silvermarmoset said: I know that one of the characters in my fantasy novel is a transgender woman, but I don’t know how to properly handle her transition. Is it disrespectful to have the transitioning process be easy, by magic? I’ve read divided opinions on this. Thank you!
Short Answer: It depends.
Long Answer: Asking if a plot point, character, narrative arc, or other aspect of your story is disrespectful is a great way for any writer to begin a project, and I appreciate that you’re coming from such a careful place. Let’s back up a step and ponder a question you’ve probably already answered: why is this character transgender? Put another way, why are you writing a trans character? This is, of course, the question I ask myself when I’m in the weeds of my character sketches, and I ask it no matter what string of identities I layer into the actors in my story. After all every choice you make as a writer opens up some possibilities for the story and closes down others, so I ask myself: what am I trying to communicate via the characters I’m establishing to tell the story?
The final analysis answers the question, does this character have to be transgender? If your answer is no, then you are risking tokenizing trans people through the placement of this character, and you should probably reconsider making them trans.
If your answer is yes, then great, write them as thoughtfully as you can. To be thoughtful, however, isn’t a simple task. First, you need to avoid stereotypes that have so often been attributed to trans characters, especially trans women — here I’m talking about as victims of violence, as sex workers (think, Law & Order: SVU), as lonely and unloved, as perverts, gay men and/or drag queens who can’t deal, as narcissists, broken men, and on and on. You need to be familiar with these stereotypes because 1: they amount to lazy, bad writing, 2: they’ve been done to death and aren’t interesting subjects, and 3: they actively hurt trans women by making the myths about their community persist in an untrue way in the popular culture consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that people ignorant of trans issues will turn to someone they know who is starting transition and use these stereotypes that they’ve seen on television (I’m looking at you, NCIS), and matter-of-factly explain that they’re doing it wrong because so and so on TV did it this other way, or that they shouldn’t transition because yo, they’ll wind up dead in the street, etc. When writing for a mainstream audience, authors need to think about how the marginalized characters they’re portraying represent that community, because readers are real people who take our stories into their hearts and minds, and because marginalized people read books.
For more reading about trans stereotypes, there are many folks on the Web who write about them in a nuanced, helpful way (Casey Plett, Monica Roberts, and Janet Mock are a good start). But there are also tropes to avoid — let’s think about tropes as tiny pieces of narrative that become overused and that sometimes support the stereotypes in question. For trans women, tropes include putting on makeup (Amazon’s Transparent does this almost the time, and while I know the show just won major Emmys, this is not a reason to continue the trope), buying pretty clothes (or shoes) in a boutique, getting shunned by some relative, and there are many more, but they largely do include some aspect about transition. How one presents a transition can be problematic, so I’m glad you’re wondering about it. And if you really want to go against stereotypes and tropes, do something really radical and don’t show it at all. As a trans reader myself, I love reading trans stories that aren’t about transition, just like many gay and lesbian readers enjoy stories that aren’t about coming out. Those are our beginnings, full of trauma and conflict and revelation, it’s true, but ultimately they turn LGBT characters into their genesis when there is so much more to relay. Don’t pick the simplest story to tell when there are far more compelling ones out there.
There are other problems with depicting transition: if you show transition as a magical experience, you may present it as easy, when in real life, transition is anything but. If you show it as super onerous (which I just said it can be), it may come off like one of those stereotypes about trans people. So I ask again, writer to writer: Do you have to depict her transition at all? If you’re looking to write respectfully, your trans character may be best represented in your story after (thus, apart from) her transition. Also, remember that every identity aspect of every character needs careful thinking through — we don’t write in Mexican characters just to have someone dropping Spanish into the dialogue, so we don’t really need to write trans characters in order to have a transition in the story, either. A great example of handling transition without making the story about transition is Susan Jane Bigelow’s story “Ramona’s Dreams” in The Collection from Topside Press.
So, as with any kind of character work, research, research, research. Beginning writers are told ad nauseum to write from their own experience. If all writing were limited to that mantra literature would be a pale cousin of its actual self. But the further afield you push from your own lived reality, the more preparation, thinking, and reading you need to do in order to respect the people that character represents. And happily enough, that you’re asking around is a good sign you’re already on the right track.
Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, from Ooligan Press, and a short story, ”Cursed,“ in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.
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“A teenage girl from an unnamed Middle Eastern country attempts to come to terms with her dictator father’s bloody legacy in this absorbing character-driven novel authored by a former CIA official. … Laila is a complex and layered character whose nuanced observations will help readers better understand the divide between American and Middle Eastern cultures. Smart, relevant, required reading.” — Kirkus, starred review
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Book Description: Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge—the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases—like for Natividad’s father and older brother—Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.
But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.
