John Elizabeth Stintzi
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
Reviewed by Miles Hayes
In Vanishing Monuments, the debut novel by John Elizabeth Stintzi, time and memory intersect in poignant and devastating ways. Alani Baumb, a non-binary photographer living in Minneapolis, gets a call from a care home saying that their mother, who had been living with dementia in a nursing home in Winnipeg for years, has completely lost the ability to speak. Alani travels back to Canada to see their mother, staying in their unoccupied childhood home for the first time since running away as a teenager.
Their mother’s declining health and aphasia adds urgency to their need for closure: “If it’s going to close any of the windows to my past, if I’m going to fight against the draft, I have to go back right away.”
Alani explores the physical spaces and objects around their mother’s house, confronting the memories they invite. These rooms and objects intersect with moments in Alani’s past, from their time spent in Minneapolis mentoring a non-binary student, in Hamburg assisting a talented photographer, moments with their significant other Ginny, and as a teenager leading up to the decision to run away.
These flashbacks are framed through the concept of a “Memory Palace,” a place where memories are collected for display as if in a house to wander through, “pinning memories into intimately known places.”
The non-linear nature of the book allows us to see Alani’s memories in hindsight and through the lens of their adult experiences. Some characters and scenes are uneven or less connected to the overarching story, but the relationship between Alani and their mother is complex and captivating. Both are artists and Alani wears a camera they had stolen from their mother years before, even occasionally assuming their mother’s name, Hedwig.
Alani envisions Hedwig’s house as their Memory Palace, with chapters named for the rooms: The Dark Room, The Hallway, The Bedrooms, etc. These are organized in larger sections named after different ways we perceive time: Here, Now, Then.
Occasionally these slow the narrative momentum and threaten to be too ruminative, but when linked directly to material events even the deeply interior text rises to the form of the photo essay, snapping a vivid picture. As Alani and Hedwig are both photographers this seems appropriate to the complicated nature of memory and chronology.
Stintzi has stated that “while Vanishing Monuments centres a trans character, it is not about transness.” It is a rare thing to have a complicated and flawed non-binary character take centre stage, especially without having to take the time to explain aspects of trans/non-binary existence to cis readers, long assumed to the be the default. Transness impacts Alani’s experiences and how they see the world in a very significant yet organic way.
Time for trans, non-binary, and gender non-confirming individuals often gets muddled due to having to shift the order of personal milestones to accommodate trauma, transition, family stress, identity struggles, and the effects of anti-trans discrimination. This messiness is inherent to Alani’s narrative, and Stintzi conveys that story with aching empathy.