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Pedagogy of the Dysphoric
(By means of membranes.)
In Latin, “membrana” is the word for a thin tissue covering all or parts of a body, as well as the catchall word for parchment, vellum, or other writing surface made from animal skin. In biology, a membrane is “a layer of material which serves as a selective barrier between two phases and remains impermeable to specific particles.” A membrane can allow some things through. It is protective and porous. It is not a wall. Our bodies are made entirely of membranes, from the plasma membranes inside each and every cell, to the skin that coats us and decides what gets in and out.
I’ve been teaching classes of my own design outside a university or other institution for over a year now. I’ve been editing a literary journal for trans and Two-Spirit writers for four years, a publication which has grown in scope, audience, material and team in that time. This newsletter has been ongoing since May 2020. Some days it feels like I do too many things. I try to make rest one of those things. But also, inside and between the membranes that divide the different venues, activities, and desires that power my work, it feels like there is some uniting, opaque force. And it feels best captured by the membrane, a permeable boundary made of skin, words, and paper. What am I if not that?
I have two classes open for registration right now: one is a new session of *sigh*ence class, a five-session Zoom course where we engage in communal inquiry to decouple our writing process & practice from the scientific method. We talk about lichen, mold, disfluency, Tomanowos and other meteorites, the syntax of marshes, the hunger for categorization in Western science’s DNA and how to resist it.
The second is a new 5-month workshop called Short Story Multiverse, in which participants join with a small cohort of other writers engaged in trying to glimpse the scale of their own creative universe, how it coheres, and where it ventures into new places. While I draw on my experience as an editor, writer, bookseller, and former publicist to demystify the publishing world for writers who want to know more, as a teacher I rely on mindfulness and reflection, somatic exercises, metaphor work, and meditations in combination with writing prompts and discussion. I believe this approach has something for everyone, whether you are looking to polish a manuscript of short stories, map out a memoir in essays, or are interested in building a sustained practice of writing and creation as part of a holistic life.
I am a porous city. I’m incapable of separating out my ideas from one another. They exist in solution, constantly informing one another. If it weren’t for punctuation, everything I write would be one long monotonous scream. If it weren’t for the parentheses, my edges would be indistinguishable from the world. Among other things, these parentheses are a reminder of the importance of silence. Of listening. A pedagogy of the dysphoric is not a top down process. Inside the membrane is constant interchange, oscillation, percolation.
“For me, the notion of decolonization dissolves the boundaries between self and collectivity, between the individual and the system. It interrogates how we, as individuals living within and being part of collectivities, reproduce and sustain systems of oppression.”
— “Decolonizing Teaching and Learning through Embodied Learning,” in Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization
Roxana Ng was a noted pedagogist, professor, and qigong practitioner. Furthering the teachings of Freire, Fanon, and Gramsci, Ng insisted her graduate students practice qigong as part of their study with her, emphasizing that embodied learning draws attention to “how the body, emotion, and spirit are involved in the learning process—and to what we embrace and resist, and why.”
How to embody learning when the ground, the body, is dysphoric? When it resists embodiment? And how to do so when the (classroom) is a membranous online space?
Resisting the idea of expertise is important to me as a teacher. One of the things I encourage my Publishing Trans Stories students to do is cultivate a relationship with the physical sensations that happen when they’re writing, especially the feelings that happen in the body when the writing is “good.” This feeling may be the only validation you receive for a long time. It can tell you a lot—when to listen to your critics and rejections and return to the page, or when to press on until you find the right readers, the right press. Who gets to decide if our stories are worthy of publishing? At least some of the time, we should listen to our bodies on this matter.
Sometimes in my classes we do this by imagining we’re the water cycle, accumulating from droplet to storm to runoff. Sometimes we’re swarms, murmurations, tadpoles, whales, worms. Sometimes we’re blank sheets of paper. Sometimes we’re palimpsest of bark beetle. Sometimes we’re a whole biome catching up in the chat. Often in dysphoric pedagogy—or maybe I should claim it: “as a dysphoric teacher”—self awareness comes about by imagining different selves. Or by dispersing the self. By becoming a self of residues from other creatures, other beings.
“Back when there was no life on land, it was the ocean that generated the earliest vegetation, and the ocean that eventually produced our most primitive ancestors. These earliest plants and animals evolved in water because sunlight was lethal; the ozone layer had not yet formed. Only when the collective gases exhaled by the denizen of the ocean had reached a critical mass and erupted through the surface and into the atmosphere was the radiation-filtering protective layer formed. And only under the shelter of this newly formed barrier could the first brave organisms crawl to the shore and withstand the assault of sunlight on their vulnerable bodies.”
I’m trying to create a new atmosphere. I can’t do it via my exhalations alone. Air maintenance and shift requires many breaths. Recently, smoke and mold breathed life into ACROSS WITH THROUGH: Trans Writers in Translation. In my intro I quote Chi’s English translator in an interview from a few years back:
“Imagining more transgender visibility in translation is inseparable for me from a utopic imagining that foregrounds race, class, animal, and environmental liberation.”
This special folio of translated trans writers is, to date, the thing I am most proud of bringing into the world. The way smoke and mold, like its namesakes, shifts and morphs and responds to its environment (until its inevitable expiration in 2031) continues to surprise me. What will I learn from it this next year? Maybe it will be from you: submissions for our general Fall 2023 issue open tomorrow, and stay open from Aug 1 - Sept 11.
A pedagogy of the dysphoric is not a comfortable thing. Asking trans writers, the traumatized, the marginalized, the depressed, the overwhelmed, to dwell in their bodies is not always pleasurable. I try to be careful, try to be mindful, try to provide rest and alternatives. I’m also always learning from my students, how I could have done things better or differently. I’m always being reminded in ways that let me see through the barrier, the membrane, from my life to theirs.
Dysphoric pedagogy might also resist the body. Sometimes it means allowing students to show up disembodied, camera off, wavering on the edge of being there and not. This does not bother me. While Zoom has opened up many opportunities for me to connect with other bodies around the world, in classes and otherwise, I do sometimes miss the feeling of being just voices or just words in instant communication. And I don’t even really like the phone. Of course, dysphoria does not neglect the voice. I hate listening to the sound of my own voice. I won’t do it.
But I do love listening to other people’s voices. There’s nothing like a good vocal fry. A clearing throat. A laugh garbled by poor internet connection. Two people talking over one another and the awkward silence that follows as they determine who should speak first. The way voices, sound, resists membranization. I love it all.
Among other things, these parenthetical membranes are a reminder of the importance of silence. Of listening. A pedagogy of the dysphoric is not a top down process. Inside the membrane is constant interchange, oscillation, percolation. It also doesn’t mean a constant invitation to embodiment. How exhausting. No, it’s equal acknowledgment that sometimes embodiment is a chore, a drain on our resources. Sometimes we need to escape our constricting membranes.
Tell me: what membrane have you been negotiating recently?