I find it incredibly difficult to discuss the works of authors that I adore. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews for this site over the years, yet on some...moreI find it incredibly difficult to discuss the works of authors that I adore. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews for this site over the years, yet on some of my favorite writers I have said nary a word. Why is it always easier to describe why I don’t like something than it is to explain why a piece of writing resonates with me? I finished this book several weeks ago but have been torn as to how to review it. I didn’t want to just rate it and mark it read, but I don’t really know how to express how this short essay affected me. I’ve written three other drafts of this review so far and none have been able to get to the crux of how I feel about this seminal piece of first-wave feminist writing.
First published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own collects a series of lectures that Woolf delivered to two women’s colleges on the topic of women in fiction. A broad topic, to be sure, Woolf approaches it with all the cool logic intermixed with vivid imagery which made To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway such essential reads. Rather than focusing on how women in fiction have been portrayed throughout history, she turns her analytic eye on the lack of women writers asking the crucial question, “why is there no female Shakespeare? Why is it that it wasn’t until the advent of Austen and the Brontes that women began to tell their own stories?”
Her answer is so well known at this point that it could be canon. In order to be able to create, a woman needs a little bit of money and a room of one’s own. Basically, she needs to be freed from the daily demands of unpaid carework and domestic labor with which she has historically been saddled and a space where she can sit uninterrupted in order to coax the muse into cooperating with her. For a long time it was the latter half of this statement that really resonated with me. I’ve never had a room of my own, sharing with siblings while growing up, roommates while at university, and with my spouse until recently. Every piece of writing I’ve managed has been done while surrounded by people, words frantically inscribed during lulls in conversation or while trying to block out the sounds around me. I can only imagine how much more productive I could be were I to have a space I could seclude myself.
It wasn’t until the events of this year that I’ve realized just how important the first part of the statement is as well. Since coming out I have been lucky enough to meet a wide assortment of trans women, nearly all of whom are incredibly smart talented and absolutely brimming with creative passion. Yet almost without exception most of these women are forced to expend all of their energies on simply surviving. The endless struggle to find and retain employment, the constant threat of violence (physical, sexual, and emotional) that we are subject to whenever we are in public, the lifelong need to have access to the medical care that keeps the epic mindfuck that is dysphoria at bay- these are the struggles that the women I love spend their days consumed with. All the space in the world can not help you create if your every waking moment is filled just with the struggle to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head.
So if I want to read stories that are reflective of my own experiences, if I want to see films that feature trans characters that don’t rely entirely on the offensive stereotypes so often promulgated by cis people who have probably never met a trans woman, if I want to hear music made by girls like me, then economic security should be the primary place I should lend my efforts as both a trans woman and as an activist. Because I very much want to see more creative works made by trans women. I feel that we have a very unique perspective on not only gender and sexuality but human relations as a whole and that reading trans women’s stories is of benefit not just to me or to people with trans people in their lives, but to our entire culture.
So with all of that, with how much I very much relate to what Woolf is espousing in her typically beautiful way, why have I only rated this three stars? Because this slim volume suffers from the same problems that plagued feminist theory from its first incarnations until the early 1980s and which, though there is an increasing amount of criticism against it, continues to this day. That is the lack of awareness of how Woolf’s class status and skin color afforded her the privilege to be freed from care work and to have a room of her own in the first place. By not recognizing that her emancipation came at the expense of other women, Woolf’s emancipatory ideal ended up contributing to the silencing and marginalization of working women and women of color whose status in society did not afford them the luxury of either money or a room. That by not recognizing how the money that afforded her the opportunity to write came from a source that profited from the violence and exploitation of British colonialism, it reifies an inaccurate and damaging perspective. We should always strive to be aware of how the advantages we have come at the expense of others.
This is not meant as an indictment of Woolf, however. The concept of intersectionality is a relatively recent one and far be it for me to anachronistically apply it in my judgment of this thin volume. However, I do feel that it is necessary to read works like this with a critical eye and the knowledge that what Woolf is presenting is necessarily limited by her own experiences as a wealthy white woman in the early 20th Century. Even still, despite this glaring flaw, this is an exceptionally important book and absolutely belongs in the canon of feminist writings. (less)
Earlier this year, when I first started to try to get people to understand what I meant when I said that I was transgender, I searched high and low fo...moreEarlier this year, when I first started to try to get people to understand what I meant when I said that I was transgender, I searched high and low for any texts that I could give people to describe the dissociation from my body, the self-loathing I carried with me everywhere, the complete sense of helpless panic mixed with the certainty that I needed to do something. I wanted to find just one text that could express all of that and help others understand why I'd undertaken, why I had very much needed to undertake, such a drastic process. I had a lot more optimism then. These days I don't really care if people understand me so long as they respect my wishes and don't call me by my old name, male pronouns, or "it." Real world interactions with people almost always lead me to lower my expectations.
