‘The future is wide open’: How trans literature came of age

After decades of being excluded from publishing, trans narratives are finally appearing on our shelves. Writer Kuchenga talks about the authors and books that helped her find her story. 

An illustration of a child with a small number of books, next to an adult surrounded by books
Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

How private can a narrative be? As a child in search of anyone as queer as I felt, the LGBT section of the library was my knicker drawer in a public bedroom. I would linger by the shelves, waiting for the coast to be clear. The aim was to grab and run without being noticed. If I felt there was a chance of being seen, I would gamble and simply take any book at random that was within my reach. As a result, I never really found my experience as a Black trans femme in the literature that whispered it was for people like me. Nevertheless, through persistence, I found my people.

On bleak days, being assigned male at birth feels like a curse enacted upon me in a janky fairy tale – my happily ever after is a lone star in the distance. But on my best days, the words of Toni Morrison come back to abide with me. She threatens us all with the question: “but what if we do choose to be born?” This helps me look back on my early childhood and make sense of where my own valiance came from.

The literary fairy godmother I longed for would not appear for decades, but in the meantime, I could fall in with a merry band of Black gay brothers. They called me ‘Sassy’ and I sang contralto: James Baldwin sang bass, Essex Hemphill sang baritone and Joseph Beam sang tenor. I read their essays, novels and poetry. There are certain anthologies that brought me into myself in ways I cannot yet explain. I blended a sense of belonging out of narratives that were not my own.

'Black women’s literature, specifically, was a means of survival in a world that sought to erase my perception of people like me'

The Black women’s literature I had at home sustained me in ways I was continually told it should not. The Bluest Eye is my story. The Colour Purple is my story, too. So too is Their Eyes Were Watching God. Black women writers never kicked me off the porch. Thus, I was kept fat and well and on my way to happy by brothers and other mothers. I cannot lie and say that the existential literary hugs I received from Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, et al. were not warm enough. I just looked back on my life at a certain point and realised that in spite of all the family lore I had read, I had – in the words of Randy Crawford – never been to me.

This all changed when I acquired Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (2014) while in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. For the first time, I did not have to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Here was a woman whose life experiences echoed mine with such accuracy that ever since I have seen us as Cinderella-Sisters-In-Arms: Black trans girls society failed to crush. We reached into the unknown and became butterflies.

It was bell hooks, and her book Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem, that showed me the phenomenon of ‘coming into one’s own’ through reading. Black women’s literature, specifically, was a means of survival in a world that sought to erase and distort my perception of myself and people like me.

Having found a Black trans narrative in Janet Mock’s writing I zealously sought more, but was disappointed to find much of the same. It felt like memoir after memoir was telling the same story of being assigned boy at birth before the tale of how we “became” women for cisgender readers. These books had an intense focus on violence; ostracization from families; running away to the cities where you would meet the “screaming queens” Susan Stryker lovingly documents in her documentary of the same name before eventually having enough hormone therapy and affirming surgeries to settle down into a quite stealth life with someone sensible.

I wanted to read different, more varied stories than this, but first had to wrestle with why this was the case. Trans people were not given the freedom to write fiction about our place in society because we were so occupied with the toil of proving that we, as people, were not a fiction. No wonder trans memoir was so heralded in publishing.

There was solid political intention in the life-writing of Jan Morris, Jennifer Finlay Boylan and latterly Juliet Jacques. It felt like these writers were writing for a cisgender audience hoping to explain their experiences as trans women in a declarative way that would do enough to stop the repeated probing and shallow questions we are all, unfortunately, beleaguered with. There is often a marked focus on the physical realities of transition with a defined beginning and end – on one’s medical journey of “becoming woman” and having thus “transitioned”. I was always amazed at how many times such women have told their stories in the hope that the most savage of investigations into our lives would cease with an increase with compassion and empathy. Take the autobiography of tennis player Renée Richards, No Way Renée: The Second Half of My Notorious Life. Renée transitioned in the 1970s and continued to have a career in women’s tennis. It’s galling that she is an example of former inclusivity and integration, but never brought up in discussions that exclude trans women in sports today.

'Only in the past decade has it now felt like our turn'

The overwhelming whiteness of these writers was not lost on me. The Black trans women in my purview were pilloried. Our experiences were discounted from any sort of high literary consideration and thus, as always, the white girls got the attention first. Only in the past decade has it now felt like our turn. With self-publishing, we have been able to tell our stories on our own terms – and all trans literature has benefitted. Books such as A Light Through The Shade: An Autobiography of a Queen by TS Madison (2015); The Transsexual from Tobago by Dominique Jackson (2014) and Becoming Hope: Removing the Disguise by Hope Giselle (2018) are remarkable because of their insistence to be heard. For their refusal to wait to be granted the publicity and recognition their lives and careers prove they deserve.

Special mention must be made for a trans masculine narrative that deeply impacted me more recently. Brit Bennett – a Black cisgender woman – so sensitively depicted the character of Reese, a transgender man with whom one of the book's main characters, Jude, has a relationship with (The Vanishing Half, 2020).

I remember reading Giovanni’s Room (1956) and being astonished that a Black gay male – James Baldwin - could depict a white gay male’s interior world with such compassion. I felt the same level of astonishment that Bennett was able to tell the story of a light-skinned Black trans man without any clunky parallels being drawn between race and gender in an attempt at superficial intersectionality. It gave me much hope for the scope of what is possible for trans literature, and the depiction of trans people in literature, in the future.

'Now, a space has been made for trans women writers in the public sphere'

This year sees a phenomenal amount of trans literature coming our way. I welcome the ructions caused by Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby and its unapologetic discussion of what remain incendiary issues around gender identity and fertility. I found myself giggling at the kink and baulking at the violence described. Most of all, I was astounded by how refreshing it is to read a story about transness and womanhood that I do not relate to in any profound way. Detransition, Baby wrestles with whiteness and queerness in a way that does not chime with the life I have led. This is fantastic. Peters has not been hindered with the impossible task of representing me or the plethora of other women sheltering under our particular part of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Instead, she has helped prepare the way for an expansion of discourse around trans identities and parenthood. While there has been a transphobic backlash to Peters’ longlisting for Women’s Prize for Fiction, it has prompted allies to step up in defence. Now, a space has been made for trans women writers in the public sphere.

On this side of The Pond, the next contender for creating a healthier conversation about trans life will be Shon Faye with her forthcoming book The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. The fearmongering that accompanies the increasing visibility of trans people keeps us from wondering how the liberation of trans people might lead to a better world for us all. Both these books have the power to become seminal texts.

We also have the highly anticipated What It Feels Like For a Girl by Paris Lees and Transitional by Munroe Bergdorf. The sheer number of books arriving by trans women writers is proof of a disruptive literary insurgency. The future is wide open.

Hopefully, we can now expect even more expansive literature that heads toward the utopian promise ignited by Marge Piercy in her utopian dream of a novel, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). This feminist sci-fi classic posits not just that a new world is possible – but that it will be gloriously delightful. Trans writers are not only here to let you know that – in the words of ballroom legend Octavia St. Laurent – “this world is for me too honey!”, but that they offer new worlds for our minds to inhabit too. Our liberation will lead to liberation for us all. These books are the light we need along the way.

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