Three Umpires Walk Into a Bar: Transgender Authors and Editors on Transgender Literature
I. WHY I ASKED (EXAMINING MY TRANS-LITERARY BELLY BUTTON)
Before I remember giving a hoot whether I was (or whether anyone thought I was) a boy or a girl, before the knock-down drag-out department store wars with my mother in the girl’s aisle, before I’d ever even heard the word “trans” spoken outside of a TV screen, I remember being a writer. In the order of things I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up (a veterinarian, a cab driver, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves), “writer” didn’t even make the list. This is because, well before “growing up” seemed like an appreciable or likely possibility, I already knew that I was one.
We’ll call this intuition rather than arrogance. Lub dup, lub dup, I knew because my heart beat, and I was there to feel the reverberations throughout my guts and skin. The important thing to note is that before I knew what queer or bi or trans really meant, I was a reader and a writer. A passionate, if not particularly talented, reader and writer. So posed in the frame of identity politics, which came first, the writer or the trans? Lub dup, lub dup, lub dup. The writer.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I will become the (far less talented) Edward Albee of the trans community. “I am not a trans writer, I am a writer who is trans! Now stop whining about your oppression and write something that isn’t crap!” I circle the Edward Albee in me, sometimes with righteousness, sometimes with guilt. Art is in service to the universe, the body. Lub dup, lub dup. Art is in service to the identity overlaying the body: visibility, accessibility, liberation.
It is simultaneously very important to me to speak from and own my trans identity, and to never, ever, ever, ever have to put my art in the service of my identity. Therefore, as someone invested in being an out and visible trans writer, the definition of trans literature is extremely important to me. That the defining be an active, impassioned, and accessible conversation is also very important to me. So I decided to ask as many transgender literary artists as I could what they thought.
When I considered the questions that I wanted to pose in this interview, I teased out several threads of concern. The first was, what exactly is transgender literature? This is actually a multifaceted question that branches out into several troubled waters, such as, who is transgender? Who is visible and recognized as transgender? What content and which characters are recognized as transgender characters or content? At what point—and in what gender, complicated by tense and time—does a transgender character become recognized as trans? Who gets to decide? What messy and problematic power dynamics are involved therein? What (or who) is lost as a result?
Also—what is literature? What isn’t literature? Who gets to decide? What messy and problematic power dynamics are involved therein? What is lost as a result?
And that’s just question one.
I also wanted to know—is there an intention to transgender literature? If so, what is it? Who decided that? Why? Can we share that intention? Should we share that intention with people who are not trans? Do we even feel coherent and validated amongst our own messily emerging semi-defined subset of literature?
And so on, existential questions replicating exponentially until I was left with the terminal all-immersing thought: there is no belly button.
I chose ten of these questions and posed them to the brave and willing participants below: Tom Léger of Topside Press, AJ Bryce of Trans Genre Press, author Ryka Aoki (Seasonal Velocities), author and editor Sassafras Lowrey (Kicked Out, Roving Pack, forthcoming), author Elliott DeLine (Refuse), and editor Morty Diamond of Bodies of Work Magazine.
Read on for some passionate and brilliant commentary on the (cisgender) literary world, the simultaneously suffocating and liberating possibilities of identity-based content, and the powerful connection of social justice to transgender authors, regardless of how we define our literary belly buttons.
II. Q and A
Do you consider transgender literature to be based on content (trans characters, trans experiences), theme (transformation/displacement), form (experimental, hybrid), and/or transgender authorship? None, some, or all of the above? Please explain.
Tom Léger: The way Topside Press has chosen to define transgender fiction is by the narrative, not the author. We look for work that has a transgender protagonist. This is significant because most trans characters that appear in books and film are secondary characters or antagonists.
Sassafras Lowrey: For me, I consider trans literature predominantly to be connected really explicitly to transgender authorship. I believe that as trans people we are the most qualified to be writing about our own experiences and that the core of this sub-genre of queer literature should be from our voices and perspectives, as opposed to content featuring trans characters and experiences written from the perspectives of those outside of our community.
AJ Bryce: Personally, I feel like any of those examples could fall under the umbrella “transgender literature.” Trans Genre Press, however, focuses exclusively on transgender/gender variant (Trans) authorship & craft, that’s what makes us stand apart from every other press out there. Not only do we believe that some of the best transgender literature exists within our own community, but we believe that some of the best literature of any genre exists here as well. I have seen firsthand how much creative talent falls under the umbrella of this community.
Morty Diamond: How can there be one way to describe trans lit? That’s like asking me to describe a trans person. Well, which one? There’s just about a million ways to be a trans person, just as there are a million ways to write trans lit. To be more specific though, I do see trans lit, for the most part, being written by those who are trans/genderqueer/intersex/gender variant in some way. Those that do not identify in these ways can write trans lit but they may find themselves using trans as a literary device which they sometimes know very little about, making their work come off as trite. The truth is, I find myself wanting there to be more of a focus on trans people writing trans lit. I would like there to be a very viable community of trans writers who are writing their history, both in fiction and nonfiction. I also want that community not completely centered in the US! I want to read the stories of trans people from all over the world.
