I loved this. A fat slab of a book with pages to keep me deep in the story for days. Enough of a story that me — being out of practice with reading lately — couldn’t keep straight all the characters and peoples and factions and histories. The last novel I read like this was Saladin Ahmed’s brilliant Throne of the Crescent Moon, which seems very unlikely to be getting a sequel, as he’s off doing mad words for comics these days — which, for anyone who remembers his long Twitter dives into Golden Age comics, is probably his true home anyway.
Cairo, Djinn, the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, the Amu Darya, Afghanistan, East Turkestan (yes, I know that last one is awkward), Islamicate worlds where Europe sits far on the fringe, barely mentioned beyond the first chapter where it is already an “away, over there”. This was one on my list, along with a number of other authors, as part of an irregular, waxing and waning effort to read science-fiction and fantasy by non-Anglo-American women and non-binary authors. As usual, no idea where I first saw it, possibly the monthly New Reading list on io9, or maybe on the Twit. Well, I failed with the non- bit, cos S.A. is a white cisgender USA-ian.
I read G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen a few years ago, and (from memory) thought it slipped into awkward orientalism, and there’s a tendency for white converts to Islam (I kinda prefer to say ‘returning to’, but for the Anglo-American lot ‘convert’ is more apt) to be hella strict in going for Arabic, Sunni derivatives, like that’s the only Islam there is, and wrapping themselves up in a holier-than-thou Hijab. Fam, Islam don’t gotta be like that. S.A. doesn’t rock a hijab. Truth, when I saw her name, I thought, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and I live for the day that one ever writes sci-fi or fantasy.
S.A. spent time in Cairo, has done the study, speaks clearly about understanding her place as a white American woman writing Islamic fantasy and history, and her acknowledgements were filled with names that would know what she’s writing about. All that, plus interviews I’ve read with her, plus just how she wrote this story before I knew all these details, I believed it. It brings me a small joy for a story to begin with such unremarkable inclusion of Adhan call to Fajr (that’s the call to dawn prayer, or Sabah namazı), to have Islam so fundamental to a story — not as signifier of whatever white culture wants to denigrate, but a mundane thing which is lived in the world daily. It’s her debut, and frankly a banger, so I’m going to refrain right here from the usual high-class and bourgie criticism-ing I do — except please print it on better paper stock, she deserves so much better. Oh! And it’s the first of a trilogy. I’ll probably have read this again before the second part comes out.
Three weeks later. Well, yes, that was a notably idyllic day, despite absence of sea, mountain, and forest. Partly it’s northern German Berlin winter smashing me once again, but it’s been a grim slog the last two months, and I haven’t had much I felt like writing about, and writing itself felt — and feels — like an effort I’m not capable of. It’s been a year of cheerless news, raking many of us who aren’t part of the ascendant ethno-nationalist lot, like daily sandpaper to the face. And in this, there’s been so many moments of — for want of a better word — progress, as if, after twenty-five years at it, I can see sometimes evidence of being heard. And then, the very ones who have a voice, who are given a platform and an audience, who fucking know better, once again push any mob who isn’t them, part of their group, under their bus.
Sometimes I feel like such an old cunt, doing this battle now into my forties, and it’s all same old, same old. Do you ever fucking listen to us? I’m using the rhetorical ‘us’ here, I slide along the interstices between many groups but feel an outsider in all. I know that it doesn’t matter what I feel, it’s how I’m seen and marked, and I know that even if I am not part of a group, I cannot fight for my life without fighting for theirs. In all this, there’s one group which can be relied on to not do the same.
White, cisgender women can’t be trusted. Their feminism also. Whether hetero or lesbian or queer, the history in my life of white cisgender women who call themselves feminist is they will fuck the rest of us over, whoever we are. They don’t see us as equal or deserving or really even human. I’m tired of them opening their mouths and some transphobic, racist, Islamophobic, anti-sex worker, anti-BDSM, colonialist, ableist, or any and all of the other –ist shit coming out. I’m tired of them not getting it, not learning, not listening, not educating themselves. I’m tired of the unnecessary shit they bring down on everyone not them.
