A Communal Genre
How To Be Between
by Bastian Fox Phelan
Published May 2022
There is an episode of The Simpsons that I often think about in relation to the prospect of writing a middling memoir. Season 7, episode 13: ‘Two Bad Neighbors’. George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, move to Springfield. Sitting at his desk, having just dictated the last typewritten sentence, ‘And since I’d achieved all of my goals as President in one term, there was no need for a second. The End.’ George Bush Senior says, ‘Mmm, good memoirs. Good, not great.’ I recite this phrase any time I write about myself. It’s both fun to say, and a reminder of what, I think, is the greatest fear you face writing modern memoir: that you’ll be so caught up in accounting for yourself that you’ll avoid making anything interesting.
I sometimes have this fear that memoir is over; that over-saturation with identity content – the amount of ‘self’ that is shared and consumed online, the increasing tendency for personal vulnerability to be used as personal and professional leverage – has made us sceptical and limited our ability to forfeit a dedicated portion of our readerly attention span to a memoir. I don’t have this fear about documentary film, I don’t have this fear about auto-fiction, but films are cooler than books and so is telling lies about yourself, and we all know coolness can cover all manner of sins. In recent years it’s felt like more and more people have been writing memoirs where the entire point is to prove themself as, or opposite to, a constructed expectation. Constructed in the sense that the author has embedded it within the text themself, rather than responding to any organic assumptions that might bubble up as the reader reads. I don’t think it is just me. We are not kind to memoir, as readers. We are not generous. Even if it rationally doesn’t make sense, many of us have the identity ick: exhaustion with vulnerability for vulnerability’s sake; a reluctance to be ‘educated’ on humanness by an author with no greater qualifications on the subject than our own. Our first impulse, whether we get past it or not, is to assume a memoir will be navel-gazing. I was talking to a friend recently who made the point that in Australian criticism we tend to expect universality from memoir and tolerate specificity in fiction, when really it should be the other way around. There are many readers, some are ‘professional’ critics, some are Goodreads reviewers and Instagram influencers, who won’t read a book simply because it’s written by someone they don’t think they’d like to hang out with (and nowadays they’re probably pretty accurate in that assumption, regardless of whether it’s a good basis for critique). On the other hand, these same readers can enjoy fiction about psychopaths, no questions asked. Though, to be fair, there’s arguably less and less psychopath literary fiction around these days, too. There is less room to move when dealing with true events, or should be, but fiction can be massaged to suit. In non-fiction the character is a real person who exists outside of the book, a person we might not want to endorse with our time and attention.
There are many types of memoir, obviously, and the decision to write, and read, memoir, any memoir, has long been under scrutiny. Memoir is often dismissed as minor writing, the kind of non-fiction that doesn’t require studious research, or creative invention, as in fiction, or intense distillation, as in poetry. Memoirists often fall into this unfair trap, set by readers and critics. It is impossible to write a memoir and not face accusations, from someone, somewhere, of narcissism. You should not find yourself interesting enough to write about. It is easiest to level such accusations at memoir, the line between form and self-aggrandizement is shortest here, most direct. But anyone who writes finds themselves interesting, finds their own thoughts and perspective and creative resonances beautiful and worth sharing, whether it’s through memoir, fiction, poetry, essay. I think often writers seem to have more shame about their own possible narcissism than anyone else; as though they think they are the only ones with thoughts; as though it’s not simply a very mundane human phenomenon to have thoughts and to share them. People are literally chatting every day – it’s fine. But there is something to this narcissist accusation. Something is happening in memoir where there can be a very wide berth between the interest of what’s being said and the tone the memoirist takes. Voice overwhelms and the voice is almost always authoritative. I wrote about this a little bit already in my review of Yves Rees’ book All About Yves, a memoir where the writing gets tied up in knots trying to prove itself worthy of attention. When you are writing towards categories of identity, you are writing towards what’s already known, what’s already been categorised, thereby making it more difficult to find enough compelling things to say.
