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: