Flash Fiction: The Symbol for Human on Medium

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I have a new piece of flash fiction on Medium, a fox fairy tale called The Symbol for Human. It’s inspired by Japanese kitsune stories. This one is locked to members only (so Medium will pay me), but non-members can read 3 locked stories a month. You can read it by clicking the link.

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Queer Book Club: Guapa by Saleem Haddad

guapa-cover

Guapa follows the life of Rasa, a young translator living in an anonymous Arab city, the day after his grandma finds him and his male lover in bed together. Rasa has never been open about his sexuality outside Guapa, an underground club, and a small group of friends. His lover, Taymour, is due to get married that night, seeking to conform to society’s ideals. As the optimism of the Arab spring turns to violence and oppression, Rasa’s friend, Maj, a drag queen and activist, is arrested.

Although the story is a day in the life of Rasa, there are a lot of flash backs throughout the story, which piece together and make sense of the present. (So, if you don’t like flashbacks, this isn’t for you.) I like the way that these different stages of Rasa’s life contribute to the person he’s become and how he relates to both his sexuality and his culture. The different stages of Rasa’s development really come through. Haddad weaves a complex picture of the conflicting forces of Rasa’s family and culture, Western liberalism, Western racism and Islamophobia, and Rasa’s internalised homophobia and conceptions of masculinity. At times, the whole book feels like one big closet.

Haddad’s nuanced portrayal of the sometimes irreconcilable pressures on Rasa is the strength of this novel for me. Nothing is perfect, everything is a compromise, whether in the personal or the political sphere—Rasa has to decide which compromises he can stomach.

Queer Book Club: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen-coverEileen is the story of a young woman set in the early 60s, in a small New England Town. It’s told retrospectively by Eileen when she’s much older, and there’s a wry humour to the retrospective viewpoint. Younger Eileen is trapped, living with her alcoholic father in their run down house, and working as a secretary in a juvenile prison. Nothing is rewarding about Eileen’s life, and she dreams of escape. She fantasises about Randy, one of the prison guards, and stalks him from afar, but really she’s quite alienated from her own desires, and her own body. Increasingly, we learn in snapshots from her childhood, that the whole of her life has been loveless and without affection. When a beautiful woman gets a job at the prison, Eileen’s desperate need for companionship transforms into a powerful crush.

This book caught my eye on the Man Booker shortlist. I’m slightly iffy as to whether it belongs in Queer Book Club (the main character isn’t explicitly queer), but the action hangs around Eileen’s crush on the beautiful new prison educator, Rebecca, so that’ll do I reckon.

I’ve seen the book labelled thriller, but it doesn’t really have the pacing of a thriller. Most of the book is more of an intricate character study of Eileen, following her around for a week, leading up to an unknown event which will cause her to leave her hometown forever. I loved the characterisation. Some of it is pretty grim—Eileen lives in filth and squalor, and hates her body to the point where she near starves herself, and then purges with laxatives, whilst drinking pretty heavily. Her relationship with her father is strained—he’s been a drunk for years, and has delusions and paranoia. But as the story takes shape, it becomes apparent that there never really was a golden time for Eileen. The retrospective style of narration, with the promise of escape and a better time, lifts the book from utter bleakness, so there’s humour and hope.

Whilst Eileen’s situation is not typical, there are some interesting reflections on women and sexuality at that time, and the limited roles available. Eileen’s not simply a victim of circumstance. She’s often quite an unpleasant, frustrating character, although I actually found her sympathetic as well.

The thriller element only really makes up the later part of the story, when Rebecca embroils Eileen in a surprising plot that finally snaps her out of the trap her life’s become. I won’t spoil the twist, but it was unexpected for me, even though the narrative is shaped towards that moment.

Eileen’s well worth a look, if you go in expecting a deep character study, and not a pacey thriller.

Queer Book Club: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

lies-we-tell-ourselves-coverLies We Tell Ourselves is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1959 Virginia. It follows the story of Sarah and Linda, both seniors, who are on opposing sides of the battle to desegregate the town’s high school. Sarah is one of 9 black students starting in the previously all white high school, whereas Linda is the daughter of the local newspaper editor, a staunch and outspoken segregationist. At first, the two girls seem irrevocably opposed to one another, but are thrown together to complete a school French project. Despite the violence and bullying surrounding the new black students, despite their divisions, the two girls fall in love.

