is a collection of work that together explains why I’m writing, performing, hungry to explore all ways of storytelling. I’ve included excerpts of stories, shows, interviews, prose, and performances from over the years. This is a cumulative look at what I’ve done and how it brings me to this point, back on stage, with the intention of being a mentor, a role model, offering validation, presentation, permission, for other androgynous and agender women storytellers.
A Conversation About Underpants
(An excerpt from my critical thesis on gender ambiguity in current literature.)
What are you?
Stories connect us.
Can you imagine how it then feels to not hear your story – ever? Imagine that everything you have seen, read, heard, doesn’t relate to you or your life. Sit with that for a while. Like fifty-one years. See what happens when you finally have had enough of the silence, the emptiness, the disconnection. I’m a story-teller. I’m not going to be quiet any longer. I’m done with that. I want to read stories that speak to me. I want to hear others. I want to reach others. You are not alone. Neither am I.
As a writer/ performer, what does this introduction mean to my work? I propose that we can challenge stereotypes through writing ambiguously-gendered narratives. Or, as I explain in a more conversational tone, why do we need to know which kind of undies our narrators prefer to wear in order for our readers to empathize with them? Androgyny isn’t a disease. Or a threat.
Although there are many aspects to identity, such as the context of cohort, country, ethnicity, religion, and class amongst others, I focus here on one particular kind of division: gender. I’ve been looking for examples of protagonists in contemporary Western literature that speak to people like me, ones who don’t connect with identity labels based on our sex. I didn’t find much. It’s about time there was. I’m sick of being silenced because of being androgynous, agender, ambiguous, or however you want to describe me.
I’m not alone. I refuse to act as if I were.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
In an interview in Broad Street, Jeanette Winterson expressed that, “People need a narrative of their lives because they don’t feel like they’ve got one.”
Breaking gender roles and expectations in my own work has never been a deliberate decision. Until now. In the MFA program, my young classmates point out that the narrator could be either male or female in the short stories I write. Some quietly hate it – you can tell by lips offering polite tight smiles. Some find it challenging and “interesting”. Others want to know more about the craft aspect. Apparently it’s something I do (or did) instinctively, kind of like you probably write from your own gender and sexual identity without expressing it consciously. This is mine. Ambiguous. Androgynous. Unconventional. Odd.
More than anything those writing workshop conversations taught me to look at gender biases and narrative voices in more detail in both my writing and others’. It opened up this inquiry into which other women are challenging gender stereotypes, especially in literary fiction, and why it’s important for me to find voices like mine. I need that validation for what is truly my experience and voice. Such a kid, I’m still looking for permission to write as I do. Perhaps then I can create a body of work that puts together my stories, performance, studies, and images in a way that serves as a permission/presentation/ and role models for other outsiders.
(An excerpt from my first monologue on stage in 1999. Apparently the theme stuck.)
As a kid in the seventies, I was a wild warrior, no damsel in distress. I could climb the tallest trees and fight the greatest battles, but then came the lumps and bumps, the cramps and training bras. Tom and Chris and those other scrawny and pimply little boys in my class in North Bromsgrove High School pointed at my hairy legs and awkward gait.
“What is it?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
Tom grabbed at my school uniform, ripped the knee-length skirt off me, and then ran the playground, yelling, is it a boy or a girl? A boy or a girl?Jenny, Marcia, and Selma all stood in their own pristine white and pink tennis skirts and sneakers, giggling, pointing at my sensible white-ish undies. Numb, I stood there, fiddling with my navy tee shirt, pulling it low over skinny hips, and walked back into the changing rooms alone.
On Flickr.com is an album with a clown and MC performance focus. In keeping with that, the following piece has been published online (Circus News, CA) and in print (Eldorado Sun, NM). I spent three months in Guatemala as a street performer. This is the opening section of the article from 2005.
“A clown is like an aspirin except that it works twice as fast.” Groucho Marx
Being socially inept, physically awkward and somewhat clumsy, clowning around comes surprisingly easy to me. One summer I put all the pieces together. I travel. I clown. I write. Clowning brings people together. Through silliness, irreverence, and innocence clowning is a bridge across generations, languages and cultures. Following in the footsteps of numerous hospital clowning projects, I set off for Central America, traveling in top hat and tails, with a bag full of toys and ties.
That first day in Antigua, Guatemala I woke up immobilized. What the hell am I doing here? Why did I think that a vagabond clown such as I, could make any kind of difference to the kids in Guatemala? I honestly had no idea what I was doing or where my first cup of coffee was coming from. I had arrived with neither local money nor a map. Not very sensible of me I admit. Why do I have fake flowers, two clown hats, juggling clubs but no sandals, sunglasses or even a sleeping bag?