I’ve said this a million times: if a trans person is writing something that has nothing to do with being trans, it is still trans lit. How come we ask these questions about trans lit but don’t ask this of, say, gay male lit? A gay man can write about anything under the sun and still be seen as a gay lit writer.
Elliott DeLine: I think the label trans lit is most appropriately applied to books with either trans content or authorship. The best examples, or perhaps purest examples, are transgender authors writing about transgender characters/experiences. If it’s only one or the other, it’s debatable whether I’d consider it transgender literature. If a transgender person writes a book about airplanes, that isn’t transgender literature at all. If a cisgender person writes a book primarily about transgender experiences, it is up for debate in my mind as to whether or not it is best categorized as transgender fiction.
I don’t think that a novel with a hybridity and transformation theme is automatically a transgender novel if it has nothing to do with gender. Likewise, I don’t think that a novel by and about a transgender person would be disqualified as transgender fiction if those themes/forms were not present.
I have a friend that was telling me about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando as a transgender novel. From the little I’ve read, I’m inclined to agree. It’s an example of a theme and form that examines transformation (I think) in the context of gender, while Orlando is not a transgender person in the modern sense of the word. It’s not his identity or Virginia Woolf’s. Another book I would make a case for is The Well of Loneliness. If the book was written before the term transgender was used, but by modern standards, includes a character we would define as transgender, I think it can be useful to look at it as transgender literature. Especially if the author “seems trans.” Of course, this gets complicated…
I am cautious about adopting the label “transgender writer” or “transgender fiction” because I think it can be all-consuming, causing people to overlook other things I do in my writing. That’s going to happen regardless, but I want to push back against it. I don’t want to feel limited by it. Still, it’s a useful term for community building and it rolls off the tongue a lot easier than “a writer who is trans and writes fiction that includes trans characters.”
Still it seems telling that people don’t call it “cisgender fiction” or “cisgender memoir.” Perhaps I’ll start.
Ryka Aoki: Hmm… I think that this same question has been answered in feminist and postcolonial grounds. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not African-American Literature. The Last of the Mohicans was not Native-American Literature.
This is not to say that Stowe’s or Cooper’s work was good or even great literature. It is just that a white person writing about Native Americans writes as a white person. A Native American writes as a Native American, with hir history and identity always present, even if the subject isn’t particularly “Native” or “American.”
Some may argue that the background of the writer should have no bearing on the merit of story, but this ignores how a community-based literature serves the community. Writers who write from marginalized identities inspire others in their communities to think and abstract and imagine. I have had trans people say my work and the work of other trans artists have saved their lives.
Asian-American Lit, Gay Lit, Trans Lit―can have powerful and affirming effects upon their respective communities. If you are gay, the difference between a straight author and a gay author can approach the difference between someone writing about you and someone writing for you. As an Asian American with roots in Hawaii, I remember reading Michener’s Hawaii, and Clavell’s Shogun, which cover Hawaiian and Japanese themes, respectively. These were interesting because they were externally about a part of me. But reading Shirota’s Pineapple White―I felt that if he could do it, so could I.
Expecting transgender writers to write along certain themes is also problematic. Imagine if women’s literature were limited to “women’s issues.” Yuck! Remember, writing is work and, as a woman, I do not want to limit myself to what others have decided is “women’s work.” In the same way, as a trans woman, I do not want to limit myself to “trans woman’s work.” Who decides this silliness, anyway? :p
Transgender forms are an interesting thought. Can writing be transgender? Well, in poetics we have “male” and “female” rhyme. Still, I can’t see how these arbitrary associations translate into transgender humans without some pretty reductive linguistic theories.
What are some of your favorite works of transgender literature?
Tom Léger: Holding Still For as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall is one of my favorite books; it has multiple protagonists and one of them is a trans man. I think it is one of the truest representations of what I would consider to be my communities and life experiences that exist in print. T Cooper’s Some of the Parts and Felicia Luna Lemus’ Like Son are also both spectacular.
Sassafras Lowrey: Lynn Breedlove – Godspeed, Leslie Feinberg – Stone Butch Blues, Taste This – Boys Like Her, Kate Bornstein/Caitlin Sullivan – Nearly Roadkill.
AJ Bryce: My dance with transgender literature was born from the performance scene, so many of my favorite works lie in the pages of zines, spiral-bound notebooks, and fragile pieces of napkin. Queer it Down a Little, by Kyle Shaugnessy, is a brilliant poem about standing up in the face of society’s many LGBTQ phobias. Sometimes maybe love poems, a zine by Jamez Terry (alias Vermicious Knid), offers whimsical thought on love and relationships, while any zine produced by Red Durkin that I’ve managed to hold onto has provided on the spot visual and comical entertainment to groups and audiences throughout years of travel with me on the road. I’m also proud to include Seasonal Velocities by Ryka Aoki in the group of favorites. Ryka’s work has been a wealth of inspiration for me since we met years ago. I have watched many of those very words push waves through audiences across this country.
