Reading: Tricia Sullivan — Shadowboxer

A couple of months ago, I decided I needed some more fiction to read—right about now I’m in the same frame of mind, so will probably go off on a book-ordering spree shortly. One of the first to arrive was Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer. I read her Double Vision a long time ago, I’d bought that in Zürich when I was going through two books a week during rehearsals. I hadn’t read any of her since, but being in a mood where I want to punch stuff, this being a book about mixed martial arts and sitting somewhere on the fantasy side of things, it slid onto my shelf with minimum of fuss.

I read it a couple of months ago, which shows clearly how far behind on book blogging I am. It also means anything I write is through a dim blur of partially rememberedness. I do remember liking the main character, Jade, who was quick to punch on and anything that needed ending she would end. Fists before thinking. Which of course gets her into all kinds of shit and sent off to Thailand to train in a not-posh establishment, the kind foreigners would only pay to avoid.

It’s around here it got a little wonky for me. I’ve read a lot of fiction which has either been set in or at some point of the narrative has ended up in Asia. The further south it goes, the more it generates something suspicious in me. Hong Kong stories in the ’90s are a good example of this, as are quite a few expat-y ones set in Bangkok. The last thing I read by Neal Stephenson before deciding he was serious in his ’Murica parochialism, Reamde was right up in this for southern China. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is another recent one so full of problems, yet so loved by an audience that really needs to read Orientalism.

Lately, another exotic locale getting its own orientalising is trans women. William Gibson had one in the otherwise pretty fucking good The Peripheral, as did Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale. There’s one here too, probably because if a book is set in Thailand it has to.

Gibson based his trans-signifying characteristics around ‘big hands’ (Fukkin’ WTF? I know!) and a propensity to cry (LOL trannies, amirite?) It was so obviously a weak attempt at a cash-in on what someone somewhere—ok what Gibson has decided is cool right now, and so very poorly executed. Lately I’ve been wondering how this can happen. A book—or any work of art—doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there’s always editors, proofreaders, blahdeblahers who are reading this shit long before it goes to print, and when not one of them picks up on it, it’s clear either no one in the room has the skills, or no one gives a shit. I have to wonder if cis people should be allowed to make art about trans people when they so evidently fuck it up every time.

I don’t remember so well the bollocks in Shadow Scale (a book I did like a lot), except it was a bro smashing things on top of a mountain who later on—when met in real life—was a chick. So, the angsty transition cliché. Yeah, ok, this stuff is real, but about the only good representation of a trans character I’ve seen lately is Nomi in Sense8, and that’s got Lana Wachowski writing/directing/producing so you’d kinda expect absence of fuckery. (Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black somewhat counts. She’s brilliant, but the series itself has big problems beyond just the awful white fool front and centre.) I want to see cis writers not falling for the trans clichés which cis people themselves manufactured and if they can’t bring themselves to do that, I want them to fuck right off.

Then there’s Shadow Boxer. I’m still not sure what I read, though I think the male Thai martial art star was supposed to have been kathoey of the beautiful, extremely feminine female type. Or it could have been the other way: beautiful feminine female got up on T and turned into international male kickboxing hero. My first problem here was—presuming the former is correct—the interpretation is Sullivan wrote a trans female character who detransitions. (I’m obfucating here between trans and kathoey; they’re not interchangeable, however I do think Sullivan is writing a Western cliché of kathoey which does not see one as different from the other.) The subsequent problem is she wrote that for the sake of some narrative trickery, cos it’s all about this bro in Las Vegas and this other chick in Bangkok and woah! Same person!

In fact, this is exactly what Gibson did, so neither of these novels had a character who was trans, instead they just used trans identities to pull a bait and switch. It’s important to remember here that not telling your lover you’re trans can result in a person being changed with sexual assault (in the UK and elsewhere) and that ‘trans panic defense’ is a real thing which men who’ve just beaten a trans woman to death can and do successfully use to get acquitted. So writing in a trans character just to use them for this kind of gimmick is … currently I’m listening to Syringe Stick-Up Mama, Te hare cavar tu tumba.

I don’t want to go into an excruciating analysis of this, but I have some highly dodgy feelings around Sullivan and her fiction. Even more than with the Gibson stuff she should have known better. She gets the MMA and Muay Thai, has all this down convincingly (less so when the setting moves to Thailand and partakes in quite a few clichés), yet around kathoey and trans stuff it turns right shady. It’s the downside of representation. We all want to see ourselves in works of fiction (look no further than the response to Empire for evidence), yet once this becomes a selling point, we end up with an ocean of shoddy ‘representation’ that demonstrates the lack of diversity within the industry (be it publishing, television, whatever) by virtue of being allowed through.

Tricia Sullivan — Shadowboxer
Tricia Sullivan — Shadowboxer