The Inexpressible

Author Ilana Masad examines the experience of being nonbinary within the context of the gender inquiries set forth in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.

nonbinary person

Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure,” writes Maggie Nelson early in The Argonauts. Among the hybrid book’s many themes—which include love, motherhood, gender, desire, joy, changing bodies, and more—is the adequacy, or inadequacy, of words. If they are adequate, then Nelson has written a memoir and work of criticism that expresses a great deal about those many themes. But if words are not adequate, or not adequate enough, then the text itself becomes an approximation, a heroic effort to create what will only be a warped reflection of something true but inexpressible.

What if it’s both? What if words can be adequate and not at the same time?

I am nonbinary. Here is one pleasingly broad definition: “The term ‘nonbinary’ can mean different things to different people. Essentially, it’s used to describe someone whose gender identity can’t be described as exclusively woman or man. Some people who are nonbinary experience their gender as both man and woman, and others experience their gender as neither man nor woman. Nonbinary can also be used as an umbrella term, encompassing many gender identities that don’t fit into the man-woman binary.”

What I mean when I say I am nonbinary is not necessarily the same thing as what the friend I spoke to on the phone last night means when they say they are nonbinary.

Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.

Sometimes—usually when I’m in conversation with someone who will appreciate the nuance—I say I’m a nonbinary woman. I don’t actually feel like a woman, and I have long felt uncomfortable with the trappings of a particular, commonly expected femininity: putting on makeup makes me want to scream; wearing a dress or a skirt feels like being in costume, on a stage; any curves I once had were marshaled away by an eating disorder that continues to haunt me. (But are any of these inherently woman?) Still, I was raised to become a woman by the cultures I’ve lived in, was socialized as a girl, and so carry with me both the joys and the woes of that training.

At some point, after learning there were options outside the binary, I began to wonder what being a woman was supposed to feel like. I don’t think I ever knew—only knew that I was assumed to be one. This is not a critique of binary genders; while I truly don’t understand what womanhood means in any kind of embodied way, I have known women and men, trans and cis alike, who seem to know, absolutely, what it means to be woman, to be man.

“Once we name something,” Nelson’s eventual spouse, Harry, says, “we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.”

For years, I avoided reading The Argonauts, despite its glowing reputation within my queer circle of friends. I also knew some readers who found it infuriating that Nelson includes in the book her own concerns regarding Harry’s top surgery and testosterone injections, centering herself in a narrative thread about him, his body, his needs. Indeed, at one point in the book, Nelson relates how, when Harry first read a draft of the manuscript, he felt “unbeheld—unheld even.” I tend toward generous reading, and my assumption is that he no longer felt that way by the time Nelson finished her book.

Or maybe it’s selfish, not generous; reading The Argonauts, I did feel held.

This idea of being beheld is at least partly why I avoided the book. I wasn’t ready to feel either seen or unseen. Move along, my mind seemed to be saying. There’s nothing to see here. Nothing at all.

Of course, nobody says that unless there is, very much, something to see.

At the opening of the book, Nelson writes that she’d “spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” Then she met Harry. On the book’s second page, when she is still writing about the early stages of their relationship, she’s already changing her mind (one of the pleasures of the book is witnessing that transformation), already learning from her beloved’s approach to the world: “I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought.”

Can it? I used to think so. I believed that what made writing as art meaningful was its ability to express internal realities externally. Now I no longer think that’s right, or at least there’s more to it, because I recognize that the inexpressible exists. For instance, I have explained why I am not a woman, but I have no idea how to explain in words precisely what I mean when I say that I am nonbinary. I can only feel it.

I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?… How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g. ‘gender hackers’)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief?”

Figuring out how to exist inside my gender identity and my body often feels like the act of writing: fraught, uncomfortable, insecure, confusing, painful. Also: inevitable and necessary. So I live with the messiness that is having the body I have, how it doesn’t feel gendered in the way it’s “supposed to” or assumed to be. I’m learning to embrace the lack of language to describe what it means to me to live in the liminal.

But some days, for no reason I can discern, writing goes well, even joyfully. And some days, just as mysteriously, I look in the mirror and think, “There—there I am.”•

Join us on May 19 at 5 p.m., when Nelson will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Miranda July to discuss The Argonauts. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. We can’t wait to hear what you think. Register for the conversation here.

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