At the height of the COVID shutdown in the United States, I was asked to speak at an informal recovery meeting by a friend I had met ten years earlier in a twelve-step fellowship in Boston, Massachusetts. I got sober relatively young, at the age of twenty-four, and have remained sober and active in twelve-step recovery since October 26, 2008. Sobriety has been the singular blessing of my life, and in my time in recovery I’ve witnessed miraculous things occur in my life and the lives of other recovering people. And yet, to this day, one of the most impressive remains watching how quickly and efficiently the recovery community moved online in the early days of the shutdown. Within a week I could go to meetings all over the country, all over the world, with other people who were making it their business to stay sober a day at a time amidst the most cataclysmic event of our lifetimes. Never before had recovery felt so democratic.
But when my friend asked me to speak, I was reluctant. I was just then coming off a period of intensely painful emotional and spiritual growth—what we might call in recovery a spiritual awakening, but which had felt at the time more like a crisis of confidence. In the slow and quiet days of that summer’s isolation, I had realized that at some point in my early sobriety I had developed certain ways of operating in the world to keep myself safe—particularly in my intimate relationships with men—but which had ultimately left me unseen. And I had wanted so badly to be seen. At twelve years sober, this was a difficult truth to reckon with, and in the aftermath of its revelation, I felt like cellophane: thin and transparent. But I agreed to speak at the meeting, because he was my friend and he had asked.
Logging onto the meeting, I was nervous. By that point in my recovery, I had shared at more meetings than I could possibly count, but I was still adjusting to sharing online where I couldn’t gauge the feel of a room in quite the same way I could in person. I watched, slightly horrified, as more and more people signed into the meeting—people from Madison, Wisconsin, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Southern California and New York City. Soon the number of participants reached more than eighty.
The meeting began and my friend introduced me. I read from a piece of recovery literature and then spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes about my experience in sobriety, after which the meeting opened for other people to share. It wasn’t long before I realized that a large contingent of the meeting was made up of gay men. This was something of a revelation. Though there is a robust recovery community in my hometown, with more than three hundred meetings each week, only two are designated as queer meetings, and I had largely avoided those meetings throughout my sobriety for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me at the time, but which undoubtedly had to do with my own history of sexual trauma and my general distrust of men. But listening to those men share at that online meeting, I felt a familiar mixture of discomfort and curiosity. It was the peculiar emotional cocktail I’ve come to recognize as an invitation for further spiritual growth. The Universe was trying to tell me I had something more to learn. And so I began attending that meeting, which met every night during the pandemic, regularly.
It was at that meeting that I met a gay actor who was weathering the shutdown in Stamford, Connecticut, and who had been sober for almost three years. We embarked on a deep and abiding friendship. Every night after the meeting, we’d talk on the phone, sometimes for hours. During one of these phone calls, this man told me he had once heard someone describe recovery as a journey towards becoming whole, but that something about that framing didn’t feel right to him. It was a subject I had given a lot of thought, both in my recovery and during my years teaching mindfulness practice for an Internet startup. I told my friend that the problem with that statement was that it implied that at some point we are not whole. But we are never not whole. We are born whole. Wholeness is our birthright. And yes, there are certainly times when we lose sight of our wholeness. All kinds of things can get in the way of us seeing and knowing and believing it: trauma, addiction, misogyny, racism, poverty, neglect, illness—to name a few. But that doesn’t mean we are ever not whole. “Recovery is not a journey towards becoming whole,” I told him. “It is a journey towards experiencing our wholeness.” After that previous summer’s painful revelation, it was a reminder I myself needed to hear.
Eventually the shutdown ended, in-person meetings resumed, and my friend the actor and I returned to the busyness of our lives and our separate geographies. But still, I revisited our conversation about wholeness again and again in the years that followed, often in dialogue with my friends and fellow queer writers and editors Cat Powell and Taymour Soomro. We discussed wholeness as it related to queer representation in literature. It seemed to us that the queer narratives that gained the most traction with the mainstream were often narratives about the queer struggle for worthiness and belonging. In other words, they were narratives of becoming, rather than narratives of being. What would a body of queer literature look like, we wondered, if it originated from (rather than ended at) a place of wholeness? What responsibility did we as queer writers and editors and teachers have to usher that work into being? In hindsight, I am certain that it was these conversations that led me to pitch the idea of a queer-themed issue of Fairy Tale Review to the journal’s Founding Editor, Kate Bernheimer.
Fairy tales have always struck me as an inherently queer art form—though I guess that depends on one’s definition of queerness. I think of the writer and activist bell hooks who, in a conversation at Eugene Lang College in 2014, defined queerness as “the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” What I love most about hook’s definition is that the emphasis is not on a self that needs to be invented, created, or found, but rather a place in which the queer self can be accommodated. Fairy tales, with their intuitive logic and normalized magic, have always been at odds with a certain school of literary realism, and yet I would argue they remain humanity’s longest-standing storytelling tradition precisely because of their ability to render lived human experience despite their apparent detachment from reality. They are both themselves queer and a place where queerness can speak and thrive and live.
As we began formulating plans for The Rainbow Issue, which would feature queer fairy tales written exclusively by queer writers and writers who identified as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, I continued to puzzle over the relationship between wholeness and queerness and the fabulist tradition. I felt they were connected, but I couldn’t yet articulate how. The answer came in an early brainstorming session I had with Kate Bernheimer, during which Kate quoted from an essay she had written on fairy tales and trauma. “Retelling is an act of reparation,” she said. The comment stopped me cold. This was the key. To re-tell—that is, to tell a story previously told anew—is to re-pair. To join again two things that belong together. It was a lesson I had first learned in twelve-step meetings, where I sat and listened to people share their stories day after day, year after year. As I stayed sober and began to share my own story, something magical happened: my perspective and understanding of it evolved. I began to reframe it through the stories I heard others tell; I made connections I hadn’t seen before—at a year sober, or five years, or eight, or twelve. And in the process, I learned to form a coherent narrative of my life, one in which every element of my story was integrated. The same could be said about fairy tales. Fairy tales have the power to restore us to an experience of our wholeness because in retelling them—telling them anew—we have the opportunity to reclaim authority over our oldest and most entrenched stories. Which is another way of saying we have the opportunity to reclaim authority over our lives. Fairy tales, too, are an act of recovery.
Imagine my surprise then, when reviewing the final manuscript of The Rainbow Issue, I noticed that the majority of its contents had one thing in common: apart from being queer, nearly all of them involved some kind of transformation. People transformed into castles and cakes and whole cities; they transformed into foxes and sphinxes, bears and wolves, daffodils and tobacco and cannabis. They transformed into reflections of their own mothers; they transformed into kings and spontaneous hustlers. I began to panic. “Oh no,” I thought. “Are these narratives of becoming?” My panic was short-lived, however, when I realized how many of these transformations were physical. I remembered that for queer people—and women and BIPOC and people with disabilities—the journey towards an experience of our wholeness always begins with our bodies. It is our bodies that are often at odds with everything around them—that is to say, they are at odds with the patriarchy and majority culture—but they are also the place from which we must learn to speak and to thrive and to live wholly. Our bodies are the vessels that house our stories—stories not of our becoming, but of our being.
It has been the great privilege of my editorial career to serve as Editor for this special issue of Fairy Tale Review, and I am beyond grateful to Kate Bernheimer and Poetry Editor Jon Riccio for affording me the opportunity, as well as to our editorial staff and all our contributors. And to you, our readers. The Rainbow Issue is a place that’s now yours.
From The Rainbow Issue of Fairy Tale Review, published by Wayne State University Press, 2023.