Reviewed: How to Be Between, Bastian Fox Phelan, Giramondo
Bastian Fox Phelan’s debut, How to Be Between, is a striking millennial odyssey. Documenting their experience growing up in Wollongong, Newcastle, and Sydney, couch-surfing in Europe and backpacking in the US, Phelan weaves their personal narrative into an exploration of facial hair and its implications for a young genderfluid person. The memoir is an ode to finding—and losing—community within counterculture; it is earnest and felt, but as a work of memoir it tends to fall into introspection, with a tenderness that leans toward the over-sentimental as the author navigates their path through personal and physical growth.
There is a self-consciousness to this memoir, one that evokes the anxious individualism of adolescence—which makes sense, because it is about growing up visibly different from other female-assigned folk. In the blurb, Fiona Wright comments that the book ‘captures the excruciating intensity and unfolding discoveries of adolescence and early adulthood’.
In Wright’s own memoir, Small Acts of Disappearance, the author often returns to self-awareness: ‘I was modelling myself off the friends around me (perhaps all teenagers are like this).’ There is no such acknowledgement in How to Be Between; Phelan’s tentative narration is all too often overpowered by a tendency toward melodrama. Words like ‘colonise’ and ‘assimilate’ are used to describe schoolkids choosing a place to sit at recess and wearing beach clothes, in prose that is often overblown or half-baked. For example, the description of Phelan’s mother giving birth: ‘She had me delivered into a room full of smiling faces. When I came out, I was blue. The aunties held their breath. Then I cried. Everything was fine; I had arrived.’ Action tends to be literalised, relying on an easy chronology of ‘this happened, and then this, and I …’ that closes off the possibility of tension or ambiguity. In a similar way, the author’s partners, parents and friends read like sketches, with the exception of their childhood best friend, Chloe, whose character is poignantly drawn.
Similarly, there is only a cursory exploration of feminine facial hair in a historical context, besides nods towards icons such as Frida Kahlo and ‘bearded lady’ circus performers. ‘Nothing like this existed,’ Phelan says of Ladybeard, a zine they created that explores feminine facial hair. And, to be fair, in that particular part of regional New South Wales this was probably true. But this idea arises persistently and in broader contexts, such as when Phelan describes joining a queer collective in Sydney’s inner west: ‘A group like this had not existed in our community until this moment.’ It seems highly unlikely that this would be the case in a big city, and later on in the book Phelan adds that it was not the case. But the acknowledgment ends there: there is minimal engagement with queer histories specific to the area.
In the same way the memoir eschews research in favour of personal narrative, relational contexts are stymied by individual self-expression, labels to be flaunted with abandon. Phelan expresses objection at being assumed a lesbian, because they identify instead with gay men, joyfully affixing a label to their clothing that says ‘femme fag’ at a festival. Here I was reminded of the musician King Princess/Mikaela Straus, who identifies ‘culturally’ as a gay man. Such claims remove language from relationality and shared experience, tying instead into aesthetics and lifestyle—queerness is decoupled from sexuality and instead dependent on gender expressed through cultural and biological markers. Phelan explores the idea that having polycystic ovarian syndrome brings them closer to masculinity, stating that around ‘five to ten per cent of women’ (I assume in so-called Australia, although Phelan doesn’t explicitly say) have this hormonal disorder. Interestingly, in Small Acts of Disappearance, Wright cites the figure as around a quarter of the female population. According to the medical journal Australian Family Physician, the percentage is around 12 to 21 per cent of people of reproductive age.
Throughout How to Be Between, the desire for uniqueness is constantly in tension with the desire for community, a trope that often exists in narratives of people who participate in sub/countercultures. Alongside their oft-voiced dislike of being misidentified as a lesbian, Phelan describes an afterparty at an ‘infamous lesbian sharehouse’ as their ‘initiation into the queer world’; they go on to state the belief that identity is three parts nature, nurture and individual choice. But there are many for which the idea of queerness as a place you choose to visit, as though it can be folded up and pasted in a diary like a travel brochure, is a foreign concept. Throughout this memoir I found myself wishing Phelan would delve further beyond the niches of self-making; to acknowledge neoliberalism and other structural forces contouring their personal narrative, especially as these are all often interlinked. While I enjoyed this memoir and have long enjoyed Phelan’s zines, I believe with some more time and outward vision, How to Be Between could have been better.
Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn lives on unceded Dharug lands. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Big Issue, Island and others. She is on the editorial committee of Voiceworks and The Unconformity.