Stars in My Mind Like Pockets of Decay

Writer and performance artist Aegor Ray ruminates on the process of decomposition, and how it gives rise to new life in biology and culture—drawing on speculative fiction, caste politics, and trans embodiment.

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“The clean, clear ending that society keeps looking for is impossible to find. New kinds of social formations are always growing up, even within the most rigid that already seem to contain us.”

Samuel Delany, “Ash Wednesday”1

“Queerness, if it is to have any political resonance, needs to be more than an identitarian marker and to articulate a forward-dawning futurity.”

José Esteban Muñoz, “Cruising the Toilet”2

1. I am fixated on the whale fall: a carcass of a whale that drifts into the abyssal zones of the sea. Whale falls create complex local ecosystems that supply sustenance to deep sea organisms for decades, feeding sleeper sharks, squat lobsters, bristleworms, prawns, shrimp, lobsters, hagfish, crabs, and sea cucumbers. When I first hear about this thriving deep sea ecosystem blooming from the decaying body of a whale, I think about fisting.

I understand decomposition as an important process for my transition. I think it’s just that the image turns me on: the erosion of this great body that teems with minor and multicolored life, wriggling out from spaces deep in the bone. All of the tiny zooplankton and bacteria that nibble on bubbles of fat, forming biofilm to feed mussels and sea snails and clams. Deep sea communities are fed by this detritus and also a spraying of organic material called marine snow (hot).

2. This is how it feels, to me, to find queer and trans histories of perversion from the art and perspective of the desiring persons—not from the state or other death-oriented institutions.

3. I am moved reading Samuel Delany’s “Ash Wednesday”, a 2015 memoir by the living Black gay visionary science fiction writer. It is an account of Delany going to a sex party for men over 55 (the Prime Timers) when he was then 72 years old. He reflects:

“I’m known as a ‘sex radical, Afrofuturist, and grand master of science fiction,’ but the fact is, I am nowhere near as sexually radical as many, and for all my interest lots of things have passed me by. I felt there was a world of experience that had been slipping away. I wanted at least to know something about it, to write about it.”3

I am moved by this admission of openness and humility from the author of perhaps the most extreme pornographic novel ever written. And I am excited by the prospect of ageing into a sweeter, ripened relationship with filth and my perversions.

4. Last fall, on a day so hot that everything bled out at its edges, I laid on my friend D. Allen’s bed with them. I walked to their house and I was so sweaty, so aware of my sour smell hovering in the air. D.’s old, twisted jade plant was at our bedside and between its avuncular shadow and D., who loved me and who was squarely in my corner as a Moody Boy Forever, I felt safe. “I guess I like drinking,” I remember telling them, “because it makes me feel like a horse at night.” 

Once the pandemic started, I started to dread each oncoming night. Nights felt suffocating and deeply lonely at the same time—all that dark and her hot, velvet arms at my throat. I am reminded of the long nights in high school that I would spend in my room. My parents were large, gassy planets, their turmoil visible and violent at the surface. Capricious and sensitive, they demanded that I stay at home every evening and every weekend. Thank Goddess for the Web! I reveled in a rich internal world on writing blogs and Elliott Smith fan forums. I snuck out of my house to hook up with older boys I met on the internet. I watched tentacle porn and drew myself with a dick for a mouth, dicks for all ten fingers. I had anal sex in a corn field with a boy who looked like a goat.

5. My biological lineage on both sides is Brahmin: Bengali Brahmin on my father’s side and Tamil Brahmin on my mother’s side. Both these traditions are celebrations of violence and exclusion. “Purity” becomes the sword that we wield to maintain casteist domination, classist wealth-hoarding, and patriarchy. 

The violence of caste seeps into every aspect of everyday life: food, relationships, education, occupation, access, geography, voice. My parents only spoke about caste when they claimed minority status or romanticized our brutal lineage—they opined it was about learning and understanding. 

6. On public transit on my way to work, I read Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany. In it, the pockmarked misfit Korga undergoes Radical Anxiety Termination (RAT), has his brain zapped, and becomes a passive-minded labor slave. Korga briefly accesses the world outside through General Information (GI, an information Web that transmits directly and immediately into the wearer’s consciousness), but the fount is yanked from him just as his planet collapses into Cultural Fugue. Korga is the only survivor and is identified by GI as the future lover of the novel’s eventual protagonist Marc Dyeth4, his “perfect erotic object down to about seven decimal places.”5

7. For her piece What is the caste of water?, visual artist and ethnographer Rajyashri Goody created an installation of 108 glass tumblers containing dried and diluted panchagavya (a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee, and curd).6 Her piece reflects on the 1927 Chavdar Tale Satyagraha, wherein thousands of Dalits marched to the Chavdar water tank in Mahad, Maharastra—where they were prohibited by upper castes from drinking—dipped their hands into the water, and took a drink. Even though this was an act of non-violent resistance (Satyagraha), upper castes launched a violent retaliation against Dalits. 

