Tag Archives: transgender

EDITOR’S BLOG – “Something to Cry About,” indeed

Laura Fraser

By Laura Fraser, Shebooks editorial director

 

I was so proud yesterday when a friend—and Shebooks author—Jenny Boylan went to the White House to meet the President. She went as co-chair of GLAAD, there to witness Obama signing an executive order protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination at work. I was excited about the legislation—which is long overdue, and big praise to Obama for signing it—but also just thrilled that a friend was being recognized for her work.

It was a big week for Jenny: In addition to going to the White House, she had an op-ed piece in the New York Times, writing about her boyhood from the perspective of a transgender adult, and was on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” program on NPR, talking about “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.” In between all that, she managed to write a blog for the Huffington Post to let people know about her recent Shebook, a sweet and comic novella, “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.” And it’s been a big summer: Jenny was named a Professor of English at Barnard College, and that’s enough of an honor without having to add that she’s the first woman not born a woman to achieve that kind of post.

All of this speaks to the fabulousness of Jenny, and all she has achieved in making the world more normal and accepting for transgender people. But to her friends who remember her as Jim, it is especially affecting and gratifying to know that she is doing all this as Jenny, in the full flower of herself.

I’ll be honest, when my old roommate Jim, whom I knew in college and shared an apartment with in New York, called to tell me that he was having a sex change, I was shocked. I didn’t know anyone who had done such a thing, and Jim didn’t seem like a good candidate. He was such a cool guy—funny, cerebral, and, well, boyish. But the longer I thought about it—and Jenny was there to talk about it—the more it all made sense. Jim had never felt that comfortable in his skin. There always seemed to be a ghostly presence of another self hovering nearby. When I saw Jenny during her transition, it felt like she was finally herself. She looked great with long hair and highlights. She seemed relaxed in her body the way it takes most people born women in this culture decades to achieve.

One of the things Jenny has done is made us realize that transgender people are not so different than the rest of us. They are our friends; their challenges with who they are and where they’re going in their lives are like ours. As she wrote in her recent NYT piece, “The world is full of souls who struggle to find the younger person they once were within the body of the older person they have become. Struggling to make that connection is not the unique territory of transgender people.”

I have kind of forgotten that Jenny used to be Jim. The important stuff—the humor, the good writing, the heart—are the same, only more so. She’s grown into herself the way we all do, with luck, and with more than a little soul-searching and effort. She’s had a much harder time doing that that than most of us, and she’s done it with spectacular results.

It’s wonderful that an old college friend can call with a start-up venture and ask the best-selling author of 13 books to write a piece for something called Shebooks, and even more wonderful that she not only agreed, she insisted on doing it for free. That’s a friend; that’s a classy lady. I hope you all will read her novella, which did, in fact, give me something to cry about.

So did seeing her meet Obama.

Jennifer Finney Boylan: 5 Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person. (And 3 Things You Should.)

Jennifer Finney Boylan GLAAD cochair and author of the Shebook, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, offers up a list of cringe-worthy conversation no-no’s she’s encountered as a trans woman.

 1. “Hey, you! Have you had ‘the surgery’?”

This is kind of like someone coming up to you and asking about your vagina or penis. No, wait, it’s exactly like that. While there are some trans folks who are eager to start blabbering away about their nether regions, most of us consider our private parts, you know, private. Go figure.

2. “So you must love that Judith Butler!”

OK, so plenty of transgender people love Butler’s groundbreaking work, which has to be respected for (among other good reasons) the way it brought the phrase “gender binary” (as in “reject the gender binary”) into the vernacular. But there are plenty of us who kind of sigh when we encounter a sentence like, “If there is a sexual domain that is excluded from the Symbolic and can potentially expose the Symbolic as hegemonic rather than totalizing in its reach, it must be possible to locate this excluded domain either within or outside that economy and to strategize its intervention in terms of the placement.”

It’s worth remembering that for many trans people, our lives are not a clever academic theory, but a daily struggle against violence, a difficult search for dignity and respect. Make sure, if you’re talking to a trans person, that you are thinking of that person as an individual whose fight for identity is real, and not a person whose identity is some kind of scholarly abstraction.

3. “Do you love RuPaul? How about that Rocky Horror Picture Show!”

It’s important to understand the difference between drag culture and trans embodiment. The former can be about performance, exaggeration, and entertainment; the latter is about people’s actual lives. Plenty of transgender people have begun their journeys in the drag community, and you will find many trans folks who adore all of the subversive, transgressive energy that drag can bring. But many of are uneasy when our lives are mistaken for “performance,” and it’s disrespectful to trans people to conflate the two.

