Below is the next entry in an ongoing series on queerness and the essay, an interview with the essayist and editor and Torrey Peters.
Clutch: To start off, could you talk a bit about the link you see between the essay genre and trans writing, culture, and lives? What is your own experience using the essay to write about trans experience? What are the potentials, the links, the challenges, etc.?
Torrey: I’ve been influenced by the trans women—almost all working in fiction—published by Topside Press. So I’d like to start by offering some context for how my ideas about trans essays were first shaped by Topside writers thinking about trans fiction.
Historically, much of the literary cultural production about trans lives has been for the consumption of a cisgender audience. Trans culture isn’t and wasn’t necessarily always about medical transition; but from Christine Jorgensen onwards, the popular narratives about trans lives have focused on the sensational or physical aspects of transition. As a result, mainstream cultural production has tended towards the literary forms—especially memoir—that most easily package, explain, and display transition for a cis audience. These memoirs follow a basic narrative structure.
Act 1.) Everyone says I was A gender, but I felt like I was B gender
Act 2.) I came out as B gender, took hormones/had surgery, and experienced difficulties or violence
Act 3.) I was accepted as B gender by cis people (and/or was killed by them)
I don’t see my own life reflected in this narrative, and I don’t see the lives of writers I know reflected in this narrative, particularly not the ones who transitioned ten or twenty years ago. It is essentially an incomplete narrative, but one that has vast appeal to audiences with no experience of trans lives.
However, if you rethink and reprioritize your audience as trans, you can’t tell this story. They know that, at best, it’s incomplete. When I envision an audience of other trans people, I expect that they already know everything about transition, so I have dig much deeper to offer up insight and honesty about the trans experience that might move them.
A few years ago, Tom Léger, Julie Blair, and Riley MacLeod started Topside Press with a call for submissions for trans fiction. The stories they chose ended up in as anthology called The Collection. The publisher’s note in the back of The Collection called for more trans fiction by trans authors for a trans audience, and in subsequent interviews, panels, and articles, the included writers and associated editors tie that call to explicit criticism of past memoirs.
Past trans memoirists have wanted so badly to normalize trans people for cis audiences that they avoided discussing the painful, shameful, dislikable shit that comes with being trans. By contrast, fiction allows trans writers to discuss that stuff without directly implicating themselves. Moreover, if you assume that your entire audience is trans, you can talk about things like shame, sexuality, or internalized transphobia without fearing that you’re airing dirty laundry to outsiders. The argument could therefore follow: paradoxically, for members of a group as marginalized as trans people, fiction frees writers to safely tell the truth.
However, while trans fiction has paved the way for more honest literary work on trans lives, I don’t think that employing any one genre always gets me a pass. I could recapitulate the tired trans narrative tropes in a lyric essay or an epic poem, and cis-centric narratives riddle the fictional stories told in a recent spate of trans-themed television shows. I think writers do better carefully parsing the differences between representation, form, and structure than maintaining generic chauvinism.
That said, I’m personally interested in how writers depart from the emphasis on fiction, towards essay and essayistic writing, without recapitulating the dynamic of the old trans memoir.
Essay is, at its core, about figuring out a way to say the things that have not yet been said, that seem unsayable. You don’t get the crutch of fictionalization, there’s no set narrative structure, and despite some appealing attempts at creating an essay canon by D’Agata et. al, there’s not a long-standing formal tradition. In essay, the subject dictates all: form, structure, style. The essay is so incredibly trans: you’ve found some unsayable truth, now throw out all the rules that keep you from saying it.
So do you think that essays might be better poised to craft this type of thinking than memoir is, or non-narrative than narrative? What's that distinction about, if so? So much of the trans writing I love is non-narrative, yet I realize that most people think first and foremost of narrative when they think of trans writing.
