Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian

Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian is a story about two people who fall in love, only to learn that one of them is about to transition, their attempt to make a go of it anyway, the story of their attempt and the issues they face, and the reactions of their small town.

Chris Bohjalian is a fairly big name writer who generally writes about people thrown into socially odd positions in life and forced to make the best of it. He is not, to anyone's public knowledge, anywhere in the queer spectrum. But he has researched the hell out of this book, and produced something sensitive, respectful, educational - and still well worth reading for the characters.

Speaking of which, we have four main characters. While Dana and Allie are our lovers, the other two offer both perspective on and participation in the events. Dana, our MtF character, is a lecturer and a professor, literate, charming and quite domestic. Allie is a school teacher and a good one, long divorced, an endless and easily bored dabbler in the pool of love, but still best friends with her husband Will, who runs the local radio station. Will is a bit arrogant, never had a gender dysphoric moment in his life, still hanging out for his perfect woman, and has a second marriage on the rocks because of it. And Carly is their daughter, headed to college, mature, smart and all around nice, and headed for her own career in radio.

It's a gentle steady sort of novel, the kind that's too literate to be called 'gossip'. Everything is in the past tense, our narrators are recounting events, not living in an immediate emotional tumult of drama, which lessens some of the more painful moments a little. This is an issue book, rather than a romance, or a 'daily life in a small town' or a family drama. There is romance, and family, and small town life, but it is all in the context of Dana being transgender. That is both a good and bad thing, for all the reasons that have become increasingly evident in young adult coming out novels. Coming out stories are necessary, but it would be nice if we could skip over that part sometimes.

That said, that's the only real, major criticism (I do have other issues with the writing style, which you'll find at the end of the review). Which isn't really a criticism of the book, just the current state of published books in this area, and more an identification of the type of book it is. But it is a very good book. Possibly a little introspective and slowly paced, it is accessible and interesting, and I would recommend it to both LGBTQ readers (specifically lesbian and transgender, but other labels will be able to identify) and to... well, your parents, or the everyday straight person looking for something better than Mills & Boon to read.

About the story
The narrative is framed within a radio series, which is a heartening and delightful move in itself. The series is treated as an interesting interview or feature that is appearing as a matter of course on the radio, much like you would listen to a story being read or hear some old person retelling what it was like living in London during the Blitz. Each chapter begins with a paragraph to a couple of pages of radio commentary - from a quick back and forth between the speakers, to a slight digression to some other aspect of transgender issues. And then we have the main narrative from Carly, Will, Dana and Allie. The speakers take turns, as the story unfolds, in random order.

The first part of the book is all about Allie and Dana falling in love, her coming out and transitioning and all the reactions and emotions around that. It starts to get difficult around Dana's operation. The last half is post-op, and deals with the survival of their relationship and the open reactions of the community (as opposed to general backbiting and occasional harassment).

Dana is a lesbian, and she is quite clear about this from the start with herself, and the few people who know about her. She loves women, has had many girlfriends, has a high sex drive, and has very firm plans on becoming a physical woman. Allie is not  a lesbian, has been happily divorced for years and steadily worked through a series of boyfriends, and is so in love with Dana that she decides to find out if they can make it work.

Will cares far more about the effect of Allie being with Dana than he does about Dana. Initially he just can't imagine that Dana might be transgender, nor how it could actually be the case that someone 'is' a woman. He's not deliberately offensive, just obtuse and protective of Allie, even when he should step back and let her make her own decisions. And he does go out of his way to educate himself, becoming more accepting - although accepting that 'Allie is with someone else' seems to be the far bigger issue. Ultimately, though, he becomes a friend to Dana, and runs a two piece radio feature on gender dysphoria, and on Allie's treatment at the hands of the local reactionaries, which helps inspire the later piece by Carly that runs throughout the book.

The narrative is quite jumpy for the first part of the book, all over the place as it almost rushes through the 'revelation and transition' (in multiple senses). The only chronologically consistent speaker is Carly, who mostly just reacts to events as they unfold, from the first meetings to coming back from College to meet Dana after she came out. Will, Allie and Dana jump around a lot, and half the time the only way to tell if they are talking in the 'then' or looking back is by whether they use 'he' or 'she' for Dana. There's a lot of regret, introspection, and referrals to later events in their chapters.