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This week, Everett Maroon’s YA science fiction novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, just hit real and virtual bookshelves. The novel, which will be the first of a trilogy, features a wonderfully diverse set of characters in terms of race, class, culture, gender, and sexuality. Everett is also the author of the memoir Bumbling Into Body Hair, and a miscellany of articles and short stories for queer and feminist publications such as Bitch Magazine, and The Collection: Short Stories from the Transgender Vanguard. He was also a Lambda Literary Fellow at the 2013 Emerging Writer’s Retreat, where I had the good fortune to meet him. Everett was kind enough to answer some questions I had about his journey to becoming a writer, and the choices he made in writing The Unintentional Time Traveler.
Jesse Kuiken: To start off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your history as a writer. How did you get started with writing and then publishing?
Everett Maroon: I began writing stories in the freezing front bedroom of my parents’ house in New Jersey, banging away on an old Royal typewriter. I had to wear a coat and a scarf and sometimes I’d see my breath but I took it as part of the process because one, I didn’t know any better, and two, I had a bit of an imagination and flair for drama. (Clearly.) I wrote stories about whatever interest I had at the moment—famous disasters, Abraham Lincoln, reincarnation—and I read nonstop, everything from Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and anything by Madeline L’Engle. I went through a few summer writing workshops and creative writing courses in college, and then I bought the whole story about needing to have a “secure” job and I gave up writing.
For twenty years I told myself I wasn’t any good at it anyway. I really let my inner critic really run the shop for a long time. Then I moved across the country away from everyone I knew, blew out my ACL so I was recovering at home, and the entire global economy collapsed, so my partner suggested I try getting back to writing. If there were ever a crappy but useful alignment of the planets, this was it. I started writing again and then all of the ideas and characters and stories I’d bottled up for two decades came tumbling back out. I got close to signing a deal with an agent a few times and then instead I found a start-up publisher who loved my memoir, and now I’ve got my debut young adult novel coming out.
I don’t want to make it sound like it was all easy, because it hasn’t been. I must have done fifteen revisions on the memoir and at least a dozen rejections from agents, but several of them had nice things to say about the story and my work, and I simply felt a push to keep going. I went to conferences and met other authors, talked to agents and editors, got to see up close how formulaic some of the publishing industry can be (we only take books about such-and-such), but was relieved to see that there are a lot of small houses and presses out there that crave experimental work, niche themes, genre crossovers, and the like. I told myself I wanted to be known as a passionate professional who was a team player and easy to work with, and I’m glad that this is now my reputation. Whew! But it’s a complicated, very dynamic industry and it takes almost as much energy to keep up with its chaos as to write new work.
JK: When you were writing this novel, did you know what ways queerness and trans-ness would be important to the narrative, or did those evolve as you wrote?
EM: I had two themes in my mind when I started writing—that I wanted to re-conceptualize disability as a superhuman power and that I wanted to humanize a process of thinking about gender identity for young readers. Growing up with epilepsy, I had many of my seizures during my sleep, so I would wake up in the hospital and it was almost like I’d teleported there, and I have wanted to write a story along those lines for a long time. I knew Jack would land in the body of a tomboy, and I wanted to make a statement about gender diversity by showing different ways of expressing gender. I hoped also that some people would find it difficult to say whether the main character is a boy or a girl at the end of the first book, and I also expect that readers will come away with a variety of interpretations about Jack/Jacqueline’s identity. I welcome that freedom from a book.
The queer aspects I hadn’t figured out before I started writing, but I was happy to put them in there because there is a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and I wanted to give young readers a text for exploring those differences. And then in the relationship with Jeannine I made sure I wasn’t heralding queer or straight relationships over each other. Teens get enough of hierarchies in their lives, enough rules and limitations. I wanted to provide them with the possibility of having relationships with people they feel connected to instead of based on what package those people have on their exterior.
JK: I’ve never read a time travel story which included such an innovative and fascinating twist as yours did when Jack changed to Jacqueline when he went back in time. Why choose the “sex switch” in particular for your protagonist?
EM: As plot is fueled by conflict, I needed to up the stakes for Jack right away. He can get lost in his own head so I wanted to see how he would react when he realized he was in a female body. Now instead of writing off his experience as a simple hallucination, he needs to ask himself some questions—if this is all in his mind, why conjure up a girl, is being Jacqueline a sign that this is all actually real? Originally I didn’t want the first book to answer whether the time travel was real or imagined, but my beta readers needed at least the hint of an answer, so I wrote that in. But the switch to a female body is a very workable pivot point for Jack in terms of believing in his own experience, in opening up his mind, and in complicating his feelings for Lucas, and it gives him another reason to be fascinated and invested in the earlier era.