Well, I basically think that much of the traditional function of narrative has been to develop and resolve conflict. Narrative has a kind of ethics to it, and the resolution of a conflict feels satisfying or not in to the degree that it accords with both the internal ethics that a narrative itself develops and the kind of ethical frame that a reader brings to the text.
The problem with transition memoirs has been, frankly, that they were not ethical. The big conflict in say, Jenny Finney Boylan’s best-selling She’s Not There is an ethical conflict. Jenny needs to transition and also wants to raise a family with her wife. Yet, her wife is not attracted to women, and so will have to sacrifice her own sexuality for Jenny’s transition if the two stay together. There is a solid fundamental incompatibility that makes for the conflict, and the narrative sets us up to think it will be resolved. Only, because the apparent intention of the book is to humanize a trans person, neither resolution works. The books seems to assume that you can’t have the trans woman be likable if she breaks up a marriage, but neither can you have her frustrate her wife’s sexuality for the rest of their lives. So instead, the fundamental conflict is elided, and swapped out in the second half of the book for one of lesser emotional stakes: not will the wife accept Jenny’s transition, but will her friend Richard Russo? This is an ethical cop-out.
I don’t mean to single out JFB. My first attempt at trans writing was an essay published by Gawker, and in it, I elided my own sexuality, down-played how important my own womanhood is to me for a kind of fuzzy-friendly-gender-is-just-a-construct stance, and worse, I completely skipped the resolution between myself and my girlfriend over my crossdressing, because guess what? There wasn’t really a resolution. The actual narrative would have required me to be 100 times more honest, but I didn’t want to be honest, I wanted to be liked.
Everybody wants to be liked, of course, but for trans people the stakes to being liked are really high. If you are afraid to be seen as a pervert freak, afraid that you'll lose everything you value and might get killed, it chills your writing. For some white dude to be awful, he’s just another phallic narcissist, bravely saying how it is. No biggie, here's your Pulitzer. So it’s not a surprise to me that trans people, in memoir, sometimes throw out the honesty and ethics required for truly good narrative structure in favor of likability. We face so much higher political consequences for being honest.
Essay may incorporate narrative, but it can also function as almost description. You can have an emotional landscape, and often I find my experience of being trans best reflected in descriptive prose rather than through classic conflicts. So lyrics, essays, and essayistic experimentation often feel most accurate. However, there is not necessarily a loser in description the way there is in the resolution of conflict. There is no wife trapped in a marriage to a woman, no girlfriend who has to push down her discomfort with cross dressing—so writers are free to be honest, but the stakes are sometimes made lower for the lack of conflict. That said, my own personal goal these days is to strive for a future of narrative in trans writing that can hold itself to extremely high ethical consistency in the resolution of conflict. Because ultimately, other trans people will understand, and for the cis people that judge us? They’ll see the value in another generation, if they don’t get it now.
What are the ethical questions your own work addresses?
Hmm, I don’t want to come off like I’m some sort of advice-column ethicist. Because I’m actually very interested in subjects and people who behave unethically. Just on the larger question of narratology, I’m interested in the way that ethics become a frame for understanding narrative success, how ethics explain the sense of satisfaction that a reader feels or misses at the end of a narrative. In graduate school, I read a lot of Tzvetan Todorov, especially The Fantastic. I’m not so staid as to believe that there is some totalizing system of ethics, I get that each reading experience is a subjective combination of text and reader.
In fact, I liked The Fantastic so much because I think The Fantastic as a mode (Todorov classifies The Fantastic as a genre, but I think he’s wrong) shakes up reality and ethical possibilities in ways that speak to me as a trans person. To illustrate the concept of The Fantastic, Todorov uses the example of Cazette’s tale "Le Diable Amouroux," in which the protagonist, Alvaro, lives for two months with a woman who he suspects may be the devil for the strange way that she first appears to him—despite all physical indications of her humanity. Thus Alvaro hesitates, unable to decide her nature: human or supernatural. This hesitation, Todorov claims, is a moment of hesitation between the uncanny (the laws of reality that govern the world remain intact, but our senses and perception have failed us—i.e., we perceive the devil) and the marvelous (the laws of reality that govern the world do not remain intact—i.e. the devil exists). The second a moment of hesitation resolves itself either way, the fantastic disappears, and you are either in the realm of the uncanny or the marvelous. In Todorov’s conception, the fantastic must remain liminal.
