The Walls That Contain Us: Transition, change, and I Want to Be a Wall

By: Cy Catwell December 23, 20220 Comments
Yuriko and Gakurouta in their wedding kimonos

Content warning: Discussions of trauma and suicidality/suicidal ideation

Honami Shirono’s I Want to Be a Wall is perhaps the most influential manga I’ve read this year. The story follows Yuriko, an asexual BL (Boys’ Love) fan and her husband Gakurouta, a gay man in love with his (at least for now) very heterosexual male friend, Sousuke. It also follows their marriage of convenience.

It is a queer story at base: two socially “aberrant” people forcing themselves to, on the surface, comply with the cultural expectation that people with eventually pair off into perfectly heterosexual, productively pleasant couples of cis man and equally cis woman. Only… they don’t love one another, at least not romantically: sure, Yuriko and Gakurouta care about one another, but the love between them is purely platonic. It’d be the same if Yuriko, an asexual leaning heavy into aroace (aromantic and asexual) territory, was wed to a heterosexual man. Romantic love for them exists between the pages of a manga or same-gender attraction to the gardener who happens to be your friend from way back when—not one another.

I, myself, have never dated a man, nor have I been married. I’ve been seduced by the thought of marriage—by the notion of fulfilling some higher purpose of being a good, productive citizen—but at thirty, I’ve no desire to actually do so, even if it was to get society off my back. Yet I Want to Be a Wall is so much more than story of a beard marriage between two queer people who are genuine friends: it’s a story about the walls we erect so we can stay safe. 

And it’s also a story about trying to fit in.

Meet Yuriko and Gakurouta, two queer individuals in a marriage not of love or convenience, but friendship.

When I approached everyone on staff about changing my name on the site, I was… anxious. I’d been Mercedez Clewis when I started in 2020: I’d shifted to Meru Clewis this year. Changing things had felt good: I was sure I could stay as Meru the rest of my life. And then I made a list of names, and tried only one out, and suddenly realized that staying Meru until my last breath would be intensely uncomfortable.

But I have a history as Mercedez and now, Meru, Clewis: I got started as a professional writer as Mercedez, built up my freelancing into a full-time editor job as Mercedez. I got my degree as Mercedez, got my second degree as Mercedez, grew up being called Sadie and Mercy and, when I was a quirky youth, Mercelopolis—because I desperately wanted a nickname and was hungry for scraps at that point. I just wanted the miracle of fitting in: I wanted, much like Yuriko in I Want to Be a Wall, to feel like I was doing the thing that would make everyone happy.

Like I was doing the right thing for everyone but me.

And initially, I really was going to remain Meru Clewis: I thought I could weather the mildly unpleasant sting of seeing my birth name everywhere because it would mean I’d have a consistent history of my writing, an easy way to track every piece of work I’ve ever done—and every credit I’ve received—rather than attaching a new name to years of work. I figure I’d make my peace with being called my chosen, true name outside of work and weather any feelings that came up when I heard the two-syllable sound of my birth name shaped and given voice, whether it was actually spoken or simply typed.

And yet after I received my new name in early November—really, after I decided to change my name in general during Summer 2022—that previously unpleasant sting turned into a full body nausea anytime I was called “she” or “miss” or “Mercedez”. Bad enough to be misgendered when I look in the mirror and see a boi with a rubenesque body and beautiful Black features that are markedly unfeminine and are, in my eyes, strikingly androgynous and very agender. To be deadnamed made me feel like dissolving into tears; or worse, threw me wholly from my body in whiplash dissociation until I shambled back into my skin, shoving my fight-or-flight reaction to the back of mind.

Yuriko's previous boyfriend calls her out on "treating her like everyone else".

It’s easy to say fitting in is overrated: it’s much harder to live out when one isn’t just nebulously “unique” but part of a group that is actively oppressed and put in danger when they stand out. Such is the case for both Yuriko and Gakurouta, two individuals who are “unproductive” in a society where having children is expected, even if the marriage is one of practicality. In so many ways, I Want To Be a Wall relies on a shared cultural narrative of fitting in: it’s half of the appeal of the debut volume.

I suppose that’s why I chose to connect my name change to this manga instead of say, X-Gender, a manga that might be more apt to a coming-out announcement centered around gender and identity. And while my recent discovery that I am, indeed, agender, matters here, there was something about I Want To Be a Wall that drew me in more, something about how it parsed the narrative of just trying to find your place in society.

There’s one scene in particular that struck me: it’s a moment when Yukiko confides in a coworker about never having felt love, never having felt affection. It comes on the heels of an accusation that she looks at romantic partners the same as everyone else—a common refrain I’ve heard from my allosexual and alloromantic partners. I Want to Be a Wall doubles down immediately with heart wrenching reality: a coworker calls Yuriko out for “joking” about not understanding romance at the ripe old age of twenty-something, regardless of gender. It’s a bear trap of a statement because in the wrong hands, it can trap the speaker and backfire.

And it does go immediately backfire: Yuriko is faced with ridicule and is all but laughed out the room. 

