June 28, 2022, 8:51

The Invention of the Trans Novel

The Invention of the Trans Novel

If you spend time around transgender people, you may notice, on badges and buttons, on sewn patches, or even as a tattoo, the sigil “T4T,” or “t4t.” The characters stand for “trans for trans,” and the usage began as shorthand on dating sites. These days, it’s not only an erotic preference but a statement about solidarity, about membership. Imogen Binnie’s “Nevada” might be, in that extended, contentious sense, the first t4t novel.

Published in 2013 by the trans-focussed (and now defunct) Topside Press, and just reissued by the mainstream trade publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, “Nevada” is hardly the first novel about trans characters, or the first by a trans author for the queer community—Leslie Feinberg got there in 1993, with “Stone Butch Blues.” Still, “Nevada” seemed to be the first book-length realist novel about trans women, in American English, with an ISBN on it, that was not only written by one of us but written for us. In particular, it’s about the groups we create in the age of the Internet, encouraging one another in our new freedoms and in our self-destructive fallacies. And, in sixty brief chapters, it strenuously resists the stance my friends call “Trans 101”: it will not, as Binnie says in a new afterword, seek “validation from cis people.” The novel is defiant, terse, not quite cynical, sometimes flip (where Feinberg is bluntly earnest), addressed to people who think they know. It is, if you like, punk rock.

And Binnie knows punk rock. When the novel appeared, she was mainly known as a columnist for the punk zine Maximumrocknroll. Being trans, Binnie wrote there in 2013, “has taught me not to trust anybody”; she prefers “assuming that everybody fucking sucks and doesn’t know how to treat trans women as human beings.” But the same column also took note of serendipity. “For once in my goddamn life,” she reports, “the punker in the non-punk environment I was bumping into turned out to be a trans woman too!” Of course they teamed up: “being in a band with another trans woman is the best.”

“Nevada” is Binnie’s attempt to create, metaphorically, that band. Her twenty-nine-year-old protagonist, Maria Griffiths, addresses other trans women in popular blog posts on the early-two-thousands Internet (we see one of her posts), telling us about ourselves, and showing us, through her own life, where we get ourselves wrong. But “Nevada” is also a story of failure: Maria can’t get her offline life together. She plans to break up with her better-adjusted, cisgender girlfriend, Steph, but Steph breaks up with her first. Maria slacks off in her dead-end job at a prestigious used bookstore (modelled on the Strand) until she’s fired. Then she steals Steph’s car, and drives to Nevada in an attempt, for once in her life, to find out what she wants and what she likes, rather than what she rejects and loathes.

Maria stops at a charmless Nevada hamlet built around a Walmart and meets a young shrinking violet of a Walmart employee named James. She concludes that James must be trans, like her, but not yet aware of it—that he’s what we call an egg. She wants to help James hatch, and invites him to join her on a trip to Reno. James finds Maria fascinating, then compelling, then alienating and bossy, so he ditches her.

That’s pretty much the plot. Binnie’s deadpan, offhand narration makes clear how little the plot is the point. Instead, “Nevada” introduces its readers to a trans woman’s consciousness from the inside, telling us things we might have expressed in blog posts or e-mails or song lyrics but would not yet have seen in prose fiction—certainly not in realist prose fiction about adults.

And the novel begins with depressingly bad sex. Maria “acts like she’s into it,” faking pleasure to satisfy Steph. “You’d think it would be impossible to fake it, with junk like Maria’s got, but you can,” Binnie writes. “Maria knows some stuff about faking it.” Maria, we learn, takes hormones but has not had surgery. More important, we learn that Maria’s partner is choking her, not just literally, in sex play, but emotionally. (“She’s choking me” are the first words in the book.) “The moment her pants come off, she stops being in her body.” That’s how sex feels when you don’t think your body is yours. (Ask me how I know.) Maria can’t be her true self while Steph is around. But maybe she can’t be her true self anyway. What even is a true self? Can you still be trans if you don’t have an answer?

“Nevada” can’t stop asking. It treats the injections, the pills, and so on with a knowing frown and a shrug. Authenticity, not uplift, is the point; it isn’t a book about collective struggles for civil rights, although it is a book about people who have white privilege and still can’t take those rights for granted. You don’t need a fire alarm going off if you can already see that your kitchen’s in flames. You might, though, need safe ways to leave the house. And Maria has always needed to leave the house.

