Neuro-queerness in An Unkindness of Ghosts

The term nuero-queer was first used by disability activists Nick Walker and Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon, to identify and explain the crossroads between nuerological difference, queer identity, and cultural conditioning. From our reading, neuroqueer can be a verb, noun, adjective, and it overall refers to a way of being, that contradicts societal expectations and celebrates difference. This essay will focus on neuro-queerness in An Unkindness of Ghosts, by River Solomon; specifically, I wish to analyze the relationships between Aster, Giselle and Theo, aboard the Matilda, and how their neuro-queerness allows them to impact their culture and society in a way that their neurotypical cisgender and heterosexual predecessors were incapable of. 

First, I would like to discuss the complexities of Aster and Giselle’s relationship. The pair are clearly fast friends, and see the other as one of the few people they can completely trust. When Giselle disappears, it’s only Aster that she reveals herself to, only Aster who can convince her to come home for sustenance. When Giselle injures herself, she only complies with medical attention from Aster, even as she sasses and complains. But the same cannot be said for Aster entirely. Aster often relies on Theo, the Surgeon, during the course of the novel, calling upon him when she is in a pinch or severely injured herself.  The novel takes time to have each woman recall an event from their adolescence, in which Aster played Husband and Giselle played Wife. Aster recounts this event another of Giselle’s antics and fancies, and when she leaves the play, it is to further educate herself under Theo’s direction. Giselle’s recalling is much more intimate, including details that may indicate a precocious sexual arousal, such as Aster’s appearance, warmth, the closeness of the encounter. 

In chapter 26, narrated by Giselle, she remembers when Aster found a book of Giselle’s mother tongue. The language Ifrek emphasizes unity, speaking of ‘we’ ‘us’ but never ‘I’. This tidbit of information serves to illustrate just how dependent Giselle truly is. Her lifelong affection and attachment toward Aster is one she cannot escape, cannot control. So she dives head in; 

“But it feels so much more satisfying to say the cruelest thing, to hurt, to harm. I wish I was better, but I’m not, and so there’s nothing to do but love who I am. “

Giselle is a true foil to Theo. Theo who is Heaven’s hands, Theo who hesitates and is consumed by anxiety, Theo who cannot tell Aster the depth of his love for her. Giselle represents the aversion to queer love, the attraction that Aster cannot put into words beyond what other people dictate. Giselle’s discovery of a love note between Theo and Aster is what triggers her to burn down the botanarium, symbolizing her rejection of what she can never have. She accepts that she cannot have Aster, and so makes her final act of defiance against her, telling Aster that for all the love she gives, it is not enough and so Giselle wants nothing at all. She begs Aster to be miserable in her dying breaths, resisting to the absolute last. 

Aster exhibits her neuro-queerness in a much more self-reliant way. Walker includes the occupation as a site that can be neuro-queered; Aster’s meticulous systems, of notes, schedules, rules, are what enable her to provide outstanding medical attention to her lowdeck patients. Her expansive knowledge of plants, chemicals, anatomy, all of which she has acquired and maintained through her innate fascination with simply knowing as much as possible, set her apart from mere apothecaries like Jane, as well as professionals like Theo. Where Aint Melusine may criticize Aster’s ways, her chasing of Lune’s ghost, her foolhardiness in fighting guards, these are all things that lead to Aster finding the truth. She refuses to accept the first narrative, of Lune’s suicide, of unending violence, and instead finds her own way. Through the ventilation ducts, through stolen books, forged passes. She often makes it out of these situations because of her vast knowledge and perceptiveness. What Aint Melusive called ‘insideness’ in a young Aster, is actually crucial to Aster’s survival aboard Matilda. Aster never gives up her botanarium, even though it’s discovery would likely have her killed. She may not be as headstrong as Giselle every time, but rather plays the long game. Waiting and watching, recording and knowing, ignoring the dehumanization, and sometimes, playing into it. Her insideness, her Austim is what builds her up, empowers her, saves her. 

Theo’s neuroqueerness is not as explicit, and could be argued as non-existent. I would say that Theo’s constant anxiety, around his appearance, his religious devotion, and Aster and all that she means, is quite enough to qualify as disabling. These great bouts of silence, or self-flagellation are just as harsh as Giselle’s extreme outburst; they’re simply opposite ends of the spectrum. His queer identity is certain; he rejects the label of man both in his own internal dialogue and to Aster. His attraction to Aster, from himself as a genderqueer person and toward Aster as another gender non-conformant person, is absolutely queer. It could be said that he is attracted to her insideness, her great intelligence and manner, so this would be a neuroqueering as well.  Theo never seems to criticize Aster’s methods or processing, but in fact often extends her reach above the lowdecks. For Aster’s response to this neuroqueer attraction: sfantasizes of  Aston the astomic physiomatician and Theo the aviotologist as lovers, as belonging in the spotlight, together. This is absolutely neuroqueer, in that Aster recognizes her greatly scientific mind as a positive, and her attraction toward Theo of masculinity to masculinity, as a positive. She does not wish to conform in this space as Aster, but to take up even more space as Aston. 

For all three of these characters, their motivation for revolution is not just to save their society, but to save themselves. Giselle, who cannot breathe in every social constraint and expectation. Aster, who cannot know all that she desires for fear of punishment. Theo, who cannot love Aster openly or express his true identity. Yes, they recognize the intense, barbaric violence for what it is. But who was motivated more than these three to fight back? Would they have been motivated at all, without their neuroqueerness?

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