At Macquarie University’s Indigenous Futurisms conference, Gomeroi writer Alison Whittaker speaks about publishing her first book of poetry. She tells us about being in unstable housing, and desperately needing money at the time she made the book deal. She says she was completely unprepared for the experience of writing about traumatic and personal events in her life, and then being asked about those experiences again and again for a year at panels and writer’s festivals.
The conference takes place on a sweaty day at the Redfern Community Centre. It’s an environment where no one is cagey about talking about the money they make as a writer. Prior to Alison taking the stage, Noongar writer Claire Coleman notes her disappointment with trauma writing, saying she believes Aboriginal people should stop writing about trauma for a public audience altogether. The audience chews on this with a bit of resistance. We’re all prepared to acknowledge that even if you’re not a poet, self-exposure makes money in the age of the confessional personal essay. Exposure of your own bullshit, your trauma, your secrets, is a marketable practice. As a group, however, we’re not completely settled on whether trauma writing is useful – for the reader or the writer.
When I don’t want to write, I watch The Wendy Williams Show. Wendy opens her show every day with a celebrity gossip segment called ‘Hot Topics’, where she gives hot takes on different celebrity scandals: relationship breakdowns, pregnancies, addictions, court cases, and anything else that has been dragged out into the public eye.
She takes the same attitude towards her own life. Wendy filed for divorce from her husband in April 2019, but for some time before this, when rumours were going around that he was being unfaithful, she defended him publicly on ‘Hot Topics’. Every time the rumours came up, she would address them openly to her live audience, declaring that now, ‘It’s me that’s the hot topic!’. She talks about knowing that even though her marriage has ended in betrayal, she now has confirmed an eleventh season of her show while her ex is now going to be changing nappies. ‘My mother taught me how to make lemonade out of lemons’, she says. She explains her decision to share her story with the audience, with her logic amounting to something like: ‘If I expose everyone else, I have to expose myself too’;
You wear a different mask when you’re out here. Everybody, including you, whether you’re a secretary or a schoolteacher or whatever, everybody has things in their life that they are embarrassed to share with the world, that they’re frightened to share with the world, that they’re not ready to share with the world…the motto of this show will always be; their business is…
to which the audience responds: ‘Our Business!’ And everyone applauds.
Wendy’s been on television doing a daily show for over a decade. I wonder whether the moments of disclosure – her struggles with addiction, the betrayal of her partner and co-parent, and her sometimes destructive relationship with fame – are helpful for her, or if they’re just part of the show. Either way, she’s adept at utilising these moments of suffering to generate ratings, to add fuel to her own flame. She’s able to create the impression of being completely open, while presumably holding a little of something back. It’s something I feel incapable of.
Being a writer with no money means that it becomes tempting to use your emotional vulnerability and self-exposure to offset your financial vulnerability. I’m uncomfortable being vulnerable. I’m uncomfortable with other people’s vulnerability too. I don’t like to admit that I need the money I get from writing. Writing is something I do to heal myself, and having been broke and homeless before, much of that healing coalesces around the paycheck, when I get it. Once I started getting paid for writing, my mental health improved quickly. I try to make money out of criticism, arts writing, book reviews, copy text for whatever; anything that doesn’t involve talking about myself, until talking about (or criticising) other people becomes a habit that I feel I can’t evolve out of.
I struggle with addiction, like Wendy does. When I get sober, I start going to the gym, and with all my new spare time and predisposition for extremity and addictive behaviours, I begin competing in powerlifting. Powerlifting is a sport which, much like bodybuilding, as Marcia Ian has pointed out, is ‘dedicated to wiping out “femininity,” insofar as femininity has for centuries connoted softness, passivity, non-aggressivity, and physical weakness’.
Strength sports, by definition, reject vulnerability, declaring a commitment to the development of mental and physical toughness. Women’s participation in powerlifting, historically an aggressively male sport, has increased by four times in the last decade alone, and continues to rise exponentially, forcing a rearticulation of the gender politics of the sport. Queer women participate in droves.
Trans, intersex, and otherwise gender non-conforming women have been the subject of an increasingly heated discussion in the sporting world lately. Being a trans man, and nowhere near strong enough to win any medals, I escape most of this scrutiny, aside from a continuing negotiation with the anti-doping authorities over my use of testosterone for gender transition rather than for cheating (testosterone, of course, plays its own supplementary role in bodybuilding’s cultural rejection of femininity and physical softness).
The gym becomes the place I want to write about. I go with my girlfriend to an old-school powerlifting and strongman gym in Aotearoa. The gym owner is huge and friendly. He tells us that this gym is mainly a working-class gym, and is usually completely empty during the day, only busy early in the morning or after work hours. However, on this particular day, a men’s rugby team is training in here. The women’s bathrooms are permanently out of order, so one stall in the very back corner of the men’s bathroom is reserved for women. When I go in to use it, one of the players is in there peeing with the door open. The walls of the gym are plastered thick with laminated A4 typed sheets of paper explaining the ‘Rules’, both gym etiquette and those pertaining to correct eating, training, and the requisite attitude adjustments needed to get strong: ‘Remember, somewhere in the world, a little girl is warming up with your max!’.
Kathy Acker wrote that bodybuilding, for her, was a rejection of ordinary language. There was an ‘antagonism’ between language and the gym that prevented her from writing about it easily: ‘after every workout, I forgot to write. Repeatedly. I…some part of me…the part of the “I” who bodybuilds…was rejecting language.’ For Acker, working out is an escape from words into mindless repetition, into the logics of the body. The gym is seen as antithetical to writing and intellect. The body doesn’t write, or if it does, it does so in another language. I don’t relate. I do most of my good writing at the gym, feeding off the extremities and horniness that gym contains. I wonder how much of my co-workers and friends learned fearfulness and disbelief at my gym habits is a class-based response. The divide between the intellectual class and the working class, after all, has always been a body/mind split; the body does, the brain thinks. When I decided to go to university, my dad sat me down to tell me that he wasn’t book smart. That it was ok if I wasn’t too, that there’s no shame in a normal job, as long as you’re working. As long as you have something to do. There’s nothing worse than having nothing to do.
I bring a friend to the gym and they joke that they must be the only jock at the gym who carries a book with them in their gym bag. Over twenty years after Acker wrote about bodybuilding, the archetypal gym bro has expanded his gaze. Critical thinking is now valued. The ideal lifter is now an energy efficient technician. The line between the jock and the nerd is getting thinner. A type of snobbery takes hold, especially among powerlifters who want their practice to be seen as more discerning and science based than the ‘gen pop’. Kathy Acker, after all, asserted her own bodybuilding processes of repetition, destruction and growth to be similar to the formula for an art practice.
I compete in the men’s division of my drug tested federation for the first time on 24 November last year. A week later, I see another trans man post about competing in the same federation as me. It is reposted by another trans advocate from the United States, a trans woman who is an athlete in the USAPL, a federation which has gone against the ruling of the International Olympic Committee by placing a blanket ban on trans athletes. Me and the local trans guy chat a little and follow each other online. A few weeks later, he reposts a meme to his page. It is plain black text on white, and it reads: ‘Sending love to everyone who’s trying their best to heal from things that they don’t fucking discuss!!’ The author adds a note; ‘including me!’.