T Cooper: Adventures in Manhood
“… labeling artists seems to set up potential expectations that one’s work should necessarily represent something larger—which can be rather limiting…’”
In his new book, Real Man Adventures, novelist T Cooper turns his searing lens and sharp wit toward himself to capture something of the elusive experience of what it means to be a man, more specifically, a man who was assigned female at birth. T Cooper tackles the subject with humor, curiosity, and fury. The result is a completely original take on the personal transgender narrative. Published this winter by McSweeney’s Books, this small hardcover volume is a delight of book design. It harkens back to the tactile familiarity of old Hardy Boys books, and visually references mid-century men’s magazines such as True and American Manhood. This is not a memoir, per se, but an exploration of one man trying to locate his later-in-life manhood on the map of masculinity, constantly questioning where one belongs and where one is an outsider. His voice is not the only one represented to construct an identity. Rather, other people sound in too. Their perspectives on both the author and manhood inform the strange kind of echolocation that we transfolk constantly rely upon to pinpoint ourselves and our genders in the world. And, unlike many works of trans nonfiction, T Cooper veers toward the uncomfortable truths and anxieties that come from inhabiting a trans body. Concerns for safety and privacy are omnipresent in RMA, and he doesn’t cave to the pressure to provide a happy and triumphant point-A-to-point-B transgender story, although ultimately he is triumphant, as well as blunt, pointed, and hilarious. T generously took time out of his holiday vacation to discuss the book with me.
I remember some time ago talking with you in person about your reluctance to write about “your thing.” What finally propelled you to do so? Is there something about a desire or need to control one’s own trans narrative? Did you feel obligated to address your trans identity in a book form?
I don’t feel obligated at all. I probably could’ve survived perfectly happily if I hadn’t plumbed some of this stuff in book form. I guess it just seemed like this giant thing I’d been doing the Lindy hop with over the last fifteen years or so (creatively speaking), so I stuck a toe in the water in writing that essay (“Born in the Right Body”) for The Believer, and then once that was out in the world, I spent some time thinking about whether I felt “done” with the subject, or perhaps not done, but more like: Had I done everything I could and wanted to do with it creatively? The answer was, No. And then it became solely about crafting the best story I possibly could at this point in my life/career (such as it is), and I was lucky enough to have a publisher/editor who was willing to let me see what came out.
Now that you ask though, I suppose there might have been a secondary subconscious impulse to control my own story; that is, a dominant trans narrative is already “out there” (and I don’t have the option—I might even say luxury—of deciding whether I even want people to “know” about me), so if I didn’t want my uncles and cousins thinking God made a mistake on me and I just needed to have surgery and get a couple injections to be made right, then I was going to have to do something about that!
Real Man Adventures is not your typical trans memoir. Why did you choose to work in this format? What were you able to do in this pastiche of forms that you might not have been able to accomplish in a straight memoir?
I’ve never really been drawn to straight memoir as a reader. I mean, the current notion of “memoir” is a pretty recent concept, of course, so that’s the kind I’ve never really found myself picking up over the years. This isn’t to say I haven’t read a good amount of it, though, and there have been some amazing, mesmerizing memoirs (Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls, to name a few), but I’m more consistently drawn to the kinds of “truths” about humanity (and other stuff) that can be found in the best of fiction.
That said, on the general nonfiction side of things (belles lettres?), I’d say I’m more interested in writers like Joan Didion, whose work involves some reporting, for lack of a better term, and reflecting of other lives and histories in addition to the personal, and so that’s the kind of work I think I’m naturally more interested in writing myself.
As far as the specific form of RMA goes, I don’t know how else to put it except that it never occurred to me to write it any other way—any typical way, as you say—because it came out in the way I felt the story needed to be constructed. Which leads into your next question, so I’ll just answer it here…
Your book includes lots of other voices. It echoes, to me, the way in which so much of our processes of coming into trans identities are filtered through how other people see us and how/what they think about us and our perceived genders. Would you speak to your choice to involve the voices of others in RMA?
I knew from early on that this book was going to want a chorus of voices if I was going to feel like I’d done everything I could with the subject matter. I mean, for the reasons you mention, sure, but also because the topic at hand—ostensibly, masculinity—is such a subjective concept and construct. I mean, I joke about it in the chapter called “Sometimes I think all of Modern History can be Explained by Testosterone,” but there’s obviously some truth there, I mean, how history is paved in patriarchy. So anyway, yeah, it was important to me to include this mini-chorus of voices in the book, sounding off on the subject in ways big and small, direct and indirect. Of course it’s not a completely perfect cross-section of voices. (My interests were always artistic, not necessarily academic, so there’s no way I was going to be able to hear every single voice I might have wanted; in the end, it’s still going to be my book that’s trying to tell parts of my story.)
So much of your book addresses the fear and anxiety always under the surface for so many trans people. In some ways it feels like a form of exorcism, to be able to place those very real fears on the page. I wonder if the format of RMA allowed you to dive deep into the fears and anxieties of trans existence in a way that you would not have been able to in memoir? And, has the process of producing this book allowed you to move through any of those concerns?