As for Rocky Horror, there’s another delightful piece of subversive drag culture, made more enjoyably depraved over the years by the legendary participation of its audiences at the film’s midnight screenings. All of that is great. But remember that while Frank N. Furter sings he’s a “transsexual transvestite from Transylvania,” he’s surely not an actual trans woman, any more than Al Jolson in blackface is actually Thurgood Marshall.

4. “Can you can have an orgasm?”

Again, getting kind of personal with this one, aren’t you? Most trans people, post-surgery, are perfectly capable of orgasm, but perhaps it’s understandable if this isn’t the first thing folks want to talk about with a stranger. Author Kate Bornstein, in answering this question, playfully observed, “The plumbing works and so does the electricity.” So OK, the answer turns out to be The Hell Yes. But whenever someone asks me this question, I think of the story of the guy who kept asking his parrot, “Can you talk? Can you talk?” and at last the parrot says, “Actually, yes, I can talk. Can you fly?”

5. “You know who I feel sorry for is your children.”

This is a classic way of being judgmental while pretending to be nonjudgmental. As it turns out, most trans people’s children are exactly as screwed up, or not, as anyone else’s children. But it isn’t having a trans parent that affects children, either for the better or for the worse.

What damages children is other people treating their family with disrespect.

Three Good Questions to Ask a Transgender Person

1. “How are you?”

By which I mean, approach a trans person with exactly the same respect and openheartedness you’d approach anyone else with. In the same way you wouldn’t begin a conversation with a stranger by inquiring about that person’s race, or spiritual beliefs, or politics, you probably wouldn’t want “So, you’re transgender?” to be the first words out of your mouth. Many of us would rather not talk about what makes us different, especially with strangers. Many of us would rather talk, at least at first, about the things we have in common.

2. “Do you mind if I talk to you about some gender stuff?

If you’ve established a rapport with a trans person and feel that the conversation has reached a point where Going There would be respectful, proceed with caution and see just how willing your new friend is to have at it. Most of us are happy to talk about the issues, at least in a general way, if we think we can do so in an atmosphere that feels safe.

3. “Are there books you’d recommend I read?”

When I first published my memoir She’s Not There, a dozen years ago, there were precious few books that seemed to address our issues with much subtlety or with any literary quality; that field was reserved pretty much for Kate Bornstein and her groundbreaking Gender Outlaw. Now there are lots of good books, by authors such as Helen Boyd, Jameson Green, Leslie Feinberg, and yes, Judith Butler. I published a memoir about being a transgender parent this spring, Stuck in the Middle with You, as well as the updated anniversary edition of She’s Not There, which includes a new epilogue by my wife, Deirdre Grace. Both of those books are available from Random House.

Two other recent standouts include Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, the first transition memoir to also address issues of gender theory, not to mention the unique challenges faced by trans people of color like Mock. And the brand-new Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth (and with an introduction by me), is a 600-plus-page resource guide from Oxford University Press containing information on identity, love, transition, and politics, written by trans people for trans people.

Finally, your own Jenny Boylan has just published a new novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, now available exclusively from Shebooks. This novella tells the story of the Riley family, traveling from Maine to Washington, D.C., to see their young son perform “The Flight of the Bumblebee” at Ford’s Theatre. But most of the drama focuses on 16-year old Alex, a teenager who has just gone through transition. This is the first time I’ve written a piece of fiction for adults about trans identity, and I hope readers will find Alex an inspiring character, giving life, humor, and dignity to the experience of trans men and women.

I'll Give You Something to Cry About

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. A contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, she is also the national cochair of GLAAD. Her latest novella, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, centers around a transgender teenager, is only available from Shebooks.

Jennifer Finney Boylan: “I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.” | Q&A

A conversation with best-selling transgender author and GLAAD cochair Jennifer Finney Boylan about her new Shebook I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.

 

What prompted you to write I’ll Give You Something to Cry About?

My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the East Coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

I’m known for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenage girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender-variant young people.

That said, Alex is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, had I been in her shoes when I was 16. Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”

How do you think your transgender identity has influenced your writing?

Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write mostly nonfiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a trans woman writer? How so?

I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writers’ lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body; these were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Write every day, including Christmas and New Year’s. When you’re just starting, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people, of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.” I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?

These are all real places—the Liberty Bell Pavilion; the Gettysburg Battlefield; Ford’s Theatre. If you live on the East Coast and have middle-school-age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?

If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

Starting this summer, I leave my job as professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.

When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the Santa Claus suits?”

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.

What is your favorite word right now?

Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.

What or who inspires you most?

I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

I play piano in a crappy rock ’n’ roll band. We are called the Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about the Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”

I'll Give You Something to Cry About

Christine Benvenuto: “A writer is the authority. We seize that authority and run with it.”

