Transverse: Think Outside the Gift Box -- Two Worthwhile Books with Trans Narratives
'Tis the season of last-minute gifting, so consider buying your loved one (or yourself) the gift that keeps giving: literature. Though I know I have a vested interest in encouraging reading, I didn't plan on gift-guiding you in any direction at all. But two review copies arrived at my desk ahead of the holidays, and I couldn't resist the idea of your parents and friends growing bigger hearts in this candy-colored consumerist bonanza.
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon is a mega-hit a decade in the making, just named one of the top 10 books of the year by the New York Times. Meanwhile, Real Man Adventures by T Cooper, is a smaller offering, written perhaps slightly reluctantly by its private author and published by McSweeney's. The former is an exploration of the messy, beautiful, and terrifying reality of parental love across difference. The latter is a sometimes-painful, deeply personal collection of writing on masculinity, family, and identity.
Both books challenge readers with narratives of hurt alongside those of hope, fear, love, and redemption, complicating our shorthand understanding of their subjects.
In Solomon's 700-page tome, we unpack a conceit that initially raised my cockles: How do parents and children relate across very different identities (horizontal, he writes, not vertical -- as in passed from parent to child)? Included in his chapter-length investigations are autistic, dwarf, and deaf children, children of rape, and prodigies, among others. I requested a review copy upon learning that he also focused on transgender children and their parents, and began pre-writing my take-down of this white, privileged, gay man and whatever tired trope he planned to trot out.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that section. Solomon opens with "Son," a pitch-perfect, highly personal essay about his challenges as coming-of-age gay in the '70s and '80s. He writes touchingly and with great compassion for both himself and his parents, who didn't always understand him but did, in fact, love him. He's frank that this complexity was the drive behind his interest in the book's varied communities, and the ways parents and children metabolize the tricky lines between difference and disability, stigma and empowerment, pride and shame.
"Writing this book addressed a sadness within me and -- somewhat to my surprise -- has largely cured it," he writes. "The best way to get through these horizonatalities is to find coherence, and in the wake of these stories, I recast my own narrative. I have a horizontal experience of being gay and a vertical one of the family that produced me, and the fact that they are not fully integrated no longer seems to undermine either."
It's with this queer outlook and within this broad, humanist context that he writes about transgender children and adults. I found myself, for the first time, moved to tears by an outsider's writing on the experience of being transgender (and he writes with equally moving language and insight about each community and family he interviews). The critiques of the book are valid: Perhaps due to his own privileged circles (he's the son of a pharmaceutical giant), the book is top-heavy with well-heeled subjects. And that does, in fact, undermine his universalist perspective, even if class and racial diversity are peppered throughout.
Despite this serious shortcoming, the book is a powerful exploration of identity and relationships. Most striking is what he doesn't have to say, only show, again and again: that familial love often conquers even the worst social prejudice; and that people who insist on the complex beauty of their diversity seem more comfortable in the world.
Oh, and the part that made me cry? His tight focus on the filmmaker Kim Reed and the incredible reaction of her mother, Carol McKerrow, to Kim's transition. McKerrow organized a tea party to tell her small-town Montana friends of Kim's transition, and demonstrated the type of clear-eyed parental love so many trans folks dream of. Toward the end of the chapter, Kim screens her documentary, Prodigal Sons, to her church in Helena, and then delivers the Sunday sermon. Reed, a former high school quarterback, describes hearing the game across town while old clips of her playing ball played for the crowd before her. She has only recently reunited with her hometown, from which she disappeared until after her father's death. She remembers her father filming her games, thinks about the boys being filmed on Friday nights now. She tells her church:
"I thought about how all these cycles of lives would continue on, and so many aspects or my life coalesced in that one moment, that one beautiful, stunning, blessed moment, the past and present, parent and child, male and female: the pain that life sometimes brings, and the soothing love that welcomes it with open arms, after its exhausting journey into a distant country."
Though Solomon occasionally veers off-course, his overall literacy for a range of human experience is breathtaking. For the parents or adult children on your list, this book is as uncompromising and profound a journey as our relationships with each other.
T Cooper's Real Man Adventures is a collage of interviews, meditations, and letters about his experience of gender in general and his trans-ness in particular. Following (perhaps born of, I'm not sure) a great essay he wrote almost two years ago on the same topic for the Believer, Cooper's style -- prickly, smart, sometimes caustic and often affecting -- tilts the transgender narrative into something entirely his own.
To be transgender, to be any gender, to be any person, is to be wholly individual in your experience of your body and its interactions with the world. There can be a great burden on authors of marginalized subcultures, and that is the reader's understandable hunger to see herself in your story, and sometimes her resistance when she doesn't.
So I won't say where Cooper and I depart or intersect in experience, because I don't want him to bear that burden. I will say the formal device he uses -- interviewing parents of trans friends because speaking to his own feels too vulnerable; outlining his extreme fear and nightmarish anxiety about coming to a violent end; surveys of male urinating habits and other meditations on his different anatomy; and an interview with his brother, of the LAPD, who is kind but not exactly trans-sensitive -- create a disjointed, dynamic snapshot of a life. It can also be at turns distancing and powerfully intimate, like a person consciously revealing himself.
Where Solomon wonders how families make meaning and bridge "horizontal" identities, Cooper probes, in real time, what it looks like to hold one's own difference, to become visible in all of himself.
"I don't really want to write about this thing of mine, but I think I might have to -- to stop it from being a thing," he writes, near the opening. The tensions between his resistance to do so and the reality, he writes, that he'll never live "stealth" has led to a book about integration, which is, after all, our most basic spiritual need, universally.
Pretty festive, if I do say so myself.