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Cis Lit and the Trans Writer
McKenzie Wark on Torrey Peters and the possibilities for trans girl fiction
Public Seminar will be back with a full issue next week. Until then, here’s a special essay from media and cultural critic McKenzie Wark.
What’s the one weird secret trans women know? Torrey Peters nails it in her new novel, Detransition, Baby.“Heterosexual cis people, while willfully ignoring it, have staked their whole sexuality on a bet that each other’s genders are real,” Peters explains. “If only cis heterosexuals would realize that like trans women, the activity in which they are indulging is a big self-pleasuring lie that has little to do with their actual personhood, they’d be free to indulge in a whole new flexible suite of hot ways to lie to each other.” (287)
What would happen if we took seriously the perspectives of trans people, and allowed them to potentially transform how we see the whole of gender? Detransition, Baby is a book about what cis and trans women might have to say to each other. It does allow a certain amount of cis tourism into queer lives, but not just to gawk. The trans characters have learned some things the hard way, things with which cis people still struggle. But were there to be a frank exchange about the real stuff of our respective lives as women, we might all come away from it a little wiser.
Detransition, Baby is a landmark book for trans lit. It’s a group portrait of Brooklyn trans life in the post “tipping point” era. That began with a Time magazine cover story in 2014, although the surfacing of trans life in popular culture around that time might have more to do with what Peters calls the “Tumblr-Twitter Industrial Complex.” (121)
For trans readers, Detransition, Baby is also an aspirational story. It’s a version of what it calls the Sex and the City problem. The famous HBO series framed it this way: Should a woman in her thirties, of some education and means, probably white, devote her life to becoming a career woman (Samantha), being an artist (Carrie), finding the love of her life (Charlotte), or raising a child (Miranda)? Note that the Sex and the City problem already disaggregates the desire for the partner from that for a child.
These are ambitions out of reach for many trans women, even white ones: a lot of trans women who might want life partners or kids give up on those dreams. But perhaps we are catching up. Not long ago that trans women only got to play the muse and could not be recognized as the artist: Amanda Lear for Dali, Rachel Humphries for Lou Reed, Candy Darling for Warhol. As for careers, Peters notes three stereotypical jobs for trans women: tech, beautician, or sex worker. (54) This shapes a sort of race-inflected, mini-class system. A tiny handful of t-girls in tech make serious money and have access to insurance which (unlike mine at The New School) covers all their surgeries.
Peters is careful not to paint the trans version of queer life with a romantic, bohemian palette. As a cis character says to Reese, the trans protagonist: “the way you do things ends in funerals.” (232) Trans humor: What would a remake with an all trans girl cast of Four Weddings and a Funeral be called? Four Funerals and a Funeral. (209) It’s a joke a trans character named Thalia makes up—during a memorial service. Theirs is what Peters calls the “orphan generation” of Brooklyn trans women, “the milieu that basically invented screaming online.” (102) They had to figure it out on their own. There weren’t a lot of trans elders. Those that might have been either died in the early phase of the HIV pandemic, went deep stealth, or (like me) stayed in the closet.
Yet out of that orphan generation came what Peters has called elsewhere “sad trans girl literature.” I think of that great burst of books and stories that came out after Imogen Binnie’s Nevada in 2013. It was our literary tipping point: frank and bleak rather than celebratory or seeking acceptance from cis readers. While Detransition, Baby acknowledges its debt to that writing, Peters’ interest is in literature that might invoke other possibilities for trans life, as well as describing some more depressing actual ones. The book’s predicament is that of trans women of a certain age, out for years, for whom youth is passing and the search for a second act to life is pressing.
Maybe one way to find new possibilities for trans life is in dialog with cis women: our lives have unexplored parallels to theirs. Could cis and trans women learn from each other’s situations and improve on them together? Peters dives right into one of the topics that transphobic cis women most often brandish as their unique, female quality: that they can make babies, that we can’t. But what could motherhood, and by extension womanhood, be if we think more broadly about who mothers are and what mothering is?
The reverse is also true, but rarely acknowledged: trans women know things many cis women don’t about gender. As the trans character, Reese declares: “The only people who have anything worthwhile to say about gender are divorced cis women who have given up on heterosexuality but are still attracted to men.” (167) What connects cis women’s experience to that of trans women, is their survival depends on rewriting the story of their lives. From Doris Lessing’s TheGolden Notebook (1962) onwards, divorce has been a narrative fulcrum. What if, instead, the divorce and transition stories were put in conversation?
