About Jack Radish
It seems trans people only get a real audience within the publishing industry to tell that one story which fascinates cisgender audiences as spectacle.
When I got my Advance Reader Copy of The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, the inaugural release from Topside Press, a new independent press devoted to publishing much-needed literary fiction with trans protagonists, the only way I can begin to describe my excitement is to liken it to the excitement I would have felt at receiving an Advance Reader Copy of the much anticipated final Harry Potter book. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Topside Press’s inaugural publication, The Collection since the call for submissions was posted back in 2011. And in my world, it’s not an exaggeration to say that The Collection is the most anticipated literary release since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
If this sounds a little extreme, you probably haven’t been paying close attention to the world of trans literature so let me explain: Up to this point, trans literature has consisted largely of academic gender theory, tell-all autobiographies and heart-wrenching memoir thinly disguised as fiction. Trans characters show up in literature as plot devices, examples of a truly enlightened (or truly disturbed, depending upon the author) state of living, or as heroic gender warriors who have accomplished nothing in our lives as important as bravely making it through transition. Although so many of the trans people with whom I am lucky enough to be acquainted are talented artists, writers, activists, storytellers, comedians and people of the world, it seems we only get a real audience within the publishing industry to tell that one story which fascinates cisgender audiences as spectacle or example but speaks little to the diversity of our experiences in the world.
Where were you on August 9, 2012? If your answer isn’t “Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto,” you seriously missed out on history.
TWAT/Fest, the Trans Women’s Arts Toronto Festival (lovingly nicknamed the Trans Women’s Arts Throwdown), conceptualized and curated by PrettyQueer’s own Morgan M. Page/Odofemi, took place this month for the first time. TWAT/Fest was the world’s first ever fine arts festival planned and curated by trans women to showcase the work of trans women artists. The festival featured visual and performance art in a variety of media by talented trans women fine artists from across North America, each piece more stunning than the last.
Sometimes I wonder whether trans men writing about transmisogyny and trans-man-douchebaggery and how much is sucks is the new spoken word poetry. Every time I’ve written anything about how trans dude culture can get pretty gross in the way it appropriates the experiences and oppression of trans women, I have gotten tons of great feedback and had so many people tell me I was so smart and sensitive. I don’t know, I’d love to think that is all true because being smart and sensitive are both things that are important to me in life but at the same time, I have to acknowledge that every time I’ve written something like that, someone has pointed out that I hadn’t written anything that any trans woman had not been saying (and having quickly ignored or dismissed by queer and so-called-trans communities) over and over again for years. But that suddenly, when it comes from a trans man, someone gives him (me) a fucking medal and he gets hella laid for it. (For the record, I live in Detroit where no one gets laid for anything, but I’m sure it’s contributed to my getting laid a fair amount of times over the years nevertheless.)
Prior to reading Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher, I really didn’t know what to expect, having heard really mixed reviews—anything from “this is the best representation of a teen trans girl in literature ever!” to “this book actually made my life worse.” Granted, the people who I am actually friends with IRL who gave me any feedback about it tended toward the latter sentiment, so I knew to brace myself for disaster, but the positive feedback I’d read came from sources I kind of trust too (including the ALA’s Stonewall Children’s & YA Lit Award committee, who gave it a frickin award) and was all very convincing. After having read the book (actually, I listened to the audiobook on this one—more about that later), I will say that I am probably right to trust my friends’ literary criticism on this one.
The story is actually well written and very gripping—I definitely stayed up way too late trying to find out what happened next several nights, although this was mostly because I was on the edge of my seat waiting for something good to happen.
Last week, I reviewed a totally rad non-fiction book geared towards trans teens, but both trans teen novels I’ve reviewed so far were pretty disappointing. So I’ve been feeling pretty grim about trans teen novels in general. When I read I Am J by Cris Beam, however, that all changed.
I didn’t know what to think in the beginning of the book. I was feeling pretty pessimistic after the last two novels and the main character, J, starts off as kind of misogynistic and douchey. I was immediately drawn in, however, by the fact that the characters are all from working class families, most are people of color, and many come from immigrant families. Since this happens in queer teen novels basically never, I decided to reserve judgement for awhile—and I’m glad I did!
I loved Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws! The alternatives it gives are dangerous and subversive. Bornstein talks unapologetically about gender, sex, religion, desire, bullying, oppression, breaking rules, running away from home, sex work and other tough and sometimes taboo subjects. She talks about these things in a way that is intentionally accessible to all types of people, but clearly intended for queer teens. Who talks about stuff like sex work or BDSM or Satan worshiping to teens? Kate Bornstein does. She offers some more conventional suggestions, like calling a suicide hotline or taking a deep breath or making long-term plans too, of course. But many of her suggestions are dangerous, unconventional and subversive. She only has one rule, which is that you are not allowed to be mean.
If you liked the “It Gets Better Project,” you should read this book. If you hated the “It Gets Better Project” you should probably read this book too.
In her creative, off the wall, gender outlaw way, Bornstein draws wisdom from a variety of world religions, including (but not limited to) Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, 12 Step Programs and Scientology (yep), which is rad because I always hate the way queer culture tends to respond to the bad things that religion does to us by trashing religion. Even as someone who is not the slightest bit religious, I always feel let down when I hear queer people trash-talking any type of religion—not only does it mirror the ignorance of our oppressors and lump a lot of bad stuff into the same category as good stuff, but it alienates queers and allies who could be rad members of our communities. But Bornstein borrows the good from various world religions and cultures and leaves the bad, while urging readers to do the same.
Luna, by Julie Anne Peters, is a story about a codependent relationship between two sisters, one of whom, Regan, has been trusted to keep a major secret for the other, Luna. That secret happens to be that Luna, a senior in high school, is a trans woman on the verge of making the decision to transition. It struck me early on that Luna’s trans status could have easily been swapped out for basically any other secret of similar magnitude and the story would have read the same.
While I’m a huge advocate of incidentally trans characters in teen literature (or any literature for that matter), I was still a little bothered by this story.
When Luna was published in 2004, it was one of the first—if not the first—Young Adult novels featuring a trans character. Julie Anne Peters is an author who writes primarily YA novels with LGBTQ characters and families and I have no doubt that Luna was meant as a nod to her young trans readers. While I commend her for blazing a trail and likely fighting for this story with her publishers, I didn’t really relate to Luna all that much and as far as representations of trans teens, it kind of failed for me.
A few months ago, I was observing a librarian at the teen reference desk (I’m in library school, so it’s not like I was just standing there being creepy), when I got my dream reference question. A kid walked up, kinda nervous, looked at the librarian, looked at me and said,
“Can you help me find this book, I mean, it’s not in this section but I think you have it.”
“It’s called, Just Add Hormones.”
I’d heard of that book and knew enough to know this kid was searching for information about trans stuff.
The librarian looked it up, but it was checked out. I wanted to spring to action, offer to show the teen the section where it would be found only after slipping the perfect teen book into their hand—without missing a beat—and say something subtle like, “you’ll love this, it’s one of my favorites,” something to indicate that I was a safe adult who knew about trans stuff without calling attention to this teen or their reference question.
Let me paint a picture you may have seen before. A college campus nearby is having some sort of trans event. Let’s say it’s Trans Day of Remembrance. Everyone is crowded around a stage and a white trans man steps up to the mic and introduces “our own awesome trans man poet and activist whatever, let’s worship him, let’s say his name is Aydyn” and everyone claps and cheers and a couple folks in the audience scream out his name.