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The Hero’s Journey in Trans YA

by Vee S.

Introduction

Last year I wrote a post about the “Acceptance” Narrative in Trans YA. That post detailed my thoughts on three problematic books that feature cis characters lamenting how hard it is to know someone who is trans. Today, I want to talk about another issue of representation in trans YA, and a narrative that is even more common. This post is kind of a second blush look at representation in trans YA. The “acceptance” narrative covered the really problematic representation, and this post tackles the next, more nuanced stage.

Today I’d like to talk about the Hero’s Journey in Trans YA. Most trans YA books told from the point of view of a trans character follow an eerily similar narrative. Casey Plett, author of A Safe Girl to Love, has written about this phenomenon in trans adult books. She has termed these homogenous books “Gender Novels.” In the Gender Novels, “each protagonist is a chosen one, a lone wolf plodding on against adversity. They do no wrong; they remain gentle and stoic in the face of difficulty.” In short, being trans is presented in such a way as to enable the reader to relate their life struggles to the experience of being trans. While I’m sure these books have been written with the best of intentions, this narrative forwards some dangerous ideas. In addition, it is now simply overdone. We need to expose it and move on. Cisgender readers need to be aware of this narrative, their reactions to it, and open their gaze to what other trans stories might be out there.

Before I begin critiquing this narrative, I want to say: these books have their place. The first few trans YA books I read meant so much to me. When I picked up my first trans YA, I didn’t know that within the year I would identify as trans. I didn’t realize the shame I carried around being trans, and I literally didn’t know that trans people could be happy.  That first trans YA book I read played a major part of opening a door sealed shut by shame and misunderstanding. I look back at that book now, and wince, because I see all the major flaws in the representation. But it was so important to me then. My experience with that book has made me a firm believer that a book does not have to be perfect for it to be enough for a trans teen.

I also want to be clear that it is not my intention to shame anyone who enjoyed a book with this narrative in it: that is unproductive and unhelpful. The problem is not in a single book, or a single author, or a single reader. It is a structural problem that permeates the entire YA community. Fixing the problem requires awareness, and so my intention is only to educate.

With that said: shortly after I finished reading my first ever trans YA book, I soon read through the dozens of other trans YA books out there. As I tore through one after another after another, they started to feel less and less legitimizing and healing, and more stigmatizing. It started to feel like every time I started a new trans YA book, I had already read it. I developed a useless superpower: about fifteen pages into any trans YA, I can tell you what happens, and which characters will do what.

So what is this “Hero’s Journey” narrative?

  1. The book begins, and the trans character is ashamed of themselves/their body.
  2. Character starts to come out or to express their gender (sometimes the character is already out at the beginning, sometimes not)
  3. This is met with some adversity and some support (at least one parent is definitely unsupportive)
  4. Character pushes through, meets new friends, things are starting to look better
  5. The character is outed, then physically and/or sexually assaulted
  6. Character is upset, but doesn’t suffer any severe mental/emotional trauma
  7. Character realizes all they ever had to do was believe in themselves and the rest of the world would love/respect them
  8. Character looks daringly off into the hard but hopeful future

Why is this narrative problematic?

If you remove the character’s trans status, this is a typical “hero’s journey.” Replace “presenting as true gender” with “starting the quest” and “assault” with “the final battle” and you’re good to go.

The “hero’s journey” has been around since story first began. The narrative is supposed to be one that anyone can relate to, on some level. It’s a universal metaphor for struggle, for facing your demons, for learning and growing. So, in theory, that’s good, right? A trans character gets to be the main character in a book with this typical hero arc! Yay! Progress! Well, not so much.

The whole point of a hero’s journey is that it is a metaphor for a “universal” struggle, about perseverance, bravery, and overcoming fear. If you want to center a trans character in that, fabulous! These books, however, center marginalization. The trans character isn’t allowed to participate in this narrative as the sword-wielding snarky badass they are. Instead, they are relegated to a message.

Instead of using this narrative to point out the obvious– that cis people can relate to trans people because we are all humans and share many similar human experiences– these books say that you should relate to being trans. (Or rather, relate to one simplistic idea of what “being trans” is.) In an attempt to make the “trans experience” into the one-size-fits-all module, it simplifies the very complex realities of trans individuals.

In short, when marginalization is centered in the hero’s journey, it attempts to make the experiences of marginalized people “universal”. But, by definition, those experiences are not universal. In an attempt to garner sympathy and “understanding” for marginalized people, these books simplify the marginalization into a metaphor that non-marginalized people can use.

One example of how the hero’s journey really doesn’t work as a vehicle for the whole trans experience is the way it treats violence. In Casey Plett’s (brilliant) article Rise of the Gender Novel, she says: Transphobic violence “is real, but how it functions in these narratives is telling: it happens […] during the third quarter, just before the victorious climax. Violence, in other words, is a hurdle to get over, a one-time plot device—as opposed to, say, a lifelong reality that brings with it an array of dangers and traumas.”

As a survivor of sexual violence, reading a book that uses assault like this hurts. The characters don’t come out of the experience broken or scared or traumatized; there is no time for those emotions to develop. Instead of allowing the character to experience even a fraction of the the long and complicated process of processing and healing from trauma, they’re launched into their victorious ending. The ending that is so often used as inspiration for cis people to “be true to themselves.”

Over and over again, our pain is used, and misrepresented. To make the very people who make this world so terrifying for us feel good about themselves.

Being trans is SO much more complex than what this narrative often shows. It’s scarier. It’s more constant. There is rarely an instant where you think “I’m definitely going to be okay for the rest of my life.”

