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Ours for the Making: Trans Lit, Trans Poetics

Ours for the Making: Trans Lit, Trans Poetics

Author: Joy Ladin

December 6, 2011

Last February, Cheryl Morgan published an essay entitled, “Is There, or Should There Be, Such a Thing as ‘Trans Lit’?”

As Morgan points out, there is such a thing as “Gay and Lesbian Literature”: “Go into a large, urban bookstore,” she writes, “and you are likely to find a few racks full of books written by gay and lesbian authors, with gay and lesbian protagonists, aimed at gay and lesbian readers.” “Gay and Lesbian Literature” is also alive and well in colleges and universities, where courses, theses, dissertations and sometimes whole courses of study are devoted to it. The term “Gay and Lesbian Literature” attracts readers to bookshelves, students to classes, and scholars to research topics.

In short, “Gay and Lesbian Literature” has made it:  in the real world of dollars and cents, marketing strategies, course enrollments and tenure decisions, the term “Gay and Lesbian Literature” has legs.

These days, any American minority can achieve this kind of literary recognition by fulfilling the criteria that Gay and Lesbian Literature began to fulfill a couple of decades ago: lots of authors, lots of books, and lots of readers, students and scholars who expect to find those books grouped together. But although any minority could fulfill those criteria, most minorities haven’t. That’s why there aren’t Serbian-American or Inuit literature sections in Barnes & Noble—and that’s why there isn’t yet, and might never be, a trans literature section. There are too few trans-identified authors publishing too few books, and too few readers, students and scholars interested in reading, studying and teaching them for “Trans Literature” to a viable commercial or academic category.

The one arguable exception is trans memoir, by the far the most popular and populous genre of trans writing, and the only one to achieve best-seller status. But most trans memoirs aren’t written or read as literature, and far from being established as a viable genre, presses I’ve contacted claim that there are already “too many” of them (this is a direct and oft-repeated quote) for new trans memoirs to sell.

So by the standards of the publishing industry and academia, there is no such thing as “Trans Literature.” And based on demographics alone, “Trans Literature” isn’t likely to be a viable category any time soon. Gays and lesbians are a minority; transgender people are a hyperminority, and transsexuals—the only sort of transgender people to achieve pop cultural recognition (and thus to be able to sell books and fill classes) make up a small sliver of the transgender hyperminority. Unless an improbably high proportion of trans people get busy writing and publishing literature, there won’t be much (other than memoirs) to put on “Trans Lit” bookshelves and syllabi in the near future. Even the trans-friendly Lambda Literary Awards tacitly acknowledge the lack of a viable “Trans Literature” category by lumping all trans-related books—academic studies, memoirs, novels, anthologies, poetry, etc.—under a single grab-bag heading.

Morgan argues that if it weren’t for publishing-world prejudice, there would be more trans lit, by which she seems to mean fiction by trans authors featuring trans characters. That may well be true. But I’m not ready to equate “Trans Literature” with fiction by and about trans people.  For one thing, fiction by and about trans people isn’t necessarily literary; I’ve written a number of stories featuring trans characters, and none were ambitious enough, interesting enough, or serious enough, to qualify as literature. And what about fiction by trans authors that doesn’t feature trans characters—or fiction by non-trans authors that features trans characters? Should either, or both, of these kinds of fiction be considered “Trans Literature”? How about poetry by trans poets that doesn’t and poetry by non-trans poets that does directly address the trans experience? And where do trans memoirs fit in—are they all “Trans Literature,” or do they also have to be literary to qualify?

These kinds of questions aren’t specific to “Trans Literature.” Problems of blurred boundaries and contradictory definitions arise with respect to every category of literature. So let’s try to make things simple. Let’s define “Trans Literature” as literary writing that reflects some aspect of the transgender experience.

