Bottle the Angst, digital collage by Gaye Gambell-Peterson


To have written an autobiography is already to have made yourself a monster. I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and then having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world. Anyone honestly happy with him[her] self is a fool.  (It is not a good idea to be terminally miserable about yourself either.)
“The Art of Self,” William Gass


The end of lunch in a Chinese restaurant and here’s the customary fortune cookie, one of those without a fortune but, rather, a pronouncement: No one can be exactly like you. So I think about who I am and who my you might be, i.e., what other people see. I ponder identity and how it’s formed, on what it’s based. While I reject the ascendancy of a common construct––sexual/gender identity––I know that the first thing my you appears to be is female, and however much I may eschew the reigning gender binary, I won’t escape that designation. I can shop in the men’s department, buy and wear men’s shirts; favor a daily ensemble of T-shirts and jeans; spurn dresses, skirts, lace, and ruffles; adopt a certain male-like assertive presentation of self (all of which I do), but in the end the first thing that anyone would say about me is that I’m a woman. So I embrace my strongly female body as well as my less-than-fully-feminine character, and sometimes wear pearls with my denim and men’s shirts. 


There are people who now view themselves as constituents of one of the newer categories of sex/gender, such as bigender, cisgender, transgender, intersex, two-spirit, boi. There are those who are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, and pansexual (experiencing sexual/romantic/physical/spiritual attractions to all gender types). I once met a woman who said she was trisexual, meaning she’d try anything. As one who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature, I came to realize that I’m a sapiosexual. Yet I’m more interested in fashioning identity apart/aside from/beyond sex and gender, in how I define myself rather than in how strangers on the street see me. 

One truth of my own being is grounded in two things: (1) most of my time on this earth has been/is spent not participating in sexual activity, and not welcoming or permitting penetration (despite a time of premarital and marital sex); (2) I have never felt unconditionally aligned with my assigned gender. In my thinking, then, I invalidate the dictum that every personal identity must be constructed, primarily, in the same way, or that a being must take on, and take to heart, whatever label society confers, based on what societal agreement has become. 

So I ruminate: what one marker––if it had to be just one––could I attach, contentedly, to myself? What essence is so strong as to be the one of greatest consequence? 

It was simply happenstance that I begin reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the very city where she created the eponymous character whose nameless creation has been known for almost two centuries now by the name that actually belonged to his creator. Taking advantage of our proximity to the Continent while we lived in London, my husband, daughter, and I crossed the channel and drove through several European countries. I’d tucked Shelley’s novel in my luggage, unaware that the story’s locale was one of our destinations: Geneva and the Alps. 

When Lord Byron challenged the group of friends staying at Villa Diodoti on Lake Geneva during the summer of 18l6 to write a ghost story, raging storms forcing them to stay indoors, Mary Shelley was the only writer to complete a tale––one that more than a century later I began reading. Partly because of the extraordinary experience of reading it in plain sight of Mont Blanc––where power dwells apart in its tranquillity, remote, serene, and inaccessible, as Percy Shelley described it––Frankenstein would become the most significant novel for me.

Fact: a nineteen-year-old girl wrote Frankenstein. Fact: the novel’s power of endurance and pervasiveness, through literature and pop culture, has been mammoth. Possibility: the name alone may be better known than that of any other book or character in western literature. 

I spent a great deal of time re-reading Frankenstein during graduate school and thinking about its significance, and after much contemplation came to my own interpretation, subject of a required paper I wrote: the nameless monster whose features his creator said he had selected as beautiful––lustrous black hair, teeth of pearly whiteness––whose initial mutterings were inarticulate sounds, was the power and embodiment of the female imagination, thus terrifying to Victor Frankenstein. In his first conversation with the monster, maker Frankenstein acknowledges his anger and hatred: 

. . . [the monster] had at first deprived me of utterance, and I recovered only to over- whelm him with words expressive of furious detestation and contempt.

“Devil!” I exclaimed, “do you not fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust!”

The monster’s plea for his creator to make him happy so that he can be mild and docile to his natural lord and king is futile.

“Begone! I will not hear you. There can be no community between you and me; we are enemies. Begone, or let us try our strength in a fight, in which one must fall.”

This creature, viewed by Frankenstein as hideous, abhorrent, wretched, knows he has the capability to be good: “I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?” And he is, in truth, more powerful than his creator, having been made with superior height and more supple joints. “Listen to my tale,” the creature says, “when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. Hear my tale; it is long and strange . . .”

What are the words we use to describe ourselves? With what descriptors do we begin to create personal identity? What other beings share my desire to self-create, self-name, unearth a self and bestow a name for it that captures essence? Though I think I’m somewhat strange, the marker I would use for my primary intrinsic nature would be quester. This word for one who searches has that letter I’ve always liked––Q. I have been that being, a quester, throughout life, looking first, as a child, for a beautiful stone; then a beautiful way of living, a way of having contentment; some material thing or just the right word to convey a thought, feeling, idea. I am the consummate quester. The word partakes of another Q word––queer––having the same initial que, exactly those letters in my given name, Jacquelyn

The multiple uses of queer have practically been subsumed through the history of homosexuality, and the word has endured its period of contempt, only to be reclaimed for academic use, as in “queer studies.” A measure of the word’s meanings may be imputed to my quester label; after all, I’ve spent a long post-heterosexual-marriage period with a woman partner. And certainly the verb sense, to spoil or ruin, is apt, as well; I am one who means to queer the idea of identity formation as the exclusive privilege of society instead of the individual, to queer the imperative that identity be dominated by gender.

