The first thing I noticed about Sexile was the cover. Not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard, right? When you pick up a book (or open a pdf file on your computer, as I did with Sexile), you generally see the cover before opening the book. What made Sexile different, however, was that I went back to the cover at two specific points while reading. In this graphic novel written and illustrated by Jaime Cortez, the cover image appears twice more at key points in the story of Adela Vazquez’s life; the copies of this image are nearly identical, differing only in a few details.
The image appearing on the cover of Sexile and twice more throughout the story depicts a nude swimmer. On the cover, the swimmer’s body is flat-chested and a dick is not visible. The flat chest may indicate the swimmer is male, the lack of a dick may indicate otherwise. But who cares? Adela Vazquez is trans*, and this is her story. Furthermore, the “missing dick” isn’t necessarily realized by the reader…at least until the image appears again, identical in every detail except for the very obvious dick (50). The third time the swimmer appears, the dick remains but other details are different: the flat chest is replaced by breasts, the armpits are shaved, the fingernails are longer and painted, and the hair is lighter and longer (as in the novel’s other depictions of Adela) (64).
Repetition is one of the “literary devices” you learn to look for in lit. classes pretty early on, where the object of repetition generally has some significance in the larger story. It was interesting for me seeing this repetition with images rather than words. What could it mean? What is the significance of this particular picture? Well, it’s a nude body, presumably the narrator’s, but it changes slightly with each reappearance. This raises the question: How important is body image to Adela, and how does this image shift throughout her life? As a nine-year-old, the narrator “knew that when I turned 10… my dick would fall off… my pussy would grow and finally I’d become a complete girl” (6). To Jorge’s (Adela’s) nine-year-old self, body image mattered. You simply couldn’t be a girl and have a dick, so when would hers fall off? In my mind, this connects back to the cover image of the flat-chested (read as male) dickless (read as female) swimmer: could this be a nine-year-old’s dream?
As Adela grows up in Cuba, she seems to reconcile with the idea of having a dick. She explores the world of drag and make-up and fashion, but changing anatomy is not mentioned again until much later. She has become the second image and a male body – with a flat chest and a dick – is hers both in Cuba and, for a time, in the U.S. (50). She made this work for her, wielding the power of “sex and beauty,” and having sex with everyone – but “never gay sex. [She’s] always the girl, he’s always the man” (9). It worked, but it wasn’t everything she wanted; after emigrating from Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, she was stuck between two worlds. “Exile is a bitch, baby. You can’t completely leave home. You’re always still arriving home. Sometimes at night, you dream of your tired, lonely body swimming swimming swimming and wondering where the shore went” (50). Never quite finding home in the U.S. and never quite able to leave home behind in Cuba, she was lost at sea, keeping herself afloat in her dreams. Adela began “thinking about changing [her] gender and living as a woman;” her body image was changing, and she wanted to change with it (58).
Hormone injections reshaped her body, giving her breasts and changing her outlook on life (57,60). She had become the third image, a female body that happened to have a dick. As “an exile, a transgender and a sex worker” life was much different, often hard, and sometimes painful (62). She was still an exile without a home, swimming in search of the shore. But now, “I knew. All the in-between places are my home. This beautiful freak body is home. And every day I love it…” (64). In a new body with new daily struggles, Adela embraced her place in the betweenness of the binary systems – gender, nationality, etc. – and accepted her queer body as fitting into the queer space of between (queer because it’s undefined in a binary). Finding a self-love in queerness and adopting this space as home, the next (and final) page shows a single word “Llego” (I arrive) as two feet stand on the shore (65).