For example, Dana spends a chapter telling us about how she felt and planned to tell Allie, then continues on into her forays into dressing as a woman. By the time Allie turns up to tell us about the actual 'coming out', we already know they're living together months later. Once all the players have caught up with events, and Dana's plans for surgery are fully in motion, the timeline settles down and each simply takes turns to continue the story.

The unpleasant reactions - and there are unpleasant reactions - are almost entirely off screen at first, aimed at the people around Dana. Complaints from the parents of Allie's kids, people coming up and sympathising with Carly, that sort of thing. They gather steam into the second half of the book, though, and there are some downright unpleasant confrontations between parents and Allie, in which phrases such as 'freak', 'perversion' and 'I'm for gay rights but this is unnatural' are thrown around. And of course, it's all 'for the children', escalated by Allie's teacher status.

The only triggering language in the first half of the book, apart from the emotional impact, are a couple of pages of explicit medical description of the procedure of surgically creating the vagina (can I say ouch?), and affectionately thoughtless use of the word trannies by the receptionist at the medical centre, as well as a couple of - well, either casual slips, or self deprecating jokes, from Dana, about being a 'lesbian with a penis', and referring to herself as a tranny. For the most part, there's nothing unpleasant or charged in the language used. It is respectful, approachable and accessible while in no way denying the validity of gender dysphoria.

The second half gets nastier. Basically, if you're worrying about being triggered, or sick of reading yet more 'we hate unnatural people' rubbish, stop reading when Allie comes back from Colorado (where she stayed with Dana for the surgery). You can skip ahead a bit, to where it turns around and gets better, or you can leave it there.

The story after Dana's operation, when people can no longer pretend that she might change her mind, takes a crueler turn. Open prejudice emerges in the community and Allie starts to be harassed. She also finally has to face the fact that she is not lesbian - something that is also positive, as it shows that to her, Dana is fully and absolutely, female. But in the face of harassment, she obstinately perseveres.

All the direct prejudice tends to be aimed at, or through, Allie, which helped make it easier to read. She was half directly reviled for her associations - but also acting as a protector, while Dana stayed at home and recovered and did her best to make home life perfect for Allie.

And there is a great deal from Dana's perspective as she adjusts, heals from her surgery, and learns who she is becoming. While it may not be as detailed as someone with experience there might want, it's far, far more detail than most books will ever give you. Dana ends up being young, happy, pretty and feminine, cheerfully domestic and overall quite ordinary in her tastes and lack of 'out there'ness.  There are occasional disparaging remarks directed at 'excessively' obvious transsexuals and cross dressers. The stereotyped kind. I don't know enough to tell if that should put my hackles up or not, but it is there.  I'm not sure if this is a splendid portrayal of 'transsexuals can be ordinary people', a way to make her more empathetic (either to boring straight people, or as wish fulfilment), or just something I'm reading too much in.

And there's a reaction to the reaction, with the community ending up decidedly split in its support and vilification. And a wonderful moment from Allie's eleven year olds during their school play, when they come out in support of their teacher. And finally, their attackers are increasingly described as, and seen as, a lynch mob. Their behaviour is awful, and people have trouble with the idea of gasp 'a transsexual', but ultimately it is made clearly that the majority of the community considers the objectors prejudiced, and despicable. It's almost funny, actually, the way some of them insist that they're okay with gay rights, but transgenderism is a step too far. Because I suspect that they aren't okay, they just know they wouldn't get away with saying so. And because it so obviously parallels the state of gay rights not too long ago, and that really, it's an unfair distinction. It could just have easily been "I have nothing against women's rights, but two women living together that way is unnatural!".

Dana and Allie don't make it together. But it is very clearly because they weren't right for each other, because Allie simply wasn't attracted to women (and never really stayed with people long anyway), not because a post-op relationship wasn't something that could work. The additional drama and prejudice and harrasment was stressful and upsetting, but had no bearing on their separation. It didn't drive them apart, it actually kept them together until it was over. And they stay together, complete with a fairly high degree of sexual activity (initially one way, and then once Dana's shiny new vagina healed fully, it became mutual. Although fraught with 'we really aren't working out' undercurrents) for months.

It is definitely a romance, even if they eventually drift apart.

On boxes... 
There were definitely some assumptions and labels that I didn't feel comfortable with. But for the most part, I think they were intentional, and part of the characters' own views. I felt that this was a novel that wouldn't dare leave obvious sexist assumptions and prejudices in accidentally!

