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OKPsyche coverModern neuroscience theorizes that our brains evolved to be stasis-preserving storytellers, sifting through new information and experiences in order to fold them into our already established understanding of things. But what happens when new information about yourself surfaces and you’re forced to revise your sense of self? It’s a question many queer folks are intimately familiar with and it’s at the heart of Anya Johanna DeNiro’s short novel, OKPsyche.

Written in the second person, the novel tells the story of an unnamed trans woman in a near-future Midwest as she makes sense of herself, her previous self, and whether there is such a thing as an immutable soul. Semi-estranged from her eleven-year-old son, who lives with her ex-wife in a neighboring state, the protagonist, referred to as “______” or “deadname,” was once a father and husband with a steady job and a hidden penchant for collecting and eventually disposing of women’s clothing. Now she is a freelancer (she lost her job for unspecified reasons after coming out) living alone through her transition and desperately seeking a love that will prove she is worthy of it.

The plot hops around out of chronological order with a kind of dream logic that can be hard to pin down. Basically, some weird things happen and ultimately nudge the protagonist towards a reconciliation with her son. Before that reunion can happen, she has to, as she reminds herself,Do the one thing that will save you before anything else. Remember—if you can’t take care of yourself, how do you expect to care for anyone else?” (p. 48) While ____ spends most of the novel thinking that one thing is making a successful enough transition to achieve external validation through romantic love, in the end, the validation has to come from herself, with the help of other queer people.

The weird things that may or may not happen to ____ in the meantime include the arrival of directions to build a closet-sized camera obscura that allows her to see her son, conversations with her dead father, a fairy godthem named Oriole who sends her an unassembled, warm-bodied boyfriend in a box, an encounter with a person named Emoji who offers electrolysis for trauma—“You cut it as close to your skin as you can, and then I burn it out” (p. 23)—bad dates, worse dates, building friendships with an imaginary trans friend and several real ones, and flying to her mother’s deathbed on a fifty-two-minute flight that somehow traverses Manhattan and then San Francisco before landing in her rust-belt-city hometown.

All of this takes place amid a surreal backdrop of a United States a little further along the late-stage-capitalist, Christo-fascist, climate disaster timeline. Massive drones hover over the plains states, hospital trains crisscross the nation, the creative class live in towers guarded by private militias, and wealthy cities outsource their climate disasters to poor ones:

You don’t feel safe anywhere near Lake Minnetonka. The yachts have been converted to gunboats—some painted the color of the Gadsden Flag, some painted the color of the black American flag with the thin blue line in the middle, the American flag of death. (p. 19)

The impossible and the all-too-possible coexist in this world, made more coherent by DeNiro’s reminders that the horrendous shit is unequally distributed along hierarchies of class and race. _____ is consistently aware that, even with all of the humiliations she faces being a trans woman in public, the risk to her is of a different order than it is for trans women of color. When frightened by an aggressive, mumbling man in public, she calls to mind the women who have suffered terrible violence and death. “These women are almost never white, and you know this, you know that if you get ridiculed, they might get punched in the face, and if you ever got punched in the face they might get shot. It’s not the same. It’s never the same.” (p. 82)

Second-person point-of-view is often a way to force an identification with the speaker, or as a way for the speaker to distance herself from the story she’s relating, but neither seem to be how DeNiro is deploying this infrequently utilized viewpoint. The dedication—“For trans folks, again and again”—and the Clarice Lispector epigraph—“And it’s inside myself that I must create someone who will understand”—offer some insight into her choice. In OKPsyche, the second-person telling lets the reader in on a conversation this character is having with herself as she creates within herself the understanding that she needs: a sort of literary camera obscura that offers glimpses of how she pieces her historically disparate selves together.

The title nods to the poem “Ode to Psyche” by John Keats [1], which appears a third of the way into the book. Among other things, Keats’s poem is an allegory of the self’s relationship with itself, “psyche” meaning “soul.” The relationship between the two was a common  theme for the Romantics, who valued self and subjectivity as a source of truth beyond empirical reality. But if your self, your subjectivity, has undergone a radical shift, what does that say of the truth it has made or continues to make?

The book sets these stakes out with the opening lines.

You have struggled for a long time as to whether you have a soul or not—whether anyone does—or if you’re only a gathering of restless and ginned-up personality traits brought together to fool yourself into believing that there is, in fact, a you. As opposed to an unrecognizable someone-else.