“This ‘thing’ of mine… was abnormal in the eyes of the world” is Yuriko’s immediate thought as the walls of society’s barriers slam down around her. She’s aberrant, a joke, and worse… alone. The mask returns, the walls go back up, and she masks, pretending it’s all okay even though it really, really isn’t.

Yuriko shares her feelings on being asexual and aromantic with a coworker, onyl to get laughed at.

There is something of a break in my birth name and the name I chose: Mercedez Clewis is a name attached to trauma, to a lot of grief and pain and PTSD that I’m still untangling. It’s also the longest-lasting gift from my late father, the final link in a chain that says, “You once loved me and decided to make me and I still carry that within me, even if I’ll never be Mercedez and I’ll never hear you call me that name again.” But it’s a link that must break, a footnote that must be contained solely to a few documents that let the world know, when necessary, that I once was Mercedez Clewis: the only one of the name, as far as I know.

“Mercedez Clewis” as a concept, untethered to me as a human being, was someone who strove to please everyone. She–because that name was largely used when I thought of myself as she/her—was someone who crushed herself into a box: pleasant, soft-spoken, educated, and constantly polite. She strove to read the room and tried her best to ignore the sting when she couldn’t understand how to form relationships, how to say the right thing, how to crush down desire for curves and hips and plush lips and feminine masculinity in others, how to keep her lips glued together when the trauma threatened to make her scream bloody murder because the flashbacks were just that goddamn bad. She was someone who had trauma forced into her, had trauma visited upon her body—Mercedez Clewis was someone who weathered a lot, who came, who saw, who remembered and remembers within me. She was someone treading water, unsure of how to reach thirty without needing to write a last will and testament to the life she tried to live, tried to gasp for air, tried to keep everything threatening to spill out inside.

“Meru” was the armor I put on as my relationship to my body started to shift and my relationship—an unhealthy all-give with very little reciprocity in the end—began to consume me, affecting my chronic illness and making me strive all over again to be good, to be pleasing, to be enough without being too much. On good days, my relationship with “Meru” was the bridge to me realizing that I was simultaneously softly trans masc, non-binary, and eventually, agender. On bad days, it was still a wall, a series of them, caging me in and linking me to trying to be the right kind of trans and the right kind of queer.

And now, there’s me: me, who has been single for three months, who is comfortable in their skin, who’s marked their saddle-brown skin with still fresh tattoos, with shorter hair, and maybe, with my first dye job at the end of the year. Me, who shoulders those names and three decades of weight. Changing my name in our legal system hasn’t gotten rid of that: my body is a tapestry of thirty years of forcing myself to never question my lifelong detachment from femininity, to try to be a better daughter when I wanted to be something closer to a son while never being male, to try to hide my struggles with seeing too much, experiencing too much, being forced to be too much. But my new name is a name untainted by that: rather than being foundationally steeped in that pain, it’s a name with the potential to be filled with healing from that trauma.

Gakurouta asks Yuriko to mourn his love for his childhood friend, should he get married.

My birthday is in September—on U.S. Constitution Day and the Battle of Antietam, which is ironic given my Blackness and its position in my country.

And speaking candidly, I didn’t think I’d make it to my thirtieth birthday this year. Forget the constitution: screw antietam. I didn’t think I’d survive, didn’t think I’d be here to tell the tale and shout my existence.

The hollowed-out husk that was Meru—that was Mercedez but was becoming my new name—was far too flimsy a barrier to content with the world. I contemplated: I grieved. I expected to never know what my grave marker would say—only at twenty-nine and some change versus decades into the far-flung future. It became a daydream, a constant companion as I edited book after book, white noise that drowned out any semblance of happiness. It was largely because I was not happy: my life was still in shambles from my return from Japan in 2020, and I was holding fast to the last gasps of happiness in those halcyon days of the pandemic, when I was abroad and felt like I mattered.

But this year, I turned thirty: I beat the odds, tread water just enough that my thirtieth birthday—a day filled with painting pottery, crisp, hot fried fish and chips, and very few tears—came and passed, heralding me towards thirty-one next year, thirty-two the year after, and so many more numbers than I ever imagined.

And so I decided to change my name—not just in my public, daily presentation, but in form work, on documents with crisp, embossed seals. I decided to become me without a barrier between who I thought I could be and who I had already come to be.

Yuriko, as a college exchange student, gets teased for not ever having experienced romance by her American coeds.

Trauma is a vicious thing, and yet I Want to Be a Wall is a reminder that trauma has an opposite: healing. This is the crux of I Want to Be a Wall’s narrative, a reminder that there are ways to be happy, ways to survive and even thrive in the world when healing is centered, when you no longer are forced to always feel strange. Sure, Yuriko and Gakurouta’s marriage is a marriage of convenience between friends, but… does it matter less? Is the support they offer, the walls they chose versus the walls forced on them, any less important? No, of course it’s not. 