Antigua opened up in a grid of cobblestone streets, pastel painted adobe walls, tropical plants and parks, plazas and churches from the sixteenth century. Outside San Pedro hospital, Mayan vendors offered traditional colorful woven clothes, as people ate from the fruit stall next to the papaya tree. Tall and floppy in baggy blue pants, and a brightly striped t-shirt, not forgetting a top hat and bowtie I started to juggle. The balls, yellow, red, and green stripes, flew and fell randomly. Within minutes I had three kids watching wide-eyed in fascination. These Mayan girls, from three to eight years old, were barefoot yet dressed in elaborately embroidered huipels (blouses) and plain dark colored cortes (wrap around skirts). We swapped names in simple Spanish. The oldest one, Maria, counted to five in English for me. The shoeshine boy behind me sat on his wooden box, staring solemnly.
“You want to play too?” I asked.
He told me his name was Jaime and then grabbed a ball to play catch with me. Jaime even turned down a job shining shoes to keep fooling-around. He dove to make the greatest save in the whole world, falling to his knees, arms above his head, and with his head back, he crowed in delight. Jaime kept losing his lace less shoes, and his feet were as black as his shoe polish-soaked hands.
After that, whenever I walked past the hospital, locals greeted me as “Payasita” (little clown) and mimed for me to juggle again.
Summer of 2018, I started performing and reading on stage in Vermont. It had been a while. As in years. Since my mum died, I’d been too vulnerable to continue clowning or hosting shows. It’s been pretty amazing to get back into live performances again. These recordings are rough, but you’ll get a range of focus, some lighter, others more serious. It’s hard for me to listen to some of these clips as I see what I’d do differently. A good learning technique for me, perform, put aside, listen again after a bit of a break, and then start again. https://soundcloud.com/sleam-leamy
Here is one of the lighter pieces on dating and another on when I’d been deported.
First Date #4
The conversation about my underpants didn’t go as expected. We were talking about fashion. She’d brought out her glossy magazines, and her high-end glasses matched her shoelaces. She folded her hands protectively over her lap, shiny boots tapping on the floor. I tried to bond with her, ask the leading questions but then she asked me what was I thinking about – no, truly– and so I told her: In my twenties, tighty-whities were my undies of choice. Family friendly, you could buy them anywhere, sexy too in the right context. In my thirties, I’d hang out in the back yard in boxers, striped boxers against a flat tanned stomach, and little else, perhaps a cowboy hat and boots if it were rattler season. Then came the sensible hip-huggers of my forties, cotton only, faded colors, flip flops, softer stomach, more sitting and less striding. I asked her, At fifty though, what’s next? It broke me when she stood up, but instead of leaving, she kissed me lightly on the cheek and said, depends.
An Immigrant In My Own Family
I was deported at thirty, handcuffs and papers that took me from my lover my dog my job my beat-up Subaru and a cabin in the Ortiz Mountains with the view of the mesa across to the Sangre de Christos to the north, back in a town of dreams, or rather nightmares, with no grounding no clothes of my own no money of my own calling immigration each week only to be told soon soon soon but maybe not though, he’d said then, you were married? you did all the paperwork? And I’d been holed up in the hills in the trees and comfortable with the footprints of black bears hidden and hunched up on the oak tree overhead as I’d crossed the creek to get to my cabin with Charlie following along unaware and the owl hooted just as lightening crashed in front and I cringed in fear put down the phone burst into tears with no markers of my own, I was a lost kid back in my hometown, an immigrant in my own family.
are a new focus of mine, from the fabulist, fables, and stark realism. This is one from a recent themed collection, Reach. I’ve published two other short pocketbooks of shorts and prose poems, DIY style, to hand out and sell at readings and in person, as suggested by Steve Almond this summer. This piece is one of the newer ones. I’m working on a couple of fuller book length collections that I’d like to find an indie publisher for. Another goal of mine is to find a wider audience for such stories. Staying busy. And hopeful.
Alone by Choice:
I can’t sleep. Can’t think straight. Not that I am straight, but well, you know what? The world is too loud for someone like me. That’s what I’d tell my mom when I’d ask her to stop talking to me as a kid. Or when Dad wanted to watch the news all evening long. Let me read, I’d say. Leave me alone.
The coyotes in the distance howl and echo, call and response. An owl who-who-hoots one last time before the sun peeks over the hills behind. It’s so quiet that I hear cars drive up from the highway, a mile away. In these Ortiz Mountains, I sit alone on a porch overlooking the mesas and slow sunrise.
This morning, I heard the truck as it slowly approached and pull in to our gate. I mutter to myself, Let me sit here in the desert on my own with a good book. Don’t interrupt me, dammit.