This is complicated by the fact that you used to be someone else entirely. (p. 1)

As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this line of thinking is intimately familiar to many queer folks, trans and cis alike. When I arrived for freshman orientation at my alma mater—a women’s college—I was unable to conceive of myself as anything other than straight and cis. Before the week was out, I’d developed a full-blown crush on a fellow student. Next came the sorting through past hints and shames and shared storifying with my new friends. When did you know? Are you really queer or are you a LUG (lesbian until graduation)? Are you a “gold star lesbian” or did you lose your star to some clumsy boy? Isn’t it great to finally be ourselves?

It’s understandable that coming-out narratives so frequently involve justifying our current identities by finding evidence of them in our past. In the US, at least, there’s a sense that credibility and authenticity require consistency. It’s an oppressive logic with poisonous fingers dipped in most aspects of life, but particularly questions of justice and identity. It’s also deeply hostile to the artistic mind, which, it seems to me, requires an openness to being changed by the world and exploring your own changeable nature. While the process of mining our past to explicate our present can be affirming and lead to the healing of old wounds, it can also be used to gatekeep and further shame. If you didn’t know you were trans and/or queer by the time you were five, are you really trans or queer “enough”? And what happens to that queer identity if, like me, you came out to yourself at university, maintained queer relationships through your twenties, and then fell in love with a cis, straight man? Are you still queer enough?

To be honest, some part of me has held onto the belief that consistency equals authenticity, along with a quietly gnawing shame over my unfixed nature. But, to borrow a friend’s way of describing certain powerful books, OKPsyche has made my world larger.

On the flight home to be with her mother for her final moments, _____ is seated next to a man who had been glaring at her in the terminal. She’s read him as danger and she’s not wrong. When turbulence scares him into asking her to hold his hand, he tells her that Oriole, the above-mentioned fairy godthem, was speaking to him through his earbuds. They told him about himself and a terrifying scene in which, in a drug-fueled haze, he left a woman he’d just slept with in the woods to be brutalized by her jealous, raging boyfriend—who has stumbled upon them post-coitus.

“When I know who I am again, when I come to, I’m in the airport. This is what the voice told me, about what happened, and all of it’s true. It’s all true. And the voice also told me that it’s possible that I’m not even really here, in this airplane flying, that I might exist as a reflection of your own painful memory of bullies. That my body isn’t flesh and blood as much as it is a wiki.”

“You mean, like, Wikipedia?” you say, trying to follow …

“I don’t know! The voice said that we all are wikis, collections of facts and recounted events and time-stamps, that everything I did in the forest was in the wiki, and that we were dark blue wikis that were bundled together into an even larger wiki, and that the other animals were dark red wikis and the plants were dark green wikis and so on. And that any of them can be edited, by anyone, but you have to have the right username and password, even to edit your own wiki but that you...” He turns to you for the first time. “You were able to change yours, in fact you changed a lot, even though it might not seem like it for you, not just being a girl now, but that your change history was like an aria...” (p. 131)

All along, _____ has been asking why Oriole and their collective of fantastical helpers are expending any energy on her when there are trans people in much more dire circumstances. While Oriole makes no bones about _____’s relative privilege, the answer seems to be that they assist her in service to the beauty of her constant revision, her endless search for the truth of her self/subjectivity and her perception of the world. It’s a quest Keats’s poem valorizes as well.

Between the second-person point-of-view, the jumps in time, and the surreal and weird elements, OKPsyche is not an easy read by any stretch, but it is worth the effort. As _____ builds within herself a person who will understand what she has experienced, DeNiro dislocates consistency from authenticity and celebrates the act and art of revising our understanding of ourselves, our pasts, and our world. I’d go so far as to say DeNiro is suggesting that the ability to revise who we think we are—again and again—is a kind of creative superpower, and a particularly trans one at that.

Endnotes

[1] I confess to being out of my depth when it comes to British Romantic poetry. Many thanks to writer, scholar, and debut novelist B. Pladek for giving me a better understanding of the poem’s context and significance. All errors in the following are entirely my own. [return]



E.C. Barrett (they/she) writes folk horror, fabulism, and dark speculative fiction. They are, or have been, an academic, journalist, bookseller, editor, and linocut artist. A Clarion West graduate, E.C. has words in Bourbon PennBaffling MagazineSplit Lip, and elsewhere, and she serves as the book reviews editor for Reckoning. E.C. is queer, neurodivergent, and enjoys more maker hobbies than is entirely practical. ecbarrett.com
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