Often, it’s extreme discomfort with your body or parts of your body. It’s almost always an experience with suicidal ideation, often for an intense and/or prolonged amount of time. It’s nearly constant fear. Either fear of what people think if you come out, or, if you come out and start presenting differently, it’s fear of violence. That fear doesn’t ever fully stop. (Why do you think the transgender suicide rate is so high?) So no, you don’t get to use this experience of us “overcoming” fear. Because that never happens for us.

Lest I leave you with the idea that trans lives are only endless suffering, however,  I’ll end this section with a plea to read this excellent post from Elliot Wake, and this quote from April Daniel’s post Trans Stories Are Human Stories:

“Being trans can be built up to be this profound, unknowable Thing, both sublime and terrifying. It’s not. Mainly it’s just a pain in the ass, just one damn thing after the other, like the rest of life, no scarier and more dangerous than any of life’s other big struggles. But like the rest of life, it can also bring profound joy, and exhilaration that is hard to describe. So being trans isn’t what hurts us; it’s being alone that does the damage.”

Trans people have struggles and joys that cis people will never experience. And yet, we are still simply human.

Centering Trans People in Fiction

I understand the impulse behind the “hero’s journey” narrative. It is easy to market to cis readers, and in many ways, it is a really good first step: it does change minds and it does help trans teens. However, this narrative is not enough. As elementary school librarian Kyle Lukoff said in his recent post Second Trans on the Moon “acknowledging our existence and our humanity is a starting place, not an end point.” We need & want more.

For Big 5 publishers, it is necessary to market trans books to cis people in order to make them profitable– there are simply not enough trans people to sustain a market. But because of the desire to appeal to cis readers, these books are made, edited, and published with cis people in mind. While the creative team may hope that trans teens get something from them, the writing, editing, and marketing decisions all cater to the cis gaze. But what would it look like if trans people were centered? I would like to argue that books can center trans readers and appeal to cisgender audiences.

Here’s a great quote from Dear Cisgender People Who Write, Publish, And Read “Trans” Books by Constance Augusta Zaber:

“Frequently I read interviews with authors or see publicity statements from publishers saying that they hope this book is able to help trans people. […] While I don’t think this idea is inherently wrong (I’m a big believer in the power of stories and representation) I want to know why cis people think that providing variations upon the same theme counts as meaningful diversity and representation. Why not show younger trans readers a world of possibilities? Why not offer an alternative from the one plot we hear over and over again in both fiction and nonfiction? And since I’m asking demanding questions I might as well ask: why not give trans youth some authors who are trans as well?”

Ultimately, I’d love to see transgender authors become the keeper of trans stories. (This is not to say cisgender people cannot write trans characters– they can and they should. But that conversation is an entirely different post.) I want there to be dozens and dozens of trans authors.

We’re inching toward that: transgender authors like Meredith Russo and Alex Gino are breaking into mainstream publishing with the help of amazing cisgender allies. But even with the number of us growing, even with our awesome allies in publishing, we still don’t get to decide on what our narratives look like. This “hero’s journey” narrative is holding trans writers back too. It has been decided upon as the palatable form in which cis readers will accept our stories.

There are books being published through small presses that actually cater to a transgender gaze, like Spy Stuff by Matthew J Metzger and The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon and the forthcoming Dreadnought by April Daniels– and those books are incredible and revolutionary. But a teen needs to be dedicated in order to find them. That unfortunately isn’t likely to happen, as most trans teens believe books like that don’t exist.

So. Since there are many more cis readers than trans readers, to create a book that sells, it has to cater at least partially to the cis gaze. So, YA community? Your cis gaze needs to change. 

New Narratives

The thing is, I think we– cis and trans people alike– only stand to gain by centering trans people. Because this is not only a representation problem, it is also a craft problem. Like… okay look, I’m just going to say it. I don’t think these books are well-written. As Casey Plett said in her piece, “These novels aren’t just clichéd by the standards of transgender literature—they’re clichéd by any standard.” I personally find them tropey, clunky, and now that I’ve read over a dozen, simply boring. And I have a hunch that some cis readers feel the same way. Even if that’s not the case, there are now dozens of books that follow this narrative. Does the world really need more?

So what are some new narratives? Well, in many ways, that’s like asking “what are some new narratives about cisgender people?” The possibilities are endless. To break it down a bit, however, I think there are two main things we need.

  1. More complex narratives around coming out/transitioning 
  2. Stories that aren’t about coming out/transitioning (Part of me thinks that cis people think trans people just stop after they transition, and that a story that doesn’t revolve around transition isn’t trans.  But alas: “Our lives continue after we transition and for most of us our lives continue to be trans lives. After coming out, our lives continue to have joys and struggles that are unique to our lives as trans people.” x

Some specific things I’d like to see:

  • A book about a trans character recovering from sexual assault/abuse
  • Character comes out to only close friends and is never outed
  • A character who can’t figure out if they’re nonbinary or binary trans
  • Straight up romance. Not contemporary with a romance subplot– a STRAIGHT UP ROMANCE
  • the above bullet point x10000
  • More queer trans teens
  • TRANS TEENS OF COLOR
  • Two-Spirit teens
  • A trans character who’s been told their transness is “too much” to deal with by past friends, but their new friends are like “what? eff that!!”
  • The experience of being trans in fandom
  • Trans pirates
  • Stories in which gods/goddesses recognize trans people as their true gender

Here’s a quote from another great post, Trans Representation in YA Is Only the Beginningby YA author Everett Maroon

“I’m looking for the life after transition, the other aspirations these characters have, the friends who shape their lives, even the nonsense we all deal with—crappy teachers, hating algebra, escaping from one’s parents for an afternoon, sneaking into an extra movie at the cinema, getting one’s heart broken by that asshole who seemed so great before one went to second base with them. Trans people are not figureheads, tragic heroes, as untouchable as saints, they’re people. We make mistakes and we cry when we break our favorite coffee mug, and we stay up late at night reading terrific books and damn it we want to see ourselves in some of those books. Ourselves, not some person’s simplistic imagining of who we are.”

