Queer Book Club: Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape by Jack Swift

niks mixtape coverA transgressive adult novel. When a voice from his past intrudes on his fragile recovery, Nik hits the road in his Dodge Dart and begins his revenge road trip, accompanied by the perfect mixtape and the ghost of his dead friend.

This is an incredibly intense, almost feverish tale of Nik’s attempt to get even with his past, from his abusive relationship with ex-boyfriend, Harley, to the depths he sank through his heroin addiction, and the horrific act he can never forgive his ex-band members for. It’s an amazing read from start to finish, sometimes disturbing, sometimes extremely moving. I cried a couple of times and wanted to puke a few others. It’s definitely full on, but I like a book that makes me feel something. Jack Swift experiments with non-standard narrative techniques to express the experience of trauma; the portrayal  works so well because it’s delivered within the tight structure of the road trip revenge spree.

A story with a trans guy as a main character, written by a trans writer. If you’re bored by the current fad for queer fiction full of sunshine, lollipops and mainstream wish fulfilment, this is a good antidote. A story where people are allowed to be just as messed up as reality. Full disclosure—I first came across this novel as an earlier draft, through a writing group. I fell for the writing first, before I became friends with the author,  so I feel I can recommend it in good conscience.

I wish there were more books like this—honest and raw, with an uncompromising punk rock sensibility. Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape tackles trauma, addiction, recovery and the possibility of redemption without sentimentality, but with humanity and dark humour. Definitely worth a read.

(TW/SPOILER: This story is part rape revenge fantasy.)

Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape is released in ebook format on 24th May 2017. You can order it here. Or you can buy the paperback here.

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Queer Book Club: Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

Infect Your Friends coverSpeculative fiction novella. In the future, everyone will be trans—that’s Lexi’s plan. With the help of her scientist friend, Raleen, she finds a way to shut down human hormone production, so that everyone has to make the choice trans people make. It’s both a revenge fantasy and a satirical ‘what if?’

The story is told in fragments by Lexi’s Patient Zero (who I don’t think is ever named). The narrative hops about in time, before and after ground zero of Lexi’s disease. It’s a quick read, but packs one hell of a lot into a small space.

I really love this. It’s funny, subversive, full of complexity and anger and frustration and satire and biting social observation about trans women, they way they treat each other and the way other people treat them. The style is fluid, dynamic and accessible—it was a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much more, because the story is compact, and I don’t want to spoiler.

I read in an interview with Torrey Peters that she’s made a point of not getting to hung up on traditional publishing conventions. There are a couple of tense shifts that threw me, but really, not a big deal.

Just, yeah, wow. I wish there were more books like this. One of my reading resolutions for 2017 is to read more spec fic with trans characters, and another is to read more subversive trans fiction. The world does not abound with books like this. This ticks all my boxes.

You can download an ebook copy from the author’s website, for a donation (or for free) here: http://www.torreypeters.com/ It’s also available in paperback.

Queer Book Club: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

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Nevada is the story of Maria, a young trans woman living in New York, struggling with her relationship to her body and her inability to be emotionally present in any of her relationships. It’s also about James, who lives in a small town in Nevada, and spends most of his time checked out on marijuana. When Maria’s girlfriend announces she’s been having sex with Maria’s friend and colleague, Maria wakes up to the fact she’s not really happy with any part of her life. I really wanted to read some more counter-culture books with trans characters (because I’m not a middle class teen and I’ve never been to a prom), and Nevada fits the bill.

This book is sharp and funny. I was genuinely laughing out loud a few pages in. Maria has a head full of queer and feminist theory, but treats it with irreverence and humour. Except when she doesn’t, then you get a full steam thought-diatribe on whatever’s wound her up. It’s a contrast to the wide-eyed innocence of trans people waking up to themselves in other trans novels I’ve read. Maria has access to other queer people, to support groups, to theory. It doesn’t necessarily make her life easy. It doesn’t solve all her problems. She’s still got all her hang ups about her body, and various self-protection strategies she’s built up as a child, which she can’t now drop in order to connect to other people and be present in her own life. So the humour is dark and the narrative is often on the edge. It feels intense and there’s a lot to process, but in a good way. The characters are frustrating, but for a reason—they spend a lot of time avoiding reality, avoiding emotions, avoiding making connections or facing tricky situations. They’re not role-models, they’re people. (Although I still wanted to scream at Maria for all the drunk driving.)

