Reviewed: Aurora Mattia, The Fifth Wound, NIGHTBOAT BOOKS & Never Angeline North, Rainbear!!!!!!!!!, APOCALYPSE PARTY
‘Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming.’
—May 1968 protest graffiti (and the epigraph to Rainbear!!!!!!!!!)
If you read the news, you might be under the impression that trans people and religion (usually a euphemism for Christianity) are fundamentally at odds with each other. From the scapegoating of trans schoolchildren since Australia’s 2017 marriage law postal survey, to the current book-banning frenzy by right-wing groups in the US, to whatever JK Rowling continues to stir up in the UK, there has been a steady solidifying of anti-trans rhetoric in global news reporting in the past several years. Real people’s lives are demonised, abstracted to ‘issues’ of ‘parent’s rights’, ‘child safety’ or ‘religious freedom’. This is a political tool wielded to serve the interests of conservatives across the Anglosphere. However, if you take a step back from journalism into the wider publishing world, and then another step back from mainstream publishing, you will arrive in the delightful glade of independent publishing, which, despite its (unfortunate) obscurity, is much closer to reality than the world of rhetoric-peddlers.
Two recent small press releases—Never Angeline North’s Rainbear!!!!!!!!! and Aurora Mattia’s The Fifth Wound—depict a reality where dreams and spiritual exaltation rule despite the harshness of life. Both books speak to religion and spirituality—North references Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, while Mattia is interested in Christian mysticism and Greek mythology—and are concerned with the interconnecting power of storytelling and dreams. Each book is highly referential, citing esoteric texts and popular culture in equal measure.
I first encountered Mattia’s writing on Instagram, where she was sharing long excerpts of an early novel in progress. It took me back to reading Mrs Dalloway in high school, my first encounter with stream-of-consciousness writing and the pleasure of reading just to float through language. To that end, The Fifth Wound is a maximalist combination of literary theory, autofiction and ruminations on gender and transition that are less gender theory and more prophetic vision.
The Fifth Wound is also Mattia’s first published book. Mattia makes no attempt to define it within any genre or form, referring to it as a ‘book’ in her asides on the writing process. Its narrator is also called Aurora, and at one time both narrator and author shared the (now deleted) online avatar @silicone_angel, which Mattia used to create an early image of Aurora. Unlike how autofiction is traditionally defined, as a form that attempts to reach ‘emotional truth’ through fictionalised reality, The Fifth Wound challenges readers to expand their definition of reality. Mattia’s writing flows between and among genres as she attempts to express the complexity of her experience. ‘“Minimalism” is a luxury that belongs to people who can expect to be understood,’ she writes.
Accordingly, the book’s second section shifts in tone. Mattia includes two different rejection emails responding to an early novel manuscript. ‘[Y]our description of the novel itself sounds to me like angels dancing on the tip of a pin rather than an attempt to engage, transfigure, or say something about the world,’ writes one agent. ‘Here’s the deal: you’re friggin’ good. Your talent is blinding. But this book, for me, is a drawer book,’ says the next. To which Mattia responds:
[T]he fiction industry has absorbed, from the vast imperial surveillance engine called Marketing, the rhetoric of the never-before-seen, the rhetoric of the sui generis by which so-called marginalized storytellers are tokenized, dehistoricized, and therefore isolated by the industry’s manic, outraged obsession with the so-called discovery of so-called fresh talent... When the Algorithm says this book is like nothing you’ve ever read, it is intentionally severing a storyteller from the scraps and monuments of myth and makeup, book and fuck, melody and scream that have contaminated and therefore communalized her idiom, in order to neutralize, while pretending to emphasize, the destabilizing potentiality of vision.
Here, Mattia is describing one way that anti-trans rhetoric permeates publishing. When mainstream media continually insists that trans people are a new phenomenon or trend, it manifests as wilful ignorance, leading to the erasure of a rich tradition of trans and gender-nonconforming storytellers. New trans authors are often feted as ‘ground- breaking’, cut off from their lineage within a larger independent publishing scene made up of other trans writers.
The Fifth Wound’s primary spiritual concern is the dream, which is how Mattia describes her blend of fantasising, theorising and self-narrating. To her, ‘Dreaming is not fractal but kaleidoscopic, the way of approaching meaning by excess and collage, passion and permutation’. She uses the pun ‘pieces of mind’ to describe her dream collage, made up of physical ‘trinkets and treasures’ that Aurora the narrator uses as signifiers to contextualise her self. The collage also contains the song lyrics, poetry, literary references and digital correspondences that Mattia the author uses to convey her dream to the reader.
As Aurora travels through New York, Texas, outer space and fairy realms, the world of Empire continually interrupts her life. She faces romantic disappointment, transphobic violence and the hostile medical-industrial complex, but she refuses to defer to Empire as the definer of ‘reality’:
I needed to not live only in reality because reality was like a corset tightening continuously… I needed to expand the width of the instant, I needed to bedazzle reality with the dream… because in the dream, in the meadow beyond the willows, I am a nymph telling a lullaby to a field of sunflowers.
