Loading...

LGBTQIA+ Young Adult Literature

Home

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: |Comments Off on Building Zoey’s World

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: , |1 Comment

Second Trans on the Moon

Trans Awareness Week Series: Day #5

Previous Posts: 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 Kyle Lukoff 

ARE YOU:

  • An elementary school librarian
  • A resident of the United States of America
  • A transsexual (you can also prefer the words trans or transgender or whatever, but I really enjoy the word transsexual) (also I suppose I should limit this to men/masculine-spectrum people but it’s not necessary I guess)
  • Possessed of some muscles

If so, I want to arm-wrestle you. I’ve joked to my friends that I’m the most muscular transsexual elementary school librarian in the country, but I don’t know for sure. Let’s find out.

Honestly, I’m not really that buff. I go to the gym sometimes, and that’s about it. But I don’t know any other trans people who are librarians at elementary schools, so the competition is relatively low. Which is my favorite kind of competition, especially with regards to physical prowess.

Why did I start thinking about this in the first place? Well, it’s a very strange moment to be a trans person involved in kid lit and librarianship. Sometimes it seems like because I’m not the first trans person to __________, or the only trans person to ___________, I’m not interesting enough to contribute. I’m not the shiny new thing, I’m just a grouchy thirtysomething white man with thinning hair and laugh lines. I’m not very active on Twitter, and it would be silly to post a photo saying “This is me 3,615 days on testosterone” and wait for the compliments to roll in (okay, that might actually work, but still. I would never). I’ve worked in bookstores and libraries for over half my life, and have been involved in trans activism since 2004, but none of that seems to count for very much right now in this climate of hot takes and rapid-fire responses.

imageIt’s frustrating to feel preemptively invalidated because there are only a few trans people lending our voices on trans representation in books for children and young adults, and also about larger representation in a literary culture. Of course, in addition to being middle-aged in trans years and grumpy about it, I, like everyone, exist within a tangled network of privilege and oppression. I want to take up precisely as much space as I should, which is not very much. However, among that already small number, there are even fewer of us who have been enough years to have a long-standing, interconnected, complex view of a multitude of issues beyond highly publicized aspects of our realities, like medical transition and the failures of gender-binarist public restrooms (hi, fellow decatranses and beyond!). But trans people don’t stop being trans after those first few heady years, and a literary culture that focuses solely upon them will miss out on a lot of possibilities for depth.

Trans literature has been locked into a superlative mindset. Since there are still so few books about trans people, and even fewer books by trans people, it’s still possible to market them as being the first or only of their kind. And, considering how overwhelmingly white kidlit is, there are still so many “firsts” that haven’t even happened yet. I can finally name a few trans authors getting mainstream attention, but those advances are not yet de-centering whiteness, or other more marginalized identities aside from gender. Publishing a homogenous cluster of trans people won’t help with that, and will continue to reproduce and reinforce racism and other oppressions within this literary culture.

Furthermore, when trans authors and stories are recognized only for whatever ground they break, it means that the focus is laser-sharp on one person, one voice, one experience, one identity. It means that the messy horde of us, the sprawling swath of people who live within the contested category of “trans” are being represented (or, let’s be clear, not being represented) only by authors or protagonists found acceptable enough within the existing strictures of white supremacy, cissexism, ableism, so many intersections that traffic lights would just be a nuisance.

I was working at a bookstore when a young person asked me if I could help them find a specific book. “It’s about this girl, and she likes this guy, but there are, like, all these problems?” I tried not to laugh, and said that that description could span titles from ancient texts to Romeo and Juliet up to…well, look at young adult fiction. And yet that story can be told over and over again, with nuance and beauty or embarrassingly satisfying schlock.

There are so few books about trans people, and even fewer by trans people, but I’m already hearing well-meaning cis allies dismiss newer titles by saying, “I’ve seen this kind of story before.” This is infuriating. When trans stories and authors receive acclaim on the basis of being the youngest, or the first, or the only, it means that trans people are reduced to our novelty. It says that we are interesting as an anomaly, but not real enough to be allowed the beauty and nuance and complexity (or feel-good cheesiness) that quotidian romance stories are allowed. Trans stories are not allowed to be art, in all its difficult glory; they are reduced to a message.

There is so much untapped potential in trans literature, something that is neither an uninspired rehash of coming out, or a space opera where one character “just happens to be transgender” “because why not.” But what makes trans stories interesting? That could be a question that doesn’t even need to be asked. But I have some answers anyway, because it’s interesting to consider critically. Of course, I have to wait until January, when I’m no longer serving on the Stonewall youth awards committee–jurors are forbidden to publicly discuss or review titles that are currently eligible for that award, and a comprehensive article would have to include recent releases. But look for it in a few months! For now, let’s leave with this question: what can trans literature look like? And in what ways is it being limited even as the market is growing? Acknowledging our existence and our humanity is a starting place, not an end point. And literature is one way to continue the exploration of what trans identities mean in the world.

