To A Truth That Yet Could Be
For a Hollywood girl, I am terrible with movies. I only see the ones I think I’ll enjoy. If I don’t think I’ll like it, I’ll politely pass. Regrets? Of course. But overall, less time watching means more time writing, which I’d usually prefer anyway.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” was that rare movie I wasn’t sure I’d like, yet still wanted to see. I’ve been fascinated by Jenkins, an actual heiress with very (very) little singing talent, who would hold recitals, perform in salons and her own recital hall, and even cut records because she had money and was surrounded by people who lovingly, unknowingly, or self-servingly sheltered her from criticism.
Meryl Streep does a remarkable job not merely in singing precisely off-key, but in portraying a Jenkins who engenders affection neither through her money nor pity, but through her honest love of music, engaging demeanor, and a never-ending supply of potato salad.
However, no amount of potato salad—let alone love of music—can make Jenkins sing remotely on key. So when she finally reaches beyond that circle of friends, to perform in Carnegie Hall, she ends up where no one can shield her from the public. And the public, being the public, mocks and ridicules her. People collapse laughing in the aisles. Critics rip her in print. Florence Foster Jenkins is crushed.
And one month and one day later, a woman with an honest love for music is dead.
I’ve been aware of Florence Foster Jenkins and her notoriety for some time. To this trans woman, who will never come close to singing a passable “Queen of the Night” either, Jenkins’s story is not merely heartbreaking, it is cautionary.
One of the deadliest platitudes is “the truth will set you free.”
I have too many beautiful talented friends whom I will never see again. Illness and murder aside, so many have killed themselves, either slowly or all at once. During each mourning, it is almost certain that someone will ask why the person did not reach out. How we could have better listened, what signs did we miss?
But this assumes, that the lost one wanted to be touched. That as survivors, that we could have offered a truer, more accurate perspective to the one who ended their life.
Can we be so sure? Many of my friends were quite brilliant, to the point where I wonder if they had all the truth they needed—truth that hurt so much that they could not bear to share it. And that their silence was not them forgetting about us, but their best effort to let the rest of us continue living without knowing something very horrible.
Because the truth can hurt.
The truth can kill.
Because the truth is that any society has very set ideas of what it thinks is right and wrong, good and bad, dirty and clean.
Unlike Miss Jenkins, there are excellent trans filmmakers. Trans people writing fantastic books. Yet, will this be enough to stop the laughter? Will they see the love we have for our voices and art? Or will we always be freaks?
Queer communities may tout body positivity and trans rights, but the most glamorous party still features the same skinny, white, female-assigned go-go dancers. Gay male ideals tend to affirm, rather than subvert existing ideas of masculinity. Lesbian and other women’s spaces are often still suspicious of trans women.
Even in trans community, those who are not deemed “passable,” either by chance or by choice or both, are not given the same sort of options and opportunities as those who are. So many trans celebrities are out and out gorgeous. Yet many trans people are not. What of their lives?
And in the straight world? Someone tells Jeffrey Tambour’s character in “Transparent” that she is beautiful. And we are supposed to believe that makes the outside world any kinder to older non-passing trans women?
Florence Foster Jenkins may have died for her art, Meryl Streep may have used every iota of acting genius to render her with compassion, but if we search our hearts, most of us would still have mocking her that night in Carnegie Hall.
Within our trans community, we do our best to hold each other, serve each other potato salad, and hold space. We enjoy trans family picnics, host beauty pageants, print beautiful calendars featuring transgender role models. This is not delusional. This is vital, valuable work. These activities can be the first positive interactions for people who have been told they are ugly, wrong, freakish. At a trans luncheon, I remember one person breaking down because it was the first time a group had ever sang her happy birthday.
But what is the role in such community of the artist? I’m no healer. I’m no facilitator. I write stuff. And my truth?
Nothing I write can make a white, womyn-born-womyn accept a trans lesbian of color, nor force a bigoted family to offer a decent Christmas to their queer child. Nothing I write will stop the rage of a bully who thinks trans women like me should die. Nothing I write will block the bullets flying in an Orlando nightclub. My best writing can’t even stop a Texas school from keeping a child out of the bathroom.
At this point, I am so tempted to protest, “until it does.”
Of course, I believe it’s possible for a poem to change the world—but then again, I also believe in the benevolence of the Buddha. And justifying or measuring the value of art in terms of timely substantial change is much like burning incense so you can win jackpots in Las Vegas or be cured of whatever is ailing you.
It’s just not going to work that way.
Instead, what preserves my sanity rests so much upon understanding the limitations of what I can do. There is a difference between curing and creating, between correcting an unjust culture and presenting alternative storylines that offer, if not justice, at least some vitality, connection, inspiration, or even hope.
Of course, the truth does not set you free. But through poetry, through art, one can envision ways to process the truth, to show that it is possible to resist to the truth—to create alternative narratives and show that “the truth” is an invariably an emperor without clothes.
And that, perhaps, is where and how I can benefit my world. Nothing I write will force our society to redefine beauty. Yet I can strive to write poems and stories that expose definitions to be as arbitrary as whatever notes Florence Foster Jenkins brought to Mozart.
And sometimes, I make wonderful connections. A few weeks ago, a reader from Easter Seals thanked me for my portrayal of a disabled character. Someone just wrote my work might have saved her life. Someone quoted me in an article. My work gets a starred review in a very cool journal. It’s wonderful.
But then I have to go. As an artist, I am at my best not when I speak to or for the community, but when I speak from and around it. When I am not trying to prescribe nor affirm, but am asking myself what new perspectives I can find. Find a truth that sets you free. Or make one up that yet could be.
Every piece I write is a stage dive, and I hope someone out there catches my words in whatever ways they can. My drive to do my best work, then to improve my craft further, is fueled by the knowledge that the longer the work lasts, the greater the chance it reaches more places, to challenge with more communities who have the audacity to monopolize what is right and good and beautiful.
And Florence Foster Jenkins was able to last. Her voice survives through a series of recordings she made—as gifts to her friends—that became party jokes and were reprinted through RCA as “The Glory of the Human Voice.”
Of course most people recall her not as a matron of arts, nor as singer, nor even as an untalented, yet generous woman—but as a joke. However, I don’t need their common interpretation. I can find my own narrative, where I can listen to her warbling, off-key enthusiasm in a way that gives me joy, admiration, tears, and a whole lot to think about.
She may not teach me very much about pitch. However, like every other writer or artist I admire, Jenkins inspires me to look beyond what other people might think, to love what I do, to push my skills a little further, and despite whatever may await me, sing to a music all my own.
Ryka Aoki is the author of Seasonal Velocities, He Mele a Hilo (A Hilo Song) and Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul. Ryka was named as one of “11 Trans Artists of Color You Should Know” by the Huffington Post. She has also done work with the American Association of Hiroshima Nagasaki A-Bomb Survivors, and two of her compositions were adopted as the organization’s official “songs of peace.”
Featured image “12 intrigues video still”©Natasha Marin: “I engaged in a 1 year social media experiment designed to stimulate infatuation between artists living thousands of miles apart. These are stills from videos from this project” (www.12intrigues.com).