The front gate looks locked but isn’t. The hinge is on the other side, the one with the chain wrapped around it. Well, there I was with my morning mug of coffee, listening to the Dodge truck ticking over and I didn’t move. I was at the end of the chapter. I had three lines to go, not even a paragraph, when the fella climbed down and waited. I nodded at him, just a minute, that’s what I meant but I couldn’t leave that world yet, not yet, give me a moment.
My new-to-me neighbor spoke. “Al?”
“Not really.” I put down the novel. One sentence to go. “But yes. I’m Alex.”
“I have a delivery for you.”
I stood up, grabbed the coffee, and wandered over, pulling up my jeans to tighten the leather belt. Smoothing back my short salt and pepper hair, I met him at the gate and stood against it as they do in these parts. That or drive and honk. I prefer the waiting quietly. We stood there and watched the cat chase a mouse into the tool shed. I sipped at milky coffee.
He nodded. A round beefy man, broad shoulders, hard working, solid and with a constant half smile, he passed it over.
Six inches by eight at most, flat, not too heavy, media mail rate, and from my therapist from the looks of it. Oh dear, how did she find me here?
“It came to our place and I thought of you. We don’t read. It’s a book. I can tell. I prefer movies. Or just watching the stars. I like the radio too, that or just playing cards with the Missus and music on. I can’t stand the silence. Not after ten years out here alone, that is before she joined me at the hip, and well, it’s easier now for us but if ever you get lonely, come on over. You don’t have to sit here and read alone. You can walk down the track to ours, you’ve seen it, right? We raise sheep. I’ll roast up a lamb for you next month; we’re having our monthly neighborhood BBQ at mine this time, so you’d better come to that. I don’t want you to get too lonely out here. Well, that’s that. I’ll be off. Drop by if you want a chat. My wife though, just to warn you, she talks a lot. I can’t get a word in edgewise with her. But you take care, nice catching up, come on over. Bye then Al, see you tomorrow. I’ll stop by to check on you.”
And he clambered back into his truck still talking, being friendly-like, and he waved as he turned the truck around and headed down the fork in the road to his home in the valley. Yes, I’d seen the ranch on my morning walks, curious about all the noise. Now I understood.
He would be a challenge. For me. If I wanted to be hermit crab in this cabin.
I took the package back to my armchair bathed in sun and picked up the reading glasses. The clouds lit up dark blue, grey, white, and peach streaks ran across from east to south. My wristwatch ticked. I read the last line of the self-help book.
“The human struggle is to connect and this time is no different when you grieve for your lost parents as the sun rises once again, you start your day, and reach out in hope.”
I put it aside and sipped the last of my coffee, thinking of their damn community meal next weekend. What would my mom have made? I stood and went looking through her belongings stacked by the boxfull in my living room. Where was the much loved recipe book of hers? Unearthing it, I sat down, read her notes, and tried not to cry.
I thought I’d end with the first chapter of the novel in progress, Riffraff. I’ve been working on this project with Connie May Fowler as part of my MFA in Writing. It’s approximately 78,000 words, set in London in the early 90s, and focuses on a group of five friends making the most of a hard situation by risking all to become financially free.
Hanging out in the cramped colorful kitchen, stewing brilliant pots of beans and veggie curries, talking all night long, chatting and laughing and living life the best that we could, Jen stood out. She was different. I couldn’t understand how she followed her dreams like she did, especially when some of us took the Tube each day in our black and grey uniforms ready for for another day at the office with our packed lunches, and then the rest of us were trying to get jobs, get off the dole, selling speed and hash, or painting and working in the local markets. One way or another, we all struggled to make it through one more day, and some of us made it and some didn’t. I didn’t understand all that at the time. No, not then. I didn’t understand how she changed us all. Little by little, Jen affected us and she didn’t see it. Me? I was in awe.
No lie, a coat full of speed, hash, and a crowbar, that’s when I broke in. I’d been told where to go, which council building had an empty flat on the ground floor, one with a nice view of the gardens, or that’s what this old geezer at some pub had told me earlier that day. I didn’t know whether to try on my own. I’d always had others take the risks but fuck it, it was up to me this time. I decided to go for it. I’d finished my pint and headed over to the local hardware shop to get a few tools and a lock.
It was a nice Thursday afternoon and I was happy to be back in London. It was a good summer’s day, you know, a few clouds, warm and moist, and walking along the canal to get to Well Street was quiet, peaceful even. I felt safe for once. No men were giving me shit. No one looked twice at me those days, couldn’t decide if I was a boy or a girl with my short brown dreads, tall and skinny, and carrying a beat-up rucksack, striding through the city like a local. In some ways, I was. I’ll get to that.
