Current Feature

Ryka Aoki, Colette Arrand, Cooper Lee Bombardier, Grace Reynolds, Brook Shelley

 

 

Introduction

 

“More Like This Than Any of These: Creative Nonfiction in the Age of the Trans New Wave,” was a panel Cooper Lee Bombardier organized for the NonfictioNow Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland in June 2017. Transgender authors writing nonfiction work under and with the extant pressure of the perceived/assumed arc of the transition narrative: who was once one thing is now another, entirely. But what of trans authors whose work extends beyond or subverts the transition narrative altogether? This panel sought to expand possibilities for trans nonfiction through the investigation of process, praxis, and the generously assumed audience. Our topic is relevant in the larger scheme of creative nonfiction writing because of the current zeitgeist of transgender stories in Western culture (what filmmaker Sam Berliner has called “the Trans New Wave”), as well as the importance of heteroglossia in representation, and what we see as an urgent need for a diversity of transgender experiences to be rendered creatively by trans authors now more than ever.

            The panel was comprised of several prominent and emerging trans nonfiction writers: Ryka Aoki, Colette Arrand, Grace Reynolds, Brook Shelley, and Cooper Lee Bombardier, who discussed the issues of writing beyond the transition narrative in an experimental panel performed in the tradition of Burroughs’s cut ups and Dodie Bellamy’s cunt-ups, where the thoughts of each panelist, along with some choice tidbits from other sage tomes, were taken up at random, allowing the conversation to transcend the narrative binary of gender transition, to challenge notions of authorship and expertise, and to shake up the talking-head tradition of the typical literary panel.

            Each author wrote responses to the themes and questions raised above, and on a sunny patio table outside the conference rooms at the University of Iceland, we physically cut apart our pages into chunks of text with a pair of scissors. The texts fragments were shuffled up and placed into Cooper’s hat. As the timer counted down, we passed the hat back and forth along the panelists’ table, taking turns at reading the words of each other at random. The element of surprise, unfamiliarity with what text each scrap of paper would contain, and the constraint of time made the experience thrilling and raw for the panelists. There was a sort of freedom in speaking each other’s words as our own, an uncoupling from the burden of our own narratives even as we hefted the weight of each other’s lived experiences as trans people, as writers.

The first time we saw and heard each other’s responses to the prompts of this panel was as we pulled from the hat. Drawing at random from the hat was a throwback to the sorting method for the show line-up of Sister Spit, a spoken-word tour that Cooper was a part of in the late 90s; physically pulling from the hat also alludes to the notion of a magic act, which might prove for some of us to be metaphorically apt when talking about how our trans narratives impact and shape our creative nonfiction writing. As an unrehearsed and random cunt-up performance, the panel as performance can never be exactly reproduced. Its existence was a blip. What follows here is an approximation of a transitory act that existed more so in time rather than in space.

            The panel was recorded by Brook Shelley, transcribed by Colette Arrand, and edited by Cooper Lee Bombardier.

 

 

*

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Who gets to tell a trans story and be heard? For trans people the narrative of the story that it seems like we’re allowed to tell and have people listen to is a Point A-to-Point B narrative: You were this thing, and now you’re this thing, and that’s the story, that’s all you get to say. So to kind of mess with that a little bit, for the purpose of this panel, we have all written remarks on this topic. We’ve cut them up into little tiny scraps of paper and we’re going to choose texts at random until the time is up. Some of us might have included text and references from trans and literary scholars. I personally borrowed a couple little tidbits from The Poetic of Space, Testo Junkie, and some other stuff. The idea of authorship and narrative and arc and all of that will be a little bit challenged—hopefully in a fun way for [the audience]—by our process.

Whoever would like to start, go ahead and I’ll set the timer.

            Cooper places the hat containing cut-up texts in front of panelist, sets timer to perform cunt-ups for twenty minutes.

 

Colette Arrand

Self-identity terms used by survey respondents: Female, male, transgendered, transgenderism, transsexual, crossdresser, transsexual woman, woman, FTM transsexual, trans man, transgender, androgenate (I don’t know that one), anomalous, transgender woman, transy, pre-operative transsexual, dyke, mix between female and transgenderist, non-op transsexual, female dyke with a twist, pre-op female to neutosis transsexual, FTM intersexual, polygendral, male/boy, man, woman of transsexual experience, boy, guy, transfag, new woman, queer, tranny, trans boy, trans person, genderqueer, human, pre-op TS, trans woman, new woman, femme, FTM, trans sexed, transsexting, gender-variant, trans queer, gendertrash, genderfuck, genderfree, gender atheist, female to male, non-transgendered, non-transsexual, person, non-normatively gendered, occasional drag queen, ambiguously sexed, ambiguously gendered, female towards male, queerboi, femisexual, TG woman, former transsexual woman, transsexual lesbian, gender euphoric, transgender F2M, TS, transvestite, non-op M2F transsexual (it’s really weird to read the two)—each unique, each a universe of identity. (GR)

 

Brook Shelley

For so long, I thought the big question was who gets to tell a trans story, but lately I think a more important question is, who gets to tell a trans story and actually be heard? (CLB)

 

Grace Reynolds

I’m not pretty, and when someone calls me pretty it doesn’t land. There’s no room for it to touch down, no flat spot for it to slow its descent and come to rest. Friends will try to relate. I’m too thin. My breasts are too small. I don’t have ankles. That’s fine, and that’s painful, and there’s a social understanding around all of those things. When you approach a coffee counter with small breasts or cankles and order a dark roast with heavy cream, people don’t try to figure you out. They simply sell you coffee. When I approach a coffee counter and speak, allowing my rich and resonant voice to play contrast with my long hair and small but lovely breasts, I cause dissonance. I’d like to have that on a business card, bringer of dissonance. (GR)

 

Ryka Aoki

How many other communities of folks are both new to it and immediately writing about it. Are there forums for firefighters, where the civilian firefighter curious lurk for ten years? What really is a true self? I want to rip up every instance of “female or male-bodied” “true self” and “finally became.” I don’t have a gender identity; I have an ulcer, from all this talk as if my gender was less real than yours. I don’t have a gender identity. I have an ulcer from all this talk, as if my gender was less real than yours. (BS)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

A few days ago, a known violent offender and neo-Nazi harassed two young Muslim women on the max train in my city. When bystanders intervened, the racist man stabbed three of them, killing two men. Is this the sign? In early December, my friend said, how will we know it is bad enough that we can’t keep going on like things are normal? He asked, how will we know that it is bad enough that we have to flee? The perpetrator was afforded all the protection of the law after brutally stabbing three people on public transit whereas if he was a black mother with a blinker out at a traffic stop, would police have extended such mercy and fairness? Head injury, they say. Mental illness. Maybe under the influence of drugs. These are some of the gifts that his whiteness—the same whiteness he shoved in the face of the young Muslim women in Portland. The police did not say, he was under the influence of racism, he has a bigotry illness. How will we know it is bad enough that we cannot keep going on as normal? What does this have to do with being transgender? What I want to know is what doesn’t it have to do with being transgender? (CLB)

 

