What Is a Person?: Lydia Conklin’s Rainbow Rainbow

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I first fell in love with Conklin’s work through their comics. In “Sad Yak,” an early comic strip from the series Animals in a Bad Situation, a distressed yak with a mop of brown hair is up to its heart in yellow goo. The set-up is absurd: “I’m stuck in pudding. / And I’m allergic to vanilla. / But it’s okay.” Only in the last panel does the picture change. The yak, still immobile in the pudding, has begun to weep. The punchline: “All my family is dead.”

Conklin’s stories in Rainbow Rainbow share a similar brand of grin-and-bear-it dark humor, but their larger canvas allows for deeper investigations into what it feels like to be human and vulnerable in an often inhospitable world. In the opening story, “Laramie Time,” a pair of lovers move to Laramie, Wyoming, to live on the cheap. The narrator, Leigh, seems at first glance to be a stand-in for the author. Instead of cattle dogs and yaks, Leigh draws a comic strip about lesbian turtles. “And when would a comic strip about lesbian turtles ever hit the big time?” she muses early in the story. “Turtles are the least popular type of animal, and lesbians are the least popular type of human.”

When Leigh expresses concern about living in Laramie—where in 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten and left for dead—a friend assures her that “the crime wasn’t homophobic or political but personal. As though that made it any easier to digest.” Throughout the collection, this theme of violence against queer people, including the violent disregard of one’s own true self, recurs in varying scenarios.

In the gut-wrenching “Pink Knives,” a young nonbinary writer has been in isolation due to COVID restrictions and is weeks away from having top surgery. Our unnamed narrator is terribly lonely and in need of tenderness, as is the world at the moment the story begins: “We meet in the plague. Your gray roots have grown out four to five inches into the red—we’re that deep in.” That first person “we” is the promise at the beginning of the story, an assumed camaraderie between the narrator and their prospective lover. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that their connection is flimsy. They are essentially strangers, which is comforting to the narrator because this sort of transaction does not require them to divulge what they feel are their shameful habits: “A desk is the only furniture I’d have if I had to choose. I’d sleep under it like a dog. I’d eat on it, I’d bow to it like a television. I’m a masochist and a workaholic, but you can’t tell yet. You don’t hate me for it yet.”

When the new lover asks to remove the narrator’s binder, the narrator agrees despite denying their longtime girlfriend her similar request. As the lover removes the binder, the narrator can’t seem to access what they feel about what’s happening:

And since you’ve used my right pronoun, which my girlfriend can’t always quite get, which I can’t always quite get, which confuses and upsets my friends, to what extent they think about me or it at all, which my family won’t know about until they read this story, whatever final form it takes, I assume what you are doing is right.

The “you” seems to regard touching and sucking the narrator’s breasts as an act of love, but it becomes clear to the narrator that it feels like the opposite of tenderness: “You’re absorbed in touching me. You’re not looking at me anymore, only at the part of me that will soon be gone. I’ve deserted this transaction.” In this story, Conklin shows how a person can be complicit in erasing one’s truest self. That complicity is what haunts many of Conklin’s characters and stories, and perhaps it is what haunts many of us. Safety requires setting up clear boundaries, but a restricted life is lonely and isolating and often impossible to bear.

In “Ooh, the Suburbs,” two tweens, Heidi and Kim, take a bus to downtown Boston to meet up with Lisa Parsons, an older lesbian who has been grooming Kim online. The girls meet Lisa and several of Lisa’s friends at a coffee shop, and at first, it seems possibly OK, as if the older women just want to let the girls see what it’s like after school is out, the possibilities of being free to do what one wants without the watchful eye of their parents. The voracity of Heidi’s desire to be seen and loved feels dangerous, volatile in its intensity: “Heidi was abandoned on her end of the room. She pretended, like a little kid, that she was invisible with her eyes closed. If Kim was the cool, charming one again, Heidi would rather vanish.” When the older woman beckons Heidi close to her and then puts her hand down her pants, the reader wants Heidi’s desires to be met—though you know it’s a terrible thing to want for her, though you know that her desire will in the end betray her. Lisa is a predator who is rationalizing what she’s doing, and as a reader, you go along with it for a moment, which is more than enough time for the violation to occur. Conklin suggests here that we are all capable of violating ourselves and others, and we should beware of the slipperiness of our moral constructs.

