“There’s no word for the ‘floating’ gender in which we’d all like to rest.”
– Anne Carson
In an interview for the Paris Review’s Fall 2004 issue, Anne Carson addresses what has been, for her, a lifetime of fluctuations in her gender identity. However, so casually does she gloss over this fact that you know, at least for her, this is natural. This is a part of life. This is who she is. She addresses that she has never felt entirely female – and neither have I. I am not a woman, nor am I man, and although I use pronouns commonly ascribed to men, I do it because, as Carson says, “when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options.” Of course, for many, this is not true – pronouns go far beyond the typical hem and haw of him and her. But I’m inclined to think that, like Carson, I am ascribed to one over the other based on my experience drifting through this world as always-Othered on the gender spectrum.
It is this gender spectrum that often comes up when we address motherhood. So closely linked to the biological function of giving birth is motherhood (and the gender binary) that we forget that not all women are mothers, and not all mothers are women. Mothering is an act in all iterations of the word. But at its core, to mother is to embody a continuous act of care, consideration, and guidance, something that anyone, in my opinion, can do (whether or not they have a knack for it, at first – like writing, for example, mothering requires practice).
Carson, for me, is someone who acts as mother to her own body of work. Her close connection to her texts is often explicitly stated. She has a stake in her poetry, in her prose, in her unconventional bodies of work like Nox (2009) and Float (2016). But don’t all writers (and mothers) have a close connection to their creations? Yes, of course – but Carson’s writing, I suppose, feels as if it took some effort to give up, as if she waited until it matured before sending it out into the world, and continues to feel some worry over how it might fare out there.
Perhaps I’m projecting here. I certainly feel this way about my work. I often don’t want to give it up, if only because there’s no telling where it will go, and with what or who it will interact with. Writing as Other means that readers often look for you in your work, as they can’t separate your position in the world from the positions of those present in your writing. This can be good, or bad, or both – but above all, it is worrying. Like a photograph wherein you are the one asked to assert your pose, that moment of panic leads to retroactive who-am-I statements and ultimately sends you into somewhat of an existential crisis – at least until you take a seat and awkwardly smile for the camera.
Maybe Carson’s statement on her own gender identity stuck out to me because she seems to unhindered by this seemingly necessary crisis. She seems comfortable with the knowledge that she may be viewed, in terms of gender, as both, neither, or some other entirely. She floats in that ocean of Otherness without fear of being dragged under. Her work buoys her, work which reflects her stunning inability to conform to conventions of poetry, essay, novel, and beyond. To reach that level of self-acceptance seems impossible to me at times, but to see someone like Carson, in all her gendered invocations, reach a point in her life where she can address her long history of identity in a single breath is as comforting to me as the presence of any mother has or ever has been.