Lastly, here’s an excellent list of story ideas that Imogen Binnie (author of  the groundbreaking novel Nevada) would like to read/watch about trans women. 

These are just the tip of the iceberg. But it is these types of books– books that dispel the hero narrative– that will not only provide better representation, but will also be infinitely more enjoyable to read. This is not to say that simply changing the narrative will result in good representation– problematic and offensive representation can crop up in many other ways. (*coughs* here’s where I very subtlety pitch the fact that you can hire me as a sensitivity reader!) But I believe this is the next big step forward that our community has to take. Once we do away with this narrative, we can open up a much more nuanced and interesting discussion about trans representation.

I want books like this, books that see trans characters as fully human instead of a message, to be spread to the teens that need them. Books that tell our stories truthfully, that don’t cater to the experience of cis readers. I want these books to get the same marketing that other “trans” books have gotten.

What You Can Do: Fix Your Gaze  

So, how do we do that? The most fundamental way you can change things is beginning to center trans voices in every way possible. Here are some specific examples.

If you are an editor or agent: please, seek out trans stories, and DIVERSE trans stories at that. Seek out trans stories by trans people. This is not to say cisgender people cannot write trans characters– they can and they should. (Two I’ve loved recently is When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore and Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee) What they should not do is attempt to write about what it “means” to be trans. That is a story that, in my opinion, trans people alone should tell.

Librarians & teachers: buy trans books from smaller presses. Make them available to your teen patrons/students. Do the work so that they don’t have to. Also, consider bringing trans authors in for events instead of cis authors! 

For all readers: buy books by trans authors, or request them from your library!

You don’t have to stop reading or reccing or enjoying these books. But be aware of how you respond to this narrative, and know that it is not what the real life of a trans person actually looks like. It is constructed to garner sympathy, and to make you feel like a good person. Challenge the idea of trans pain as something you can learn from, in all aspects of your life. 

Mostly, support our stories in the form they come in. I think we’ll (hopefully) be seeing more and more diverse narratives, and I want to see those be as supported and celebrated as what we have now. Even if they’re tougher, and less inspiring for cis people. Those stories need to thrive.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I know it’s a lot, and I’m so incredibly thankful that you took the time to listen to my perspective. If you have thoughts, questions, or comments, please reach out to me! Leave a comment below, find me on twitter @findmereading, or email me at vee@gayya.org. I’d really love to hear from you.

15027409_1277349685666667_5662567109969755055_nVee S. lives in Minnesnowta. They like books, writing, writing about books, theatre, and feminism. Vee is a volunteer at Addendum Books, a freshly-minted library aide, and the admin of GayYA.Org. Life goals include: becoming a teen services librarian, writing at least 10 queer/trans books, and eventually coming out to their parents. Find them online and on Twitter at @findmereading

 

By | December 2nd, 2016|Categories: Archive, Guest Blogs, Readers on Reading, Teen Voices, Writers on Writing|Tags: , , |0 Comments

Interview: Meredith Russo, author of IF I WAS YOUR GIRL

Trans Awareness Week Series: Day #9

Previous Posts: Reading Myself in Code by Sacha Lamb, Building Zoey’s World by Anya Johanna DeNiro, We Need Trans Books… But We Really Need Trans Writers by Elliot Wake, Second Trans on the Moon by Kyle Lukoff, How the Fox Became by Fox Benwell, Interview: Alex GinoThe Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.

This Summer I got to go to ALA in Orlando, which was an incredible and intense experience. I wrote some about how validating my experience was as a trans teen here. One of the highlights was getting to talk with Meredith, author of the Young Adult novel If I Was Your Girl. Being able to meet a trans woman who was published by a major publishing house was so so cool.

Meredith and I talked advice for young trans writers, reviews that misgender Amanda, why some trans books by cis authors just feel off, and more. She was fantastic to talk to and I was happily freaking out throughout the whole interview. Hope you enjoy!

if i was your girl

Meredith Russo: Hey everybody.

Vee: OK, so I’m here with Meredith Russo, the author of If I Was Your Girl, it’s amazing. I was freaking out during Alex Gino’s interview too, I kept on flailing. I was like… has too many feelings.

Meredith Russo: No, don’t flail. I’m excited to meet you, it’s mutual.

Vee: So yeah, thank you so much for doing this.

No problem! Thank you for doing it.

So first of all, I guess, can you talk a little about your book?

OK, it is a combination of romance, and a coming of age novel about a trans girl who transitioned and is now eighteen but still in school. She was living in Atlanta with her mom and had a pretty traumatic experience from someone recognizing her from before she transitioned while she was in a girl’s bathroom. And so her mom sends her away. Like, “you pass really well, you just need to go somewhere where nobody knows that you’re trans.” And so she goes to live with her estranged father, who she hasn’t seen in 6 years, in a little Tennessee town called Lambertville. The novel is partially about her figuring herself out and what she wants, and reuniting with her dad and working out what that relationship is like. Part of it is about, she arrives at this school intending to just keep her head down, get through her senior year, avoid trouble, graduate and get out of Tennessee. But then she’s the pretty mysterious new girl so people start parking themselves in her life almost immediately. She meets this cute boy and she needs to kind of figure out what she wants from there. And obviously because it’s a romance, we know ahead of time, because she’s going to settle on…

Fantastic. Yay, oh it’s so good! So you talk a little about, in your author’s note about how this is not like THE trans story, like there are so many others out there. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your process around coming to this story and deciding…

I think her name is Jenji, the lady who wrote Orange Is the New Black…

The original book? Or…

No, the show. She describes the inclusion of Piper Chapman as kind of a Trojan horse, to get people to watch the show. And Amanda is kind of that. It’s the Piper Chapman effect where you present like “OK! Here’s this skinny, conventionally attractive, mostly heterosexual White girl, don’t you feel safe reading this?” And then you sneak in dealing with Southern poverty and identity issues and she’s trans, but you hook ‘em with the normal cute White girl. So that was mostly my strategy. This is going to be the first trans book that a lot of people write. I’m going to definitely veer away from that in the next book but for this one, to get people to pick it up, “hey look at this White girl!”

