[What, you thought our Theme Post Party was done? Nuh-UNH! Let's check in with C.L. Minou about her many disreputable past literary lives and how she learned to stop worrying and Trust Women (Writers.)]
There is this narrative, that fits some people–maybe most, I don’t think there’s been a poll–who transition from male to female that goes something like this: oh, from a young age she wanted to be a girl played with dolls only watched Princess videos wanted frilly dresses for her birthday. And like I said, those people definitely exist and thank the Ceiling Cat they’re getting the attention and support they need much more often nowadays.
But it’s not–despite the claims of some of my more, ah, categorical sisters-in-trans, the only way to be trans, or grow up being trans. There is, for instance, me, who didn’t even crossdress until the age of 13 and then took another 22 years for the pieces to fall into place.
Because if you want to know how fucked up Patriarchy is and what it can do to you, I can’t think of a better example than this: even someone who grew up wanting to be a girl thought that “girl stuff” was stupid.
OK, not completely: I had more stuffed animals than most of my male friends, and after a cross-stitching project in third grade I asked a cross-stitch project for my birthday. (It was a picture of a frog. Afterwards, I used the needle to replace the lightsaber for one of my Luke Skywalker action figures.) I was probably the only boy in my fourth grade class who had read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I tended to play with my toys in a way that eminent and very, very serious evolutionary psychologists tell us is more typical of how girls play–I constructed deep storylines where the interaction of characters was sometimes more important than what they did. On the other hand, what they did tend to do when they got around to doing anything was to fight and blow stuff up. YM, as they say, MV.
Basically, I think that I was more about not liking traditional boy stuff than I was about liking traditional girl stuff. At least until adolescence, when I simultaneously began to sometimes wear women’s clothing AND like sports and try to socialize myself as a typical boy. Go figure. But this dislike, this aversion to “girl stuff”–some of which, to be fair, was motivated by a fear of being “found out”–extended into what I read. And what I read wasn’t a small matter. As soon as I could read, there were only two things that defined my inner life: I wanted to be a girl, and I read books like other people breathe. (I was doing both around the age of four.) And that literary longing, at least, has no resolution: I was an English major in college, went on to get a graduate degree in that most useful of topics, Literature, and to this day can’t fall asleep without either reading or having sex. Ideally, both. And far too often in my life, I’ve actually preferred turning pages to getting turned on.
Back in my youth I indulged in the most stereotypical of male literature, science fiction, reading it pretty much exclusively for about a decade. It wasn’t all wasted–I got my first bits of sex ed reading New Wave sci-fi–but I don’t need to tell anyone that a lot of what I was reading was so backwards on the matter of gender as to be fucking retrograde. I liked the Big Three a lot: Asimov, Clarke, and god help me, Heinlein–a man who not only thought “all women are the same height–lying down” was a good pickup line, he actually wrote a story where it worked as a pickup line. (I was just aware enough to think that his later stuff was a bit…off, what with the naked-red headed women throwing themselves on old dudes, and that embarrassing bit about homosexuality in Stranger in a Strange Land.) Even when I began (as a junior in high school) to embark on my autodidact tour of the Great Books, I stuck with male authors–and not just male authors, but the most Dudliest of Dudes: Hemmingway (I polished off all his novels my first summer in college), Faulkner (I read Absalom, Absalom! at the age of 17: it took the better part of two decades to finally wash the influence of that book out of my writing), even Roth and Updike. I read the big-dick swinging male hyperstylists with gusto, Pynchon especially. Hell, as late as 2005 I thought Franzen was brilliant. (It’s probably good I never got around to reading Lethem.)
And women authors? Hah. Even when I was reading science fiction exclusively, I didn’t like LeGuin, the most openly feminist sci-fi author. I think I read one book by Cherryh. Octavia Butler? Never heard of her. Seriously. I’d never heard of Octavia Butler until she DIED. And the authors of my Great Books tour could pretty much all use the same restroom: the few female authors I had to read in college, I tended not to care for–in part because a lot of them were 19th century authors and I just didn’t like the “domestic” novels of that period–but I’m not going to deny that it was also part of a fundamental inability to “get” them. Whereas it was easy to read the guys: even if I didn’t really feel like them on the “inside,” I knew how I was supposed to feel–it was everywhere I looked, on TV, in the newspapers, in conversations with my male friends (and they were pretty much all male.) Understanding the inner life of women would require me to, I don’t know, read stuff they wrote, but I closed that off from myself.
