Beyond the Trans Memoir
Juliet Jacques on Life After Transition—and Publication
In 2009, Juliet Jacques received the sort of break young writers dream of: U.K. newspaper The Guardian offered her a three-year column. What emerging writer could possibly turn down a high-profile, fortnightly series of short essays specifically engineered to be about a subject they had been pondering their entire life, and to be prominently featured on one of the most-visited websites on Earth?
A dazzling opportunity, but also one that made Jacques deeply ambivalent. The column was to document her transition from male to female, and she saw at least two huge pitfalls. First, she was wary of writing the sort of confessional story that she felt the world had seen enough of—and toward which her editor was inclined. “The transition memoir had fallen out of favor with trans writers,” she told me via email. “Plenty of writers in the 1990s and beyond found that this didn’t speak to them.” These writers had chosen other ways to discuss their gender identities on the page, and certainly none of them had written about it in a hugely public forum while transitioning. “I felt out on a limb,” she recalled. “The only other person to attempt such a blog in a mainstream publication was Mike Penner/Christine Daniels in the Los Angeles Times, in 2007-2008, who ended up detransitioning and committing suicide.”
Secondly, even if she did manage to pull off the column in her way, she didn’t want to become typecast as a “trans” writer.” Long before she became known for covering LGBT issues, Jacques spent years writing in-depth essays on avant-garde art for little journals. “Artists’ film and video, and modern/post-modern literature is what I still see as my passion,” she told me. She had no intention of letting these subjects go, and she feared that if she became associated with her transition story in the popular eye, opportunities to write on these topics would begin to dry up. (These fears were later realized, as Jacques said that after the Guardian series concluded many high profile publications “only really wanted me to write about trans issues.”)
Ultimately, she decided she would go ahead with the column, smuggling in as much gender theory, radical politics, and avant-garde cinema as possible, to demonstrate that there was an interest in this sort of writing. “I did the Guardian series because editors and other trans writers told me that ‘people weren’t interested’ in trans politics and they would only accept first-person ‘journey’ narratives,” she said. “I think the column helped to disprove that.” The series, which ran from 2010 through 2012, and which was long-listed for an Orwell Prize, is frenetic, very personal, and engrossing—I binge-read all 30,000 words of it in just a couple of hours on a flight. Among other things, it covers the author’s depression, the bureaucratic nightmare of modern health care, feminism and the LGBT community, and the trials required to massively change one’s body.
What came next for Jacques was an altogether different challenge: she was urged to expand the column into an entire book. At first she was hugely resistant reshaping the writing she had already done into a memoir, but the platform for considering the politics, film, and literature at the heart of her identity proved too much to resist. In addition, there was a certain amount of pressure involved: “It became apparent that agents and publishers weren’t really going to allow me to write anything else until I’d done it,” she said.
That memoir, titled Trans, publishes this month from the edgy independent press Verso Books, sitting well among its volumes of dense philosophical theory and tracts from the left’s bleeding edge. Trans maintains the quick pacing and firebrand tone from Jacques’s Guardian writings, while treading far deeper into theory and the author’s personal life and further developing her natural skill for transmuting abstract concepts into engaging life stories. Notably, her ambivalence about being a trans writer is part of the fabric of the book itself, which grounds her character in aspects of her life—her love of soccer, for instance, or her struggles to make ends meet as a writer—that transcend her categorization as a transsexual woman. Throughout, her authorial voice mixes passion with a grittiness inherited from her history in several UK alternative music scenes, and this voice is well suited to the many necessary interventions she makes into thorny political debates on everything from feminism to health care to the overuse of trans clichés. It also maintains a slick, effortless tone characteristic of all Jacques’ writing.
Trans feels effortless to read, an experience that belies the pains of the book’s challenging, three-year gestation. Jacques approached Trans with a great deal of trepidation and hesitancy, and it turns out she was right. It was a book that nearly defeated its author.
