This book caused quite a stir in my world a few months ago. I have been a fan of Rachel Pollack, author of 78 Degrees of Wisdom for many years now. Her writing has played a huge role in my introduction to and understanding of tarot. So, when I came across an article previewing a new set of essays and short stories by Pollack, I was thrilled and immediately looked into the book. What I found astounded me. Rachel Pollack is a trans woman, writing essays and stories about the trans/queer experience. For years, it was an unknown to me that she was trans. This author whose work I was already in love with had just ascended to a new level of reverence. Not only did I respect her writing on tarot and the incredible research she has done for her books, I now had a queer tarot reading/writing figure to look up to.
Of course, I'm not sure that was ever Rachel's intention. While her fiction work (which has had a queer/trans focus for years now) has been out in the public, her tarot work never seems to overlap or mention her queerness. I was vaguely aware that she wrote fiction but had never expanded beyond her tarot and goddess oriented writing. This even comes up in the interview at the end of this book. In response to a question asking if there "is leakage between the two realms" (fiction and tarot) Pollack said, "Not that much, which I find both strange and frustrating." The Beatrix Gates has served as a primer for the fiction writing that Pollack does and has already inspired me to dive further into her science fiction especially.
This particular collection is a combination of short stories, an essay, and a midrash (a Jewish practice of expanding something in the Bible). They deal with science fiction worlds mysteriously similar to our own and yet something different altogether. The compilation ends with an interview (which I've already quoted) between PM Press (the publisher) and Rachel covering various topics both related and unrelated to the stories.
The Woman Who Didn't Come Back is an 8 page exploration of ritual, taboo, and the mysteries of life. It is a simple enough science fiction tale. When women die, they return to life after 9 days. In the mean time, their friends partake in a series of rituals to clean up their life and prepare them for re-entry into the land of the living. We are dropped into the story at the death of a woman named Marjorie. Her friends practice the rituals and have gathered together at the bar to await their friend's return after 9 days. Marjorie comes back and all seems well until another woman named Lenni turned down an offer to dance. This incenses Marjorie who erupts in anger with the story of what happened while she was dead. This, of course, was against the rules. Marjorie, realizing her mistake, runs out of the bar and is killed by a car. Her friends attempt to follow all the same customs but find it almost impossible. Marjorie does not return after 9 days, or 10, or 11. In fact, the story ends with a single sentence: "From that day no one who dies has ever come back."
What I really appreciate about this story is its simplicity while maintaining a clear message. Ritual was an important part of this return from the dead. The women believed that by making all of these arrangements and practicing these customs, they play a part in the return. And perhaps they did. Of course Marjorie broke the rules by sharing about death but none of the ritual was done correctly the second time. There was no intention or belief behind the customs. It seems to be up to us as the reader to determine what exactly ended this tradition of return from death. Without belief, the whole system may fail.
I think we also can draw something from Lenni. All she did was say no, but this break in expectation (you were always supposed to dance with the returnee) seemed to have been the root of the problem. There is a critique, perhaps, of the expectation of conformity within queer culture even. Standing outside of a group or system that is meant to exist outside of "normality" is a big stand to take. And while her decision to say no effectively ended life after death, Lenni was standing in her truth. There is lots to be explored with the consequences of actions in this story. Who do we ultimately blame? The choice is left with us, the reader. This is a beautiful piece of writing, forcing us to play the blame game without ever playing it herself. Rachel has put her reader in the role of judge and ended the story in a way that needs blame to be placed somehow. The whole course of these women's lives has changed. Death is now an ultimatum, the same existence we the reader have. This short science fiction story lets us imagine a world before us, or maybe after us, without death and yet still with death. It is a powerful image reminding us of the fragility of human life.