Maria grew up (flashbacks tell us) in rural Pennsylvania and spent a lot of her teen years stoned; as planned, she got through college, then moved to New York City. Once she started living as a woman, she had no idea where to go next, having spent her youth absorbed by rejection, resistance, and flight. Before coming out, “being present in her body meant feeling things like: My gender is wrong, and My body feels weird, and My mind feels like it’s being ground into the concrete by how bad I need to fix that.” After coming out, she faced the question she later asks James: “What do you want?” (James’s reply: “Not all this.”)

“Should we watch the lighthearted workplace comedy or the dystopian workplace drama?”

Cartoon by Suerynn Lee

“Nevada” is a book about leaving, about rejecting, about saying no: no to the standard Trans 101 narrative, in which, before transition, we’re all suicidal and, after transition, we’re all happily indistinguishable from cisgender people, unless we become doomed sex workers; no to the expectations that books about trans people written for cis people usually meet. And no to the lives that Maria and James have been living. Nobody in “Nevada” finds true love, no cis character has an on-page epiphany thanks to a trans friend, and nobody dies. Binnie’s tight third-person narration sticks closely to the figure that each chapter follows: mostly Maria, later James, and, for one chapter, Steph. That arrangement lets readers stay with each character as she, or he, pushes away what the wider, respectable world of employment and romance expects.

“Nevada” says no—wryly, elegantly, entertainingly—to other literary tropes, too. It’s a road novel where no one, emotionally or existentially, gets anywhere. It’s a caper about a big drug score where nobody gets caught, nobody gets rich, and nobody makes a smooth getaway. It’s a breakup story where neither partner cares very much about the romance that ends. It’s also a trans novel where no one transitions. “Because the mysterious in-between phase is the most salaciously interesting thing to people who don’t have to go through with it, I decided to cut it out,” Binnie explains in her afterword. “Nevada” understands how, no matter what we do after we come out, we will probably feel that we got something wrong.

Every location does symbolic work. Maria hates her bookstore job not just because she hates her routine and bosses hassle her but because none of the books there can tell the story of her life. While Maria, who loves bicycling, takes to the road, James spends as much time as he can in sealed spaces, getting high: he likes “hotboxing,” filling a closed place with pot smoke—Maria’s car, for example, or his bathroom. Here’s Maria’s X-ray of where he lives:

His apartment doesn’t look like the apartment of a person. It isn’t the standard twenty-year-old boy apartment though—there’s no sink full of dishes, no armpit smell. It’s like a nonapartment, a ghost apartment. It’s literally, like, an overhead light, a futon, a computer desk, a beat-up old little kid’s dresser, and a flimsy-looking entertainment center with an enormous old twenty-seven-inch tube television. There are ways you could tell it was a Young Dude’s apartment: speakers so large they look out of place, hooked up to the stereo that gleams more brightly than anything else in the room. The extensive and neatly arranged library of DVD cases. It’s all, like, Classic Films, too, instead of complete anime series or something: pretentious, fully enmeshed in patriarchal constructions of validity, but at least not weird and annoying.

It takes her a second to figure out why a space so sparsely populated with stuff could feel lived in at all. It hits her: it’s because everything is saturated in weed smoke.

All the characters in “Nevada” are trying to explain who they are, or trying to avoid someone else’s explanation. No wonder the novel is so insistently quotable. “That stereotype about transsexuals being all wild and criminal and bold and outside the norm and, like, engendering in the townsfolk the courage to break free from the smothering constraints of conformity? That stereotype is about drag queens. Maria is transsexual and she is so meek she might disappear.” (How many trans girls drew stars in the margins of their Topside editions right there?) Hanging out with Kieran, a popular, educated trans guy, Maria “can’t help but figure out that, while gender is a construct, so is a traffic light, and if you ignore either of them, you get hit by cars. Which, also, are constructs.” Even the numbly inarticulate James records thoughts that trans readers might have had. He looks at Maria and thinks, No thanks: “you were inevitably unhappy with your life because you’re trans, right? Meaning transition doesn’t work.” Steph thinks quotably, too. “Kinks are arrows giving you directions,” she reflects. “If you want someone to slap you and call you a stupid little girl, that probably says something about your relationship to ever having been a little girl.”

