Reading the Unwritten: Rethinking Transgender Narratives

by Terrence Abrahams

Terrence Abrahams is a poet, student at the University of Toronto, editor of the Hart House Review, and co-founder of micropress Abrahams & Zachary.

Voids—black holes and the like—should be inspiring. Look at the potential space. Look at the ambiguity. Look at all the meaning we have to instil on emptiness in order to understand it then to fill it. What do we call a lack of literary legacy if not a void? Literature by and/or about trans people, if it can be called a ‘genre’ of Canadian literature in spite of its paucity, contains a troubling ratio of transgender to cisgender authors writing about transgender individuals. Complicating this issue is the fact that works by transgender people about transgender people is often unpublished, their work overlooked for the more effective gender-drama that cisgender authors write in a formulaic, near-operatic manner, relying upon violence and stereotypical portrayals of transgender lives and lifestyles. Their stories are being told for them, and being told badly.

In this April’s issue of Quill and Quire, Kim Fu, author of For Today I Am a Boy, was praised by Harper Collins’s editorial director Jennifer Lambert for her ability to “fill a void” that many writers and critics are unaware of. Fu’s book, a novel about a Chinese-Canadian transgender woman named Audrey, added something to that empty space; but it did not produce new and fertile depictions of transgender identity. Should cisgender people such as Fu write about the transgender experience at all? Engaging with an experience unknown to the author is one reason many become authors: to explore lives they cannot live. But this aim highlights the power dynamic at work in fiction written about the transgender experience by cisgender people. Cisgender people are distanced from the real-world dangers involved in being visibly transgender—such as physical and sexual violence, verbal abuse, and even death—and can thus draw inspiration from such experiences to create stirring, dramatic narratives. But these narratives lack an actual understanding of the transgender experience.

Kim Fu’s characterization of Audrey is stereotypical and uninspired, drawing from clichés in novels about trans people by cisgender people. This is a result of the fact that Kim Fu herself is not a trans woman. She offers nothing new to a genre still being defined, and yet Kamal Al-Solayee (of Quill and Quire) praises Fu for “anticipat[ing] a general conversation on transgender issues before broader popular culture discovered it.” Yet trans people have been having conversations—both general and specific, fictional and nonfictional—on trans issues for years. Uncritical praise for For Today I Am a Boy implies that writers like Fu should be applauded for appropriating the experiences of trans people, though the results of her efforts only appease and educate the general (cisgender) public.

This is only one of many examples of how cisgender authors are often lauded for being aware of the existence of trans people. I do not view this limited level of awareness as a positive contribution, or as ‘filling a void.’ Cisgender people tend to rely on stereotypical plotlines involving transgender people in order to draw in the questioning reader: who or what are trans people? Why should I care about them? Why are their lives worth writing about? These questions contribute to a long (and false) transgender literary history. Cisgender authors are inclined to put trans characters on pedestals (Kafka on the Shore, Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab); to use trans teens as life lessons in bildungsroman plots (Almost Perfect, I Am J, Luna); or to employ intersex and/or trans characters for shock and plot value (Annabel, The Golden Boy, Middlesex). Whereas writers of comics and television do not shy away from killing off trans characters, novelists force them into predetermined character archetypes, involving ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ tropes. This predetermination—this authorial act of fitting a character to an existing archetype or stereotype—places the trans character into the position of the other. The othering occurs because cisgender authors cannot authentically connect with trans characters like they can to cis characters. The authors fall back on lazy methods to relay what they believe to be an accurate depiction of a trans person. Such shoddy representations of trans people crumbles under the weight of their creator’s poor conceptualization. The interest in the transgender experience is there, the writing may be effective, but the realism and relatability that accompanies a well-written, character-driven book is entirely lacking.

As a trans person, I am aware of my reality as a non-conforming body. I wish I could look to literature to find a reflection of my situation, and not an over-dramatized, sexuality-focused, cissexist novel about a trans or intersex individual who does little more than bemoan their situation and encounter incident after incident in order to push the plot along. Cis authors continue to write narratives that use damaging stereotypes, including only the most dramatic aspects of transgender experiences: physical transition, sexual assault, rampant transphobia, and premature death. All of these events can occur in the life of a trans person, but they also occur to cisgender people. The difference is, of course, that the Other (that is, the trans character and their unavoidable trans identity) is far more interesting and far easier to dramatize for an audience with a limited personal stake in trans issues. It is as exhausting trying to read these types of novels as it is trying piece together why they are so common.