So imagine my delight when people on the message boards I belong to started talking about a new book that finally "got" it. Words written from the heart of an eloquent trans woman who was able to finally express all of the things we'd been struggling to get across to people, words that helped this subculture of which I'm a part begin to define ourselves in language we all understand rather than relying upon clinicians and sociologists to observe us and make notes, like so many books on being trans have done already (I'm looking at you True Selves and My Brother, My Sister).
Instead, here was a fiery punk rock girl revealing the full tumult of living as a trans woman. Not just the before-and-after fixation that so much of the press likes to focus on, but the messy little details that are nearly always overlooked- like how do begin to navigate the world as a single woman, how do you begin try to work past being being physically present but mentally absent from nearly every social situation, how do you ever leave behind the pain and hurt of all those years fighting against yourself and manage to live a more open life? And to do so with whip-smart prose and a style that crackles with intensity and wit is all the more appreciated. Imogen Binnie is no mere niche author of a subculture only beginning to create its own culture, but a writer of superb skill (seriously you all should read some of the articles she's written for Maximum Rock 'n Roll) who I hope will become a household name as she continues writing.
Nevada is the story of Maria Griffiths, a trans woman living in Brooklyn who has just been simultaneously dumped and fired and is feeling quite adrift from her life and has no idea how to move forward and so steals her girlfriend's car for an impromptu roadtrip to the Pacific. Along the way she meets James, a boy working in a small town Wal-Mart somewhere near Reno and realizes that he's like she was at 20- lost, trying to present as a man but failing at it, stuck in a relationship he kind of just fell into, and hiding it all under a thick haze of marijuana. As she helps James face the specter of his own dysphoria and take those first painfully hard steps of admitting that he's maybe/possibly/probably trans, she also gets a chance to process through the ruins of her own life and realize the things that she's also been avoiding.
I wanted to write this review without falling into the mire of autobiographical reflections and over-sharing of very intimate details of my life because I feel as though I've done too much of that far too publicly this year and I'm kind of feeling pretty self-conscious about broadcasting it like I did and kind of really tired of thinking about myself on a constant basis. Yet the more of the book I read, the more I realized that it's impossible to extricate myself from this review because, more than anything, reading Nevada was an exercise in finding parallels with my own life. Barely a page went by where I didn't find myself nodding along with a thought a character has, wincing in shared dismay at an unfortunate event, and finding my eyes grow moist with tender recognition when the action moves out of Brooklyn and into the barren wastes of Nevada and we meet James, whose entire storyline reads as a fictionalised retelling of the three long and dark years I spent living in Tucson.
That's a big part of the value of this book for me. Until recently I didn't know many trans women and none well enough to where I felt comfortable asking about the very personal aspects of living that fill our days, so questions like "am I the only one who has to pretend that they're not having sex with another person in order to get off" or "how is it that I can argue vehemently for the rights and freedom of others but find it impossible to vocalize anything about my own personal wants and needs" or "why does this misogynistic porn seem to be one of the few things I find enticing" (btw: this book is worth reading if only for the chapter in which Binnie conclusively kills off the dated and oppressive concept of autogynephilia) were all just big question marks that I chalked up to "I'm crazy" instead of "I'm trans." Reading Nevada, though, really brought home to me just how similar my own road to accepting that I'm a trans woman is to nearly every other trans woman I've come to know. I may not be a beautiful and unique snowflake of dysfunction but I am also not alone. Which, when you've spent so many years fearing and hating yourself for things you can't wish, smoke, or drink away, is an incredibly relieving thing to find out.