Good strategy! I think it worked.

But at the same time, I had to include in the author’s note, hey listen, most of us are not Amanda. Most of us are big strung out queer hot messes.

So you were talking a little the other day about purposely carving out a space for Southern queer and trans characters, and I was wondering, if you could talk a little bit more about that?

Well, I’ve talked to some people about this and part of the trouble growing up– and not just in the South but people in small towns. You don’t have any adult queer role models because they run away as soon as they can. And growing up in a small town, especially before the Internet, ‘cause I’m old, I’m almost 30! Before the Internet, you didn’t have a way to get online and find your tribe, which was honestly what it took for me to be ok calling myself trans, was to find other trans people online and then share with them. Especially before the Internet, I didn’t have that. And I didn’t have a framework because every queer story that I read, or that I could get my hands on, was about somebody moving to the city or moving from the city. So I wanted kids to have a model for that, people growing up in, people living in a small town. And the other thing was that I definitely feel a sense of resentment. Because I’ve lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee my whole life and it’s my home, and part of the queer small town and/or Southern experience is, like, your home town – everyone hates you and you have to abandon it, but I don’t know, I’m not with that. Like, my home is my home. My home doesn’t belong to the people who are saying they don’t like me. And I don’t have a Southern accent, but I’m a Southerner and I’m not gonna let people who don’t like me take that away from me. And I feel like it’s really important for us to not just be in New York, and not just be in LA or Atlanta. It’s important for us to be able to retain our identities and our cultures and our histories and our families, you know?

Yeah, that’s awesome! You were talking on Twitter a couple months ago, I think, about some of the reviews of If I Was Your Girl that misgendered Amanda, or…

Yeah, and there’s definitely no… anyone’s who’s giving my book a positive review, is 100% absolutely great. And they’re not completely to blame because we included Amanda’s dead name. Which, for those of you not in the know is what people in the trans community call the name they are given at birth. Including Amanda’s dead name in the marketing material – it was kind of another one of those things that was kind of what was expected, you know? My intention writing the book originally, because we weren’t going to have the flashback scenes, my intention was just for her only to be called Amanda, there’s no need to mention her dead name. But then I wrote what ended up being the flashback scenes, just as a writing exercise to get my head around Amanda better and I showed it to my editors and they were like “Oh my god, we have to include this”. So it’s kind of a combination of, I feel like the flashback scenes make the book stronger, but I feel like they also kind of send the wrong message that people feel like it’s OK to refer to Amanda as if she used to be a boy, or to use male pronouns for her when they’re speaking of her in her past situations or to use her dead name a lot, which is, again, I’m so glad you’re writing a positive review. It’s not that big a deal. But I think it’s also important to remember when you’re reading it that she never ever thinks of or refers to herself as Andrew. Even in the flashback scenes, she finds her name unpleasant and actively avoids it. I think it’s important to remember that if you’re reading the book, to treat Amanda as she herself in the book would want to be treated. Which I mean, again, her dead name is in the commercial material, so I’m not going to get too salty about it, but yeah.

It’s something I’ve never understood about cisgender reviewers. You’ve read this whole book. Clearly the character is uncomfortable… like, why…?

Yeah, I guess it’s just treating the character respectfully. And they’re so fascinated by dead names anyways, I guess because the fascination cis people have with trans people is, again, the transformative part, so they want to know about the process of changing and the process of transitioning and all of that. So I feel like they want to lay claim to our previous identity so that they can have a better grasp of the changes that happen, whereas most of us are like “OK, I’ve transitioned, I don’t want to think about that anymore”. But the idea of the transition is, I think, the most novel idea, because once we’ve transitioned and settled into our lives, it’s just kind of another person, another boring person.

It’s so funny because some of the ways I’ve seen transness described in reviews, like you can just use the words “transgender girl”!

Or like “trans woman”

Yeah, exactly, like it’s not that hard!

Or sometimes they’ll describe her as a “transgendered” and I’m like “please you guys, please, get on Google for like 30 seconds.” But if you do get on Google, do stay away from Susan’s Place and TS Roadmap. Those are some of the first results and… yeah.

There was one that I read the other day that was like… it was on Gracefully Grayson, and the reviewer was like… it was all of a sudden just like “when he puts on a soccer jersey, spins around in a circle in front of a mirror, he sees a girl looking back at himself”. And that was how it described transness. I was like “you can just say the word”.

Yeah, you can just say she’s trans.

Exactly, I don’t understand.

I mean I can dig that experience honestly, but it’s not hard. You don’t have to go through all of this… it’s ok to just say “trans woman” and “trans guy”. Part of the reason why it does bug me, is that there’s a thing at the end of the book where Amanda finally puts her foot down when she’s talking to someone and she’s like “no, I didn’t use to be X, Y or Z, I’ve always been me, I’ve always been a girl”. And so then to read that part which I feel like was kind of a powerful moment and to go to the review and it’s like “Amanda used to be a boy”, it’s like no… I mean, I guess… if that’s what you want to say. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but c’mon guys.

Yeah, anyways– are those segways?

I think they’re motorized tricycles. This is good radio.

We’ll have to put this in the bloopers. So, I’m sure you get it all the time, but why is trans fiction important and why is it important for trans people to tell trans stories?