Like Morgan, most of us look to the demographics of the author and subject matter in order to decide whether literature “reflects some aspect of the trans experience.” That’s fine when all the demographics line up; a literary novel by a trans author about a trans character dealing with the consequences of gender transition should certainly qualify as “Trans Literature.” But as I suggest above, the demographics of author and subject matter often don’t line up. The world’s most famous trans author, Jan Morris, has made a career of travel writing—before and after transition. And as Morgan points out, many of the recent novels that feature trans characters are written by non-trans authors.

As a poet, I’m quite touchy about categorizing literature based on subject matter.  The commercial publishing world, of course, doesn’t bother with poetry, but even teachers and scholars of minority literatures tend to focus on more on fiction in which the demographics of author and subject matter align and overlook poetry that doesn’t have demographically defined subject matter. Even the poetry of

Sappho of Lesbos—the woman-loving lyricist celebrated by ancient Greeks as “the Tenth Muse” whose fame led to gay women being called “Lesbians”—is often difficult to read as lesbian. Some of Sappho’s love poems directly address women, but many of her first-person lyrics—like most of the lyric poems written over the past couple of millennia—don’t define the demographics of their speakers.  The free-floating, emoting, associative “I” of lyric poetry is often not defined in social terms—the speakers of such poems could be male or female, trans- or cisgender, old or young, rich or poor, ethnic majority or minority.

Ironically, the freedom that lyric poetry offers from socially defined identity makes it perfect for trans poets whose sense of themselves doesn’t fit established categories. That’s certainly how I saw it during my decades as a closeted trans poet. Lyric poetry enabled me to express myself personally and publicly without either pretending to be male or outing myself as trans.  The poems I wrote during these decades are not “about” being trans; the last thing I wanted was to give myself away through explicitly trans subject matter, imagery or metaphors. But by avoiding gender so scrupulously, these poems do reflect the trans experience.

For example, though I wanted to write sensual, overflowing, Walt-Whitman-having-a-one-night-stand-with-Pablo-Neruda poems, I couldn’t. When I lived as a male, I rarely felt that I had a body, so I drew a blank when I tried to evoke the sounds and smells, colors and shapes and textures. I could use the words, I could imitate others’ imagery, but because I had never tasted the thrill of living in a body, my poems, despite my efforts, tended to be abstract, distant, intellectual.

Since I wrote and published the poems in my first two collections as a heterosexual man, neither my demographics nor my subject matter would qualify them as “Trans Literature.” But every sentence, every word, reflected my acute awareness of being trans: my effort to escape gender categories, to avoid revealing personal details, to compensate for my lack of sensual experience through disembodied abstractions.

So when Morgan asks if there should be such a thing as “Trans Literature,” my answer is a qualified yes. I don’t see much aesthetic or intellectual value in a “Trans Literature” that is defined by the demographics of author or content. (“I am trans, hear me roar,” as Helen Reddy might, in alternate universe, even now be singing.)

For “Trans Lit” to be achieve aesthetic and intellectual vitality as a literary category, it must be both broader and more ambitious: “Trans Lit” should include all literary texts whose form or content reflects the puzzles, problems, exigencies and insights characteristic of the transgender experience—whether or not those texts are written by trans-identified authors or feature identifiably trans characters or content.  For example, the first literature I encountered that spoke to my experience of being trans was Franz Kafka’s famous story “Metamorphosis,” in which the fabulously unimaginative Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into an enormous insect.

Though I’ve never heard any suggestion that Kafka was transgender, I’ve never read a more compelling description of what it feels like to be trapped in the wrong body. But it isn’t only the content that leads me to read “Metamorphosis” as “Trans Literature.” Kafka’s extraordinary use of indirect discourse places us both inside and outside Gregor Samsa’s experience, creating a hideously intimate (we have no choice but know how Samsa feels) yet profoundly abstracted narrative perspective that closely resembles the way I experienced my body and my life when I was living as a man.

Yes, I know: after demanding a definition of “Trans Literature” that can apply to lyric poetry, I too turned to fiction for my first example—and for the same reasons that others do. Fiction is a natural mode for representing transgender experience, because fiction is about human relationships, and so is gender expression. But gender expression is only the most public aspect of transgender experience.  Transgender experience has another, far less social, aspect: gender identity. Gender identity isn’t about who we are to others; it’s about who we are to ourselves.

