Next weekend, I am presenting an experimental paper about mermaids and trans histories at the Small Island Cultures Conference in St. John’s, where island scholars from across the world will take part in a collaborative journey through island stories, ballads, narratives and histories.
My work with mermaids suddenly took off near the beginning of 2017 when I found an archival illustration of mermaids in St. John’s harbour. From the starting point of formlessness/otherness/wetness, I began to make interconnections between mermaids in NL history and my own subjectivity as a trans woman on a rural island. In the paper, I argue that the imagination, creation, and writing involved in theorizing relations between mermaids and trans women plays a key role in the durability to live my best life, on my own terms, as a young trans woman isolated from others like me by geography and history. Ultimately, I continue to wonder where trans (women’s) histories in Newfoundland begin. Similarly, in La (1976), as Hélène Cixous writes her way through the fog of ‘women’s history,’ she asks: “Où commence une femme?” (129).
There are no archived records of trans women’s lives in Newfoundland before 2015. This reality hits me over and over, so I imagine possible histories, making my own rips in time. I acknowledge that the word transgender is relatively new. As rhetorician K. J. Rawson notes (2015), psychiatrist John F. Olivia published the word ‘transgenderism’ in his book Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965. Four years later in 1969, activist Virginia Prince first used the word “transgenderal,” her distinction from the category “transsexual,” to describe her authentic yet ambiguous form of womanhood in her own words. For Prince, the naming of herself as “transgenderal” constituted a form of agency and visibility in a world that made her identity and life invisible (Namaste 2000). I am not sure if Prince recognized this at the time, but scholars and trans individuals today know that gender identities are caught up in a complex web of experience, place and temporality (Aizura 2006; Hayward 2010).
In Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays (1986), Cixous asks: “What is my place if I am a woman? I look for myself throughout the centuries and don’t see myself anywhere” (1986: 75). Until I stumbled upon the illustration of mermaids in St. John’s harbour, I grappled with a related question. Indeed, and thankfully, cisgender women’s histories in Newfoundland and Labrador have been recorded by scholars (Chaulk-Murray 1980; McGrath, Neis & Porter 1995). However, engaging with them while lacking a historical record of my own community has procured feelings of placelessness in me. And while some of these feelings still reside, recognizing trans-historical relations between a mermaid and myself – theorizing the mermaid as a maternal figure for trans women in Newfoundland – has encouraged me to find solace in she who has surrounded me for my entire life: the sea.
Much of Cixous’ writing interrogates the role of the mother, which is “figured in the slippage between mother (mère) and sea (mer)” (Sellers 1996: 42). In Sorties, she contends that “our seas are what we make them, fishy or not… and we ourselves are seas, sands, corals, seaweeds, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves… seas and mothers” (Cixous 1986: 88-9 [emphasis added]). As I see the maternal in the mermaid, holding on to her as a historical representation of my life and position within a specific geography, I perform within the intertextual nexus of Cixous’ mothers: If I am a subject and the mermaid an other, then I embody and act out “the subject’s going out into the other in order to come back to itself” (78 [italics original]).
At once, I am caught up in the “surreptitious slippage” (79) across histories and species, forming a bond through writing with an imagined (m)other. I find an interstitial place with her where we learn about each other’s bodies, where I touch the soft scales of her tail, developing a fishy subjectivity as I recognize our mutual hybridity. Writing our relationship through theory – exercising my imagination and yearning – illustrates a vernacular form of self-care. By inventing a history, I open up a hybrid future where the possibilities of trans womanhood are watery (Neimanis 2013) and written with ink that can be restored by the writer’s imagination. Cixous argues that “everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds” (1986: 72 [italics original, emphasis added]).
As I wrap up this paper over the next few days, I will continue to recognize the significance of undertaking the labour of historical imagination at this particular point in my life. As I co-construct a place of belonging with the mermaid, as I read history and write a fishy future into being, as I live materially within this gap between sexes and metaphorically across species, I peer back over time and place to envision how those women like me – queens, gurls, TGs, transgenderals, others – found ways to make sense of the space between trans and woman. I know that the more I write, the more I understand it, and the more I am changed. I read this in Cixous: “writing is the passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me – the other that I am and am not, that I don’t know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live – that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?” (85-6 [emphasis added]).
I remain open to the possibility of the mermaid from the illustration doing the same traveling between self and other. I cannot be certain that the image was imagined. I have to believe that she is out there, looking for someone similar through an opening in time. Cixous writes: “Through the same opening that is her danger, she comes out of herself to go to the other, a traveler in unexplored places; she does not refuse, she approaches, not to do away with the space between, but to see it, to experience what she is not, what she is, what she can be” (86 [emphasis added]). And yet, as much as writing makes me happy, I cannot forget that while the sea brings the mermaid to me, it also takes her away – forcing her to find me, and me to find her on my own, at times when I am a fish out of water.
Will this history repeat itself?
Will I dream of an/other?
Aizura, Aren. 2006. “Of Borders and Homes: The Imaginary Community of (trans)sexual Citizenship,” In Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 7 (2): 289-318.
Chaulk-Murray, Hilda. 1980. More Than 50%: A Woman’s Life in a Newfoundland Outport, 1900–1950. St. John’s, NL: Flanker Press.
Cixous, Hélène. 1976. La. Paris: Gillamard.
Cixous, Hélène & Catherine Clement. 1986. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays,” In The Newly Born Woman trans. Betsy Wing, 63-132. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hayward, Eva. 2010. “Spider city sex,” In Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 20 (3): 225-51.
McGrath, Carmelita, Barbara Neis, & Marilyn Porter. 1995. Their Lives and Times: Women in Newfoundland and Labrador, A Collage. St. John’s, NL: Killick Press.
Namaste, Viviane. 2000. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Neimanis, Astrida. 2013. “Feminist subjectivity, watered” In Feminist Review, 103: 23-31.
Rawson, K. J. “Debunking the origins behind the word ‘transgender”. The NEWS Minute. May 27, 2015 (accessed June 8, 2017). http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/debunking-origin-behind-word-transgender.
Sellers, Susan. 1996. “Creating a Feminine Subject,” In Hélène Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and Love, 40-54. Cambridge: Polity Press.
© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017