Trans fiction is important because when I was a little kid in the 90s, part of the reason why I wasn’t able to articulate that I was trans is because all I was watching was, all that I was seeing people being was, like, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which is like a nightmare, and like Boys Don’t Cry where the trans character gets killed at the end so all the cis people appreciate their lives more and Jerry Springer and one line jokes on sitcoms. Like, I had this nebulous idea that something was wrong with me but because I had it hammered into my head that being trans is wrong and bad, like, I couldn’t articulate it because I was too scared to. Then when I was a teenager, I was going to art school and there were bi and gay people everywhere, but I would mention to adults about trans issues, like I would try to broach the subject, and even these adults in this very accepting space were like “you need therapy” and like “it’s not normal” and blah blah blah. What it took for me to be willing to articulate that I was trans and conceive of transitioning, was meeting trans women who seemed like they were leading productive, happy lives. So if I encountered a story when I was a kid, or when I was a teenager about a trans character still struggling, still having shitty things happen to them – I kinda swore – but having an OK life and having friends and having opportunities for a love life – I think that would have done a lot for me.

That was actually my experience of realizing I was trans was, like, reading Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. I read it and I was like “wow, trans people can be happy! Like, they can have other things going on in their lives!”

They can have radio shows where they play my favorite song, Come on Eileen– I have a soft spot for late 80s, early 90s one hit wonders.

And the reason that #ownvoices literature is important… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the animation and robotics concept of The Uncanny Valley. It’s like, if you have something that you’re animating or if you have a robot, the closer it gets to appearing and behaving in a human way, then more people relate to it, until it gets to like 98%, and once it gets to 98% like a person, there’s immediately a drop-off in people’s comfort with it, like it drops to the very bottom of the graph, until it gets to 100% then it goes all the way up. That’s where something is like… if something is almost like you, almost recognizable as you, but off in a couple of ways, people find that really upsetting and disturbing and to a member of a minority, to me, reading like, I hate to throw people under the bus, but like, I read Almost Perfect a couple of years ago. I don’t want to be the B word, but still. I read Almost Perfect a couple of year ago, and it’s like you can tell Brian Katcher did all of his research… you can tell he did all of his research and he had the nuts and bolts right, but because– oh my god, I’m hiccuping. Good radio– because he never lived as a trans woman, there are things I can’t even put my finger on and accurately describe, that kept it from being 100%. It was 98%, and because of that, I as a trans person found it really deeply unsatisfying, because I describe it as the literary Uncanny Valley. Like you’re writing about a minority and you get so close to being right, but you’re off in those 1 or 2 ways that are hard to describe…

Yeah, that’s really interesting.

And I think… I still think it’s important for people to write about minorities that they’re not necessarily a part of, but Own Voices is also very important.

I’m glad I asked that because that was one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. So then… would you have any advice for younger trans writers?
Right now, and it’s kind of depressing. Right now my best advice is be willing to compromise. Because people are paying more attention to trans issues and they’re being really sensitive to trans issues. Like, right now, the story that the cis world is most ready for and willing to accept is like “The Danish Girl”. It’s like “hello, I am a trans person, hello, I am a boy who thinks he is supposed to be a girl. Here’s me dealing with it. Here’s a very heavy emphasis on how all my cis friends and family feel about it. I might die. I’ll probably be heartbroken at the end.” Like, you know, and back when “Boys Don’t Cry” was released, that was revolutionary but we haven’t really come very far in regards to that, so when I say “be willing to compromise”, don’t compromise too much but just be aware of the fact that there aren’t enough trans people in the world to support a market, you know? So cis people are going to be buying a lot of your books and you’ll still need to cater, to some extent, to what they expect. But still be you. And my advice to editors and publishers is do everything you can to make them not compromise so much.

So how has your experience been with…

Oh my god, Flatiron has been amazing. Flatiron is amazing. Like, the fact that they let me include the author’s note is like… I can’t think of a publisher that would let me do that.

Sarah? Sarah Barley? I met her at BEA and I hadn’t even read If I Was Your Girl yet and I just like oh my god this book is so important, thank you.

Yeah, I was in a board meeting with everybody at Flatiron and they literally thought to ask me, “what can we do to make trans people feel more excited and more comfortable about this” which is like, amazing. And I was like “keep trans people involved in as many steps as you can” and then they were like “ok, that’s a good idea”, and then they did it and they hired Kira Conley for the cover. It was insane. So be more like them, other publishers.

That’s amazing, ok. I think that’s all I have unless you have anything else…

Just stay gold, Pony Boy. Be you, everybody.

That’s beautiful. *laughs* Thank you.

Thank YOU!

By | November 30th, 2016|Categories: Archive, Author Interview, Teen Voices|Tags: , , |0 Comments

Reading Myself in Code

Trans Awareness Week Series: Day #8

Previous Posts: Building Zoey’s World by Anya Johanna DeNiro, We Need Trans Books… But We Really Need Trans Writers by Elliot Wake, Second Trans on the Moon by Kyle Lukoff, How the Fox Became by Fox Benwell, Interview: Alex GinoThe Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.)

by Sacha Lamb

I was slow to understand my own feelings as gender dysphoria, and even slower to realize that I could look for transgender representation in the YA books that I love. It didn’t occur to me until a year or two ago that I could find myself represented in fiction on purpose, by the authors, for real. Until recently, trans representation for me meant books where a character is never confirmed to be cis (yes, cis readers, that requires confirmation). Books where a character’s gender is never revealed (which usually means nonhuman characters). Books where characters were somehow coded in a way that I recognized from my own life as “possibly transgender”:

Boys who look younger than their age, prettier, smaller. Boys who wear layers and never go shirtless. Boys who feel wrong and out of place and maybe don’t know why.

In 2014, I was emerging from a depressive episode that started in high school and lasted me all the way through college. In 2011, halfway through my depression, I had come out to myself as nonbinary. That’s when I began to look back at my own life and recognize all the clues that I should have noticed earlier, things that I had discounted and completely forgotten, like that when I was fourteen I used to bind my chest and wear a hat to hide my long hair and even tried to give myself a boy’s nickname.

