The invention of the trans novel

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If you spend time with transgender people, you may notice, on badges and buttons, on sewn patches or even in tattoo form, the sigil “T4T” or “t4t”. The characters mean “trans for trans” and usage began as shorthand on dating sites. Nowadays, it is no longer just an erotic preference but a declaration of solidarity, of belonging. Imogen Binnie’s “Nevada” might be, in this extended and controversial sense, the first t4t novel.

Published in 2013 by trans-specialist (and now defunct) Topside Press, and recently reissued by mainstream publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, “Nevada” isn’t the first novel about trans characters, nor is it the first by a trans author for the queer community – Leslie Feinberg got there in 1993, with “Stone Butch Blues”. Still, “Nevada” seemed like the first realistic book-length novel about trans people. women, in American English, with an ISBN on it, which was not only written by one of us but written for us. In particular, it’s about the groups we create in the age of the Internet, encouraging each other in our new freedoms and in our self-destructive mistakes. And, in sixty brief chapters, it vigorously resists the position my friends call “Trans 101”: it will not seek, as Binnie puts it in a new afterword, “validation of cis people.” The novel is provocative, laconic, not entirely cynical, sometimes creepy (where Feinberg is frankly serious), addressed to people who think they know. It is, if you will, punk rock.

And Binnie knows punk rock. When the novel appeared, she was best known as a columnist for the punk zine maximumrocknroll. Being trans, Binnie wrote in 2013, “taught me not to trust anyone”; she prefers “to assume that everyone sucks and doesn’t know how to treat trans women like human beings”. But the same column also took note of serendipity. “For once in my fucking life,” she reports, “the punker in the non-punk environment I was meeting turned out to be a trans woman too!” Of course, they teamed up: “Being in a group with another trans woman is the best.”

“Nevada” is Binnie’s attempt to create, metaphorically, this band. Its twenty-nine-year-old protagonist, Maria Griffiths, addresses other trans women in popular blog posts on the internet in the early 2000s (we see one of her posts), telling us about ourselves and showing us, through his own life, where we are wrong. But “Nevada” is also a story of failure: Maria cannot organize her life offline. She considers breaking up with her better suited cisgender girlfriend, Steph, but Steph breaks up with her first. Maria slacks off in her dead-end job at a prestigious second-hand bookstore (modeled on The Strand) until she is fired. Then she steals Steph’s car and drives to Nevada to try, for once in her life, to find out what she wants and what she likes, rather than what she rejects and hates.

Maria stops in a charmless Nevada hamlet built around a Walmart and meets a shrunken young violet from a Walmart employee named James. She concludes that James must be trans, like her, but that he is not yet aware of it, that he is what we call an egg. She wants to help hatch James and invites him to join her on a trip to Reno. James finds Maria fascinating, then compelling, then alienating and overbearing, so he abandons her.

That’s pretty much the plot. Binnie’s deadpan and flippant narration makes it clear how irrelevant the plot is. Instead, “Nevada” introduces its readers to the consciousness of a trans woman from the inside out, telling us things we could have expressed in blog posts, emails or song lyrics but we wouldn’t have seen in prose fiction – certainly not in realistic prose fiction. on adults.

And the novel begins with a depressing sexual encounter. Maria “acts like she’s into it”, feigning pleasure to satisfy Steph. “You would think it would be impossible to fake it, with junk like Maria’s, but it is possible,” Binnie writes. “Maria knows how to pretend. Maria, we learn, takes hormones but has not been operated on. More importantly, we learn that Maria’s partner is smothering her, not just literally, in the sex game, but emotionally. (“She chokes meare the opening words of the book.) “The moment her pants come off, she ceases to be in his body.” That’s what sex feels like when you don’t think your body belongs to you. (Ask- me how I know.) Maria can’t be herself as long as Steph is around. But maybe she can’t be herself anyway. What is a real me? Can we still be trans if we don’t have an answer?

“Nevada” can’t stop asking. He deals with injections, pills, etc., with a knowing frown and a shrug. Authenticity, not elevation, is the point; it is not a book about collective struggles for civil rights, although it is a book about people with white privilege who still cannot take those rights for granted. You don’t need a fire alarm to go off if you can already see your kitchen is on fire. However, you may need safe ways to leave the house. And Maria always needed to leave home.