Being trans is, in a lot of ways, like fantastic hesitation. I don’t mean this in that all trans people occupy a liminal space on a gender spectrum—there are plenty of binary trans people and I am among them. No, feeling like you are trans is an experience that might be the result of our subjective senses (Todorov’s uncanny), or it might also be that the possibilities of gender are fundamentally not as people have previously agreed they are in our collective reality (Todorov’s marvelous). The experience of being trans hesitates between these possibilities in a manner that I think mirrors Todorov’s fantastic. Is my sense of being trans a result of some perception created in my mind? Or is my mind as trans shaped by some rules of physical reality that we have not yet uncovered? We don’t yet know. Science doesn’t really know. Instead we perpetually hesitate between possibilities. Meanwhile, the difficulty is coming up with a system of ethics that can make sense of this hesitation, that can govern conflicts to satisfying conclusions amidst hesitations. Our system of ethics is only now being created as distinct from the ones we’ve inherited from a cis-centric worldview. As we develop a trans-centric system of ethics, that ethics system will also change how conflicts can satisfyingly resolve within a trans narrative.
More concretely, I think a lot about reckonings. I lived for 30 years as a seemlingly cis white male. And I borrowed a lot against that identity. I got married, I got scholarships, I got ahead partially on peddling an idea of myself that I knew, in my heart, was not accurate. The question for me is, how to enact a reckoning that is satisfying to myself as trans person, in my own hesitant, fantastic experience? How do I reckon with my past so that I don’t default on what is owed to those I loved when they thought I was cis, but also so that I can move on as a woman unencumbered by debts that I incurred using a former self as principle? I think every trans person has to reckon with their past, but I like art that explores and creates a specifically trans ethics that can feel satisfying in the balance of a reckoning.
Outside of my own fiction, I’m putting together a nonfiction essay collection, and I’m drawn to essays that are both fantastic in a special trans way, and also, true and certain. Most authors use some sort of formal experimentation to hold both of those conflicting ideas together, in a moment of hesitation where both become possible.
The questions of ethics and who you are writing for reminds me of Zackary Drucker's Southern for Pussy-- have you seen it yet? I'm curious especially because Drucker's work has come in this series before.
Yes, I loved it. It really challenged me on the question of audience and honesty. Because for all that I’m saying about how important it is for trans people to write for trans people, I think that Southern For Pussy actually has a cis audience in mind. It’s basically a thought experiment: what if a transgender daughter were treated by film in the same way as any other daughter?
So Drucker and a woman who I believe (you might want to check this) is her own mother act out the premise with the result being that if you can acknowledge, without finding it a big deal, the fact that your daughter has a penis—it frees you to be honest and upfront about so many other things in your life without those things also being a big deal. So in the first scene, the mother and daughter are discussing vaginal atrophy.
But ultimately, I think that Southern For Pussy is like an experimental primer for cis art-makers who want to include trans subjects in their work. Contrast Southern For Pussy with Drucker’s 2008 film: You Will Never Be a Woman. You Must Live The Rest of your Days Entirely As a Man and You Will Only Grow More Masculine With Every Passing Year. There is No Way Out. Here, I imagine Drucker’s audience as trans. The film shows two trans woman lovers, and the entirety of it is the two of them saying all of the most awful transphobic things that they can imagine to one another, in order to prepare themselves for the cruelty and fear of the outside world. It’s completely an essay. There is no narrative. And it’s pretty devastating.
