Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Transgender Reading List

Talking about sex-change operations (le topic de jour at the moment, innit?) thought I should chuck a little fiction into the debate. After all, what have we to lose but a little of our time? What have we to gain but compassion and understanding?

I picked up this list, written by Timothy Hulsey, on Amazon and think it is as good a place to start as any.
The Marvelous Land of Oz by Frank Baum

As far as I know, this 1904 children's novel is the first in American literature to feature a transgendered protagonist. (And yes, she does undergo an "operation" of sorts near the end.)

Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris

Transgendered travel writer Jan Morris writes about an imaginary destination where her status as woman (or "Dirleddy") is never questioned. Her memoir Conundrum is deservedly famous.

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Personally, I don't think very highly of Stone Butch Blues. But every time I let a transgendered friend borrow the novel from me, I have to buy another copy. (Funny how that works.)

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Not nearly as good as Diane Middlebrook's biography Suits Me which covers the true events on which the novel was based.

Myra Breckinridge/Myron by Gore Vidal

Vidal is overrated as a "serious" novelist, but his comic novels can be quite good. Both Myra and Myron, though unrealistic, feature a very prominent transgendered character.

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

More an exploration of shifting sexuality than a "how-to" book, Virginia Woolf's Orlando is still a great transgender novel.
The only one of the above I've already read is Orlando, so I have some catching up to do. (Think I'll start with the Jackie Kay. But then hey, I love Jan Morris' travel books and didn't know she'd written fiction ...)

The novel that I would add to the list would be Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex - a girl who discovers at puberty that she is in fact a hermaphrodite, and has a tough decision about to make about which gender to choose. Really superb writing as well as an excellent story.

I know only one transexual - an American internet friend whose story has greatly moved me. His decision to become a woman was a serious and long considered one. (I quickly realised that this is not something that anyone does without the deepest conviction.) John detailed every stage of his journey to become a Jennifer, and for sure there's a book in there if she can be persuaded to write it.

Because really wouldn't all of us like to slip behind the scenes and know how it feels to belong to the other sex? Ah well, at least fiction allows us that privilege vicariously!


starlight said...

i have a very close friend who's in the midst of saving up for a full operation. She's wanted to be a man since she was 12. Then again, I only met her then so it could have been much earlier. I remember being struck at her conviction at such a tender age. It only got stronger as we hit adolescence and adulthood. She has since married (a woman) in America and has moved to New Zealand. Wise enough not to mess with the Malaysian government! The funny thing is, I was so accepting of her determination to be a man that I never really asked her what went through her mind in making and sticking by that decision. Perhaps I should now.

Anonymous said...

Uniquely Sharon. Everyone's blogging about this in political context, but you talked about books. amazing! How indivualistic. *thumbs up*

Anonymous said...

It's amazing the cruelty and close-mindedness that people exhibit in the name of religion when it comes to transexuals or gays. These are seemingly good, decent, virtuous people whose shutters come banging down; whose basic humanity and compassion take a day off when this topic arises. To them, I would say, read Abou ben Adhem by James Leigh Hunt - one of my favourite poems.

Anonymous said...

i quite enjoyed myra beckinbridge and have not finished middlesex.

all this talk about transsexuals at work made me dream of a friend who's male and straight, and in the dream he confessed he was once a woman.

to me, a person is good because of his/her heart and through actions. one's sexuality and gender preference shouldn't even be a yardstick for anything.

aiya sharon, you will make me a pauper. everytime i come here i find new titles to buy. die die die!

Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

i have one for you:

Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory.

as a child, boy gets genital bitten off by family dog. lives life psychologically disturbed as a "girl." in the end, you find out the real shocking truth.

wonder if this qualifies, as it is a twisted version of a transsexual story.

starlight said...

since we're all making recommendations, here's my contribution - The Third Sex: Kathoey - Thailand's Ladyboys by Richard Totman. by no means stunning prose, but still an interesting read.

visitor, a review on iain bank's book mentioned maggots feasting on a living baby's brain. it also described the prose as stuff nightmares are made of. i know a friend who would adore this book.

Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

erm, Starlight, u've just given away a major spoiler.

ya, i adore the book as well. my kind of stuff! :)

bibliobibuli said...

starlight - interesting story - and it would be fascinating to find out how your friend felt - we need stories! the booka bout thailan's lady boys sounds like something i'd like to read.

yvonne - thanks! i felt like having a rant about unfairness and narrow-mindedness but clawed myself back from the edge. let's battle bigots with books!

saras - a great poem. here's the link for those too lazy to google!

little ms. d - fascinating dream - wonder what it means? keep buying the books and we'll be poor together

visitor - i had forgotten the wasp factory outing - yes. let's add that to the list. (and hasn't starlight sussed your tastes out so very well!)

Spot said...

What have we to gain but compassion and understanding?

Well said, as always.

I have Stone Butch Blues. And if any secretly transgendered person is reading it, I strongly recommend it. You are not alone.

Here's my favourite bit:-

"So man or woman? I fought hard to be included as woman among women, but I always felt so excluded by my differences. I hadn't just believed that passing [as a man]would hide me. I hoped that it would allow me to express the part of myself that didn't seem to be a woman. I didn't get to explore being a he-she, though. I simply became a he - a man without a past.

Who was I now? Man or woman? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices;

it could never be answered if it had to be asked.

Spot said...

Yeeps, i meant "if any secretly transgendered person is reading THIS post".

There's so much that the general public misunderstands about transgenderism. And the public comments in respect of the recent well-publicised wedding has only served to highlight this ignorance.

I've written a primer on the basic concepts and will soon complete a short summary of the applicable law in Malaysia. At

I'm not usually inclined to hawk my blog, but advancing the cause of understanding is too close to my heart.

bibliobibuli said...

i'm so glad i went and read your blog spot - that entry is excellent adn i can't wait for part II

Anonymous said...

First gay fiction, now transgender fiction. I suppose they will want their own category as well :)

I don't see why this should be such a big deal. I don't write books about how it feels to be straight, and how transgender people don't understand why I have to be straight. :) If you want to be some other gender, well then more power to you :) I personally don't see what the big fuss is about. It's not that big an achievement :P

bibliobibuli said...

yes anon - really why should we write fiction about anything when it comes down to it?

Anonymous said...

Why indeed ? :) I was just reading Nietzche's "Beyond Good and Evil" and this jumjped out at me :

"Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be?"

Why indeed ? :)