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Girls Like Us

I want you to be in my writing. Maybe not you exactly. Someone like you. Will you like this version of you? Maybe not. Will you recognise this version of you, as you? I hope so. She has some of your qualities. I say she because you are a trans woman, and it’s something about trans women that I’m writing. Maybe you are central to it, or maybe incidental. Either way, you figure in the text. What makes me think I know anything about you? And what makes what I think I know something I can put in a piece of writing to which I own the rights?

 

As it happens, I’m a trans woman too. Yay for girls like us! We’re at the bar at Mood Ring. I buy us drinks. Once our server is out of earshot, we dish. I’m sorry you got harassed on the subway. That happened to me just last week. Oh, we saw the same surgeon. His office never returns your calls. It’s hilarious that we both fucked that other trans girl – she sure gets around. Ah, but you have some stories I don’t. Now, honey, tell me all about your pain.

 

Wait, something’s wrong here. If this is our shared story, why do I need you to tell it so that I can write it? Because of things we don’t have in common. I’m white, middle-class by origin, with a good education, living in an apartment my partner and I own. I transitioned late after securing a comfortable life. In a word: bourgeois. A bourgeois life brings relative freedom from pain. But it’s boring. This is the dilemma constitutive of bourgeois literature. So I look to you for a good story. I have the luxury of having feelings about other people’s feelings. To feel, but also to judge, at some remove. It will be your story, in my text – and my copyright. It’s the business of bourgeois literature to stake claims to property rights over others’ pain.

 

I don’t know that a book can even make a claim to be political without facing up to what Marx called the property question. The bourgeois author pretends to have come across border lands in his imagination and plants his flag, when really there were other people living and telling their own stories there all along. One remedy is to extend ownership to more claimants to authorship. I’m all for this. Cis women writers have taken back their stories from those big swinging literary dicks; let’s have more books by Black authors, disabled authors, trans authors. But this just extends the same bourgeois property logic into the margins – and, all too often, with less money involved. It’s also a proposition that can get flipped around: sure, trans writers can write about trans pain, but then only that. Cis writers will continue to write as unmarked subjects, with ownership over the big universal stories, such as gender. Including your gender. Take David Foster Wallace, the last big swinging dick of Great American Novelising. Infinite Jest has a trans story in it. I don’t recommend it.

 

We met at Melting Point, as we both have a taste for the really hard techno of trans DJ Jane Angmar. You told me about a great idea for a book, based on your sex work experience. I sat you down and talked you through the art of making a book proposal while nail gun beats pierced our intestines. Will your book ever be proposed? Would you ever get a contract? Would you get to finish it? Hard to say. You had the moxie to get all your surgeries paid for on public health. The contradiction is that to write about pain in good bourgeois form takes painless days. It is as if, in literature, there is a class that suffers, and another that recuperates suffering as bankable literary labour — and a third class that accumulates pain as profit.

 

I want to write about your pain. Do you take Venmo, PayPal or Cash App? It’s curious how in bourgeois culture it’s not respectable to pay people for pain, in much the same way that it’s not respectable to pay people for sex. There’s a slippage from ‘it ought not to be a commodity’ to ‘I won’t pay for it’. The origin of bourgeois property is always to take something – land, labour, love, stories – without return. As if it were the proper thing to do.

 

Behind the story in the book is the story in the press release. Bourgeois literature needs the alibi of content: what has value is the authentic life described; not the description, not the form. That art is artifice is somehow disturbing, like counterfeit goods. Bourgeois literature needs to invoke the real. But whose? It likes to reward writers who are pimps of their own pain. That way, it seems as if nobody else was exploited for it. It’s popular now for bourgeois authors to have it both ways, as subject and object of the literary commodity. To be both the authentic sufferer and the artist who provides the form for that suffering’s expression. This can create a novel kind of scandal. In classic bourgeois fiction like Les Misérables, an upstanding character might fear the exposure of a criminal past. In our times, a writer of bourgeois non-fiction like James Frey gets doxed for not having one. It’s a risk, but there’s a payoff. A successful claim to pain is good collateral. If a bourgeois writer’s pain-story holds up, she can use it to regard the pain of others, on a franchise model. We get this from cis women a lot: I have suffered from the patriarchy so let me tell you tranny bitches what’s wrong with you!