Burning Beard is what Rachel Pollack calls a midrash. Midrash is a Jewish form of expanding a biblical story to add context and expand on the original point of the story. They were often thought of as commentary on Scripture. Commentary feels like the perfect word. This is a commentary on scripture from a progressive, trans, lesbian, pagan, heretic who is still deeply attached to her Jewish culture and upbringing. This is commentary from someone who values Scripture but reads it in a way that works for her understanding of the world. This is commentary from someone who wants to see some of their own struggles reflected in sacred text.
The story roughly follows that of Joseph, son of Jacob, both youngest of 13 brothers and eventually vice-roy in Egypt. Biblical scholars would scoff at this retelling of the story of Joseph but as someone, like Rachel, who grew up with these tales and now wants to find a context to put them in that fits a wider belief system, the story is like gold. Jospeh is portrayed as an almost psychic, which is downplayed in the Biblical story. The implication is that this gift came from God and was a blessing but, as with many 'blessings' it plays out as more of a curse in Joseph's life. This is how Rachel tells the story, framing him as a confused boy who grows up to be valued for one thing alone., his ability to be right about the future. It ends with a prediction of the future: a vision of the story of Moses, of the book of Exodus, and a desire to be free from this gift/curse of psychic prediction. It frames Joseph not as the savior and powerful figure he is in the Bible, but as a man broken by something that was forced upon him, a tool for God (Yah as the text says) to use. I think the impact of this story would be felt most intensely by those who know the original story. If you read this book and get to Burning Beard, read the story of Joseph in Scripture and compare. The similarities are obvious and the differences subtle and well-crafted.
"Do you remember cancer?" These are the first words in the title story of the compilation, The Beatrix Gates. An older story of Pollack's, this queer sci-fi masterpiece has been edited to be the feature in this new book. It is an imagining of a trans-friendly future, one where cancer research opened up the doors to eternal life through transition. Those who wanted to become something other than what they were could escape the bonds of death.
The story focuses on a narrator who had been around before these discoveries, transitioned, and now will be able to live forever. Her partner came around after this shift and transitioned in a world where those are trans are gods and those who aren't mere mortals. Much of the story is told in stories of the past, memories and tales told from an elder in the trans community to an adoring young girlfriend eager for the experiences of those before the world changed forever. It almost a science-fiction dream, drifting from one place to the next with little warning when characters, settings, and time periods change. All of this adds to the mystery and effect of The Beatrix Gates. You, the reader, are pulled into the world of Rachel Pollack's imagination. It is a world where being trans is a gift and yet there is still something more.
The feature story within a story is that of the Beatrix Gates. It is the story of our narrator's transition told as a fairy tale. How much is real and how much is added for effect is hard to tell because we now in a story within a story. And the larger story, the one entitled The Beatrix Gates and included in this book, is a story within a story as well. It is Rachel Pollack telling the story of her own transition via a fictional story of someone telling a fictional story about their transition. And to me, that is the beauty of science-fiction. It is a way to imagine our somewhat mundane existence as something so much more. Rachel has removed herself from this story about 'The Beatrix Gates' (the one within her story titled The Beatrix Gates) and yet she is still present in it, imagining her transition in a different form all together. Using metaphor and symbolism to hide the fact that she longs for something more than mere physical transition.
The ultimate message of The Beatrix Gates, in my mind, is one of deep longing for freedom. Trans existence has the potential to be very limiting even after transition is 'complete'. Even if this fictional universe where being trans is a way to the top of the world, there is a desire for a greater freedom. That is what the Beatrix Gates are. A place beyond physical existence where one can be in harmony with the melodies and energies of the universe. It is the place I believe David Bowie went to become Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. It is the place Sam Smith seems to be reaching for as he (for now Sam is still using masculine pronouns) discovers himself outside of a binary gender. It is the place that I find myself from time to time, a place where my physical body, my mental state, and the opinions of others slides away into the pure ecstasy of existing as something more than we are told is possible. It is the gateway into The World card in the Tarot, stepping through the garland of leaves into free movement. In the interview at the end of this book, Rachel says that "I think people's views on Tarot might open up somewhat to read my fiction." Here is the clearest example of that to me: The World card is clearly revealed in very queer, semi-autobiographical, science fiction exploration of what existence truly means. I can only imagine what some of her other writing has to offer in the context of tarot. It is something I cannot wait to explore.
