Review by Evelyn Newland, SPCC Librarian
Recent years' increasing presence of transgender people as a topic of public discourse has been accompanied by a morass of accommodating narratives and best practices for the broadly cisgender (read: not transgender) population to deploy in engaging with us. A few pithy truisms a la "trans women are women, trans men are men" and the ritual inclusion of pronouns in social media profiles and in introductions at business meetings seem to be at the front of many allies' minds. This isn't a bad thing, but in some ways these simple narratives provide more questions than answers (what, then, are "women" and "men"?) and the best practices aren't always "best" for everyone - some trans people feel accommodated by round-table pronoun introductions for instance, but others can feel profiled by practices that seem to bring sharp attention to their transgender status. Convenient and broadly applicable narratives and practices regarding trans people are commonly favoured in matters of advocacy because they manage to be simple, fairly intelligible and inoffensive, but they also can elide the wildly varied, messy and inconvenient complications of trans people's lives as they are lived.
Torrey Peters' Detransition, Baby does not do this. When I recommend the title to friends and acquaintances (which I have done many times since my initial reading last year), I sometimes get ambivalent responses based on the title alone. "Detransition" - a loose term for halting or reversing the "transition" transgender people undergo, from shifting one's social presentation, clothing and mannerisms to medical procedures like hormone replacement therapy and various surgeries - is often invoked in popular discourse specifically for the sake of faux-cautionary scaremongering about extravagant rates of "regret" among those who choose to transition, presumably leading to ruined lives. This is not the topic of this article but serves as context for the hesitance some might feel about Torrey Peters' title, which presents detransition like an alluring proposal: "Hey there, wanna detransition, baby?" It's a perfect introduction to the story, which has no qualms covering messy and controversial topics concerning trans people in contexts where they might arise in our actual lives, all brought to life with Peters' colourfully dark wit.
Far from being model minorities or spokespeople for the supposed "transgender community" as trans people are often expected to be, the protagonists Reese (a trans woman) and Ames (a former trans woman who has detransitioned and lives as a man, to be brief) can be petty, narcissistic and duplicitous, sabotaging each other and themselves - in other words, they are utterly relatable. When Reese takes centre stage, the narrative takes on an irreverent and bitchy tone vividly resembling the sort of banter I regularly have with other trans girls, deploying sexually-charged metaphors and offensive terms for each other that we'd slap a cisgender person for using similarly. Reese's awkward longing for motherhood as an infertile woman and its interface with her habit of trying to take a motherly role with newly-transitioning trans women reminded me of myself, including how that "mothering" role can share with real motherhood the difficult possibilities of both nurturing someone's potential and for controlling behaviour where one projects her own unfulfilled desires onto their (actual or metaphorical) child.
Comparatively mild-mannered Ames, a former subject of Reese's misplaced motherly impulse as well as lust, relays a complex history of sexual repression and awkward coping mechanisms common to many millennial trans women's experience. His detransition, featuring prominently in the plot as the title would imply, is fraught with ambiguities and attests to Peters' ability to write complex and politically-charged subjects into fiction in an evocative and engaging way. "Regret" doesn't especially factor into his motives for transitioning, though "shame" might. In what is arguably one of the most memorable passages in the book, Ames delineates a comparison he's observed between the behaviour of orphaned elephants and the behaviour of trans women - in short, without the historical context for care and nurturing, we often find ourselves a disorganized and deeply troubled group of people with very little guidance, prone to lashing out with extreme consequences to ourselves and others. Ames relays all of this to Katrina, the only cis woman among the three protagonists, saying this shame was why he "stopped being an elephant" - Katrina perhaps says what's on the reader's mind when she observes that "elephants can't stop being elephants." As the plot progresses, suggestions are made back and forth that Ames might attempt to re-transition, but it would be overly simplistic to say he's simply a trans woman whose circumstances have coerced him back into the closet. Rather, Ames' experience shows the complex relationship that many trans people, detransitioned people, and even cis people have with gender in general that never has a clean and convenient resolution throughout the book.