There were ongoing internal asides about masculine and feminine behaviours that were aggravating. But after awhile, I realised that they were all coming from Will and Dana. The former in his role as somewhat close-minded, Big Manly Male, the latter someone who is desperate to distance herself from being male, and so sees masculinity in her behaviour where there is none, and craves femininity more than the female-born characters.

For some reason, Allie casts her experiment under the label 'lesbian' rather than bisexual or pansexual. I'm not sure if this is just to keep it simple, that she was just categorising specific interactions, rather than her entire life, or meant to show a lack of awareness about the other possibilities on her part. She certainly never seemed to consider not being attracted to men, but as she was hoping to be monogamously with Dana, that it would never really be an issue.

Ultimately Dana starts feeling attracted to men. I didn't like that, I liked her being lesbian, and it felt a little as if it was invalidating her previous lesbian status. But as I've already complained about Allie terming - limiting - their relationship together as lesbian, that's stlightly hypocritical. Storywise, it allows for a satisfying emotional resolution and new beginning for two main characters, and throwing a new random woman in wouldn't have had the same effect. And finally, Carly gets in the last word when she comments that Dana had always labelled everyone, putting them in boxes of gay and straight and transexual. Which helps balance it out a bit, though it did feel a little like Carly was the author talking a lot of the time, adding his own bit of unbiased-by-individual-personality commentary.

Other criticisms: The writing style
Most of this is my personal reaction, so whether it's a drawback or a feature depends on your tastes, but I found the overall story fairly slow, the retelling added a bit too much distance at times to the interactions (we rarely saw actual events, merely heard about them afterwards), and the voices were all very similar. Carly was very adult, the adults all equally well spoken and similar in attitude. They were similar in education and humour, but they still ran into each other. The jumpy narrative was, as mentioned, confusing, and I didn't like the way Dana switched - or possibly widened, but this was left unclear - her sexual preferences.

I can come up with good, or at least plausible, ways to handwave each of the above, but they were all problems for me and may be for other readers. On the other hand, I cheerfully admit to a readier boredom with this 'type' of novel - contemporary lives and relationships - where I would find a similarly written fantasy book enthralling.

The medical and identity terminology appears accurate and up to date (from my admittedly outsider knowledge), and the list of people thanked at the end for their time and knowledge, along with book recommendations, is both reassuring and impressive. This is an author who Did The Research.

You can buy Trans-sister Radio on and in dead tree and audio formats, but it's not available for Kindles.

The books Chris Bohjalian recommends at the end for their value, honesty and insight in his research are:

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
The Illusionist by Dinitia Smith
Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames

In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage by Anne Bolin
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein 
Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Pat Califia
Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits by Loren Cameron
Speaking As a Woman by Alison Laing
Conundrum by Jan Morris
Transsexuals: Candid Answers to Private Questions by Gerald Ramsey
The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male by Janice G. Raymond
The Transsexual's Survival Guide: To Transition & Beyond by JoAnn Altman Stringer
The Transsexual's Survival Guide II: To Transition & Beyond for Family, Friends, & Employers by JoAnn Altman Stringer

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  1. Uh huh. Why don't you check out the Amazon reviews from people who *are actually trans women*. Caveat, I haven't read it, but frankly I trust my sisters far more than any of you. the contrast in the reviews couldn't be more stark.

    I am so utterly unsurprised that he actually recommends Raymond, and does not recommend Serano.

    Sounds like a great book for people who want to think of us as objects and not people.

    1. Hi Anon,

      First, thank you for your perspective (although it's a pity you haven't actually read it). I did try and make it clear that it was more of a primer that would be easy for people unfamiliar with LGBTQIA issues (who would avoid such books) to get into, and that my opinions were all from the perspective of someone who knows little about this issues. I also pointed out a few things that did squick me, somewhat.

      I would note that I did check reviews, but most of the criticism are either subjective (e.g. writing style, which I did criticise) or I included in my review (e.g. the ending). I did state that I knew nothing about several areas, and flagged things that I haven't seen mentioned in other reviews (such as language terms). I also couldn't find anything on any LGBTQIA review sites at the time, and I didn't want to weight too heavily reviews from anonymous, statistically probably non-trans people.

      Ultimately, it was a readable book, that *appeared* to be trying to be human and sensitive (I never got the impression that the trans character was being viewed as anything less than a person) while also having problematic issues. Given how few books there are in this area, any that *try* and be positive and are readable, are worth taking a look at.