 

It was you who showed me that piece by a cis woman who used her cosmetic surgery as the legitimating pain-story upon which to bank judgements on trans women like you whose dysphoria led you to go under the knife for facial feminisation. And her defence? Trans women are women, she said, parroting one of our slogans. Claiming that it’s a cis woman’s right to decide we are women is not that different to transphobic feminists who claim a right to decide we are men. Either way, it makes our lives their property. But then: even as a trans woman, do I have any more claim to your story than they do?

 

I’m so glad you and I can meet in this Brooklyn coffee shop and bitch about the bad cis takes. My pain, or yours, is specific to my body, or your body, but we can understand each other’s stories, if we listen, if we share, if we are vulnerable to each other. To judge is to close off one’s own woundedness to the other. I would love it if cis women wrote about girls like us like this. But they’d have to recognise us as sisters, as also having insights into womanhood that could be curious, surprising, that could inflect what it could be or could become.

 

You are often in cis people’s books, fiction and non-fiction alike, as a narrative device or alibi for cis people’s desires and anxieties about their gender. In her study of literary modernism, The New Woman, Emma Heaney shows how writers from James Joyce to Djuna Barnes chased after the trans-femme character as the emerging field of sexology had pegged you, and turned that clinical fiction into an allegory for the promise or problem of gender in the modern world. Gender-variant characters still work as this kind of prop in what Casey Plett calls the contemporary gender novel. The Danish Girl, for instance. It’s all about who you are to cis people; it’s never about who you are to us, to your t-girl sisters.

 

Writing our own books isn’t always the solution, and not just because we know we will be relegated to being marked subjects. There are two other problems. There’s the content problem: we too are caught in the contradiction of either trading on someone else’s pain, or on our own – and becoming spokesmodels for our kind. Just because I too am trans doesn’t give me rights to tell your face surgery story.

 

Then there’s the form problem. The trans writer, as much or even more than a cis one, is bound by literary conventions. Those conventions in turn are templates for the stories of modern life, of which gender is a biggie. At the trans-lit conference I hosted, you laid out for us how in wrestling with these tensions, trans writing passes through four stages, in a sort-of dialectic, driven by the contradiction between the marginality of our experience and the dominant cultural forms available to hold them.

 

In the first stage, an emerging trans-lit presents your experience as just a curiosity within a universal story of gender as cis people already understand it, without your story much modifying the universal. This is the genre of the trans memoir. Your character is that of the solitary trans girl heroine. The story turns on medical transition as the point where you come into your truth, become a woman, like any other. Jan Morris’s Conundrum is a finely written example. The gender novel written by cis people often acquires our pain second-hand from this genre.

 

In the second stage, your character is punky, transgressive, oppositional. Sandy Stone called this our counter-literature. From Jayne County’s Man Enough to Be a Woman to Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, these books try to negate the universality of cis gender norms, but at the risk of becoming their mirror image. Unlike in the first-stage memoirs, here you are frank about sex, and are a gender rebel rather than a conformist, but the universality of cis gender remains the norm against which you are legible.

 

The third stage came with Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, and took the form of a string of sad trans girl novels, deeply interested in the particulars of your life among other girls like us, with as little interaction with the cis world as possible. In this intentionally minor literature, we neither conform to, nor oppose, the universality of cis gender. We live in a world of our own. Casey Plett’s Little Fish and Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars are very fine examples.

 

The fourth stage addresses the universal again, but modifies it by making the particularity of your pain expand the bounds of gendered being beyond cis norms. This writing claims the totality of gendered life as within the literary scope of you as a marked subject. That’s the wager of Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, where the narrative hinges on what trans and cis characters decide to do together about a pregnancy. At stake is what the family could become when you are a part of it. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness opened this path, its title hinting at a revision of what gender might be for everyone, as well as naming the narrative goal of its trans protagonist.

 

All four moments in the trans-lit dialectic deploy conventional bourgeois literary forms and have some relation to the existing literary market. The classic memoirs and their spiky antitheses are books aimed at the commercial book trade, to mostly cis readers. The third moment wasn’t. Those sad trans girl books use conventional literary forms, but are from small presses, address girls like us, and are published as queer genre fiction. The fourth stage challenges the cis gender story by bringing the details of shared trans pain from the third stage back into the main literary area.

 

There are always strands missing from a dialectic, that don’t fit its big-picture story. There’s at least two margins to the trans-lit dialectic, a high and a low. The high strand is the avant-garde trans poets. Your other-craft intrigues me, but it’s not how I write. Your story can be found in the Troubling the Line anthology. The low margin to the trans-lit dialectic, which you probably don’t want me to talk about, is your old LiveJournal, or Tumblr, or your zines. Or Byrn Kelly’s amazing blog-post personas. Or the piece you read at the open mic at Metropolitan Bar that made me cry. Writing we do freely for each other as a gift, even if some landlord of the real or virtual world is collecting the rent without any of us even getting a cut.

