Archive of Desire

‘Manywhere: Stories’ by Morgan Thomas

MCD January 2022, 224 pp.

The dedication of Morgan Thomas’s debut fiction collection Manywhere reads, “For Bea, who introduced me to Frank, and for anyone who’s gone looking for themselves in the archives.” That spirit of searching drives this keen and coruscating set of nine short stories centered on Southern queer and genderqueer people, all of them pursuing or creating traces of themselves in history and myth, lore and legacy. The word archive in the sense of records or documents preserved as evidence comes from an ancient Greek root, which pertains both to the public records themselves and to the place in which such records are kept. Thomas sets themself the tasks of both offering up evidence to the public of typically underrepresented lives and also housing this evidence in the meticulous structure of this single collection, in which every story feels essential. Order is crucial to any collection, and Thomas’s opener, “Taylor Johnson’s Lightning Man,” gives the audience a kind of mission statement about the book’s fascinations and aims. Narrated by the character named in the title in direct address to Frank Woodhull (originally Mary Johnson), this story tells of a mysterious immigrant in the early twentieth century who earned a living going door-to-door, selling “iron rods. A dollar a foot.” When the narrator is just a child, their mother explains that upon the lightning man’s death in the 1930s, “the undertaker, when he stripped your body for embalming, discovered you had been all along a woman costumed with a man’s suit and a smoker’s cough, a Canadian with no US citizenship and no family to speak of.” Taylor’s mom appreciates Woodhull because, to her, the deception proves how far women have come since then: “These days, you wouldn’t have to hide that way. You could sell a lightning rod wearing a skirt,” but Taylor says, “I liked your story because I suspected even then you weren’t a woman or a man,” and for that reason, “I felt close to you.” Throughout the story, Thomas quotes many newspaper articles from the first decade of the 1900s with titles like “Woman in Male Garb Gains Her Freedom” and “She Posed as a Man for Fifteen Years” and “Mustached, She Plays Man.” These sources offer a welcome research guide to any reader eager to learn more. At the same time, these citations strengthen one of the collection’s central themes: trans and nonbinary people are not, as some would have it, a recent development; they have been a part of our shared history all along, even though they are frequently left out of the official archives. Thomas’s accolades—including the Penny Wilkes Scholarship in Writing and the Environment and the inaugural Southern Studies Fellowship in Arts and Letters—reflect their thematic concerns with place. Time and again, Thomas emphasizes the power that the environment in general, and climate catastrophe in particular, have over the course of human fate. Fittingly, given that this impact occurs on a massive, collective scale, the second story, “The Drowning Place,” is told in the first-person plural from the perspective of the last residents of the Louisiana Leper Home, sometimes simply known as Carville, a sanitarium near Baton Rouge where those afflicted with Hansen’s disease were sent to live. In the story, the residents try, with both generosity and ambivalence, to welcome hurricane evacuees from coastal Louisiana, formerly island-dwelling Cajuns who suffer from PTSD owing to their abrupt and violent displacement. “We told them as we scanned their groceries that they didn’t need to build on pilings. They built up anyway. Water’s always coming. You can’t hide from the water forever.

An article on Frank Woodhull (né Mary Johnson) in The Mitchell Capital, 1908. Courtesy of digitaltransgenderarchive.net.

Originally from the Gulf Coast and now based in Portland, Thomas pays splendid attention to geography and landscape and how they shape the longings and behaviors of individuals living within a certain terrain. In “Transit,” for instance, the protagonist, Blue, is on their way home from an inpatient anorexia treatment facility in Florida called Naked House, so named because the residents are made to do their weight checks naked, “otherwise girls would line the hems of their skirts with batteries and bits of metal to trick the scale.” On the journey back to their mother in Houston, Blue gets “stranded with everyone else in Jubilee, Louisiana, [their] train delayed by flooding,” a turn of events which leads them to consider remaining indefinitely in this tiny town, rife with legends about a supposed, long-ago vampire called the Count whose “mother was a man.” Pregnancy and the many permutations it can take crop up in several stories, intertwined with the surrounding culture and environment. In “Surrogate,” women take on the titular job as a way to earn a living in a region of Arkansas where the consequences of rampant fracking threaten not just the unborn but everyone. The protagonist, Brighten, watches her partner, Orson, after he “proposed at the frac pond.” Orson takes his Bic lighter and touches its flame to the surface, where, “on his third try, a blush of fire” proves the water is poisoned with methane. In “Bump,” a trans woman named Louie lives in Atlanta with her nana and has an unconventional romantic relationship with a man named Len. She wants a baby of her own so badly, even though she will never be able to bear one within her own body, that she begins to wear a pregnancy bump, causing confusion and chagrin among those closest to her. Louie observes that “there is something inherently shameful in wanting, concretely—not a whim, not a wish, but a cold hard desire—after an impossible thing.” Yet here and throughout Manywhere, Thomas’s characters work through their shame and wrestle with their embarrassment in order to desire anyway, striving to reach for what they want, often looking to trailblazers to show them the way. Thomas writes with a beautiful command of syntax and cadence, their sentences accruing with a propulsive energy into stories whose tones feel exciting and urgent. They joyfully explore the possibilities of form, as in “The Daring Life of Philippa Cook the Rogue,” which begins with a “Deposition taken before John Pott, esquire governor, James Town on this 2nd day of April, 1629” and goes on to alternate putative historical documents from the colonial era with emails by a researcher named Shoo Caddick in 2018. The Notes section explains that the court transcripts are adapted from the testimony of Thomas(ine) Hall from the Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, a case in which Hall—who sometimes dressed and behaved as a man, other times as a woman, and who worked on a small tobacco plantation—was put on trial for supposedly having sex with a maid from a nearby household. According to the laws at the time, if Hall were a man, then he had committed the crime of fornication, whereas if Hall were a woman, then she hadn’t broken the law. Legality and illegality recur across the collection, highlighting the ways patriarchal society seeks to erase and oppress those who do not fit within its boxes or serve its ends. The story “The Expectations of Cooper Hill” is a complex and moving examination of the trade of midwifery as it was racialized and pushed to the margins in Alabama in the 1920s. Thomas incorporates passages from medical papers of the era, including an article by a Dr. W. R. Nicholson, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1916: “We cannot control the midwife, and we do not believe that the midwife can be entirely eliminated at present. All we are doing is carrying out a police supervision—there is no other word for it.” The story’s present-day narrator, looking back over these accounts, has to contend with the less-than-savory role her own white midwife great-great-grandmother, Sylvia Summer, played in this repressive shift. Time and again, the characters realize that self-discovery cannot be extricated from the discovery of broader systems and habits, and that the reconstruction of the past is one of the means by which a lineage can lead its inheritors into a different—and perhaps more multifarious and inclusive—future.

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