What if your life suddenly appeared in a magazine that all your best friends read—and you didn’t like the way it looked at all? That’s the premise of the smart Shebook novella, Sextet, about love and betrayal on New York City’s Upper West Side. Peek inside the mind of Sextet author Christine Benvenuto in this exclusive Shebooks Q&A.

What prompted you to write Sextet?

Sextet is the second in a series of interconnected short stories that I am at work on. The first sprang to life one night at dinner with two couples who seemed to me to live charmed lives, yet fret endlessly and unnecessarily about minutiae. It suddenly occurred to me: These people are characters in a Laurie Colwin story! (For any reader not familiar with Colwin’s fiction, her characters are affluent New Yorkers who, like mine, fret endlessly and unnecessarily about minutiae.) The real people who inspired my characters were not New Yorkers, and that is just one of many ways in which my characters and their situations departed entirely from the people who suggested them to my imagination. By the time I published that first story, I was hooked on this collection of characters, and an entire book-length project had begun to take shape in my mind. I have no idea how it occurred to me that in the second story in the series, Sextet, it would turn out that the original story was in fact, a short story written by one of the characters. That was the gift that set the overall project in motion.

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?

New York City, where Sextet is set, is real! These characters’ milieu is also real, in the sense that I know many people live in buildings and apartments like this one, and so on. I see my characters’ interiors, their apartments, the medical research lab and offices they work in, so clearly, even though I don’t think I’ve ever visited any places they look like or were based upon. I see the huge floral sofa in the living room where the first scene is set, and where one of the first two characters to be introduced curls up during their conversation—though I don’t think I ever describe it as floral in the narrative.

How do you think your own racial/ethnic identity has influenced this story?

In this story and in the series it is a part of, my dual identities as a Jewish woman and an Italian-American woman have come very much into play. Though I have written about this in some respects in my first nonfiction book, it is terrain I’ve never entered in my fiction before, and I’m excited to explore it now. Fiction is the medium that seems to me best suited to delve deeply and widely into questions of identity, and it is also the medium in which I give myself the most freedom to employ a favorite element: humor!

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?

I think that dilemma probably gives most writers pause from time to time, and it should. It’s a catalyst for careful research and thoughtful exploration. That said, fiction is a work of the imagination. Navigating the terrain of her own imagination, a writer is the authority. We seize that authority and run with it. If we didn’t, a female writer couldn’t create male characters and vice versa; historical fiction couldn’t be written at all—a great deal of fiction could never be written.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Some readers think the memoir I wrote is risky, and I’ve been told I was “brave” to write it. While I don’t feel brave, I understand where that comment is coming from and appreciate it very much. On a creative level, fiction feels riskier now, at this point in my development as a writer. The task in fiction is to create people, situations, worlds, which move readers to self-recognition and, when most successful, to visions of themselves and their own worlds just very slightly different from anything they’ve ever been before.

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people you were close to? 

Yes! My most recent book, a memoir, stirred up some people, though not anyone I was still close to when it was published. I carefully thought through everything I wrote and asked permission of some of the people who figured in my story and might be affected by its publication. In the end I chose to tell the story I had to tell.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

In answer to the first question, being a mother. In answer to the second question, being a mother. I’m sorry, but really, nothing tops making human beings.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m not a cynic; I’m a dreadful romantic.

What is your favorite word right now?

Panache. The word slides off the tongue and mind like a break-dancer executing an almost-but-not-quite-impossible move.

Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?

I loved being part of a book club: great conversation, the opportunity to hear insights I would never have come up with myself about books I might never have read on my own. Additionally, I have twice been invited to the meetings of other book clubs when a book of mine was being discussed. The experience was every writer’s dream, having a book treated to serious, thoughtful consideration by highly intelligent people, getting amazing feedback from the people we write for—readers! Book clubs are one of the great innovations of our time: creating community, encouraging engaged reading and vibrant dialogue.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

I use my iPhone to e-read and love doing this while traveling. On family trips, I seem to spend a lot of time sitting on playground or amusement park benches, where I can surreptitiously whip out my phone and sneak a little read between enthusiastic shouts of encouragement. I’ve reread all the late great Nora Ephron’s work this way since her death.

What or who inspires you most?

To be boringly honest: life. My family, my friends, the daily news, and a walk down the street. The more I encounter the world, the wackier—and more likely to spark the creative process—life becomes.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I am working on a book-length series of connecting stories exploring the characters in Sextet, and the crisscrossing, complicated web of relationships among them. The working title for the book is Fragment of an Angel.

Sextet

Read Christine Benvenuto’s short novel Sextet, only at Shebooks!