Identity

Andrea Long Chu’s Latest Book Infuses Identity With Desire

The critic has made enemies by pushing the way we think about trans feminism. But she loves a good fight.

by Maggie Lange; photos by Yael Malka
Nov 18 2019, 3:15pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Andrea Long Chu was explaining how she couldn’t find the porn—the one her friend told her about, in which a sexy teacher seduces her students by using a line from the SCUM Manifesto, a fun-seeking, batshit declaration from 1967 written by Valerie Solanas. If you haven’t spent time with Solanas, it’s a ride on an unhinged subway car with its own gravity and decisive assurance that women are cool and men useless. It’s so incendiary that a pornographic film took limited plot time to concede that SCUM effectively transforms the students into lesbians. “This made instant, perfect sense,” Chu wrote in her first book, Females: A Concern, released in October. “It’s what Valerie did to me.”

During our first Skype chat Chu told me that unearthing the proof in the porn seemed beside the point. She could guess what was on it. “The teacher is wearing glasses,” Chu said, waving her hand like, You know the scene. “She has a pointer that she’s probably going to spank them with. It’s very rote in every regard, except there’s Valerie Solanas on the blackboard.” It’s an idea that thrills: One seductive line can transform our whole way of being.

A subversive text in the background of random porn is a classic artifact for Chu to worship or criticize or both. Females began when Verso Books asked Chu, a 27-year-old critic-essayist with a particular interest in gender and feminism and avant-garde weirdos, to write the introduction to a reprinting of Solanas’ 1965 play Up Your Ass. As the title indicates, the play is kinda shitty, so Verso decided not to publish it and instead asked Chu to expand her introduction into a book. The resulting text is slim, stylish, and peculiar to describe structurally—somewhere between essays and a scrapbook of flashy pronouncements. Each section is a few pages long and begins with a line from Up Your Ass, like “I’m so female, I’m subversive.” Thought experiments like Is feminist sex possible? are over as fast as they start, shuttered with a fun rejoinder like, “No, but who cares?” Chu flits around subjects, but always returns to whom she loves and what she desires.

It is one of Chu’s most ambitious and significant pursuits to date. She pushes against the idea of identity as a holy category. She argues that we’re not only motivated by some internal pulse of pure selfhood; we’re creatures of desire and our desires aren’t something we can steer. So what happens if we acknowledge that they steer us? “I take very strong positions against an identitarian model of being trans,” Chu said simply, through the screen, leaning back onto the couch below a bookshelf with shiny copper vessels and plants so medium-size they seemed brave for trying to keep at it.

She pushes against the idea of identity as a holy category. She argues that we’re not only motivated by some internal pulse of pure selfhood; we’re creatures of desire and our desires aren’t something we can steer. So what happens if we acknowledge that they steer us?

This is the backbone of “On Liking Women,” a deeply affectionate essay Chu wrote for n+1 in early 2018, and the first piece she’s written that turned intellectual heads en masse (at least in the literary magazine sense of masse). Chu was getting her PhD in comparative literature at NYU when an editor-friend told her that the publication was interested in a piece about trans people and feminism. In the resulting text, Chu characterizes feminism as so desirable one could forget about other wants. To Chu, feminism was “a low-key confident girl, slightly aloof, with a gravity all neighboring bodies obeyed. Feminism was too cool, too effortlessly hip, to be interested in a person like me… Besides, I heard she only dated women.” In this piece, desire takes a front seat and then desire takes the wheel. Here, sex-drive isn’t just a cool thing to mention; in this context, it’s also considered and earnest (the opposite of a cool thing to mention). With this foregrounding of want, Chu defies a lot of trans theory and advocacy. Scholars like David Valentine write about how this split of sexuality and gender was crucial in the early creation of trans as a category—and this split has become part of a lineage of respectability politics that erases some key human qualities, like pleasure, from rights-seeking subjects. The deveining of sexuality from gender can seem trenchant still. So coordinating the intersection of pleasure and gender has a revolutionary quality: It’s both super obvious and unspeakable.

“Andrea is actually rowing upstream,” Paisley Currah, a professor at CUNY, wrote to me. “She’s not saying the popular stuff: ‘Down with the gender binary!’ ‘Trans is the new revolutionary subject position.’” But her argumentative verve has entranced a liberal set that might have disagreed with her.

Currah met Chu in 2015 when Chu took a consortium class in transgender studies from him; her final paper “The Wrong Wrong Body: Notes on Trans Phenomenology” was published in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Publishing in important journals, which Chu has done a few times, “doesn’t really happen for graduate students until they’re well into, maybe even done with, their dissertation,” Currah noted.

“There is actually room now for thinkers in my generation to be dissatisfied with the kind of writing that existed before,” Chu told me, with respect to the people who paved the road. “I look forward to trans people getting to argue with each other. There is a dignity in being allowed to argue.” It seems clear that Chu loves a good fight. Throughout our two video chats, when we disagreed, the pace picked up; her meowing cat was ignored.

It’s hard to know if Chu’s arguments appeal because they go against popular radical opinion or in spite of this. Chu seemed to burst onto the lit-liberal landscape, Venus from the shell of Valerie Solanas. But, of course, Chu had been preparing for art, feminism, and controversy for a while. Some of Females’ most endearing parts are flashes to Chu’s early art performance work: destroying a piano and covering it in classic texts like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. As she put it, “ Feminism, I thought.”