Hundreds of Goodreads reviews of trans character-focused novels by authors such as Murakami and Eugenides lament how “depressing and painful” these books were. Reviewers praise these books’ “fascinating premise[s]” (Anupa Mistry for the Globe and Mail, on Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab) or their “dramatic and thematically rich” (Shawn Syms for the Quill and Quire, on Annabel) while simultaneously misgendering and deadnaming (referring to a trans person by their discarded birth name) characters, as Mistry does, or using outdated and offensive words like hermaphrodite, a word Globe and Mail reviewer Christine Fischer Guy felt the need to include in her review of Annabel. Though these novels’ transgender characters are central to their plots, reviewers unfamiliar with the subject matter claim that these novels, as Fischer Guy claims, ask “the most existential of questions.”

But the questions being asked are not those familiar to transgender people. Rather, trans characters are often written to serve as talking points for the cisgender characters (and cisgender readers) as a living answer to their curiousity and ignorance. These characters represent the cisgender experience of struggling with the unfamiliar, often frightening, subject of gender and how it functions in our society. This is all well and good—I am always in favour in exploring the self in relation to gender. But why must cisgender authors use narratives of transgender people to explore their relation to gender and gender nonconformity? When this questioning is accompanied by stereotypical portrayals of violence against trans people, we have a problem. These transgender characters are written to be exactly what the cisgender characters in the same narrative fear of becoming if they don’t work to label and categorize and understand their own relations to gender. They fear becoming the Other that they have created for the trans characters and by extension, themselves. The terrifying possibility of entering the alien space trans characters occupy in their own narratives often drives the drama: the violence, the desires for acceptance, the resulting attempt at conforming. Cis characters are forced to confront all the difficulties transgender characters face through descriptions of the physical transition of the trans character. Rarely are these narratives read ‘through the eyes’ of the trans character, even when written in first person. The trans character takes the backseat in their own story that more often ends up being about the cis character(s) as they face the struggle to accept the trans character’s new and foreign physicality. The experience, once alien, then becomes familiar: by taking on a gender role most similar to that of a cis man or woman’s role in society, the trans character has overcome the othering, assuaging the cisgender worry that gender roles are about to come undone. It’s important to remember that it is the cis character—and author—imposed these issues with gender roles and effect on individuals on all characters involved and frames them as a uniquely transgender struggle with gender.

I don’t want to condemn authors who write about experiences outside of their own, but to condemn authors who write about those experiences poorly and reductively. The experiences of trans and intersex people are as complex and diverse as those of cisgender people, so why are cis authors determined to rehash exhausted and exhaustive plotlines, using essentially identical characters? It may be that there are so few trans authors published, at least in Canadian literature, which is where I write and read from. Trans authors such as Ivan E. Coyote and Vivek Shraya have been active in fiction, poetry, academia, and activism for years, but have only lately entered a more public eye as the discussions surrounding trans people and their unique stories take on more of a presence in the literary community. Their work offers what most works by cisgender authors do not: a glimpse of the genuine. Both Shraya and Coyote offer bold, often biographical stories, their characters drawing from their lives as gender non-conforming individuals as well as from their tireless imaginations. The characters like those found in their 2012 collection, One in Every Crowd, are given concerns and goals beyond those of being transgender: for all people, trans and cis alike, life is complicated. Coyote gets that, and explores the lives of transgender teenagers in a relatable, realistic manner, one that, as is the aim, will offer a comforting reflection of the trans teen who picks up a copy of Coyote’s book. Likewise, Shraya’s She of the Mountains is a story that questions gender, sexuality and religion relentlessly. Shraya’s characters are at once surreal and impossibly real, asking questions regarding identity that leave one both concerned and contented. Despite the surrealist aspect, the work and its characters are identifiable, relatable, and realistic. I am much more engaged in the story of someone questioning a god about gender than I am when reading another cis author have a trans character turn to another cigender mortal for approval and answers. Why? Because the focus is shifted; the voice is authentic; the transgender aspect of the characters, of the writing, though central, is not the reason for the story being told. The stories told by Coyote and Shraya are, first and foremost, stories of human struggle and search for understanding.

