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Jos Charles: Making a Space for Trans* Writers

Jos Charles: Making a Space for Trans* Writers

Author: William Johnson

January 26, 2014

THEM, a journal that debuted last year, has a bold but simple statement of purpose: “THEM is a literary journal of trans* writers.”

While the journal is dedicated to publishing tran* writers, what enlivens this literary endeavor is that the well-crafted work within does not conform to any one overreaching trans* thematic through-line, but instead showcases “writing that doesn’t appeal to ‘being trans*’ as if it were one, complete narrative.”

The editor of THEM Jos Charles took some time to the Lambda Literary Review about starting the journal, aesthetics, and what constitutes “tran* writing.”

What was the impetus for starting THEM?

As a genderqueer writer I get frustrated with the role cisgender publishers expect of me. I’m assumed to be transgressive and only capable of a number of finite experiences—the coming out story, the happy trans* person, the dead trans* person. If I’m even allowed or accepted as being “out” in my writing, there’s tokenization. I wanted to see a space where folks whose bodies don’t fit within the neat western gender binary could be able to write without these pressures. It wasn’t there, so I started it.

Did you have an audience or readership in mind when you decided to pull it all together?

THEM seems to, unsurprisingly, appeal to trans* and/or queer folks, sometimes folks invested in intersectional justice, and, more broadly, folks who read contemporary creative writing. Pigeonholes happen; all writing is niche writing. At the end of the day, I hope people enjoy THEM because we publish good writing.

Do you see this collection as serving as a sort of correction to a lot of work currently being produced in in the queer/lgbt publishing community?

As an editor of THEM I feel a commitment, both aesthetically and out of a sense of care, to encounter writing I don’t see elsewhere. Nothing exists in a vacuum so “correction” might be happening. The default connotation for queer is white, able, cisgender, and so on. THEM features writing that, at times, addresses the systems of power that uphold that stereotype. It would be fantastic if THEM contributes towards a more equitable reconfiguration of power in queer publishing spaces. That’s, I suppose, a lofty and long term goal, but not something I can predict or take credit for. My first concern is facilitating a space where trans* writers can find solidarity and respect for the multitude of differing identities among us.

In terms of aesthetics and craft, what kind of work were you looking to be included in THEM?

I wish I could say I didn’t have any expectations; however, I have to acknowledge that there are histories, many problematic, which have come to produce what appears as ‘good work’ to me. Emerson, Jamila—the other two editors of THEM—and others have done a great job of keeping me accountable. Work that I don’t encounter in other publishing spaces excites me as a reader. That could be ‘formal’ or based on content, voice, narrative, history, etc. That work is read as ‘experimental’ or ‘innovative’ based only on a narrowly defined conception of Western form is telling.

Was it a general call for submissions or do you reach out to writers you knew and loved?

For this first issue there were a few solicitations. It turned out we received enough submissions that I don’t think that will be necessary in forthcoming issues.

In the intro to your collection you state, “We accept we have been constructed as many, so we reject the fiction we share a common identity to call home; we come from below. We admit we were never singular.” This is a bold statement, but I wonder did you discover any recurring themes after finishing the collection? I know patterns often emerge even when we do not expect to find them.

The collection, I feel, is very thematically balanced. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I was afraid there’d be a lot of ‘surprise the main character is trans’ and ‘coming out’ fiction. Setting aside how these narratives can be problematic (unless reconfiguring or challenging the cliché), they just bore me as a reader. I was pleasantly surprised not only of the quality of the writing submitted, but the unique challenges of each piece. The issue reads less like under a one theme umbrella to me as narrative. We begin with the coming-into-language of Boston Davis Bostian’s verse and work our way into the mortal and faulted reconciliation of Van Binfa’s Four Years. Reading the collection in one sitting (which I’ve done a fair amount now) leaves me painfully sweet. That’s a product of the quality of writing, absolutely, but also that these works all can be together in a place.

What I really loved about this collection it that a lot of the work cannily and effortlessly deconstructs the way traditional narratives are often told, but all with a real sense of control and genuine emotion. Nothing seems like empty exercises in postmodernism. (I am thinking of one my favorite stories in this collection Calvin Gimpelevich’s revelatory short story “Innovation, Reversal, and Change’ which turns the age old puberty/coming of age narrative on its head). Is this the kind of work, as the curator of this collection, that you generally respond to?



That’s fantastic you had that reaction. In the letter from the editor, I say “this collection could be labeled ‘experimental,’ but only insofar as trans* bodies are consistently maligned as ‘experimental.’” I don’t want to paint broad strokes about ‘trans* writing’ as such, but I know for me, as a genderqueer writer, questioning established forms isn’t a question of transgression or challenging the reader, but of survival. The writing world is as cissexist as anywhere. Rejecting given norms is often a requirement to speak in a language that doesn’t betray us. I respond well to writing of this kind, but I also think the submissions tended to be situated around “control and genuine emotion.”

I’m stealing this question from a previous interview that writer TT Jax conducted with trans* authors and publishers because I think it is a good one: Do you consider transgender literature to be based on content (trans characters, trans experiences), theme (transformation/displacement), form (experimental, hybrid), and/or transgender authorship? None, some, or all of the above? Please explain.

I use “trans* writing” in quotes. It’s never more than shorthand for a breadth of differing and contradicting experiences. There is more than one trans* writing. If I had to sketch limits to the phrase, which is something I am hesitant to do, I would say writing strikes me as ‘trans* writing’ when it’s something outside of the ‘fold’ of normative genders (i.e. the western binary) in the publishing world. Some identities might be folded into acceptability in certain ways others aren’t. I can’t sketch all those histories.

The “death of the author” model has made folks hesitant, I feel, to acknowledge the social relation of the author’s identity to the production of a text. It’s very different though for a trans* person to come to write than it is for a cis person. The world treats us differently; we experience the world differently. The individual is not beyond the text, but embedded, alongside, in the world that has produced the text. Our bodies are contextual. The short answer is if someone identifies as trans*, I’d be comfortable identifying their writing as trans* unless they asked me not to.

So when can we expect the next issue? Or are there other projects that you are working on?

Issue II should be out in July. Submissions open  January 15th and close April 15th. I am personally involved in a number of smaller projects as well as my own writing. For instance, I have a poetry collection floating around in submission land. Please publish me.

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About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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