A photo of Shon Faye, author of The Transgender Issue, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a light blue and grayscale background.
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‘It would be fun to take Emily Dickinson for shots’: 21 Questions with Shon Faye

The author of The Transgender Issue on the power of Toni Morrison, the best book she’s ever read, and singing along to Liza Minnelli.

There have been few books as highly anticipated – and as desperately needed – as Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue was last year. In her first book, the writer, presenter, journalist and former editor-at-large for Dazed confronts and reframes the notion of trans people being an ‘issue’ at all, unpacking the current discourse to better show what it’s like to be trans in a transphobic world.

Using her signature wit but presented acutely, and backed by thorough, wide-ranging research and thoughtful analysis, Faye’s book argues compellingly how justice and solidarity between the trans community and all marginalised people will lead to a better society for all.

With the book now available in paperback, we asked Faye to take on our 21 Questions about life and literature. Here, she discusses the influence of Toni Morrison, her Pavlovian response to ABBA, and downing shots with one of poetry’s greatest minds.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Toni Morrison is the largest source of inspiration for me and, I’d argue, for anyone who writes from a marginal or minority position in the mainstream. She once said “I stood at the border. Stood at the edge and claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” To me that is such an admirable manifesto for a writer.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

'Toni Morrison is the largest source of inspiration for me and, I’d argue, for anyone who writes from a marginal position in the mainstream'

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is a novel about a girl taken as a baby to become a priestess of dark unnamed gods; as an adolescent, her name, personhood and womanhood are ritually stripped from her in service of her invisible masters. The novel tracks her gradual crisis of faith and the development of her autonomy as she takes her selfhood and identity back. I guess I related to it a lot for obvious reasons!

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Wuthering Heights. I think I found Heathcliff sexy as a teen, but I have fortunately learned to stay away from narcissistic men since, haha.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Moby-Dick, lol. It’s by no means a favourite, but I read the whole thing when I was 17 and it was the only text I discussed in my interview to study English literature at university – it’s probably the reason I got accepted! I couldn’t face reading it ever again, though.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Nothing hugely strange, but I was a theatre usher during an eight-week run of Mamma Mia! To this day I can’t hear ABBA’s ‘Voulez-Vous’ without thinking, “Time to box up the ice creams for interval”.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

You know I’m not sure I’ve ever had advice in that sense. I have many friends who are writers, but I tend not to discuss my writing or the writing process with other people. I often think it’s quite dull chat!

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Mrs Dalloway. I became obsessed with Woolf during a very gloomy time in my late adolescence, and The Hours is also one of my favourite films, so it often leads me back to Woolf’s own novel on which that film’s narrative is based.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I’ve recently had a real drought in reading novels and fiction because my own writing has demanded I focus on reading history, theory and political writing. I am very much looking forward to finally reading Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan, as her essays and criticism have often felt very rooted in reflections and desires I share with her.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

'I found Heathcliff sexy as a teen, but I have learned better since'

I think I would always still write in some capacity. I used to do live cabaret and stand-up comedy on London’s queer scene, and that still involved a lot of writing.

What makes you happiest?

Singing along to Cabaret by Liza Minnelli in one of my friends’ living rooms at 2 am.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I am a complete nerd about the history of the liturgy of the Catholic Church. I know my Tridentine from my Novus Ordo.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

I’d love to be one of those chic writers who retreats to the country home of a friend to write for four weeks without distraction, but I need richer friends.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'The bath is for Diptyque candles and listening to Enya, not reading'

I went to an author talk with J.K. Rowling and had a prepared question about Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s sex life. Embarrassing I went at all, really.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I can’t cook – at all – so I never have people over for dinner. It would be fun to take Emily Dickinson out for shots, though.

What’s your biggest fear?

Loss.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Invisibility. It’s the greatest superpower you can have as a trans person.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

No! The bath is for Diptyque candles and listening to Enya.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee. Stimulants that don’t ultimately destroy your mental health are to be treasured.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner – which I recently learned is also my agent Emma Paterson’s favourite novel too. It must be why we are such a good fit.

What inspired you to write your book?

Exhaustion with the banal cruelty now so prominent in public life.

 

Listen to Shon Faye on the Penguin Podcast

 

The Transgender Issue is out now.

Author photograph at top: Stuart Simpson/Penguin
Image design: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin
ABBA photograph: Getty

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