 

This para-literature is often bad. Its purpose isn’t always literary, it’s cultural. It’s there to share our pain, and occasionally even our joy. Sometimes it’s really good but untutored, raw. Even your white, middle-class t-girl ass got thrown off the path of proper schooling. You never had that room of your own to perfect the craft. Sometimes it’s very conventional: your standard anecdote as story, or confessional poem. Sometimes it’s something else.

 

There, in the margins of the trans-lit dialectic, I found you. And your writing, which refuses to be owned by either the textual forms of bourgeois literature, or its means of circulation. You are not a fifth stage in the unfolding of trans-lit, but where it goes sideways. You experiment with all the possible formal solutions to putting us into prose, but also all of the kinds of literary community we might want as well. A place to work on some hard problems. Such as: what, if any, are your obligations to your sisters?

 

I confess, I have skin in the game. My little book Reverse Cowgirl is trans autofiction – a term I’ll get to in a sec. You weren’t in it, as it was mostly about my pre-transition life. Different questions of obligation arose. Now I’m writing another book about trans shit. As much as I respect the girls who can do it, I lack the talent to write it using bourgeois literary forms. I only do one kind of writing – bad. But this time you are in it, so you are on my mind. By you I mean: The girl with whom I drank wine, in her bed, after we fucked. The girl who pulled down her pants to show me how to inject oestrogen into the butt muscle. The girl I took to lunch because I admire her work, who jumped straight into the most intimate kiki. The girl who I fed while she recovered from bottom surgery. I watched while she dilated in case she popped a hematoma. And so on. You gave of yourself to me, and gifts oblige.

 

Some possibilities might lie in decisions about form. In the first instance, literary form: the way a text is structured, the conventions it accepts or flouts, the way it negotiates with readerly expectations. The form that I think I can make work for you is autofiction. This became a legit genre when some cis-het white dude published a big fat load of it. The term is also used willy-nilly to dismiss books, mostly by women, that seem to draw close to what critics imagine is the writer’s life. This takes agency away from the writer as marked subject, as if she is vainly documenting her pain and not doing literature – not judging others. It’s a term that needs some rescuing.

 

‘Autofiction: fiction of strictly real events or facts,’ wrote Serge Doubrovsky, who coined the term. It usually features a character with the author’s name and tells of that character’s world. It’s not autobiography in the heroic tradition of Rousseau and Stendhal. It is not a confession of the self or attempt at self-knowledge. Autofiction came after Freud showed our opacity to ourselves.

 

Autofiction is the literature where the marked self – marks itself. The writer marked by gender, sexuality, race, is supposedly cut off from universality. For a long time, it was the white guys who got to stake claims on the big stories, or occasionally women or non-white cis people if they could pass as bourgeois. The unmarked subject can narrate any particular person’s pain because they own the universality of the pain of being human. The author of this kind of major literature, usually now a good liberal, abides by the words of Terence, as updated as an end-user agreement by some tech conglomerate: ‘nothing human is alien to my claim to make it my intellectual property.’

 

Autofiction doesn’t have a canon, but it does have certain cracked-spine classics that you gave me. It’s the writing of marked subjects: Colette, Genet, Duras. It’s not incidental that Doubrovsky is Jewish and survived wartime France. Some are gay cis men: Guillaume Dustan, Hervé Guibert. In American writing, Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus or Diane Di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik now read as autofiction. It’s for writers who never could quite place themselves in the big stories of their era, and perhaps that’s why it has emerged from the margins in this time which has lost confidence in any grand narrative.

 

Autofiction doesn’t solve the problem of making your story my property, but it does bring the problem into the text. It makes no claims to revealing hidden truths. It’s fiction. But the self that is present in it is the author. I am here, in the writing, out of a sense of obligation, that if I tell any of your stories – that’s on me.

 

There’s another literature that I’m drawn to, and draw on, which has another tactic of use here on the property question: new narrative. It came from Bay Area American writers, gay or gay-adjacent: Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, and Kevin Killian. It traverses the emergence of an out gay culture, the beginnings of the AIDS pandemic, and the reconstruction of gay life that still endures it. I love the forms of literary friendship and sociality it erects out of sexual glamour, to ‘exchange affections and linguistic treasures,’ as Bruce Boone put it. Its writers are in each other’s books, as are people who didn’t get to write books, or who didn’t even get to live. There’s generative tension between the avarice of authorship and the ambience of a collectively made literary space, one that includes non-writers.

