NOTE: These remarks were delivered at AWP17 on February 11, 2017 in Washington, DC.
People ask, “What is trans literature? Is it literature about trans people or by trans people? Is it emerging? Is it literary or folk? Is it in vogue or invisible? Is it limited to a form or a genre or is it a post-modern queering of narrative?”
These questions miss the point. Further, this questioning enforces an authenticity of the poetic and the literary not demanded of cis writers or cis-centered literature. As many writers on the margins have pointed out, as Dr. Nafisi said to us Thursday night in her stunning rebuke of tyrannical, Western cultural norms that seek to delegitimize Iranian cultural production and cultural identity, the mainstream ideology never seeks its own authenticity, it can only, in a kind of Freudian compulsive repetition, work to pull down the provenance of marginalized literatures. Mainstream literary ideals continually misunderstand the value, the meaning, the quality, and the scope of trans literature.
Just last week the White House and its team of dementors and destructors floated language for a new executive order that would erase the legal foundation for trans civil rights in America. This horrendous mashup of reactionary illegal-ese written in the dungeons of the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation, if signed by President Hairdemort, would define for the first time, by any government in the world, that “sex is an immutable characteristic from birth.” At the exact moment that the United States is pondering the erasure of trans and gender nonconforming people from the legal landscape, we are facing an ongoing question in the literary world: “What is trans literature?”
Another way for the trans writer to interpret this question is: who are you that you think you have an entire literature? Or: I have no idea what trans literature is, and I am unable to research this question on my own, and I’m sure you have a ready answer for me so please do my labor and educate me.
Trans literature, since we’re discussing it, is not here for the cis gaze. Trans literature may in fact be unintelligible to a mainstream audience. Trans literature can and does rely on nuance, lived experience, a trans imagination not necessarily translatable for people who have never torn themselves apart and reassessed their relationship to their gender. Trans people are called liars, engaged in “cloak and dagger” machinations, as my spouse’s colleague, a political theorist, once ascribed to me.
Trans literature is a lie just like all literature is a lie, in that they are both inventions presented as real, and trans literature is a retelling of the lies we learned at a tender age and then identified as falsehoods, and then pushed against in a search for our lowercase T truth. Trans literature is a truth, just like all literature is a truth, and an exploration of the devastation of relativity to truth as it is encountered by human beings in discrete particular moments and situational contexts.
Trans literature picks up the tropes from other literary voices and traditions, pulls in silenced narratives and opens a light onto them so we can visualize those stories in a new way. Trans literature uses cultural forms (so well described in yesterday’s queer folk forms panel), and chafes against standard expectations for poem and prose. Trans literature casts a different imaginary, reinvents tired tropes to create a new mythology opposed to colonialist appropriation of The Other, pulls apart the concepts of static identity, the natural, the patriotic, the dead dichotomy of pure versus perverted.
Trans literature is not new; you just haven’t noticed it. Trans literature is not chic; it’s just unfamiliar to you. Trans literature is not cool; okay, maybe it’s a little bit cool.
Each of these writers, contributors to a broad trans literary project, is doing something critical and fascinating. I ask you to search in your own way for what those nuances are.