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Jacques and I first met while she was deep in the writing of Trans late last year. She wrote to me about an essay I published that blended my own trans experiences with the films of the esoteric Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, and her pleasure at finding someone equally conversant in trans questions and cinematic ones was evident from the very start. In person she is an encouraging, direct, and practical friend, and the mordancy of her writing is inflected with kindness and vulnerability. Her passion for social justice and neglected artists is palpable, as is her steadfast belief that gender should not be seen as a binary. As Jacques has done herself, she believes that individuals should eschew a categorical view of gender in favor of a more nuanced and personal expression of who they are. She seems happy with the place she’s reached. As she told me, “I feel more ‘myself’ than ever: it was a complex process of working out what I had to change in order to ‘pass,’ and really I wanted to change as little as possible beside my body. I feel comfortable with who I am now.”
The transgender world is in a very different place nowadays than it was when individuals like Jacques, who was born in 1981, were beginning to find themselves. Since the 1990s transgenderism has grown increasingly mainstream; certainly a tipping point of sorts was reached in May 2007, when that bastion of conventional wisdom, Newsweek, featured a trans cover story. In the years since, gender ambiguity has been accorded a level of normalcy and acceptance previously unheard of, with transpeople now visible internationally in mainstream video games, television, film, and, of course, books.
With mass culture having embraced trans culture in an unprecedented way, new opportunities and challenges have opened up to trans writers. In its infancy, the trans memoir was characterized by works like Jan Morris’s 1974 book Conundrum, in which the famous travel writer describes a transition mostly free from struggle, pain, or gender confusion. While the book has its strengths—it’s readable, and it tells a heartfelt story of a man who always believed he was a woman—it also elides many of the things that make the trans narrative distinctive, interesting, and, many would say, honest. Certainly it’s far different from a book like Trans.
Books by trans authors began to change in the 1990s, with the arrival of a spate of titles that edged away from Morris’s presentation of the transition story, rendering it as far messier and less gender normative. As Jacques put it, these books “concentrated on exploring spaces between male and female, trying to create a language to convey their ideas about gender, along with a sense of community and shared politics.” Much of that community and politics was pioneered in the 1980s by theorists and activists like Donna Haraway and her star student and transwoman Sandy Stone, who began writing explicitly theoretical books and essays that engaged with the full complexity at the intersections of gender, sex, identity, and society. Together, these titles helped create a literary culture in which there were no longer overwhelming expectations that trans women (not to mention cis women) would match up to stereotypes of femininity. For Jacques, this history provided her with a remarkable opportunity to blend the rich collection of trans narratives and theory—not to mention film, art, and literature—into an in-depth exploration of what exactly it means to live a transgender life today. And as she pointed out to me, it gave her a chance to bring the conversation to her side of the Atlantic: “Nearly all of the theory around trans identity and politics is American—there has been far less in the UK, and no major memoirs since April Ashley in the early 1980s. I wanted to help update the conversation.”
New opportunities, but also sizable challenges. Very few people choose to change their gender, and even fewer of them do it as publicly as has Jacques. Such publicity can be a mixed blessing. “The nature of my writing brought quite a lot of people who’d been damaged in similar ways to me into my life, via comments, email, Twitter, or (particularly) Facebook,” she told me. “I was never quite sure what they wanted or expected from me, although some were quick to tell me if I wasn’t giving them what they desired. Because of this, I think the burn-out rate is much faster than it used to be.” Wary of how media appearances can spiral out of control, she has been careful to turn down any appearances where she can’t control how she will be depicted. In practice this has meant declining bookings on talk shows, as well as the opportunity to host a television documentary. However, not all of the requests Jacques has turned down have been equally difficult to decline: “In 2012 I got asked by a magazine to pose ‘with a tie or suit or something that symbolized your old life.’ I said ‘no’ immediately.”
A more prosaic, and probably larger concern was that Jacques was feeling her way through a still-emerging genre. Early on she discarded tens of thousands of words of false starts. She was confronted with one particularly bad crisis point when, deep in the middle of the book, her editor decided that it just wasn’t working and requested that she start over from the very beginning. This setback was particularly painful, as it would mean that Jacques would miss her original publication date, a huge psychological blow. “By that time, I felt utterly burnt out and sick of the whole thing,” she said, “I knew he was right, but the idea of doing it all again didn’t fill me with joy.”