Sybil Lamb did something similar in her essay, which she self-published as a ‘zine: Detransition Now, Tranny. My understanding is that the genesis of this essay occurred after she was attacked in a transphobic hate crime, where she was beaten with a lead pipe and had a tramautic brain injury. She was a mess afterwards, half-blind and the language centers of her brain all scrambled. She wrote the essay in that state to say to herself all of the worst things about being trans in order to convince herself to detransition, so as to never again suffer the kind of pain she had gone through. She failed to convince herself. It’s an awesome, amazing essay.
But anyway, if you compare the rawness of Sybil’s essay and Drucker’s You Will Never Be A Woman…with the polish of Southern For Pussy, I think you get a pretty good example of how speaking to trans people as a group changes a work, from speaking to cis outsiders. I don’t think the polish is just that Drucker has gotten more successful and perhaps had better access to resources in 2015 as opposed to 2008. I think that Southern For Pussy shows that you can make a great film with trans subjects for a cis audience. But the result will not be the same as if you make it for trans audiences. I contend that we generally polish ourselves more if we think we’ll be talking to a cis audience. The same holds true for many minority groups, and much of the work that we hold up as transformatory is work intended for an in-group audience. Toni Morrison explicitly writes for black women. It’s incumbent upon me as a white person to keep up.
So then, what are the essays/nonfiction by trans writers that explore these ethical questions in an interesting way? You and I are both kind of obsessed, I think, with finding new trans writers we admire. Who's inspiring you now?
To me, stuff like Jeanne Thornton’s Vampire Book Tour is nonfiction—it’s the story of four vampires on book tour, and throughout the whole thing, the essay maintains a conceit that’s made explicit: Vampires find trans women the best metaphor for their experiences and (tacitly vice versa). So the vampires describe their life as vampires on the road through the metaphor of trans women. And suddenly, through this innovative metaphor, the experience that Jeanne had, traveling in a car with four trans women, comes vividly alive. I’ve kind of been collecting in my mind pieces that do stuff like this. There’s a trans guy in Chicago named Oli Rodriguez whose dad was gay, and estranged from him and his family. To get to know his dad, he’s been doing this interdisciplinary project called The Papi Project where he posts ads online or goes to the old cruising grounds where his dad used to go, and then he attempts to hook up with the older men hoping to find guys who hooked up with his dad in order to know his dad, and his dad’s masculinity, in that way. It’s like somehow, to me, so trans. These are the kind of pieces I am attracted to. Sneaky formal play that changes/expands how we think that experiences of trans can be presented, while also carving out new ethics for how we draw conclusions about trans lives.
There are a lot of people doing cool stuff in different formal realms that I’d call essay. I read a lot more work by trans women, because that’s whose work speaks to me. (Original Plumbing has a lit issue with trans dudes if people want to check that out) But for me, I’d want to list the games of Merritt Kopas or Anna Anthropy. Autostraddle actually has become a place for trans women to publish some weird essays with interesting formal conceits, like How To Write About Trans Woman by Gabrielle Bellot or a take-down of a take-down of Candy Magazine by L’lerrét Jazelle Ailith, which starts like a conventional bloggy response to a Salon article and unexpectedly becomes a list of black trans heroes. All of Imogen Binnie’s We See Through You columns in Maximum RocknRoll are great. Oh, and I’d say also The Seam of Skin and Scales by Elena Rose. Basically, because this is a conversation—the trans essay—that is still being carved out, I try to pay attention to the seemingly ephemeral stuff that gets passed around, from person to person, or technically from email account to email account. There’s nothing like a canon, so I just try to see what essays seem to move people in ways that haven’t faded. For instance, trans women I know have been talking about Elena’s essay since she performed it something like 2007. The way that writing gets passed around makes the creation of trans art a communal act. We are still forming our own literature, we are writing in response to one another, in conversation with one another, trying to incorporate every new idea that someone manages to finally figure out how to say and then build upon that idea the new things that are suddenly unlocked for ourselves. It’s exciting.