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A Different Kind of Trans Book: On Imogen Binnie’s “Nevada”

A Different Kind of Trans Book: On Imogen Binnie’s “Nevada”

On Imogen Binnie’s Nevada.

It was a staff pick at a bookstore I frequented. That’s how the original 2013 edition of Imogen Binnie’s Nevada came into my possession. I wasn’t out as trans, even to myself, at the time. I would furtively read books about trans stuff in bookstores, including one awful book that said I was a bad person. I believed that for years.

Even books by trans people weren’t helping. They were mostly heroic memoirs, all with much the same story: She always knew she was a woman trapped in a man’s body, but after a series of trials and thanks to a friendly doctor, now she’s a woman! End of story. It never felt like my story.

Nevada was a very different kind of trans book. I felt no shame picking it up. Nothing about it screamed “transsexual!” Like the new reissue from FSG, the original edition had a pretty orange cover with a flower on it. Also: It was a novel. It wasn’t the first novel by a trans person, but it was the first that I and many other trans people encountered. As a novel, it made claims to being art. To be trans, it implied, could be related to art, too. Most extraordinary of all, it wasn’t written to appease or amuse a non-trans readership. It was written by a trans woman directly to other trans women, whether they’ve come out or not.

The structure of Nevada turns the standard trans memoir inside out. It starts with Maria, a trans woman who came out a few years before the story starts. It ends with her encounter with James, who has not come out, and might never, or at least not for a while. It cojoins two different states, before and after, leaving out the obsessive center of most trans books, the part that fascinates the wider public—the transition itself.

If you have transitioned, you don’t need a transition story. You have your own. What you need are books about how to live your life, after. The standard trans memoir has little to say about that. The story ends before we get to the part where transition makes your body livable and the rest of your life—not.

The protagonist of Nevada, Maria, is about four years out from transition. She thinks she is “doing trans” well. She keeps a blog where she writes about trans stuff for a small audience of other trans people. All in all, she has perfected a certain online pose: Being Right About Everything Trans. Books always nest in the media and communication culture of their times, whether they know it or not. Nevada is very knowing, conscious of the moment in trans culture, in the early 2000s where the Internet enabled an expansion of access and acceleration of development of an autonomous trans culture. From which came The Discourse, as trans people call it: the endless, unresolvable conversation in which we try to create our own meaning in a language that treats us as a weird anomaly.

The comedic tension in Nevada comes from the gap between Maria’s sense of doing trans well online, and how badly her offline life is going. In the opening sequences, she gets dumped by her girlfriend, loses her job, acquires a quantity of heroin, “borrows” her girlfriend’s car, and leaves New York, heading west. She’s a mess. In the second half, she meets James in a Nevada Walmart and clocks this young sales assistant as having gender trouble. The book shifts to James’s point of view, where we find that Maria is right—about that much, if not much more.

Shall I refer to James as he or she? I’m going with she, which is a reading which exceeds the words on the page. Either she will come out, or will remain James to the world, her gender kept in the closet. Not the least remarkable thing about Nevada is that the very thing that the whole narrative structure of trans memoir is meant to resolve is never resolved.

James is a very recognizable character to many trans women: She is dysphoric. The sex of her own flesh is getting in the way of her own life, and she knows it. Dysphoria is a hard thing to explain to people who don’t feel it. That relentless sense, sometimes acute, sometimes diffuse, that your own flesh is another sex to the one every single thing in the world keeps telling you it is supposed to be.

Where Maria is Right About Everything Trans from years of The Discourse, James is struggling to free herself from all the quack dogmas and cultural baggage—from sexologists, psychologists, pundits—inhibiting her from taking control of her life and her body. The book presents her inner monologue as she tries to perceive herself through that pathologizing language, which I won’t reproduce. James perceives herself as a specific kind of damaged pervert. Maybe she wants to perceive herself as such, as an excuse to not break free. Nevada has a subtle grasp on our complicity in our own oppression.

Maria tries and fails to get James to come out. Contrary to the language of transphobic panic, nobody can push you to transition if you’re not ready to jump. I wasn’t ready when I first read Nevada. And yet the novel still gave me something that helped me. It’s also a book about dissociation, about not being present for your own life. Both Maria and James suffer from it. Dissociation is hardly unique to trans people, but we do tend to be virtuosos of it.