We have obligations, wherever we are located in the hierarchy of shit, to those who have it harder than we do. We need to understand where we are located in this hierarchy, individually and as members of multiple groups, and how this location has shifted over history and place; that the primary agenda of any of the groups is only a sub-set of the larger, hundreds of years old struggle for emancipation and restitution for us all. You don’t ever advance your own agenda by shitting on those below.
I mainly wrote this after yet another white, cishet woman shat on trans women. Again. The same bullshit from the feminism of my teens continuing unabated twenty-five years on. The word feminism is so hot right now, but youse all have to understand it hasn’t been great for a lot of us, who aren’t the right kind of woman, or don’t live the right kind of life. It’s actively tried to erase us, legislated against us, denied us our rights and selfhood, incited hatred and violence. That’s your feminism. Go and learn your history, then come back and clean up your mess.
I was thinking of political parties last night, and the term, ‘to stay on message’. I wonder if it’s so difficult for white feminists to stay on message because they think they’re exceptional and the message doesn’t apply to them. So here’s the message:
Every time you talk about feminism, you say:
Trans women are women, and suffer discrimination at a higher rate than cis women. The issues facing trans women are our issues and are feminist issues.
Non-binary and gender non-conforming people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than heteronormative-presenting cis women. Their issues are our issues, and are feminist issues.
First Nations and Indigenous women and non-binary people face greater discrimination and barriers than white women, and face specific generational trauma. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Black, brown, POC, and BAME women and non-binary people face greater discrimination and barriers than white women. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Muslim women and non-binary people face specific discrimination and barriers that non-Muslim women do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and and non-binary people with immigrant histories face specific discrimination and barriers that women without this history do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and non-binary people with disabilities face specific discrimination and barriers that women without disabilities do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and non-binary people who do sex work face specific discrimination and barriers that women who do not work in this field do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and non-binary people who are in prison face specific issues and hardships, more so for trans women and men. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Working class, poor, un- and underemployed women and non-binary people face specific issues and hardships, that educated, middle-class women do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Queer women and non-binary people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than heterosexual, cisgender-presenting women. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Intersex women and non-binary people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than non-intersex women, and are often subject to non-consensual surgeries. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Reproductive health is not just for cisgender women. Some men have uteruses, or menstruate, or are capable of pregnancy; some women have penises; some have both or neither. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Many women and non-binary people belong to multiple combinations of the above, they face specific and amplified overlapping discrimination, barriers, and ostracism. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues. This is intersectional feminism.
This is not an exhaustive list. The language will date rapidly, indeed it already is clunky. That’s both on language and on me. My ability to even formulate such a list is due to the many women and non-binary people whom I have learnt from, FNI, Black, Muslim, immigrant, queer, trans women and non-binary people. There are faces I see with each of those sentences.
The history of feminism is intrinsically tied to the history of colonialism, white supremacy, and oppression. It is as much prone to essentialist nationalism of the body as racist nationalism is, with all the imperatives towards taxonomising, segregating, and labelling bodies as acceptable or not, human or not. If you want to use this word, you must reckon with its history, with what has been done, to whom, in its name. The above list is the bare minimum, even less. That’s the work that has to be done if feminism wants to claim for itself the bodies of women — and even then, there will be many of us who want no part in your feminism. You have to live with that, and do the work to make amends.
It is work. It is hard, ceaseless, decades and generations long work. It’s work you have to do, and it’s work you can do. When I think of where my interests and attention lay a decade ago, I cringe at how shallow my grasp of this was, in no small part because my grasp of myself and my own history was also shallow. I fuck up, make mistakes, apologise, try to do better, learn from my betters — who have far more pressing concerns on their time than me using it — try pass on that learning and rep them whenever I can, sit down and shut up when it’s not my place, speak up when it’s required, remind myself that people can change and it’s my obligation to encourage this. There’s no embossed certificate at the end of this, no letters before or after your name for all the work you have to do, on yourself first and those around you once you start to get it, you won’t be finished in three or six years, or sixty. But that’s the work, it’s the bare fucking minimum.