The novel is told from the points of view of both Sarah and Linda. It’s a heavy read. The first section, which is all from Sarah’s point of view, follows in close-up the horror of starting high school faced with so much opposition. The first walk up to the door of the school on the first day is a gruelling battle through racial taunts and missiles, while the police look on and do nothing. Every school day, every lesson, every lunchtime, every journey down a corridor, becomes fraught with danger and humiliation for the students. It quickly becomes clear that in order for this historic change to be made beyond a statute book or court, the students will pay with their physical and mental wellbeing. And things go from bad to worse as the strain takes its toll. Although the novel is told from both points of view, it felt more like Sarah’s story than Linda’s, and I think that’s a good thing.

This is such a powerful book. Talley captures the experiences of Sarah in such detail, and it’s painful to follow her, even though she’s incredibly strong through it all. Linda also goes on a journey, from blind prejudice to realisation that her father’s message of racial superiority, and the violence he brings even into his own home, are not the right way, even though she’s lived with them all her life. It’s definitely an eye-opening novel, if this is a period of history you don’t know a lot about. And if it is, Talley still makes it personal.

The story looks at the choices available to young women at the time, and both girls have to take control of their own lives before they can figure out what they want for the future. They must also come to terms with religious teachings that tell them their love for each other is wrong. I liked that there is nothing mushy about their relationship, nothing overly sentimental. Really, the romance takes a back seat to the history and self-discovery. Love isn’t going to fix everything, they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

Even though this is a tough read, there’s hope and love. Talley has a particular gift for creating powerful moments, both of horror and joy, and I ended up in tears more than once. Not a book, or a historical lesson, I’m going to forget in a hurry.

Writing Trans Characters

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I had this idea I wanted to put together a guide to writing trans characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t really sure such a thing is possible. There are an infinite number of possible trans characters and trans stories, and having that variety represented is as important as anything else. So I’m just going to write about what I’d like to see in trans characters, and maybe it’ll be useful to others.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had recently about writing trans characters:

Transition isn’t the only story. Much as I loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a kid, I don’t want to read it over and over for the rest of my life. I want to know what awesome adventures that beautiful butterfly has when it’s done stuffing it’s face with saveloy and fruit. For me, it’s really important to tell stories that aren’t just about transition. Part of the reason for that is because sometimes it feels like there is no life beyond transition, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only trans person who’s wondered if they even have a place in the world. Stories of what happens next are more important than telling the same transition story over and over. (Also, as a side note, trans stories that read like surgical manuals are particularly tedious. The few programmes about trans people I saw on TV growing up were mostly just about surgical procedures. It scared the hell out of me.)

Trans people could exist in any environment or genre, not just realism, Bildungsroman or high school. Trans people could have adventures in space, or kill dragons, or fight clockwork robots, or solve crime, or get eaten by eldritch horrors, or act as a spy during the 18th century, or really just anything. Having looked pretty hard, I’ve noticed some more genre fiction emerging with trans characters. Which is really cool. But I’d love to see more of that stuff, and just more variety in general. I read pretty widely, in genre and literary fiction, and I want to be able to give my book geekness full expression.

Trans people don’t exist for non-trans people to get their tragedy jollies. Does the story really present a believable human being, or is the character really just an object which serves some cathartic process for others? I’m not saying the story has to be happy (I don’t write happy fiction), or the character has to be the main character, but does the character’s transness exist only as a symbol of something else, or to milk an emotional response? (Clue: if people say things like “her tragic struggle for acceptance taught me so much about what it means to really be your true self”, you’ve probably written something overly sentimental and should try harder next time.)

Trans people aren’t always part of the mainstream. Not all trans people want to be. Trans people can be queer in different ways. Not all trans people care about passing, (some do, and that’s fine too). Not everyone transitions, and if they do, their transition is unique to them, and doesn’t necessarily fit some formula. Trans people don’t always fit into a binary model of gender. Trans people can be part of subcultures other than LGBT ones, and might also be part of a queer social network.

