Teaching: As easy as installing an oven.

This week has flown by. I think it’s been pretty productive. At the beginning of the week I was finalising teaching preparation before attending the lecture/workshop on Wednesday. The 2 hour lesson was actually fab, I don’t think that the undergrads really appreciate how interesting the module leader has made it. He discusses the topic for a while and then sets a task for them to discuss in groups. He, the other seminar tutor and I go around the class and talk about their thoughts. He does this a few times during the lecture and the two hours go really quickly.

My seminar class is on Thursday morning. Most of my students turned up, which is always a good start. We were discussing four poems. I split the room into two groups and gave them two poems each to look at. We then came together and discussed them. Most of the students seemed to engage really well. They came up with some fab ideas. I’m looking forward to working with them this term.

This week my housemate and I rearranged the living room into a PhD hub. She found another desk in the cellar that we’ve cleaned up and moved various bits of furniture around to accomodate. I work at the dining table with her on the other side of the room at the desk. We’ve been challenging each other to write 500 words a day, and for two out of the three days we’ve hit target. The day we didn’t was due to the furniture moving and the fact that we had to collect and install a new oven as ours went kaput. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I managed to do it without blowing us up.

I’m meeting my supervisor tomorrow to discuss my first chapter. I’ve got just over 6000 words written, so I’m about a third of the way through. My aim is to have it finished by December so I can move onto the next chapter after new year. The chapter is about passing and crossing in two texts – Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Renee James’s Transition to Murder. They both deal with the topic in different ways. Jess in Feinberg’s text transitions to male, having top surgery and taking testosterone. They find it relatively easy to be read as cisgender, however, in doing so they feel as though they’ve lost their sense of self and therefore decide to stop taking the hormones and remove their beard. It is only then that Jess finds an authenticity of self in embracing the liminal, in living as what they describe as ‘a he-she’ – something that allows them to embody all aspects of their gender identity.

Bobbi in Transition to Murder, who I’ve spoken about before, transitions to female and from very early on in the text voices the fact that she’ll likely never pass as cisgender. She struggles with this during the novel, mostly due the the reactions of the public who are alternately unwelcoming, hostile or explicitly violent. Bobbi’s strong support network, her friend and therapist, her boss, and the trans community group she’s a part of are her real saving grace at that point. As the novel progresses Bobbi grows in confidence, she embraces her own sense of femininity and finds ways in which to be happy and places where her skills are admired.

Both texts highlight the dangers of passing and crossing, but both also show that embracing one’s own sense of embodiment is one of the most important things a person can do. However, it should also be noted that both of these texts feature white, working class protagonists who have, to varying extents, an existing support network when they transition. The ability to embrace an identity that society may frown upon is very much based in a certain level of privilege. My other chapters have novels by trans women of colour, so I’ll be interested to see if the same themes arise.

Today I’m getting on with this week’s teaching prep. And then I’ll probably try and edit what I have so far of my chapter into something resembling sense so I can discuss it tomorrow.

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Conference Countdown

[Today’s post edited to reflect the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner’s chosen name and pronouns]

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that rather than doing any actual work I was writing a conference abstract instead. It turns out that it was a really good use of time because it was accepted! I’ll be presenting at the Trans Studies Now conference on the 12th June down in Brighton. So now I just have to actually write the paper.

The paper is on the theme of passing in post-90s trans-authored literature. I’ll also be using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story in which she suggests that oftentimes any existence outside of the Western, white, middle-class, cisgender male is narrowed down to a single narrative. This dominant portrayal of a single aspect of a certain group’s identity leads to the dehumanisation of that group. She states that if you ‘show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again […] that is what they become’ (Adichie, 2009). In the case of trans individuals, they become the story of transition. As has been seen with the coverage of Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner in the media, in the Katie Couric interview of Carmen Carrera, in Louis Theroux’s Transgender Kids documentary and numerous other examples, the main concern is always transition, always to do with physical change, always to do with an adherence to binary gender.

Rumours of Jenner’s transition have been appearing in the media for months, there has been a deluge of discussion on physical changes and sartorial choices. The In Touch Weekly magazine cover that photoshopped make-up onto a picture of Jenner was particularly reviled by trans activists (and anyone with a shred of decency) as being transphobic and highly inappropriate. Trans activist and pioneer Kate Bornstein said in response ‘DAMN IT. BRUCE JENNER IS BEING BULLIED, AND PUBLICLY SHAMED FOR  NO OTHER REASON THAN BEING TRANS‘ (2015). This cover not only highlighted the inherent transphobia of a media that believes that being trans is shameful, something that should be exposed, but also foregrounded the obsession with transition even, in this case, when transition hadn’t [yet] been declared.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, ‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power […] How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power‘ (2009). In this case, the trans story is being told by the cisgender patriarchy.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person‘ (Adichie, 2009)

It is due to the prominence of this single story narrative that I chose to focus my thesis on trans-authored texts. Trans theory is based in lived experience, embodiment and in the acceptance of a huge range of gender identities, all of which are elements of trans that the dominant narrative ignores. What if Caitlyn Jenner, rather than transitioning, was simply exploring a new element of her expression of self? Why is it that society is so concerned with transition? Perhaps it’s because whilst trans unsettles identity categories previously considered to be unquestionable the notion of transition still somewhat upholds the gender binary. This is something I found during my MA when I looked at both trans- and cis-authored texts. The cis-authored narratives were far more rooted in a strict transition from one gender to the other, whereas trans-authored texts tended to embrace more flexible, liminal gender identities – as famously seen in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues in the character of Jess who transitions from female to male before embracing a non-binary identity.

There’s a huge potential for academic work in the comparison of trans- and cis-authored texts but ultimately until trans-authored texts have been discussed on their own merit, until those non-dominant narratives have been explored, until the single story has been transcended and multiple experience has been accepted by culture at large, that comparison has the potential of focusing on how trans people ‘differ’ to dominant cis narratives, rather than foregrounding the diversity of trans experience and the failure of cis-normative culture to understand a range of identities previously ignored.

This started as a blog post at 5:30 in the morning, but now I think it might make its way into the actual paper. This is something I’ve found really useful about writing the blog, not only does it help motivate me and give me some sense of accountability, but it also helps me articulate my thoughts. I usually get really bogged down with trying to get my academic writing perfect and this causes no end of writer’s blog and panic-induced procrastination, but allowing myself a non-formal space to quickly chuck ideas at seems to break through the block and gives me a sense of achievement from which to springboard into my actual writing.

Last week while I was still at Mum’s I read another two and two half books (I got half way through one and realised it wasn’t relevant, the other is in my handbag waiting to be finished). This week will be focussed on writing this paper before heading back down south to Brighton via Gloucestershire and Exeter.