Books

With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.

Paris Lees: What it feels like for a girl

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What it feels like for a girl by Paris Lees

UK: Penguin Random House, 2021

Trans memoirs today are a world away from the 20th century genre that gave us the Born In The Wrong Body narrative and a conforming middle-class, middle-aged respectability, shorn of incriminating evidence to the contrary. Let’s not be too judgemental: while today, there is transphobia, back then there wasn’t even a trans movement in the UK to attract the phobia. Isolated, bewildered and afraid, the trans people of the past appear to have made their way past medical pathologies, shaming families and freak-show news coverage to attain the Holy Grail of a bearable existence while the famous few pleaded their normality (though of some of these things, I’m uncertain how much has really changed).

Today, though, we have trans media figures who write reflections with humour, sassiness, and a discernibly greater candour, partly because they can afford to. With Paris Lees’s memoir What it feels like for a girl (2021), the writing is, in addition, exuberantly the hallmark of a wonderful writer taking risks. This is partly with the deft handling of the dark subject matter, including in relation to the violence she encounters and the sex, drugs, and disco life that increasingly gives her an escape during adolescence from hometown homogeneity and drudgery. Yet the risk-taking is also shaped by an authorial voice in a regional, Hucknell (or ‘ucknell’) accent that makes the text a gritty, funny, unsentimental trans-genre story, blurring bio with Irvine Welsh storytelling at its best. Seemingly toying with a readership that might expect transness to explicitly be at the heart of everything, Lees personalizes her story away from such a convention as well as the current media’s misconceived idea of some urban ‘gender ideology.’ Reminiscent especially of Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness (2014), What it feels like for a girl captures in flecks of colour the original nebulous feeling of Otherness of a young trans person in an economically impoverished suburbia. Like Mock, Lees becomes aware of her transness not by ideology but through instinct and a gravitation to those who will understand. As with Mock’s testimony, Lees reveals how being trans is first and foremost an awkward, individual awakening over many years, even as it reflects the surrounding environment. But because of its uniqueness, Lees’s account, like Mock’s, is also distinctly her own.

The opening sets the tone for this approach, the author referring to her former name and namesake, the Romantic poet Byron who apparently comes from the area:

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An androgynous orgasm: Fashion Beast by Alan Moore

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An androgynous orgasm: Fashion Beast by Alan Moore The images of this story become like memories of another life, maybe what's to come, Gina making do in a fascist state and looking good in spite of everything, a version of me, a cosmic cousin. Like the time I wrote about Cloud City in a film from my childhood, the cosmos conjures certain plac...
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The Book of Queer Prophets, curated by Ruth Hunt

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 The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion The historically fraught relationship between Abrahamic religions and LGBT+ identities provides the backdrop to The Book of Queer Prophets, a collection of twenty-four meditations by public figures who identify as both religious and LGBT+. The book's curator, the forme...
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Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

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Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi The author, Akwaeke Emezi, calls herself trans but also Ogbanje, a spirit depicted in Igbo culture as inhabiting a newborn baby soon to die, though possibly allowing it to live. These are dark conceptions already, embracing fatality and negotiating both intrusion and malevolence, and they contribute as themes to Emezi's ...
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The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

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The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein This may be one of the most important books on the 21st century state of the world, an analysis of the global socio-economics that makes sense of the chaos of post-9/11 Iraq, of the collapse of democracies of Latin America since the 1960s and 70s, and the democratic false dawns of Russia and South Africa since the ...
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Queer Two-Spirit Poetry: Fabian Romero

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I can't remember when I ordered Fabian Romero's chapbook*, sometime in September or October 2018. The investment made, the months went by, enthusiasm slow-cooking into defeat, guessing it had got lost in the mail. Then last week I found a soft white envelope in the post. Fabian Romero's chapbook, Mountains of a Different Kind, waiting for me. I rea...
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Transgender Venezuelan Poetry: Esdras Parra

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Transgender Venezuelan Poetry: the Collected Poems of Esdras Parra (2018) I've seen your dreams In the foliage of your eyes Opening in a horizon of ash Ready for death And the innocent flame That leaps from branch to branch Brings you the color of earth Which you should get used to Before the fog Grows within you (taken from the collection Este Sue...
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Gifted Transgender Writers: Jamie Berrout