Upper castes refused to drink from the Chavdar until it had been “purified” by 108 earthen pots of cow shit, urine, and dairy byproduct. 

All over India today, Hindu nationalists are committing acts of cow vigilantism: the murder and beating of Muslims and Dalits for consuming beef or working with cow hides. According to unofficial estimates, 97% of cow-related hate crimes between 2010 and 2017 have occurred after the election of India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Singh Modi in 2014.7

8. Six months into the pandemic, I am sitting on a dock with my girlfriend, an hour and a half outside of Minneapolis. The sky is a deep eggplant color and the darkest shape in the horizon is a palisade of trees reflected in the cool face of the lake. The stars above us are scattered into iridescent bursts; parts of the sky appear to be foaming. I can’t remember the last time I looked at the stars. There are so many that when I try to focus my eyes on one part, pinpricks of light erupt into the ether like branching colonies of fungi. Are there more stars in the sky than grains of sand on Earth? We promise we’ll look it up later.

That night, we see seven shooting stars.

We learn that on Neptune, the sky rains diamonds. 

9. Purity is a doctrine of power and violence.

10. “Our ideas of dirt express symbolic systems—the difference is only a matter of detail.”

“Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the byproduct of a systematic ordering and classification of matter.”

“So many ideas about power are based on the idea of a society as a series of forms contrasted with surrounding non-form.” – Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger8

11. I wonder when and if I will kiss a stranger in public or have group sex again. Even if it becomes possible soon, I wonder under what circumstances I will feel comfortable. 

12. This September will now mark four years since my father’s death. I’ve been afraid of this year approaching, because my friend Summer told me that four years marked the moment when her grief about her father became something different, something less raw. I understood that as meaning that my grief would belong to me less. 

My relationship with my father was something I constituted my identity around for most of my life. But in the years since his death, since I’ve been medically transitioning, since I’ve become estranged from my family of origin, I’ve had the uncanny experience of realizing that my life would be unimaginable to him. And to most, if not all, of my biological ancestors, as seeped in their hierarchical ideology as they were. 

13. A month into the pandemic, I take a break from reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren because the surreal, spare, apocalyptic landscape is too eerie and exhausting given my “new normal”. I pick up The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, where the avatar of New York City is injured in the city’s birthing process. A many-tendriled monster from a parallel universe sneaks into our world in the process and threatens New York City as figures like MegaCop, the thin-voiced Woman in White, and the gentrifying Better New York Foundation.9

14. What is excess? 

15. Drinking is making my life smaller. It no longer feels pleasurable to load coins into a slot machine of my emotions and yank the lever at random. I am depleted of any efforts or imagination towards activities that promote my death and the deaths of black, indigenous, brown, trans, queer, sex working, disabled, and immigrant communities. When I feel agitated or anxious, I try to rest my eyeballs. Become okay with the stillness, the darkness. By instinct, I spiral into habits that promote consumption and destruction, death without decomposition. When this happens, I try to not shame myself, and just notice how I feel. I feel lost, but not the way I am watching stars, nestled in the universe’s own neck. I feel angry, but not the anger I feel in community—the anger that leads to wealth redistribution, restorative justice, and healing. I feel empty and cracked, shucked by the catharsis I was seeking.

16. What is excrement?

17. My father always did his drinking in private, in our home. Towards the end of his life, he experienced tremors when he didn’t drink. He never called himself an alcoholic. He was invested in concepts like formality, respectability, “other people,” wealth hoarding, and supremacy ideology. This was extremely painful for my father; despite spending most of his evenings in tears or a hot rage, he could not admit that he had serious mental and emotional problems and needed help. He was willing to kill himself rather than re-evaluate the empty promises of his upper caste Hindu immigration/upper class status solidification. This had been the project of his life, and it was meaningless. He was a harsh chauvinist, and I can say, honestly, that I feel no pity for him. 

18. I think excrement is something wonderful. 

19. It cracks me up that Delany’s Web, devised in 1984, predicted Grindr and that its common abbreviation is “GI”. Prior to reading Delany, I was repulsed by coprophagia (shit eating) to the point where I would skip pages at its mention. Now, when I eat a swollen summer tomato, acidic seed slime dripping from my lips, I wonder what potent shit it devoured to become itself.