I was days into being back in the city after months in Wales. I’d done nothing more than drink a few pints with some strangers since then. I’d slept in the park and kept it quiet. My birthday was a non-event. Twenty-two hadn’t been any sort of brilliant what with Dad dying and then losing the house, living in a tent, being homeless and broke and well, broken inside. In other words, I hoped that a new year ahead would be better. All I knew was that there’s no guarantees in life. No time to waste. I gave myself a month. To decide what to do now I was completely alone.
First though, I needed a home, a job, and more importantly, cash.
I decided to find all three. Why wait?
The windows cracked open quickly, a bit loud for comfort and I flinched but the flats on either side were quiet, another afternoon in the city. Above me, someone’s telly blared out an Aussie soap, canned laughter, and bad muzak. The crowbar did its job. The ground floor window pulled open with a slam and a squeal. I scrambled inside with a heave-ho and landed with a thump, boots down hard on concrete floors. I waited for voices to yell down to me. Nothing. The telly played on as if no-one were home.
I took a step, closed the window, and looked. There was nothing but a mattress and a few books, one lay open as if half-read. It made a tad nervous but I carried on. The quiet of this deserted home creeped me out what with another stripped-out bedroom and a decent sized kitchen which was oddly furnished. In the living room someone had left an old sofa. If I got a sheet from somewhere to cover the tabby cat fur, it’d be comfy. Long enough for a six-foot fella to pass out on. The tiny bathroom stank pretty bad with a well-stained toilet but was otherwise fine. I explored more, not sure if the flat had really been abandoned but it reeked of old feet, and something else, I wasn’t sure what. First things first, I had to claim the place. I switched out the locks on the front door fast and easy before standing around, opening and closing cupboards. Crammed under the kitchen sink, a case full of booze tried its best to tempt me but that wasn’t my thing. I was rarely up for the hard stuff any more, not since my stupid brother died. A few tokes and beers were the limit for me. I tossed the scruffy green rucksack on the sofa with its tent and sleeping bag strapped to the sides, a coat tied across the top, and another pair of brown Docs dangling off the pocket.
Home. I’d got myself a home. Maybe I could relax for once? Settle down or something. Nah, not what I wanted, not really. Still, it felt good to dump out all my stuff on the bed and lie down for a few.
Before it got late, I decided to look around the neighborhood. With a quick wash, I changed into cleaner jeans and another blue-green striped tee, grabbed a grey sweatshirt and headed out for a pint, time to celebrate the great return.
I was inside, that’s the funny part. I’d broken in and for the first time I’d done this truly alone. No boyfriend doing it. No fellas changed the locks or climbed up exterior walls to break windows. I changed the locks myself. Keys in pockets. And with it being time to celebrate, I locked up, leaving a note on the door claiming squatter’s rights, and wandered out as a big navy-blue van pulled up.
Ah shit, not again. Four cops, big, beefy, broad, stood in a circle around me.
– Hello, I believe you need to come with us, don’t you?
I didn’t answer. I had no words. Fucked. Again. Life had fucked with me again. When was it going to get any easier? What pissed me off the most was I should’ve stayed inside, talked to them through the window or something. I’d have been alright, given the laws. Squatters’ Rights would’ve kept me safe if you have a key. You had to be careful to only claim an abandoned council house or flat, make sure you pay for elecky, and it’s up to them to take you to court to evict you. I knew better in other words. Dumb kid that I was shouldn’t have come out for that next pint over a conversation with strangers at some pub. That’s what loneliness gets you, I suppose.
They busted me though, good and proper. I kicked myself as they took me off in the van, stuck in the back alone. It was almost funny. Not quite. Well. Yeah. I spent a night in an empty cell and the bastards had strip-searched me. Ah, you dumb kid, I couldn’t stop mumbling to myself: Dumb kid. Just like Andy, my brother, had always called me with that big grin splattered across his cheeky freckled face – when we’d liked each other, that is. A while ago. Before the heroin and our old childhood friend, a neighbor really, had turned on us. Albert’s anger at the world had warped him and then he messed with Andy’s head too. Fucker. I’ll never forget that.
Shaking off the memories, I was happy enough when the cops let me go on Friday: Catch and Release. It’s a new program, a Tory thing? Some government programme to save money probably. They didn’t want to feed me another cold slice of burnt toast or pour me a tepid cup of tea is more likely.
– Come back on Monday for the formal interview and don’t forget we know where you live, they’d said. – Oh, and did we mention? Get a solicitor. They’re free for the likes of you, those poor buggers don’t have a choice.
Then they’d pushed me out onto the streets to fend for myself – again.