It’s much like the true meaning of the old adage, “Blood is thicker than water” which is actually “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, a much more encompassing idiom than its often reduced version. The blood of Yuriko and Gakurouta’s covenant and pact, the promise to continue forging a bond where they get to be asexual and gay and don’t have to force themselves to put on masks, is beautifully optimistic. It’s a reminder that the walls that contain us, that society encourages and often imposes, can be reclaimed: we can make our own tidy—or messy—barriers, can protect ourselves and remain authentic. 

At one point in I Want To Be a Wall, vol. 1, Yuriko meets an American while studying abroad in Seattle. It comes on the heels of her being teased for her stark lack of a life—something that quickly gets positioned as “cute” and “pure”, two phrases often used to infantilize asexuality at large. Thankfully, Gil—an English exchange student—steps in and quickly gives a name to Yuriko’s “condition”: asexuality, a completely natural way to exist. “Aren’t people also free not to fall in love at all?” It’s a simple affirmation and reduces Yuriko to tears. It did the same to me IRL.

Those few words give Yuriko a paradigm shift, breaking down every single wall that’s existed because to be asexual is to mask, to have to present as allosexual and often, alloromantic, in a society where romance is elevated to a pedestal position, an achievement, one of the best things we can experience. And it rocks her world because she’s normal, as loaded as that world is. She fits, as do her walls, even if society doesn’t neatly cleave to them. They still matter and are valid, and there’s peace in that: there’s a deep, soul-quenching nourishment when you realize that you’re not so strange after all.

Because after all, aren’t we free to be ourselves? I certainly think so. 

So I’m going to be my whole self, starting here with Anime Feminist.

Gil, a British exchange student to Yuriko's college in Seattle, explains asexuality and how normal it is.

For the past two–almost three–years, the AniFam and internet at large has known me professionally as Mercedez Clewis. Then, you knew me as Meru Clewis, a break from the sharp femininity of my name as I publicly announced my transition on Okazu during Pride Month 2022. Eventually, and currently, many know me by the mononym Meru.

The break from my name has meant tearing down a barrier: a wall of sorts that’s shielded me from society’s expectations for my body. My forced femininity—brought on by a mingling of hormones in the womb, chronic illnesses that have nipped at my heels, and a desperation to prove that my Fat, Black body could be just as sexually and culturally appealing as any straight-sized white one—was once a wall as well. I clung to the notion that I could be feminine if I strived, if I forwent my own desires and just tried a little bit harder. I used to think I failed: now, as I sit here with my new name, I’m starting to think it was society that failed me.

Like Yuriko and Gakurouta, I have made my peace with a society that isn’t suited to me: instead of trying to bend to its will, I’ve strived for my own forms of happiness, have actively carved out a pocket reality where I exist. It’s my office-slash-bedroom, the sound of my aluminum crochet hook catching on yarn as I sit in front of Lake Whatcom, the tap-tap-tap of my feet as I dance in my shared apartment. It’s my home, the home I’ve built, a shelter when I need to remember that I am me and I matter.

I wrote, in June, in that Okazu article, primarily about my body and its relationship to Yuri, to how that had initially informed femininity and then, informed trans masculinity. I sit here now, penning this article that you’re reading, with an inch of hair, a prominent PCOS mustache above my lips, a septum piercing prominent in my Black nose, two tattoos on my collarbones, and a gorgeous unibrow as thick as every inch of my body. And now, in mid-December, I sit here resplendently myself, with a new barrier between myself and the world: my name, a wall strong enough to keep my chin held high more often than not. 

Meet Cypress "Cy" Catwell, a.k.a. me, an editor here at Anime Feminist.

You knew me once as Mercedez Clewis—as Meru Clewis, as Meru. You’ve known me as this, called me this, typed this, messaged this, engaged with this name.

But from this moment forward, you’ll know me as the name I paid $296.50 for on October 27, 2022 and was legally recognized as on November 4th, 2022 at a court proceeding in a room with too-hard pew-like benches and dozens of trans people just like me, seeking solace in an untainted name of their choosing. You’ll know me as Cypress Lavender Catwell, or as I’ll be here on Anime Feminist and basically everywhere, Cy Catwell. (Cy for short, if you want to make it snappy—plus, it’s a damned good mononym if there ever was one.)

This perspective piece (and announcement) wouldn’t be complete without thanking each and every team member here at Anime Feminist. They have given me courage beyond measure to make this decision, and have stood next to me as my name evolved this year. Thank you Vrai, Caitlin, Dee, Chiaki, Peter, Alex, and Lizzie: I’m so glad that I get to be Cy—get to be my whole, entire self–with all of you.

This article is a step—one of many—in a new, brave direction. But at the end of the day, I am still a body in transition, ducking behind the walls I need, veiling myself in labels and identities that help me move through the world. I’m still seeking my own truth, trying to find the support I need, still searching for the healing I crave and deserve and am worth.I still don’t know where my transition will take me: I’m closer to being who I want to be, but I’ve still got a long life ahead of me. But like I said before, I suppose that’s why they call it transition, right? It’s a process with no time limit. It’s a process that’s never too late to start. 

My transition, my growth into myself, is far from over, and I’m thankful that I’ve found a home to grow in here with everyone on staff at Anime Feminist as well as you, AniFam. Thank you.

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