Morty Diamond: I’m currently reading THE COLLECTION – edited by Tom Leger and Riley MacCleod, and loving it! Not to blow my own horn, but my two anthologies are pretty amazing. I’m a huge fan of Julia Serano and Cooper Lee Bombardier. Currently reading the memoir of Joy Ladin and it is so finely crafted.
Elliott DeLine: Stone Butch Blues. I also really enjoyed a lot of Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities. But no trans writers should take this personally, because I honestly haven’t read much trans fiction. I just started. I used to be kind of afraid, after a bad experience in a class that lead to an identity crisis…but that’s another story.
Ryka Aoki: I hesitate a bit with this question. To be honest, I wonder. Was Radclyffe Hall trans? George Eliot? Oscar Wilde? Was Billy Tipton trans? What about Harper Lee or Djuna Barnes? We can’t know.
I say this not to insinuate or imply, but to point out that there is so much trans history and achievement that has been appropriated by and subsumed within other classifications. Not all of this was intentional; gender vocabulary is relatively new. Still, without even the rudiments of a personal language or community, I wonder what would have happened to me if I had been born just a few years earlier. Would I have been claimed by gay writers? Asian writers? Or would I have given up completely? As a lesbian trans woman I would have had no connection to either gay men (not into men), or lesbians (who would see me as some variant of straight male), and would be confusing to and confused by heterosexual expectation in my relations with straight women―Asian or not (I know this from experience).
Transgender literature as a named field is in its infancy, and as we claim our own as our own, I feel our best is yet to come. So I am simply happy right now that there are works of transgender literature, that trans people and our allies have created these spaces and places for us to publish, contribute, find each other, and share.
What definition of trans literature do you see currently functioning in the writing world—an authorship or content-based definition? Would you like to see that change, and if so, how?
Tom Léger: Most people writing about trans people are writing memoirs, and most of them are very poorly written. Memoir, as a genre, has been terribly abused by trans people as a way to record our body changes in print, and it’s not only boring for the reader I find it to be kind of vulgar.
The truth is that it is extremely difficult to become a good writer as a trans person because the process of learning to write has so much to do with workshopping and putting your work in front of an audience and learning from that feedback. As a trans writer, your audience is very likely to be people who have never heard of a trans person before, and you can get positive feedback on real junk because of the novel content.
I think the way we change that is complicated but I think it begins with raising our standards for trans writers to be on par with what we would expect from any good writers. No one ever died because they didn’t get their crappy book reviewed. There are a lot of trans writers doing good work out there but they are drowned out by the Chaz Bonos and the rest of the hacks who are willing to chum the waters with their own sex change operations.
Sassafras Lowrey: I think that there is an increased push towards defining trans literature around content as opposed to authorship. There are pros of this, particularly in terms of increasing the amount of representation trans characters and themes receive across genres. However, I’m a little old school sometimes and I think there is a particular sort of power and strength and legitimacy to a story that comes only when as trans people we write about our lives and our worlds.
AJ Bryce: A few weeks ago I might have said an authorship, since I spend most of my time connecting with and promoting artists within the trans community, but I’ve been doing a bit of research lately and have noticed that a large number of texts being defined as trans literature are resource-based. Books based on studies and statistics. A handful of them are directed towards setting up resources and creating equal opportunities for members of our community. And even though the truth is that there’s a wealth of trans authorship happening out there, so few are being adequately recognized.
I would absolutely like to see that change. Who better to contribute to trans literature than trans authors themselves? Far too long have our stories been subject to sensationalizing and media twists, or wrapped up in statistics and medical diagnostic “theories.” While other presses may question whether the genders of trans authors may feel like a liability to their bottom line, we question why this resource has been left untapped for so long? And why, when I know so many brilliant and talented writers and authors, are there so few actually being represented and accessible to the general public?
Morty Diamond: Well, I’m not sure exactly if there is a solid definition that is being used. It’s interesting that at the moment trans lit and its definition seems to be up in the air. I do like to focus on trans lit being written by trans people and I don’t think the work has to focus around a trans character.
Elliott DeLine: A content-based definition—and sometimes the author happens to be trans. I’d like to see more fiction about transgender experiences by transgender people. Memoirs and creative nonfiction interest me as well, but it’s going to have to adapt and defy expectations. I’d also like to see a world in which trans people are better represented in the artistic fields in general, doing whatever they please. It doesn’t always have to be about gender.
Ryka Aoki: I don’t always want to be a teacher to lovers or have to battle authenticity with other women. I don’t mind being seen as a trans woman. After all, I am what I am.
