Transitions is a stand-out anthology of short fiction showcasing trans and non-binary writers from the UK. The eight stories were selected through the inaugural JKP Writing Prize for trans and/or non-binary writers; the contest theme was ‘the trans everyday’. Thematic premise aside, the collection offers refreshing and innovative contemporary short story writing.
The stories featured in Transitions are striking on two levels: prose quality and subject matter.
The quality of the writing is, first and foremost, consistently superb. The authors tell their stories with an ease that belies the complexity of their topics. All first-person narratives, the stories frequently break the fourth wall, narrators slide in authorial intrusion with an ease that’s not off-putting but underscores their comfort with the act of storytelling. This ready familiarity with the reader renders the stories more compelling; more personal and intimate.
But what’s most compelling about the collection is the consistently innovative nature of the subject matter. Sabah Choudrey, one of the judges, observes in the introduction that a goal of the collection was to move beyond the stories of pain and trauma that so typically comprise trans narratives. “We, as trans, non-binary and genderfluid people, know that our stories are often portrayed as negative, painful or heart-breaking. That might be what we carry every day but it isn’t our lives every day. We are more than that.” The collection underscores this point, acknowledging an often painful undercurrent of tension and precarity yet dwelling above all on the joy that comes from authenticity, solidarity, and fellowship.
The opening story “We Are Everywhere”, Tash Oakes-Monger’s contribution, hurls this theme at the reader with a barrage of vignettes that celebrate the joy of found family and queer mutual support. What may be forfeited in the loss of obstinate relatives and narrow-minded neighbours is compensated for in the depth of understanding that comes from the camaraderie of fellow queers.
Edward Whalen’s “Bits and Pieces of Myself” engages with the dissonance between mind and body that can accompany transition. It’s a truism that everyone’s mind and body are on different trajectories over the course of a lifetime, but the transformative processes of transition–hastened by hormones and surgery–can impact the relationship between mind and body in unique ways. Whalen reflects on a lifetime’s struggle to work on the relationship between the two; a work that is ever in progress.
Den Casey’s moving narrative “An Eagle at Sunset” reflects on the gender journey of a non-binary lesbian in their 60s. As they prepare to get their first tattoo, they reflect on the need for visibility as non-binary. From the challenges of a Christian upbringing to the rewards and difficulties of life in the very binary lesbian commune to which they used to belong, coming to terms with their identity has been a fraught process at both a personal and public level. The tattoo is an effort to grapple with “the problem of having to endlessly come out to people, to endlessly explain, and to have to fight over and over again to make myself visible as a non-binary lesbian, when everyone around me seems to want to push me back into a box they feel comfortable with.”
Kirrin Medcalf’s “Walk in My Shoes” involves precisely that: a walk through a landscape in which history, geography, and identity merge. In the same way that geographies and landscapes often hide multiple patterns of habitation and settlement across time, so do the politics and practices of today obscure complex identities that have always existed, however much the gatekeepers of social norms might wish to deny it.
Indeed, history is replete with remarkable stories of gender non-conforming people, underscoring the undeniable existence of trans and gender-fluid identities across the breadth of human history. Medcalf’s gorgeous, fluid prose works to elucidate the connectedness between our physical landscapes and the landscapes of culture, history, and language in which gender fluidity has always existed.
Trees in a hollow are trees in a hollow no matter the name, but the difference between a dell, a dingle and a valley can also be as wide as the forested gaps they describe. Words are useful to pass information on to a fellow traveller, perhaps to locate the site of a fallen tree barricading the path or a fruitful patch for foraging. But to hold one description as truer than the other, or as exactly the same, denies the chance to delight in the nuanced differences located in every term. Each is as rooted in the land and time they spring from as are the people that speak them.– Kirrin Medcalf, “Walk in My Shoes”
Danielle Hopkins’ “The One That No One Talks About / Alice What’s the Matter?” offers a moving first-person account of a difficult gender reassignment surgery, which led to infection and complications. While patients are always warned of potential complications and side effects, it’s the ‘success stories’ that are usually centred in transition narratives. Hopkins engages with an honest and open exploration of a more complex experience that’s just as important to reflect upon.
No one really speaks about things not going right after Gender Reassignment Surgery. Sure, the potential danger and complications are spelt out before surgery and when you give consent. However, from those who have gone through it, there is usually an expectation that everything is ‘pink fluffy clouds’ and a culmination of their life’s work to achieve that which has eluded them for so long…Trans people fight so many things. We fight our minds, our body, for our right to change, our right to be, our right to have equal rights, our right to be accepted and our right to be free. This fight is just another in a very long list of things to overcome…– Danielle Hopkins, “The One That No One Talks About / Alice What’s the Matter?”
In “Banana”, Harry Mizumoto grapples with the way in which gender fluidity strains against the limits of our methods of communication. Translating languages means confronting shifting pronoun structures; photography means grappling with the varying ways light and shadow can obscure or exaggerate parts of the body. Even hairstyles and literature involve fraught and imperfect efforts to communicate something beyond the obvious.
“How do you write about something you don’t have the words for – something that specifically defies language?” they ask. “There’s a language in me I’m trying, itching, reaching to free. I just need to learn the words.”
Kole Fulmine’s “Torso” offers a similarly eloquent exposition of their relationship with the eponymous body part, depicting the act of putting on a binder in exquisite, breathtaking detail.
Ezra Woodger’s “My Amazing Mostly Monochrome Dreamcoat” closes the collection by picking up the theme of a found family. The dreamcoat in question is a patched-up punk jacket. A magnet for fascist bullies and transphobes and a beacon for the gender non-conforming, the jacket serves as a conduit concentrating the best and worst attitudes of those around him.
Initially, Woodger embraces his confrontational imagery as a challenge to those around him–”[hatred] was easier to deal with if I could see it happening… Putting on the jacket was putting on armor.” But it’s in the grateful reaction of a nervous young trans kid to his jacket that he realizes: “the real reason I wore it everywhere I went wasn’t to catch transphobes in the act, although that was a bonus of sorts. I realized I could be the person that made people feel safe. I could be exactly the kind of man I needed growing up. And that was worth all the harassment and awkward encounters in the whole world.”
Transitions is an exceptional collection that deserves recognition both for the quality of the writing as well as the provocative themes the writers engage. The diversity of its authors adds, no doubt, to the creative potency of their contributions. Some of the authors are rooted in the creative arts: Mizumoto is a writer and artist and a co-ordinator of the non-profit queer publishing house and art collective, POLARI Print; Woodger is also a writer and poet. Oakes-Monger balances their poetry and writing with work in LGBT health care. Casey also has a background in health care, as does Medcalf, who’s worked in the areas of sexual health, trans youth support, and violence survivors’ advocacy.
Fulmine meanwhile comes from an academic background, combining their work as a doctoral student with a career as a personal trainer. The others bring an array of activism and other experiences to their work. The diversity of their backgrounds helps fuel the singular insights they each bring to their creative efforts, combining an eclectic array of life experiences with the creative capacity to dream, interpret, and hope.
What the slim volume lacks in length it more than makes up for in the richness of its prose and ideas. While the authors don’t shy away from the often difficult realities of their life experiences, the difficulties recede as the joy and beauty found living an authentic and creatively infused life comes to the fore. As Woodger observes in his story’s closing:
“Sometimes pride isn’t smashing a bottle through the Houses of Parliament. Sometimes it’s making your own home, just for a moment, and through it you can find your own family.”