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.

Two Books Down and a Mouse in the Floor

This week has been a bit more productive in that I’ve read two of my thesis novels. They’re helping to make things fall into place and ideas to start forming. I wish I’d started my reading earlier. I got really bogged down in theory stuff and lost track of what I was doing. I feel like having the novels/autobiographies/blogs behind me will give me a platform to lob the theory at rather than drowning in theory and hoping that a life boat comes along soon. But I guess you could also argue that without having read the theory you’d have less to read into the novels with (but that’s what multiple readings are for).

Therefore, my first formal bit of advice to literature students – read the texts before the theory, and then read the texts after the theory, and then hopefully you’ll have something to actually write about – still got my fingers crossed on that one.

The two books I read this week were:

I Know Very Well How I Got My Name – Elliott DeLine (2013)

Transition to Murder – Renee James (2012)

DeLine’s book is a prequel to their first novel Refuse (2009) which was about Morrisey fan and trans man, Dean, who has just started college. Through a classmate he meets another trans guy, Colin. The novel tracks his first year at college, his time in a band with Colin, his attendance at trans support groups, his first shot of testosterone and ultimately his choice to not have surgery – to live as trans and be happy as presenting male without physically changing anything other than his hormones. I Know Very Well How I Got My Name is about Dean growing up. We meet him as a young child going to grandma’s house. The writing reflects the age of the character and becomes more complex with each chapter as he ages. The novella ending with a sixteen year old Dean about to come out to his parents.

IKVWHIGMN includes a lot of trans genre tropes – knowing yourself to be different from a young age, an emphasis placed on appearance and passing, confusions in sexuality, leaving the home-town to transition. There’s also a fair bit of heavy-handed allegory – a female cat being called ‘he’ by Dean’s parents in spite of a gender neutral name because ‘he is more like a male. He/she howls all day and has stinky feet’ (p.13); and a child who gets angry at being called his full name rather than the shortened version arguing with a teacher who deliberately uses the wrong one. But ultimately I think the book will be useful within my thesis. The way that it discusses passing is particularly interesting as near the beginning of the text when Dean (we never learn his female name) spends most of third grade trying to fit in with the other girls, buying the right clothes and liking ‘Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC and the Spice Girls like you’re supposed to’ (p.36). This act of trying to ‘pass’ as female more convincingly is something more common to MtF narratives and is normally just assumed to take place in FtM texts. If anything Dean seems to find it easier to pass as male than he ever did as female. As soon as he actively starts to dress and present as male there seems to be a certain level of acceptance – he goes from being called a dyke and a bitch (p.83) to being called a fag (p.94), which, whilst still offensive, is gendered according to his presentation. In this text unity of the self is very much centred around appearance and passing.

Transition to Murder differs in almost all aspects to DeLine’s text. It is a crime thriller that is narrated by Bobbi Logan, a hairdresser and trans woman who comes out after a friend of hers is murdered for being trans and the police fail to adequately investigate. Throughout the text Bobbi highlights the fact that she is readably trans, she often mentions her height, the width of her shoulders and regularly, in times of unease, states that she feels like ‘a hairy giant in a tutu’ (p.20). Over the course of the narrative we see Bobbi gradually grow in confidence, moving from wearing androgynous clothing to adopting a range of feminine expression – ‘When I finally got around to dressing this morning I just had this unstoppable urge to express my femininity. Sometimes that comes out in a conservative long flowing skirt and peasant blouse, sometimes in a miniskirt and net hose. Today it came out in streetwalker garb’ (p.293). There’s a REALLY interesting thing to do with passing in this book, but I don’t want to spoil a big plot point in case you go on to read it – which you absolutely should, it’s bloody excellent.

Bobbi really embraces herself as a trans woman, something she remarks as being distinct from ‘genetic women’ – which is both problematic and progressive in the sense that it denies a societal level of authenticity, however, it also embraces what Sandy Stone called the notion of the ‘posttranssexual’ wherein someone could embrace their whole past in their new gender, and what Laverne Cox has said about ‘passing privilege’, stating that ‘I’m a woman. I’m passing as myself, I’m a woman, I’m a black woman, I’m a trans woman’. I think ‘passing as yourself’ is a key message seen within Transition to Murder, there are a number of non-passing trans women featured as strong, vibrant and likeable characters. Bobbi says: ‘I’ve concluded that I won’t ever be a woman like a genetic woman is a woman. I think no matter how completely I evolve, I will see the world as a trans woman, as someone who has lived half her life as male, then changed genders’ (p.229). Indeed, Bobbi often talks of how she and her former self, Bob, differ, but still uses him as a baseline from which to judge how she’s reacting to things, questioning whether a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real transwoman’ would feel and think the way she does (p.130).

I haven’t spoken about the crime thriller aspect of this book because I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but it’s really good – twisty, visceral and engaging. All of the characters are excellent, and whilst some of the points being made are at times over laboured, I think this generally fits with Bobbi’s slightly obsessive nature.

In other news, this week I painted the bathroom in my rented house, caring not a jot about my landlord’s thoughts on the matter, because it was rank and making me sad. I also reorganised a load more furniture, planted some seeds and tried to throw a block of freezer ice at the mouse that has apparently moved in. Oh, and I got a tattoo – the Deathly Hallows on my ribs because the parlour was offering it for £15 and I’m nothing if not a geek and a sucker for a bargain.

My plan for the week is to keep reading my long-list of thesis texts and maybe try to write about the two I spoke of here a little more formally. I really should email my supervisors and apologise for not sending that 1000 words, but I can’t make my brain do it and I’m a little ashamed, so I think I’ll probably just keep hiding until I have something worthwhile to show them.