What mediates these two strands in Detransition, Baby is the detransition story. If cis women often can’t empathize with trans women, trans women have a hard time with detransitioners, or people who reverse a gender transition. We don’t like to talk about it. Peters has a talent for cutting right to the difficult conversations, reformulating them through fiction. One thing literary fiction can do is incite the reader’s empathy with other’s stories. If on the one hand, Peters opens a space for cis women readers to feel with trans women; on the other, it also opens a space for the trans reader to feel with the detransitioner.
The narrative machinery centers on Reece, a white trans woman in her thirties, and Katrina, a divorced, biracial cis woman, also in her thirties. Katrina is pregnant and must decide what to do about the pregnancy. Reece longs for a pregnancy she can’t have and longs to be a mother. She is seeing a married man, her “cowboy,” who is cheating on his wife. He is HIV positive, due to a previous encounter with a trans woman. Reese and the cowboy’s erotic banter includes references to him “impregnating” her with the virus. (As a prudent woman she is nevertheless on Truvada).
Reese and Katrina are doubles of each other: divorced and pregnant for real versus cheating and playing with a fantasy of lethal, negative germination. They are about the same age. Both have medicalized bodies. They are both the objects of fetishistic attention: Katrina’s former husband had a stash of Asian porn. Reese dates chasers, whose fetish is her trans-ness. At first glance it seems that Katrina’s cis world stands for life and Reece’s stands for death: Peters reminds us that the term “transgender” was popularized by AIDS service agencies as “the name selected to recognize a vector of disease.” (307) In that sense, the book plays on cis world assumptions but complicates them.
Enter the detransitioner, who goes by three different names: James transitioned to become Amy, and then detransitions to become Ames—or maybe not quite. Reese for one does not believe Ames’s “fake cis thing.” (42) It is Ames who unexpectedly got Katrina pregnant. As Amy was once Reese’s lover, it is Ames / Amy who, in his/her duality, brings Katrina and Reese together by proposing that Reese and Katrina raise the baby jointly, sparing Ames/Amy the dysphoric torment of having to become a father.
As a trans woman parent, I know how the category of fatherhood, and all it implies, insinuates itself. My kids call me dad but use she/her pronouns for me. I learn to live with it. The idea of Katrina and Reese and Ames/Amy as a trio of co-parents makes sense to me as a way for everyone to become the parent they want to be, Ames/Amy in a role that need not be “father.” Reese and Katrina as mothers. The problem for Reese is whether, as a trans woman, her motherhood can ever go unquestioned-- or whether, like me, she needs to fear the suspicious gaze of other mothers in the playground.
The Ames/Amy character functions as a narrative connector, bringing together the two worlds of cis and trans, both of which normally transpire in different little sub-communities in Brooklyn. As a New Yorker, I appreciate the psychogeography of a borough Peters knows so well. The trans man Ricky lives in Bushwick, and the bar where Thalia performs is somewhere near it in North Brooklyn, maybe East Williamsburg. That would be the heart of white queer and trans Brooklyn, otherwise mostly absent from the book. Reese, who holds herself a little aloof from that scene, is in Greenpoint. When she lived with the professionally employed Amy, when they dreamed of adopting a child, naturally they lived in Park Slope. Post-divorce Katrina lives in a gentrifying apartment block in Fort Greene, while Reese’s rich chaser-dudes are in Williamsburg, which now attracts those kinds of assholes.
Peters reveals a symmetry, of sorts, between cis and trans worlds, even though we get rather more of Reese’s milieu than Katrina’s. Interestingly, the mirror of the funeral Reese attends with her trans girl circle is not a baby shower, but a gathering for an in-home demonstration of essential oils. The two worlds are marked by more than a split between a cis world of life and a transworld of death. Both have their distinctive kinds of fecundity and sterility. The cis women’s world contains the possibility of children but is culturally banal. Katrina’s post-divorce Fort Greene apartment was designed to look like the set from the TV series Friends. Trans girl world is mostly childless, yet culturally fecund. To mark this, we get a lovely description of Thalia, a character modeled on a major trans celebrity famous in Bushwick and its attendant corner of Twitter. One of a cohort of Brooklyn drag performers who sparked a revolution in post-drag performance, “The Great Drag Enlightenment.” (86)
Detransition, Baby is among other things a meditation on how to break out. There really are many talented trans women writers, artists, comedians, musicians, and performers who will never get their “a star is born” moment. As Peters puts it, “half of the trans women in Brooklyn live in a state of perpetual pre-celebrity, awaiting a well-deserved recognition that will never come.” (88) On what terms can trans women enter cis world?