Colette Arrand

Frankly, the fountain of youth is just transing every twenty years. I’m thousands of years old, hi. How many times have you asked yourself, am I the first transsexual to do, [insert list of banal activities here]? Maybe gender only exists in relation to other people, so I have to ask, how do you relate to me? Are you my mother? It probably says something that my phone autocorrects creative nonfiction to non-function. Why can’t we have nicely packaged stories like the fiction kids? What even is a true story? (BS)

 

Brook Shelley

If I fuck a man, does it make me a woman is something I think way too often for my comfort, and I still don’t know the answer. Yeah, I mean all guys have a constant litany of prayer that they wake up with the normal girl parts, right, guys? I’m sorry, but all the thought experiments about how long you’d be willing to transform to the opposite gender were one part looking for someone like me and one part Fictionmania. (BS)

 

Grace Reynolds

The narrative that assumes we go from being weirdos to being normal cis folks is not one I care to tell. What’s our goal in life? Our purpose? What if it isn’t transition? Can we even afford to write fiction if our characters are infused and assumed to be us, a stereotype threat that illuminates us better than any I knew when I was small. But also, aren’t these all fiction? We are speaking in tongues, and often they are ripped from our bodies, from the bodies of those laid down too soon. How do we honor them as we try to transcribe and build off their work? (BS)

 

Ryka Aoki

From Facebook: I would definitely welcome with love any transgender woman to unite under the dark moon in the sacred sisterhood under the tent. Even without the shedding of blood we share divine cycles. Imagine being born courageous enough to recreate your own hormonal process, without menses, and rock your own groove, all while going against some insane societal cultural puritanical grain. I want to welcome and embrace that woman. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be celebrating my menses. Will I still be welcome? What a beautiful way to accept and ground your own genetic biology to the earth with other sisters. Parts or not, sharing sacred space, witnessing, healing, shedding, and transforming seem to be a theme here. (GR)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Your earliest memory is wearing Minnie Mouse underwear and hiding under a staircase for someone who is mad at you for soiling your boy clothes. You never get back the years you lost to the haze of pretending you were okay with the assignment they gave you. I’ve always known I was really a girl, you hear yourself saying to your therapist, desperate for a pill but knowing everything you say is a lie because epistemology is complex and your story isn’t clear to anyone, least of all you. (BS)

 

Colette Arrand

The need to know the real story is very strong, very magnified, and very much based in confession, examination, and control. What is being talked about, what is being promised and aimed, not for the benefit of the teller, nor for the benefit of the trans community, but the shits and giggles of the general, mostly non-trans readership? (RA)

Brook Shelley

 

There’s a daily question in the morning when I dress about what hassles I’m willing to put up with, what male gaze, and what discomfort. Gender is a game that we all play, but the stakes aren’t always clear until much much later. Will I acquiesce to their rules and hear the ma’am that doesn’t feel perfect but certainly sounds like rich honey compared to the sir? Gender is a matter of daily strength. Once we are outside of box, we’re forever seeing it and its edges, and we can’t quite fit back in regardless of how hard we try. (BS)

Grace Reynolds

 

Learning what lesbian meant from the dictionary and realizing that it was us. How much is gender a falsehood when it’s part and parcel with dress, sexuality, and aligns before assemblies at school? I’m still not sure how much dykes have in common with heterosexual women or heterosexual men. Are we a separate gender? Is this exceptionalism? Is transition even real even if there is no here and no there? There’s a storm of ideas and feelings in my heart and in my belly, and it pulls me this way and that. (BS)

 

Ryka Aoki

Why don’t we pick up cues that tell us the ways gender is enacted by our peers are unpleasant? What if we want to play with Transformers and drive cars fast, but also look at our aunts and mothers with a longing for the embodiment they share? Our role models were more Black Widow and Daria than Barbie. More Lady Jane than Tinkerbell. It’s not more or less, but different. (BS)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

The trans journey, three easy steps. Step one (pick one and spend some time with it, then move on to the next and sometimes pick a few at once, just to mix it up): Social awkwardness, denial, overcompensation, crushing depression, integrating non-sexualization, integrating oversexualization, suicidality, lost family, lost partners, educating physicians, physical violence, emotional violence, cornucopia, a variation, imbalance, in all colors and hues, a rainbow really. Creative suicidality, lost friends, lost healthcare, homelessness, unemployment. Step two: ???. Step three: acceptance, satisfaction, happiness. (GR)

 

Colette Arrand

The secret of magic is simple. It’s presence. It’s walking into a café or a gas station, or an auto parts store, shoulders back, eyes open, unflinching, filled with courage enough to order fish tacos, a fill-up of regular, or a set of front disc brake pads with the full expectation that you will be seen as human and you will be able to exchange money for goods and go your way. Perhaps with an unexpected compliment or have a nice day. This is what it means to do magic, to ground yourself in this world, palm on the earth, reciting the first spell you will ever cast: I am. Turns out, it’s the same secret for everyone. (GR)

 

Brook Shelley

Not male- or female-bodied, but full-bodied like a nice red, embodied like I live here, unbodied like I’m a fucking ghost at my own funeral. I wish we could impose a ban on all butterfly to mermaid imagery. Instead, let’s talk about droptops and terraforming. Let’s talk about trains and black holes. No true Scots trans men. (BS)

 

Grace Reynolds

In this as always, we pay tribute to our internet goddess, Julia Serrano, who at least gives us language to complain about. Look, I was into trans shit before it was cool. Our ages aren’t the same as yours, because we really didn’t start living until we came out. That’s why we look so young. (BS)

 

Ryka Aoki

How do our shifting identities affect the work we do, and the ways we shape the identities we previously inhabited? Are we passing down butch flannel that never made us butch? Or a skinny tee that didn’t make us feel low. Just start with dresses, tell the story of the femme that stayed in the closet once that skin was shed. There’s no way we can expect a monolithic narrative from any community, especially when we can’t decide how to spell transsexual. (BS)

 

Brook Shelley

Two esses.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

In a world where institutions have lied so often, raped so often, murdered so often, they are in constant fear of being lied to, cheated to, laughed at, and overthrown. We know the margins are saying something. They don’t know what is said, but it can’t be good. (RA)

 

Colette Arrand

I’m not particularly interested in creating work about my gender that paints me as so separate from the world. It’s just another view out of many. It may be mundane or it may be interesting. If transition taught me anything, it was that my gender is far from the most important thing in the world. Transitioning caused me to accept the ways in which I was alike and un-separate from other people. It forced me to be more compassionate for other people because it forced me to be compassionate for myself. Making peace with living in this body gave me room to see that everyone else is living in a body too, and even though the social penalty for transgressing gender is real, and in some circumstances lethal, it is a prism, which refracts experience to me, one that allows unlimited tones and hues and intensities and temperatures. Gender is a thing that allows for me abundance, not lack. I seek to write from this place of abundance. (CLB)

 

Brook Shelley

How do we even write about something that’s between the desire to be legible and the desire to be real? Every time we create a new category of trans, we build walls around it as we describe its geography through writing. Forget the wild west. Trans nonfiction is often as dry as a Starbucks. It’s everywhere, it’s commodified, and it’s filled with cis people. (BS)

 