But not many people can casually date a trans woman and get past the novelty aspect. And even a marginally successful transwoman has the obligations of a role model to the community.
Trans literature is the same way. Readers expect a certain type of content from a certain type of author. Non-trans people want details and confession. Trans readers expect authenticity and faithfulness to the political cause. All this gets in the way of telling a great story. However, I think this is already changing because the more trans writers there are, the less the novelty and the harder it is to contain them under a single banner. Hopefully, soon so many trans women will be out and about that our identities will become passé, and I can muck through my romantic and professional entanglements with my very own personal feet of clay.
Why is transgender literature important to you?
Tom Léger: Literature is a high-fidelity recording of our culture. I’ve been making trans culture, in theater and in other ways, for nearly ten years and I have seen how much of our lives is lost in time. I think one of the most magical things for me, as a reader, about Sarah Schulman’s novels is that they record what it was like to be a lesbian in the East Village in the 80s. And they do that in a way that no academic paper or history book could ever do. We are so lucky to have those novels—to me they are really the Dead Sea Scrolls of queerness. And as trans people we have very very few examples of this.
Sassafras Lowrey: Transgender literature is extremely important to me because I believe that there is an immense power in seeing your life and experiences represented in books. Without the increasing body of transgender literature, many of us continue to experience the feeling that the complexity and nuances of our world are not represented in the books that we read.
AJ Bryce: Some of the most amazing people I know are trans writers, and I want to be a part of giving others access to the wealth of creativity that I, and so many others around me, are benefiting from.
Morty Diamond: Well, it’s important because it is my life! Ask a gay man or a lesbian why lit from their community is important and I’m sure you’ll get the same reply. Art helps us live! It helps us understand each other and the world around us. I have read lit by trans people that has changed me completely. I want to make sure trans people are around for the next 1,000 years (and then some) and to do that we need to make sure our voices are not lost. We need to hear each other and we need the world to hear us.
Elliott DeLine: Because we get to write it: not doctors, not academics, not people who simply feel adding a “transgender” character would be a shocking plot twist. I think words are the most powerful political tool for transgender people. So much of what we want to change in society is tied to language in a very fundamental way.
Ryka Aoki: Because I write it, silly! Literature is important to me. Also: see all my other answers.
How do you see your work fitting (or not fitting) in with trans literature?
Tom Léger: Riley MacLeod and I have been collaborators since we both came out as trans—about ten years now—and we were really in the first generation of trans men in NYC who came out and chose to stay out as trans in the queer community, making trans events and trans theater and trans films and trans parties, etc. For me, my work was trans because my community was trans. I could have chosen another life, to be in the closet/stealth and my work would reflect that. In the end it’s all about community because that determines who your audience is. Jonathan Franzen’s writing for his community, too, but his community is white liberal straight people.
Sassafras Lowrey: I’m not sure that there is a strong enough body of trans literature at this point for my (or anyone else’s) work to really fit or not fit. I see the genre of trans literature being in its infancy in many ways. This of course has its challenges, but it’s also incredibly freeing and provides quite an opportunity for authors to stretch the limits of their craft to get the immense diversity of trans communities represented on the page.
AJ Bryce: I don’t see Trans Genre Press’s goal as one to fit in or not fit in, but more to broaden the scope of what people recognize as trans literature. Can trans literature look like a cook book? Or an illustrated DIY guide to traveling the east coast arts scene? Can it offer more than a narrative, or a statistic, and empower this and the next generation of artists and activists to be the creators of their own cultural movements? You bet it can.
Morty Diamond: My work is focused around publishing trans/gq/gv/intersex writers (and artists). I really haven’t published much of my own lit because I don’t know if I’m ready to take that step. I am very content right now interviewing trans/gq/gqv/intersex artists and writers and listening to their histories. What I want is for there to be a vast oral history of these people so years later people can’t say, “Oh those people didn’t exist, or didn’t make good work.” I am doing it one interview at a time. I’m up to about 40. But think about how many more I have to go!! In the next few months I am going to have to reevaluate how I am producing this project. I want to recreate the project to become more than just my interviews. I’m fleshing all that out now.
Elliott DeLine: I see Refuse and my other earlier published work as sort of bumping elbows with a lot of what is considered transgender literature. It sounds egotistical, but I think it is edgy in a different way than a lot of transgender stuff I’ve read. I think it’s uncomfortable for a lot of cis as well as trans people to read. I’m not ashamed of that, because I think it was a voice that is legitimate and needed to be heard. But I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m thrilled about being controversial. I get very uncomfortable realizing there are people I’ve upset. A lot of my work has been about depression and suicidal [ideation]—and I mock the term in Refuse, but I think my greatest focus has been “internalized oppression.” I think my writing is going in a direction where I’d like to explore the source of that. Where are these hateful voices coming from? What’s the bigger picture? Who benefits from trans people hating themselves and each other, and being paralyzed by depression and apathy? What would change if we didn’t feel that sense of isolation?
