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 Gino, The 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!
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.