Reluctantly, she discarded well over a year’s worth of work to begin anew, but then she found that the new approach she and her editor had agreed upon still wasn’t working. For one thing, it was forcing her to delve back into too many traumatic memories. Plus, there were fears of exposing too much about her family and old friends, and she still couldn’t manage to integrate theory and art as much as she had wanted. At wits’ end, she called a private meeting with her editor. “I was fully prepared to offer to give back the advance and ditch the whole thing,” she recalled. Fortunately, during this meeting her editor suggested a new structure that opened with the Guardian article on the her final surgery and cut between personal and theoretical chapters—it turned out to be a winning approach. “This was when I really started to enjoy writing,” she recalled. “Having nailed the structure and the character, I began to surprise myself. The dialogue started to work; I made reflections that felt funny, sad or insightful; connections between people and places that I’d never thought about before. And I really worked out why I was writing the book, and why I hadn’t quit.”
There were other, more existential challenges to writing Trans, ones that entwined with the conclusion of Jacques’s gender re-assignment. Just as many authors feel empty once they’ve finished the years-long process of writing a book, it’s not uncommon for transsexual people to become depressed after surgery. The culmination of a lifelong struggle in a hospital room can make for an anti-climatic, clinical ending, leaving them at loose ends. This was a fact for Jacques: “The post-surgical depression was a visceral reaction to general anesthetic and a regime of painkillers, as well as a response to the end of a process that had dominated my life for more than three years, and the resolution of the gender dysphoria that had been central to my entire existence.” Writing Trans was in part a way of processing this experience: one bold section offers a strongly corporeal account of the weeks of agony Jacques passed in bed as her body healed, including an upsetting dream in which her penis returned. (It was only when she later compared stories with other transsexual women that she realized this was a common occurrence, generally referred to as “The Dream.”)
When the writing of Trans at last concluded—three years after her transition had—Jacques felt a double impact: now she wasn’t just ending a lengthy gender transition rooted in the earliest days of her existence, she was also ending a protracted and emotionally difficult process of writing about that life. Her feelings of completing her book reinvigorated the depression that had arrived with her final surgery. “The depression I experienced after finishing the book was more psychological, related to a huge absence in my daily activity, an exhaustion at putting so much of myself onto the page, and the knowledge that a six-year cycle of writing in which my personal and professional, public, and private lives were intertwined was at an end. So there was a process of mourning.” At first she fought back with days of voracious reading—Susan Sontag’s On Photography, A. L. Rees’ history of avant-garde film and video art, various articles online—but eventually she felt “completely exhausted, unable to do much beyond watching football and playing computer games.” The only thing was to wait for the book to be published.
Having begun her memoir amid ambivalence, Jacques ends it there as well, with a healthy serving of fatalism. “Part of me is excited about the book’s publication,” she said, “part of me is terrified—certainly I feel exposed, and that there’s quite a lot of pressure. But I’ve done it now. I just want it to happen now, I’m bored of waiting.” Given the years of struggle involved, it seems like a reasonable conclusion. And in the meantime she’s been turning her thoughts in new directions—namely, to a creative writing Ph.D. program that she’ll be starting in October. Having spent six years as a trans writer, Jacques will attempt return to the fiction that she once wrote long before she became known for documenting her transition. Shrugging off that identity perhaps points to a certain emergence, to the point where she can take stronger control of her public perception and shift her gaze toward a different self. It’s a sizable challenge, one she’s clearly cognizant of. For the time being, she’s planning on starting off slow, with a small goal that’s becoming increasingly common to writers of all stripes: “Right now I just want to get off the hamster wheel of writing think pieces and ‘engaging’ on Twitter,” she said. “It’s burnt me out. It would be nice to work in a slower, quieter, more private way.”