Underneath the title's immediate meaning is a sequence of events: Ames detransitions, and then in the course of dating Katrina, they end up with a baby. In his bewilderment, having thought his previous hormone regimen had made him infertile, he attempts to negotiate a convoluted family structure in which Reese can act as the mother she had long aspired to be. While transness features prominently, Detransition, Baby is perhaps most deeply concerned with the concept of womanhood and its expectations in general, overlapping closely with matters of motherhood, race and sexuality.
Detransition, Baby was an occasional topic of conversation between a former partner and I. We both understood Reese was something of a disaster, but while I found her lovably relatable, they found her fairly loathsome and felt better represented by Ames. They felt apprehensive about parts of the book, feeling they could be used irresponsibly by cis people - I felt that while there was that fraught possibility, I was tired of letting reductive and often inaccurate narratives on trans people be the primary knowledge that broader society has of us. One could conjecture about what could have informed our differences, but the elaborate and often politically-charged conversations we had as two transgender lesbians - invoking all manner of controversial debates that trans people often have while cis people aren't around - could have been written by Torrey Peters herself.
Torrey Peters began writing Detransition, Baby as a humourous story for a few friends. Targeted at other trans people, especially trans women, D,T should by no means be inaccessible to cis people with the thoughtfulness to engage with it on its own terms. I'd urge the latter category not to view D,B as some kind of educational primer on transgender issues, but as a story of people who aren't necessarily like them, who they might relate to anyway - in short, like they would engage with just about any story. This isn't to say that one won't find anything educational in D,B, in fact I believe even other trans people will likely find its detailed and complex accounts of individual characters' lives illuminating. Rather, I think that real education on any marginalized people can't simply be extrapolated from a seminar, a glossary of terms or a series of charts and diagrams - it means real engagement with those people for who they really are, and a serious willingness to learn. This can include simply engaging with art by transgender creators as one would anything else, and Detransition, Baby stands on its own as a novel unafraid to portray trans people as we often truly are, in all our fallibility and messiness.
July 2, 2022:
https://glreview.org/ July-August issue now in the SPCC library for reading at the community centre. Periodicals may not be signed out.
Dancer From The Dance Arrives in SPCC Library Collection
June 8, 2022 -- A novel that has influenced gay writers since it was first published in 1978 has arrived in the SPCC lending library collection.
For a deep dive into the importance of Andrew Holleran's Dancer From The Dancer, follow the link:
Single Donation Doubles SPCC Library
Milverton Book Prize Juror Wants Good Home For Over 100 Books
Stratford, ON, June 6, 2022 – University of Waterloo librarian Jessica Blackwell is donating 112 publisher’s copies of top notch LGBTQ+ books to the Stratford Pride Community Centre’s lending library.
It’s a move that will more than double the SPCC’s book collection. “I sat on the American Library Association's committee to choose books for the annual Over the Rainbow reading list - a book list that chooses the top 10 fiction and nonfiction books on LGBTQ2S+ themes for adults,” said Blackwell, a Special Collections & Archives Librarian at the University of Waterloo’s Dana Porter Library.
“As part of this work I received copies of many of the books for consideration from the publishers. I'd love for these to go somewhere where they can be further appreciated,” she said.
Said SPCC President Bruce Duncan Skeaff, “Our lending library is an important part of the SPCC. Understanding stories and experiences beyond our little corner of the world helps us understand our own stories and experiences. Reading is known to alleviate feelings of isolation. It’s said if you can’t be with people like yourself, second best is to read about them.”
International top selling GLBTQ+ author Felice Picano was in Stratford over this past weekend as SPCC visiting author, when the news came. “Librarians are my heroes,” he said. “They are the guardians of freedom and of the spoken word”.
SPCC librarian Evelyn Newland will now work with Blackwell on the transfer of the books. Blackwell has offered to help catalogue these and the rest of the SPCC library.