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Portland Diary by Jamie Berrout I never use to read short stories, but I'm glad I found Portland Diary: Short Stories 2016 / 2017 by Jamie Berrout. As a transgender woman of colour, Berrout is able to go beyond the clichés of isolation and domesticity of cisgender appropriations (David Ebershoff's nauseating The Danish Girl, for example), but also ...
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Trauma Queen: a memoir by Lovemme Corazon

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Trauma Queen: a memoir by Lovemme Corazon There are times when it's right to judge a book by its cover. Trauma Queen (2013), the memoir of then-19-year old trans woman of colour Lovemme Corazon, has a beauty within its pages and on its surface cover that's simultaneously self-confident and obscure. As I gaze at the book's front image...
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Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain

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Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain As someone whose childhood was in the 1980s, I remember the decade with rose-tinted glasses: as a child in Wales, you knew that Thatcher(ism) was evil, and you heard about mass unemployment and factory closures – including in my home town with the closure of the local steel plant and coal mines – bu...
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The Other Slavery

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The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez My first feelings about the Native or First Nation Americans come in waves of visualizations. The names different tribes gave to the months: Geese Flying Moon; Strawberry Moon. They conjure up colours and movements come alive upon infinite midnight plains. The cruelty of European settlers intervenes. My reading ...
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Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble

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 Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble Should the Internet be regulated? It's a question I've never thought about, until recently, and the reading of this book. Here is my review of a book about a topic I can barely talk about without looking like those aged politicians trying to grill Mark Zuckerb...
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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir

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 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir The African voice, in a publishing world dominated by white, straight, and stale, is a precious one, especially on issues of empire and colonialism. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir serves as a guide for those wishing to go beyo...
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Queer and Trans Artists of Color Vol.2 by Nia King

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Queer and Trans Artists of Color Vol. 2 by Nia King The significance of this second volume of interviews is tangible in its dedication: 'to all the queer and trans people of color who are fighting displacement in the Bay Area right now and those who have already been displaced.' The American Dream is a hollow thing, a carrot on a fifty-foot rod: mo...
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Queer and Trans Artists of Color

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 Queer and Trans Artists of Color: interviews with Nia King As a collection featuring approximately ten transgender artists, as well as several other LGB artists of colour, these interviews provide a trove of valuable insight into the experience of trans and queer people outside the American mainstream. Conducted originally via podcast, they r...
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She Called Me Woman: Nigeria's Queer Women Speak

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 She Called Me Woman: Nigeria's Queer Women Speak Transgender narratives seldom emerge outside white, Western experience - at least if we're talking about mainstream publishing. African trans, I'm aware only of the occasional documentary, which is what makes this book so especially valuable. An edited collection of personal stories, gathered i...
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Excluded by Julia Serano

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Excluded by Julia Serano When she poetry-slams, the conviction and the eloquence Julia Serano possesses as a writer is there for all to see. Her style of fierce, funny, thoughtful insights is also present in Excluded (2013), arguably Serano's transgender manifesto, with a particular focus on issues of trans exclusion and communi...
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Janet Mock: Redefining Realness

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Redefining Realness by Janet Mock Transgender autobiographies are dominated by whiteness. There's no need to set out a list, suffice to say that since the trans memoir began with Lili Elbe's Man Into Woman (1931), publishers have sought out the safest, most marketable kind of representation of trans to a white, heteronormative majority. This makes ...
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Trap Door

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Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (MIT, 2017) We are living in a time of trans visibility. Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence. So begins Trap Door, a 400-page anthology of interviews, essays and reviews of the experiences of predominantly African-American and Latino transgender people in the US...
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On Sarah McBride and Tomorrow Will Be Different

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On Sarah McBride and Tomorrow Will Be Different Should trans people be visibly trans, or should they pass, and disappear into the gender binary? What about the role models, representing us in the media? Does it matter that they look so perfectly cis-gendered? These are some of my reflections as I read this week Tomorrow Will Be Different (2018), th...
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