Johnson believed that fiction should be drawn from one’s own life, which led him into a cul-de-sac but produced some interesting results: putting the unbound chapters of The Unfortunates in a box to decentralize the narrative and hint at life’s often random nature; going on a shipping trawler and then writing Trawl, raising questions about the validity of contriving an experience in order to document it. Is that fiction or journalism? Also, Johnson’s list of people who “write as though it matters” in Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? really inspired me. He included some familiar names—Beckett, Anthony Burgess, and several others—to explore.
I loved Ann Quin, partly because I lived in Brighton, where her dark psychological farce Bergwas set, but my favorite became Rayner Heppenstall. I read all eight of his novels and his several volumes of memoir: one about his friendships with George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and others; one about his time working for BBC Radio; another about his relationship to writing and politics. I enjoyed the humor, honesty, and self-criticism of his memoirs, but his semi-autobiographical fiction made an impression. I loved his prose style, laconic and lucid, but also his approach to subjectivity. It was hard to tell if his narrators were reliable or not. Sometimes their experiences occurred on several planes of time simultaneously; hallucinations, fantasies, and reality merged; in one case the narrator was blind, using touch and relentless speculation to compensate for his lack of sight.
RW Can you talk a bit about how Heppenstall challenged the memoir’s traditions? Can we draw any parallels to your work on Trans?
JJ Heppenstall raises questions about where memoir and fiction meet. His memoirs often explain the events in his novels and the processes behind their construction. In his second and best novel, Saturnine (1943), he revived the picaresque genre—an eighteenth-century convention in which the story is told first person “by a social parasite, rogue, picaroon, or anti-hero [with] no formal plot [but] episodes that follow each other serially.” He chose this style partly because of his circumstances. When he was enlisted by the Army, he could write in short bursts and publish it segment by segment (before compiling them). But he reinvigorated the genre by infusing it with contemporary social science.
Like Heppenstall, my choice of genre was circumstantial, made in response to a specific set of conditions. I wanted to repurpose the transsexual memoir that had fallen out of favor with the trans community, and use it to bring developments in gender studies, queer politics, and feminism over the last thirty years, as well as a wider history and culture, to a bigger audience.
RW “Fallen out of favor.” How so?
JJ The memoir was the main way in which transsexual people explained their experiences at length in the mid-twentieth century, when people such as Christine Jorgensen, Roberta Cowell, Michael Dillon, or Jan Morris attracted attention for their transitions—their books were ways to counter sensationalist media coverage and public confusion about the hows and whys of gender reassignment. By the late 1980s, though, this had become a genre, and writers such as Sandy Stone, Leslie Feinberg, and Kate Bornstein began to question its conventions. In particular, they queried the way that these authors represented—or failed to represent—space between “male” and “female,” suggesting that writers explore this terrain, viewing trans bodies as genres in themselves.
As a result, new types of trans writing emerged, more theoretical and political, placing individual experiences within wider contexts, using different forms. Bornstein created quiz books, plays, and performances; Feinberg wrote a novel and a history book; Stone used manifestos and wrote about the possibilities for gender play in early online networks. So there was a reaction against the memoir, but I felt it could still have its uses if done in the right way, especially as the theoretical works I mentioned were still read mostly in activist and academic circles, and contained ideas I felt could counter many of the problems with mainstream media.
RW One of your objectives for the Transgender Journey series was to write against the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to this narrative?
JJ I’d seen this phrase many times—in one-off newspaper articles outlining people’s transitions, and in the works of transgender theorists. In Gender Outlaw, Bornstein talked about the need for “new metaphors” to convey trans experiences. I understood why “trapped in the wrong body” had become a shorthand for the sense of gender dysphoria, of one’s body not being right for oneself, and why some people identify strongly with it. But I was aware from an early age that I could modify my body, so I never felt “trapped” by it.
RW You write, “What if we’re not trapped in the wrong body, but trapped in the wrong society?”
JJ With that statement, I wanted to put the focus more on a transphobic society that put up tremendous resistance to any deviation from traditional gender norms—something that I hope the memoir achieves. But it didn’t quite capture the reality of my relationship to my physicality, either. In the Guardian, I said it was more accurate to say that “I could only function if I relaunched the symbiotic relationship between my mind and body from a starting point that felt right,” but that’s more complex, and needed a long narrative around it. Hopefully, though, it got closer to defining that drive that led me through the process of gender reassignment.
RW “Confessional journalism.” Is the form inherently conservative?
JJ I think it’s problematic for all sorts of reasons. “Confessional” implies some sort of shame, and I think it can lead to some difficult positioning—editors keen for a writer to entertain, provoke or provide insight into unusual experiences; readers wanting a writer to go ever further in revealing something intimate or scandalous; writers trying to decide what to give away and what to retain. Once you put yourself in a position where everything that happens to you is potential material, all of your relationships and experiences potentially become warped. What do you do if your life just doesn’t generate sufficiently “interesting” material? Lie? Contrive things? Put yourself in harm’s way to make your copy more colorful?
