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.
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 past the white middleclass comfort zone you often find in trans biographies. The seven short stories in Portland Diary feel profoundly resonant – President Trump is briefly referenced in the entertaining but withering Mansion – but Berrout is also able to conjure a tender remoteness from current affairs when needed, most clearly in the sci-fi finale of Waiting Room.
I would like to start with Waiting Room as the prose is so hauntingly affecting. The scenario, so ideal for a drama, is minimalist and stripped back, as a trans woman and a cyborg female become aware of each other's presence in a waiting room, at a cosmetic surgeon's clinic. They're both looking for facial/voice adjustments that will allow them to better express their individuality and escape their pre-programmed destinies. They open up to each other, as a disgusted observer gets up and leaves. The trans woman's Hispanic identity elicits casual racism from the cyborg but mutual apprehension and 'programming' increasingly give way to tender dialogue and affection. The ethnically white, physically perfect cyborg with the ideal name – "Of course, she was a Caitlyn" – then shifts into the kind of reflections that perhaps only a cyborg could give, existing as she does in the borderlands of humanity. Her final monologue on spiritual oneness and the abandonment of trivial antagonisms left me silently shaken, while thinking of Gloria Anzaldua's spiritual take on trans/queer activism (and its opponents) by taking a step back to realize a bigger picture:
"There were countless voices. Each of us a singular voice calling out from the darkness. Each of us with distinct emotions, temperaments, and traumas; each of us powerful and mysterious even to one another. Those minutes were enough to fill a lifetime. There we lived among family – building a new world, sharing our stories, making art, arguing as families do, and learning from each other. Then it was over. But the meeting changed each of us . . . I realize there is so much more beyond myself . . . More, more, always there is more. And someday soon all of us will join together, and no one will ever again suffer as we have."
In her other, more contemporary stories, Berrout does engage with the political, conjuring a believably narrow-minded activist Jennifer Pretzel in Mansion, whose goal as part of the transgender 'community' is to ensure transgender representation in the military. It's a depiction which will chime within trans/queer communities of colour, on how race and discrimination are purposefully marginalized by white, middleclass concerns. The faintly romantic tale Valeria explores similar themes in relation to the prison industrial complex in the U.S.A, its systematic exploitation, cruelty and racism under the spotlight as a trans woman is faced with the dilemma: join her activist partner and confront the traumatic horrors of racialized mass incarceration, or turn away and choose the middleclass life. The narrative doesn't try to sermonize or present easy choices, though the humanity of Berrout's writing is never in doubt.
The same, though, could be said about the stories overall. In a collection spanning sci-fi and sex, gentle romance and frustrated activism, the skill and passion of its writer, Jamie Berrout, I found genuinely startling. Berrout's storytelling draws you in and will shake you and move you, and she deserves to be known not only as one of the most gifted fiction writers of trans identity out there today, but as a creator of some of the most moving prose you will read from any writer anywhere.
(For more information on Jamie Berrout's works and collaborations, visit her website)