That identity content I mentioned earlier threatens to take over the memoir genre, or at least that’s the basis of my fear. I don’t want a given metric of the form to be, how does the author creatively situate themself within or outside of these categories of identity? What I want from great memoir is to blow those categories up altogether. Anne Boyer’s The Undying is not a cancer memoir, it is an exploration of pain, suffering and fear, though even these concepts feel inadequate. The specificity of its lived experience subject matter is the conduit to consider things that are universally intangible but can be pinned down, just momentarily, by memoir, by sharing them with a writer who has allowed themself, through form, to be just who they are, no guises. Memoir is a communal genre; I think, yes, that is one of its strengths. But it can be so much more if we don’t come to it to find community in the ways we are the same but rather we come to it to find we are alike in what we don’t know, or can’t be certain of, but are compelled to consider all the same.
All of this to say, I really enjoyed Bastian Fox Phelan’s How to Be Between, which is a balm, a lovely book, as humble and genuine and hands-off as it is meticulously crafted, deftly probing and explorative. Great memoirs.
How to be Between is a memoir about Phelan’s reckoning with their facial hair and what this teaches them about gender. The idea of this betweenness is expansive and pervasive, not only the ‘between’ that contrasts man and woman, but the fact that they are an AFAB person with unassisted facial hair growth. This places them, even as a gender non-conforming person, in a hard to categorise experience. They can feel out of place among heteronormative expectations, but despite themselves, just as unwittingly, queer people meet Phelan with their own limited set of expectations:
Even among the trans community, I had not yet come across someone who had arrived at their identity through a similar biological process. Some of the people I met didn’t understand where my hair came from. They were used to seeing female-assigned people begin to grow facial hair, but this was usually accompanied by a deepening voice that cracked and warbled like a teenage boy’s, along with a host of other hormonal changes from taking testosterone.
Phelan explores these expectations with curiosity. This exploration is not self-mythologising. It looks at their own story in order to think more about the flimsiness of categories and static assumptions at large. How To Be Between sits with the betweenness of man and masculine, of woman and feminine, the challenge in the fact that doing moral ‘good’ for one group of disadvantaged people can inevitably fall at the expense or chagrin of another group of disadvantaged people. This is an accessible work that moves deeper into an understanding of queerness rather than reporting on what is already known. It’s interested in the identities that emerge from communities but these communities are represented as living, dynamic spaces (and modest ones too – tea houses, living rooms, community halls – rather than anything grandiose and one-dimensional) and so the similarities that emerge between the individual identities within them aren’t presented to ratify or glorify categories so much as acknowledge a common phenomena of living – occasionally having shared interests, occasionally having competing interests. Moving beyond gender and queerness too, How To Be Between is a coming of age story that contemplates the richness of developing meaningful friendships, the challenges of moving from adolescence to adulthood searching and valuing this; deciding to meet their biological father as a teenager and navigating what role they want him to play in their life and what role they would like to play in his. There is a very communal spirit alive in the prose that reflects the story of each of the communities they write about. Phelan is aware of the boundaries of their identity meeting with the boundaries of others.
How to Be Between is divided into four sections: ‘The Story of the Letters’, woven around the letters they wrote a close friend throughout the challenging years of high school, ‘The Story of the Zine’, woven around their discovery of zine-making and DIY subcultures, ‘The Story of the Documents’, woven around them updating their name and birth certificate and ‘The Story of the Song’ where their discoveries coalesce in a story of their return to the importance of music-making in their life.