The arcs of Conklin’s stories rarely leave their characters happy or fully content, but several of the stories follow characters who are figuring out who they are, what that looks like in the world, and what that means in relationship to others. In “Boy Jump,” the narrator struggles to reconcile their desire for their own body with their desire for someone else’s body:

I vibrated with desire, but rage threaded through it. I wanted to kick him in the stomach, to shut him up for acting like he knew more about me than I did. The feeling swelled: urgent, muscular. I wanted to fuck him, hard, to peel off his body and wrap myself in it.

In “A Fearless Moral Inventory,” a sex addict named Carla sees clearly the predatory nature of her own desires and is forced to reckon with her carelessness. In “Sunny Talks,” an aunt attends a conference with their young trans nephew and is able to express out loud, for the first time in life, their own nonbinary identity, even though it confuses and threatens their nephew’s understanding of them.

Although we may understand rationally that it is not healthy or good to erase parts of oneself, the terrible and exhausting emotional weight of that erasure is at the core of many of Conklin’s stories. In the stories focused on trans and nonbinary characters, one question emerges: What if we weren’t so obsessed with gendering each other? If cis people truly respected people as people (as many of us claim to do), we would be required to suspend our own disbelief, to accept the basic concept that a trans or nonbinary person has a more intimate knowledge of what feels right and what feels good to them, and can be trusted with the stewardship of their own body.

In “Pioneer,” a young person named Coco is required to play a character in their class’s reenactment of the Oregon Trail. Coco is assigned the part of the matriarch of a family, but to play the part “she’d have to look like a full woman.” She tries unsuccessfully to switch out to play a baby or a kid, where the role’s gender is less defined, but no one agrees. “The best option was to join the Culver family, who offered her the role of an ox.” Coco’s transformation into the ox is delightfully absurd, but it also underscores how dehumanizing it can feel to inhabit a body that isn’t recognized as legitimate to people who can’t—or, more accurately, refuse to—understand.

The tagline on Conklin’s website is: “Something about a person.” One of the tabs on the site was once titled “A specific rendering of the person in question,” and it contained an image in which Lydia’s face was superimposed on a sleek ferret. It was a wonderfully odd picture that spoke to Conklin’s comic sensibilities and a major theme of their work: What does it mean to be a person? What does it feel like to be a person? How can we help establish for ourselves and for every person, no matter their gender, a fully realized sense of personhood, even in an inhospitable, often dangerous world?

Reading this collection during the ongoing and terrifying threats against LGBTQI+ people—including the shooting at Club Q; the anti-trans directive in Texas; the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida; and the proliferation of books banned for representing queerness, including Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Raina Telgemeier’s Drama—magnifies just how much work there is left to do. Conklin’s characters, although not wildly happy, are wildly alive. As readers, we see for a moment what it feels like to be in their bodies and minds. The campaigns of hate against trans and nonbinary people are built around erasure and denial, but by claiming space for all their characters, Conklin combats these acts of thoughtlessness and violence. Their characters are complex, messy, often in doubt. In real life and on the page, we often fail to see each other clearly. Conklin’s stories make a compelling argument that we must keep trying anyway.

 

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Anna Potter's writing has appeared in Jellyfish Review, phoebe, Spilled Milk, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a former James Merrill House fellow and an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant recipient. She was one of two lead singers for Chickita, an all-women, double-bass, no-guitar, make-your-ears-bleed punk band, with two 7 inches: "Eat When Soft to the Touch" and "Karen Learns About Our Nation." More from this author →