 

It is from both of these literatures that I draw formal tactics for writing you into my text. Not perfect, but it’s better than just saying: because I too am a trans woman, all your stories are mine. In the list of iterations of you that I might write, there’s you who are Black, you who do sex work, you who were homeless, you who were raped, you who are HIV positive, or even just you who shape your trans-ness in ways incompatible with mine. I’m present in the text in the singular, to make legible that any free and indirect take on you, in the plural – is on my account.

 

If I take the gifts you give me of your pain, I want to acknowledge, in the text, that I do the taking. If I write something and you are in it, I want you to read it, to hear it. I want to read and hear what you write, what you say. I want there to be a community of trans readers and writers. And there is, of sorts. Even when we can’t meet in bars for an open mic, it’s Substack newsletters, Instagram stories, trans Twitter, you sliding into my DMs.

 

The big publishers will pick who they think they can sell to a cis readership. Some will come from deep in our community and some not, and honestly: good luck to any sister who cashes an advance. But I want to keep writing with my trans sisters (and brothers, and others). It’s one of the few cultural spaces where we can share the gift of our quirky lives with each other. It’s where I met you.

 

It was at the other trans open mic, at Branded Saloon. The readings were endearing, moving; some good writing, some bad. Then you got up and we were called into attention. You didn’t give us the words we expected, or the feelings that would follow as if naturally. We had to draw back a little and hear the words themselves. We could turn them over and see what was on the other side of them. Which was an idea about language, a form for saying something, trans-to-trans, and also a feeling, one we didn’t know we could have.

 

Your reading wasn’t the hit of the evening, but it resonated. You shared your weed vape with me on the pavement while I fan-girled and flirted. No dice. We became writer friends instead. Sometimes opening an envelope containing your manuscript is as good as taking off your dress.

 

There are other writers like you, but you are rare. I’m going to take, not pain, but form from them. T. Fleischmann doesn’t shape their gender the way I do, but their book Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through writes a kind of sociability and a kind of aesthetics that’s lived, intimate, erotic, but also discreet in a way new narrative is not. Unlike cis gay men, you might not want to say whether you have a dick, let alone how big it is. It’s a book that is generous, both to those whose gifts it receives, and in the gifts it bestows.

 

You could read Juliana Huxtable’s Mucus in My Pineal Gland as poetry or as autofiction prose. The prose swings, as we found that time I lay on your bed performing the title piece while you improvised jazz chords. The self that addresses the reader is clockable as Juliana. The situations she traverses meddle real and imaginary, from hook-ups with white boys in suburban Texas to the delirium of New York nightlife. The surviving and thriving tactics of a Black trans woman are corporeal and psychic all at once, in and against this cracked-mirror funhouse America.

 

Porpertine Heartscape’s Psycho Nymph Exile finds a form and a language where several kinds of pain concatenate: the dysphoric t-girl body, scraping by on precarious labour, palpating flesh-memories of trauma, sexual or otherwise. Out of raver, gamer and anime haunts it hallucinates a language where your dissociated self might begin to be, with others of our kind, in the world.

 

The interlocking gentrifications of the city, queer culture and bourgeois literature are the material for Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door. Its autofictional narrator is a queen cruising the bars and parks of Seattle, looking for sex and connection. She asserts her freedom to be a wandering femme body in public, in queer culture, and on the page, against the suburbanising influence of affluence on all three.

 

I want to acknowledge all the trans writers in my library and in my life as bringers of particular gifts. You – the various you – who gave me all sorts of things. Besides your writing, your other offerings of trust, mouth, stash, touch, pain. I hope to return the gift. It’s tricky, as we live in a world that wants to make everything transactional, where it’s those who most need it who get cut off first. I put money in your GoFundMe, over and over. It’s not enough. Charity is not communism.

 

Maybe you’d want to modify the universality of communism a bit. Maybe we trans girls have a particular gift even for that. When we’re done with it, it’s not communism but femmunism. The munis in there, also in the simple word community, is the part we pool and present to our Gods, that we might belong together. Our Gods are all of us, all our sisters, past, present and future, as a messy totality. A totality each of us modifies by being part of it. Or not. Here again, in the margins, are moves that refuse inclusion, that go sideways, but I’ll get to that.