I’ll come back to that.
Peter’s narrative constructions encode a theory of how we come to do what we do. One’s history shapes one’s desires in a kind of ever-moving iterative feedback loop. (I’m reminded of Gayle Salomon’s 2010 book, Assuming a Body.) For example, Amy attracts Reese’s eye, and her envy, at the legendary Prospect Park trans women picnic. “The plumpness of her lips was just unfair,” (196). Amy’s beauty reminds Reese of a Norwegian boy who turned her head and led her to New York before he dumped her. The narrative is structured around such flashbacks. Deft detours, sometimes in the middle of scenes, shuttle us back and forth between the formative event and the situation where that prior event shapes a desire, feeling, or decision.
What’s bold about Detransition, Baby is that the trans characters are not very sympathetic, but that
the main theme, mothering, is. In the classic bourgeois novel style, the story hinges on accidental paternity. A secret migrant from the trans world, Amy/Ames expects to be permanently sterile, until Katrina gets pregnant and Ames must confess to the detransition. But although the male characters have a role in the plot, we don’t linger too long over them: mothering and women are the focus. There’s plenty of trans writing about the sexual connection, or disconnection, between trans women and cis men, or even cis women. It’s a brave move to construct a scenario where cis and trans women might share other kinds of feelings, particularly when trans women fucking cis women’s husbands on the DL—another third rail topic—is on the table.
The cis woman divorced from a man and the trans woman cheating with one each have access to a certain insight into masculinity. The difference is that the divorced woman knows her ex in retrospect; the trans woman dating a chaser knows that man without the constraints of his familial obligations. Trans women who date them know cis men in ways their cis wives and girlfriends don’t. They know things about what he really desires, and how he’s really prepared by his own history to act.
It would seem like good intelligence gathering for certain cis and trans women to pool field reports. Reese knows about cis men like one knows a bad habit. She will fall in with a man’s desire for her, even with “his assumption that she was his to install in an apartment the way one installs a new sink.” (57) Men treat her badly. That bad side of masculinity is what she wants, is what incites and excites her sense of herself as a woman. She knows that this is toxic: “politics and practice parted ways at her own body.” (198) And while Reese lets intoxicating desires drive her life, Peters’ authorial voice reproves her gently: “sex on the edge of abuse is banal.” (60)
Reese knows cis men, and she also knows trans women. She can be rather caustic in her impressions of both. What she doesn’t know so well, and is jealous of, is the world of cis women. There, her tone is most caustic. Echoing the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, Peters writes: “When a woman reaches a certain point in her thirties, she looks around for a good dining set with which to settle down.”
More than the possibility of making lives with cis men, what Reese envies is cis women’s roles as both daughters and mothers. There are a lot of mother-daughter bonds in the book, some conventionally dysfunctional. Thalia has a mother who supports her, to whom she is mean. Reese’s transition soured her relation with her mother. Care work around her incipient childhood trans-ness was from a circle of moms who took their daughters ice skating and who folded odd-boy Reese into the group.
The emphasis in Reese’s generation of orphaned Brooklyn trans women is on both being motherless and cut off from becoming birth mothers to children of their own. These trans women have to mother each other, which creates new possibilities. As a rare trans woman with an office job, Amy is mother to Reese as her “girlfriend mooch-child.” (187) Reese in turn is a trans mother, of sorts, to Amy. (Among trans girls you can have sex with your trans mom, although it’s still probably not a good idea). Thalia’s birth-mother does not know that in transworld Reese is her “shadow mother.” (90) And Thalia in turn is mother to a gaggle of freshly out trans girls. Ames hires a sex worker to play domme in a mother-child sex scene. There’s one trans woman in Reese and Thalia’s circle who made a child with her trans man partner, but they can only think of her an anomaly.