Lately I think it’s not for lack of knowing all this stuff that is causing white cis women to dependably shit on the rest of us. I think they do know all this, they’ve heard it their whole lives but they’ve decided they don’t care. It’s not that they don’t know about the issues facing trans women, they are quite sure we’re not women. They do think brown and black immigrants — especially Muslims — are terrorists or genetically misogynist. They truly believe that because it wasn’t them doing the invading and colonising, it’s not their fault, and damned if they’ll take any responsibility. And on and on down the list, making an exception for each one, not my problem, fuck you mate, I’m alright.
I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a white world and was told that was what I also was. Extricating myself from that, knowing my history, is lifelong work. And that’s also what we fight against: the breaking of history and community, atomising each of us, leaving us in one generation without the means to speak to our grandparents, or even knowing who they were. This erasing of history is the greatest ongoing work of colonialism and white supremacy. If feminism wants to stand against anything, wants to contribute anything of worth, it must stand against that, 500 years of that. And in that, white cis feminists must understand that the answers and ways out of this aren’t going to come from them.
And if you can’t do that, take your feminism and fuck off.
An introduction. Published in 1988 and here we are, 30 years later, still having to prove the same truths, provide the same evidence, grieve the same death and damage. This is one of those fucking read this books. Fucking read this. You want to know how we got to this place again? We never left it. Fucking read this.
I’ve been trying out this lately, since my last year or so of reading on German Empire Colonialism (Deutsches Historisches Museum Deutscher Kolonialismus exhibition, and Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out in particular): It’s easier to count the number of countries and places that weren’t colonised. If a country was colonised, there was genocide. Countries that weren’t colonised also suffered heavily the effects of colonialism. I do this to shift the burden of evidence or proof: it should not be the task of each country or place in isolation to prove again and again colonialism and genocide happened and continues to happen. I read Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and it’s unarguable.
What else that’s unarguable: the same philosophical positions informed — and continue to inform — political, social, medical, legal, religious positions which have regional and temporal variations, but are nonetheless identical. These positions were enacted not just on racialised bodies, but on hierarchies of class, sex, gender, ability, and so on: any aspect of a person could be classified and taxonomied, and once classified, denied humanity. This is what we currently call intersectionality, what Peter Fryer and others have written about for decades.
This is a hard book. It will give you nightmares. It is a horror story all the worse because there’s no end, it’s all true, and it’s only an introduction. 30 years old and half that time the colonial nations have been busy at an endless war of colonialism. Nothing’s changed. Remember that. There’s no post-colonialism or neo-colonialism. It never ended. Just like those horror movies where you wake up to find you’re still trapped asleep. All the progress and improvements of the last 30 years rest as a thin film floating atop systematic horror.
I am a child of this. Every country I’ve lived in or had citizenship in exists as it does because of colonialism and genocide: Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, China, Germany. My parents travelled in the international wash of it, were born where they were because of empire, British, Ottoman, Dutch. This is what it means to be that thing called Citizen of the World.
And there’s something else colonialism does: it atomises culture and destroys history. Every generation, every year, continuity is lost and it’s like starting again. This is an introduction, it reminds us where we came from and what we live in. It’s not complete or comprehensive, it’s 30 years old, but fucking read this.
When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.
Not actually an autobiography, but a collection of spoken word, poetry, essays, blog posts from the early ’00s till 2014, though they’re often so personal or drawing on personal experience that it reads to me like one so I’m going to call it that.
Serano filled a lot of gaps in my thinking and understanding of feminism, queer, trans *, femininity, and the interwoven hostility to each of these individually, sometimes from without, but substantially from the first two towards the latter two. Even though, Serano has some shortcomings around intersectionality in both Whipping Girl and her next book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.