During the year-long run-up between my separation from my wife and transition, though, I read some…different books. In Her Shoes. A book for teenage girls to help them understand themselves better, from the ’80s. Some schmaltzy “women’s wisdom” stuff. I think I was flailing about, looking for something to make sense of myself. And then one day, about a month after I started hormones, I was reading The Robber Bride in a pizza restaurant near the Coliseum in Rome. And I realized something about Atwood’s archetypes of Modern Women. I identified with them.
That had never happened before. I’d never identified myself with female characters. And then I realized that I identified with them in a way I’d never done with male characters in books by men.
Maybe transition made me feel like I could legitimately do that. Maybe it was hormones. Maybe it was me finally letting go of the fear of being found out. But that was the beginning. (It took a while; I was also reading the Patrick O’Brien novels at the same time.) Since then, I’ve pretty much reversed myself. I read female authors almost exclusively. I obsess over Atwood. The few sci-fi books I’ve bought in the last year have almost all been by Octavia Butler. When I browse around looking for books at the bookstore, I look specifically for books by women. Because I get them in a way that I just don’t get about books by guys anymore.
Of course, I could just be overcompensating. That pendulum swings both ways, I guess, and maybe now I’m on the reverse of the arc. Maybe it’s another one of my attempts to come closer to the life I think I should have had if only a few things had broken different. Maybe it’s a way to learn more about myself, and the person I have become.
Hell, maybe it’s just another ready-made critique of my gender: you don’t know anything about being a woman except what you read in a book. (I’ll shrug that one off; book-learning has gotten me pretty far in life.)
There are times where my reading history pains me like, well, so much of the rest of my history: when I mourn the lost time, the time wasted, the time when I could have been working on becoming me instead of who I thought I should be. How could I have missed so many great writers? I mean, how could I of all people do that?
But that’s the thing. The idea that men write books, that men’s books are the serious and the popular books, that writing novels–one of the most domestic careers you can have, donchaknow, and one pioneered by women–is somehow super duper manly and books by women not worth the time reading them (or if you must indulge, only light trifles; even the serious female writers are overshadowed by men–Woolf by Joyce, Eliot by James, Austen by…well, nobody, but all that marriage stuff is for sissies anyway) is so pervasive that even I fell for it. Even I, who knew better than most that a manly appearance might be a facade. Who snuffed out the homoeroticism in Hemmingway and Chandler (my god, in Chandler.) Who both liked wearing dresses and was attracted to men.
Even that person, even I, despite–or because?–of all my years reading books in school, thought that reading books by women were a waste of time, that it was a just universe where Cormac McCarthy is taught to graduate students and Margaret Atwood isn’t. Where The Awakening is taught, you grow to suspect, not because it is a superb example of early American modernism written by a remarkable woman but because Edna Pontellier gets what’s coming to her at the end. Where John Updike’s prolific dissections of small-town philistinism are lauded “despite” the ugly misogyny that runs through them but Eudora Welty gets sidetracked to extension courses. Where the one Shirley Jackson story everyone gets taught is the one with a brutal murder. Where Flannery O’Connor gets brought up not because of her brilliant portraiture of the South–which managed to not win her the Nobel Prize–but because her stories are grotesque. Where Sylvia Plath is a tortured soul married to a genius, not the other way around. Where the women who touch on “boy subjects” get mentioned usually only in reference to male authors, and the women who don’t aren’t mentioned at all.
That’s the world I accepted. That’s the world that was taught to me, and that’s the world I learned about on my own. That’s the world I believed in, betraying myself as I did so, engaging in smug denials of “canon reclamation” and God help me probably a few “where are the great women writers, then?” (I can’t even claim refuge in the fact that I was a graduate student back then, and thus pretty much required to be an asshole; I think it was in the course description as a Core Requirement for my degree.)
Anyway, I’m not that person now.
The kind of person I am now is the kind of person who feels stifled in bookstores, reading all the male names on the spines of the books, the kind of person who has the awful fear of having her own voice drowned out by the murmuring shouts of the Boy Books Booster Section. Who tries to be just a little be braver, just a little bit truer to herself, and to be like the women in the books she once despised.