Had I been ready to jump in 2013 I might have found the trans writing scene of which Nevada is one of the fruits. It came out from Topside Press, a newly formed trans publisher, who put out several of the landmarks in the “new trans lit” before shutting down, as small presses so often do. Topside was in turn part of the cultural expression of a post-Internet moment in the organizing of trans liberation.

Nevada is now often taken as the initiator of the new trans lit. A precursor, for example, to Torrey Peters’s brilliant and successful crossover novel, Detransition, Baby. That’s a book which, among many other things, takes over and develops Nevada’s use of a Brooklyn trans subculture as a literary landscape. Like any literature, trans lit develops inter-textually, as fresh writers read their precursors, develop, elaborate or push back against them. For instance, Peters’s book moves on from the “sad trans girl” figure that Nevada consolidated and offers the trans reader more to think about in terms of ways to move forward through one’s post-transition life.

I wonder what trans lit would look like if we took a starting point different from Nevada’s. Let’s think, for instance, of a contemporary trans lit that centers Juliana Huxtable’s 2017 book Mucus in My Pineal Gland. Like Nevada, this is a book by and about a trans woman, set between New York and an elsewhere (Texas), and set in an everyday life with a halo of Internet glow around it. What would be different is that it also centers nightlife, Blackness, trans women whose sexual attraction is to men, and a more experimental approach to form.

I want to try this thought experiment to ask what Nevada couldn’t, and still doesn’t, do in opening a space of literary possibility for trans culture. The Brooklyn milieu it evokes is one in which trans women have day jobs. It’s not the world of nightlife or the shadow economies where many trans women are still to be found, particularly those doing sex work. It’s not the trans world that has subtle and fraught connections to gay male homosexuality. Most of all, it doesn’t help us think about how the ways we inhabit gender are always connected to the ways we inhabit race.

None of which is the fault of Nevada, of course. An author works within the possibilities of what they know and feel, from experience and from literature. Binnie had a particularly fine grasp of the possibilities but also the limits of trans culture in the earlier years of this century. It is rather to say that trans lit, if there’s to be such a thing, still has work to do.

Trans culture is as segregated as the rest of America. Now that there’s a concerted effort in which fascists, misogynists, and right-wing feminists combine to push us back out of public life and into the demimonde, trans cultural solidarity work might be as important as political solidarity work.

The Topside edition was Creative Commons licensed, meaning it can be shared freely. It’s not hard to find a PDF of it on the internet. I hope Nevada continues to circulate in its new paperback form but also through informal gift economy of the transgender Internet. Beyond the noise of The Discourse, the trans Internet sometimes also has useful resources for coming out of our fugitive backstories.

At the New York launch of the reissue, I mentioned to another trans writer that I found Nevada because it was a staff pick in a certain bookstore. Turns out it was that trans writer’s trans writer ex who had picked it. Our world is still small. To be trans in 2022 feels particularly embattled. Fascists target us to mobilize hate across racial lines. Various liberal and progressive stakeholders now wonder out loud if we’re worth defending—including Hillary Clinton. We get used as a wedge issue to disorganize both feminism and gay liberation.

This is why it matters that we make our own culture, our own art. Topside Press didn’t last, but two of the people involved with it—Casey Plett and Cat Fitzpatrick—have started a trans press again. It’s called Little Puss. It has already reissued Topside’s last book Meanwhile, Elsewhere, an anthology of trans speculative and science fiction. Its first new book is Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Except My Rapist, by Cecilia Gentili.

The first time I heard one of Gentili’s astonishing stories was at my own book party, where she completely stole the show. Many of her stories are about her past in Argentina, where trans-ness emerges out of different cultural coordinates: a different history of colonization, different struggles to self-organize our lives. Her work performs the sort of decentering of the white trans experience that I find also in Huxtable.

Transsexuality magnifies the inequalities of race and class. It’s not so much an intersection as a multiplication. The liberal narrative of progress was that we too would be validated as rights-bearing subjects. That our right to be part of civic life would finally be accepted. But this barely extended beyond the capacity of a few white, educated, middle-class transsexuals (like me) to have a full-time job and a mortgage. For trans people of color, or cut off from family resources, little of that was ever real to start with. And it is now being aggressively rescinded.

That’s why it matters that we build our own culture. Make our own art. Tell our own stories. It matters that trans culture moves beyond the imaginary and emotional range of white trans experiences, and perhaps also beyond middle-class art forms like the literary novel.

Every trans woman I ever met is an artist of her own life. Let’s multiply all the ways we can document and celebrate that artistry.

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