I read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness a month ago, and it was her talking about doing sex work to survive that stuck with me. What I often find missing in white feminism is survival. Struggle, sure, that’s there, but survival, and the things one needs to do to survive, these are not the same. I often find myself in queer / trans situations feeling somewhat displaced. There’s a lot of people doing sex work, but it’s out of choice and it’s an acceptable, even celebrated choice — my point here isn’t to criticise sex work or other choices, it’s about having the ability to choose.
With intersectionality, for each additional intersection, available choices rapidly diminish. As well, it’s impossible to talk about one axis of identity (and the commensurate oppression and discrimination) separate from the others. And often a thing that might be positive in one constellation (e.g. sex work or porn in white, cis queer context) becomes decidedly not when intersecting with another (e.g. hetero porn with white trans women) or multiple others (e.g. porn with trans women who are also brown and poor).
To be clear, I’m not denigrating or writing off the value of her work by saying, “Not intersectional enough!” nor would it be correct to interpret me as saying that. I do find while I read Serano — and I know she understands what I’m saying here, and I definitely love what she writes — I don’t entirely find myself there, these things around survival. Equally I don’t find the entirety of myself in Mock, but let’s not be asinine here.
Perhaps I’m mentioning all this because Outspoken, even though just published isn’t a new book; even the most recent essays parallel or even in some cases come from her blog. Looking at the Table of Contents, she covers so much, from ’00s punk poetry and performance to Whipping Girl era trans-misogyny, to the late ’00s and early teens Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and the autogynephilia bullshit that went with it; the bisexual and/or trans women and queer scene hoopla on its own and tangled with queer activism, cisgender, cissexual privilege; and racism, and intersectionality, and the evolution of all this and her thinking and writing on this over more than a decade. It’s heaps to cover, and it’s powerful, crucial writing.
Change of tack here: When I was working with Melanie Lane on Wonderwomen we started talking about femininity. I gave her the chapter from Whipping Girl, Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism. I can’t quantify how much of an influence or effect it had on Mel, and on Rosie and Nathalie, the two professional bodybuilders in the work, but I do think it wasn’t insignificant. Which is to say, Serano’s work is vitally important and applicable far beyond the specific subjects of the title.
I’ve been swirling these three books around in my head the last month, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny more than the others, though writing on her much less, I don’t know yet how to, maybe to say of the three, I see myself in her the most. Old punk and all. They make good reading as a trio, especially Tranny and Redefining Realness, perhaps because those are autobiographies whereas Outspoken is kind of. I’d love to read a proper autobiography from Serano, that would make a hell of a trio of books. In the meantime, yeah, totally worth reading, now and in a decade when it’s going to be even more valuable a document of worldwide progress for trans people, particularly trans women.
Julia Serano. If you haven’t read her, I swear, I despair for you. She’s the irresistible force of trans feminism, trans women, trans femininity shoving the shit out of bigotry and stupidity for over a decade. I recommend her to bloody everyone.
*As I said at the end of writing on Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist.
I’m writing this thrashing Against Me!‘s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues and all fucking sweaty excited cos they’re playing SO36 on December 22nd cos I thought I’d have to Leipzig to see them. (I like Leipzig, would totes go there to see them.)
Laura Jane Grace. Tranny. Best fucking title ever.
This is the second book in my trio of trans women* autobiographies I picked up on the weekend. Two down, one to go. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness barely lasted the weekend; Tranny got me till Tuesday afternoon; Julia Serano’s Outspoken (not strictly autobiography, more of a reader) might take a bit longer cos it’s doing tag team with a couple of other books, but unlikely to make it beyond next week.
I came straight off Redefining Realness and into Tranny. In so many ways they’re completely different stories and lives of growing up and living as a trans woman. Janet, a multiethnic woman of colour living in Hawai’i transitioning in her teens, going to university and getting an MA in journalism from New York University; Laura a white punk from Florida touring the world, drinking and drugging, transitioning in her thirties. Both of them though were in the public eye before publicly talking about being trans, Janet as an editor for People magazine, Laura as the lead singer of Against Me! and being public figures is what both their autobiographies and audience interest turns on.