Grace Reynolds

I think the internet and social media has allowed us to bypass traditional channels of contact with your readers and writers, and as such has allowed us to produce work in new ways. There won’t be any end to these transition stories. They serve too great a purpose. But I see an expansion of the trans narrative. (RA)

 

Ryka Aoki

Imagine a world where a potential victim of sexual violence wasn’t one of the unifying factors of half the population. No, you didn’t become a misogynist because of T, you brought that with you. Estrogen didn’t make you like boys, but you could have been homophobic before you came out. Our lives are a complex swirl of internalized feelings, isms, and systems. It’s no surprise when we’re not parroting each other, we usually have different things to say. I’ve heard memoir and personal nonfiction called being up your own ass, and the real reason for a vagina is for me to have somewhere else to go. (BS)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Last year I went to a fiction workshop for transgender women. It was the first time I really had any prolonged, face-to-face contact with other trans women, which is what happens when you’re tucked away in universities that are as far as queer city centers as the suburbs seemed when I was a child. The idea of people like me gleaming in the distance with the promise of the Emerald City. It became clear that the room was divided into two camps, those whose idea of trans femininity was informed by traditionally queer cultural markers, and those who had come to their idea of womanhood thanks to “straighter” culture they could read themselves into. I fell into the former group, a lifetime closeted fag who came out, how else, in an essay, from fifteen years of gay culture imbibed on the sly like Venus emerging from seafoam. The later group made me feel like an anachronism. I forget the context, but at one point one of the participants said of trans women who formerly read as gay men, they don’t make trans women like that anymore. We all come from video games and anime now. (CA)

 

Colette Arrand

One of the unacknowledged limiters of the current froth of our identity politics cages us in as writers is the need it seems for a seamlessness between author and narrator, narrator and protagonist, between author and word. As a trans author, these identity politics can force us into a binary everyone seems so hell-bent on escaping, dismantling, smashing. The new ethos of “you have to be it to say it” would serve only to force us to become fixed points, to choose a location and to stay there. If I want to write about my life prior to my knowledge that transition was even an option or could even be a reality, I do not wish to force the gender non-conforming girl I thought I was into a boy that only decades later I became, or from the point of view of the location of man from where I now write. (CLB)

 

Brook Shelley

When I’m with someone I really feel love for, I don’t feel like anything in particular. Suddenly all the performances cease, and we’re two minds dancing around each other, two perfect bodies entertaining, moaning, and laughing. Sometimes I hear myself speak and I think, who made you boss? Being trans makes me wonder if birds are better ornithologists than people, because I sure as hell know more than the cis doctors who ask us to turn our heads and cough. (BS)

 

Grace Reynolds

I questioned the legitimacy of my own story far more often than you could ever try to. And really, what are our stories if they’re full of dark holes from trauma, abuse, and dissociation. Memory is something we construct from photos and stories, and we recreate it every time we see it, our fingers yellowing and shifting to inks and colors of every moment of our lives. I was born a girl is another way to say, I heard them say I was a girl growing up, but also I failed to be the boy they wanted me to be, who they wanted. The doctors told us you were a girl when you were in the womb is something you hear only so many times before you think, what the fuck happened after that? (BS)

 

Ryka Aoki

I did not know I was broken until I knew that I was exactly as mismatched as I felt, more girl than boy, willing to pay a stranger to dress all in white in a clean, well-lighted place, rewrite my face with scalpel and bone saw, until I no longer hear whispers when all I want is a number three with fries and a Diet Coke. Until my children mourn the father who died but still picks them up from school each day and helps with their geometry and the rivers of Africa, and sits in the stands to cheer them on, while practicing not noticing careful non-stares. Until I can love myself as I try to love myself each time I have uttered the lie that we tell our children: that you are good enough just as you are. (GR)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Our own stories are co-opted and softened to comfort the status quo. They frame what’s happening in terms for which there is familiar social language. Female to male, male to female, denoting the movement from one to the other. The thing is, we’re not the ones moving. We’ve always been, here, right here. What we’re doing is forcing society to move to where we are, small step by small step. But we do not have the power. So the story is told in the language of those that we’re moving. We have to keep them comfortable so we could fit it in where we don’t fit in, so we can belong where we don’t belong. And like little deities, we change the world around us through an act of will while singing a familiar lullaby to comfort that which would destroy us, when we die trying.(RA)

 

Colette Arrand

In any given year, across academic and popular venues, you can count on the following essays finding a home:

  1. A cis woman learns that her ex, or her husband, or her wife is now a woman or a man, or something they weren’t before, and now she, the cis woman (it’s usually a cis woman) needs to reckon with the idea that she made love with a person who challenges their conception of gender, to say nothing of their own sexuality.
  2. A cis journalist decides that a cis doctor who practiced controversial medicine on transgender patients until those patients ousted him from his position of power is a pariah, unfairly persecuted by the shadowy transgender illuminati which holds a tight grip on the comings and goings of the world despite a paucity of financial and political capital.
  3. A transgender high school student does something completely normal, like prom, sports, or using the bathroom.
  4. A parent is either gung-ho about their transgender child or really upset that the polite people in the nice city they live in is reading their child as trans just because they don’t like pink or motorcycles or whatever boys and girls are supposed to like.
  5. A well-intentioned argument between cis intellectuals as to whether or not trans people can even be said to exist.
  6. A writer, maybe even a trans writer, discovers that non-binary people exist.
  7. A cisgender person in the larger queer community wonders whether or not the sticky issue of trans rights is holding back the other letters in the acronym, or if the iciness of where we shit and piss was at all a factor in the nightmare regime that otherwise totally would have been prevented. (CA)

Brook Shelley

Hegemony doesn’t want mere truth, it demands truisms, articulated in its own terms. Clinical, verifiable, ready for interrogation. In this sense, the call to nonfiction is the call to show I.D. papers, to have our words registered and fingerprinted and assimilated. (RA)

 

Grace Reynolds               

In the inchoate formings of my own trans identity, verbalized in small private utterances over twenty years ago, I sought no quarrel with the trans people of the past. Rather, I looked at their pictures, when there were any to be found, and asked them to give voice to my feelings. I literally beseeched my trans ancestors for courage. In them I looked for a mirror. We live in a time where my own trans story can be critiqued into subatomic particles by other trans people and rather than adding to the river of our representation and opening up the accordion folds of our heteroglossia—letting more air in—allowing for a world where we get to be many things on the page, it seems we must either stifle creativity attempting to write in anticipation of how our identities and the language we crafted to make sense of it will be picked apart by the critical analysis-du jour twenty years into the future/ or maybe tomorrow/or next week. What I say is: don’t be mad at someone for telling their story when it doesn’t exactly mirror yours. Just tell your own story too. (CLB)

Ryka Aoki               

The idea of “transition” is a rocky one, because people, especially those not trans, seem to regard it as a finite trajectory, in which there is only one motive driving the trans narrator, and that must be some fixed point of gendered and bodily congruity. The transition narrative becomes a de facto “framing narrative” for many of our stories. In other words, once the glass slipper finds its correct foot, end of story. In fact, it is often reduced to our only story, our single story. (CLB)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