Being transsexual requires a certain amount of vision and dreaming to begin with; the body first felt, then manifested. As such, ‘reality’ becomes a complex spiritual experience, and Mattia’s refusal to diminish her own at the expense of another creates the basis of the book’s theology: ‘Vision refuses to artificially elevate reality over fantasy in a false and impermeable polarity, because Vision is precisely the expression of their symbiotic, epiphanic entanglement.’
One scene in which we can see this ‘bedazzling’ of reality, as Mattia calls it, happens in the hospital, a stronghold of Empire’s reality. When Aurora is recovering after being knifed on the subway, she is visited by St Catherine of Siena, who reveals she is actually Eleanor Rykener, a woman who was arrested for sex work and cross-dressing in the fourteenth century and commonly cited as the only trans woman recorded in medieval Europe (although this is only as a result of her arrest). Mattia rejects this telling, elevating Eleanor to sainthood and crafting a three-page Middle English monologue on her own version of events. Despite the violence of Aurora’s circumstances in the hospital, she has an ecstatic spiritual experience and is able to connect directly with her historical predecessor.
Like The Fifth Wound, North’s Rainbear!!!!!!!!! is also concerned with storytelling, dreams and the challenging of reality. North’s stories are mysterious and mutable, one story a whirlpool inside another until the reader is several narrators deep. Rainbear!!!!!!!!! is published by Apocalypse Party, a small press in Philadelphia whose website declares: ‘We believe books are hallucinogens suffused with emotion, feeling, and sensation.’ In place of a copyright notice inside the book, they print, ‘The scanning, uploading, & distribution of this book via internet or any means without permission from the author is awesome. Please share this book by any means possible. Pirate other books too while you’re at it. Shoplift them from bookstores. Property is theft. End capitalism.’ And indeed Rainbear!!!!!!!!! reads like a delicious stream of anti-capitalist hallucinations.
Rainbear!!!!!!!!!’s three sections are named after sephirot, or emanations through which God manifests. There are ten sephirot in total, each corresponding to an attribute of the ultimately unknowable Divine. These three sections are Binah (third sephira), Tyferes (sixth sephira) and Malxus (tenth sephira). While each word has a few possible translations, Binah is commonly translated as ‘understanding’, Tyferes as ‘beauty’ and Malxus as ‘sovereignty’. Binah’s narrator lives in two realities: their waking world where they exist in an interdimensional café, and their dream world where they have complete control. This section ends with its narrator being ‘told’ a story by a creature who obscures their vision with a screen that then plays the story like a movie. This movie-story is rendered as a fable in Tyferes, where two young people seek out the Rainbear who in turn tells them yet another story. In Malxus, a final narrator is trapped in a different interdimensional pocket, where out of loneliness she writes letters to a future self who eventually responds. North’s book is convoluted and refreshing, like dropping your mind in a rock tumbler and ending up with shiny new thoughts.
Like Mattia, North presents dreaming as a means through which the dreamer can alter reality and envision new ones. Rainbear!!!!!!!!!’s first narrator lives in an interdimensional café, where her job is to ‘love’ any patron who sits across from her, Marina Abramović-style, until she leaves the café into unknown dimensions beyond. At night, she dreams of a beach house, with a lover she calls Sweet Angel. When she tells Sweet Angel about her wish for a baby, the two are able to create one almost instantly with a kind of manifestation ritual. She names her baby ShChYNH, a Hebrew word (commonly transliterated as ‘Shechinah’) meaning ‘dwelling’. In a theological context, Shechinah describes God’s presence on Earth. North casts her narrator as God in this context: ‘I am God with child … My love dwells within it.’ Similar to Mattia’s canonisation of Eleanor Rykener, North empowers her narrator with holiness.
While only parts of Rainbear!!!!!!!!! take place in a character’s dream, the whole book functions within a dream logic. Pee becomes potatoes; a furred mountain is revealed to be the giant titular Rainbear; time is measured in colours. Where Mattia’s use of language is deliberately excessive and tied closely to the concept of meaning, North approaches language through a Kabbalistic lens, where the characters of the Hebrew alphabet are powerful enough to create worlds. This is exemplified through ShChYNH, and when Binah’s narrator encounters a cube covered in the word ‘GRShM’ (gershom). ‘Gershom’ means ‘stranger’ in Hebrew, and it is also the name of an influential twentieth-century scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem. Once she sees the cube, her perception of the world is irrevocably altered.
In The Fifth Wound and Rainbear!!!!!!!!! the trans writer-dreamer is, if not a prophet, at least a serious theologian. Mattia and North use theology to portray a more personal and metaphysical experience of transness than what the mainstream allows for. Even if Empire and its agents want to control reality, using language as a tool to bend reality to their will, we can see from these books that language is only a signifier, and meaning is slippery, personal and always context dependent. We may never be able to fully explain ourselves to each other, but we can float through each other’s dreams while dreaming new realities together.
It’s imperative that these small presses exist to share stories that have not been bent to fit one reality. The dream is reality, because in the dream, language is both decoration and tool: glitter, elaborate battle axe, scent and flaming sword.
Mira Schlosberg is a writer, artist, cartoonist and editor. She is the author of two comic books—Guidebook to Queer Jewish Spirituality (2018) and Kugel Western (2021)—both published by Glom Press.