In mythology, a phoenixthe flashy, multi-colored birdrises from its own ashes, repeatedly born anew. The myth has various origins and some differing details, but its crux remains pervasive, in part, because the subtext of transformation and overcoming adversity remains so endlessly hopeful. The phoenix is particularly attractive, I think, to queer folks because it imagines possibility always on the horizon, a dream apart from the heteronormative status quo that attempts to contain us. It doesn’t hurt that a phoenix allegedly returns fiercer and more fabulous than before either.
The downside, of course, is the fire. Octavia Butler, in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, wrote “In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / First / Must / Burn,” tempering the celebratory aspects of the myth with reality. While the age-old legend foregrounds the rebirth itself and Butler’s dystopian novel tempers hope with the reality of burning, Darnell Moore’s astonishing new memoir No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free In America (out May 29th from Nation Books) refuses either pole and weaves in his own experience and insight to create a new twist on the phoenix.
Moore’s title references a brutally definitive moment growing up in Camden, New Jersey. Though he wasn’t fully aware of his own queerness at the time, neighborhood kids doused him in gasoline and attempted to set him on fire because they assumed he was gay. Thankfully, the matches refused to ignite. There was no fire that day, but there were toxic fumes in lungs, and pores soaked in poison. A dangerous alchemy of a different sort.
Fire, in Moore’s story, haunts the narrative as potential punishment for violating social norms of race, gender, and sexuality like heavy gas fumes. Being queer or trans, being a person of color, being a woman, being any of these things in America (especially when existing at intersections where multiple identities exist) is to live under threat of fire. We internalize that threat and modify ourselves accordingly until, as Moore notes, we realize that, “Sometimes there aren’t any spaces where we can be safe. In those instances, we learn to go to war.”
For some, that realization may never come, but in No Ashes In The Fire, Moore goes to war with the storiesthe implicit and explicit threats and the systemsthat made him. Joan Didion once said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The simple, sharp observation came out of her own wrought realization that the tacit social agreements binding us together as a society ultimately fall apart. Her matter-of-fact assertion elided something important about the stories we tell ourselves though: they are first told to us, internalized as the only appropriate scripts from which we then create our own stories.
These stories also discipline us, threaten us with fire, set the parameters of “respectable” and “correct” behavior. Running up against the limits of a system that wasn’t built to reflect us teaches queer folks (and many others) early on that the approved societal stories don’t include us. The immediate takeaway message is that we must change to fit a story, not the other way around. Even still, we unwittingly internalize them. “I didn’t realize how much faith I placed in the very ideas others used to wound my spirit,” in Moore’s own words.
His memoir is a brutally honest investigation and interrogation of the stories he was taught to tell himself in order to livestories more correctly labeled and exposed through Moore’s writing as the internalization of heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, racism, sexism, classism, etc. Those stories ultimately kept Moore alive but prevented him from thriving. The stories we tell ourselves help us survive, but at what cost to ourselves? At what cost to others whose experience might not directly reflect ours?
In No Ashes In The Fire, we witness Moore introspectively deconstruct those costs in ways few writers can. The prose is immaculately spare and razor-sharp, honed to pierce the armor of our own role in upholding and telling similar stories. He pairs trenchant systemic analysis with interpersonal forgiveness, marking the ways those that sought to cause him pain and even death were first, possibly irrevocably, damaged by the same stories they were told in order to live. Moore never shies away from the ways he also, possibly irrevocably, harmed others either. The two can’t be separated.
Moore models an empathic curiosity and all-encompassing generosity necessary to write new stories that highlight mutual respect, understanding, and care. He applies his careful and care-filled attention to unraveling previous stories we’ve told because, as he instructs the reader early on while dissecting the history of his hometown, “When we fail to bear witness to [the stories’] presence, we aid in our own destruction.” Failure to unlearn the old stories, then, is the equivalent of setting ourselves on fire while simultaneously hoping to be reborn. Even if/when reborn as a phoenix, nothing changes. The stories themselves remain the same.
In the end, there are no ashes from which Moore can or should rise, due both to circumstance and concentrated deconstructive effort. There is no fire and there is no phoenix, because he was always exactly who he was meant to be. It’s the stories we tell ourselves that need to burn. And with No Ashes In The Fire, Moore strikes a match.