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Now Chu is finishing her PhD, but before she moved to New York to start graduate school, she lived in North Carolina. She grew up in Asheville, a temperate mountain town, which she described as full of crystal shops and competing incense smoke. Her family is religious, and Chu said she tried to be, but it didn’t take. “I was always particularly bad at praying”—not drawn to quiet reflection. There are still vestiges of self-professed theater-kid energy around her: a ukulele on the wall, “always show tunes” on the piano, a love of performing, play, and shocking little twists.

Chu seems to know her power to captivate. She knows what’s provocative, but she’s been wrong so far when guessing which provocations will be greeted with grateful thanks and which will result in liberal exile. Her kneecapping of Jill Soloway in Affidavit in November 2018, for instance, considered suspicions that Soloway’s identity seemed influenced by convenience. “Being trans because you want the attention doesn’t make you ‘not really trans’; it just makes you annoying,” Chu wrote.

The piece was like a breath of frosty air for suffocated queers. We can be mean and morally ethical: thank God. But crucially, there was something sober tucked around the wit. “A truly expansive vision of transness,” Chu told me, “would include people who are trans because they were bored with their lives, they needed a change, because they wanted to have sex with people who didn’t yet want to have sex with them, because they’re trying to stick it to their parents, because they’re trying to fit in with their friends... It is not true dignity for entrance to a category to be predicated on noble intentions.”

Then, a few weeks later, Chu published an essay in the New York Times about vaginoplasty a week before getting the surgery herself. It made the case that convincing a doctor about your future happiness shouldn’t be required for acquiring a vagina. Personal autonomy and wanting a vagina should be enough. “I was trying to reset the terms of that conversation. I was asking, not ‘Can we justify transition-related surgeries in relation to existing values,’ but can we think about a different set of values under which to justify it. I think that can be frightening and confusing and just disorienting for people,” she told me.

After the piece, criticism from other trans women worried that Chu’s suspicions that a new vagina won’t affect her dysphoria could deter trans women from a surgery they might want. In a measured, critically precise, and sweetly aching essay for Slate, Kai Cheng Thom writes that Chu’s mistrust of good outcomes and her shocking descriptions might bolster transphobic people’s willful misunderstanding of medical transition and feed their “lurid interest in trans people’s bodies at the expense of our rights and privacy.” Provocation and intensity are important to Chu, and given that, she may have overestimated that readers would consider what’s behind the shock.

“There is actually room now for thinkers in my generation to be dissatisfied with the kind of writing that existed before. I look forward to trans people getting to argue with each other. There is a dignity in being allowed to argue.”

And now comes Females: A Concern. It’s, like most everything about Chu, a great show. It’s always smart, sometimes sincere, and unpredictable about when it will pinch your arm or clutch its nails around your heart. Like her idol Solanas, Chu produced a slender work weaponized with jokes and urgency. The first three sentences of Females: “Everyone is female. The worst books are all by females. All the great art heists of the past three hundred years were pulled off by a female, working solo or with other females.” It’s a premise with so much vigor that its author never feels moved to defend it. It’s a magic trick or a cartwheel. You can’t slow it down enough to understand its structure. You have to let it move at speed.

The day I got a copy of Chu’s book, my friend Hannah unearthed it from my bag, as if they could smell something lurking. They immediately read the first two pages aloud, paused. Then we laughed until our guts ached. We had no idea what she was talking about! But we felt like she was totally right about it. Or as Chu said: “Things are funny before they are actually true or false, those are later considerations.” Over email, Dayna Tortorici, Chu’s editor at n+1, called her “a feminist theorist in disguise as a stand-up comedian. Her routines wouldn’t land if the ideas beneath the jokes didn’t add up, but they do,” which is a quality that “sets her apart from other funny writers who are good at stunting on Twitter, but whose thinking doesn’t amount to anything deep or new once you get past the shtick.”

In jokes, among other stuff, language upstages truth. It’s a case for why to pay particular attention to them, because you fell for something before you understood its implications for you. This is how Chu writes about falling for SCUM, for feminism itself. “I think I do tend to react pretty quickly for better or for worse,” she said. So maybe there’s a taste for the reckless. Chu knows this about herself. (When she’s having a bad day, she still reads the enamored responses to her Soloway piece.)

When Chu told me about valuing disagreements in trans communities, she looked headstrong and clear-eyed. When she recounted the hurt of being a target, both misread and fairly criticized particularly for politically inexpedient timing, Chu looked… Well, to cop her book’s title, concerned. Bravado about the theory gave way to sincerity about the stakes. “Feelings of incrimination and resentment and butthurted-ness: that’s part of the thing. Saying we should be able to argue with each other isn’t just that we should be able to have respectful debates with each other,” Chu said. “It’s that we should be able to roll around in the mud with each other.” This is, she said, what she wants.

Spear-slinging appeals to Chu. It’s a quality that binds together many of the subjects in her book—and qualities that she admires are often ones that rear up in her own work. When Chu described Valerie Solanas, I sometimes forgot she wasn’t talking about herself. On our final video call, she said: “There’s a flippancy to saying: ‘I’m not going to support my argument, I’m not going to sand the edges off of my argument, I’m going to let my wit carry the claim as much as logic.’ But it’s only because of her investment. It’s not a sign of indifference. ‘The stakes are so high, I don’t have time to meet the requirements of a good argument!’ And she shouldn’t have to.” Tellingly, the position between “I” and “Valerie” slips a bit, the qualities of the desired and the force of the devoted get all connected.

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