For most people, gender identity—the sense that “I am male” or “I am female”—reflects a sense of the unity between our psyches and our bodies. When a non-trans person says, “I am male” or “I am female,” he or she identifies the abstract “I” of consciousness with the gendered body that houses that consciousness. Though this identification of consciousness with body is complex and metaphysically problematic, our language makes it very easy to say—as long as we find ourselves reflected in terms like “male” and “female.”

But there are no terms that readily express transgender identity. Many trans people have fluid, fractured, compound or deliberately paradoxical gender identities; even for a garden-variety transsexual like me, who is simply trying to relocate from one side of the gender binary to the other, it can be hard to say “I am female” or “I am a woman,” because “female” and “woman” imply things about history, socialization and biology that will never apply to me. The affirmation “I am a feminized physically male person living as a woman” is not the stuff that stable gender identities and rock anthems are made of.

But for me, and for many trans people, the problem of gender identity goes way beyond a lack of nouns. The blank in language where words for our gender identities should be reflect deeper blanks in culture, psychology, theology, metaphysics. Without gender identities that unite our psyches and our bodies, it can be hard to locate ourselves in relation to space, to time, to nature, to history, to God.

When it comes to this aspect of transgender experience, poetry, not fiction, is the natural medium.  Poetry translates existential experience—including experience for which we have no words – into linguistic form, sound and texture. That makes it a perfect mode for expressing, however indirectly, the unstable, contradictory, inexpressible or profoundly uncomfortable gender identities—as long as we have a definition of Trans Lit that finds trans content not just in demographics and subject matter but in syntax, word choice, and other qualities of language. But how can poetic language reflect the trans experience when the content of the poem doesn’t? Let me conclude with a brief personal example.  While Transmigration, the first book I published as a trans woman, directly addresses the trans experience, Psalms, the book that followed it, doesn’t.

Psalms is a collection of lyric poems in which demographically sketchy “I” complains to God. Though a few lines and images explicitly refer to trans experience, for the most part, I tried to use language that could apply to anyone having relationship problems with the Almighty. But I couldn’t escape the fact that my problems with God had everything to do with being trans, and as I wrote, I found that my unstable gender identity—I was acutely conscious of becoming, rather than being, a woman—directly affected into my poetic choices. I fudged and often reversed my grammatical subjects and objects, and I stretched my sentences over many lines, breaking them into short phrases whose sense kept shifting as one line gave way to the next. I soon realized that the kind of sentences I was writing weren’t really sentences, in the sense of syntactically unified, coherent utterances; they were cascades of partial, temporary, transitory meanings. Like me, my sentences had become were publicly, permanently trans.

I don’t mean to suggest that trans poetry “should” be written this way (I don’t even write that way any more). “Trans Literature” doesn’t yet exist as a functional cultural category. We’ve barely begun to name or reflect on transgender experience, or how that experience can be reflected or translated into literature. But though I don’t yet know what “Trans Literature” means, I believe that “Trans Literature” should mean more than stories by and about transgender people. “Trans Literature” should embrace any literary language, form, aesthetics or meaning-making mode that reflects transgender experience. By casting the net of “Trans Literature” wide, we will ensure that we are using that category to explore the depth and breadth of transgender experience, to name and describe and lament and celebrate it, and we will recognize transgender experience is more than the travails of a hyperminority—that the mismatch between psyche and body is central to being human.

I can’t begin to define such a “Trans Literature,” but I believe that transgender authors are starting to create it, that non-trans authors like Kafka will one day be recognized as having already created it, and that those who care about queer identity and literature will recognize it, nurture it, cherish it, and come, in bookstores and college courses, to demand it.


Photo: Joy  Ladin

Joy Ladin photo

About: Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, has published six books of poetry, including Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration; her seventh collection, Impersonation, is due out in 2015. Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life:  A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist,and she has also published a study of American poetry, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship.

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