“Manywhere”: Stories in Search of Self

“In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her 1928 novel Orlando. Orlando, a man who becomes a woman, is something to behold — ageless, wandering through the ages. The nine stories in the debut story collection Manywhere by Morgan Thomas (they/them) showcase all types of people – trans, cis, lesbian, straight – who have come to tell their stories, to find themselves by revealing themselves.

Most of these stories take place in the South — Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia — and deal with identity. As the title Manywhere suggests, these stories are obsessed with change, movement, fluidity. In the title story — which shows up at the end of the collection — the narrator’s father is a vagrant, peripatetic, always walking. He’s walked so much that “he’s worn through the laminate to the floorboards” in the kitchen of his son’s apartment. And like their father, Charlie (a trans man) is a walker, and they are walking (well, running) away from the daughter “he made in his image,” the one with a husband and kid. When Charlie finds their female lookalike in a bar, they think to give this person to their father to be the daughter he hopes for. A sort of replacement, a stand-in, while Charlie becomes more like their father than he might wish and — in James Taylor’s words — becomes another walking man.

In one striking story, “Transit,” the protagonist is a nonbinary teenager mistaken for a vampire by a woman they meet at a train station. This idea of the “other” is played upon here — comparing a nonbinary person to a vampire is almost like saying that they don’t exist, that they were once human but now aren’t. We soon discover that Blue, the protagonist, has just left the Naked House, a place for anorexic teens to get cured. The narrative flashes back and forth between the so-called health clinic and waiting for a train that is continuously delayed. Trains have long been a symbol of change, of a crossroads in literature. When Blue asks a man about staying in the town instead of going home to their mother in Texas, he says, “Just because you get kicked out of someplace else doesn’t mean you can stay here.” But why not? “I was many things at the Naked House,” they say. The “self” of the person is always in flux, transitioning as it moves about in the world. This story suggests that identity is always shifting, never just this, never just that. The search for “self” is never over. Blue will always be transitory.

Manywhere is a short story collection about travelling, about secret histories, and about finding and investigating identity. Whether it’s through identifying with a historic person as in “Taylor Johnson’s Lightning Man,” or by pretending to be pregnant, as in “Bump,” each story touches on the mundane struggles people face, exploring what it’s like to be an outsider. They manage to zero in on the gender-facet of identity taken for granted by many cis people. The voices here feel new and unheard of, unheard from. Though not all the stories are of equal strength, they all hold together in their depiction of people looking for meaning in a messy world. And like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, they feel ageless. Whether waiting for a train or traveling to Amsterdam for historic letters or wearing a pregnancy bump, each character seems to be on a quest to find their “self,” or some part of themselves that might better explain who they are in this shifting and chaotic world.

By Morgan Thomas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 25, 2022