7 Books About Grotesque Bodies
BIPOC writers on the margins get physical in their search for identity
When I was growing up in western Canada in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, my sister and I were the only people we knew who were biracial—not quite white, not quite Chinese, but somewhere in the empty space between. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Internalizing both the quiet racism and gender norms I was steeped in, I wanted to be white, blue-eyed, and delicately feminine, but when I looked in the mirror at my dark hair and skin, my broadened face and flat nose, I often felt wrong, even monstrous, like my body on the outside was aberrant to my self on the inside.
Bodies and body parts that seem disconnected, threatening, and grotesque is a running theme across my debut short story collection, The Whole Animal. In one of the stories, “Porcelain Legs,” the pre-teen protagonist, Queenie, fixates on a long, wiry, black hair sprouting out of her mother’s eyelid. Even though she can’t stop looking at it, Queenie is repulsed by the hair—a blatant emblem of not only Chineseness, but also anti-femininity, both of which Queenie subconsciously rejects.
I’m fascinated by BIPOC writers who explore grotesque depictions of bodies as representations of the elusive experience of finding identity for those whose marginalized race, gender, class, and/or sexuality intersect, to profound and sometimes dangerous degrees. Here are some outstanding works of poetry and fiction I’ve recently discovered that navigate this theme in poignant and illuminating ways.
Tell Me Pleasant Things About Immortality by Lindsay Wong
A 376-year-old woman, who gained immortality after ingesting the supposedly lethal deathlily, reflects on her colorful past while her body, which the Chinese government has declared a “national treasure,” finally begins to (literally) fall apart. A group of women deemed the ugliest girls in China are called upon to serve their country by allowing leeches to extract their most fervent memories of suffering from their tongues, to be fed as an indulgence to the gluttonous elites. A twelve-year-old girl struggles to learn how to swim, not only to live up to her half-mermaid, half-frog mother, but also to justify her right to survive. Wong’s collection of short stories is full of vivid, haunting, “body horror” imagery, but also glimmers with dark humour. At the heart of each story is an incisive commentary on the power that familial and cultural history and mythology hold over the way immigrants perceive themselves in relation to their world.
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
Despite her best efforts to find happiness, Edith Vane just can’t seem to get comfortable in her own skin. She’s out of shape and chronically insecure, both with her new barista-turned-girlfriend, Bev, and in her job as a professor at the University of Inivea, where she tries desperately to earn the respect of her cutthroat colleagues and indifferent students as “a brown woman with prematurely drooping body and face parts.” Even Crawley Hall, the building on campus that houses the English department, seems to be rejecting her, trapping her in its shifting, labyrinthine halls, sprouting suicidal gargoyles, and threatening to be swallowed up by a giant sinkhole in the earth. As Crawley Hall slowly infects the people inside, turning them into zombie-like harbingers of Edith’s inevitable fate, the lines between reality and fantasy, clarity and madness, begin to blur. This novel is a brilliant satire of the monstrous, all-consuming nature of academia, particularly for women of color.
This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Fragmented bodies figure prominently in this striking collection of poems, as Belcourt navigates the enduring legacy of colonialism, including the violence, both historical and contemporary, suffered by indigenous people. Woven into this struggle are the poet’s visceral reflections on the queer body as raw, spectral, and often abject as it yearns for a sense of belonging and acceptance in the face of restrictive gender norms and toxic masculinity. While the writing is lucid and lyrical, every poem in this collection is a blow to the heart. In “The Back Alley of the World,” Belcourt writes, “make my mouth into a jar / spit inside me / throw me into the air / leave me there / pretend that this is love.” This collection (unsurprisingly) earned Belcourt the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, making him the youngest winner in the history of the award.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Horror, sci-fi, and fantasy collide in this extraordinary collection of short stories that defy expectation at every turn. Bodies in these stories are sites of violence, erotic pleasure, and often both at once. In “The Husband Stitch,” women’s bodies are portrayed as grotesque and monstrous, at odds with their role as objects of hedonism and childbearing for men. “Inventory” begins as a catalogue of sexual encounters relayed in unsettlingly carnal detail, and gradually morphs into a tragic lament for human intimacy amid a deadly pandemic. As a collection, this book is a Frankenstein-like challenge to the strictures of genre and a bold re-visioning of gender, love, and sexuality in the 21st century.
Ossuaries by Dionne Brand
we grinned our aluminum teeth
we exhaled our venomous breaths
we tried to be calm in the invisible architecture
we incubated, like cluster bombs
whole lives waiting […]
This unyieldingly powerful long poem is structured in fifteen numbered “ossuaries,” which together unearth a network of spaces, both physical and metaphorical, to examine how the skeletal histories of black people on colonial lands continue to haunt us in the present. Yasmine, the central character of the poem’s narrative, represents the black diaspora and women of colour simultaneously, as she struggles to come to terms with the injustices and acts of violence, both personal and political, that undergird her tenuous place in the world. Bodies in these poems are dangerous and menacing, a reflection of the ever-present threat of violence that marks the black community’s everyday experience. As Yasmine reflects in “ossuary III,” “I was caged in bone spur endlessly / eye sockets ambushed me, / I slept with harassment and provocations, / though I wanted to grow lilacs, who wouldn’t?”
Stone Fruit by Lee Lai
In Lai’s debut graphic novel, Ray, a cisgendered Asian woman, and Bron, a transgendered white woman, are a queer couple whose close relationship with Ray’s young niece, Nessie, is an anchor for each character’s sense of identity. When Ray, Bron, and Nessie are together, a magical transformation takes place: they shed their human forms, becoming reptilian-looking monsters with sharp, bared teeth and oozing limbs. While they appear wild and terrifying at first, it quickly becomes clear that this monstrous form is liberating for the characters; only when they’re together in their imaginative world, away from the judgments and expectations of society, can they inhabit their true selves. But when Bron decides to reconnect with the ultra-Christian family she was estranged from when she transitioned, all three characters are forced to figure out how love and happiness can still be found without each other. The atmospheric illustrations that make this novel so memorable elucidate the stifling reality of living within the confines of a body that cannot contain the multitudes of the self.
Bunny by Mona Awad
Samantha, a student in her last year of an MFA in creative writing at a prestigious New England university, has grown accustomed to being an outsider. She’s freakishly tall, socially awkward, and lives in a dingy, one-room apartment on the sketchy fringes of the pristine neighbourhoods around the university campus. She writes dark, angry stories that mystify her professors and are snubbed by “The Bunnies,” a glittery clique of young women in her workshop class. And now she’s fallen into a creative slump that’s causing her to question everything she thinks she knows about herself. The Bunnies, in stark contrast, seem to be thriving; they are supremely confident, ultra-privileged, quintessential mean girls. Obsessed with their looks, they fawn over each other in a cloying, artificial way, and exclude anyone who’s not like them from their tight inner circle. Named for their penchant for calling each other “Bunny,” they seem to move through the narrative as a single, manufactured entity, a monstrous amalgam: “Four heads full of white, orthodontically enhanced teeth. Hair so shiny it will blind you to look at it directly, like an eclipse.” But when the Bunnies suddenly invite Samantha to join their “Smut Salon,” Samantha cannot resist her buried desire to become one of them. What ensues is a twisted descent into “creativity,” where bodies become “hybrid” objects to be manipulated, exploited, and even destroyed.