Ryka Aoki: As a trans writer, I create trans literature, so trans literature fits around me. Whatever I do is trans literature. Now, as far as the arbiters of a trans canon or guardians of trans subjects go, well, bless their hearts.
What challenges do you see trans writers facing in the writing world? What challenges do you face? Any suggestions to address those issues?
Tom Léger: I think training is a major hurdle for trans people because becoming a really good writer takes many years of showing your work to many readers and we are still early in the process of training quality readers to recognize trans work and help improve it. MFA programs are never going to be the answer to creating good work, but as an example, it is extremely difficult to be a trans writer in an MFA program, but not because of discrimination. On the contrary, trans work that is very mundane gets through MFA programs completely unchallenged because of the liberal guilt that is running those programs. In my own experience of getting an MFA, it was very difficult getting critical feedback on my work because the professors and my fellow students were so stunned by the trans content that they couldn’t see the form.
Then the second major obstacle we face is that the people in charge of the platforms—publishers, festival programmers, etc., also have the same problem with dumb liberal guilt and tend to not be able to critically challenge trans people’s work in meaningful ways. So, instead, they accept the most pedestrian films and articles and memoirs because they know they should support trans people but are unable or unwilling to really ask for a quality product.
So, of course trans writers have the same housing, employment, and discrimination issues as all trans people do, but in fact I think our biggest problem as artists—and this includes filmmakers, musicians, photographers, writers—is that we are coddled and not asked to really evolve.
Sassafras Lowrey: I think that one of the main challenges I face as a transgender writer that is certainly not unique to me has been around isolation and representation. The field of transgender literature while growing is still very small. I know that with my upcoming novel Roving Pack (to be released autumn 2012), I had a lot of interest from indie presses in the book, especially after the success of my anthology Kicked Out. But the complicated queer genders that were happening were a bit of a turnoff for most folks. I think we’ve reached an exciting place where there is an understanding that transgender voices need to be included in literature, but we’re not yet at a point where there is a lot of room for folks really on the margins of gender. There is a pressure to write likable and understandable transgender characters who fall all over themselves explaining their “condition” to readers and essentially being good ambassadors of transness. In that way, I think there remains a significant challenge for trans writers to portray truly complicated genders that move beyond the “trapped in the wrong body” binary rooted transgender narrative. I write characters who live far beyond the gender binary which can be destabilizing for folks whose perceptions of gender are not so fluid, yet that’s the world I’m from and the kind of characters I feel most drawn to.
AJ Bryce: Many Trans writers I know are in the process of self-publishing right now because they don’t feel like there’s anywhere to turn for support. The problem, and I’m sure most of them would agree, is that publishing a book is a massive undertaking and having a completed manuscript is only the beginning of getting your work out there. Because I know how much work it takes, I highly respect the writers who choose self-publication as a path. That being said, I’m happy to see the shift happening now, where through the hard work and dedication of folks here at Trans Genre Press, as well as NY-based Topside Press, more trans writers will find that there is support for their work, and they don’t have to go at it alone.
All of them. I face all of my challenges. Publishing is all about facing challenges, meeting deadlines and making decisions. I think the best way to face those challenges is by building bridges and sharing resources with other communities, critically thinking about what it is our writers actually need from our press, and getting the message out to their readers so that they can finally benefit from the writers’ work.
Morty Diamond: I think the publishing industry has totally shunned trans lit and it’s such a shame. When I was shopping my last anthology around all I heard was “nobody reads the work of trans writers other than trans people.” I know that to be false, but the industry seems to know what it’s doing, they think they know “what the people want.” It is an industry, so…that’s not going to change. Trans writers need more space to cut their teeth, to practice and make themselves better writers. How can you do that when nobody wants to publish you? We need to start publishing our own work! Topside Press and Trans Genre Press are two new presses started by trans people who had enough from the literary elite. And we need more! We need to take our work seriously and hold ourselves to a high standard so there is growth and movement. Along with publishing our own work, we need to support trans writers by buying their books, chapbooks, graphic novels, etc. -
Elliott DeLine: Language. Not every reader knows what terms mean. You could have a reader well into a story thinking a trans man is a MTF because the larger society doesn’t know the proper way to speak about us. As a writer, I can’t give a trans 101 lecture at the beginning of every piece. It’s a real challenge to communicate who a character is without readers piling their own gender-based assumptions onto them. But…I think this has pushed me to really improve as a writer. It’s easy for a cisgender character to be “just some guy/girl” in a reader’s imagination. With trans characters, there’s an opportunity to develop a character in a very distinct way—and call attention to gender based assumptions in general. I think it makes you better at creating characters in general.
Ryka Aoki: No matter how much you profess to like the blues—if you see it as a subject to contextualize and study, you will miss something essential. If you cannot enjoy a tasty meal at an Ethiopian restaurant because the cook is not making authentic Ethiopian dishes, then you missed something important. A blues song is music.
Ethiopian cooking is food.
