Meet Sam Rosenthal and hear excerpts from Rye Shameless Grounds’ new location!
Saturday April 6th, 2013; 7PM; 1901 Withnell; St Louis MO 63118
With three trans* identified characters relating polyamorously and negotiating BDSM scenes, author Sam Rosenthal takes on quite the challenge in representing erotic love and friendship in all of these forms. His first novel, Rye, doesn’t just get us wet and hard, it educates about non-mainstream identities and practices. Many writers would move awkwardly between preaching and sexing, but Rosenthal manages to deftly weave new information into the narrative.
I expect that people with experiences in any of these communities will find the relationships and moments portrayed here to be evocative of some of their own. At the same time, those involved in one or two of these communities get a peek into the others and a sense of how the intersections of several identities can shift the dynamic. I recognized the discussions of exclusion vs. inclusion in queer spaces as well as the polyamory negotiations. My friend Andy, who was reading the book at the same time, felt a connection to the moments in which Matt tried to explain genderqueer to his son.
Rye’s realism is its strength and its weakness. There was no question to me that I was reading what has happened, or could easily happen. I especially loved the sex scenes that are interrupted, renegotiated, and then resumed. These moments show how realistic and hot come together. An edgy waterplay scene clarified things that I have read about pushing someone’s edge while honoring their limits. I’ve read and heard this stuff many times, but didn’t understand it until having it shown to me in Rye.
This careful work to show the ins and outs of making non-traditional relationships and sex sustainable can grow tedious – it’s hard getting through characters Matt and Rye’s negotiations on the way to SexxCamp. As a reader, I found myself whining ‘are we there yet’ more than once. This is true for many other spots on the copious amount of dialogue, which often feels forced (this is not necessarily unrealistic – many communications practices that poly people use in conflict moments are somewhat scripted, nonviolent communication, for example).
The truth is, if you’re looking for a steamy read, you’ll find steamy spots in Rye, but the length and organization are that of a full-fledged novel. Unfortunately, the characters, while loveable, aren’t as developed as they should be in a novel. Rye left me a little frustrated about who the characters were in addition to their gender identities and sexualities – their histories are painted in the broadest of strokes for us and for one another. Both Matt and the novel are astonishingly incurious about Rye’s past relationship, which is affecting her connection with Matt.
One of Matt’s (the first-person narrator) major issues is sorting out his relationship to masculinity and the legacy of patriarchy as a male-bodied person. This is a really difficult question and Rosenthal was brave to take it on. Andy commented on this, helping me to see Matt’s position a little better:[quote]“Connecting with masculinity is difficult as a genderqueer person. Matt’s observations are right: masculinity is something so negative, full of abused power. I do connect with fatherhood so much more strongly than I ever anticipated. . . . Now that I realize I am fit for fatherhood, I feel like I have the entire world to offer my child. I can show him traditional fatherly things like a good work ethic and a thirst for continued self-education. I can show him non-traditional fatherly things like the value of nurturing a community and the environment. I still see myself more as a “parent” than as a “father”, but the fatherly social construct has so much more to offer our relationship”.[/quote]
I appreciate that Rye attacks the question of ‘what are we going to do with masculinity.’ But Matt’s not a very credible character to do that. Matt gets away with a lot of sexism by identifying as genderqueer. He seems to think of his lovers, whose bodies are marked as feminine in various ways, solely in terms of how they fulfill his wishes and goals. When Rye reacts strongly to Matt’s proposal of marriage, it takes a long time for him to understand why a genderqueer former lesbian might not be dying to marry a person with a bio-penis and who presents as a man. CHASING AMY! HELLO and DUH! Matt also shows a disturbing disregard for Rye’s career and social network, expecting him to leave it all in order to fulfill his own dream for children and nuclear family.
Matt’s character is growing and developing, and so it should be fine that he stumbles over fairly obvious queer realities. The problem is, is that this is a very didactic novel and most of the ‘teaching moments’ in this text come through Matt’s words and deeds. He tells the reader the story of these communities and identities. He does this inside the narrative as well. He’s in the process of editing a documentary on genderqueer. Matt’s lack of understanding with Rye, along with the way he fetishizes Rain’s intersex body makes me wonder why we should listen to him when he tells the queer community’s stories. Matt, of any of the characters, has the most amount of access to the cisgendered, heteronormative world – why does he get to represent the genderqueer community via his documentary and via his place in the novel? Matt’s role in Rye is unfortunately a realistic one in that those who have the most access to mainstream privilege are the ones telling the stories of queer and sexual minority communities. As a result, those communities develop around the wishes of those who need them least, rather than of those who need them the most.
This is such a fantastic representation of interactions that occur in queer communities, but for me it was best read in episodes. In this sense it reminded me of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, as it draws out the experiences, practices, and dramas of urban queer communities. Despite my misgivings, I would recommend this book to people curious about how ethical monogamy or BDSM scenes might work. The ‘pictures’ of the interactions here are worth 1000 words in many self-help or relationship guides.