Book Review: ‘Trans’ by Juliet Jacques

At the beginning of Trans, Juliet Jacques described her experience with bottom surgery. She writes about meeting another trans woman, Billie, in the hospital. They talk intensely about poetry and join in a small rebellion, secretly disconnecting Jacques’ catheter so she sneak off to watch soccer. This vivid and engaging vignette left me wanting to know more about these characters, about what happened next in their lives.

Although this vignette seems like a beginning though, it is really an end. Instead of moving forward from this point, the book immediately jumps back to Jacques’ childhood. Jacques describes growing up in a rural town, studying at a university, listening to avant-garde pop music, and experimenting with presenting as a girl. She has weird conversations with cis friends about her gender and terrible encounters with mental health professionals. Eventually she gets herself together to transition, at which point she has to deal with the NHS, until finally she arrives at The Surgery, again, which concludes the story. All this storytelling is clear-eyed and evocative.

Interspersed within this, she gives an episodic history of important cultural moments in the depiction of trans people, both by ourselves, and by cis people, whether hostile or well-intentioned. Her description of this cultural heritage is accurate, adroit and perceptive. It offers an excellent primer on this subject.

So there’s a lot to praise about this book. All the same, it left me wanting something it was not able to provide. This lack is not primarily to do with Jacques’ writing. Instead it is to do with her genre, with the constraints she accepts by taking up that most traditional of trans forms, the transition memoir.

The problems with transition memoir are not problems that can easily be remedied by good or bad execution- they are structural ones. By it’s nature, transition memoir requires that you speak of a time in your life when you were isolated, when you didn’t know trans people, and mainly talked to cis people. It requires that you speak of how hard it was for even you to understand yourself, and that you explain how you “figured it out” so others can understand it too.

Above all, it requires that you describe your transness as a problem. It requires that you then describe your transformation into something more closely resembling a normal person, and that this transformation be successful, and solve your problems. And it requires all this, not even as an explicit ideological demands, so much as a requirement of its narrative structure. These are ideas that are baked into the concept of “transition”.

Transition memoirs, by their nature, work on the assumption that the process of “changing sex” is remarkable, not a normal thing to do. Whereas for most trans people it is extremely normal- probably half the people many of us know have done it. And they also assume, because of where they leave off, that the fact we undergo this process is the only remarkable thing about us, that once we have “The Surgery” we then become just like cis people. Which, if you know any trans people, you’ll know we don’t.

They are therefore structured, between sensationalism and exclusion, to preclude any real discussion of the mundane realities of what it is like to actually be a trans person, either before or after transition. Instead, they are books which speak primarily to a cis audience, which gratify their curiosity and challenge their assumptions, and do little to address the needs, feelings or thoughts of any trans readers they might make their way to.

Jacques struggles womanfully with the limitations of her form. She presents a main character with agency and complexity, and she uses the sections where the author speaks directly to the reader to challenge a number of the tropes of the transition memoir. She talks about individualisation. She talks about “before and after” pictures. She argues that we are not so much in the “wrong body” as the wrong society.

All this is great. But even these criticisms are clearly addressed to a cis audience. They are designed to gently, or even forcefully, push at the limits of what cis people can understand about us. And as such they have to proceed in a way that takes cis people’s assumptions and desires as the horizon of possibility. The result of this, despite the skill and honesty with which Jacques writes, is that what this book can achieve is sharply limited. It may well do a lot to further the conversations cis people have about trans people, but it can do little to further our conversations with each other.

Throughout the book, Jacques talks about her desire to write a book of short stories about trans life. And whenever she mentioned it, I thought–I want to read that book! The story of a friendship beginning in the hospital is just the kind of story that might appear in such a book. It is a story about “The Surgery” that might really have something new and exciting to tell us about that experience, and about the way it figures in trans communities. It is an encounter full of radical narrative possibility.

Unfortunately, as Jacques makes clear in her epilogue, when she was trying to get a book deal, mainstream publishers were only interested in a transition memoir, just as the Guardian had only been interested in a “Transgender Journey” and not in the other articles, from herself and her friends, Jacques tried to pitch them. As it stands, a book of stories about actual trans life is not allowed to enter the mainstream. We are only allowed to express ourselves in the form of apology, explanation, titillation or challenge directed at cis people. Anything else “won’t sell”.

I think most trans writers will recognise this chorus of demands from cis media and publishers. I don’t know that Jacques can be blamed for making concessions to it (and she is clear, from time to time throughout the book, that concessions are what they are). This is the reason why we so badly need more trans publishers and blogs and journals and magazines. It is, disappointingly, only when we control the means of distribution that we are able to get writing published that is not just by us but actually for us.

Trans: A Memoir 
By Juliet Jaques
Hardcover, 9781781681644, 228 pp.

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