I have a new favorite “exhibit a” book for presenting and depicting the transgender woman experience.
Meredith Russo joins an already-populated field: on my bookshelf I have Jan Morris’s CONUNDRUM, Jennifer Boylan’s SHE’S NOT THERE, Nicola Jane Chase’s TEA AND TRANSITION, Audrey MC’s LIFE SONGS, Ami Polonsky’s GRACEFULLY GRAYSON, and a few others scattered about. Documenting what it means to be a transgender woman as a trans coming-out story has been done enough times that I think many authors are leery of writing something cliché, and so there’s been a feeling that a good solid trans woman story needs to be “about” something other than the trajectory of “I always knew I wasn’t like the other boys” / “People reacted to me being like one of the girls” / “It was my secret, I knew I was a girl despite my body” / “I sought answers and found doctors who would help me transition” / “Here’s what medical transitioning was like” / “And here I am, I did it”.
In If I Was Your Girl (Flatiron Books: 2017), Meredith Russo takes the tack of simplifying the narrative and making it accessible and entertaining and easy to relate to. Amanda Hardy, the main character, is a young girl, still in high school, and has already transitioned. She’s a brave person, and a person used to living on the margins, not accepted by other people. Her backstory is provided in intermittent flashback chapters, but they’re short; the main story arc is all in Amanda’s present tense. She is happy to make friends but doesn’t expect to and doesn’t take it for granted; and when Grant Everett indicates he’s interested in her as more than a friend, it’s dream-fulfillment material but enmeshed with the delicate fears that it doesn’t mean what she hopes it does, that once he gets to know her he’ll be less impressed with her — in other words, the typical everyday fears of so many adolescent girls, merely made a bit more complicated by the specific situation that Amanda is in, the specific worrisome secret that might cost her this acceptance and sense of belonging if it came out.
It does, of course. That Amanda is strong enough to cope with the situation is less surprising than the resilience of so many of her friendships and connections. Not all of them (that would not be realistic), but there’s a hopeful and positive message here about how many people will accept a trans person for who she is.
If I Was Your Girl touches on one of the central aspects of being transgender that many of these narratives omit: after transitioning, a person may fit in and be perceived and accepted as an ordinary, typical member of their target gender, but they are also a person with a past; does such a person have to invent a gender-consistent backstory, does such a person have to deny their own personal history and set of experiences? And to what extent can a person ever really feel known and accepted while keeping such a centrally personal aspect of themselves secret? Unlike so many other trans narratives, this story is truly a coming-out story, and it’s fundamentally an affirmative one.
What it doesn’t focus on is the convoluted process of figuring out that one is, in fact, transgender, or on the details of medical transitioning. I think that is a wise choice. The reader who picks up the book and relates to the character strongly will already be on the road to contemplating their own gender identity in a sufficiently appropriate manner, and the details of such things as hormones and bottom surgery are probably a lot less important than the fundamentals of what it would be like as a person to have done so for anyone who is curious to know what being transgender is about.
Author Meredith Russo acknowledges in the postlogue of the book that this is the simplest version of the story:
I have, in some ways, cleaved to stereotypes and even bent rules to make Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible. She knew from a very young age. She is exclusively attracted to boys. She is entirely feminine. She passes as a woman with little to no effort. She had a surgery that her family should not have been able to afford, and she started hormones through legitimate channels before she probably could have in the real world. I did this because I wanted you to have no possible barrier to understanding Amanda as a teenage girl with a different medical history from most other girls.
I think If I Was Your Girl succeeds in exactly the ways that Russo intended it to. And where it fails, to the extent that it does so, it is due to the limitations that she acknowledges here. It is not a book that it is not, and there are stories that need to be told that are about those other trajectories of experience which are not so centrally identical to what people in general understand transgender to mean.
I want my own book to be like this. I want The Story of Q to present the story of what it is like to be male, to be one of the girls, to be attracted to them as well, and to end up being one of the gender-variant people for whom a transition to female is not the solution. I want it to be accessible the way Amanda’s story is accessible.