What’s lovely about How to be Between is that beyond the richness of the themes and ideas Phelan explores, there is a richness of form. Complex consideration is given to the assembly of craft that is, I suppose, what makes this literary memoir, rather than popular memoir. The influence of zine-making is elegantly incorporated into the book’s structure. Discreet interests such as music, cycling, drag, are catalogued and collaged in order to build identity. Giramondo has published a number of zine-maker writers (Vanessa Berry’s Gentle and Fierce, Anwen Crawford’s No Document); the combination between keenly interested outward gaze and open-hearted inward retrospection produces resonant memoir. While the collage technique of zine-making is clearly an influence, the book is a book. The prose is crisp and flows with a gentle rhythm that makes it compulsively readable. It’s not a project that wants to be a zine or could have been a zine, the way that sometimes when one medium is responding to or influenced by another medium, there can be some bleed or blur in the distinction. The wide-open pastures of memoir grant Phelan the space necessary for this style of reflection. You can feel them take a lesson learned from one experience and apply it to this writing:
The zines I made in my twenties were, above all, a way to communicate with myself. The narrative worked like a fishing net, catching and hauling in my experiences. This technique revealed what lived in the murky world of my emotions and memories, and helped me to discriminate, deciding what to keep and what to release. I wrote to find the lessons learned. To achieve that, I had to reach for something outside of myself to connect my personal experiences to – a song, a quote from a favourite author, a conversation with a friend. After completing a zine, I felt safe knowing that I’d said everything I needed to say and could move on to the next thing. The life experience had been processed and preserved.
So many non-fiction books in the Australian marketplace, like TikToks, Instagram captions, Tweets, style themselves as an authoritative voice and experience. Questions of form, aesthetics, craft, are afterthoughts. A book’s aim is crude and forceful, and all over the prose, like a torpedo bursting from the book at the same velocity each page. The culture asks a question and the non-fiction writer arrives six-to-eighteen months later with a singular answer, predictably built to fit 200-odd pages. In How to be Between, Phelan eschews the implied answer of its title, playing with the obviousness: the answer is somewhere between.
There’s no need for a clear answer because there’s nothing really to prove here. This book is never combative even as it details conflict. There’s this very mature and generous remove and sense of human fallibility. Contrary to many contemporary discussions of sex and gender, which often necessitate a loud, dogged commitment to position-taking in order to be convincing, Phelan’s openness is very vulnerable and, in its courageousness, compelling (which is in many ways better than being convincing). It’s not points-based, there’s not an argument to win. It doesn’t eke out meaning where there isn’t. Phelan acknowledges flaws and responsibilities and fallibility, both in themself and in the community. In still working to understand themself they naturally are still working to understand the community and their place within it.
There is a story where Phelan joins a collective of Sex and Gender Diverse people, which expands to a possibly perfunctory inclusion of intersex people. When the collective is invited to speak at a rally, at the last minute, an intersex organisation contacts them to point out that the collective doesn’t necessarily, adequately represent the interests of intersex people. Phelan describes a sort of internal scramble in the collective: ‘We had intersex members, intersex speakers for the rally. We weren’t thieves, weren’t appropriating. The rally would go ahead as an ISGD event, and we would make time to deal with the rift between our collective and the organisation afterwards.’ When they later meet with representatives from the organisation, Phelan is naively optimistic, ‘If we just talk, maybe we can work something out.’ But the fallacy of simple inclusion is quickly revealed.
Gwen said that the Australian Human Rights Commission had used ‘sex and gender diverse’ in the Sex Files report to try to be inclusive, but the report was mostly concerned with trans rights, not intersex rights. Not enough consultation had been done with intersex people. The same could be said for our collective. Adding an ‘I’ to the SGD didn’t change that.
‘ISGD has nothing to do with us.’
There was so much I didn’t know, I realised. Our collective seemed like it was built on something solid, but at the slightest pressure it was falling apart. I lowered my eyes and stared at the glass tabletop.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, without thinking.
I didn’t need to wait for consensus. I was deeply sorry. For everything. For thinking I knew what I was doing. For thinking that what I was doing wouldn’t hurt anyone. It had seemed so right.
There is a beautiful sense of intimate distance in Phelan’s approach and this allows for so much genuinely acknowledged and relatable vulnerability. Phelan can reflect on their own mistakes and flaws, as well as the very real flaws of a community they still love and believe in.
