HEAVEN by Emerson Whitney
Kirkus Star


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A searing, deeply personal story about the author’s emotional journey of self-discovery.

“This is the question of my body and my story about it: is it just mine?” So writes Whitney (Creative Writing/Goddard Coll.; Ghost Box, 2014) early on in the narrative, which is fragmented, elliptical, and consistently provocative. The author tells their story in three parts, each beautifully poised and composed of brief paragraphs, some only one short sentence. Piecemeal, like snapshots, Whitney slowly reveals an early life of uncertainty, pain, and suffering: “I grew up knowing fear as an inheritance of femininity.” The story washes back and forth in time as the author reflects on their sexuality and family: Mom and Hank, two brothers, Tye and Gunnar; and Grammy. Along the way, Whitney interjects bits of literature and psychology, wisdom gleaned from a variety of sources, including Freud, Lacan, Allen Ginsberg, Johanna Hedva, Robert J. Stoller, Luce Irigaray, and Eli Clare. Mom is the key to this story. “As a kid,” writes Whitney, “I was a flame in the corner lighting up all of Mom’s mistakes.” Chronicling their mother’s drinking, being physically abused, splitting with her husband, and moving around as she tried to raise her family, Whitney does a fine job uncovering their complex relationship. “This book,” they write, “isn’t about individuation or even coming of age…it’s about ways to find a response, to respond to her.” About Grammy, the author writes, “I love this woman for throwing me into deep water….My heritage is her hopefulness and the complexity of a body that looks, in parts, like hers.” The author recounts adolescent years filled with questions, fears, drinking, drugs, cutting, boys, girls, and homelessness—as well as a bad reaction to testosterone. Upon meeting other trans kids, writes Whitney, “I was the happiest around them I’d ever been.” In 2011, the author underwent breast removal surgery: “I’ve edited my body, mixed my skin around with some money.”

An incisive, nuanced inquiry into gender and body. 

Pub Date: April 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-944211-76-9
Page count: 200pp
Publisher: McSweeney’s
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2020