As Jacquelyn, I’m the namesake of my father’s best friend John, called Jack. My nickname was, as my parents had me spell it, Jacky. My brother, born when I was six, could not pronounce it in his early years, dubbing me Gaga. I hated it. Now we have the singer Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta whose stage name is, wonder of wonders, Lady Gaga, but to me the double ga sound is still disagreeable. I’m not sure why I had such a great desire to change the spelling of my nickname, but in the eighth grade I was resolved to do so, making a list of possibilities, ones I considered unique––Jackee, Jacki, Jaki, Jackey. All were unsatisfactory, and at last I decided to retain the “Q” from Jacquelyn, that favorite letter of mine since it was so little used, and in Scrabble, was, like Z, a ten-pointer. I made myself “Jacqui,” insisting that everyone should honor my decision. My Uncle Ed had playfully called me Jackson, while Aunt Marian said Jake; with the spelling change came my aunt’s new nickname for me: Q-U-I. Many years later, not adult-happy with Jacqui, which sounds so youthful, I resurrected Uncle Ed’s moniker, creating a new spelling: Jacsun.

In order to embrace the idea that all animals have the right to freedom and well-being––not just humans––one should be an uncompromising vegan, consuming no animal flesh, no dairy products, no honey, no mayonnaise, no Worcestershire sauce (contains anchovies), no white sugar (bone char used in the processing), no red candy (gets color from female cochineal insect), no orange juice (if fortified with omega-3s derived from fish). Avoid anything with gelatin, casein, rennet, or whey. Wear no leather, wool, mohair, cashmere––the list goes on. Let go of vegetarian (ovo-lacto or otherwise), pescatarian, flexitarian, reductarian: vegan is the only way to be. And so I was, for awhile, thinking I could be so forever. Purely this, purely that––purity is so appealing… 

But purity is my nemesis and any arian I can think of is impossible to categorically adopt, except the one I’ve coined: quirkitarian. I proceed in this state of existence as a quirky being, defined by instability and paradox. Another example: I have expended much time and energy creating schedules for myself, typed up, color-coded, printed out—and never adhered to for a single day. I long for a perfection of routine, which seems as though it would provide for the utmost in productivity. I long for so many perfections of so many things. And it all eludes me. Of course I know that perfection is impossible, but purging myself of the desire for it has been impossible. And so I am reminded of one more defect: an inability to give up this quest for perfections. Coming to terms with the being that one is, however evolved, however flawed, is not always an agreeable process, but self-acceptance in itself can be gratifying. I believe that anyone who is deeply reflective can never be 100 percent contented with their essence of being, and so I am one who remains somewhat discomfited by certain facets of my true character. The next step, then, is to accept the state of discomfiture; I do, but acceptance of such is imperfect too.

I wear opposition like a favorite gown, one stitched to accommodate every contour of my self. Its sleeves are buttoned at my wrists, its hem swishes against my ankles when I walk, its neckline circles my underchin. And I feel stunning––fit and fitted out in misfittery for coping with a world not of my making, to echo a sentiment in A. E. Housman’s poem, “The Laws of God, The Laws of Man”: 

“And how am I to face the odds / Of man’s bedevilment and God’s? / I, a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made.” 

Britain’s Barbara Wootton, Baroness Wootton of Abinger (1897–1988) borrowed a phrase from Housman for the title of her autobiography––In a World I Never Made. Wootton was an outstanding intellectual; a sociologist–criminologist and the first woman ever to sit in the House of Lords; the recipient of thirteen honorary degrees including a doctorate from Cambridge; and an international leader for peace and human rights. Though her talents as a teacher were said to be formidable, her lectures at Cambridge had to be listed under a man’s name; such was the constraint of our man-made world. An anomaly in her time, Wootton produced a continuous stream of books and pamphlets that demonstrated her strong political commitment to liberty and social justice predicated upon the notion of equality. During her lifetime, very few women could be exactly like her; nearly four decades later, the same thing is still true. In 2022, it’s largely men who are legislating against the liberty and social justice of women whose right to bodily integrity is being eradicated. And some women are straining and striving to intercede.

Ever-distrustful of men––whose controlling and raping warrants distrust––and prescient, I suppose, I doubted that the right to have an abortion accorded by our 1973 Roe v. Wade decision would ensure that women could always end unsolicited pregnancies. I wanted only two children, gave birth to my second daughter in 1975, and had my tubes tied by a female ob-gyn doctor. Hence, I created the one perfection in my life: freedom from pregnancy as I lived out my fertile years. And as the quirky, oppositional mutant I have been, I have late-life contentment.    




Jacquelyn “Jacsun” Shah, outlier, feminist, pacifist, has an A.B.–English (Rutgers U–Phi Beta Kappa); M.A.–English (Drew U); M.F.A.–creative writing–poetry; and Ph.D. English literature/creative writing–poetry (U of Houston). She has received grants and fellowships from U of H, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Puffin Foundation. Her publications include poems in various journals, such as Rhino, Gyroscope Review, Plath Profiles, et al; a chapbook, small fry; and a full-length book, What to Do with Red. She was Literal Latté’s Food Verse Contest winner in 2018. She loves all things quirky and/or surrealistic in literature, and life.

Gaye Gambell-Peterson dances with two muses. Her collages are widely displayed in the St Louis region, often with a poem alongside.  Her collages also companion the poems in her chapbooks: pale leaf floating and MYnd mAp.  She gets enough positive attention to keep both dances going.

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