The corner is a haven that ensures us of one of the things we prize most highly, immobility. It is the sure place, the place next to my mobility. The corner is a sort of half box, part walls, part door, and will serve as an illustration for the dialectics of the inside and outside, consciousness of being at peace at one’s corner produces a sense of immobility, and this in turn radiates immobility, an imaginary room rises around our bodies, which think that they are well hidden, when we take refuge in the corner. Already, the shadows are walls, a piece of furniture constitutes a barrier, hangings are our roof. But all of these images are over-imagined, so we have to designate the space of our immobility by making it the space of our being. (GB)

 

Colette Arrand               

I always tell my college creative writing students: avoid making broad strokes and sweeping statements. Forget trying to appeal to all people of all times, since the dawn of forever; forget trying to generalize in order to appeal to the “general audience.” It just doesn’t work. It may sound counterintuitive, but the more detailed and specific you are, the more you tell the weirdo ways in which only you could possibly think it, the more relatable your work will actually be. The Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński said, “it is through details that everything can be shown.” I want to write in ways that expects the reader to keep up, take some leaps with me, infers and expands—fuck the “universal”—but to find happy or even startled recognition in the very specific details of how any one of us inhabits a body and moves it through the spaces of our lives. (CLB)

Brook Shelley

Nonfiction is not simply what is true. Nonfiction privileges a specific type of truth. For example, so many of my non-Asian friends want “real, authentic Asian food,” culinary nonfiction, yet no one realizes it’s not actually about experiencing the food as presented. Otherwise, no one would criticize the spiciness or the use of pork or MSG, but an attempt to control, domesticate, and subdue. (RA)

 

Grace Reynolds

“Don’t dream it, be it,” Dr. Frank N. Furter exhorted us years ago. But now we are trapped in requiring ourselves to be it, as we disallow ourselves to dream it. (CLB)

 

Ryka Aoki

How many genders do you think there are? Definitely sixty-nine. It’s surreal to write about ourselves, get published, and somehow end up experts. Is it a navel gaze, or is this how real people do things? When do I get to be a real person? (BS)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

In underrepresented and marginalized populations, it can be dangerous to present truth nakedly. But why does switching names and symbols make work fiction in the first place? In our post-structural world, isn’t the very link between signifier and signified arbitrary anyway? (RA)

 

Colette Arrand

Some will argue that this merely kicks the can, but these stories themselves will become tropes, a new flavor to be fed to hipster literary foodies, probably, but at least for now, at least it’s interesting. (RA)

 

Brook Shelley

If you don’t believe who I am, what makes you think that you’ll recognize my truth? (RA)

 

Grace Reynolds

There is no specific fiction versus nonfiction vocabulary. So how do I know what I am producing? If not in the words themselves, then it must be in how they’re arranged, presented, and who reads them. The value of questioning fiction versus nonfiction becomes not in finding the answer but in why the answer is so elusive. (RA)

 

Ryka Aoki

Notice, most of the time fiction is very simple to accept. Want to make up a story? Go make a story. Nonfiction is more of an issue, what is really real? What is true? And why are true stories held to such high scrutiny by those unqualified to assess them? (RA)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Writing about being trans is less of a description and more of an exploration. There’s no end point, at least for me, but traveling through words is a beautiful thing. My pronouns are she and her and the story of getting there is loss and triumph. I don’t need everyone to know that story, but I sure as hell need them to see where I am. (BS)

 

Colette Arrand

What makes the trans coming-out story both so precariously persistent is how it intersects social injustice and fetish. There, social hostility combined with personal eroticism of people handling your genitals, because if you are a cis man thinking with your penis, anyone examining your genitals has a sexual overtone, even if it is just using the bathroom for crying out loud. (RA)

 

Brook Shelley

Who gets to tell trans narratives, if not cis writers? New trans people hurtling through new experiences at lightspeed without the benefit of time to process what’s happening, what’s happened, what will happen. Writing, or at least poignant writing that sticks, requires patience, which the churn of the market has none of. Against the backdrop of essays asking us not to exist, we are complicated people trying to fit ourselves into uncomplicated ways of thinking. What feminist website has it in them to parse through my feelings about being a trans woman desperately clinging to her last vestiges of fag identity? Is any orgasm I have going to be more important than the one I put in print? As a teenager, my favorite song had a chorus that went, the truth doesn’t make a noise. My favorite book had a section where a man became a woman while trumpets blasted and angels shouted the word truth until she accepted it. Every publication that’s taken an essay about my body, my sex life, or my emotional state wants the confirmation of the angels and a kind of silence at the same time. People say they’re happy, but I’m living my truth, and they don’t like how fucking messy that can be. (CA)

 

Grace Reynolds

Do we count our transition from the first day we woke up from the nightmare of gender, or the first time we swallowed a pill that makes us other. How many times did you see someone throwing up when they kissed someone who looked like you in the movie theater? I guess my gender is monster, and I’m definitely here to eat you and yours. Telling people I’m trans feels like a victory just as often as it feels like telling someone I have diarrhea. Shameful admissions sometimes feel so sweet. (BS)

 

Ryka Aoki               

“The new metabolism of testosterone in my body wouldn’t be effective in terms of masculinization without the previous existence of a political agenda that interprets these changes as an integral part of a desire—controlled by the pharmacopornographic order—for sex change. Without this desire, with the project of being in transit from one fiction of sex to another, taking testosterone would never be anything but a molecular becoming.” (PP)

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Relatively few pieces about trans lives will be written by trans people, who are left to argue for their humanity 140 characters at a time while page after damaging page is given to men and women who treat our lives like an urban legend and prefer to do all of the talking to the community away from the eyes and ears of the larger public, most of whom are invested in those writers’ careers for other reasons. What choice do some of us have than to assert our humanity by flogging tropes as old as the dirt our ancestors are buried in to any editor empathetic enough to run them? We’ve been endlessly pricked by this establishment and, as we’re already bleeding, shouldn’t we be able to turn some of that blood into money? (CA)

 

Colette Arrand

She was joking, but in that way where lying beneath the joke there’s belief, that belief in a kind of clear categorization of trans lives makes things easy. Sort a room full of trans women into distinct categories and you might come to a kind of understanding of your siblings without the messiness and unease of breaking the ice. In essence what we were doing was accepting a number of transition narratives writ large. Where we started from and what we imagined our outward trajectories as. The truth is that nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing, even when the way seems so clearly marked. There are too many forces, internal and external, to accurately plot a course. At this point, I don’t remember the person I wanted to be when I began transitioning. She’s a dream, a figment flickering like a ghost accidentally laid to rest by her lover. She’s beautiful but she’s not real. (CA)

            [Timer Up]

Cooper Lee Bombardier

We’re going to pause there for time since we want to have some discussion and open it up to questions if there are any. Even though we still have a few more slips [of cut-up text] in the hat, buy us a drink and we’ll read the rest of them later at the Kiki Bar tonight.