Our collective had become little more than a series of online threads complaining about how unfair things were. I was tired of that conversation. Some people said the interests of the collective had been hijacked by the personal agendas of a handful of people, but I wasn’t sure if that was true. Had things in the group gone bad because we couldn’t resolve the conflict that had arisen? Or was it the failed promise of the rally? The changes we wanted to see – access to gender-appropriate documents, better medical care for trans people, respect and dignity for all sex and gender diverse people – we knew this wouldn’t happen overnight. For a time, though, I had believed anything was possible.
In another section of the book, describing their relationship with a trans masculine housemate and friend, Ernest, they describe themselves as brothers. Later, Phelan no longer identifies with this brother role. This isn’t a mistake or an error in their assessment of their own gender, it’s just part of the story of their life, all part of the understanding and exploration that is being undertaken. This embracing of change, even change that looks like a ‘reversal’, is beautiful, for the way it is connected to what amounts to real life for anyone: ambiguity and personal experimentation.
In first leading the discussion at Sex and Gender Diverse collective Phelan describes a trepidation, ‘I tensed. At meetings I usually thought hard before opening my mouth. We said it was an inclusive space, but there was a certain way of speaking that was expected and making a mistake could cost you.’ But they quickly follow this up with the benefits of each week repeating the ritual of introductions by name and pronouns. ‘There was something about the cyclical nature of this practice. Each week it looped around, giving you another chance to rename yourself. Your name was no longer a linear concept – assigned to you at birth, written on all your letters and certificated, with you through the years until it was engraved on your headstone. The collective worked on a different timeline, where nothing was fixed, nothing was set in stone.’ Trying things and measuring your own reactions to those experiences, in order to better understand yourself, even unconsciously, is how one develops. Phelan’s approach leaves room for doubt, it registers the self as a slippery subject and acknowledges the occasional necessity of putting on a confident front despite internal uncertainty that this is not dishonesty but the limits of being human, the best one can sometimes do. This surrender to futility and the expansive considerations it inspires is facilitated through the formal subject of gender non-conformity and betweenness. You cannot control who reads your work, and I imagine it could be difficult to be in Phelan’s shoes and invite (perhaps) more privileged outsiders into these communities and then present them as sometimes flawed. This is the difficulty of the fever pitch of the ever-narrowing representation discussion. But in being open with ambiguity and nuanced in developing a sense, a requirement, of empathy, in engaging with this text, Phelan gets the balance just right. They acknowledge fears and trepidations without judgement, not to self-destruct or bring down the organisations they describe but rather in service of understanding the necessary and realistic difficulties that arise in important, complicated work.
Ultimately, this a work where Phelan explores themself through their interactions with others. This relationship with the people around them starts with a feeling of difference, and difference can create loneliness. Eventually, this difference softens, and there is the realisation that they are not alone, neither in who they are and the fragments of life, passion and creativity that make up their identity, nor in their experience of loneliness. They meet people just like them, in the various ways we can be just like each other, throughout. They meet their biological father and his family, they meet another gender diverse person with PCOS, they meet various versions of a community that feels like home: ‘It gave me a chill. All my life I’d though I was unusual. I just hadn’t seen myself in the faces of others.’
I don’t think good queer memoir needs to have a didactic relationship to ideological representation. But there is, here, a more sophisticated understanding of representation than we’ve seen in Australian memoir recently. It can be important and necessary to build your identity using what you see around you, but this work is collaborative rather than transactional or instructional. Stories are shared, teased out, expanded upon, revisited, debated. People who share a vision will differ on how it should be achieved, will differ on its details, might even argue on its details. This work is complicated. This is not a memoir of answers. This is a memoir of specificity, that records what it is to be living this, singular life, rather than trying to additionally incorporate all of the lives that influences it. It’s a memoir that is the story of one individual, and we are granted the opportunity to ask our own set of questions as a result, equally without need of answer.