In his remarkable 2009 text, Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz fixates on the ways in which queer bodies exist outside of and subvert what he calls “straight time.” Straight time, for Muñoz, is what tells queers that “there is no future but the here and now of our everyday life.” It grounds the fragmentation, suppression, and elision of queer histories, and denies futurity to those not counted under the rubric of a “reproductive majoritarian heterosexuality.”
Straight time has, as it were, no time for queers beyond the present, a moment that disappears the instant we name it as such. The present is always already gone. Without the powerful synchronicity between body, biological reproduction, and futurity that characterizes a heteronormative way of being, what is (or what can be) the future be for queers?
This is why, in Muñoz’ estimation, it is essential that we ask not just what but when a queer body is; what it’s been, what it might yet become. To challenge time, tense, and chronology is to oppose the operation of straight time and its ability to narrativize queer bodies out of existence.
This question of the when of queerness is at the heart of transgender electronic musician Rae Spoon’s remarkable debut novel, First Spring Grass Fire (Arsenal Pulp). In a direct, crystalline voice, Spoon unfolds the story of growing up Pentecostal and queer in Calgary, Alberta.
An intensely personal, darkly funny, and stunningly honest book, First Spring teeters on the border between fiction and memoir, oscillating between a ‘real’ past and an alternative history that might have been.
At a meager 137 pages. First Spring is, at first blush, a modest read. Carved up into 24 slim chapters more accurately described as vignettes, it wheels erratically through memories of Billy Graham prayer rallies, the horror of gym class dance lessons, Pentecostal guilt, drugs, music, and suburban misery, rarely stopping to catch it’s breath.
Even the death of an infant brother receives little more than a few pages of direct attention before Spoon’s narrator (with whom they share a first name) veers off course toward their father’s schizophrenia, nightmares about wedding dresses, and the Calgary Stampede.
(As an aside: Spoon offers what is perhaps the most accurate description of the Calgary Stampede ever put to paper: “the city becomes a sea of new white cowboy hats and denim worn by office workers who have probably never been on a farm. You can see them in the evening sauntering around town drunk with little bits of straw stuck on their outfits from the bales of hay that are trucked in for the occasion.”)
Not surprisingly, in the midst of such rapid narrative swings, tenses often fail. It is not at all uncommon for First Spring to condense past, present, and future into a single paragraph with little warning or signal.
As Spoon’s narrator recalls, for example, playing along to Wheel of Fortune with their grandparents, they operate exclusively in the past tense, calling up their time living in a tiny Calgary basement as a concrete memory, now completed: “my uncle and I would gang up on my grandmother and tease her.” Without warning, however, the chapter closes with a shift to the present tense: “She always beats me at scrabble and can play the piano, organ, and accordion by ear.”
A relationship that only moments prior seemed resigned to the already-disintegrating space of memory is suddenly very much alive. By traversing the same temporal boundaries thrown into question by the book’s refusal to side either with fiction or biography, Spoon continually manages to excavate what seems lost. Where a ‘straight time’ narrative might deny the speaker’s future by forgetting their past, Spoon’s stuttering timeline does just the opposite: giving hope that a fading relation might endure by recovering what is no longer.
It seems far from accidental, then, that the book’s most important revelations come into full view only in hindsight, and only through repeat viewings. The death of the speaker’s infant brother, for example, would seem to function as an obvious and devastating narrative waypoint.
Yet, against the very metaphor of a waypoint, the death’s meaning and place are never fixed. The speaker, caught in Spoon’s queer temporality, circles back upon the loss over and over again — sometimes quickly and casually, sometimes with a greater sobriety. And with each return, the loss is developed further.
The circumstances under which the death occurred, the world around it, and the biographies that preceded it are revealed iteratively, through a process of sedimentation. Rather than functioning as stable points along a linear narrative path, then, memories in Spoon’s text are mobile, uncertain, incomplete. When they cross the boundaries that delimit past, present, and future, they take on new dimensions and develop in unexpected directions. Sometimes they take sinister turns, other times they become sweet whispers, still others, they become uproarious jokes.
At one point, for example, Rae recalls snorting crushed up Ritalin tablets off of religious texts as a Sunday school pick-me-up. The memory appears abruptly, as a dark, almost absurd joke lacking any real context, save for a vague mention of the supplier: “a boy with ADD.”
However, in the following chapter, which traces an altogether different story unfolding in an altogether different time, the boy reappears, only with a shade more detail: he had a crush on Rae in junior high. The pills return as well, but are similarly expanded into the one thing capable of giving Rae enough focus to write songs, songs that evoke possible futures, elsewheres, beyonds. No longer are the tablets a simple life preserver. Rather, our return to them — a return possible only within a queer temporality — makes them look a lot like hope.
Even the book’s central trauma comes into view only in its closing pages, and only posed as a question that quivers with uncertainty. Its admission forces both the speaker and the reader to return to everything that has already unfolded.
That is, at the very point where straight time might offer a moment of narrative closure, Spoon sends us back to the beginning of what now looks like an entirely different story. Resolution is frustrated and any notion of progress or movement toward an end is denied. In their places, meaning is developed, moments are amplified, and relationships are redrawn.
This transitory conception of time resonates, of course, with the book’s ostensible narrative: a young girl, born into a conservative Pentecostal Albertan family, gradually, frustratingly, and iteratively moving away from faith, sexual normativity and identitarian gender. While mainstream representations of queerness have mostly solidified around a predictable “coming out” narrative, this chain of liminal moments and disidentifications reminds us that comings-out are always multiple, nuanced, strategic, and never complete.
In this way, First Spring Grass Fire manages to uncover multiple forms of queer agency and being that the conventional in-out dichotomy suppresses. It creates a narrative environment in which the physical, institutional world of school, church, bodies, and suburban living constantly frustrate, but where time offers the hope that things might yet be different.
Indeed, throughout the book, Spoon rehearses an at times burning resentment toward their material circumstances — Calgary’s unreliable public transit system, the floral print underwear and tights that young girls are supposed to wear, the fact that cut out pictures of Kurt Cobain just won’t come to life, no matter how hard one might wish.
Yet if the physical and the institutional endlessly thwart such queer acts of willing, Spoon’s insistence upon remaking the temporal animates both the possibility of flight and the trace of freedom. It suggests that we might return, revive, and continue, that the queer ties with which a straight-time world won’t (or can’t) reckon might yet be felt.
Rae will be launching First Spring Grass Fire in Vancouver on Sunday September 30th at the Rio Theatre in a performance that also includes Geoff Berner and Cris Derksen. Rae will also be touring across Canada this fall performing “Gender Failure,” a show co-created and performed with famed storyteller Ivan E. Coyote.