The style took me a little while to get into. Maria’s thoughts come full pelt all the time and the style is very naturalistic and conversational. There are a lot of fillers (like, anyway). It was fine once I’d got used to it, and I think the trick is to just go with it until it starts to flow. There are no speech marks, which works until the chapter where both James and Maria are thinking and talking at the same time, and then I lost the thread a bit. There were more than the average number of typos in the version I read, but it doesn’t distract too much. Weirdly, as I don’t often get hung up on this stuff, I thought a few times it’d have made more sense written in first person.

About halfway through the story, the point of view flips to James, a 20 year old stoner in small town Nevada. I didn’t realise this was going to happen, so I was a bit disoriented. His story soon joins up with Maria’s and you get a perspective from someone in a very different place with their gender identity. There’s a lot of reflection on the specific problems faced by trans women who are attracted to women and how patriarchal ideas about female sexuality and women’s bodies and men’s bodies feed into that.

The story doesn’t really have a resolution, which is a little unsettling, and maybe that’s the point. There’s this echo/not echo pattern with Maria and James. I guess that jagged feeling at the end is deliberate, in that Maria’s struggle, and both their struggles, don’t have a resolution. They’ll go on muddling through, dealing with some things, avoiding some things, making a shitty mess of some things. It would be naff if Binnie had tied a neat bow around it. However, there is still something a little unsatisfying about the end. I wanted to go back to Maria one final time.

I liked the story for its humour and realism. The characterisation is very strong. I liked that Maria wasn’t a wide-eyed innocent, she wasn’t a victim, but she still struggled. I liked that she’s trans and lesbian and punk. That her transness isn’t fit neatly into middle class America. I was still a bit unsure about the shape of the narrative towards the end. I was okay with the lack of resolution, but Maria gets kind of abandoned , which feels a bit odd when the whole first half is about her. Still definitely worth a look.

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 Book Club: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Sadly, this lovely cover is not used on the UK edition.

If I was Your Girl is a YA coming out romance about a trans girl, Amanda. After Amanda is attacked in a public toilet by the father of a fellow student, her mother and father decide it would be better if she make a clean break and move in with her father in a different town. Things start off well for Amanda—she makes new friends, and meets a boy who she really likes, and who really likes her. But things aren’t so simple: she’s scared that people will find out her past, that she’ll be the victim of more violence. At the same time, she’d really like to be honest, and unite her childhood with her present.

 

Throughout the story, there are flashbacks to different points in Amanda’s life, pre-transition, at different ages. Her life was tough, she experienced bullying and social isolation, her parents rowed about her difficulties, and her father made it clear she fell short of his masculinity measure. These flashbacks help to round out Amanda’s story, without taking away from her present.

Russo says in a note at the end of the book that she chose to make Amanda’s story simpler than many real trans stories, because Amanda is straight, and girly, and has always known she’s a girl. She also goes through all the transition surgeries and starts hormones pretty young,  she ‘passes’ easily, and is conventionally attractive. And, Russo says, it’s important to know those things are not true for a lot of trans people. I found, reading the story, that I was actually okay with those simplified aspects. Although I was also grateful for the note, too. It’s one possible trans story. Hopefully, as time goes on there’ll be more fictional trans stories that will get as much attention as this one, with more variety and flexibility. But the world moves slower than we sometimes want, and that’s not Russo’s fault. The romance plot is quite standard in some respects, but I like Grant, Amanda’s boyfriend—they both share a love of Star Wars, which is pretty cute and dorky, and Grant’s own family struggles make him much more sensitive than his footballer friends. I have no issue with people using romance as a vehicle for bigger issues—if it was okay for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, where’s the problem?

What’s important for me about the story, and what feels authentic, are all the small subtle ways that being trans impacts on Amanda’s everyday life. She’s often afraid of being found out, or making some social slip-up, somehow falling short as a girl. Her fears and insecurities are very relatable, and I could feel her weariness at living through all of that. But in contrast to her troubled past, and failed suicide attempt, the present is so much better. Acknowledging her identity gives her tremendous strength, as does facing many of her fears. It’s in these carefully observed and rendered details that Russo’s own experience as a trans woman really comes through. I also appreciate the observation that everyone keeps secrets, and presents a face to the world that doesn’t tell the whole of their story.

In some ways, it’s an idealised story, but Amanda’s world is still pretty far from ideal. Russo focuses primarily on the emotional side of Amanda’s experience, and for me, that’s a plus. I find stories with a big surgical focus pretty tough to read, personally, and actually I think they play into a mainstream media obsession with trans bodies. I also want to know where I can get a trans mentor like Virginia—someone Amanda can call when she needs to talk, a kind of big sis who she can rely on. There’s a nice touch in the fact that this is set in small town southern America, with a fair few working class characters, and Amanda finds a degree of acceptance there. I guess that’s drawn also from Russo’s own experience, as she originally hails from Tennessee.