And trans writers write.
If I tell a funny story, I want the reader to laugh because it’s funny, not to show the reader an example of transgender humor. If I speak of outrage, I do this to give the reader personal outrage, not to add to a database of issues that trans people find infuriating. I would like my work to be mulled over and perhaps inform the reader about hir own life, not to simply satisfy the reader’s curiosity or need to learn about (or help/empathize/sympathize with) either a separate species of sentient organisms or irredeemably broken human beings.
In terms of suggestions, the medical diagnosis, which helps us in so many ways, might be working against our writers. Portraying trans people as sick or as victims undercuts the authority of our voices. It’s fine when our work reinforces our status as confessors, victims, survivors, or psychopaths. But underneath it all is the suspicion that somehow, underneath all of this, we’re not well. Yes, we venerate writers whose genius drives them to madness, but it is a special kind of individual, touched-by-god, madness—not a defect or perversion.
If readers see me not as a person, not as a writer, but as a victim, patient, or survivor, then what I say will be thought of, and taken as symptoms specific to that condition. I think of the Rosenhan Experiment, “On being sane in insane places,” where mentally sound people were admitted to mental institutions. Suddenly everything they did was viewed in a pathological context. Most striking, writing became “writing behavior,” and evidence of psychosis. When finally discharged from the mental hospitals, these healthy individuals had to sign papers that stated they were “in remission.”
Look, if people think you’re a nutjob, you stand a very small chance of convincing them of anything. This is just a thought, but perhaps we need to ditch the mental diagnosis. I understand how many of us depend on a medical diagnosis for our health care. I do. However, if we can reclassify transsexualism as a physical, rather than a mental illness, maybe something treatable the way anemia is treated with iron, perhaps that would help trans writers be seen not only as brave or honest, but as hard-working, dedicated, talented, and sometimes touched by genius.
What would you like to see happening in transgender literature five years from now? Ten?
Tom Léger: I would like to see people writing really good books. And I would like to see readers picking really good books.
Sassafras Lowrey: In the next five to ten years I would love to see transgender literature continue to grow and expand. I would like to see more transgender authors from a diversity of experiences have books on the shelf and become part of these conversations. I very much look forward to a time when trans and genderqueer folks can find representations of their lives and communities in the pages of books written by and for other trans and genderqueer people.
AJ Bryce: 5 years? 90% of transgender literature (authorship) on the bookshelf in sections not titled “transgender literature,” “psychology,” or “sociology” (in other words, trans writers found in the arts & crafts section, car mechanics, manga, young adult fiction, children’s stories, etc). 10 years (or sooner)? Transgender literature accessible in public and private schools (preschool through PhD).
Morty Diamond: More books, more readings, more work coming from the various trans communities that is strong, well-crafted and worth reading. More support of trans writers from within the trans communities.
Elliott DeLine: I think it would make a pretty great college course. Transgender Literature. Maybe even a minor.
I want to see trans writers become more accessible outside of academia, too. I want to see us create smart, pop culture literature…as the culture becomes more aware of us (which is happening, quickly) I think we need to take the reins over our artistic representation. Otherwise others will do it for us, and I don’t think it’ll be pretty. Our representations have to be bolder and more memorable than the stereotypical ones we’ve already seen starting to emerge.
Ryka Aoki: Seriously—better and better stories. Then? A trans poet laureate. A trans Pulitzer Prizewinner. A trans Booker Prizewinner. A trans Macarthur Fellow. A trans JK Rowling. A trans Noam Chomsky. A trans Adrienne Rich. A trans Anne Lamott. A trans Cornel West. A trans Stephen Sondheim.
I’m dropping names not in terms of style or content, but in terms of stature and place within our society. Imagine, a trans Oprah, running an incredibly influential book club where hir opinion sends waves throughout the entire publishing industry!
I’d like to see a trans keynote at the AWP conference—not for a writer of a “trans narrative” but a novel about a shipwreck in Somalia with talking ocelots and a secret cache of Cuban cigars. Ultimately I want to see trans experiences recognized not as pathologies, but as expressions of human experiences, struggles, insights, and dreams.
BTW, I wish this for all communities, not just trans people. We should all feel included as contributing members to the grand human narrative.
Do you write about trans characters? When you write about them, do you write for a cis or trans audience?
Tom Léger: I write for a queer audience, primarily, but I also know for a fact that the audiences for whom the content is ostensibly foreign too have no trouble “getting” it. Lorraine Hansberry didn’t pander to white audiences but we all still “get” A Raisin in the Sun. I get very sad when I see trans writers make assumptions that their audiences aren’t trans and aren’t going to get it, it is very alienating to me.
Sassafras Lowrey: I almost exclusively write trans and genderqueer characters. I identify very strongly as being a queer writer, and see my fiction work as being explicitly for my community. I know there are straight readers who like and identify with my characters and stories which is great, the stories just aren’t explicitly for them in that I don’t hold readers’ hands through the basics of trans community terminology and issues, I assume a base level of exposure to these conversations because I’m writing for my community.
