The Fluidity of Language and Identity: Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland

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When was the first time you remember seeing yourself in a book you were reading? How often does that happen? For some, this question is easier to answer than for others. As a Midwesterner raised by a blue-collar family in a small Ohio town, I immediately saw myself in Faliveno’s debut essay collection Tomboyland. I saw the little girl tearing pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio out of the Teen Bop magazine I’d begged my mother to buy me at the grocery store. I saw home—the way trends don’t reach us until they’ve already passed on the coasts, the way we embrace the toil of hard work, the complicated nature of the place. I heard the tornado siren blaring through the middle of the night.

But as a heterosexual woman, seeing reflections of myself and my experiences in literature has always been easy. Much of humanity hasn’t had this luxury. On a panel this July titled “Varieties of Gay Experience: From Homosexual to Bisexual, and More” as part of the 1455 Summer Literary Festival, Faliveno described Tomboyland as an excavation in which she wrote into the questions that she’d been asking herself, in some cases, since childhood. What makes a person? What makes a family? How does class define us? Can we ever escape ourselves? Or the place we call home? Combining interviews and research with her personal experiences, Tomboyland explores all sides of questions with deliberate care, even when Faliveno admits she doesn’t always know how to answer. The effect is like tumbling freely into thought, or settling in for a deep and vibrant conversation with someone kind of like you but also very different.

On the panel, Faliveno explained how this collection became the way she came out (Faliveno identifies as a bisexual woman) to her family. She said she originally intended to travel from Brooklyn to her childhood home in Wisconsin, hand-deliver two copies to her parents, let them read it, and then have a conversation with them face-to-face. When the pandemic made travel impossible, she mailed those two copies along with a seven-page letter, explaining, apologizing, expressing the realities of her life that she’d never discussed with them before. This story speaks to the personal, revealing nature of the book, how she says so much that really just needed to be said.

In the Midwest, people don’t sit around the dinner table talking about identity or sexuality; that stuff is none of anybody’s business. And yet, as Faliveno describes, a shocking number of people she has encountered in her life have felt the need to comment on hers. In the essay titled “Tomboy,” Faliveno writes,

I know what it’s like to have a pair of eyes follow as I pass—locked on my body, questioning and scrutinizing and trying to decipher my code, to figure out what exactly I am. I’ve been called a faggot, a dyke, a bitch, a cunt, and countless creative combinations thereof. Once, when I was in graduate school in suburban New York, a car full of young men drove by as I walked home. They yelled, “Fag!” and threw an entire uneaten taco at me through the window. (Imagine the level of hate it would take to waste a taco.)

She addresses identity head-on, describing experiences as an androgynous, bisexual person who has been heckled, misgendered, and hated based on her appearance and the feelings it evokes in strangers who just can’t seem to mind their own business. Even amongst queer circles, her bisexual identity has been seen as problematic, almost like cheating or faking it or chickening out.

In clear, crisp language, Faliveno describes not feeling comfortable with any of the typical labels and explores the meanings of the words she tries on herself—like androgynous, bisexual, queer. And, like any non-confrontational Midwesterner, she reveals her complicated feelings about how she accommodates others when they mistakenly address her as sir, brushing off apologies with reassuring it’s-no-big-deal smiles. “I hate myself when I do this,” she writes. “I feel complicit in the system that shames me, complicit in preserving my own shame.”

As Faliveno plumbs her emotions and seeks to understand herself in the context of these labels and other people’s opinions on them, she never breaks from her deep understanding of humanity, flaws and all. “As a species, we possess the indelible need to categorize, to classify, to contain,” she writes. “We want to look at a thing and know what it is. We want a race and a class and an age and a gender. We can’t know or imagine what we can’t define, so we’ve developed language to do this work for us—to give something a name, and in naming it give it an order, a meaning, a place in the world.” But she also suggests, without railing, that the world would be a better place if we embraced the fluidity of both language and identity.

Her triumphant essay “Switch-Hitter” is an ode to athletics and also a poignant description of what it’s like to live in a body with energy, hormones, a heart, and mind capable of complicating everything. She was a jock as a kid, and grew up playing sports, excelling at softball in particular, and using athletics as an outlet corrected for her adolescent struggles. It let her burn off her frustrations, and it allowed her transcend the blurriness of her own identity and sexuality. “In the weight room, I wasn’t just some girl,” she writes. “Maybe I wasn’t a girl at all. I wasn’t an object of desire. I was a friend, an athlete, and teammate.”

Faliveno’s collection does not shy away from difficult and dark moments in her past. On the more controversial topics where a lesser writer might veer toward defending their own position, Faliveno addresses this tendency and skirts it by bravely building her arguments and letting the reader in. Her writing is honest and generous. Her essay about the time she spent in the BDSM community was difficult to read, in large part because in other pieces in the collection she’d painted herself as so troubled and powerless in the relationship department. “I was still in college when I discovered BDSM,” she writes.

At the time, I’d been inflicting pain on myself for several years. Cutting was a ritual that, at its peak, I practiced nightly, typically while very drunk, alone in my bedroom, melodramatically listening to Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” on repeat by candlelight. It was a methodical practice, controlled and ritualistic and highly emo, until it got worse.

At first I wondered if my initial reaction to the violent group sex scenes was brought on by some inner, reserved midwestern aspect of myself. But on second read, it felt more like my motherly self, wanting to reach out to her and say, “Oh, honey, there’s a better way.”

Another illuminating piece is “Gun Country.” If any topic embodies the troubling, violent complexity of America, it’s got to be firearms. Here Faliveno calls her own traditionally liberal anti-gun views into question by learning how to shoot, attending a shooting competition with her partner and his (also Midwestern) family, and talking to her friends and family members who believe wholeheartedly in the right to bear arms.

She writes about her increasingly complex feelings on the issue:

If you had asked me a few years ago how I felt about guns, I would have said we should ban them all, confiscate those remaining, throw them in a massive fire, and watch them burn. And most of the time, I still feel that way. But in the past few years, something has shifted. It began after I moved to New York, and especially after the 2016 election, at which point people on the coasts began to talk about Midwesterners as if they were nothing more than uneducated, gun-toting rednecks. And I can’t help but feel protective of my gun-toting midwestern family, and the scores of other Midwesterners I knew who keep guns responsibly.

By probing the issue, she brings her people to life and shines a light on the gray areas that don’t fit so neatly in the standard debate. And, she reinforces the idea that applying stringent labels limits experience and thought.

Tomboyland is both a pleasure and a challenge, and Faliveno’s openness and charisma deepens on every page. Seeing yourself in literature is a beautiful, meaningful experience for every reader. But while good books can allow readers to see themselves, they can also show us something different, something we hadn’t considered, something true—whether we identify with it or not. This is Tomboyland’s most important accomplishment.

Melinda Copp is a writer based in Bluffton, South Carolina. Her work has been published in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, including The Rumpus, The Cleveland Review of Books, and The Petigru Review. She regularly writes about books for the Charleston Post and Courier. Find her on Twitter @melindacopp and at More from this author →