Meanwhile, Katrina’s cis world marches relentlessly to the beat of reproductive time. Katrina is close to her mother, who even has the wisdom to impart from Katrina’s grandmother. The key questions in the book are whether trans women can have access to this kind of inter-generational womanhood through parenting; what special talents they (we) might bring to it; and what compromises it might exact in return.
These are questions that might upend our thinking about motherhood more generally. Since this is a Brooklyn story, a ready-made language for thinking about them is “the gentrification of queerness.” (306) Katrina wants the romance of queer life, but nothing in her history has really prepared her for some of its more hardcore elements. She lacks Reese’s ability to delight in “weird gender feels or confused faggotry.” (42) And yet as a divorcée, having already endured a miscarriage, like a lot of cis-het women she is ready for ways to “escape the gravity of the nuclear family.” (31)
Peters not only introduces the worlds of cis and trans women to each other. She also introduces the form of post-Nevada trans lit to a form of literary fiction read by cis women that descends from the bourgeois novel. These sad trans girl books made no claim to transition as a narrative of progress. Trans characters move sideways through the pages, just keeping each other alive, or not. The strength of these books is their naturalistic depiction of the actuality of trans lives.
Detransition, Baby has elements of that trans literature, but also elements of a certain kind of bourgeois novel. Let’s call it cis lit. We already insist that the antonym of trans women is cis women, that they don’t get the whole category of ‘woman’ to themselves. So: if there is trans literature, then its antonym is cis literature.
Cis lit today is literary fiction, aimed mostly at a white, middle-class readership, of mostly cis women. It’s probably not literature many trans women read. In Detransition, Baby, these cis lit elements may seem like naturalistic depictions of a familiar world to urbane, white cis women readers, but appear more like wish-fulfillment fantasy to the sad trans girl readers of sad trans girl books. Borrowed cis lit elements include a comedy of manners, rich status details, a narrative turning on betrayal and misrecognition, and tensions between the outward appearances and inner lives of characters mostly from the middle ranks of the social world. Ranks to which few trans women yet get to ascend.
The kind of work such a book can do is more properly cultural than political. Reese knows her desires smack of a “twisted conservatism.” (335) But maybe sad trans girls just want it to be possible to pursue happiness without being held to other people’s standards. For cis readers the book makes trans women relatable; for trans readers, it offers a template for everyday comportment in a cis world. It’s an equal-opportunity novel when it comes to astringent observations on social mores: neither the trans nor the cis characters get off lightly. But it does make available, perhaps for the first time, a writing that offers models for shaping a life, one of cis lit’s occasional virtues.
One could see Detransition, Baby as assimilationist, but it makes distinctions. Amy/Ames capitulation to cis world is not something Reese is willing to accept. Reese refuses to be a second-class kind of mother or to have her credentials to be one questioned just because she is trans. And yet she wants her life to hew a little closer to cis world than her roommate Iris, “a languid blonde waiting for a man to save her and make her famous.” (217)
For readers and writers who are women, trans lit nevertheless has a lot in common with cis lit. Like cis girls, trans girls can fall into seeing each other as types: “the smart one or the pretty one or the artistic one.” (193) Iris is the pretty one, Thalia the artistic one, and Reese, in the moments when she has her author’s level of insight, is the smart one. Smart in the sense of negotiating with a world that is against her to get what she wants.
Detransition, Baby is a novel in which some sort of urbane middle-class white girl life still seems possible, and something to which a beautiful, stylish, but broke and no longer quite so young trans woman like Reese might aspire. Beyond what it achieves for our literature, it leaves me wondering what Peters might attempt in its wake. I’d love to know how she might imagine the ways we’ll get on in a less pleasant sort of future. I would also love to see the racial segregation within trans life tackled head-on, particularly given that mothering is far more richly practiced among non-white trans people. It would also be a pleasure for her to write, at novel-breadth, about somewhere other than Brooklyn, as she has done in various shorter pieces.
To write about those things might mean moving on from cis lit as a form with which trans lit continues to grapple—on which I’ve expanded elsewhere. The middle distance of the cis lit novel’s milieu might not suffice. Cis lit never doesn’t do politics, or history, very well, at least not directly. And I don’t know if these things can be ignored at the moment.
But the big picture that Detransition, Baby opens up, as few other contemporary trans novels have yet done, is that any literary form at all can be reimagined as ours.
McKenzie Wark (she/they) is Professor of culture and media at The New School.