Though adorable in shape and size, Oriana Rose’s As I Fall Apart is anything but. Packing a necessary punch when discussing contraceptives, menstruation and gender, Rose and Natasha Natarajan’s stunning work problematises all three in the pursuit of liberation.
I recently attended a book launch with my friend Deirbhile, where we both felt slightly alien, slightly mismatched with the hospital-white walls and the rows of industrial-style, “avant-garde” art books on the shelves. What most captured our eye was a set of small, pocket-sized books, clearly designed to be carried around and leafed through without a significant agenda. I felt the echo of those volumes when I found As I Fall Apart (Focus Print) in the mail; it fits in the palm of my hand, it is compact and adorable in shape and size, yet inside, it is anything but. The dense, packed text of the book is the first visual clue to the way in which Oriana Rose has presented her sharp observations and research: with unending complexity and tightly packed morsels of hard-hitting critique. It is a stunning piece of writing, and is complemented beautifully by Natasha Natarajan‘s illustrations, which not only deepen the work by adding visual perspective and magnitude to its contents, but also extrapolate salient moments from the text into recognisable and expansive modes of expression. The comics expand not only the book’s vocabulary but also its spatial abilities, covering more ground (physically as well as emotionally) through their negative space, and therefore demanding more attention.
Rose describes the experience of getting the contraceptive implant as “dark and formless”, an echo of the expansive negative space left behind by Natarajan’s drawings (in contrast to Rose’s words, which leave no blank space between them). I felt compelled to imagine beyond my immediacy into this formlessness, which ironically took sharp form with Rose’s descriptive prose: “a potent mass” of emotion, this sentiment carries through the text, sustaining its factualities and theoretical frameworks. Each word is grounded in this sharp wave of “sadness, shame, pain and exhaustion”, not in a defeatist or self-pitying fashion, but one that is empowering in a way that articulation and expression tend to be. The naming of this shame is in itself a daring risk in the face of the silencing context of which the text lives: it is a robust frame of reference through which to view the world.
In 2019, I was in an abusive relationship (I am leaning into Rose’s precedent in naming and articulation when I call it this). The cishet man that I dated repeatedly pressured me into having sex without a condom, a pressure I successfully (thankfully) resisted. His pressures often took the form of telling me his ex girlfriend had the contraceptive implant in her arm, and that she experienced no side effects. Even then, my gut told me no, and I resisted. Reading Rose’s text had me shaking with relief at my refusal, but also plain fear at this man’s complete ignorance of the possible danger he was pressuring me to expose myself to. As Rose writes, thrombosis, cancer, depression, acne, heavy bleeding, no bleeding, ovarian cysts, issues with insertion or removal are some of the side effects of the implant. My ex insisted that unprotected sex was a way to “feel closer” to somebody. At what cost?
Where there is cost, there is profit: Rose correctly identifies the role of capital in shaping the societal acceptability of such a dangerous product. The side effects arising from it often require additional medication to treat, which is sourced from the same pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market the implant in the first place (Nexplanon, in Rose’s case). Referring to Sara Ahmed, Rose takes pains not to completely reject all contraceptives, and repeatedly concedes that they have an emancipatory potential. But, like everything, they are not without their complications. This problematisation is essential to the feminist liberatory project and the fight against capital. While we problematise the implant, it is important to complicate and interrogate our reactions to it as well. The core of people’s discomfort, I think, lies in the lack of control, something that pharmaceutical companies do a lot of work to combat by advertising their products as “flexible”, almost submissive: female traits, as they say. In relinquishing control, however, we gain another kind of control: the ability to avoid pregnancy. It is an endless dance of control against release, and the sole of it lies in its entanglement with capital. It is these patriarchal structures, as Rose identifies them to be, that are all enforced, enacted, and institutionalised through the use of capital, and for the pursuit of profit as a mode of subjugation.
Rose also quotes Andrea Long-Chu: “To be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense.” This directioned, instructional mode of gender being essential to female-ness reinforces the former as a social mode of categorisation, but perhaps essentialises a bit of rigidity to its construction. It positions femaleness as a response to a context, wherein any form of subjugation is gendered. Rose writes of women who feel forced to get the contraceptive implant because they’re running out of health insurance and wouldn’t be able to afford birth control. This is an economic and social interaction, one where the mechanisms and motivations of capital supersede the desires and wellbeing of the individual, and thus direct them: Long-Chu’s definition of femaleness. Gender (here, femaleness), stays located in the self, though it is conditioned by the outside. What of a male individual who makes a similar choice? Would their response to the similar tides of capital be rendered female? I am concerned, here, with the particular incompleteness of the narrative that defines any particular mode of subjugation through gender, particularly if its perpetrator lacks a motivation that is distinguishable from (if entangled with) concerns of gender. Long-Chu (and Rose) responds to these concerns with an expansive definition of femaleness: an “existential condition” that every individual inhabits. What distinguishes people who are capable of menstruating, for instance, is that our femaleness does not have a “temporal limit”; the scope of dictating our desires is endless. Where often cis men will find empowerment and validation for rising to the call of self-sacrifice, we will find further subjugation.