Trans is not the whole character. This should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t—being trans is just one part of a big and complex character picture. It can dominate a person’s life at times, and at others, become irrelevant, but the point is, it’s just one part of a person. You’ve got to write all the other parts as well, or you have a flimsy character.

I have a sequel coming up to my vampire novella, with a trans character in. And my plan is the third and final part of the trilogy will be from his point of view. He’s gay and goth, and a vampire (and kinky as hell). So I’ve hopefully managed to fulfil some of my own wishes for a decent trans character.

Recommendations for good trans fiction welcome.

Queer Classics: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris cover

Continuing with my Isherwood burn, I read this and Goodbye to Berlin as part of a collection. This was my favourite of the two (though I might get around to reviewing the other one as well).  This is one of Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin novels (this one published in 1935) which capture his experiences of the city at the time leading up to WW2. William Bradshaw, an English man living in Berlin, strikes up a friendship with Arthur Norris whilst on a train to the city. Norris, with his strange manners, ill-fitting wig and suspicious passport, intrigues the somewhat detached and sarcastic Bradshaw.

The whole novel has a light, satirical quality to it which I really enjoyed. Bradshaw’s detachment is almost ridiculous at times, and eventually leads him into hot water (I won’t give any more away). It’s really the humorous observations and characterisations that were the highlight of the book for me. Isherwood plays with Bradshaw’s youthful detachment in contrast to the very serious, and sometimes violent, political backdrop playing out around him. Norris is a serial fabricant, incapable of facing or telling the truth about his business dealings, his past or his financial realities; he’s a really amusing character.

Likely because of the time it was written (and the semi-autobiographical nature of his stories at this time), sexuality is treated quite coyly. One of the characters, a German aristocrat, Baron Pregnitz, is quite clearly gay, but Isherwood is much more vague about Bradshaw’s sexuality. Although at one point, Bradshaw uses his intimacy with Pregnitz to lure him into an intrigue on behalf of Norris.

Mr Norris is enjoyable as satire, and an interesting insight into a place and time that had such a profound impact on the 20th century and beyond. The plot twist for me wasn’t much of a surprise, but that didn’t really mar my enjoyment.

Queer Classics: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness cover

The Well of Loneliness is the story of Stephen Gordon, an aristocratic woman who prefers to dress in a masculine fashion, and who loves women. It is perhaps the first coming out story published (let me know of others, if I’m wrong), and sets down the pattern for that particularly kind of Bildungsroman that many other coming out stories would follow, charting Stephen’s life from childhood to adulthood, as she negotiates her way around her particular sexuality and gender identity.

I read The Well of Loneliness as part of my research for the 1920s novel I’m currently working on. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a chore, and while it definitely does provide valuable historical insight into how sexuality was viewed at the time  (1928), it’s not a book I would recommend reading for entertainment. So, a rare negative review from me, but Radcliffe Hall isn’t still around to care. Expect scare quotes.

It’s an iconic book, thrust into the limelight by an obscenity trial at the time of publishing. The book received support from writers at the time on point of principle (including E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), but when Hall asked them to support the book for its literary merit, they refused.

I found it a tricky read because it’s just not very well written: the style is old fashioned and stodgy for the time, considering who her literary peers were. It’s also painfully sentimental, which again seems very old fashioned for the period. I read the Wordsworth Classics edition (pictured, with lovely Tamara Lempicka cover), which has a helpful introduction by Dr Esther Saxey, placing the book in its historical and cultural context. Saxey suggests that it’s impossible to separate The Well of Loneliness from the development of lesbian identities, as it was so influential.