 

You have more to give the cis than they are yet ready to receive. If we are to make a world in which we all have the autonomy to make our own bodies, then how about an art of all the ways we need and want that? Few know the gendered body as you do. Let’s make an art for us, but also an art that shows the cis what we know and feel, that can connect to what they want for their bodies too. That would be to write into existence, not just in texts but in flesh, our femmunism, in and against a world that still hates us, and that is dominated by a bourgeois culture to which most of us will never belong.

 

I do, though. I’m solidly bourgeois, if by New York standards, hardly rich. I’m part of the trans one percent. When we lunch, I get the check. Sisters are so broke! You got thrown out of home, school, work. Class divides us. The thing bourgeois literature is most discreet about is class. The novels and autofiction of Chris Kraus are scandalous not because they talk about sex but because they talk about money.

 

Back in the summer of 2019 I travelled uptown to a Harlem public library to hear Black trans people talk about the legacy of New York trans legend Marsha P. Johnson. The main political point, you all agreed, was to demand the right to not die. You spoke of not being safe at home, or on the street; of attack, arrest, incarceration.

 

Then in the summer of 2020, a few months into the pandemic, the demand that Black Lives Matter erupted into the streets. For an event called Brooklyn Liberation for Black Trans Lives, fifteen thousand people came. This is another kind of writing, whose words are bodies, whose pages are streets. A writing that breaks sideways not only from the formal white agendas of queer institutional culture, but from any possible trans femmunism that hasn’t confronted how race cleaves us. To transition not only within the cis world but also within anti-Blackness is to tempt the whole world to murder. When Juliana Huxtable was asked about the nastiest shade she had ever thrown, her answer was: ‘Existing in the world.’

 

Transition helps a lot with your fucked-up gender, but I don’t have to tell you – it can also fuck your life. You just run into a wall of pain inflicted by a cis world that on bad days wants you dead and on a good day tolerates or patronises you. Being white and bourgeois spares me most but not all of that. History is what hurts, as Fred Jameson said, but it hurts you a lot more than me. I know. I was there when you felt like taking your own life.

 

There are things girls like us don’t talk about in front of the cis. That’s a double bind, though. Anything you say or write about how raw you are can be used to vilify all of the sisters. And at the same time, you are constantly accused of not being frank with the world about who you are. There’s no ‘free speech’ for us. Anything you say will be used against you, usually in the court of Twitter.

 

We’re at the point where our best prose writers bring our pain into the picture of gendered pain as a totality, and modify how that can be felt, beyond where the cis have felt and formed it. But to do so is to work within bourgeois literary forms, and markets. Another path, on the margins, is not to escape the bourgeois property form in literature, as that isn’t possible without the abolition of the world of which it is a part. Rather, it’s to articulate the problem of pain as property within the text and within the community of gifts and obligations that is trans writing we do for each other.

 

I chose the second path, the irony of which being that I can write outside of the more marketable bourgeois literary forms because in class terms I’m already bourgeois. I am freed from being the entrepreneur of my pain, or yours. My money came from elsewhere. From the accumulated theft from others that compounds as both bourgeois and white.

 

There’s something to be said at least for the bourgeois writer who foregoes equivocation, who acknowledges that literary form is the amusing double of the property form. To push a bit further: what if you – the not only various, but divergent you – can only enter literature as yourself if that writing is prepared to acknowledge also that in your full being, you would abolish it?

 

I wrote to you, in the second person, to invoke your presence in your absence. To address, among other things, your femmunism, which might in its fullness only ever appear with the abolition of literature as an extractive industry for pain. You are a metonymic fragment of a writing that doesn’t exist and that you would make, together, otherwise. Writing from a world that is always to come, that may never come, or that comes only when you cum, if you even can. A world whose writing would no longer need me or my form-torquing work-arounds.

 

Any writing about girls like us now works in a mediated world where we are more visible than in the past, only making it easier for those who hate us to clock us and attack us. Generating yet more pain to extract for the derivative culture markets. But it is also a world in which trans liberation is not as marginal an idea as it once was, and where Black trans leadership breaks with business as usual, be it cultural or political.

 

As it turns out, the more heavily marked a subject you are, the more, in a kind of dialectical rebound, your pain reverberates back against the structures of the totality of modern, commodified, spectacular, carceral life and death, not to modify but to shatter it. Abolition is a long, long road. Until then, my part in your pain is a small one, but I’m here. I’ll stand by you. I’ll hold you.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author of A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, and The Beach Beneath the Street, among other books. She teaches at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. Her latest book is Sensoria.

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