I often feel that describing the pieces that I write in response to books as “reviews” is a bit inaccurate because I only occasionally relate to the books in question in the ways that a review is, traditionally, supposed to. What I write tend to be more reactions or reflections or responses, or just meanderings. Nonetheless, I inevitably end up deciding just to sit with that unease — to accept that the label “review” doesn’t always quite fit the way it is normatively intended and to trouble and loosen it by taking it on anyway. In the case of this book, I’m afraid that what I write will be more of a moderately reflective fanboy “squee” than a proper review.
Exile and Pride is a memoir by activist, author and poet Eli Clare, who moves through the world as a white transguy (formerly lesbian) with cerebral palsy. It is short and accessible, but incredibly politically complex; easy to read, but dense and at times difficult, if that makes any sense at all. It is, in ways that resonate with and take-up longstanding traditions of theorizing used especially powerfully by some radical women of colour, a powerful example of critically theorizing the social world by starting from self.
The book jumps back and forth through time, weaving together Clare’s childhood in rural Oregon, his contemporary life in urban queer left contexts, and the journey in between. Contrary to the advice in the book about writing memoir that I reviewed back in December, Clare’s immense writing talent and thoughtful choices in this book illustrate that you do not have to excise the complexity that is a feature of all of our lives in order to arrive at a telling of and reflections on life that are compelling and readable.
The book also exhibits great honesty and, in so doing, takes both personal and political risk — for instance, his refusal to be cowed by the right-wing use of oppressive and just plain wrong queer-because-of-abuse narratives into refusing to probe the ways in which his awful history of sexual abuse as a child does intersect, in much more subtle and complex ways than anti-queer narratives allow, with his queer ways of being as an adult.
More generally, he relates to experience in ways that I would find difficult but that are key to the power of this genre of theorizing. He talks about strength and weakness, transcendence and frailty, other people’s foolishness and his own foolishness, pleasure and pain. He also uses experience as data, as a starting point for narrative, as a starting point for analysis, as metaphor, as source of rhetorical device, and as guide to making judgments that shape knowledge production. Perhaps most importantly, it is treated not as distinct from the social world but as tightly integrated into it. As well, he relates self and social to place much more thoroughly and effectively than many lefty writers.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of how this book is written is the way that it creates a complex analysis for the reader without anything even vaguely resembling the kind of difficult, obscure writing found in the work of so many university-based theorists (ahem, ahem). I think this is because critical memoir allows for the deployment of what you might called “show” complexity (or modelled complexity) rather than “tell” complexity (or abstracted complexity). The latter requires drawing out and naming the complexity of the world — telling it, in the sense of the binary posed in many instructional books about writing between telling and showing. This leads to things like coining new words, and to taking up various complicated and inaccessible rhetorical strategies. While there are times that such approaches are warranted, and things they can do that other approaches cannot, I think there is scope and power in “show” complexity that is left untapped by many, many people interested in writing about the social world. Modelled complexity uses much the same technique as fiction and literary nonfiction writers to represent the immense complexity of the social world not through taking it apart and naming it but through conjuring the whole in ways that channel the reader’s identification to this or that specific aspect. It depends on mobilizing our everyday experience of a complex world as a resource for writing that complexity, and for writing about that complexity. Exile and Pride is a great example of this approach.
I am, as you can no doubt tell, a fan. I recommend this book highly.—Scott Neigh
Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews. Scott has two books of Canadian history entered through the words of activists coming out in late 2012.
This review first appeared in Canadian Dimension.