In their debut essay collection All This Happened, More or Less, Jayne A. Quan shares a compilation of intimate writings on grief, love and personal growth.
This is a collection that clearly comes from a place of intense loss, self-analysis, and in the author’s words, a need to “try to make sense of it all”. Some five years ago, the author began their medically-assisted transition, at a time when they were also grieving the loss of their 10-year-old brother.
Opening with their heart-wrenchingly beautiful essay “Both Sides Now”_, _Quan confronts grief and challenges the idea of memory. Can we trust our memories? Are memories formed from our own experiences or from the shared experiences of others?
In many ways, this collection imitates the way memory works, almost like pulling on threads in the mind in an effort to untangle the past and understand the present.
Sibling, child, friend. Hospital, gymnasium, neighbour’s basement. Loss, love and tragedy. San Francisco, California and Dublin. Twenty-one and in New York, the very day Governor Andrew Cuomo signed New York’s Marriage Equality Act. Twenty-seventeen, the beginning of Quan’s hormone-replacement therapy and testosterone injections – “Second Puberty” as they would begin to call it.
Memory can be inherited or lost. It can be “change”. Quan picks apart their own transition to show the great depths of emotion and personal conflict that exists beyond sex-reassignment surgery.
The honest, personal accounts throughout are both fascinating and enlightening. Quan touches on topics like queer identity and their discovery of a world of them and they, and the battle to overcome internal transphobia – the concept of seeing your own transgenderism as a negative.
The idea of identity and self-worth is a recurring theme. These essays reflect on the concept of “place” within oneself and within family, in community and in the wider world itself.
Quan points out how the actions of one member of a community do not represent the actions of everyone within a community. Nevertheless, as is familiar to many marginalised communities, there is also an understanding that this is exactly how most beyond a community will view these actions.
The essay “A Body in Motion” shows how, for those transitioning, the relationship with your body can be extremely complex and one that is often misunderstood in the wider population. For the author, transitioning did not come from a place of hating one’s body.
“I changed my body because of what little love I could muster for it,” they explain.
It is not a simple case of before and after either. Quan stresses that the transition is still ongoing.
While transitioning comes with many internal pressures, everyday social situations continuously throw up hurdles. Even something as simple as a name. The author shares how some will unconditionally accept them as Jayne, while there are others who will always see a James or a Jack.
A name can frame identity and dictate expectation. It links to your past. “These photos of a young me”, the author refers to an old photo album. “They may as well be of someone else.”
In their essay “Against Godliness”, the author turns the seven deadly sins on their heads, mapping memories of upbringing and transition against the archaic list of transgressions. The physical and psychological implications of transitioning weave through stories of parental divorce, early relationships and inherited traits.
We return to the idea of memory, and the concept of compartmentalising. “The thing about compartmentalising is that eventually you must open the compartments you thought you had closed … they can’t stay sealed forever.”
Memory is also that which is learned and people who have inspired the author. It is gay pride events. It is reading about the Stonewall riots, where a heavy-handed police raid on a New York City gay club sparked six days of protest in the Greenwich Village area, which proved to be a catalyst for the gay-rights movement in the US and beyond.
Memory is regret and embarrassment. It is heartbreak. It is those tragic events momentous enough to change the very people we are. For good or for bad.
The loss of Quan’s 10-year-old brother weighs heavy throughout the work. We see how deeply this loss has affected, and still affects, the whole family. “Those people are locked away,” Quan speaks of those who were close to their brother before his death. “We are After Him in the timeline of the rest of our lives.”
All This Happened, More or Less encourages us to consider the fragility of those places we inhabit and the fragility of our place within them. It examines some of the what-ifs and unknowns that keep us up at night.
It captures so much of the inner turmoil created when hope struggles against loss. Two great waves that continue to crash against each other. Somewhere in between lie those moments of clarity and calm.
Intelligent, beautiful writing. Every sentence carries weight, enlightens or cuts. This is the art form of essay writing at its very best.
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