The final section we are exploring is the one work of non-fiction in this set of writings. It is the perfect follow up to The Beatrix Gates, a reflection on what it means to be transgender and to be someone who transitioned so long ago. Trans Central Station begins with two lists of 13 words. One set is words that did not exist when Rachel transitioned in the early 1970s. The list includes: transition, transgender, gender binary, gender assigned at birth, trans woman, trans man. The other set is words that no longer really exist in our language but did 50 years ago: sex change, transvestite, transsexual, he-she, a woman trapped in a man's body (and vice versa). It is a powerful way to begin an essay, a reminder of how much has changed in our culture.
The essay covers many things, mostly framed around Rachel discovering who she was, or really, always knowing who she was and finally coming to terms with it in a public way. What stood out to me most is how the other changes in the world at the time (the rise of feminism and Gay/Lesbian liberation movements especially) allowed for these revelations to occur and be somewhat accepted. Even if many in those other communities ostracized and demonized trans people, they were also paving the way for trans liberation to become what it is today, with trans celebrities and superstars exploring their gender identities.
There is a set a paragraphs exploring the pre-fix 'trans' and using other words with the prefix to intelligently explore the transgender experience. There is writing on the hijras of Indian and Pakistan, the gallae of Anatolia and other historical examples of trans people. Rachel reviews the story of her writing for the comic Doom Patrol and included a trans character named Kate Goodwin (superhero named Coagula). We receive wonderful stories about Rachel's wife Edith and her support through the process of coming out and transitioning. There are parts that had me in tears, parts that had me in stitches laughing, parts that made me think about my own existence. But there is one paragraph that stands out more than any other and I'm going to leave it for you here:
"No, I was not trapped in the wrong body. I was trapped in the wrong universe. In order to become who I was, I had to break the world open. I had to embrace a sort of science fiction life. Or maybe a magical life..."
This is one of my favorite descriptions of trans existence. It truly is magic and science fiction. It is a recreation of our identity, or rather, a reclaiming of an identity that was taken from us as we forced to be something else. Gaining that identity back requires both the magic of belief and the science fiction imagination to place ourselves somewhere that the rest of the world thinks impossible, illogical, unheard of. Being trans, and by trans I mean holding an identity that does not line up with the one you were assigned at birth, is taking on the role of author. We create our own lives, sometimes our own names, families, histories. We seek out other authors who are doing the same and form communities of people creating alternate realities that are still within the bigger net of "reality" whatever that really means. In these few sentences, Rachel has captured the fullness of the trans experience. Trans Central Station, a reference to the London flat she and her wife kept open as a place for queers in the 1970s, is one of the most impactful essays I have ever read. It will stick with me for many years to come, perhaps for the rest of my life.
The Beatrix Gates is a short book, barely 100 pages with the interview and bibliography included. But in these few pages are a treasure trove of science fiction, trans experience, and biblical expansion that many writers only dream of achieving. Rachel Pollack has created a primer into her work, both fiction and tarot, for anyone who is a part of her many different worlds. Science fiction fans will appreciate the deft writing and world creating that goes on in these stories. Those with Jewish heritage may appreciate her humanizing of Joseph in Burning Beard. Queers will adore the freedom and beauty of The Beatrix Gates and the honesty of Trans Central Station. Tarot readers will be able to see the cards everywhere, archetypes that Pollack is unable to escape from, even when she isn't directly writing about them. And those who just enjoy literature will be able to see an author who passionately puts herself into her work while maintaining a respectful distance, hiding behind a 'formality' that leads the interviewer to call her a "stand-aside" writer, one who lets the text do the talking. If you fit any of those categories, or you are just looking for a quick read that will make you think long and hard about your own existence and that of others, I highly encourage you read The Beatrix Gates.