My only misgiving is that the pacing is really fast at the start, which made me feel like I’d been thrown into the middle of things too quickly, but I got used to the pace, and the flashbacks help to fill in the gaps. It slows down a bit once the initial set-up is established, and I soon got into the rhythm of it. I read the whole book in one sitting, which for me is rare, but it’s definitely a page turner.

Amanda’s story is a tough one, but it’s not a tragic one, and for me that’s welcome. (Though trigger warning for sexual assault towards the end.) I’m going to spoiler and say, she gets a pretty happy ending. I don’t always need that from a book, but I was glad of it for this one. Now for more queered up trans stories and trans space adventures.

Queer Book Club: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

EveryHeartaDoorway coverThis was July’s chosen read for the queer book club I joined, and I’m really glad it was. Every Heart a Doorway is a YA novella. It’s quite hard to pin down the genre—it’s kind of fantasy, but modern fantasy with a fairy tale vibe to it, and a fair few gothic elements. (Yeah, it’s queer and gothic. Hold me!)

The story is set in a school for young people who have been through magical doorways to other worlds, where they felt at home, and then have been forced to return to this world, where they don’t. The school is run by Eleanor West, a woman who once had a doorway adventure herself, and wants to help those who are struggling to find their place back in this world. Almost all the young people in the school want to find their way back to their magical worlds. The main character, Nancy, found herself in the Halls of the Dead, and learned the joy of stillness. She danced with the Lord of the Dead, and served the Lady as a statue, subsisting on the juice of pomegranates. Now the normal world seems so full of bustle and movement, and awkward relationships where people make assumptions that don’t fit with Nancy’s desires.

Nancy is asexual, but not aromantic. She enjoys flirtation and attention from boys she likes, but she doesn’t want things to go any further than that. She finds negotiating her way around relationships really tricky, and would far rather return to the simpler magic world where she found peace. I’ve read other feedback online from people on the ace spectrum who are really pleased with the representation. It’s not an area of identity where I have any personal experience, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment, other than Nancy is a great character, and the way her identity is handled feels nuanced to me. I like the way McGuire uses a gothic world to express what Nancy wants; it seems to fit really well.

Nancy befriends other students who found their homes in darker worlds, and finds even at Eleanor West’s school, those who travelled to lighter, more playful worlds are suspicious of people like her. When one of the students is killed, suspicion falls on Nancy and her friends.

Seanan McGuire’s idea of the different magical worlds found through doorways is such a rich one—she could probably write several books exploring this idea, as well as this relatively short one. I’d have happily read a much longer book about this, although Every Heart a Doorway does a heck of a lot in a small space. I really love the idea of the doorways, and McGuire uses them to explore identity and belonging in such nuanced and subtle ways, it makes our usual boxes and labels look clumsy and inadequate (which they often are). It really struck a chord with me.

There are some great supporting characters. There’s a trans boy, Kade, who I really love. I didn’t realise there was a trans character when I started reading, so that was a lovely surprise. More spec fic with trans characters, please! Kade’s doorway world was a fairy world, governed by very strict and complicated rules. He managed to best a goblin king and was named his heir, but then, when the goblin king died, the fairies who ruled there threw him out because they wanted little princesses in their world. Kade’s made himself a new life in the attic of the school, surrounded by books and fabric, and has appointed himself as fixer for the school. Nancy meets him when she finds out her parents have switched her beloved monochromatic goth clothing for a suitcase of rainbow garments. They want back their colourful little girl who first went through the doorway; they don’t understand who Nancy has become (or perhaps, who she really was all along).

The only element I’m not completely sure of with this book is the central murder mystery plot. It doesn’t feel completely necessary to me, especially in a novella length book. There is so much to say about the doorway worlds and the students’ journeys of self-discovery. I’d have happily read a book just about that. However, it still works as a story, and there’s absolutely no padding or filler at all, no waiting around. The pacing is extremely tight, which makes a refreshing change, as I’ve read a few books recently that took a little while to get going.

This really is a special book, and I’d love to see more written in this setting. The story says so much about figuring out who you are, and all the messiness and complexity that can entail, as well as finding a place where people see you for who you are. I also enjoyed the gothic edge to the story, which I should say goes pretty dark in places. This story ticked so many boxes for me, I’m feeling a bit giddy.

Queer Book Club: Nobody Passes, ed. Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore

nobodypassescoverThis is going to be a short genderfuck Friday review, because my head is full of cold and fuzz. A bit of non-fiction for a change.

