By Krys Malcolm Belc
The Cupboard Pamphlet
44 pages, $10.00
Reviewed by Michelle Junot
Reading Krys Malcolm Belc’s In Transit (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019) at 10,000 ft above sea level, suspended somewhere over Tennessee in my own in-between season, I was surprised by the ways I connected with it. As I am preparing to leave the life I’ve known and loved for the last eight years, I am constantly faced with my identity — the person I know I am vs. the person the world says I am. And although the situation of my life and Krys Malcolm Belc’s life are so very different, and distinctly important, I also found myself saying, “yes!” throughout the reading of the book when confronted with moments of the outside world saying Belc is one person and him feeling, knowing he’s another.
“Everyone, after all, just wants to feel like everybody else.” This line stayed with me long after my first read-through of this chapbook memoir. The collection chronicles years of life as the narrator transitions from female to male, single to married, student to teacher. The writer’s story is distinct from my own in big ways, and yet, the writing is such that I was allowed a glimpse into his experiences; I was given opportunity to see life through his lens, and for that, I am grateful.
There were moments while reading that I longed for everyone in his world to just shut up with all their opinions and judgement. Because everyone has an opinion — especially on things they’ve never experienced. At other times, I felt scared for Belc, backed into a corner, not in control, frustrated, and maybe somewhat shamefully, grateful that I haven’t had to face the same daily tests and judgement that he has. In those ways, my life seems infinitely easier, and there are many mixed emotions of gratitude, guilt, and injustice that come with that recognition.
The clearest moment of this in the book for me is “Check My ID,” which is entirely one scene of the narrator waiting for a store clerk to verify his age to purchase beer:
“Ask to see it because I must be the butchest woman you’ve ever seen…Take it from my small soft hands. Look at it. Turn it over and look at it some more. Look at it next to the credit card. Those names: those are women’s names. They have to be. Ask me where I live. The city. The street…Ask the zip code, my birth date, a date thirty years ago, but that can’t be right. I speak with the wrong voice: too strong, too deep.”
For a short piece , reading it took ages, longer than any ID check I’ve had in my life, even the time when I was using my older sister’s to get into New Orleans bars and it wasn’t actually my ID.
In this scene, Belc puts me into the narrator’s shoes. It’s my ID. I know it’s my ID. I know I’m legally able to buy these two damn beers that I’m just trying to bring home, because my wife had a shit day. I know this as the reader, because the narrator knows this. What do I do if the store clerk decides I’m not who I say I am? What do I do if he tells me I’m not the person I know myself to be? It’s a question that this reader hasn’t had to face since I was 19, trying to be 21.
What I also love about this scene: it puts me in the store clerk’s shoes, too. I am also the person who is telling the narrator you aren’t who you say you are. I am the person who says, hey listen…I’ve got a job to do. I’m just trying to do my job. People are always trying to pull some shit like this.
In a world often full of hate and self-centeredness, the ability to recognize that, at heart, we are the same, and yet the way the world has treated each of us is vastly different — both these aspects are important and need to go hand-in-hand. And that’s what In Transit does so well for me. It is raw at times, disorienting, and yet powerfully authentic. You can feel a need from the narrator to be understood and believed, but it’s not forced on the reader. It’s a gentle plea.
And if I’m being honest, I fear I am often more store clerk than narrator. Both are complicated, both are telling the truth, both are trying to just get through the damn day. We’re all caught between yesterday’s world and tomorrow’s, in between arriving at a place of true understanding and empathy and identity, often not trying to move any mountains, just trying to get two beers at our neighborhood grocery to prep for tomorrow’s monotony.