Monday, March 12, 2012

Change comes: Jan Andrews' "Who Wants the Dress?"

Coming up: Jan Andrews at Voices of Venus, March 14th at 7:30 pm. Venus Envy: 320 Lisgar

Astrid Lindgren, who most people know as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, also wrote a book that I enjoyed as a child even as it creeped me out. It was called The Brothers Lionheart. A quick run through the plot: Karl is the narrator, a young boy who is sick with some kind of fatal illness. His older brother Jonatan, who is just about perfect, tells him about a place that you go when you die, called Nangiyala, where "all the stories are still happening." He promises that he will follow Karl there, and that even if it's a very long time before he dies, it won't seem that long to Karl. But, as it turns out, Jonatan dies first, saving Karl from a fire. When Karl dies not long after, they're reunited in Nangiyala, where Karl is no longer afflicted by his illness and is finally as strong and healthy as his brother. They settle down there in an idyllic, boys'-adventure life, but have only been there a short time when they get embroiled in a struggle between good and evil (evil in the form of a nasty warlord from the next valley over.) In the course of the battle, Jonatan is mortally wounded. But, he tells Karl, it's okay, because when you die in Nangiyala, you go to another place called Nangilima, which is even better, because there's no evil there. So Karl picks his brother up, carries him to the edge of a cliff, and jumps off. End of book.

I was disturbed by the book as a kid - and not really because the main characters die (twice.) All the usual reasons the book might be thought to disturb a child (suicide as the answer to being crippled, for example) didn't have as much effect on me as the way the book seemed to say that as soon as you think you've got the world figured out - as soon as you think you know what's going to happen, in this world or in the next - you'll discover that there's another layer beyond that, and another, and another. You solve the puzzle of this world (or it's resolved for you - in Karl's case, by death and being reborn in Nangiyala) and there will be more and different conflicts to survive, and yet another mystery of what comes after, waiting for you. Or, as the lady in Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time says: "You're very clever, young man, very clever ... But it's turtles all the way down!"

The Brothers Lionheart popped into my mind after I saw storyteller Jan Andrews performing her show "Who Wants the Dress?" It's a very powerful show, and in part, I think it's about finding out that once you figure out Nangiyala, sometimes you discover there's a Nangilima no one told you about.

Jan's show starts with a telling of a story by the English writer Sara Maitland. The story is a strange and mesmerizing one, about a young man who is compelled by tradition to dress as a woman in order to hunt his first seal. (According to Jan, Maitland claims this is a real folk tradition in some parts of the UK.) Killing the seal is the way to prove his manhood - but when he does dress as a woman he undergoes a transformation, and becomes the woman, and his/her shifting identity feels like a dreamlike discovery and a collapsing of his/her way of seeing the world all at once.

Jan's story picks up from the end of the first, and explores growing up in a time and place where the possibility that she might be a lesbian wasn't even considered. (Jan is nearly 70: it was a different time.) She tells the story of growing up, learning to fit in, learning the conventions (don't kick your leg over your bike, getting on "the boys' way"), wearing the dresses and the pretty clothes, playing the role that she and everyone around her assumed was hers to play. She tells about getting married, having children, all as things should progress. She thought she had life figured out. And then she met the woman that she would fall in love with, and everything changed. Of course things never change so drastically without turmoil, and without looking back at who you thought you were and rewriting it, like laying a layer of vellum over the past and retracing the lines. But eventually the storms cleared and the dust settled and she went forward into the rest of her life, with her partner, having made what most people would consider the greatest discovery and transformation of her life.

But then - at least this is what I felt, hearing the story - after years of settling into who she "really was," an encounter at a storytelling conference got her thinking that perhaps there was a Nangilima that she hadn't known about before, that there was another layer of vellum that could be laid down over the past and retraced on, that you don't ever know, even at 70, that you have everything figured out, that it's turtles all the way down.

What moved me about her story - aside from the obvious courage it has taken for her to put this show together and perform it - was that it rocks the ground under everyone's feet. Not just those who are confronting questions of gender identity and sexuality, as the world's views of those subjects shift and change around all of us, but everyone. The Brothers Lionheart gave me the creeps as a kid because it suggested that nothing is ever finally resolved. It's the disturbing truth at the centre of a lot of philosophies: you don't know that you don't know, and nothing you think you know can be relied on utterly. In the face of the world, you're best not to develop attachments to what you think is true. Change comes. It will shake you.

(If you want to see Jan perform this sit-still, barely-breathe, beautiful story, get yourself to Venus Envy this Wednesday at 7:30 for Voices of Venus.)

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