Mostly, though, the apothegms are Maria’s. Like many writers who want to sound hip, or punk, Maria eschews highfalutin words and complex sentences: her insights come off raw, even authentically clumsy. In fact, trans identity itself, in “Nevada,” means being raw, or clumsy, and experiencing things belatedly: puberty, for example, or crying all the time. “Maria is really good at being trans,” she knows, but she’s bad at basic self-care: “being trans interrupts normal human development,” so that “you end up getting stuck at the tween stage, the Nickelodeon stage, the I can take care of myself but I suck at it stage.” (Stars in the margins, again.) Coming out as trans “is rejecting the poisonous, normative idea that there is a Too Old for Catharsis. Or, really, a Too Old for Anything.”

If “Nevada” compiles wisdom, it’s hardly a how-to book, or even in any clear sense an edifying one: Maria’s a mess. The novel brilliantly contrasts the useful things Maria says with the dumb things she does. James “was a project she thought she could solve.” After all, he looks and acts like her at nineteen: stringy hair, “totally checked out,” constantly stoned, into online “erotic transvestite scenarios.” But he still has to work it out for himself: at the moment, he thinks that “he’s just some fuckin dude who wishes he was allowed to wear dresses,” and he’s used to “liking girls just in a totally impossible way.” There are limits, Maria learns, to how much you can understand, or help, other people, and we can’t know in advance what they are.

There are limits, too, to the community that Binnie’s novel imagines. It depicts trans guys, like Kieran. (“For Maria, being trans is like, Here is this shitty thing I have to deal with, but for Kieran it’s like, Fuck yeah!”) It also depicts men who present as women in controlled circumstances, “coming from a cross-dresser place instead of a transsexual place.” But it doesn’t feature nonbinary characters, and a similar novel written today would require them, not least for accuracy. (These communities now include far more people whose pronouns are they/them, or xe/xym.) It would also be a novel written after “Nevada”—and after the novels of Casey Plett, April Daniels, Rachel Gold, Roz Kaveney, Kacen Callender, and Torrey Peters (and the work of various comics creators and musicians and poets)—and so would inhabit the space of literary possibility that “Nevada” helped to create.

What did trans readers have, before “Nevada,” other than memoirs? Myths and poems, from Sumerian songs and chants about third-gender priests to Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Hermaphroditus” (1866), Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” (1928), Gore Vidal’s headline-grabbing “Myra Breckenridge” (1968). Certainly “Stone Butch Blues,” which begins with a “he-she” narrator “choking on anger”: when Maria thinks about how “sometimes trans guys come out of radical activist dyke communities,” she’s thinking about the communities that Feinberg helped build. In previous decades, Samuel R. Delany confected characters and species outside sexual dimorphism and binary gender in “The Einstein Intersection” (1967) and in the great short story “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967). So did Ursula K. Le Guin, in her better-known “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969): Delany’s “Trouble on Triton” (1976) followed its selfish antihero through a gender transformation common in her future universe. Science fiction, in other words, got ahead of literary realism.

So did young-adult fiction for the rising generation. Charlie Jane Anders devoted her first novel, “Choir Boy” (2005), to a twelve-year-old who takes estrogen to prevent his voice from changing, and then gets taken, or mistaken, for trans: it’s a strange, partly satirical affair that feels as if it were published much later than it was. A number of young-adult novels about trans and gender-nonconforming teens, such as Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children” (2012) and Steve Brezenoff’s “Brooklyn, Burning” (2011), followed: Gold’s “Being Emily,” which appeared in 2012 (I wrote an introduction to a later edition), seems to be the first American Y.A. novel with a trans narrator, and the first of this pack by a trans author. These novels and their successors give directions: how to come out, how to seek what your body and your psyche need.

And yet many readers and writers, as the afterword to the new edition of “Nevada” acknowledges, see Binnie’s novel as “ground zero” for modern trans fiction. That’s partly a prejudice against writing for teens, and against science fiction. But it’s partly accurate. Modern realist fiction for adults can, like “Nevada,” forgo optimism, outreach, and uplift, and present dilemmas you might have to be an adult to recognize. Binnie’s audacity was to address an audience—a community, an us—that hadn’t quite seen itself this way before. Knowing a lot about being trans, we might even, like Maria, believe we know enough to teach someone else. Then again, like Maria, we might not be half as wise as we think. It’s O.K. At least we can play in the band. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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