            I have a few questions; whoever feels so moved can respond first, and we’ll go through a couple of these and see what you all have to say. I’m thinking a lot about my own work, this idea of the nucleus event as Barthes would call it, or the constituent event in a text versus the catalyzer or supplementary event. And so what I’m curious about is for you all, how is it to write about something where your nucleus event is not your transition? For me, I’ll kind of back that up by saying, when I was in an MFA program I was workshopping parts of my memoir, which the thrust of is a coming of age bookended by two pretty traumatic events in my early twenties, one being my brother’s murder, and the other being a lover dying of AIDS. And so, it’s not about my transition per se, but I’m writing it from a perspective of a very gender non-conforming girl, and there’s threads of that in there. I had no language for being trans back then, I had no words, I didn’t even know it was something I could do, right? So in workshop, you know, it’s the cis white guy being like, “this is the real story! This thing about the gender is the real story.” And I’m like, that’s actually not the fucking story, dude. But it is definitely in these terms a catalyzer event. It’s a thread that’s in there. So that’s my example of the readability of that.

 

Brook Shelley

I think for me, I know if I want to sell a piece, it’s got to be about my transsexuality. If I want to write a piece that will be great, then it’s about almost anything else. Like, if I want to write about the punk shows that I go to or the ways that I have sex, if I want to write [my version of] Valencia, there’s no space for that. But if I want to write about the pills that I take everyday, I have every byline in the world if I want, right? But only one of us at a time, and they love it when we fight on the internet. So the trickiest part I think, too, is telling a story that doesn’t throw one of us under the bus, because it’s so easy to throw one of us under the bus, and we make a good sound when we get squished.

 

Colette Arrand

I think like what Brook was saying, it’s a matter of inability to sell it. Weird as it seems, people in the larger sphere of culture don’t actually want to look at things in that culture through a lens other than the one that they were born with. And in that case, like the previous panel was saying, that’s usually “neutral”—white, cisgender, male. I came to writing as a cultural critic, like somebody who wrote a lot about pop culture. I can’t get anything published in that field unless it’s about trans stuff, and then when it’s about trans stuff, like when I was trying to write about The Danish Girl, for instance, with Eddie Redmayne, long may she live, when I was writing about that, I would get feedback from editors that was like, well, as a trans person, aren’t you immediately biased against this film? So you’re in this catch-22 where on the one hand, I don’t want to write about The Danish Girl, but on the other hand, no one is going to buy my piece unless it’s about The Danish Girl, but on the other other hand, because suddenly there’s three hands, you have nothing valuable to say about this because as a trans person you’re biased against cisgender culture’s perception of you as somebody who is going to touch a dress and get a boner. It’s impossible. I’ve yet to figure it out.

 

Brook Shelley

Take a moment to silence your boners.

 

Grace Reynolds

You know, for me, what drives my writing, I’m fortunate that my day job lets me write. And what drives it is the personal turmoil and pain, and for me, you know, I have two boys. They’re sixteen and thirteen, and that has a lot of energy to it. I was divorced a couple of years ago. My ex, you know, she discovered that she dislikes one trans person, and you can probably guess who that is. All other trans folks are okay. It really wasn’t about being trans. So the stories that I tell, they have that as a flavor, they have that as background music, they have it as the whiteboard where something might be written, but it’s not really the energy or the thrust of the writing. It colors but it’s not the forepiece. And in fact, I think it would be really boring. I don’t know if I could write a good trans story or trans poem, because one, lots of people have done it, and two, I don’t know about you, but there are a million trans stories. A good friend of mine who works in diversity services, she tries so hard to keep all the trans people happy where we work, and she says you know, you meet one trans person, you’ve met one trans person. And it is so frustrating for her to not be able to lump us all together, that we have so many variable needs. I just go where the energy is and it colors that in the background.

 

Ryka Aoki

I think what happens when we think about the “Transition”—that it’s not really a situation where other bad things happen. (Yet) I can’t even remember being a boy. It just doesn’t occur to me. And it doesn’t mean that my transition wasn’t traumatic, it means that I’ve grown. When you as audience expect us to always relive this transition narrative, what you’re robbing yourselves and ourselves of is the evolution and the narrative and the whole generational voice of wisdom that comes from some pretty valuable stuff.

            The second thing as we’re talking about narrative is not simply the narrative of narrative on the page, but what I was really thinking when I was listening to Colette speak was kind of heartbreaking. When I think about my cisgender women friends, how often they ask me for help and advice on women things versus how often do they ask me for help on human things, versus help on trans things. And it’s one of those things where I don’t want to count because I’m just going to be sad. But it feels, as a writer, that I don’t really—part of the reason why I want to write is because writers have helped me, and I want to help back. When I’m not allowed to contribute with the fullness of my being, it feels constriction and it’s heartbreaking, it just feels like, you know, I wish I could do more.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

I have other questions, but I would love to have it be a little bit more of an inclusive conversation now too. [To audience] Does anybody have anything they’d like to ask?

 

Grace Reynolds

I’m resisting springing the phrase “ask me about my genitals.”

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

One question, one thing that’s really interesting to me is, I’m wondering if for anybody, if there’s a relationship between trans content or trans experience and form in your work? How does the experience of being trans affect how you create the content, the craft, if at all? If there’s a relationship?

 

Colette Arrand

I think for me, it’s two things really. I come to the essay from a place where I’m primarily a poet. So I’m constantly trying to grapple this florid poetic language into neat essay paragraphs that then explode and do all kinds of other stuff. But I think that for me, as far as form goes, form is what it is. But content is interesting, because again, like I just said, I’m a cultural critic, and one of the things I frequently write about—or I guess most of the things that I write about in the realm of culture are typically masculine-identified. Like my book, Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon is a book of poetry about professional wrestling. I’m working on a book of essays about how pro wrestling works. My memoir, if you want to call it that, is a collection of essay fragments framed around video games. All of these things that I grew up with or whatever and took in that I’ve been told later weren’t for me this entire time is what I’m still engaging with, to the point where if I’m just out at the grocery store or whatever and someone will see me in my denim vest, which has got a bunch of pop culture badges on it, Pokémon badges and stuff like that, someone inevitably will say, oh, you liked Pokémon as a kid? And I’ll be like, yeah, Pokémon was great. And they’re like—I wanted to play it so bad, but I was a girl and my parents wouldn’t let me, video games are for boys. And I was like, yup, sure were. So it’s dealing with this thing like, what have I been given and how am I working with it?

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

I think that’s interesting because there’s so many things that I didn’t even know to expect were even gendered because you kind of live your life and you’re like, wait, that’s gendered too? I was at the mechanic getting my car fixed, and it was around Christmas time and I was like, well, I’m going to be here for three hours in this weird suburban place, I’m just going to write my Christmas cards. And this older woman came over and she’s like, “you’re writing the Christmas cards?” And I’m like, “who is going to write my Christmas cards if not me?” She’s like, “well, I’ve never seen the man do that before.” And I though, wait! Christmas cards are gendered? Since when? When did that happen?

 

Colette Arrand

Cars are gendered, too. So you probably should have been working on your car.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

I should have been doing it myself.