At the time that I first figured all of this out about my real life, though, I was too depressed and too busy to fully examine what that meant in terms of the fiction that I loved to read and write when I wasn’t too tired and too emotionally numb to “love” anything. In 2014, though, after I graduated, I started to heal, and began to piece my identity together out of fragments I’d abandoned years earlier.

One of the fragments of my identity that I reclaimed was a love of YA fiction––reading and writing. I had four years of new releases to catch up on, and in those years were a lot of queer books, and slowly it occurred to me that I won’t always have to do the work of representation myself. I won’t always have to “decode” the coding that authors probably didn’t intend to put there in the first place. There are books, more and more books, where the authors have written trans characters, for real, on purpose.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson (2015, David Fickling Books)

The Art of Being Normal
by Lisa Williamson (2015, David Fickling Books)

One moment that I can’t forget came when I was reading Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal. I had picked the book up because it was clear from the summary that one of the two protagonists was a trans girl. Automatically, I read the other protagonist, a boy, in the way that I always read boys, if I can:

He looks young. He wears layers of shirts and won’t take them off. He feels wrong and out of place and the reader, at first, isn’t sure why. All of my codes. All of the things I always pretended meant something, because that way I could imagine myself in the story.

And then he comes out to his friend as trans.

I was amazed. I knew there was one trans character in the book, and it hadn’t occurred to me that there could possibly be another. Out of habit, I had caught the coding that hinted to the character Leo’s identity. But I had never expected that coding to be intentional. I don’t think The Art of Being Normal is perfect. I wish that the female protagonist, Kate, had gotten a more complete character arc of her own, a more even share of the spotlight with Leo. But that moment of revelation has stayed with me.

As I’ve begun to work on my own writing again, looking back at things I wrote as a young teenager, my own work was always full of coding, too. A fantasy story with a male god whose people have been conquered by an empire that pretends the god is female––isn’t he transgender? All of those girls who have to disguise themselves as boys––aren’t they trans girls? Nonhuman protagonists who use nonbinary pronouns, they certainly are, and they don’t have to be nonhuman, either. And always those young-looking boys in their layers of shirts.

Now I know what all of that really means, and I know that I can make it explicit. I can write books that will give other trans kids that moment of delighted epiphany I had, when I realized that my work of decoding was more than just wishful thinking. That people like me really could exist in fiction. On purpose. For real.

I (Sacha, it/its) am a library science and history student with a long-standing special interest in diverse Young Adult fiction. I am currently working on a teen ghost novel with a transgender Jewish protagonist, which I hope to have in query-worthy shape in the next year. I also love cats, lambs, and magic. I can be found @kuttithevangu on tumblr or @mosslamb on twitter.

By | November 29th, 2016|Categories: Guest Blogs|Tags: , |1 Comment

Building Zoey’s World

Trans Awareness Week: Day #7

Previous Posts: We Need Trans Books… But We Really Need Trans Writers by Elliot Wake, Second Trans on the Moon by Kyle Lukoff, How the Fox Became by Fox Benwell, Interview: Alex GinoThe Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.)

by Anya Johanna DeNiro

My new (unpublished) novel Glitchblood is the story of an 18-year-old trans woman named Zoey. She happens to be an assistant dragon trainer on the most popular television show on the planet—a sword and sorcery drama called The Marches. She’s had to carve out her own space with the film crew and the other trainers, and has struggled with imposter syndrome and microaggressions. Her fragile comfort zone becomes upended when she’s tasked with accompanying the showrunner to a castle in Moravia—the place where the original nine novels of The Marches were written by a mysterious viscount.

Zoey’s first-person POV story was an important one for me because I was in the process of coming out as I was writing it. I certainly don’t have everything figured out now–to say the least!–but when the first draft started unspooling from my head, I was much less farther on my journey. Now, however, as I’m fully out and living my day-to-day life as a trans woman, I can look back at the writing process and see how I might have changed as a writer by coming out as trans.

I’ve written a lot of science fiction and fantasy before Glitchblood, but never anything for teenagers before. It’s been exciting and humbling to write in this mode—a mode that I want to keep going in. There’s a process during writing for me when the main character’s voice starts picking up steam. It might happen in the first sentence or take a couple of “mulligan” chapters to hash out. And as Zoey’s voice started “taking over” and nudging me where I needed to go with the story, one thing became clear to me:

In order to get Zoey’s story—her voice and experience as a trans woman right–I needed to build the world in the novel in a way that I had never done before.

Challenge accepted!

Let’s put it this way. When you’re writing any speculative fiction, you’re creating extrapolations, whether it’s based on magic or science. But the process (I’d argue!) is essentially the same: how do you make it seem like your characters are inhabiting a living, breathing world that is different from our own? This can either be the slightest, eerie touches or a full-blown surreal fantasia. It could involve detailed explanations or the feeling of seeing a weird landmark from your car window when you’re on a road trip—something that’s arresting but not dwelled upon. But the “texture” of the world is extremely important, in order to create a setting that, if not logically consistent with our world, is at least internally consistent.

In Glitchblood, there’s only one real difference between its world and ours–but it’s a doozy, and the one that I used as the bedrock for all of my worldbuilding. This is, of course, the existence of dragons. The differences range from subtle to profound, in the arenas of warfare, transportation, culture…the list goes on and on. However, when Zoey’s voice asserted itself, and she revealed herself in the prose in all of her complications and joys and pains and triumphs, I contemplated changing the terms of her transition to mimic the world. That is to say: in a world that probably had several dozen “butterfly effect” differences between ours, what were the chances Western society would even call her passage from male to female as a “transition”? Would she even be called “transgender”? The psychological underpinnings of queerness—or at least as they were perceived by the structures at large in the culture, for good or ill—could very well be profoundly different.

