I’ve become really used to identifying with characters in fiction that have lives wholly unlike my own, often intensely, but when I read Stone Butch Blues and Tango: My Childhood, Backwards, and in High Heels I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I don’t think I’ve felt this way about books before. It was more than immersion. It feels like someone put their finger on my skin and started tracing everything I’ve worried about and feared and everything I’ve wanted all at once. There was nowhere else to be but in the story. I’ve never imagined loving a book that wasn’t far removed from reality that I could forget I existed. But here I am. The spines of these books are wrinkled beyond salvation already because I’ve bent them around from every angle, reading them in bed in low light when I should be sleeping. When I knew I was only going to get four hours of sleep as it was, but I needed to turn the page again. And again. There are stains from tea and pizza and anything else I ate while craned over the books, turning pages with greasy fingers because I couldn’t wait another ten minutes to keep reading. Many of the pages are wrinkled because I keep clutching the book while I breathe to swallow down feelings.
I think that this is everything I could want. It’s like seeing the whole picture instead of the thousand puzzle pieces you’ve been trying to fit together all your life. I feel like I need to buy a clean copy of each of the books. And then ten more copies. Maybe if I buy enough then someone will realize that there’s someone out there clamoring for more and start publishing more and I wont have to worry that I wont be able to have more of these stories. Yet, I also feel guilty because each of them already feels like a world full of magic.
I’ve voraciously read fantasy since I was little. I have so many books that I’ve lined walls of my room with them, bookshelves filled wall to ceiling. I write my own fantasy with friends. Roleplay it. Dream it. And yet, somehow, despite all this, the only thing I’ve never ever even imagined was possible was opening a book and reading something that honestly and truly felt like it was written for me.
We were the victims of people who felt the shifting sands of identity and sexuality, and who were sure that they could manipulate, cajole, and torture their children into being what they thought was necessary for the survival of some kind of misguided social contract that we are all supposed to sign on to.
Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, excerpt from Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels.
Tonight! Wear your best black & white party threads and join us for readings, gin punch, and celebration of Alexander Chee on the paperback launch of THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and reissue of EDINBURGH. He’ll be joined by Justin Vivian Bond, Maaza Mengiste, Sam Sax, Mira Jacob, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Ed Lin, and Lisa Flanagan. (at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe)
Fleeting Feelings with Justin Vivian Bond, in “The Drift”
A Helix Critical Squad Review by Doug Keeler
Getting off is easy, staying still is hard.
– Justin Vivian Bond, “Wild Card”
Justin Vivian Bond knows how to subvert a performance, whether that performance is gender, a cabaret number, or a Brecht play. And where traditional theater might aim to minimize disruptions in the performance (e.g. distressed divas, forgotten lines, sneezes in the audience), a Bond show delights in these breakdowns, and specializes in making them both entertaining and accessible. Because after all, Bond loves performance, excels at it, and is rightfully famous for an improvisational instinct that shreds scripts and leaves audiences in a state of giddy shock.
Where v has previously done so through histrionics and hysteria, v’s cabaret show “The Drift” instead explores the softer disjunctures and dysphorias that defiantly emerge from a performance. Using Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as an entry point, “The Drift” elaborates upon these lonely, lucid breaks, and through v’s entrancing voice, challenges the audience to decorate otherwise unspectacular affects. By decorating them, dressing them up in “jazz, poetry, and notions,” v produces an elongated sense of relief— like the feeling of flesh airing out after taking a bandage off a small, healed cut— that makes the show so, so soothing.
At its core, “The Drift” represents a determined act of self-care in response to the strict discipline of traditional theater. (Bond spent this past winter enduring a starring role in Bertolt Brecht’s “A Man’s a Man” at Classic Stage Company.) Swirling together source materials ranging from Tim and Jeff Buckley to the Landesmans’ The Nervous Set, the show serves to retrieve the pieces of Bond’s artistic voice that had been scattered and stashed away. How fortunate that Justin Vivian Bond’s acts of self-care happen to also nourish and entertain v’s patrons, fans, and community! It’s an awfully familiar challenge to reconcile caring for oneself and caring for one’s community, but v manages to do so with finesse, suggesting that perhaps the queer project of “world-making” can be less intimidating than it sounds.
A few months ago, I’d heard v speak at an event at NYU’s Performance Studies department. Asked by the deeply missed José Esteban Muñoz what v thought of “the good life,” v began a verbose anecdote revolving around Karen Graham (The Estee Lauder Woman), fly-fishing, and striving to feel “serene.” Justin Vivian’s reflections on the serene manifested similarly in “The Drift,” not as a resolution to be happy, but as a question of how to feel free and not feel empty, to drift and not drown. Nowhere was this question (or anxiety) more directly felt than during Justin Vivian’s premiere of v’s new original song “Wild Card.” The song’s soulful hook, “getting off is easy / staying still is hard,” captures Bond’s fear for a freneticism that must inevitably wane, whether in v’s love life or in v’s queer communities, a fear that we will not know how to feel or act or care when we lose our wildness. Through “The Drift,” v experiments with performing a queer self that is voluntarily relaxed, rather than being filed down by force. And that wildness hasn’t been forfeited completely either, but crucially inspires us to stay afloat.
Perhaps my favorite moment of “The Drift” is when Bond describes jumping into a nearby boat with a handsome man and drifting down a dark river, drunk on whiskey and high on “something that if you mixed with color you could use as makeup.” Effortlessly, v sutures the queer survival strategies of getting high and getting pretty, an echo of Muñoz’s utopian prescription to “[take] ecstacy with one another, in as many ways as possible…” In this fashion, the performance ornaments a series of sad and bad feelings, fleeting feelings that make themselves known as much in the wistful camp of Tennesse Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as in the nostalgic whimsy of Bambi Lake’s “Viking Dan.”
“The Drift” challenges its audience to find glamor in not only the hysterical breaks of v’s performances, but also in more mellow modes of distress, wherein we might feel in-between, adjacent, or adrift. Justin Vivian’s rendition of Jeff Buckley’s “So Real” perfectly presents this challenge, as v’s voice washes over the room with Buckley’s haunting moans before frantically vocalizing the song’s instrumental break. Aside from v’s vocal performance being simply stunning, it supplied a break in the performance that differed from the breakdowns that characterized Bond’s “Kiki and Herb” shows. Rather than take audiences to the heights or depths of feeling, the breakdowns of “So Real,” and the emotional narrative of “The Drift” in its entirety, take us toward its horizon. This alternative affective journey is crucial to what makes “The Drift” so enjoyable, because it allows Bond to be unpredictable, vulnerable, and nostalgic while still radiating with an incontrovertible sense of hope.
The Drift. Joe’s Pub, March 13 - April 11, 2014. Written & Performed by Justin Vivian Bond, Directed by Scott Wittman, Music Directed by Matt Ray.
It’s understandable that you, and all of us, would be frightened given the recent events. But instead of focusing on the fear we should think of all the bravery it has taken, all the courageous choices we’ve made as individuals and as a community to get to where we are now. It’s then we can recognize that the fear is something we can let go of because we are a strong, resilient, and powerful people.
For many, many years, Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman were Kiki & Herb. Then they weren’t. And then, last night, for just a few minutes, they were again. Tyler Coates took this video of them doing “Space Oddity.” I am very happy right now.
I think the biggest misconception is that a lot of people assume that transpeople want to be something other that what we are. I was assigned the gender “male” at birth and I’m not a male. That doesn’t mean I am, or want to be, female. When people identify as one thing or the other on the gender binary – and this includes transexuals – they often make the mistake that everyone else does, too. That simply isn’t true.