 

Brook Shelley

I think for me I have a really hard time when I’m writing finding a strong narrative arc. It comes out a lot in fragments because that’s how my memory works. Every time I go to therapy, every time I have a conversation, I’m trying to piece together all these holes. That’s apparently called disassociation. But I didn’t know what the fuck that was. I was just like, nobody remembers their childhood, right? There’s these little fragments. So my stories end up being kind of fragmentary, and I’d write these scenes and I’d have them over there, and something over here. And that’s—I play that often like epithets, and they’re just short fragments, which works really fucking well on Twitter. But when you’re speaking out loud it’s like, how do I sound fancy? I’m also, I think, the least educated person at this conference. I’m a college dropout. So when I hear words that I don’t know that I have to look up on Wikipedia, I’m wondering not only by being a trans woman here but by being a dropout here, do I have a place? Are my words valuable? And that goes into all of my writing. There’s this sort of anger and this fear that I only get a couple of minutes then someone is going to drag me off the stage with the shepherd’s crook.

Ryka Aoki

I think that—I’m going to use just a metaphor. I also work in martial arts. I’ve been doing judo for forty-two years. I pretty much see the world that way. When I was growing up practicing, I was kind of pushed into it. But I got good very quickly. Yes, it was practical and lifesaving to have that talent, but what I really loved about it was the aesthetics and the way that you could do amazing things just by using a little bit of strength and a lot of brain. It was so pretty. It was just so beautiful. That’s why I loved to practice it. It was just something that I valued. I loved the way it felt and smelled and moved.

            When I transitioned, not only did I lose my entire judo community, but I didn’t fight it too much because I knew the moment I stepped on the judo mat I would de facto clock myself as trans. Because the moment men go flying through the air, they can’t imagine a woman would do that. So I left public practice for about seven years. I only came back when this poor trans guy at one of the local colleges was pushed into the bathroom and had the word dick carved with a knife into his chest. So now I teach self-defense back at the LA Youth Gay and Lesbian Center, and what I’m beginning to really enjoy is the fact that people of all genders, and many self-identified women will come to the class now, and they’ll feel like they’ve got a safe space to work out.

            For me, that’s incredibly affirming, because if I were giving off this so-called male energy that I think all trans women kind of live in fear of being accused of, they wouldn’t be there. So I feel like I’ve somehow found a way around the narrative, where I could affirm myself, practice my judo that I love so much, and benefit the community. I hope that I can do that with my writing as well.

 

Grace Reynolds

I think about that and am surprised at gendered things. I don’t dance, or at least I didn’t until about a month ago. I went with a good friend of mine to a contra dance, and if you’re not familiar, it’s a folk dance. We’re going in and I’ve got this skirt on, and my good girlfriend is going with me, and we step into the door and I had gone twenty years ago and hated every second of it, vowed never to step in. So I step in and I can hear the announcer explaining the dance, and I’m realizing oh shit, I’m going to have to do the female role. I’m going to have to be led. And every old, cis, white person in the area that I live in, which is largely old, cis, and white, is now going to have to lead me. I’m going to expand a lot of horizons tonight. And I got to. There was a lot of fear in that, but it was such an interesting thing where I’m going to have to come in and express myself and my feminine energy, as much for myself as for the comfort of others, which I’m conflicted by.

            But getting back to form: for me the experience has been so disruptive and created an identity that I had to embrace in ways I never thought I would embrace. It’s like I woke up three years ago. The forms I write tend to mirror that. I heard this in one of the panels the other day, it’s essay as poem, right? There’s a lot of description, it’s nonfiction, it’s relatable to where I’m at. It’s really just allowing that description to carry the reader through, but I can’t sit down and write it in an essay, you know? Sentence, plot—there’s no arc to it necessarily, there’s an image.

 

Brook Shelley

I just want to say real quick, whenever I write fiction, I try to have two trans people talking to each other because where the fuck do you see people talking to each other who are trans—except like us—we’re [panelists] all staying in the same house and it fucking rules. So it’s like, we talk about everything but transition most of the time. But every time I write those characters, I can’t help but think my editor is going to see me in each one of those characters. And I think that’s any oppressed group, right? We can’t be the anyman, because we’re the only trans woman.

 

Audience Member #1

This is an absolutely fantastic panel. Maybe, to get back to the idea of the structure, I’m wondering how you came up with the structure of this panel presentation, which is so wonderful.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

How we decided to do the presentation?

 

Audience Member #1

Yeah, how did you come up with the idea to—

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Well, we really—it’s not a small thing to get a small group of trans people to a conference in Iceland—

 

Brook Shelley

It was hard.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

I took it to heart that the call for submissions said anything that subverts the typical panel style. Brook and I had probably a year ago done a performance together where we both wrote about feeling excluded, and excluded from specifically the dyke community—I came up in the queer dyke community. Brook is a big ol’ lesbo. So this idea of us—Brook is single, also, by the way—pimping our panel. So we were both writing pieces about me just really like—oh here’s this past that doesn’t belong to me anymore, but I want to share these things with you, and we are both feeling part of or excluded or how we kind of were dancing around this thing. So then we did a cut-up—I’m a big fan of Dodie Bellamy and her cunt-ups and stuff. We did a performance like that, so I was like, oh that would be a really kind of interesting thing to do for a panel. I was just trying to bring in the best A-game proposal I could so we could get trans people to Iceland.

 

Audience Member #2

Maybe you already started answering this a little bit because you mentioned Dodie Bellamy, but who are writers that you love?

 

Brook Shelley

I’ve been reading a lot of N. K. Jemisin. When there’s something awful in the world, I want to read about worse things going on, right? So reading her series about these people interacting with capricious gods, reading about people who can control the movement of the earth but are also destroyed by it, it’s wonderful and beautiful and it gives me some escape. Any time I get to read a trans woman or a trans guy or a non-binary person, I’m pretty stoked. I’m reviewing a collection right now that these two [Colette and Cooper] are in, Oh you’re in it too—Ryka’s in it too. The name escapes me right now.

 

Colette Arrand

Meanwhile, Elsewhere.

Brook Shelley

And it’s a trans speculative fiction collection and it’s going to come out in September and a bunch of people are going to review it, and it’s a giant book so I didn’t get to bring it with me, so I’m having to review it slowly because I mostly just carry a Kindle. But it’s twenty-five authors all speculating on what’s going on. Some of them are sci-fi; some of them imagine a world where a trans woman actually gets to be treated well for a day. It’s heartbreaking and it’s some of the hardest stuff I ever get to read because it’s a place where I actually see myself. Imogen Binnie comes to mind as well. I’m still a diehard Michelle Tea fan which is odd and weird because I know her, but I remember reading Valencia, and this is how I found out that Cooper was in that book is because—

 

Ryka Aoki

Knowing Michelle shouldn’t make you less of a fan.

 

Brook Shelley

That’s true. It just make it weirder when you know authors that you like, right? Michelle’s dope.

 

Colette Arrand

I read a lot of Samuel Delany. Particularly his nonfiction, like Time Square Red, Times Square Blue saved my fucking life, which seems like a weird thing, like oh, here’s this record of a man getting his dick sucked in porn theaters in the 1970s—that book saved my life because that did not exist for me, this idea that queerness was a thing that could exist outside of a circle of boys beating the shit out of you after school did not exist to me until I started reading other books. That book is both amazing in terms of being a document of queerness in uncertain times, but I think that it’s one of the most brilliant things that’s ever been written as far as gentrification is concerned, which is something that if it doesn’t concern queer people in city spaces, it definitely should. That book is constantly on my mind.