Natarajan expands on this through her comic on “fertility work”, discussing how her decision to get the contraceptive implant did not serve her desires in the first instance, and conditioned and limited her ability to enjoy sex for many years to come. She explored different methods and positions and finally found what worked for her, but it was hard-won. She adopts Rose’s approach to see naming as liberation work: by expressing the depths and intricacies of her intimate moments, she expresses a wholeness to the experience of the implant, and importantly, its aftermath. She contributes to the work of expanding femaleness beyond specific moments of direction and instruction, given that her desires (and pleasure) continue to be shaped by the forces that led her to get the implant for many years to come. Yes, it was a choice she made herself, but one made under a severely limiting context and climate. How do we wrestle between autonomy and the recognition of coercive forces?
Rose indirectly explores this question when discussing a “risk society”: the world we live in now poses unknown risks to our bodies in the form of toxins, the fallibility of expertise, and the breakdown in the structures that were built to protect us, such as public health. Where do we land on the question of autonomy in this landscape? Is there such a thing as control at all? If we are submitting, who are we submitting to? I’d like to suggest the answer is capital, and that our lack of control does not lie in our femaleness, which is only a singular facet of our relation with the world, if we adopt Long-Chu’s definition. Submission to capital has grown from lacking knowledge (because of a lack of trust in larger systems) into ignorance borne from a systemic denial of public information. Rose describes fertility information leaflets and other medical jargon-centric documents as unnecessarily complex, designed, perhaps, to deliberately withhold the knowledge they contain from the wider public. A monopoly on capital is a monopoly on knowledge.
When I first went to therapy, it took me more than a year to be able to say the word “shame” out loud. I am still unsure why. Something about how it took power away from me and allowed others to define what I felt, or was supposed to feel – its femaleness. The gift in this pamphlet is not limited to information, curation, or research; perhaps Rose’s strongest talent here is her honesty, beginning on the first page with her mention of the word “shame”. Its defiant tone echoes through each section, starkly visible in the fifth, where she describes in honest detail the feeling of uncleanliness that she felt with excessive bleeding caused by the implant. I wonder if this will see an audience beyond people who menstruate? Will anyone reading it feel discovery rather than recognition? I am imagining what it would feel like to read the words “The shame itself is reminiscent of the first time a body experiences a period, being presented with a pad and that awful sensation that you are a toddler again, in need of a nappy” without knowing, in a deep, personal sense, what they mean. Here, again, we revisit the lack of control. Here, we are submitting to our own bodies. Where does autonomy fit in here?
When I had my first period, I thought I’d shit my pants. The blood was darker than I’d thought it would be; thicker, and staining all the way down the legs of my pyjamas. Rose’s words echo the thoughts I had then: “What is toxic shock syndrome?”, as I’d heard more rumours than medical explanations. We are taught to fear our own bodies and personhoods in favour of incapacitation and disempowerment. Our desires are conditioned by shame. This lack of control is expressed by Elizabeth Grosz in the terms “leaking” and “seepage”, in Christine Battersby’s words a faulty container. Something that isn’t doing it’s job: something worth shame. “Shame is a specific type of emotional pain,” writes Rose. Ahmed contextualises it alongside other “negative feelings”, which are attributed to the other, but in the case of shame, it is attributed to the self. In this case, however, we are coaxed and conditioned towards this attribution, which constitutes a projection onto others. This projection is shaped by what we are taught to think and feel: a cyclical repetition of shame.
“…it may be the product of patriarchal pharmaceutical capitalism, but how can we invert or ‘queer’ the sexist logic of the implant in order to dismantle and disrupt the cultural regime that created it?” asks Rose. She goes on to suggest that in understanding what the implant can do in “opposite terms”, it may complicate its heteronormative and patriarchal frameworks. Referring to Maggie Nelson, Rose describes how the implant alters one’s “natural” state and reduces their conformity to biological-patriarchal understandings of gender: it halts menstruation. Does this constitute a queering of the object, specifically one that is so tied up in gender categorisation as a mode of oppression? Rose herself describes the feminisation of the user/patient/customer by pharmaceutical literature, where they are described primarily in terms that lend themselves to patriarchal suppression. I’d like to think queerness is a specifically liberatory project and means something different to a lack of conformity to the expectations of menstruation, because as has been noted, the patriarchy simply intensifies one’s femaleness by subjecting them to the implant, by controlling their desires. The patriarchy is a multifaceted and contradictory thing, and resisting its contradictions does not render an object inherently queer. Like everything, it has the potential to be queer, to be liberatory, to be non-conforming. The object on its own, however, remains value-neutral.
Finally, Rose talks of “unravelling”: “I invite you to witness me, as I fall apart…I gaze back at you, witnessing you witness me as I unravel…” She then asks whether you want to turn away, and if you did, whose desire would you adopt in doing so. In this instance, I had to set the book down and collect myself: I had started to unravel. I turned the page and found Natarajan’s final illustration: a girl holding a reusable pad and being told to wash it by hand, as it had no place in the washing machine: a reminder, once again, that the entire resistance project is framed within and empowered by the deep, liberatory feeling that makes us all unravel – shame.
As I Fall Apart by Oriana Rose and illustrated by Natasha Natarajan is published by Focus Print and is available to purchase online. Find out more about Focus Print by visiting their website and following them on Instagram.
This review was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Images of Natasha Natarajan’s comics are courtesy of Focus Print.