The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson Questions

1. What does it mean to have a body? The physicality of birth, death, babyhood, motherhood, etc. are all central to Nelson’s narrative. She touches on sex, transitioning, the body as perceived by others and the body as perceived by ourselves. Were you interested in what she had to say? Was her perspective very different from your own?

2. Nelson has written about art and art history in other books of essays. How do you think this has informed her work in The Argonauts? Did you like the discussion of art, such as the work of Catherine Opie? Did it distract you from the main themes of the book?

3. Nelson discusses what it means to be a mother while identifying as queer. What do you think queer family means? Is it possible to be a mother and retain a queer identity?

The Argonauts arrives at a critical moment for queerness. The expansion of marriage rights and rapid cultural shifts toward assimilation and acceptance have rendered homosexuality much safer and less politically radical than it once was. For some queers, this has provoked a desire to preserve queerness’s alterity: to evoke its history and mark it as fundamentally and continually separate from the straight culture that surrounds it. It’s an understandable impulse, given how quickly the LGBT movement has been embraced — and co-opted — by corporations, politicians, and other fair-weather allies eager to keep up with the times. But this impulse has a downside, too, as it risks becoming attached to its own idea of authenticity, the distinctions it makes between real queerness and queerness’s supposed traitors.
“The tired binary that places femininity, reproduction, and normativity on the one side, and queer resistance on the other has lately reached a kind of apotheosis,” Nelson writes, “often posing as a last, desperate stand against homo- and hetero-normativity, both.” She has no patience for this binary, which understands “procreative femininity” as a pollutant both of queerness and of radicalism; she sees the misogyny of this stance. If The Argonauts can be said to have a primary concern, this is it: how to resist a conception of queerness that shoehorns complex lives into a neat dichotomy of normative versus not, and how to resist the unhelpful demonization of motherhood, domesticity, and the other supposedly reactionary forms that love can take.
— Moira Donegan

4. What is this book? Memoir? Essay? Poetry? Did its lack of identifiable genre bother you?

5. This is a book about transformations. The Argo remains the same ship even when all its parts are replaced. Nelson’s partner Harry starts to transition; Nelson goes through a pregnancy. What is she trying to say with the title? What does it mean when the body undergoes change? “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female,’” Nelson writes. “But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”

6. How did you feel about Nelson writing so intimately about people in her life, particularly her son and stepson?

7. Nelson seems to reject binaries: male/female, straight/queer, etc. Was she saying something relevant? Original?

8. Is this ultimately a book about happiness? Finding what happiness means, and whether you can allow yourself to experience it?

9. Were there parts which appealed to you more? Did you find the blend of academic and memoir writing to be easy to digest? Would this book work better as pure memoir and/or pure academic article? Why or why not?

10. Did you find the way Nelson contextualises her life in myths/stories to be helpful? Does telling stories about our lives makes them easier to understand? Easier to empathise with other people?

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