Elliott DeLine: I do. I try to keep in mind both audiences, but pander to neither.
Ryka Aoki: In a way, all my characters are trans, since they come from me. As for audience, I used to say I wrote for everyone, but I am appreciating every day that although—yes, I think my stories and poems speak to the human in everyone—there is something special and personal in hearing other trans people feel a connection with my work. It kind of affirms my faith in my own journey\that, just like everyone else, I can take adversity and make it a gift.
But although I write for people, I don’t write to them. Again, I hope there is enough humanity in my stories that when I trust others to follow, they can. But if I write specifically to them, then I am not being faithful to the task of addressing the world as I see it.
Do you connect your literary work to a social justice and/or spiritual struggle? If yes, how so?
Tom Léger: All good art is in pursuit of transformative social justice. That said, any author fooling themselves into thinking their work is revolutionary in itself is often doing a disservice to their readers.
First of all, while the process of writing may in fact be a healing or spiritual act for the writer, unless it is their diary, the writer’s feelings are not important. The work needs to ultimately serve the reader, otherwise you’re not going to have very many readers for long.
The other thing about really good writing or art is that it fills a person up with hope and energy and excitement and that is how change happens. I think literature is part of a cultural fabric that invigorates trans communities—we need to be out on the streets fighting for justice and art is the thing that reminds us of what we are fighting for.
Sassafras Lowrey: Absolutely. I am a community organizer and social justice activist and my writing is an extension of that. I see my literary work as being intimately tied to my social justice work both in terms of the work itself—in the broadest sense that I see writing as a political act—but also in the sense that I aspire to write characters who are themselves complicated and intersectional, who grapple with complicated themes about belonging, homelessness, and multiple forms of oppression. Essentially, I write the trans characters and world that I came out into over a decade ago, a world steeped in activism and resistance. Because that is the only trans world I’ve ever known, I can’t imagine my literary work being disconnected from that.
AJ Bryce: I think that the literary work you can expect to see coming out of Trans Genre Press will encompass one, if not both, of those connections. It is no secret that many, if not most, in our community struggle to find social justice. In Seasonal Velocities, for example, readers stare many of these issues in the face with Ryka as she crafts stories around her experiences with racism, sexism, trans and homo phobia, and then turns around and offers readers inspiration, and insight on how to rise above their own struggles.
As far as a connection to a spiritual struggle? I’m confident that people will not only appreciate the connections they may find to our artists and writers spiritual struggles, but also the many moments of enlightenment that exist within their stories. Spirituality means a lot of different things to different people, and we definitely hope to offer our readers a variety of opportunities to further explore those topics.
Elliott DeLine: Definitely. I think most of my writing draws attention to social injustices. I don’t set out saying “I am writing this story to raise awareness about _____.” But I’m glad when that happens as a side effect. I think by just sharing everyday trans experiences, you open people’s eyes to stuff they never thought about. You take what was just an abstract concept for many people, and you make it human.
My writing, especially Refuse, is in conversation with the trans community. That’s not all it is, but that’s a big part of it. It’s asking us to look at the way we treat each other. It’s asking what’s really important.
Spiritually? I believe writing is my version of going to confession. It’s all gotta go somewhere…
Ryka Aoki: Yes. If I weren’t struggling in some way with the world, there would be no need to write. Of course, I take pride in my craft and a job well done. I love it when a reader takes something I say and runs with it. And I am never more comfortable in front of people than I am with my writing and a podium.
But in my heart I would much rather read a story than write one. I would much rather hear and share an amazing poem with my partner than write one by myself. But sometimes, I am bopping around my life, and there is just this void. The words have to come together not like that, but like this. Someone needs to say this. Why can’t the story have this character, and why can’t she progress in this way? So I write.
Do you feel that your work is coherent within the trans community? How about outside of it?
Tom Léger: Yes, both. I really haven’t found that non-trans people have a hard time understanding things, anymore than I have a hard time reading stories about things I am not an expert in, in, say, the New York Times.
Sassafras Lowrey: My fiction work is written explicitly for a trans and queer audience. I write intentionally to be legible in those worlds. For example, as a general rule I don’t spend time doing trans terminology 101, or explaining non-binary pronouns. The worlds that I create, and the way that my characters talk and inhabit their bodies directly corresponds to my own experiences and those of the trans world I live in. I think that my work is legible to non-trans audiences, but someone without a connection to the queer community isn’t going to have their hand held through the novel. I expect that my readers have some basic level of familiarity with trans people and communities; they will, for a really concrete example need to keep up with ze/hir, hy/hys or they/them pronouns often used by my characters.
AJ Bryce: I feel that as the Director of Trans Genre Press, it is absolutely a goal for our body of work to be coherent within and outside of the trans community. A good writer of any background can push the boundaries between multiple cultures. Trans Genre Press hopes to be a medium that connects trans writers to many different communities that will best benefit from their work.