Kyle Lukoff is an elementary school librarian and writer based in New York City. He began working in bookstores in 2000, and began working in queer communities in 2002. You can follow him on Twitter at Shekels_Library even though he prefers Facebook, and you can also check out his website at kylelukoff.com, which he should eventually update.
By | November 21st, 2016|Categories: Guest Blogs, Teachers & Librarians|Tags: |Comments Off on Second Trans on the Moon

How the Fox Became

Trans Awareness Week: Day #4 

Previous Posts: 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 Fox Benwell 

I talk a lot, both as a transmasculine guy and as a writer, about the importance of words. The weight of them; how we should use them consciously, with care. How the words we choose have histories and connotations that they carry with them regardless of your intentions in the moment that you use them.

I’ve talked about the intersections of language and labels and representation; how I’d never seen myself in books or real life; how growing up I simply did not have the language to explore or express everything I felt. Genderfluid, transmasculine, nonbinary, FtM…none of these words were part of my vocabulary or my consciousness, and finding them as an adult was life changing.

I’ve talked about language and labels, but I haven’t talked about perhaps the most personal labels of all; our names. Which is odd, since finding a new name is a particular rite of passage for many trans folks, myself included. It can be a huge part of figuring out who we are, or want to be, and how we reconcile or honour parts of ourselves. Naming (finding, labelling) yourself as an adult is a big, scary, wonderful thing. And it’s important.  So, today I want to tell you the story of how the Fox became:

This time last year, I was feeling…unsettled. I’d spent the summer settling into the fact that cis and woman didn’t fit me, and starting to carve out a new space, a new identity. To claim transgender as my own and figure out what that meant for me. Even the most everyday things felt new and strange. So when Pumpkin Spice season began, heralding autumn, with all its endings-and-beginnings symbolism, I fell into the ritual of it, hard. (Also because coffee. I’m sure this surprises nobody who knows me.)

At the same time, I started a new story; a fun middle-grade with a character a little bit like me (cooler, perhaps, braver and more comfortable than I had been, but, me) and I fell just as hard into that, suddenly needing to see my true self on the page in ways I’d never have anticipated. Somehow, reflection and fiction and wordsmithery together are a very particular, deep sort of labelling and exploration that I really need when I confront something – it’s part of how I process the world – but I rarely spot it when it’s happening.

Now, I get fairly involved with my characters as I write. There’s an exercise wherein you imagine hanging out with them and try to see your world from their perspective, and and day I found myself taking Indiana Summers, 10-year-old genderfluid wannabe pirate, out for coffee. And I wondered what they’d order, and before I knew it…

indie

Have you ever used a name other than your own – not a nickname or derivative or title, but something completely separate? It sounds alien and hollow as you let it out. It hits you in the gut and sends a burst of adrenaline across your skin.

It’s terrifying.

Thrilling.

The power of names is deep, old knowledge. With someone’s name, you can bend them to your will, control them, curse them. Don’t have their real name and they’re safe.

There are less dramatic, real-life applications of this. Contracts become binding with a valid signature. Giving fake names in hotels, or on the internet, or to authorities, offers anonymity, keeps our true selves safe from judgement, persecution, prosecution.  There’s something bad about claiming a false name. Something which says, ‘You cannot control me. I have power here.’ Even in a coffee shop where no one knows you, with no one you’ll ever meet again, where, really, no one could care less. Even then.

I’m not the only one thrilled by that idea. Friends have called it ‘brave’, marvelled that I’d ever do such a thing. That perhaps they could do it, too.

But there was something else beneath the thrill of claiming a false name. Something about Indie had felt right. More right than Sarah. Or at least, no more of a lie.

I wasn’t ready to process that. Instead, I wrote. I ordered another coffee. Indie, I discovered, liked his pumpkin spice. And the terror switched to, ‘This is cool’.  

Somehow, claiming his name – her name, their name; Indiana Summers switches pronouns – actually speaking it aloud, telling someone I was Indie, felt a little like becoming him. I felt fearless, full of curiosity. And that got me wondering.

In this first incarnation of the book, Indiana Summers did not always like their name, so they would try on others to see what fit. This imagined kid already knew something about the power of names that I did not – not consciously – that your name changes who you are in subtle, massive ways.

I liked the experiment. I liked being Indie. I liked having an excuse to drink more coffee. So I decided that I’d work my way through Indie’s list of names, and by the time I was done I’d have this cool story to tell.

I started to collect them.

Each name felt like a discovery. They felt different. As an author, I should have expected that – my characters either show up with their names already sewn into their skin, or I spend a long time thinking about the kind of name they’d wear, how it would sit on their shoulders, what it says about them, about their world. Names matter.

But it still surprised me that in the simple, cloned act of ordering coffee, each of those names felt different. That I felt different when I used them.

The explicitly male names – Linus, for example – had this delicious thrill about them that I couldn’t have verbalised back then. A rightness. But also more risk.

People struggle to gender me a lot. They get flustered over sirs and ma’ams. They frown.

I like being sir’d. It feels comfortable and right even though I’m not 100% up in ‘man’ territory. I don’t mind the confusion. But ma’am and miss feel like a hot knife slipped into my gut. And Linus?

