In January 1948, M.C. Escher created what would become one of his many masterpieces: “Drawing Hands.” The piece depicts two seemingly three-dimensional hands anchored by their wrists to a piece of paper on which each hand appears to draw the other.
I kept the image of “Drawing Hands” everywhere as The Lost Daughter Collective took shape, and its influence on the structure of the book is pretty obvious: if we had to boil it down, the book is the enactment of two stories telling each other. I adopted this structure in order to write a book in which it was made clear that third person point of view was unreliable. I was interested in exploring the ramifications of trusting narrators who have their stories wrong. I wanted to investigate how those stories become unexamined, unquestioned, calcify as fact. Of course, I could not know that this would be so timely here in the opening months of 2017. I wish it were not so timely. I wish that this book’s questions and concerns were not suddenly urgent and necessary. But perhaps the lesson here is that while writers linger vestigial or in some cases haunt their books, texts are elastic transactions among minds and between bodies and throughout time. As the Room Scholar puts it in The Lost Daughter Collective, “Just as we think we can tell the foreground from the back, the inside from the out, the mother from the daughter, we think we tell our stories. But I am here to tell you: our stories tell us.”
One of the book’s major uptakes is gender politics and gender identity, and one of the ways this takes shape is through a child who decides to transition from a daughter to a son. You can see I am speaking here from the vantage point of a parent, and that is not incidental. A child very close to me transitioned, and I have channeled my experiences into this book in order to ensure stories like this get told. Because when children exercise gender fluidity or gender creativity, it is the adults around them that must do the work of sanctioning and supporting. Too often in my lived experience and in the news, these desires are dismissed as mere play. But for trans youth, these desires are the opposite of play. For trans youth, the childhood/adulthood binary is collapsed as children and their support systems are faced with decisions about body modification and hormone therapy that bind the future with the present. This is not play; it is work. It is a demanding kind of adolescence, one in which coming out is prioritized over simply becoming, the real task of youth. Or perhaps not: perhaps the actual task of youth is simply to be, an is that performs a healthy stasis prior to launching us into that time called The Rest of Our Lives.
There is a growing body of literature on children who adopt gender fluidity, but this literature seems firmly rooted in three genres: memoir, handbooks, or children’s lit. When I was working through the complexities of helping a child I loved transition, I tried to look to literary fiction, but those searches came up empty. And when I delved into the books I could find, what I witnessed was carefully parceled lessons in acceptance. What I needed—what I had hoped I might find—was a book that captured something of the experience. The experience of transition from its three major angles: legal, medical, and social. The surreal, emotionally charged work of giving hormone injections, caring for the sutures after surgery, adopting a new pronoun, legally changing a name. The uncanny feeling of time bearing down on you as the child grows up, so that you always feel every step is at once too early and too late.
Like M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands,” for trans children and the people supporting them, the past and present, childhood and adulthood, play and work, beginning and end, gesture inescapably toward each other. Unfortunately, there are few if any narratives that capture the obfuscating logic of this phenomenon. Perhaps this is not a surprise; to put it simply, it is an experience that’s exceedingly difficult to language. But for adults who know, work with, or love a transgender child, the gaps in the literature are a problem. This is a narrative that needs to be voiced and—more important—needs to be read, in order to widen the scope of the human story. As scholar Jody Norton puts it, “It is partially for the sake of these children—that their moral and material existence not be denied—and partially for the sake of our other children’s education toward joyful acceptance and compassionate inclusion of their trans sisters and brothers that we must both create and acknowledge their presence in literature.” I would take this call to action—“that we must both create and acknowledge” adolescent gender creativity—one step further, requesting that we “acknowledge” and “create” not only through character representation, but also through narrative mode. We need to introduce more stories that acknowledge trans identity—particularly trans youth—and we need to do so through structures that more carefully consider this experience, representing it in all its complexity and not merely as a marginal mention or a convenient plot twist. To put it more succinctly: We need more literary fiction that features and celebrates gender creative youth.
And so, The Lost Daughter Collective attempts to destabilize the binaries—girl/boy, of course, but also adult/child, work/play, future/past, fact/fiction—in order to assume a literary practice that not only supports but sanctions bodies and experiences and narratives that occupy liminal spaces.
It is my hope that The Lost Daughter Collective asks—and asks loudly, particularly in this moment, this very exact moment of March 2017, when voices and bodies are being silenced and violated and ignored: Whose stories do we trust? Why do we trust them? What happens when we are made to believe one story over another? For it is time to be questioning narrators and it is time to be listening to voices that have gone unheard.
I have been asked what is at stake in writing this story, a story that—as a cisgender person—is not inherently mine. But I think a better question might be this: what is at stake in leaving these stories unwritten?
“For those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate,” Umberto Eco says. And James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.”
(Photo credit: Emily Beeson, via Morguefile)