When I was reading Redefining Realness, I was reminded of similarities in my life in New Zealand, something I wasn’t at all expecting to find. In Tranny, well, I was a teenage punk and getting smashed at gigs, squats, anarchist politics, wasted sex, not showering, all that, of course it was familiar. The year Laura started Against Me! I started full-time training as a dancer and had moved from punk into Warp records experimental electronic territory, only coming back to punk in the mid-’00s for a bit before going Very Metal since then. I’ve listened to Against Me! before, but it’s only since reading Laura’s autobiography that I’m actually listening to them.
Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is a band memoir — the second part of the title gives that detail away — one in which the protagonist struggles for decades between living a white, hetero bro punk life and being a woman. Take away that and it’s still a solid, funny, harrowing story of an intense life lived in vans, busses, hotels, touring the world, pubs, venues, stadiums, and getting way too fucked up far too often to not expect horrible crashes. Laura kept journals since her teens, and these entries intersperse her narrative, co-written with Dan Ozzi. Without those journals, both as excerpts and informing her writing it would be a much thinner story, not the least because the incessant touring, drinking, drugging over years would blur into an undistinguishable mass more fictional musing on imagined past than lived, personal history.
There’s a scene where she’s on a tour bus somewhere, the other guys doing tour bus stuff, and she’s hiding in her bunk reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, afraid of getting sprung. This scene points to something Laura does a pretty good job of obscuring: she’s smart, intelligent, thoughtful, more than capable of stepping outside the intense world of bands and touring that forms much of her story and would otherwise make it a kinda generic ’00s punk band memoir — generic any era band memoir. Maybe that obscuring goes with her isolated, high school dropout, Crass punk history, a lot of believing you’re gutter even while revelling in it. Listening to her lyrics and Against Me!’s music it’s obvious she’s crazy talented and always was. It’s these nuances that make what she’s doing, and her herself qualitatively different, especially since she came out as a trans woman.
At the end of writing about Redefining Realness, I wrote, “I was reading another trans woman last night, on Twitter, who said, “Transition memoirs sell b/c their audience is curious cis ppl. They satisfy cis curiosity/voyuerism.” I think the difference between Redefining Realness and Tranny is one of audience. The former is for a mainstream audience; it was a New York Times bestseller. Tranny is for the weirdos, or whatever still isn’t or imagines itself isn’t mainstream.
As well, Janet is astute at media and is explicit in using her position to educate and effect change. This almost requires that transition memoir storyline, if for nothing else than to combat misrepresentation, to tell her own truth. Laura, there’s a lot more “Fuck you” in Tranny.
I’m also not sure Laura’s is a transition memoir in the way Janet’s is. Yeah, there’s that, struggling with arsehole doctors and taking hormones, bouts of guilty buying of clothes then trashing them, but these moments are not especially prominent amidst all the other chaos and drugs in her life. It lies over her life like smog, an unabating grinding out of her life over decades. She’s barely able to articulate it even to herself in her journals. Whereas for Janet it was a desperate flight always forward.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying one or the other was the right way to be trans, nor did I want to write this as a comparison of Janet’s and Laura’s stories, just that reading them back to back emphasises the stark differences in their lives and their experiences, and I’ve been thinking constantly about this. Particularly because I see pieces of my history in both and what reads as hopeless, profound misery, fear, deeply internalised transphobia is so familiar to me as to be unremarkable.
There’s an episode of Orphan Black where Cosima is challenged with, “So, you’re gay?” and responds, “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.” For both Janet and Laura it’s evident this is also the case, for their gender, identity, selfhood. Yet it’s at the same time critical to who they are. By talking about this, they become and participate in representation for all trans women. We see something of ourselves in them, we’re no longer invisible, we exist. Without this, Against Me! would be just another white boy punk band I vaguely recalled the name of, no idea who the lead singer was. Instead, I’ve spent money on Laura’s book, been listening to her music and am gonna get my sorry arse to SO36 on December 22nd to see them play.
