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.

Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland

Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland

​Reviewed 23/09/2016

How to categorize this story? It has moments of magical realism, as well as gritty darkness: bullying, racism, homophobia and rape. It's about a protagonist who becomes a prostitute and turns to gold, and whose sexual contact allows people to see heaven. It is only a novella, but has resonated with me since I first read it back in Cairo in 2007. It's also my favourite 'transgender' text, but is it even a transgender text?

Desiree is raised on the windswept Scottish islands of Orkney, a disturbing edge-of-the-world not dissimilar in location to the one in Iain Banks's own twisted take on transgender identity, The Wasp Factory. The isolation creates a kind of brutality and a desperate need for teenagers to fit in. At one point a young Desiree and his friend create a dress to help them float away from everything. A gang soon puts paid to that idea; Desiree loses his childhood friend forever, and wears her underwear to remember her by. It's that kind of story, where events trigger consequences and nothing seems innate.

Desiree's transgender identity is partly forced. After his own vindictive attempt at undermining a pimp's gorgeous transgender girlfriend, he is forced to take female hormones, with the long term plan of being turned into a woman. Desiree's whole approach to identity is changeable, depending on situation and mood: he likes girls and boys. He can dress as either man or woman. He aligns himself with bullies, when he isn't himself being bullied. He represents the fickle, arbitrary complexity of our natures, in a story painfully believable; the miracles in the story feel as credible as the pain, the guilt and the sadness. Yet this story has its highs, sampled on a winter's beach beyond the Scottish Highlands or an apartment balcony in Soho on New Year's Eve. It's a story where the optimism of the protagonist is the story's voice. Written in 2004, it's a twenty-first century text, where identity is constantly in flux. As Desiree says: "Some days I'd be all yin, others all yang, sometimes both. So what?" I'd recommend this story to anyone wanting to glimpse gender identity portrayed at its freest, and at its most beautiful.


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