 

Ryka Aoki

It’s a couple of things we work through—you read somebody like Toni Morrison, which really is good, but there’s a danger to that because the idea is—you know, she’s such a powerful writer and her currents are so strong that if you get yourself drawn in, you can find yourself plumbing the depths of your own experience and trying to Toni Morrison it. It’s so seductive. You want to sound like Toni Morrison, but not everyone can do that. Not that anyone can do that. So there’s also been this pull, after I finished my novel, what the heck do I want to do. So I just sat around watching anime. It was probably one of the best things I did, because what I noticed is the change right now in the way some of the young generation are incorporating anime, things like graphic novels, the gender theory there, the stories there, how family is constructed is so forward thinking and so affirming that it really—say what you want, but Millennials, they’re telling some great stories. I think that kind of rejuvenated me. I’ve lived a lot of things. I’ve been in some intense relationships with writers on the page, and I guess in real life too, but right now what I’m really, really enjoying is just some of this new stuff, just coming out. If you have the chance and you just have a day, just bingewatch, just ask one of your students what animes are really cool and just watch. I think you’ll be kind of glad you did.

 

Grace Reynolds

For me, webcomics are huge. I spend a lot of time—I mean, I love speculative fiction. I’m thinking of LeGuinn and Zelazney and some of the old-school writers. Poets, you know? Lucille Clifton and on and on. But the stories that speak to me most are the ones in webcomics. There’s a web comic called Questionable Content, and I don’t know if any of you know it, but two of the main characters, one of them is in a relationship with a trans woman, and it’s not a thing, right? It comes up occasionally obliquely, but it’s just not a thing. So they explore lives in a world that is somewhat similar to ours, but the stories are told interestingly. Another is Gunnerkrigg Court, where there’s a lot of play that happens with some pretty strong ideas if you really get down to it about nature versus artifice. But it’s told in a very simple, visual story. It goes back through mythos and so on. I can’t say enough about some of the webcomics that are out there. They’re brilliant work, and I think it’s some of the freshest, best writing being done now.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

I love that question so much, and then I also draw a complete blank. Like oh, great question, and then I’m like shit, let me look at the list of things I’ve read so far this year. I’m a really promiscuous reader. I’ll read all kinds of things. But some of my favorite authors, I love Lidia Yuknavitch’s book, The Chronology of Water, that was super impactful for me, a lot of it in terms of form. I love David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, one of my favorite books. Recently I’ve been reading a bunch of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work. I loved Americanah, the voice and the ability to look at all these nuances of culture—it was super good. There’s tons—I just try to read as much as I can. I went to grad school in my early forties; I was an avid reader my whole life. I was not a trained writer at all until I went to grad school. I constantly get the feeling of like, I am the last person to the party, there’s still so much more reading to do, no matter how much reading I do. I’ll always have that sort of imposter complex that I’ll never catch up, right? I’m trying to do a lot of catch-up, too.

 

Brook Shelley

We talked about Kathy Acker too the other day.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Oh yeah, I read Kathy Acker a lot when I was an art student in the 1980s. I was busy going to goth and punk bars and not going to class very much and I wasn’t really ready for her, so I’m ready to kind of dive back into the Kathy Acker, too. I’m interested in just reading different authors who, the panel prior to this was great because it was all about people working with—kind of creating their own forms and canons, and that’s been really interesting to me, too. Any other questions?

 

Audience Member #3

I’m very struck by the conversation between generations, and also that idea of kind of what you lose by asking people to just talk about transition that happened decades ago and all that you’ve lost since.

 

Brook Shelley

One of the hardest things is we don’t get to have elders because our elders are dead. Like if AIDS didn’t get us, johns did. If johns didn’t get us, suicide did. So I think about that all the time. I can list on one hand the number of friends I know who transitioned longer than fifteen years ago. I transitioned five or six years ago and I feel like an old lady in the trans community. So many of us are so embittered and destroyed by existing in a world that wants us dead that we try our hardest to mentor and help those who are younger. But we’ve also created a culture where we eat each other alive. So you have these—if you’ve seen the movie Alien, like, bursting from our chests, these younger trans people who are like, “how fucking dare you use the word Transsexual. That’s a slur. How dare you say tranny, how dare you have ever done sex work.”

 

Colette Arrand

But they’re so cute.

 

Brook Shelley

They’re so cute, but it’s also such a problem. That makes it difficult. I also feel like finding an older trans lady sometimes is like looking for a witch in the forest. You have to just look at the old grimoires and find the tales, and when you get there you find out that her wisdom is just like, owning knives and guns, you know?

 

Colette Arrand

Yesterday, Brook made me take some ancient online test. What’s it called?

 

Brook Shelley

The COGIATI. Which if you get a chance, look it up. It’s COGIATI. It’s a test that purports to explain if you’re transsexual or not.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

What does that stand for?

 

Colette Arrand

I don’t know, it’s long. But it purports to tell struggling people, whenever the test was written, whether or not they’re actually true transsexuals. I passed with flying colors.

 

Brook Shelley

No one I know who is cis has ever passed [The COGIATI test].

 

Colette Arrand

But the thing that got me about that was at the end, it gives you a list of things that you need to do if you’re a true transsexual, one of which is like, find somebody who understands and talk to them, try to get on medication and see if you like it, blah, blah, blah. But the last one is, good luck, I love you, wish you well sister. And I started tearing up reading this thing from fifteen years ago at the very least on this ancient Geocities site, and I think that’s something that I honestly missed when I was largely participating in gay male spaces too is, as a young queer person, the people who make the culture that so informs my worldview are all dead. They’re all dead. I can’t watch a movie right now that doesn’t have at least two or three people in it who died of AIDS years after the movie was made, and it’s heartbreaking, but it’s also incredibly educational and I think some of the most valuable stuff that I’ve done personally for myself.

 

Grace Reynolds

When I first came out, I’m late, I turn fifty this year, so I’m middle-aged, I started looking for community in my community, and this is a rural place, so you have to look around. I was struck by something, I hadn’t even thought about elders until this point where I found a few different support groups. One I went to, you had to know somebody to get in, and it was led by an eighty-year-old trans woman. And the way they did things, it was sacred, you held space, you came in. It was remembering the pain and suffering that went before, and the secrecy. And it was cathartic and really, the product of an oppressed people who were terrified. And then there’s people like me who, you know, I can get around in space. There’s people who are going to give me shit but it’s not a big deal generally. I don’t fear for my life. There’s consequences but it’s not the same. The other trans people in my community who are about my age, maybe they have kids, they’re making their lives and getting through it. And then I went to one that was aimed at twenty-somethings, and it was so encouraging and I couldn’t relate. They’re coming in and they were talking about gender stuff, but they’re talking about Pokémon Go and how hard it is to capture certain creatures, just on and on about life as if it existed outside of being trans. It was just such a revelatory thing. There are three distinct generations where I am, and their experience is so colored by what they experienced.