A few months ago, I made the foolish mistake, while perusing various online trans resources, of stumbling upon a guide to passing, and then I fell down a horrible sucking hole of binary conformity. To cheer me up, a friend bought me a couple of books, and Nobody Passes is one of them.

Nobody Passes is about gender, but it’s also about all the many other ways that people can pass or fail to pass in their lives. It’s a collection of essays, stories, conversations and interviews by all sorts of people that Mattilda has brought together, and it covers class, race, religion, sexuality and gender. It’s quite specific to US culture, but I found gaining a closer and more personal insight into US identity politics really interesting, especially as we (in the UK) import many of these ideas anyway.

Importantly, Nobody Passes is one of those important books in my life that has given me a bit of extra space to breathe and be. There’s such a very great pressure to fit in, in so many ways. That pressure hits everyone, not just trans people. Mainstream gender narratives alone do so much violence, twisting us to be an ideal thing, a symbol of something. To be read in the correct way. This book shows identity as complex and slippery, as something difficult to fit neatly, and most importantly, as something we get to make for ourselves, even thought that making might come with a fight.

If I ever read another guide to passing, it will be too soon, but this I will read again. I’m definitely going to look for more of Mattilda’s work. A friend recommended Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity,  Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, so I’ll likely give that a look as well.

Early Learning | Ambrose Hall

My flash fiction in THE FEM.

THE FEM

“Don’t play with that. It’s for girls.”

My head whipped round. Across the toy shop, a boy sat behind a pink plastic dressing table, exploring the array of small drawers with delight. The dressing table was lurid, bubblegum baroque, the mirror oval, a real fairy tale dream. His mother hovered behind, her face stiff with tension. For a moment, the boy was oblivious to her disapproval.

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Being Coy about Queer Characters

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Lestat and Louis, Interview with the Vampire (1984), Warner Bros.

Books with queer characters in are much more common these days than they were in my teens, when I was poring over Anne Rice’s vampire stories, teased to beyond an inch of my life by the homoerotica, and how tantalisingly close those novels came to being a big queer riot.

I’m glad I grew up on that vampire craze. I enjoyed the homoerotica, and the historical romp. I suspect more recent rescue fantasies would have left teenage me a little cold. But, Lordy, I wanted someone to get it on. Not in a fleshy, mortal, sex-fest sort of way, because y’know, Vampires don’t have to do that. That’s cool. Tab A need not be inserted into Hole B, per se. Gothic is all about metaphors for our desires and fears. But going all the way emotionally, that’d have been satisfying. I’m not looking for a happy ending. Just a relationship. It can be nasty, fucked-up, and damaging. But don’t tease me, and then not come through.

I’ve noticed there’s a little strain running through literature of writers who kind of want to feature queer characters, but maybe feel a bit coy about it. G.R.R. Martin does this with Renly and Loras, The Knight of Flowers. What were they doing together in that tent? As neither of them is the point of view character, we’ll never know. And when Renly dies, Loras is heartbroken. But as everything has happened off screen, you could be forgiven if you blinked and missed it. Some people think this is subtle, or tasteful (hmm), but given there’s a twin brother and sister getting it on in the opening chapters of the first book, I’d say maybe Martin isn’t all that fussed about subtlety. I think what’s happened here is that strain of coyness creeping in. Should I or shouldn’t I have a queer character? Maybe if I sneak one in, no one will notice. To me, it comes across as a writer who hasn’t quite made peace with their subject matter, and is particularly noticeable in this case, when so much else is explicit.

The final one is a bit trickier. Harry Potter. As my partner says, no matter how much I might want retro-flashbacks to Sirius and Remus having angsty teen goth sex in the Shrieking Shack, to the strains of Joy Division and The Smiths, these books are not for adults. However, I don’t know about anyone else, but my teens were populated in a good part by me and my friends having a bunch of crises about our sexuality (and in some cases, gender). It’s hard to believe, out of two generations of teenagers, that the only person who’s queer is the headmaster, and then mostly off-screen. It’s cool that he is, don’t get me wrong. But it does feel a little bit like a half-measure.

I’m a geek at heart. I care about genre fiction. I want to read about queer characters having grimdark adventures, or immortal angst, or wizard powers. I enjoyed reading all these books, but it’d be great if, when people think they might want a queer character, they just go right ahead and embrace that notion. I know how it goes. You can tie yourself in knots as a writer, worrying yourself about representation, and what you can get away with, and how people will react. People will tell you that fewer people will buy your books if you fill them full of queer characters. Then again, surely we’re past the point where we have to sneak queer in under the radar. To quote Yoda: Do or do not, there is no try.