But early on I made a decision in the story to use the contemporary LGBT terminology of our world, to keep Zoey’s voice grounded and not dissonant. And anyway, efforts to extrapolate language can often have catastrophic results—consider the number of Golden Age science fiction novels that tried to invent new forms of “futuristic swearing.”

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t try to dig into the gender politics of having dragons afoot! In the novel’s world, throughout history since the dragons appeared, the vast majority of dragon riders have been women. However, the stories about dragon riders—including that of The Marches—have all been about men. This dissonance becomes more uneasy for Zoey as she ventures further into the novel and the creation of the original novels by the Viscount. Needless to say, seople who are trans and non-binary in our world are acutely aware of how their stories have been erased from the view of mainstream society throughout the years.

Moreover, it’s important to keep this in mind as well–any work of speculative fiction, no matter how well researched and painstakingly planned, is going to get some things wrong. There are always going to be seams that show in the worldbuilding. The trick is to have characters so compelling that the reader trusts you and your worldbuilding, and where you are taking the story. More than anything, a novel trying to emotionally connect with the reader has to put the worldbuilding at the service of its characters–a novel that does the opposite has very different, more cerebral, aims. And especially in a work with a transgender POV character, for me it would be dishonoring my readers to not have her experience be as identifiable as possible, even if it’s not an exact match, with theirs.

That’s the whole point of writing this novel in the first place, after all. Even with all the dragons flying around, Zoey is a young trans woman. And her adventures, no matter how strange, are that of a young trans woman. And though the novel is for everybody, if the novel doesn’t connect with trans and non-binary readers, it would be a hollow effort indeed.

Anya Johanna DeNiro writes novels, short stories, poems, essays, and interactive fiction. Her work has been a finalist for the Crawford Award for best debut fantasy and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She lives outside St. Paul and can often be found on Twitter at @adeniro. 

By | November 28th, 2016|Categories: Author Guest Blog, Guest Blogs|Tags: |0 Comments

We Need Trans Books… But We Really Need Trans Writers

Trans Awareness Week Series: Day #6

Previous Posts: Second Trans on the Moon by Kyle Lukoff, How the Fox Became by Fox Benwell, Interview: Alex GinoThe Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.)

by Elliot Wake

About 0.6% of the population of the United Sates is transgender. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you put it another way: 1.4 million people in the US are trans. That’s the population of a city like Philadelphia or Phoenix. And it’s a conservative estimate: many transgender people don’t publicly identify as trans due to safety or personal reasons. Many are kids fighting for basic human dignities like using school bathrooms and locker rooms in peace. Many make up a sobering suicide statistic: 41% of trans people have attempted suicide. In comparison, 4.6% of the general US population has attempted suicide.

Right now, a trans teen named Gavin Grimm is having his case heard by the Supreme Court. Gavin’s plea is simply to use the boys’ bathroom at his school—an issue so politically fraught it’s being tried in the highest court of the land.

There is a qualitative difference when you observe an experience versus when you live it firsthand. When you’re transgender, every moment in public is filtered through lenses of wariness and vigilance. Even trans folk who “pass” (i.e., are read socially as cisgender) are alert for those moments when we may be exposed as trans: passing through a TSA body scanner, for instance, or showing ID at a polling place when the ID doesn’t match our perceived gender, or seeking emergency medical care. (Let alone those who are unable to pass because their gender expression or their body doesn’t fit neatly into a binary gender archetype.)

There is a ceaseless tension while moving through the world as a trans person. We’re constantly on guard, switching into fight-or-flight mode dozens of times each day. We feel a tiny hiccup of fear every time we approach a pair of doors labeled MEN and WOMEN. We send up a dire prayer that the stall at the end of the bathroom, as far away from others as possible, is free. We muster all of our courage each time we open that stall door and step up to the sink next to a cis person.

But there are beautiful trans moments, too. There’s the warm glow when cis girls call us pretty and ask for make-up tips. There’s the incandescent thrill of being called sir when we’re sweating in our binders and wondering if our packers are sliding out of place. There’s the radiant dignity when we tell someone our pronouns are they/them/theirs and they remember, and use them, without fuss. These moments when our gender is reflected back at us socially mean everything to us. All of the tension and vigilance and performance pays off, and the world recognizes us—at least for a fleeting instant—as the gender we present.

Then there are moments that are best described as meta: when being trans forces you to see gender and gendered interactions from multiple POVs at once. As a trans man, when I sit on a crowded train I’m acutely aware of whether I’m taking up too much space and making others, especially those presenting feminine, uncomfortable—because as someone assigned female at birth, I spent decades dealing with manspreaders and creeps who invaded my personal space, who saw me as female and assumed I’d just endure it the way AFAB people are conditioned to endure an endless23430487 array of indignities and violations every day of our lives. But it’s not all negative: now both men and women will make space for me even when I don’t actively take it, are less likely to interrupt or talk over me, and are more likely to notice me first and address me as the decision-maker at restaurants and in other service situations.

On one hand, it’s a relief to finally feel like I’m being afforded respect after years of being ignored, interrupted, and silenced—but on the other, I recognize that that “respect” is actually male privilege, and is a result of patriarchal social structures. The misogyny that once hurt me now, in certain ways, benefits me. Yet in other ways I’m hurt anew by misogyny: taller, stronger men (which is most of them) physically intimidate and bully me; open displays of emotion are looked at with revulsion and ridicule; being sensitive and empathetic makes me “beta” or “gay” (and being a queer man on top of that is a little terrifying).