20. In many of his works, characters have rough hands, chewed cuticles, and dirty fingernails. Korga has big hands with dirty nail beds. Marq is immeasurably horny at the sight of them, unconsciously changing Korga’s pronoun in his immediate speech to “he”, the referent one uses in this 6,000-world universe when they desire that person. This is a future world mapped out by desire, in a mode (cyberpunk) usually typified by its “tendency to devalue embodiment in general and to privilege its technological transcendence.”10

But here feverish want saturates every page: want for information, difference, gratification, embodiment. Spirals of life and intimacies bloom exponentially just from their intermingling. The nature of existence in Stars is described by Marq, the eagerly verbose Industrial Diplomat, as “innocent by contamination.”11

In 1984, when Delany’s novel was published, gay bathhouses are ordered to close in San Francisco to curb the transmission of HIV.12 In 1985, an LA Times poll finds that 51% of participants in a survey of 2,308 people would support a law making it a crime for an AIDS patient to have sex with another person.13

21. Most upper caste Hindus living in the United States are not like my father: visibly abusive or even miserable. Like Jemisin’s villains, we are quiet and invisible, seizing strongholds in political and economic arenas in order to further our fascist agenda of purity. We are co-opting the language of resistance, marginality, and indigeneity to elide our power and domination. We are denying professional opportunities to Dalit Americans at Cisco, a multimillion-dollar tech corporation.14 We are displaying digital billboards in Times Square promoting our right-wing Hindu nationalist violence.15 We are supporting Trump. And even as celebrated leftists, we are publicly denying our own Brahminism.16

22. I am repulsed by what I have been doing my whole life: shit-eating and depriving the act of oxygen, consuming without regeneration. I am what I protect. It churns in my mouth.

23. What is embodiment?

24. My creative investment in the deep sea, outer space, and speculative fiction mobilized by desire is a practice. 

25. Astronomers have worked out that there are 70 thousand million million million (that’s 70 followed by 22 zeros) stars visible in the sky from Earth. 

26. I hope people never stop talking about the stars.

27. I hope people never stop talking about the micro worms who eat through bone at the bottom of the world. 

28. I am eating shit in plain sight, the way anything becomes alive.


This piece is part of the series by guest editor Juleana Enright.

Endnotes
  1. Samuel R. Delany, “Ash Wednesday,” Boston Review, July 2, 2019, bostonreview.net/literature-culture/samuel-r-delany-ash-wednesday.

  2. José Esteban Muñoz, “Cruising the Toilet,” Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press: 2009) 83–96.

  3. Delany, “Ash Wednesday”.

  4. Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Panther, 1986).

  5. Thomas Foster, ““Innocent by Contamination”: Ethnicity and Technicity in Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,African American Review, vol. 48 no. 3 (2015): 239-256.

  6. Rajyashri Goody, What Is the Caste of Water? (2017), http://www.rajyashrigoody.com/chavdar.

  7. Nala Sharadjaya, “Unholy Cow: Hindu Nationalism’s History of Beef and Blood,” The Princeton Progressive, March 8, 2019, www.theprincetonprogressive.com/unholy-cow/.

  8. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 2010).

  9. N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became (Orbit, 2020).

  10. Foster, 241.

  11. Delany, Stars, 81.

  12. “A Timeline of HIV and AIDS,” hiv.gov, accessed August 3, 2020, www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline.

  13. John Balzar, “The Times Poll: Tough New Government Action on AIDS Backed,” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1985, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-12-19-mn-30337-story.html.

  14. Yashica Dutt, “The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley,” The New York Times, July 14, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/opinion/caste-cisco-indian-americans-discrimination.html.

  15. Thalia Beaty, “Hindu Temple Ad Runs in Times Square Despite Opposition,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/times-square-advertisers-asked-not-to-run-hindu-temple-ad/2020/08/05/0f827a82-d6d1-11ea-a788-2ce86ce81129_story.html.

  16. Divya Malhari, “BRAHMIN(ISM): Aesthetics. Arundhati Roy. Silence,” Dat Lit Writer, September 5, 2020, www.datlitwriter.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/brahminism-aesthetics-arundhati-roy-silence/.

References
  1. Shivani Radhakrishnan, “Opinion | In India, Right-Wing Hindu Groups Are Recycling Britain’s Colonial Ideas about Religion,” The Washington Post, April 1, 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/01/29/in-india-right-wing-hindu-groups-are-recycling-britains-colonial-ideas-about-religion/.

  2. Shah, “Purity, Impurity, Untouchability: Then and Now,” Sociological Bulletin 56(3) (2007), 355-368, retrieved September 6, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23620634.

  3. Daemonum X, “Kill the Cop in Your Head,” Dead but Delicious, June 12, 2020, www.daemonumx.substack.com/p/kill-the-cop-in-your-head.

Author
Aegor Ray

Aegor Ray is a queer trans writer and performance artist. His work has been published in Peach Mag and BEST BUDS! Collective, and he was shortlisted for the 2018 Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize. He was a 2018-2019 Loft Mentor Series in Poetry. Since 2017, Aegor has performed or featured pieces in queer art/performance events including Daddy, Controlled Burn, Lightning Rod, Queertopia, and Lake Street Story Circles. He is working on a short story collection of trans paranormal romance/speculative…   read more