JK: I really enjoyed and was surprised by the character of Jeannine. She was so cool and level-headed, even when there were major personal things going on in her life. How do you see Jeannine and her role, especially in context of some of the major tropes of young women and romance in young adult literature, ie, the “Bella syndrome” in Twilight, or the prevalence of (usually heterosexual) romantic plots for young women in YA literature? How does Jeannine, to your mind, challenge some of that?
EM: I like that you call this visage of women a trope, because it seems that way to me, too, especially in young adult fiction. I am much more interested in popular characters like Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger because they have so much more initiative and agency. And they’re more like the young women I knew in high school. Jeannine is smart and thoughtful. It was hard for me to leave her love for Jack unrequited—at least what we got to see of it in the book—because I wanted her to receive affection, not just send it out. But she is about so much more than romance, so I was more invested in showing other parts of her. And there’s so much in popular culture that sets up hierarchies among teens, but this fails to acknowledge that lots of young people have small friend circles of equals, so I wanted to show Jeannine as uninterested in those categories.
Also I wanted to make a statement about compassion and intelligence not being mutually exclusive conditions, as they’re often shown in dichotomies and often along gendered lines (women are compassionate, men are intelligent). Jeannine exhibits both, in the way she helps Jack work through his anxiety about whether he’s time traveling or not, the way she sets up the “headquarters” at her friend’s house, and so on. And I think it’s pretty darn impressive how she handles rejection like a boss. Jeannine is a bad ass.
JK: You made some fascinating choices for the character of Sanjay, who is Jack’s friend. Later in the novel, I really loved how Sanjay became involved in ACT UP and gay activism of the 1980’s. Queer people are often divorced from their own history. That is, our history is not represented in history classes, in television and film, and has often been erased or ignored. Queer people of color — folks like Sanjay — are doubly erased in terms of their queerness and their race. Why do you think it’s important that readers — especially queer young adults of all races — have access to and understand their own history, especially in regards to organizations like ACT UP and the AIDs crises?
EM: I love Sanjay, he’s a total rock star. For years I’ve been fascinated by our poor collective memory, especially in the context of communities on the margins of culture. As in, who gets to tell our stories and how they interpret the past have so much bearing on how/if we remember that past. There is so much today that came directly out of the struggle around AIDS and ACT UP, and I wanted to give young readers at least a mention of those things, which will take more space in the next books in this series. And I also am interested in making sure that the retelling of those histories—which are always contested—show the complexity and gravity of their time and are not some “easy” depiction of happy activists where the outcome is never in question. There’s no single narrative around AIDS that can get at all of the pieces that were in play in the 1980s and 90s, so I hope to see a multiplicity of stories in popular culture.
But especially we’re missing stories about AIDS, queerness, and race. Far too many of the most successful narratives about AIDS and gay history have been whitewashed, when in fact people of color not only have been a part of that history but they’ve helped shift it. ACT UP in particular has a strong history of participation of queers of color, so that was an intentional choice I made—what group could Sanjay find for his activism, I’d wondered. It was important to me to show Sanjay as actively working within a community of people on the margins for their own betterment, only a few years removed from being scared to come out. I’m grateful that he comes into his own in this novel.
JK: In reference to the question above: why do you think a time travel story like this is important and relevant to young adults and to the problem of queer people and people of color being erased from history?
EM: Certainly “queer” itself is located in a specific place and time. And of course those spatial and temporal locations are themselves under debate. It was Samuel Delany who told me that he and his friends used “queer” in the 1950s in New York City—I hadn’t realized it was a popular term even then. (Another reason we need to read works by people who were writing before our time!) But we’ve had same sex relationships and community for a long time, we’ve played with gender tropes and exhibited a variety of gender expression for a good while, and communities of color have created their own subcultures for years. None of these are recent developments. I would love for youth to ask themselves who came before them, can what they learn from our elders, what histories are out there? I want them to ask who Jacqueline was in 1911 and who else might have been around who realigned gender or sexuality in an earlier time. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes gave us a gender non-conforming character who had a lesbian relationship in the 1930s South, but you’d never know it from the Hollywood movie version.
For all kinds of terrible and offensive reasons, these histories get buried and silenced in popular culture. And the narratives about people of color and queer people become reduced to stereotypes or unhelpful tropes, like the Middle Eastern terrorist and trans women as victims. But queer history is full of amazing stories, including the central moment at Stonewall, which had everything to do with gender nonconforming people of color resisting police harassment. And the early days of AIDS, while full of suffering are also about a marginalized community standing up for itself and demanding change. Rather than ask young readers to dig to uncover these narratives, I want to put them front and center. It’s not just that we “are” everywhere, it’s that we’ve been everywhere for quite a while. I hope that such realizations could help LGBT youth and youth of color feel a bit less isolated and alienated. Something like, “We’re here for you, and we love you for who you are. Hey, here’s a cool story.”