Novels and understanding gender identity

Hanna's Ascent is a novel, not a textbook or a tutorial. But it is the only novel with all of the following elements:

  1. a relatable (“real-life”) main character;
  2. the reality of violent transgender suppression in history;
  3. portrayal of the implacable requirement to pass for those who were not entertainers and didn't want to be street workers;
  4. enough breadth to encompass many, if not most, of the practical challenges that transgender people have faced, and still face;
  5. depth of emotion that reflects the real experience; and
  6. an engaging plot to make it palatable – and memorable.

The first of these simply means that the protagonist is not an eccentric, flamboyant or unrepresentative person (a device novels often make use of for ready-made drama). She is unique and unusual in ways that help grab readers' attention, but she's not on the fringe; they can see themselves in her world with only a little transposition.

The next two formed an absolutely critical aspect of the book's concept. Too many people are simply unaware of either today, and that has profoundly negative consequences in socio-political discussions. I'll return to this at the end.

As with the violence, some of the features in (d) are coming back to what they were previously. Changing gender markers on legal documents used to be something of a free-for-all, with Hanna's experience not terribly unusual; now we're being faced with clear legal prohibitions in half the states. Employment discrimination is prohibited in some, and explicitly allowed (dare I say encouraged) in others. It's not only teenage bullying, important as that is to teenagers. I started the novel thinking that the plot would be “a distant mirror”, but it's more like a dire alarm. Though the desire to pass unquestioned remains a constant, it had greatly decreased in practical importance. Public bathroom bills have restored a sense of serious crisis.

Above all else, the unique power of a novel is its potential to evoke emotion. That was one of my prime stylistic goals, and judging from reviews so far I was successful. To an audience of interested but uncommitted readers (i.e. neither confirmed allies nor transphobes), it offers a powerful insight into the reality of the experience. I realize that much (if not most) of the comment­ary along the lines of “wait till you're eighteen and then you can figure it out with your adult brain” is bigoted blather based on ignorance, but there are probably many people who genuinely think that some analytical “thinking” is at the core of gender identity. HA portrays a girl finding the courage to accept who she is, not a grown woman figuring out some psychological puzzle. It's one thing to say that gender identity springs from the core of one's being, but quite another to see it. Of course it's a fictional story; if one is in a critical mood, expository sources remain essential. But emotion could be the key for many. They are in any event complementary; analogous to the theme of “showing” vs. “telling” in fiction style.

Finally, the writing has many literary motifs that serve to keep the reader's interest and (one hopes) stimulate further thought. It's not a murder mystery, but the plot is engaging, and the characters memorable. The writing style is spare; it doesn't get bogged down in a great deal of “flowers, furniture and faces” (my code for too much descriptive minutia). Yet it offers many moments of lyrical description to accentuate the emotions of the story (“ avalanche-swept slope near Trail Ridge Road strewn with broken boulders and twisted, stunted trees that were the only survivors at timber­line, passing brilliant blue and white columbines half-concealed behind the rocks”).  On the analytical side, the themes of language as an embodiment of culture, womanhood itself as a culture, the different types of language, immigration as a metaphor for gender acceptance, the comparison of psychological and physical trauma, the interplay of memory, fantasy and reality (“all the mighty world Of eye, and ear both what they half create, And what perceive”) – all this and much more go beyond the basic story.

Hanna's Ascent is an accessible, “readable”, novel, but it's not a beach-read soap opera. The violent component is there because it's part of life for transgender people: historically, but also in some places today. History may not repeat, but it reverberates. “What they did then” morphs with little warning into “what we do now”,* and yesterday's legal suppressions and dehumanizations are already being reinstated. I would love for Hanna's personal triumph to represent the country, but I also want her trauma to be fully visible, especially because our nation is moving toward that state again. Fascism begins with the dehumanizing of minorities.

*(With acknowledgement to Jonathan Glazer)

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