I finished Sassafras Lowrey’s debut novel Roving Pack last weekend and was struck when page after page of the protagonist’s diary managed to pull and push me with each bit of hys life experience. I’m at once familiar with being gender non-conforming in an urban space in the early aughts, and apart from the young genderqueer community Lowrey describes. This is a book, after all, located in a particular place (mostly Portland, Oregon) and time (late 2002 onward), and about a group of folks two trans generations younger than me. I know the situations the protagonist Click talks about–abusive and absent parents, inconsistently disbursed resources, a peer group that sometimes causes deep heartache, and living on the margins through gray markets and under-the-table agreements. I know these experiences, yes, but I’ve spent years trying to forget those struggles, so reading the universe through Click’s eyes is painful if not also somehow validating. It’s difficult to make it through late adolescence without the additional struggles Click and hyr friends have on their backs.
What support systems Click finds are mainstays of 2002 trans youth culture–expression through zines, within a straight-edge group, the relief of a decent binder–even if they are imperfect and often fleeting, and Click is a smart individual who knows a good thing or person when hy finds them. Usually. Lowrey gives us nuance of Click’s understanding by showing us overlapping journal posts, some public and some private, which creates a kind of window into Click’s breaking points and fault lines. Often Click hides hys most fragile points in the private posts, showing more bravado to anyone who may come by to read the public entry. This is its own statement about transgender consciousness–what we struggle with much of the time aren’t the expected maladies of body parts and family disappointment, they’re more often the spaces that trigger us, and our own self-doubt.
Click’s language is plain, replete with favorite phrases, and as direct as we’d expect a 19-year-old to be. In this way the book is a little reminiscent of Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, covering much of the same territory (albeit for a new audience)–tumultuous sexual desire and its terrain, finding ways to feel safe and loved in a society that has already dismissed the protagonist’s existence, negotiating one’s own gender identity with the few resources available–but it’s an important update to the narrative, because we’re seeing more than a single character’s assertion of gender presentation. If the youth among gender nonconforming people needs anything, it’s the flexibility of gender and availability of authenticity.
This is not to say that Click is free from prejudice, as evidenced with hys frequent mention of “bitches” and denigration of girls, with whom hy seriously does not want comparison. I appreciate Click’s limitations, however, because often young transfolk denigrate their assigned gender until they come to a better place for themselves (or we help prod them there). And I suspect that as I flinch over these terms I’m doing something that Click does when hy comes face to face with something hy doesn’t like; I’m washed into the story, which is the mark of notable literature, after all. Lowrey has forced me to relate to Click and hys crew, not simply read them. For readers not familiar with gutterpunks, BDSM, and genderqueer youth, this novel will be brand new territory; for readers who didn’t have to look up those terms, Lowrey’s universe will pull you in and sting you along the way.
I just hope if I meet Click on the streets of Portland, hy doesn’t write in his journal later about this “old creepy dude” who passed by hym.