Books

Heaven by Emerson Whitney review – a memoir with fearsome grace

Whitney flits between memoir and theory to understand their past

Heaven, by American author Emerson Whitney, is a memoir that reflects on the terrifying, wonderful morass that a person’s life can be, in all its devastating possibilities. Navigating gender transcendence, the chronic illness Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and maternal relationships, Whitney delicately portrays their memories as a child who survived many difficulties, especially when living with their mother, a lodestar in her love and neglect. 

Whitney’s text defies a straightforward structure, interlapping vignettes from their youth with pieces of psychoanalytical, queer, artistic and gendered theory, which feed into the body of the book. Whitney unravels notions of femininity and transmasculinity with frankness – suggesting the self is a fractal composite of experiences, choices and longings, not reducible to one single causation.

While the memoir renders many painful parts of Whitney’s history, there are also moments of solace – the treasured time Whitney spent with their grandmother, the respite they found among kind dinner ladies at school. 

From infancy to adult existence, Whitney inhabits a body that is constantly codified and othered. They peel away at various expectations imposed on them by family members, peers, lovers and authorities, considering the impact of their whiteness in this treatment.

Their memoir offers compassion and recognition not only for their beloved mother, but also to those of us (which is probably most of us) who feel broken by what we have lived through – not least by being categorised by our past experiences.

Whitney’s memoir does the soul’s work of existing on its terms, a hybrid being of memories, gaps and theory. I adore Whitney’s devotion to their own particular truth, offering their history with fearsome grace.

Heaven by Emerson Whitney is out now (Cipher Press, £10.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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