Casey Plett is another transgender author whose work focuses on trans characters and narratives that are energizing and humanizing rather than exhausting to read. Her collection of short stories, A Safe Girl to Love, brings much-needed insight on the diversity of trans experience. Her work brings a rare perspective to the burgeoning genre of trans fiction: it is a book written by a trans person, about trans people, for trans people. Plett’s work extends to critical examination; she wrote an article for The Walrus last April, “Rise of the Gender Novel,” also critiquing common characteristic of the trans character as seen through the eyes of the cis author. She says:

[The] portrayals of gender-identity struggles are ham-fisted, and despite the authors’ apparently good intentions they often rehash stale, demeaning tropes: a coy mix-and-match of pronouns; descriptions of trans women as fake and mannish; the equation of gender with genitalia and surgery; [and] a fixation on rare intersex conditions that allow for tacked-on, unrealistic transition narratives.

Plett is left unsure as to why cis authors continue to consider themselves the so-called “chroniclers” of the trans narrative. As a trans person who spent my formative years reading trans literature written by (and for) cis people, I too am left wondering: if cis people are so bad at writing trans narratives, why do they continue to do so?

I could hardly finish many of the books by cis authors I have mentioned. They didn’t speak to me of creating a legacy or of writing a new history—rather, they confirmed my fears, agreeing with the voices in my head that consistently remind me of my position as one whom cisgender people are incessantly interested in understanding and exploiting for the sake of their own curiosity. On many of my first encounters with these narratives, realizing that they depended on formulaic characters defined solely by their state of being trans and/or intersex were not only tiring, but foreign, and often terrifying to read. Forget any other aspect of their personality: their gender identity and their genitalia are emphasized. Reduced to a body and, in some cases, to a shell of their ‘former’ selves, these characters didn’t feel real or relatable. They were devices inserted into stories about how cis people view and experience transgender people, something that Plett also commented on in this January’s issue of The Walrus: “…[narratives which focus] on the poor cis people who must endure a transitioning partner rather than the pain of the actual trans person is also a trope of trans stories. And I’m not too sympathetic to it.” Neither am I. When trans characters are the protagonists, they are hardly in a position worthy of being called a main character. When they aren’t, there is little to no chance of engaging in critical discussion on the subject when the cisgender person who read the same book as me chooses to focus instead on how the transgender narrative is so relatable, so compelling, so hard to stomach—ignoring entirely the very real dangers involved in being transgender. When transgender people aren’t being othered, they’re forced to educate, and when they aren’t educating, they’re forced to accept cisgender ideals and expectations surrounding their lives and bodies and presentations in all their various forms.

It is difficult to avoid falling back on preconceived notions of a person when writing directly about a person whose experience is entirely alien, but it is the effect of these preconceived notions of character that effectively ruins a rich portrayal of the trans character. Unlike most cis authors, trans writers are often able to dismiss these notions. They recognize what is realistic and what is not, and they can take a more critical stance on such narratives, supported by their own lived experiences. When cisgender people write trans characters, they create a crudely-drawn sketch of a person, the heart and soul pushed aside in favour of focusing on what lies between the character’s legs. Subject to such poor development, trans readers worry that this may be all they will ever have: a soulless legacy of damaged, vacant souls, pushed along through violent plotlines and the need to be accepted by their cisgender peers. We need authors who are educated in what it is to be transgender, who have read works by transgender authors, and who have taken the time to question their personal understanding of transgender narratives. Most importantly, however, we need those who experience what it is to be transgender by existing as a transgender individual. To fill an empty page in the history of trans literature, it is necessary to turn to authors who have transferred the weight of their experiences into their writing.


Terrence Abrahams is a poet, student at the University of Toronto, editor of the Hart House Review, and co-founder of micropress Abrahams & Zachary.