Elliott DeLine: For the most part. I strive for that. I try to avoid pandering to either, but I definitely aim to be understood. I try to keep language simple.
Ryka Aoki: It better be! Gosh, if I could just be incoherent, it would be so much easier. Hmm… “Bushido actually Sailboat. Flannel gazing; through through are you is?” Nope. I think I’ll stick with coherent. *giggle*
III. Conclusions, Resources, and a Yahoo Group
“Three umpires are sitting around over a beer, and one says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way they are.’ Another says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ‘em the way I see em.’ The third says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothing until I call ‘em.’ ”
So it seems to be with those of us most invested in the definition of transgender literature—we don’t exactly agree.
But, TC also said:
“Maybe there is trans literature already, because someone started using the phrase and it’s being applied to something, somewhere . . . The best that can come from that, as far as I can tell, is that trans/genderqueer folks can find each other better. And that trans/gq youth can find role models, mentors, confidants, and friends. That the field will grow larger, not just a new kind of limiting.”
Three cheers and a yahoo group to that.
(P.S.- After you’ve joined the yahoo group, please check out Topside Press’s manuscript contest, as well as Morty Diamond’s interviews with participants Tom Leger, Sassafras Lowrey, and Ryka Aoki, along with many other trans/gender variant artists, writers, and performers, online at Bodies of Work Magazine.)
Tom Léger is an essayist, dramatic writer and publisher. He lives in New York City.
Sassafras Lowrey is an internationally award-winning storyteller, author, artist, and educator. Sassafras is the editor of the two-time American Library Association honored, and Lambda Literary Finalist Kicked Out anthology (www.KickedOutAnthology.com) which brought together the voices of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth. Hir prose has been included in numerous anthologies and magazines and Sassafras regularly lectures and facilitates LGBTQ storytelling workshops at colleges and conferences across the country. Sassafras’ debut novel Roving Pack (www.RovingPack.com) will be released October 2012, an excerpt of which earned hir an Honorable Mention in the 2011 Astrea Lesbian Writers Fund. Sassafras is currently editing Leather Ever After, an anthology of BDSM fairy tale retellings. Sassafras lives in Brooklyn with hir family. To learn more about Sassafras and hir work, visit www.SassafrasLowrey.com
Morty Diamond is a trans writer and artist currently living in Oakland, CA. Morty is the editor/curator of BODIES OF WORK MAGAZINE, a project consisting of interviews with trans/gender variant artists and writers. Please go to http://bodiesofworkmag.com for more information. He has published two anthologies of trans/gender variant literature, From the Inside Out, FTM and Beyond (Manic D Press) and Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love and Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary (Manic D Press). Morty is currently finishing his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at UC Berkeley.
Elliott DeLine is a 23 year old writer from Syracuse, NY. He published his debut novel Refuse in April 2011. His work has been published in the NY Times, and he is a guest writer for the Original Plumbing magazine website. His short story “Dean and Teddy” will be featured in the Topside Press anthology The Collection, available in October 2012. He is an English major in his senior year at Syracuse University.
A.J. Bryce is the director of Trans Genre Press, and is dedicated to publishing the radically creative and beautiful art and writings of the Transgender community. Having spent the past 5 years touring the country and connecting with empowering trans artists and writers, Bryce is confident that Trans Genre Press will offer its readers a new and unique perspective into not only the creative identities of our community, but into their own identities and communities as well.
Ryka Aoki is a writer, performer, and educator who has been honored by the California State Senate for her “extraordinary commitment to free speech and artistic expression, as well as the visibility and well-being of Transgender people.” Ryka is also head instructor of Supernova Martial Arts, whose mission is to empower LGBT youth through martial arts and self-defense.
Ryka was the inaugural performer for San Francisco’s first ever Transgender Stage at San Francisco Pride 2005, and has performed in venues including the San Francisco Pride Main Stage, the Columbus National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival, the National Queer Arts Festival, Ladyfest South, Atlanta Pride, UCLA’s OutCRY, Santa Cruz Pride, and Emory University’s Pride Week. Ryka was keynote speaker at UC Santa Barbara’s 2005 Pride Week, GenderFusions 2008 at Columbia College, UW Madison’s Trans Awareness Week 2009, the 2010 Transaction Week and UC Davis, and the 2010 QPOC Conference at UC Riverside.
Ryka appears in the recent documentaries “Diagnosing Difference” and “Riot Acts” as well as the anthologies Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (Seal Press 2010), Transfeminist Perspectives (Temple University 2012), and The Collection (Topside Press, forthcoming). Her long poem, Sometimes Too Hot the Eye of Heaven Shines won RADAR Productions’ 2010 Eli Coppola Chapbook Contest, and her first full-length volume, Seasonal Velocities, was released this year by Trans Genre Press. She is a professor of English at Santa Monica College.