What if I’m not projecting ‘guy’ quite hard enough to pull it off?  Would they question it? Was this even safe?

linus

I was so self conscious that first time, but at the same time I felt straighter-spined and bigger-lunged. No one questioned it. They barely even blinked. No one’s ever questioned me for using a male name. Oddly, they have questioned Sarah. Given me that ‘wait, what?’ look. Once or twice something a whole lot worse. But no one ever questioned Linus.

sparrow

Wannabe Pirate Indie’s alterego, Sparrow, was everything they wanted to be. And oddly, it was the hardest to collect.

sparosparrow3

smarensparrow1

speerasparrow2

It hurt, somehow, with the same bafflement and indignation as I might have felt if it were really mine.

At the third attempt it struck me that this whole experiment was perhaps illustrative of Indie’s struggle to be seen. To be represented, seen, reflected back in hasty sharpie.

Still it didn’t click. So there I was, collecting Indie’s names at every turn, not a clue that there was something more to it than a cool experiment, just loving every new discovery.

There was Pan, full of all the magic and light and stubborn independence, the history of theatre and childhood that lasts. No question from the barista at all, just a smile of recognition, and I’m handed this…

pan2nd-star-to-the-right

Hero:

unnamed

Sawyer (sort of. Sometimes I’m not sure I’m speaking the same language as anyone else):

sawyer

I even tried on Fox, still not seeing the glaringly obvious. But that ‘wild side’ felt good.

fox

I went back to Indie a lot, each time I needed to connect with him. It was comfortable. I liked it. And at some point, on the way to or from a bookish convention, I voiced this niggling feeling to a trusted friend. I like Indie…I quite like it for me.

That grew. Well before I was consciously searching for a new name, I was mad at myself for giving the perfect one away.

Time passed, the coffee cups continued, and I grew less and less comfortable with Sarah, with being seen as a woman no matter how I felt or how I presented myself. And eventually, because I was already playing, because I’d been through this with Indie, I made a list.

A long, long list. Like Indie’s, except this one carried so much extra weight. This one was for me.

The how and why of each name on that list is something we should discuss another time. There’s so much in a name: how it sounds and feels – strong or smart or elegant, villainous or froofy – the roots and histories of it, meanings, family ties, cultural ties, trends to buck or follow. And there’s so much pressure there to get it right, to perfectly encapsulate a person in just a few abstract syllables. But I liked my list, a lot, and I planned to try them all out one by one.

I didn’t get that far.

Another friend and I went away, and at her suggestion I took the first three names along to try out and see how they felt.

I thought Samwise/Sam would be the one, but it felt like enchanted armour; bright and shiny and perfectly form fitting for the right guy, but a dulled, gaping, you-will-die-in-battle if it did not like the person wearing it. And it did not like me.

Sparrow was already Indie’s, really. Full of things I love, but never mine.

And Fox.

Fox.

There’s a strong cultural, literary resonance to Fox, for me. Representations stretching back through medieval texts, folklore, children’s stories, wider media; all different, all somehow relevant to different parts of me. I admire and aspire to their adaptability. They’re handsome and clever, hardy and fierce but just a little soft as well. And I love the way all of that swirls up through the name, how it makes me feel strong and lithe and wild every single time I hear it.

We’re protective of our names because our myth blood warns us of the dangers. And there’s power in withholding them, for sure. But there’s power in finding them – in speaking them – as well. Think of fairy tales where children are whisked away, stripped of their names so they forget who they were and don’t try to run; where the heir to a kingdom is raised unaware until they come of age, until they’re ready to reclaim their name and rightful place within the world; histories full of slaves and enemies stripped of names, identities, autonomy.

Claiming your true name is an act of power. Freedom.

Once I’d found it, Fox became a talisman. A shield. A reminder. I wasn’t out to my family, not everyone I work with knew, and I’d find myself ordering a coffee with my name just to speak it, to see it, hold it for a while after those interactions where nobody knew.

fox2

Reclaiming my true self.

Now, everybody knows. I announced it over Twitter, talked to my agent and editors and family, and everyone is using it. There are still books with my old name knocking about, but I’m publishing as Fox from this point on. And it’s legally mine, claimed in a bookstore and witnessed by two wonderful friends, because if you’re going renounce part of your old self in favour of the new, where better to do so than in your natural habitat?

My dad got me this:

mydadboughtmethis_-jpg-large

And I don’t need those paper cups to tell me who I am.

I didn’t have the words for myself, growing up. I didn’t see myself in anyone.

I have one now.  And other people see it too, reflect it back to me. And it is wonderful.

I’m Fox. It’s nice to meet you.

20160614_131601-1-1-1Fox Benwell (formerly known as Sarah Benwell) is a perpetual student of the world, a writer, adventurer and wannabe-knight, who holds degrees in international education and writing for young people, and believes in the power of both to change the world.

His debut, THE LAST LEAVES FALLING, received 5 starred trade reviews, a Carnegie nomination, and made the USBBY Outstanding International Books List. His second novel, KALEIDOSCOPE SONG, will be published by Simon & Schuster.
By | November 18th, 2016|Categories: Archive, Author Guest Blog, Writers on Writing|Tags: , |Comments Off on How the Fox Became