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.
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:
The vicar sez Lord Byron worra bit of a gay boy an’ I had to bite ma tongue so I din’t burst out laughin’. Sez he worra right bogger. After we left, [Lees’s grandmother] Old Mother ‘ubbard guz, “He din’t mean what you’re thinkin’, duck. He meant he worra rogue. A ladies’ man. Someone wi’ loose morals.” I thought, OK, but they do say he were bisexual. An’ he were into that black magic. Serves ‘em right for naming’ me after ‘im, eh? I were born on the exact same day as ‘im, two hundred years later. We’re Capricorns. (3).
The opening captures a paradox at the heart of Lees’s narrative: a clash of high culture and low expectations within her community; of an awareness of something better beyond the drabness and violence of school and home, but also the absence of a discourse of ambition and identity that might liberate this sensitive child. The vulnerability is clear enough with a particularly gruesome episode early on of bullying, which leaves a pre-adolescent Lees bloodied and bruised first by school bullies and then by her bouncer father, wreaked upon the child for allowing themselves to be bullied. In a startling defiance of her father’s beating, the child responds with a precocious and portentous self-awareness, establishing she is and will become profoundly different to her father: ‘Kill me! But I’d rather die than be like you!’ (21).
As a memoir, Lees’s story covers the enfolding adolescent years that lead to sex work, and the discovery of a queer family that includes a trans woman, Lady Die. There is thwarted love, immersion into androgyny as the teenage Lees begins to make sense of herself, and finally the prison sentence for her coerced collaboration in the extortion of a client. There is also the kind of touching connection with her grandmother so often stripped by editors or documentary directors when depicting trans lives as existing on the margins. What it feels like for a girl poignantly captures the tensions between the sometimes violent proscriptions of a nuclear family and liberation within a queer one; there is Lady Die, but there is also the grandmother. The memoir ends as the author is about to leave for university with the intention of transitioning, but for all the changes, the Hucknell accent never leaves her, this working-class transgender girl who will become one of the most articulate U.K. trans voices of her 21st century generation.
With this voice, perhaps the greatest value of Lees’s testimony involves her spotlighting a transgender childhood without the necessary support from those who should have provided it. Almost as a case study, we see what happens when a child who might be trans is denied any knowledge or acceptance of this possibility, and who wanders in turn into a sometimes disturbingly dark world of sex work and/or underage sex with middle-age partners, in the desperate search for acceptance and self-knowledge where in the ‘normal’ world, none exists. One reads Lees’s book and thinks of the anti-trans, anti-LGBT+, and generally anti-sex-education movements pushing a puritan isolation on Internet-era children, demanding some mythic childhood innocence must be preserved through the imposition of ignorance, while all around the child the bullies and the desires, the dysphorias and the questions congregate or flow, and the child will seek to find answers anyway, one way or another.
In this significant way especially, What it feels like for a girl is a memoir to be celebrated and included in what Aren Aizura calls ‘the enormous groundswell of transgender cultural production in the 2010s – novels, poetry, experimental music, dance, experimental and feature film, and all kinds of other genres of self-expression’ (2018: 90). Lees’s work fits in this Transgender New Wave, her memoir with parallels to testimonies of a similar era by Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness (2014), Lovemme Corazon’s Trauma Queen (2013), and Tranny by Laura Jane Grace (2017) in the U.S. and especially in the U.K. Juliet Jacques’s tales of coming out in Manchester and Brighton in Trans: A Memoir (2015). Each of these Millennial accounts does something the memoirs of the past broadly elided, namely the uncompromising tackling of trans childhood and adolescence, a thing transphobic activists are attempting to quell or deny, but which are revealed here with vivid and often visceral effect. With thoughts of Mock and her similarly childhood-based testimony especially, which Mock accompanied by her follow-up, adult-based memoir Surpassing Certainty (2018), one hopes the similarly multi-faceted Lees also harnesses her obvious storytelling talent and provides us with the sequel, of life beyond ''ucknell,' where the dreams of the precocious child finally become realized.