 

Colette Arrand

And honestly, I wish the trans women my age valued that experience more than they do. I think that that’s something that is a thing, outside of—I mean, in my presentation I largely talked about the preconceived notion that a lot of trans women my age have three distinct schools of trans women, who they are and where they come from. When really the thing is, like, so many of us don’t engage with the past that we’re unaware that there is a thread running back as far as time of transness and that there’s strength in that. And that’s something that I think we have to come to in time, eventually.

 

Ryka Aoki

I think that we’re talking about this idea of sacred space and stuff. One thing about being trans that you know, that’s in common, is that when you’re trans you know a lot of dead people. When we think about the older trans women, I guess I’m the oldest person on this panel, thank you very much. But anyway, when we think about the people who are in their forties and fifties, not just trans folk, but you’re also running firmly into second-wave lesbians—women who not only conflated, but defined their lesbianism with second-wave feminism. People who grew up, who encountered books like Transsexual Empire, and the problem is that that generation, there was a lot of isolation, a lot of hurt, and not all of it was inevitable. There was a lot of engineered hatred and antagonism kind of fomented into this.

            So what we end up having with the trans community is we have a group of people who are in their forties and fifties with no elders because most of them are dead, not able to connect with their contemporaries, their analogs, and you might want to say our sisters who are cisgender, because these two groups happen to be the ones that have had the most bad blood between them. In this situation, just even I’m asking, you know, those are us who are of a certain age, that as we grow as we might, to not simply understand trans folk, but also to examine, if you are not trans, examine your own beliefs and sort of update them as your students are updating them, because even though I’m a professor, I have books out, I’m still lonely. I can’t communicate—I can communicate with cisgender women in their twenties much easier than I can laterally with some of my colleagues in the English department because of these preconceptions.

            So this is kind of a sticky thing. And sometimes I think sometimes the urge to write about things other than being trans is not simply this bold step forward, but this desperate measure to find some kind of common ground. It’s like look, we all watched The Brady Bunch. It’s that sort of thing. Just because we’re older doesn’t mean—I mean, I’m brand new at being fifty-something. I still feel like the same person, and I would like to have friends. It’s things like that that I think—and that kind of stuff that I think if we keep focusing on transition, we lose those stories.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

We really have just a couple minutes left, so just quickly—I have so many things to say about your question that it could just—we should all go get a drink and talk. But there’s so many factors like this, there’s like, just the speed at which information gets around has increased exponentially—I first started medically transitioning fifteen years ago this month, okay? The changes in our community in that period of time, it’s just so insanely fast how things change. Almost as if generations flip over faster. The speed at which a word makes it around the world and suddenly that’s the word we [must] use is like, wait, that word didn’t even exist yesterday and now I’m supposed to use it. Even though I called myself this for a decade and a half—and then, you know, you combine that with incredible pain and grief and trauma. It’s really intense. I definitely felt that some things about my queer trans elders were silly or not my thing, but I never felt the vitriol that sometimes I feel from people younger than me who don’t even actually know what I think. And it’s like, whoa, actually, slow down here, we’re all at the same barbecue. We can just hang out. But it’s intense. It totally hurts my feelings all the time, and it sometimes causes me take anti-anxiety medication, just this idea that you’re getting [your own experience] wrong. But I get it; it’s a behavior that comes from a place of incredible trauma. I think there’s a lot of lateral oppression, horizontal oppression, and kind of this idea that you should be punching up, right? We should be punching up against power, but if I punch you in my community, I touch something. Something is there. There’s a response. Even in communities where maybe one trans writer has a book published or they have some little tiny thing that is perceived as power, then that person becomes “the man” or the authority or this source of power, then they’re somebody to punch. When actually they’re just a person. They just wrote a thing and they’re just trying to survive. It’s really intense, and I hope that if there’s something good that comes out of the complete political shitshow that is my country right now, I hope that some of that inner community strife will hopefully—we’ll hopefully get over ourselves a little bit to come together. Because, yeah, we need each other so bad.

 

Brook Shelley

I think so much of [what’s] intergenerational, too, is oral tradition. I know more older trans women through Cooper’s stories than I’ve ever met in real life. And by older, I mean older in trans years, not older in cis years, because Cooper’s elders were the trans women who transitioned twenty, thirty years ago, and you came up among that. And I came up amongst trans guys, because that is what was around. And now there’s a lot of trans women who are louder, and it’s a tricky thing. Honestly the best part of this conference for me has been sharing a house with these folks because I spend most of my time in women-born-women lesbian spaces and stuff like that, it feels like, and not by choice. Just because where the fuck would I go otherwise? And getting to talk to them [the other panelists], we stayed home yesterday afternoon and evening and it was incredible. That was more valuable than reading so many books that I’m going to read, and those stories won’t get written because they won’t get published, and if we publish them ourselves, how do we show them around? All of us are more afraid, I think, of being fucking decimated on the internet than—

 

Colette Arrand

By other trans people—

 

Brook Shelley

—Than by any editor. When people are like, I got rejected sixty times, I’m just like, man, I don’t want to get torn apart by somebody who is a shut-in with too much time.

 

Cooper Lee Bombardier

That’s kind of all the time we have, but we’re around. Please come say hi to us, meet us. I don’t know if anybody brought books to sell? These things are available because we have the World Wide Web. We’re going to go to Kiki Bar [a queer bar in Reykjavik] tonight, it’s supposed to be the biggest dance party in town. Say hi to us, we’d love to talk to you more. Thank you very much.

— 

Key To Cunt-ups Text Authors:

RA: Ryka Aoki

CA: Colette Arrand

GB: Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 138.

CLB: Cooper Lee Bombardier

PP: Paul Preciado, Testo Junkie, 143

GR: Grace Reynolds

BS: Brook Shelley

 

  "More Like This than any of These" is also featured in Vol. 15 no. 2 of our print edition, published in December 2018.

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ryka aokiRyka Aoki is an award-winning author, performer, and professor. She was honored by the California State Senate for “Extraordinary Commitment to the Visibility and Well-being of Transgender People.” She is the founder of the International Transgender Martial Arts Alliance, and is a professor of English at Santa Monica College.

 

colette arrandColette Arrand is a transsexual poet from Athens, GA. She is the author of The Future Is Here and Everything Must Be Destroyed (Split Lip Press, 2019) and Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon (OPO Books and Objects, 2017). She is the co-editor of The Wanderer, the co-host of a handful of podcasts, and can be found online at colettearrand.net or on Twitter, @colettearrand.

 

cooper lee bombardierCooper Lee Bombardier is a writer and visual artist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His writing was recently published in Foglifter, Put A Egg On It, The Kenyon Review, MATRIX, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, and Original Plumbing. His visual art was recently curated in an exhibition called “Intersectionality” at MOCA North Miami. Learn more at www.cooperleebombardier.com

 

Grace Reynolds is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. Her work deals with the politics of identity, the friction of rubbing against societal expectations, and the resulting fallout. She’s been published in Toyon and The Steelhead Review, and she co-founded the Redwood Coast Writers’ Center. She lives in southern Oregon with her two sons and several other mammals, where she’s currently working on a poetry anthology.

 

brook shelleyBrook Shelley lives in Portland, Oregon with her cat, Snorri. She wrote for The Toast, and had her work published in Lean Out, and Transfigure. She regularly speaks at conferences on queer and trans issues around the world.

 

 

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.