Maria grew up (flashbacks tell us) in rural Pennsylvania and spent much of her teenage years stoned; as planned, she finished college, then moved to New York. Once she started living as a woman, she didn’t know where to go next, having spent her youth engrossed in rejection, resistance and flight. Before coming out, “being present in your body meant feeling things like: my gender is wrong, and my body is weird, and my mind feels like it’s set in concrete because of necessity. to fix it.” After walking out, she was faced with the question she would later ask James, “What do you want?” (James’ response: “Not all of that.”)

“Nevada” is a book about leaving, about rejection, about saying no: no to the standard Trans 101 narrative, in which before the transition we are all suicidal and after the transition we are all happily indistinguishable cisgender people, unless we become convicted sex workers; not the usual expectations of books about trans people written for cis people. And not the lives that Maria and James have lived. No one in “Nevada” finds true love, no cis character has an epiphany on the page thanks to a trans friend, and no one dies. Binnie’s tight third-person narration sticks closely to the figure each chapter follows: primarily Maria, later James, and, for one chapter, Steph. This arrangement allows readers to stay with each character as she or he pushes back against what the larger, respectable world of employment and romance awaits.

“Nevada” says no — ironically, elegantly, entertainingly — to other literary tropes, too. It’s a road novel where no one, emotionally or existentially, gets anywhere. It’s a hug about a big drug score where nobody gets caught, nobody gets rich, and nobody gets off easy. It’s a breakup story where neither partner cares much about the romance ending. It’s also a trans novel where no one makes the transition. “Because the mysterious middle phase is the most interesting thing for people who don’t have to go through it, I decided to remove it,” Binnie explains in his afterword. “Nevada” understands how no matter what we do after we come out, we’re likely to feel like we were wrong.

Each place does symbolic work. Maria hates her job as a bookseller not only because she hates her routine and her bosses harass her, but because none of the books in it can tell her life story. While Maria, who loves to ride a bike, hits the road, James spends as much time as possible in enclosed spaces, getting high: he loves “hotboxing”, filling an enclosed area with pot smoke, Maria’s car , for example, or his bathroom. . Here is Maria’s x-ray of where he lives:

His apartment does not look like a person’s apartment. It’s not the standard apartment for a twenty-year-old boy – there’s no sink full of dishes, no armpit odor. It’s like a non-apartment, a ghost apartment. It’s literally, like, a ceiling light, a futon, a computer desk, an old little kid’s dresser, and a flimsy-looking entertainment center with a huge old twenty-seven-inch tube television. There are ways to say this was a young guy’s apartment: speakers so big they sound out of place, plugged into the stereo that shines brighter than anything else in the room. The extensive and tidy library of DVD cases. It’s all, like, Classic Films, too, instead of a full anime series or something: pretentious, fully entangled in patriarchal constructs of validity, but at least not weird and boring.

It takes him a second to understand why a space so sparsely populated with things could feel inhabited. It strikes her: it’s because everything is saturated with weed smoke.

All the characters in “Nevada” try to explain who they are, or try to avoid someone else’s explanation. No wonder the novel is so highly cited. “That stereotype that transsexuals are all wild, criminal, bold and out-of-the-ordinary and, for example, engender in city-dwellers the courage to break free from the stifling constraints of conformity? This stereotype is about drag queens. Maria is transsexual and she is so sweet that she could disappear. (How many trans girls have starred in the margins of their Topside editions right there?) Hanging out with Kieran, a popular, educated trans guy, Maria “can’t help but realize that while gender is a construct, it The same goes for a traffic light, and if you ignore one, you get hit by cars. Which, too, are constructions. Even James, inarticulate and numb, records the thoughts that readers could have had. He looks at Maria and thinks, No thanks: “You must have been unhappy with your life because you’re trans, right? That means transitioning isn’t working. Steph also thinks. “Knots are arrows that give you directions,” she thought to herself. “If you want someone to slap you and call you a stupid little girl, that probably says something about your relationship to being a little girl.”

Most of the time, however, the apothegms are those of Maria. Like many writers who want to sound hip or punk, Maria avoids big words and complex sentences: her ideas are raw, even genuinely clunky. In fact, trans identity itself, in “Nevada”, means being raw, or awkward, and living things late: puberty, for example, or crying all the time. “Maria is really good at being trans,” she knows, but she’s bad at basic self-care: “being trans interrupts normal human development,” so “you end up getting stuck at the tween stage , at Nickelodeon Stage, at Stage I I can take care of myself but I suck at this point. (Stars in the margins, again.) Coming out as trans” rejects the poisonous, normative idea that there is one too old for catharsis. Or, really, one too old for anything.

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