*A bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist. Tranny, though, totes fucking ok with that one**.
I’ve had Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness on my To Buy List since before it was published, the start of last year. I reckon Janet would read my tardiness and why in a second. Cos she’s wicked smart like that.
I’ve been following Janet on Twitter for I dunno how long, she turned up multiple times from various sources at least four years ago, around the time of CeCe McDonald, Isis King, and others being in the news. She also appealed to me because she writes about being women who are trans and multiethnic, women of colour. And quite frankly she’s amazing.
As for trans women autobiographies though, I read any and all I could get my hands on in my teens and twenties and since then have little interest in the narrative conventions. If you think of sci-fi or romance novels having stereotypical storylines, the same applies here. I have a lot of “blaaah why do you expect me to care?”. So I’m reading Redefining Realness and it’s right in that storyline, but here I am, slammed it in an afternoon and an evening.
I was writing at 3am this morning about being in the Grassi Ethnological Museum and going through the collections from Australia, Aotearoa and Polynesia, North America, having this strange disconnect between being in Leipzig, Germany and seeing this art and culture and going, “Yup, I know this … I know this too … and this,” remembering people and places. My history is so different from Janet’s, yet there were these moments reading where mine and hers were the same.
As a teenager, writing to my father whom I’d not seen for years, telling him what I was up to and if he didn’t accept it that was his problem, not mine. Him writing back, a multiethnic, working class South African living in Toronto, saying, “You sound angry. You don’t need to be angry with me. Whatever you do, I’ll always love you.” I don’t have that letter, or anything from him anymore, but amidst all the abuse, violence, the loss and rejection of family and friends, the world I was living in on an island far from North America, his unconditional acceptance in the face of my ultimatum shamed me. Shamed me because I expected rejection from him, and however much it hurt the one powerful thing I could always do was walk away from everyone.
Still as a teenager, in poverty, often homeless — homeless of the kind where you sleep on friend’s couches or floors — on the edges of street sex with the trans women on K’ Road in Auckland, though unlike Janet, loaded on drugs. Also Dutchess, the tough dyke former street kid in Wellington who loved Michael Jackson, not Janet’s Wendi to me but I thought of her while reading Janet. She was staunch, she knew what I was about even if I couldn’t say it, and “Fuck them all, let’s go rob a chemist,” remains the unequaled statement of friendship to me in the face of rejection.
I didn’t know Janet had survived her teens and paid for her life with sex work. Sometimes I’m kinda vague, pretty sure I must have read that, but yeah, vague; I know I’ve admired her all along for her uncompromising advocacy for and representation of trans women of colour, and that for many, being a trans woman — even more so if you’re not white — means sex work is not merely the only option, it’s expected of you. But I still didn’t connect her with this until I read her working the streets in Hawai’i. And then I remembered the women working K’ Road who were just like the women on Merchant St.
The similarity of our lives diverges here. Though we did both go to university. What I see and read with Janet is that she had just enough support to make it through. Not perfect, ideal support, but enough that it didn’t hinder or destroy her. The Janet who did not have family who accepted her from a young age would be a very different Janet to the one who wrote Redefining Realness, if she was even alive now. The Janet who didn’t have Wendi likewise. A liveable life turns on these not insignificant things. One person is enough to make that difference, in either direction.
I was reading another trans woman last night, on Twitter, who said, “Transition memoirs sell b/c their audience is curious cis ppl. They satisfy cis curiosity/voyuerism.” Redefining Realness is a transition memoir, its audience is curious cis people, and it satisfies their voyeurism. It does more than that though. Janet uses her position as a high profile, conventionally attractive, heterosexual trans woman who works in media and has an MA in Journalism to educate this part of her audience, to make them see us as human. So there’s another audience her book is for: #girlslikeus. Trans women, especially trans women who are multiethnic, who see in her something of themselves. Janet writes to represent us.