For example, I spent most of my adult life thinking that I couldn't be trans because I didn't fit the constrained and narrow view of what I thought, of what society tells us, that trans girls are. By which I mean the outdated and discredited Harry Benjamin Standards of Care that dictate that all trans women always present as super femme, always sit down to pee, and if they find women's bodies attractive well, they couldn't be lesbians, they're just perverted men. I could never fit into that definition and lacked any other examples as to how I could approach my own femininity so could never make the mental leap from seeing others being fulfilled by properly experiencing and expressing their gender to imagining myself so fulfilled and it tore me apart whenever I'd think about it, which was pretty much constantly. To avoid having to think about it I would just shut down and not process. I drank whiskey like water, smoked enough weed to fund an entire Mexican drug war, and hid in my apartment obsessively reading pretty much anything that fell into my lap (hence my Goodreads account being the social media site I've belonged to the longest), hating everything, and dissociating from my every day existence as a boy. Yet here it turns out that all of the fucked up weird shit that I did to cope or to process or to deny is pretty much a checklist that nearly every other trans woman I have come to know has done as well.
Which explains why every trans woman I know who has read it says that if you want to know about being trans, read Nevada. This is an important book, for me personally, for trans women as a group, and for a society raised on caricatures of trans women like Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill or the sexually predatory trans woman who wants nothing more than to trick a man or a lesbian into sex (seriously, how do people not understand just how very sexually dysfunctional most of us are?) that has no idea how to consider us as complex multi-faceted people.(less)
I had no idea this book was centered around baseball when I started it. I tried for three long weeks to get into it, but I really just can't force mys...moreI had no idea this book was centered around baseball when I started it. I tried for three long weeks to get into it, but I really just can't force myself to care. It may be a great book, I know that Duncan is certainly an expressive writer, but it just wasn't for me.(less)
When I met with my doctor the other week to pick up my prescription, she recommended a book to me that she said really helped her wife come to grips w...moreWhen I met with my doctor the other week to pick up my prescription, she recommended a book to me that she said really helped her wife come to grips with understanding her husband as a transwoman. As I seem to be on an endless quest to help people understand where I’m coming from, I immediately ordered a copy from Powells and spent a few hours Saturday tearing through its large printed pages.
Written by a Bay Area psychologist who had worked closely with many people through their transitions, True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals paints a vivid picture of what it’s like growing up with feelings of dysphoria, the trauma of puberty, the ways in which adults have dealt with their dysphoria either through trying to build a “normal” life and the moment when the kettle comes to a boil and a person’s true gender can no longer be denied.
There’s a lot in there that I don’t agree with, particularly her ham-fisted attempt at delineating a difference between a transgendered person and a she-male where she claims that she-males are specifically prostitutes that are in some such stage of transition. This is utter bullshit. She-male as a term only has meaning as a pejorative slur which ignorant fucks use for transbashing. See also “lady-boy.” The author fails to take note of the class problems and limited access to resources that has so often pushed transgender people into sex work, and through limiting the scope of that analysis to ignore the broader structural oppression that trans people are subjected to, serves to reinforce the stereotyping of trans people as sexual deviants that leads to slurs like she-male in the first place.
Likewise, she repeatedly misgenders her patients, referring to them as their bio-sex repeatedly through the book. Coming from a trained professional who has worked closely with trans people in a book about helping those new to the concept come to grips with a friend/lover/coworker’s change to have such a glaring problem is just flat out sloppy. Shrink lady, you need a better editor.
Finally, this book was written in 1996, and is very much steeped in the outdated Harry Benjamin Standard of Ethics of Care for transgendered individuals. These standards are what kept me from seeking out treatment to address my dysphoria for a long amount of time, because they set up the psychologist as a gatekeeper who can allow/disallow access to HRT or approval to change genders on state-sanctioned IDs and I chafe at any such constraint upon my free will. I’ve lived over 30 years in this flawed form, needing to prove that to a state-approved professional should not be necessary. Holding the treatment I desire hostage before I jump through the requisite hoops very much makes me feel not like a woman seeking to bring her external form into compliance with her inner representation but more of a deviant needing to prove themselves in the eyes of authority. It’s no wonder that an anti-authoritarian like me was hesitant to plunge into that circle of approval, seeing as I value personal autonomy higher than nearly any other value (as long as you don’t exercise that autonomy to oppress or exploit others, in which case you will learn right quick why I consider myself militant).
While I don’t agree with everything contained therein, it is still the best resource I’ve yet found for explaining dysphoria. The first three chapters, on growing up trans, puberty as a transwoman, and early adulthood where we grapple with ideas of fitting in and passing as a gender that we don’t relate to, are amazing. I’ve never been able to put into words the sense of alienation from people yet needing to perform and be approved of by them that has pervaded so much of my life as these chapters managed to illuminate. You could read 80 of my blog posts and still never get as thorough of an illustration as True Selves manages. This is why, despite all the things it gets wrong, I still think people who want to relate with me should read it.(less)