possibly my thesis.) The term paper will be focused on the one example of a woman troubador, or trobairitz, with a poem that survives with its original music. I had the honor of performing part of it last Friday, and giving an oral presentation on my own musical analysis of the song. And now it’s the focus of my term paper, and I have access to one of the original manuscripts, some scholarly papers, and recordings of the song. I’m honestly like a kid in a candy store right now.

And the best part is that the database of information will still be there if I ever need it for thesis research. I’m so grateful I showed up to rehearsal early and had the conversation with my director that ended with him sharing this project with me.

When a Rose is Not a Rose: Homoerotic Emblems in the Roman de la Rose

This is the first of the essays I’ve read in Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature–and I love it. Unfortunately, what makes the article so great is what makes it irrelevant to my thesis project: it is an alternate reading of the canonic text the Roman de la Rosepositing that the central romance of the work occurs between two male figures rather than between a male and female figure. The argument is made chiefly by decoding the undoubtedly coded language used in the work, chiefly words like rose (literally “rose” but possible code for “penis”) and baiser (literally “kiss” but possible code for “sex” or “fuck”) and citing instances that attest to a deep love between the two allegorical male characters. The argument is presented very well, but the fact remains that sexuality and gender are two distinct concepts that I will need to keep separate in my mind. There was a clear benefit to the article, though, in that it challenged the automatic gendered assumptions people make that affect their conception of how a story is supposed to grow. This was more in reference to heteronormativity and European conceptions of gender roles in romance, but it was helpful nonetheless.

Before And After Gender

Though this text comes from the 1970s, when prevailing notions of gender were still painfully binary, I think there will be some usable content. I’m particularly interested in the chapter where Strathern details (and debunks) existing gender stereotypes and the very idea of gender stereotyping. In my reading so far, she’s already placed the terms “man” and “woman” in quotation marks, and made mention of ever-toxic “gender-thinking.” Looks good so far.

New Friends!

Five new books have come into my possession, thanks to my college’s library. They are:

  • Medieval French Literature: An Introduction by Michel Zink, trans. Jeff Rider
    • Seems like a useful primer for all of the genres and sub-genres of literary and musical composition during le Moyen Âge. Only slightly upset that my library doesn’t carry the original French edition.
  • Women readers and the ideology of gender in Old French verse romance by Roberta L. Krueger
    • Will likely deal with the “female gaze” (is that a thing?) vis-à-vis literary works from this time; I flagged several chapters having to do with gender politics, sexual identity (which I understand is distinct from gender identity but bear with me here) and how issues of gender are raised in the work of the first professional writer of le Moyen Âge in France who just happened to be a woman (her name is Christine de Pisan and she has a cult following to this day.)
  • Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature, ed. Karen J. Taylor
    • The title says it all–supremely excited about this one.
  • Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures by Sahar Amer
    • This was recommended to me by my thesis advisor–it was the search for this book that brought three of the other four books into my life. Again, while I realize that sexual and/or romantic identity are not indicative of gender identity, I can’t help but wonder what I may find that will have bearing on my thesis. The author may also prove an invaluable contact.
  • Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life by Marilyn Strathern
    • This “lost novel” was written by a prolific scholar on gender studies, and there’s an afterword by the one and only Judith Butler. Can’t wait to give this a try.