Tyler Cohen’s Primahood: Magentaby Elizabeth Block
(Stacked Deck Press, 2018)
For many years, I have been watching the birth and development of Tyler Cohen’s wonderfully tactile and surreal “Primazon” drawings in San Francisco. Otherworldly and gentle, they are scary and yet offer deep imaginary space of what if for a more tolerant, child-centered, mother-friendly, non-heteronormative, non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant future. The bold and art gallery worthy drawings form a caesura in the graphic memoir tales that comprise Cohen’s debut book. In between detailed comic drawing and accounts of a mother witnessing a toddler become a preteen, these Primazons appear, give perspective, look on, make the reader think, laugh, wonder, furrow their brows. Not abstract art, they do offer interpretive latitude to the very graphic/comic story of a mother raising a child. Cohen asserts the only true and lasting unconditional love is that between a mother and a child (comic aside: she is a child of divorce). Through such love, she explores nature versus nurture, sexual identity, Black Lives Matter, White privilege (even for a white mother of a biracial child, or as Cohen points out, a biracial child who can be mistaken for white), the tenor of self-love, and the importance of saying fuck you to social norms while still being normal.
The book begins with Mama Pants (Tyler) and daughter, Nene. Nene is first conceived in mind and then in birth. They are both protagonists in this graphic mother-daughter comic coming of age memoir. I might also dub it a mother-daughter levitation. Cohen, in chapters, chronicles Nene’s life from heterosexual conception with her casual long-term male partner to preteen-hood. She explores femininity as Nene grows (both biological and social), Pride (as in the San Francisco Castro district representing Queer culture and gay pride, and the issue of self-pride). She takes the reader through Nene’s days at school, her adventures in youthful romance and discovery, always marking gender, development, play, and power. Cohen never forgets the tenderness of childhood. The real Mama Pants has immense respect for her Nene.
The reader witnesses Nene question her mother never wearing a dress. This is a constant refrain. Perhaps not only that mom always wears pants (is always not gender normative), but a metaphor for the growing child always questioning the mother. It also punctuates the difference between a constant mom and changing, growing daughter.
Cohen weaves a tale of Nene’s biracial father, and the issue of Black Lives Matter from a child’s perspective in a profound and concrete moment (using story and non-violent graphics to call out the seriousness of violence). Cohen does not eschew her white privilege, but she understands the profundity of the issues that her daughter and her daughter’s father face. Lo and behold, recall the recent incident in Denver, Colorado on Southwest Airlines, where a white mother is detained with her biracial child, asking to prove she is the biological mother. Even if she isn’t the biological mother, what’s the difference? She is the legal guardian and has legitimate passports and breaks no laws. America sinks to a new low for any family that is not all white (even though, ironically, so many are not). Cohen has storied responses for these racial indignities and complexities of gender and sexuality in such a calm manner, it is hard not to be swept away by the book.
For those of us wanting to engage our young children as if they deserve to be seen and heard, and who don’t have the luxury of or desire to sweep “uncomfortable” ideas under the rug, Cohen’s book offers solace and thoughtful storytelling. It is not only a story, but a metastory of how a parent could tell their child a detail of the women’s movement, the subtleties of racism, or what it means to love both a man and a woman. These are not ideas to be delayed for adulthood in Cohen’s mind, and she proves that such secrecy is unhealthy.
On Cohen’s Twitter feed (@tylerzonia), she retweets Sara Lautman’s (@saralautman), New Yorker cartoon, “I just feel like we shouldn’t have to play “Truth or Dare to be truthful with one another.” This quote, I believe, sums up a bridge Cohen constructs in terms of a new honesty of communication between mother and child that one rarely sees. The fact that Cohen attempts such sincerity with her daughter and the world through a comic book is a tricky innovation. Or maybe it’s the perfect medium. It elevates what is possible in the mother daughter conversation representations.
While Primahood: Magenta has been somewhat underground and niche, I don’t see why anyone shouldn’t jump on this little tome. It teaches without ever being didactic. It engrosses with textual and pictorial allegory (oh so wise). It also feels like a lullaby, until Nene grows and reaches puberty, gets her period, leaps into independence.
The book premiered at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2016, and it received the 2017 Bisexual Book Award for Graphic Memoir. Michelle Tea writes of Cohen’s book: [it] “juxtaposes comics about frequently hilarious, often terrifying, always glorious experience of raising a girl in America.” Although in America it is, statistically, becoming more demographically typical, Cohen is Caucasian, and her daughter is biracial (black biracial). Cohen is ethnically represented as Jewish and an out bisexual, proudly doing everything she can to raise a feminist daughter in a world not so friendly to feminist women, let alone girls. Cohen’s book is so understated and so pointed at the same time; it seems utopian. And we can use some utopia right now. Especially at a moment when the clock turns back on women’s and reproductive rights in America. And Cohen is talking about her preteen daughter, so let's think about all our girls right now.
Cohen’s book is so personal to me. There remain many overlapping themes in our lives and our work, that I can’t help but see this book as a comfort and a mothering manual, as my biracial daughter is a few years younger, and I’ll be damned if she isn’t a self-sufficient feminist. When I showed her the book, she said she likes the name Tyler because it is “gender neutral,” so I’m hoping that says something. But maybe it stakes claim about a generation of children. I don’t find many mothering manuals helpful, after all, and oh how they can be so smug and white picket fence suburban. Cohen’s book is a sort of magical antidote for us bisexual misfit moms who love our only daughters and our mothering but would never want to belong to that class, “breeders.” And yet, I’m just a mom, like every other mom.
The mother-daughter relationship is so complex and so universal. While so much has been said and will continue to be said about the topic, Primahood: Magenta is one of the most unique mother daughter stories I have ever read or seen (in any genre). I look forward to the next color of Primahood.
ELIZABETH BLOCK, recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, is the author of A Gesture Through Time and Celluloid Salutations. Her films are distributed by Canyon Cinema.