But I don’t think it’s inherently conservative. It can lead to greater understanding of the challenges that minorities, or people put under pressure by the political system, face. First-person writing can offer insights into the workings of racism, homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny, government cuts to social services, and various others. I think there always needs to be an awareness of how the individual writer fits into a wider community though—which privileges they have, in particular.
RW This brings to mind Kimberlé Crenshaw, who when speaking about intersectionality pointed out that within activist movements, the voices of the most privileged usually dominate—examples being feminism being dominated by the interests of white females, or movements in anti-racism being dominated by male interests. Any comment?
JJ Absolutely. I’ve tried to keep in mind throughout that while there have been lots of difficulties that come with being trans, I also have lots of privileges—white, middle-class, university-educated, with access to journalistic circles and support networks. I’ve been acutely aware that most of the wave of trans writers who have appeared in the mainstream media over the last few years, myself included, have been white trans women. Based in or near London, more trans men and non-binary people are getting opportunities, but things are still lagging in terms of race and class. In the memoir, I talk a bit about how I tried to bring some other writers to the Guardian but didn’t have much luck in introducing people who didn’t fit the profile I’ve just mentioned.
It’s been interesting following things in the US. For a while, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock seemed the most prominent artist-advocates, and were bringing informed and intelligent perspectives to the mainstream. They still are, of course, but I hope the fame of Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t obscure that. Persuading cultural gatekeepers of the importance of an intersectional approach hasn’t always been easy.
RW In the book, and in your essays, you’ve acknowledged a tension between wanting to write experimentally or reflexively, and wanting to construct a more accessible kind of work to help evolve trans narratives. Now having produced for both mainstream media and smaller platforms, has your opinion changed on the role accessibility, or even visibility, plays in political work?
JJ The Guardian series was a direct intervention into mainstream culture, designed to use the site’s high level of accessibility. I targeted the Guardian because I knew just how many people in boring office jobs would read the website at work, stumbling across things they would never purposely look for in a library or watch on TV. So, I can see why people suggest that greater visibility always equals greater effectiveness, but things are far more complicated.
My heart is with avant-garde or “experimental” art, literature, film, and music. I targeted mainstream media as a way to fund my own efforts to create works in that vein before working out some political aims for that work. That avant-garde idea of trying to transform the world through art remains important, and radical spaces can generate and evolve ideas and tactics, some of which cross over into mainstream culture—and need to. Others don’t.
I get frustrated with attitudes to “experimental” art: firstly the conception that any experiments that “don’t work” render all such enterprises invalid; and secondly the idea that any work that cannot be understood by some hypothetical, often conveniently conservative “everyman” should not be produced. This completely fails to understand the many ways in which ideas can transmit themselves through culture. It’s not always a matter of something being directly received and immediately understood by everyone. Things can take effect in insidious and unpredictable ways. The stand-up comedian Stewart Lee—one of the biggest influences on my worldview, and on my memoir—talks brilliantly about that.
RW The memoir is due out shortly. Now that the writing is behind you, how are you feeling about sharing it with readers?
JJ I have mixed feelings. I did it mainly because I came to believe that no agent or publisher would let me do anything else until it was done.
I didn’t see the existential or political need when I started writing but gradually found it in the process. The narrative in the memoir ends in spring 2013, after two big scandals in British media coverage of trans issues, when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse. They didn’t, but the same battles started happening again—the transphobic feminist position starting pushing back toward that contested liberal-left “center ground” that I, and others, had tried to take. So it felt necessary to construct the book as a counterpoint to that—we’ll see how successful it is. I’m proud of the book itself, and if I think back to the eighteen-year-old me, struggling with my gender identity, it’s exactly what I’d want to read.
I think my issue might be with becoming a “trans spokesperson,” which really is the last thing I want to do. I got positioned as such after doing the column, and while I enjoyed some of the writing and speaking that came with it, and had some interesting experiences, it wasn’t where I’d ever wanted to be. I didn’t feel up to it, and eventually it burnt me out. So I’m doing my best to avoid a repeat occurrence after the book, thinking hard about what I agree to do and why, and trying to move towards a quieter, slower, more private way of working.
RW I can see where you are coming from. Sheila Heti took a question right out from under me [which appears in the book’s Q&A epilogue]: “Did you ever feel any resentment about having to write this book?”
JJ I’m glad you understand. Highlighting the problems with being culturally positioned like this without feeling like I’ve been ungrateful for the opportunities I’ve had, which previous trans writers didn’t, or generally sounding over-privileged, has been tough. I hope I struck the right note in the book. I was really glad that Sheila asked me about it in the epilogue, and that my editor let that question into the finished text. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book before in which the author explicitly says that s/he didn’t really want to write it, so I’m intrigued to see how that’s received.