The book is interesting from the point of view that it captures a time when conceptions of sexuality and gender identity were in a state of flux, with conflicting theories being presented by psychologists and sexologists. Hall favours the idea of the “congenital invert” put forward by Havelock Ellis, a sexologist at the time. Previous sexologists had considered this condition to be degenerative, but Ellis saw it as natural and not harmful, and he even wrote an introduction to the novel for Hall. It’s impossible to really draw comparisons between this historical conception and our moderns concepts of identity, as the idea of the “invert” ties gender and sexuality together, and considers same sex love to be a feature of either masculine or feminine biology. Stephen is extremely masculine in appearance, and likes to do traditionally male activities, and this masculinity is seen as inherently tied to her love of women. The love of women is borne out of her gender identity, effectively. So in that regard, she falls somewhere in between a butch lesbian and a straight transgender man, and the story reads as much like the history of one as the other, in terms of modern labels. Hall saw Ellis’s ideas as liberating in comparison to previous notions of physical degeneracy or mental illness, but it’s not always completely clear in the novel that Hall has left those notions behind. Hall also draws on her Catholic beliefs, sometimes presenting Stephen as a martyr.

As a story, it’s a pretty miserable read. Hall hoped to write the book as an apology for the “invert”, so that people might accept them. But pity is the main emotion called for. “Inverts” are shown to be unusually sensitive, not because of any social stigma, but apparently because of their biology. Stephen spends a lot of time in periods of dark depression, and even when she finds love, seems largely to loathe herself and feel guilty for warping the life of her lover. Hall defined herself as a “congenital invert”, and it doesn’t read as a story written by someone who is at all at peace with their own sense of self.

So, read Well of Loneliness if you’re really interested in the history of queer identities, but don’t expect a wildly entertaining ride.

Queer Classics: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.

A Single Man coverA Single Man follows a day in the life of George Falconer, a middle-aged gay Englishman, living in LA, who has lost his lover. The story follows George through ordinary scenes of his working life in the local university, to the death bed of his late partner’s one time lover, to night swimming on a local beach. At different times, George does and does not confront his grief and loss. The day takes him from rage to joy to sorrow, and is beautiful in the way that Isherwood observes and captures small moments. George finds joy in unexpected little things, and in the company of others.

I grew up reading books written by Isherwood’s generation, though this is the first of his books I’ve read. I enjoyed the simple, pared down style, and hands-off observational approach. A Single Man is a very short book, but it is exactly the right length. It’s sad to think that books this length are now rejected out of hand.

One of the most striking things is the way that George carries on with his life in stubborn determination not to appear as a recent widower, but it’s clear from the way he has got rid of all his partner’s pets, the way he visits his partner’s one time lover in hospital, even though he hates her, the way he haunts their old meeting places, how profoundly he is affected. And there’s a very realistic feel to George’s confusion of contradictory emotions and actions—at one minute joy, the next anger.

The only downside really is that I found a couple of bits a little sexist and racist. I think, simply that the story is a product of its time (1964), but not horribly so. I didn’t feel especially that these were things Isherwood was promoting in the story, simply minor elements that crept in. It’s still worth a look.

I recommend avoiding spoilers until you’ve read the whole thing.

I have his Berlin novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin on my reading pile, so I’ll post about them when I’ve done.

Queer Classics: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando cover picMy second queer classics review, and first genderfuck Friday. In celebration of creatively messing around with gender, I thought I’d review Woolf’s Orlando, as it’s one of my favourite books.

As an avid reader and massive weirdo, I was a huge Virginia Woolf fan in my teens. Orlando was one of the first gender bending characters I came across. Woolf described Orlando as a writer’s holiday, and she dedicated it to her friend, muse and sometime lover, Vita Sackville West. You can see in Orlando’s love of their ancestral home echoes of Sackville West’s love of Knole, the estate she lost due to entailment down the male line.

Orlando is definitely a departure from Woolf’s usual dense, poetic stream of consciousness novels, in that it’s much more playful and light-hearted, as well as being simpler in style. Most wonderful of all, and the feature that warmed my little magic realism heart before I even knew what that was, the main character never ages or dies, but begins in Tudor times and ends in the 20th century, and halfway through the story, goes to bed a man and wakes up a woman. No explanation, no fuss. Orlando is really just a lot of fun, a lovely historical romp.

Special mention to the 1992 film adaptation with Tilda Swinton. Lush historical costuming, and Tilda Swinton. What more do you need? Don’t be greedy.

I’m going to set aside Fridays here for creative gender bending, whether it’s creative work, specific characters, critical work or real individuals. Your nominations for GenderFuck Friday welcome.