Holding all of these viewpoints in your head at once is dizzying. Being trans and having been perceived as both male and female in one lifetime is like a Matrix-style revelation of just how gendered virtually everything is, and it extends far beyond symbols on bathroom doors. These thoughts and feelings are with us without reprieve. We are hyper-aware of gender in every physical and social sense.

Cis writers have done good work in telling stories about trans folk, but there is an essential limitation to their portrayal of trans experiences because they don’t experience transness day after day. They don’t live through the litany of minor (and sometimes major) tragedies and victories, the stuttering progress of two steps forward, one step back, the way that sometimes it seems nothing has changed for the better until we look back at how far we’ve come.

As writers, it’s our job to cultivate empathy and do the research and put ourselves in others’ shoes, but this can only take us so far. For example, I will never know what it’s like to experience blackness on a daily basis, in every fiber of my being, the way that I experience transness—that authenticity can only be conveyed by a black writer. The YA book community is embracing this idea: authenticity and lived experience are just as important as what’s on the page; we should not merely seek diversity in fiction, but in authorship. It’s clear to see why, e.g., we should read not only books about black characters, but also books by black writers.

However, when it comes to transness in fiction, we often let authenticity slide. There are so few trans writers, after all. How many trans masculine authors can you name from Big Five publishers? (The only ones I know of are me, Fox Benwell, and Zac Brewer—a whopping three!) Trans women are doing a bit better in representation: Imogen Binnie, Jennifer Boylan, Juno Dawson, Janet Mock, Meredith Russo, Julia Serano…the list goes on. Nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid writers? Alex Gino, Pat Schmatz—a grand two I can name off-the-cuff. But trans writers are still collectively a minuscule message-in-a-bottle in a sea of cis voices.

Why is it so important that trans voices, not merely trans characters, are heard?

On Father’s Day this year, as I was paying the cashier at a grocery store, she looked at my bearded face and started to say “Happy—” and then caught herself, amending, “Oh, I’m sorry.” My heart sank. She must mean what they all meant: I’m sorry, I mistook you for a man. At half a year on testosterone, with a goatee and an Adam’s apple, I still wasn’t passing. In that moment hopelessness surged inside me. I’d put myself through so much stress and pain to get here, and still I couldn’t make society see me as the person I felt like inside. Why even try? What was the point? What made her read me as “woman with facial hair” and not “man” and was I really going to spend my entire life angsting over these little yet devastating things?

Then the woman smiled, and said, “You’re too young to be a father, aren’t you?”

Immediately my despair became elation. I could’ve hugged her. I wanted to cry in sheer gratitude and relief. As warmly as I could, I said, “Thank you.” She probably thought I was flattered at the age compliment. She had no idea what it really meant to me, after thirty-odd years of being misgendered, to have someone flip the script and to see me how I want to be seen.

That moment is something a cis writer couldn’t feel deep in their bones. It’s something I experienced, viscerally, and its repercussions echoed through my life, shaped me from that point onward. Years of self-hatred surfaced in one second and were blessedly drowned out. It was a major emotional turning point. And hundreds of those moments have occurred since I began my transition—some positive, some negative. The fullness and scope of their impact is something a cis writer can’t quite grasp, because it innately changes how you see and interact with the world. It changes who you are. To truly convey the transgender experience, you must live it and be (pun not intended) transformed by it.

To that end, I’m focusing on exclusively writing trans main characters for the foreseeable future. My YA fantasy project Transgenderella (working title, obviously!) is, you guessed it, a trans retelling of the Cinderella story…except Cinder doesn’t want to marry the prince, he wants to be the prince. I also have a short story in Saundra Mitchell’s queer historical YA anthology, All Out, featuring a trans boy Robin Hood. And I’m working on an adult psych thriller about a trans man and his identical AFAB twin…who didn’t transition, and the strange ways their lives diverge and intersect.

My good friend Fox Benwell (who identifies as nonbinary and trans masculine) is bringing trans boy rep to MG and YA, too. He describes his next YA novel, Sinking to the Heavens, as “a dead-of-winter story, all a capella and angels, Christmas and close harmonies. It’s narrated by Dorian, a pre-everything-and-not-even-sure-he-wants-any-of-it transgender music geek who’s suddenly very, very uncomfortable with the altos and desperately wants to sing bass.”

Voice changes on testosterone are a major, irreversible part of female-to-male transition—a subject which is tender for many of us. The decision to take T involves either elation or despair (or both) at the inevitable ways our voices will change. So I cannot wait to read an own-voices (pun also not intended!) story about the hopes and fears of a pre-T trans maybe-a-guy, written by someone who’s pre-T, trans, and maybe-a-guy.

Fox is also working on a MG novel featuring a genderfluid pirate (which is possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever heard) and a short story about a trans teen dealing with chronic illness. Intersectional rep of trans folks is especially needed: my narrator in Bad Boy, an adult novel, is a trans man of color. Too often white trans lives are all we hear about; rarely do we hear about race, disability, and other axes of marginalization, except when it comes to tragic statistics. Not only do we need trans voices, but we need diversity within trans voices. We need to hear trans people of color, trans people with disabilities, trans people who eschew the binary, trans people from every corner of life.

A sea change is happening within literature. It’s slow, but we’re starting to see increasing representation of trans characters in fiction. Now it’s on us to demand and support work by trans writers, especially those who are under-represented and multiply marginalized. It’s on us to boost own-voices work. It’s on us to critique trans rep that isn’t up to snuff. Above all, it’s on us to listen when trans voices speak.

giqlxei-imgurElliot Wake (formerly known as Leah Raeder) is a transgender author of four novels: Unteachable, Black Iris, Cam Girl, and Bad Boy. Aside from reading his brains out, Elliot enjoys video games, weightlifting, and perfecting his dapper style. He lives with his partner in Chicago.

 
By | November 22nd, 2016|Categories: Archive, Author Guest Blog, New Releases|Tags: , |0 Comments