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.

Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

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Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

In Tiny Pieces of Skull, the Lambda-award-winning novel woven around the lives of a network of trans women in the late 1970s, a twilight world is opened up to the reader of ‘street life and bar life’ on the margins of polite society. The magic that gleams from the darkness is proof of the paradox at the heart of the story: this is a bildungsroman, a tale of a formative, spiritual education, no less uplifting or poignant for the violence and unstable conditions the characters find themselves in. The protagonist, Annabelle, is no Victorian heroine à la Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot or Jane Austen, in spite of her own casual displays of a formal education that ought to have taken her along a more publicly legitimate pathway. Yet in embracing her transness, she has both liberated herself from an original destiny and condemned herself to an existence judged by law enforcers and clients as degenerate, and fair game.

              The theme of destiny, and its subversion, is announced early. On deciding to leave London for Chicago, Annabelle is accused by a friend of trying to “ignore history, to step outside it and start again … you regard yourself as some kind of totally free agent” (2015: 28). A familiar transgender crisis-point rears its head, so recognizable in the work of the trans writer and director Lana Wachowski: the protagonist decides on a defiant bid to embrace the truth, whatever the consequences, including to be consigned to some desert of the real – ironically, like Wachowski’s Matrix, the location is Chicago, though in the case of Kaveney’s novella more 1979 than the 1999/2199 in Wachowski’s cyberpunk story. Warned that the taking of her own proverbial red pill will end in tears, Annabelle replies, “But tears that are at last authentically mine, perhaps.”

              What transpires in Chicago is Annabelle’s re-constituting of herself within an ostensibly amoral world, less Bronte’s Jane Eyre than a sometimes menacing, Pinteresque setting. To one sceptical warning, she says, “Falsehood has become, if you like, my first name and my last … untrustworthy and unreliable … I am a thoroughly bad lot, at last, and I am really enjoying it.” Meant to cower in self-shame as a trans woman dependent on sex work and bar work, Annabelle defiantly appropriates the scarlet letter; she will not be ashamed, but instead take quiet pride in her friends and her survival as she makes a new life for herself. One result is a surreal comedy of contrasts, of a refined survivor and social ‘degenerate’ pragmatically making the best of her circumstances and options. At one point, she is described in an S&M double-act, Annabelle the good cop to her friend Natasha’s bad cop while a client squirms underneath them: “Annabelle had gathered that her role in all of this was to sit still well out of the way and look sinisterly uninvolved … Once the man had a blindfold on she used the opportunity to get on with reading Proust.” Later, and having been praised for her performance, Annabelle produces a pithy reply before marking “her place in Proust with a piece of discarded thong” (114).

              In spite of the wickedly amusing incongruity that frequently arises, there are some harrowing moments, and these provide the essential other side to the story’s lightness, with simmering violence waiting to erupt without warning. In one shocking, brilliantly realized scene, Annabelle finds herself trapped at the hands of a rapist, whom she escapes through quick-thinking trickery (90-95); the tragic story of the initially annoying Tiffany, meanwhile, is memorable because of what emerges from the general absence of pathos or self-pity, with Tiffany revealed gradually as silently suffering physical agony, along with an oppressive familial background that may drag her back into self-abnegation and invisibility. A strength of Tiny Pieces of Skull is the tense unpredictability at its heart: the trans female characters may separately be annoying, selfish, or simply unremarkable, but behind each of them is a survival story, and the absence of elaboration adds to their poignancy. As Tiny Pieces of Skull concludes in its final words with a broader message, “part of the point of feminism is that there are no minor characters” (179). Through this story, we are reminded not to make assumptions or judgements of such figures who have so little, and whose desire to be remains defiantly uncontained.

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'Prove you’re safe to be around’: a review of the reviews of Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice

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There is an audacity to Shon Faye’s book The Transgender Issue. It’s rooted in her refusal to give the UK’s national news media what it wants: an Infinity War requiring the trans person’s never-ending submission of reassurances, to concerns that realistically can never be satisfied. As the more indignant journalists betray through their reviews, Faye is correct to make this stand; one reviewer laments the lack of data in the debate (Goodwin, 2021), as if this leaves the ‘debate’ of whether trans people are a public danger unresolved. But this Kafkaesque task for transgender people – give me the statistical proof you’re safe to be around – encompasses the impossible-to-satisfy nature of the concerns and the demands for data. I imagine turning the tables on such an interrogation:

Me: Are you a predator?
Journalist: No.
Me: Prove it.

I am interested in this type of journalism, this genre of Kafkaesque interrogation, involving the UK legacy media’s use of its position to harass marginalized people in perpetuity, in this case transgender people. Within the genre is a spectrum, at one end the barely concealed contempt of some (Patterson of the Times), through the ingratiating pretence of those smiling a little too hard as they dress their bigotry as gentle concerns (O’Malley in the Evening Standard), to those sufficiently savvy and self-aware of the power dynamics at play to centre the trans writer and their concerns (Sturgis of the Guardian).

As with the books by Faye’s London-centred contemporaries CN Lester and Juliet Jacques, Transgender Issue emphasises, among various forms of institutional transphobia, the media abuse. Similar to Lester’s Trans Like Me, the introduction describes the press hounding of Lucy Meadows, a teacher whose transitioning in 2012 became a subject of ridicule for the Daily Mail’s columnist Richard Littlejohn, expressed while the photographers were parked outside Meadows's front door. Meadows’s subsequent suicide would see the Mail remove the article, but as Faye says, the withdrawal of the media’s harassment of trans people has transfigured into something new in the period of the GRA reform post-2017: “No longer something to be jeered at, we were instead something to be feared” (5).

