By Peter Haldeman
Oct. 24, 2018
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — The Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts is a cradle of social progress — a place where L.G.B.T.Q. is often followed by I.A. (for intersex and asexual), there’s a Stonewall Center (now 33 years old), and gender-nonconforming parents have a nickname of choice (it’s “Baba”).
On a Maple-lined street here in Northampton, in a white gablefront house, lives one such Baba, a.k.a. Andrea Lawlor, a gender queer novelist and visiting lecturer at Mt. Holyoke College; Lawlor, who uses the pronoun they, shares the first floor rooms with their girlfriend, their 5-year-old child, and their child’s sprawling Lego constructions. The second floor is occupied by Lawlor’s best friend of 25 years, Jordy Rosenberg, a transgender novelist who teaches 18th century literature, gender and sexuality studies, and critical theory at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Sometimes they call their home a “queer commune.”
Lawlor’s debut novel, “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” set in the 1990s and featuring a shape-shifting (and sex-obsessed) protagonist, was published last year by Rescue Press — and received enough attention that Vintage/Anchor and Picador will reissue the book next spring. Rosenberg’s first novel, “Confessions of the Fox,” which reimagines the legend of the 18th century English thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard as that of a transgender man, was put out this summer by One World — a recently relaunched Random House imprint dedicated to diversity — and promptly heaped with praise. (The New Yorker called it “a cunning metafiction of vulpine versatility.”)
This also represents progress.
Fictional gender benders may be as old as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” But recent years have seen a boomlet in transgender literature. In a field previously dominated by memoir and genre fiction (sci-fi, young adult), a number of first novels with more purely literary designs — including playing with genre — are getting attention. “It’s really exciting to see an emerging crop of trans-related fiction by trans people,” said Meredith Talusan, a journalist who writes about L.G.B.T.Q. issues. “It takes a lot of mettle to tread narrative terrain without a real tradition and without a lot of cultural support.”
On a rainy August afternoon, perched on a hardback chair in his upstairs quarters, wearing jeans and a loose flannel shirt revealing a dark plexus of tattoos on his chest and arms, Rosenberg intently fielded questions about “Confessions of the Fox.” “I was doing research for a monograph on religious enthusiasm in the 18th century and became interested in these accounts of Sheppard,” he said, glancing at some densely scrawled notes in his lap. “On one level he represented resistance to the development of capitalism and new kinds of legislation around stealing. But also a lot of the material describes Sheppard as this legendary sexy figure and kind of what we would now describe as gender queer — as effeminate and small, which was key to his ability to break out of prison.”
The book is narrated by one R. Voth, a contemporary transgender scholar who is given to lengthy and unusually personal footnotes — and who, the author stressed, is not an alter ego. It tracks the academic’s efforts to authenticate a “mashed and mildewed” manuscript chronicling the adventures of Sheppard and his lover, Edgeworth Bess, here a Spinoza-spouting prostitute, as they move through the queer subcultures of 18th-century London and clash with its corrupt police force. If the novel is a cunning metafiction, it’s also a lusty picaresque and, ultimately, as the author braids Sheppard’s and Voth’s stories, an impassioned political proof.
“It’s impossible to talk about trans or queerness or sexuality in a vacuum,” said Rosenberg, whose Facebook profile reads “Marxist. Worrywart. Author.” “We’re also talking about the history of racialization, the history of class formation, the history of the ways capitalist forms of the law impinge upon the body.”
Rosenberg said “Confessions of the Fox” did not owe any particular debt to earlier works with transgender themes — but pointed out that his housemate’s book was shaped by their reading of “Orlando,” Virginia Woolf’s novel about a poet who changes gender from male to female and lives through several centuries of English history.
“I read it in high school because it was on a list of books with something queer in them,” said Lawlor, who came upstairs to discuss their novel — and who is as easygoing as Rosenberg is deliberate. “It was huge for me.”
“Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl” literally embodies the notion that gender is fluid rather than binary (an idea with enough currency that two acclaimed television series — “Pose” and “Billions” — feature gender nonspecific characters). In the novel, Paul Polydoris changes his body and sex organs at will to attract “only the sorts of attention he desired” as he cruises a “womyn’s festival” in Michigan, Iowa City’s punk scene, or off-season Provincetown in the age of mixtapes and Doc Martens.
As fanciful as it is — and as difficult to quote in a family newspaper — the narrative is rooted in the author’s experience. “I came of age in the 90s,” Lawlor said. “Everyone was dying” of AIDS. “So people were like, wait a minute, what about play and pleasure and performance?”
Like “Confessions of the Fox,” “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” which took Lawlor 15 years to write, bends genre as well as gender. Short fables are sprinkled among the chapters, and the author makes use of pastiche, footnotes and other moves from the postmodern playbook. “For queer artists of a certain age we just assumed that to write was to experiment,” Lawlor said.
The two novelists are not unique among transgender writers in their magpie approach to literary tropes and genres. Kai Cheng Thom, a 27-year-old Chinese-Canadian transgender writer and performance artist, is the author of a recent “fictional memoir” titled “Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir” — a novel that turns the memoir form on its head.
“There’s a long tradition of trans people being confined to memoir,” said Thom in a recent interview. (The list of transgender memoirs stretches from Lili Elbe’s 1933 autobiography, “Man Into Woman” to Caitlyn Jenner’s “The Secrets of My Life,” published in 2017 — and beyond). “This idea that we have to narrate our lives for the titillation of cis-gender readers — ‘When I was a child I never fit in and then I wanted this other genitalia’ — I thought it would be fun to take that on.”
Her novel, which follows the exploits of an Asian transgender girl who runs away from home and finds her true family in a vigilante gang of “fierce, fabulous femmes” known as the Lipstick Laceraters, blends fiction and nonfiction with dashes of magical realism, poetry and fairy tale. There’s violence, too, but it’s of the Tarantino variety — stylized and, in the context of real-life conditions for transgender women on the street, cathartic.
Thom, a self-described anarchist and “drag-dance sensation” who comes across as rather low-key online (oversized horn rim glasses, ruminative pauses), said that as a storyteller she found straight-up realism limiting. “When you start out as one thing in life and become another you have to overcome this sort of real-life hero’s journey to get there,” she said. “That does lend itself to heightened narratives.
For some transgender writers, the labeling of books, by genre or otherwise, is as problematic as the typing of people. “Genre, like gender, is a social construct,” proclaims Rivers Solomon, an African-American writer, on the author’s website. Solomon’s first novel, “An Unkindness of Ghosts,” about a gender neutral young person living aboard a starship eerily reminiscent of an antebellum plantation, generally lands on the science fiction shelves — but the book is “literary” enough that Publishers Weekly described Solomon’s writing as “worldbuilding by poetry.”
Another transgender writer of color whose work defies easy labels is Akwaeke Emezi. Emezi was raised in Nigeria and lives in New York, is the author of “Freshwater,” a haunting, incantatory account of a Nigerian girl born “with one foot on the other side,” her body inhabited by a malevolent Igbo spirit known as an ogbanje. From her childhood in Africa, through her graduate-school years in the United States, Ada lives in multiple realities, performing brutal sacrifices to her demons to survive. “Freshwater” was published by Grove in February, wreathed in well-deserved hype: rhapsodic reviews, an Annie Leibovitz portrait in Vogue, a two-book deal with Riverhead. Like “Confessions of the Fox,” it was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
Shortly before the book was released Emezi (whose preferred pronoun is they), published an essay in New York Magazine’s The Cut in which they recounted their breast reduction surgery and hysterectomy, linking their gender dysphoria to their own sense of otherness as an ogbanje. “The possibility that I was an ogbanje occurred to me around the same time I realized I was trans, but it took me a while to collide the two worlds,” they wrote. “The surgeries were a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ogbanje.”
In a phone conversation, Emezi, said that it was important to them to frame the book’s mythos as reality-based and its story as autobiographical. “Before colonialism, Igbo ontology was real for centuries,” they said. “Now the concept of ogbanje isn’t considered real by Nigerians — and in general the idea of trans people isn’t considered real either.” In this light, a quote from Toni Morrison that Emezi paraphrases on their Twitter feed reads like a personal and professional manifesto: “I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. And let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”
If transgender fiction leans to heightened narratives, it doesn’t exclude kitchen-sink realism. “It’s important to acknowledge the writers engaging in the specificities of actual trans experience,” said Talusan, if only to counter a long cultural tradition of transgender people “cast as the other or the villain” (think “Silence of the Lambs”). Imogen Binnie, Casey Plett, and Torrey Peters are three novelists whose slice-of-trans-life fiction is published by small presses.
This year Plett, a Canadian writer who is the author of the story collection “A Safe Girl to Love,” came out with her first novel, “Little Fish.” The book opens with the discovery by a young Winnipeg transgender woman, Wendy Reimer, that her Mennonite grandfather may also have been transgender. But the novel’s primary focus is the day-to-day struggles of Wendy and her circle of friends — with unemployment, with alcoholism, with sexual violence. Plett knows alienated transgender millennials the way Ann Beattie knows alienated cis-gender boomers.
Toward the other end of the commercial spectrum, earlier this year Ecco/Harper Collins released “The House of Impossible Beauties,” by Joseph Cassara, with a bullish first printing of 50,000. The book is as immediate as cinéma vérité — not surprisingly, given that it was inspired by the documentary “Paris is Burning.” Like the film, the novel tells the story of the House of Xtravaganza, the Latinx drag ball “family” of the 1980s, through the voices of Angel, Hector and its other larger-than-life gay and transgender members. There is much fabulousness until there isn’t — racism, queer bashing and AIDS taking their inevitable toll.
Cassara, a 28-year-old graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is not transgender — and at least one reviewer deemed the transgender characters in his book less fully realized than the gay ones. In an interview he gave The Millions before the novel came out, the author addressed the hot button issue of who gets to tell whose stories. “The role of the novelist is to deeply inhabit the lives of characters who are different than ourselves,” he said. “My intent was to take each character and treat them as the beautiful, nuanced, complex human beings that they are.”
In the view of most critics, “The House of Impossible Beauties” manages to do just that. It also serves as a reminder that, for all the increase in transgender visibility, life on the ground for many transgender people hasn’t necessarily changed much — particularly in a time of civil rights rollbacks. The novel opens with a quote from James Baldwin: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” There’s another, airier line from Baldwin that could serve as an epigraph in any of these books: “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best the garment be loose.”