RW I think what comes across is your honesty. And there’s no shame in presenting the truth… There’s a section in Trans where you’re speaking with a therapist who asks for your feelings toward your physical body. You tell them, “I want to escape it. I wish I could be a spirit.” That one line broke my heart. I’ve felt similar, and I think many can relate who have felt discriminated against on one level or another.
JJ I love that you were touched by that line. I still feel like that at times, though far less often now.
RW I was unaware you were friends with [writer and author] Huw Lemmey until I saw his name in the thank yous. I coincidentally had been emailing with him while I was reading Trans. He told me you two talk a lot about the climate for writers in London.
JJ I love Huw. He’s one of the best things on Twitter and always fascinating to talk to. I’ve enjoyed his articles as well as his book, Chubz, and he also created one of my favorite London landmarks. To earn money, he does commercial painting and got asked to paint a man eating a pizza on Vesuvio’s Pizza shop in Clapton. They didn’t mind who the man was, so he chose Antonio Negri. It was brilliantly strange, a little disturbing, and very funny. It’s still there, but eventually they obscured it with a canopy, sadly.
And yes, we talk a lot about the climate for writers in London, with the difficulty of affording rents in an unregulated and increasingly unreasonable market being central. So much of our creativity is defined by the way the city has been run since 2008—when the hardline conservative Boris Johnson became Mayor; the credit crisis happened; the Olympics were weaponized to step up the gentrification, aiming to replace artists who had come into the East End in the 1980s and 1990s with people working in finance in the City or Canary Wharf; or building luxury apartments to sell to overseas investors. Of course, people like Huw and I feel guilt at our involvement in this gentrification, especially in the district where we live, which is one of the worst affected, though it’s worth remembering that London has always housed artists moving from more conservative places, and this didn’t break up traditional communities when social housing policies still served to protect them. Lately, this gentrification has badly affected queer spaces, which people from small towns, such as Huw and me, have needed and come to cities like London to find. So, there’s this strange paradox for us—we try to be aware of the contradictions, knowing that we need to be in London to further our political and aesthetic aims, accessing and helping to sustain the creative communities and venues that the government hasn’t yet managed to destroy.
RW I’d like to rewind for a moment and go back to your influences. You mentioned that Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet were also big influences on the memoir. How so?
JJ I was taken by their dialectic between theory and practice. Robbe-Grillet suggested that each work must invent its own form and that a writer finds out why s/he writes by writing. In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes suggested how the choice of form was often a political act in itself. In Trans, I wrote about how I tried different projects with the aim of tackling transphobia: first a series of short stories, before I decided that challenging mainstream prejudice felt more pressing than “underground” work; then a pilot for a television series similar to Queer as Folk, before realizing that writing for TV would involve too many compromises and probably wasn’t within my capacity at that point. I had no links to the industry and the pace and intensity demanded by the medium contrasted too much with the narrative conventions I’d picked up from arthouse and avant-garde films.
I’d read a lot of novels without wanting to be a novelist. One thing that made a big impression was Sarraute’s essay The Age of Suspicion, where she wrote that she didn’t think contemporary readers could ever believe that protagonists were more than reflections of the author’s own personality. This led me toward first-person, autobiographical writing, and in trying to find interesting ways to handle that, I was drawn by the approach many nouveau roman novelists took to interior consciousness, often setting their works within the reflexive mind of their narrators, blurring the boundaries between that and reality.
I couldn’t experiment with reliability in the way that they often did—in memoir, the bond between writer and reader relies on the reader’s conviction that the writer is always being honest—but I brought in the ceaseless self-questioning that I found in Heppenstall and Sarraute, both of my place within wider societies and my own story. I also used dream sequences that dissolve on awakening and tried to think about the relationship between theory, writing, and living.
RW You have such a strong relationship with film, and—as you’ve said—we learn about attempts toward plays and film scripts in Trans. Do you have any further desire to try and write for the screen?
JJ I’d love to write for the cinema, though a problem in the UK is that our film culture is so conservative. It’s difficult to get anything made that’s not an adaptation of an existing book or play, though it’s not impossible. Something that has always put me off in the past is that if you write novels, plays, or poetry, you can always get it out in one way or another. If you write a screenplay and nobody will produce it, there’s not much you can do… hence François Truffaut telling young writers to do novels rather than film scripts.
RW Or, in your case, write about film. I loved I’m Too Sad To Tell You About I’m Too Sad To Tell You, the short fiction piece you wrote inspired by [Dutch-born conceptual artist] Bas Jan Ader—in this case, his films and work inspire the narrative. I find him endlessly fascinating…