Glaringly, the press reviews generally avoid addressing the oppressive media coverage that Faye devotes a considerable time critiquing. Christina Patterson’s article in the Times is especially risible, coming from a newspaper that as Faye says in the book, published over 300 largely hostile articles about trans people in 2020 alone, in the tradition of such headlines as ‘Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby’ (Times, 11.11.17). Perhaps unaware of her own paper’s voyeuristic obsession, Patterson describes trans people as the culprits for this focus, claiming, “In the past few years that less-than-1-percent, or people claiming to speak for them, seem to have made an awful lot of noise.” The review’s analysis of Faye’s book is typified by the eye-rolling summaries of some the major issues Faye goes to great length to detail. At one point Patterson says, “She thinks, for example, that prisons should be abolished. So should the police, because of their complicity with white supremacy … Oh, and she wants to abolish capitalism.” Patterson’s partisan take, in fact, is pretty clear throughout. Indicating the ‘Us and Them’ intention of the review is the title, ‘Which side are you on?’, before Patterson later introduces the gender-critical Helen Joyce – she whose book contextualizes trans women according to the discredited, fetishistic pathology of autogynophilia – with ‘And so thank goodness for Helen Joyce.’

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Punk Food, Junk Food: Portrayals of transgender apocalypse in the works of Travis Alabanza and Emma Frankland

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I include here the introduction to my chapter in the anthology Women and the Abuse of Power (Emerald Publishing, 2022). The anthology is the outcome of a conference I attended back in 2018, where my paper - very different to what it eventually became in this anthology - was one of several selected by the project's driving force and editor, Professor Helen Gavin of the University of Huddersfield. I will say that the timeline of this project (two years in the making, from when the project started properly in the autumn of 2019) and cost of the book (£65!) underscore the challenges and frustrations of working in academia: the difficulty of acting or responding quickly with a piece of work, in a way that's easy to disseminate to non-academic publics. Who buys books for £65? This is a shame, because the chapters in this book look amazing. Just as importantly, my chapter is on two brilliant trans artists, Travis Alabanza and Emma Frankland, whose performances have mesmerized me over recent years (Travis via their poetry readings and their play Burgerz, Emma through her plays Hearty and We Dig). How can trans people from a largely marginalized community access a £65 anthology to read about these amazing artists? Do I Youtube a reading of it? Is it illegal to make my chapter available online? So many questions, but in the meantime, here's the introduction to my chapter to give you a taste of what it's about:

Punk Mood, Junk Food: Portrayals of Transgender Apocalypse in the work of Travis Alabanza and Emma Frankland

The transgender figure is the siren of the apocalypse. So implies Slavoj Žižek and his cumulative analyses of the “moral vacuum ... of the apocalyptic times in which we live” (2011: 327), with the “ultimate difference, the ‘transcendental’ difference that grounds human identity itself” destabilized by the “sex-change operation” (2008: 28). It is a collapsing world similarly recognized by Camille Paglia with her warning of transgender identity as a harbinger of when “a civilization is starting to unravel” (2016: 4.20), and by JK Rowling who declares, ‘We’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced,’ a condition she claims to be encapsulated by the Presidency of Donald Trump, the Incel movement, and Trans Rights Activists (2020). Yet what of the transgender figure and how they view a crisis in gender? In the 2019 Edinburgh Festival, trans artists Emma Frankland and Travis Alabanza conveyed in their shows a transgender apocalypse from their distinct perspectives and experiences. Their respective productions Hearty and Burgerz, with their particular aesthetics and narratives, will be the focus of this chapter. Their siren calls via punk mood and junk food contribute to this essay’s refutation of the belief in the emergence of a transgender movement that destabilizes and damages society for the majority. The mode of cisgendered order apparently valorized and feared for by Žižek, Paglia, and Rowling, will be highlighted as more resilient than they credit it, and can in fact be viewed in its enduring hegemonic dominance as a significant cause of the violence enacted against transgender people in its many forms.

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Roz Kaveney - Selected Poems 2009-2021

Kaveney_Lemebel_Parra-homage From left, clockwise: Roz Kaveney, Pedro Lemebel, Esdras Parra

Roz Kaveney – Selected Poems 2009-2021: a review, via the work of Frankland, Parra and Lemebel

 

Note: In writing this analysis, I feel the precarity of the relationship between the trans person's poem and the trans reader, the risk of all kinds of misunderstandings and presumptions. Perhaps some day I'll meet Roz Kaveney and she'll say, 'Gina, you were miles off.' In the meantime ...

 

The imagining of the transgender figure in apocalyptic wastelands is seldom far from trans poetics, whether iEmma Frankland’s hypnotic cycles of fear and punk-infused transcendence in Hearty, or from South America, the poetry of the Venezuelan Esdras Parra or the genderqueer writing of Chilean Pedro Lemebel. In keeping with these highest forms of dystopian, genderfuck vistas is Roz Kaveney’s Selected Poems 2009-2021. To be clear, the first quarter of the collection explores “art, sex and love” through a shining, classical prism, but these give way to later pages involving death and desolation, alienation and tyranny. It is these latter sections that I want to celebrate here, as examples of trans texts that evoke both darkness and the light within that darkness.

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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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