You’re probably right that I couldn’t have addressed as many facets of the anxiety part of the story had I stuck with a more conventional structure. I guess that’s part of why it would’ve been misleading to label the book a memoir. Sure, you have to slug something considering the marketplace and all, but to me it’s more about a pursuit of honesty, which is terrifying in all forms. But that’s what art is, that’s what fiction is, even, I suppose—even if it’s always going to be unsettling to some degree. And sure, it feels okay sometimes to just be like, Fuck it, and fuck you, THIS is what I am and I don’t really care if you know, or what you think, but you know what? In the end, I’m probably going to feel more exposed and anxious than that because as I mention in the book in more than a few places, I feel like I’ve now dragged my wife’s and children’s lives into it, too, and if anything happened to them as a result of that choice, well, I just wouldn’t be able to get past that. I deeply value our (especially their) privacy, and I think I’ve written the book in a way that reflects that, but there’s always the little heckling voice back there (you know the one), so by putting this stuff more on blast than it already was, yeah, there’s definitely some more anxiety there, not less.
Do you think that there is a pressure from without to provide a “happy transsexual” narrative in memoir? As in, I was a miserable (girl or boy) but now I am a happy (man or woman) and everything is So Great? What I love about your book is that is leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and nothing is revealed or addressed that you don’t want to talk about. In fact, it may be the first ever completely self- serving trans work of nonfiction…which I think is very fucking cool. There’s a question in there somewhere.
Yeah, as I mentioned before, I was really lucky to do this with the publisher I did it with, because they were not going to impose any narrative that might make more sense (on the surface) to potential readers. There was no talk of happy endings, or any endings really. It’s an ongoing, constantly-morphing story (as all humans’ lives are, trans or not). Nor was there an expectation that I’d frame things in terms of some sort of miserably unhappy childhood, so that folks would understand some of my choices later in life as a result of all the self-hating and misery. I do think that for a lot of nontrans people, that type of narrative makes the most sense; that is, you’d have to be facing a fate worse than death to do something so radical as cross the gender barrier.
Now that you’ve written about “your thing” do you think you’re finished with the topic? Or do you imagine revisiting the topic again in your fiction?
No fucking idea. It’s probably always in there, always has been, and always will be, no different from everybody’s “things” always being with them in their lives and work (even if not externally), but I can’t really say.
You’re in the middle of doing a bunch of book events around the country. What has the response been like?
It might still be too early to tell, especially because thus far most of the events have had extensive musical components to them, so it’s not all just me standing up there and presenting the work in a straight-forward manner to an audience in a bookstore. As I describe above, in addition to including a bunch of different voices in the book itself, I also wanted to add an element of literal voices to the project, which is one reason I produced a Real Man Adventures companion CD compilation (that my publisher also put out), which contains 18 mostly original songs by various artists responding to specific chapters in the book. It’s available in CD form in a very limited number, or there are some free downloads of half of the songs from The Rumpus—the link to which can be found on my website. Oh, or if you’re in NYC, you can go to Ben’s Barbers on Avenue A and 13th and pick up a book and CD.
The response has been positive, I suppose—I guess I never really know how to answer that because my experience is pretty limited, and it’s rare you run across some asshat who tells you your book sucks right to your face (not that that hasn’t happened over the years, just that it’s rare). So at least that hasn’t happened yet, though I have heard that the book is misogynist and too angry a couple times. And to that I can only say, “Suck my dick, bitches.”
What has been the most surprising outcome from this book’s publication?
That I didn’t combust spontaneously upon its publication.
What’s coming next for you in terms of writing projects?
My wife (who’s also a journalist and author) and I are collaborating on a four-part YA series (fiction). I’m happy to be doing another project with Akashic Books, who published my first novel (and is among the best publishers in the game, in my opinion). Also working on some short fiction and TV scripts.
I recently moderated a panel for the book The Collection, the first ever anthology of trans short fiction. It feels as if we are on the precipice of a new trans zeitgeist of trans writing. Where do you see the future of writing authored by trans people going in the next few years?
I don’t know how to speak to this. I mean, I guess I’m just hoping it moves to new creative places we’ve not seen before.
How do you feel about being labeled a trans writer? What sucks about that? What is good about it, if anything?
I don’t know if anything’s good about being labeled any kind of writer. I have been labeled various different kinds of writer over my life, so it makes the concept rather moot. Plus, doing so constantly sifts out the “other.” I feel like a broken record, but you don’t hear everybody talking or writing about white, heterosexual male communities when taking up the subject of a book by a member of that population. Those books are of course just capturing “the entire American experience” or epoch or something, while the others are offering a tiny window into an unknown corner of the world or history.
Being a “trans writer” would only be beneficial if it helps somebody come to the material who wouldn’t otherwise find it, I guess. But that sounds a bit like a different era of GLBT literature, from which I’d like to think we as a larger culture have evolved. I don’t know, labeling artists seems to set up potential expectations that one’s work should necessarily represent something larger—which can be rather limiting, plus not very conducive to creativity, when an artist (of any kind) has to worry about all that in addition to making the best possible work s/he can (which is elusive enough). That’s why it’s not particularly relevant, to my thinking, to indict a project with, “Oh, it’s too heteronormative or white,” or whatever. That certainly might be true of some projects, but at some point, our individual stories have got to be just that—unique and particular and authentic and ultimately (hopefully) just “human.” One specific story out of millions. And with respect to mine, I mean, I’m not going to be able to provide a gay transman experience, for instance, because that just wasn’t my particular trajectory. I mean, unless of course you turn gay, Cooper, and then I’d totally go gay for you.