Gender, Cisgender, Transgender
Gender has always been a complex and sensitive subject. Many of us grew up in the traditional setup, where gender is defined by the organs one is born with. At an early age, it was inculcated into our systems that we are either a male or a female. Where gender is concerned, there are no gray areas. But as we grow up and explore the world, we begin to understand that things are not always black and white. As we familiarize ourselves with terms such as homosexuality, bisexuality, lesbianism, transgenders, transsexuals, to name a few, we realize that gender is nothing but a construct, a box created to rationalize the mundane. The discourse on gender then expands to sexual orientation, a term coined to provide definition to the the gray areas beyond the limits of gender. With gender norms ever expanding, one grows curious of how the experiences vary across the spectrum.
In her debut novel, Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters endeavored to provide the general reading public a vivid portrait of these spaces. Set in New York City, Detransition, Baby introduced three characters – Reese, Ames/Amy and Katrina. Reese is a transgender woman who was born and raised in the Midwest. She used to work as a waitress at a Madison diner before deciding to move to the Big Apple. In New York City, she managed to achieve the stability that she has been yearning for. It was also New York City that she first met Amy, a fellow transgender woman who later on became her girlfriend. Proving timelessness of the adage “two is better than one”, Amy and Reese were able to build their own world, a microcosm that was free from the judgment of the world at large. It was all idyllic, too perfect.
But as we all know it, there are no perfect relationships and before they both realized it, Reese and Amy were navigating stormy seas. The resulting split was one of the factors in Amy’s decision to detransition after years of living as a transgender woman. In his new persona as Ames, he got employed in a marketing and advertising company where he worked under Katrina. Approaching her forties, Katrina, unlike Ames and Reese, was cisgender, a person who identifies with their birth gender. She was also a divorcee and an Asian-American, born to a Jewish father and a Chinese mother. As they work together, Katrina and Ames started to develop an office romance.
“Jealousy is like a hangover: When you are in the midst of it you want to die, you are poisoned, useless. Nothing stretches before you but an expanse of ashes and regret; yet despite the intensity of your suffering, no one feels sorry for you, no one cosigns your fury. No sympathy for you! Look how wantonly you indulged! Of course it hurts, but your suffering is nothing unique, everyone has suffered like that, so get ahold of yourself, show some backbone and discretion, for god’s sake. Don’t go making any major decisions. Jealousy and hangovers, as common wisdom goes, are temporary.”~ Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby
In a surprising development, Katrina learned that she was pregnant. Katrina did not expect Ames’ response as he was stunned. As part of his transition process, he had been using hormones that suppresses his fertility, a fact that he had kept from his partner. Katrina also had her reservations and was none too pleased about the news. Ames’ shock did not help assuage her fears. Stuck in an impasse, the couple must now make a crucial decision. That was when a third possibility started to form in Ames’ mind. Despite years of not having communication with his former lover, Ames mustered the courage to call Reese and present his what he had in mind. Reese was taken aback but was nonetheless intrigued by the proposal. Now, they only need Katrina to agree.
On the surface, pregnancy and the looming parenthood, with particular emphasis on motherhood, were the major theme that propelled the novel. In the traditional setup, it involves a man and a woman who are eager at the prospect of raising their own offspring. However, childbirth comes with a lot of complications and involves a crucial decision of whether to push through to birth. The prospect of a child implies making a room in one’s life and even reorganizing themselves as a family unit in order to support the child. It weighed heavily on both Katrina and Ames for they are both unsure of whether they can raise a newborn. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Reese who had strong maternal urges. She badly wanted to have and arise a child but she was dealt with a trump card she cannot reverse. What made the narrative unique was its exploration of unorthodox family setups, one that has become more prevalent in the contemporary. Establishing a polyamorous relationship with the purpose of raising a child seemed the solution to Katrina, Ames, and Reese’s concerns.
However, Detransition, Baby does not reduce itself into an exploration of unconventional setup. Earlier this year, novel stirred quite the controversy after it was longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The book’s nomination made Peters the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for the prestigious, albeit equally controversial, literary award. Essentialists heavily opposed Peters’ nomination, citing the fact that she was born a male. The book missed out on the shortlist and the award was ultimately won by Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. Peters’ nomination nevertheless opened the conversation on gender, to which she only had but one response: transgender women are women too. It was also one of the major points she underscored in her debut novel.
Related in shifting time periods between the past and the present, the novel regaled the readers with the details of Amy/Ames and Reese’s lives before they met. By providing an intimate peek into their lives, we get to see their struggles. They experienced discrimination and had to endure the prejudices of prying eyes. One flashback scene left a vivid impression. We see Ames shopping women’s clothes for the first time. He was happy and excited for it was a liberating albeit shameful experience. The magic, however, was disrupted by a cis woman and her daughter. Reese also had her own fair share of uncomfortable moments. While working as a waitress at a Madison diner, she met Sebastian, a Norwegian foreign exchange student. Sebastian showered her with love and promised that he would take her back with him to Oslo. She held on to the promise only to be doused with the cold reality: “No. I just… you’re not a forever person.” But it was not always dark. There were spots of brightness, like when the mother of one of Reese’s friends saw him the way he wanted to be seen.
“To have a boss is so commonplace that one rarely remarks on its strangeness, yet its structure compels a cult of personality around even the most quotidian of managers. As an underling, one needs to furnish an epistemology of how it came to pass that she had sway over one’s precious autonomy. Basic comprehension of capitalism’s arbitrary mechanics doesn’t satisfy – the heart demands a human explanation.”~ Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby
Detransition, Baby is a work of discomfiting realities as Peters vividly portrayed the complex and problematic issues that plague the lives of transgenders. Any other writer would have balked at the challenge but Peters have proven that she was no ordinary writer She has demonstrated her dauntless challenged the norms and never shied away from grappling with uncomfortable subjects. The choice of having Amy’s detransition as the novel’s central theme is a testimony to her dauntlessness. Gender, as Peters has underlined, is no simple black-and-white matter. Apart from choosing an “easier life”, it was never entirely clear why Amy decided to detransition. What was clear, however, was that it was no simple, “I know what I am” narrative for Ames’/Amy’s choices elicited varying degrees of responses from those around him/her. A seminal part of the discussion was the prevalence of internalized misogyny and the gender stereotypes.
The intricate details of transgender spaces made up for the novel’s lack of plot. With the diversity of the primary characters, the novel came across more as a character study, of which it was effective, to some extent. Peters situated the readers into the minds of Katrina, Reese, and Ames. They are not always likeable but that is, after all, the by-product of complex characterization. Reese, for instance, suffers from what ails many women, and that is the attraction towards the prototypical alpha male. She often finds herself drawn towards married men who abuse her, an antithesis to her hilarious musings. Her motivation to become a mother, however, came across as ill-conceived. She wanted to be a mother not because she wanted to be a parent but more to be accepted into the world of cis womanhood, a world she abhorred. At one point, she mentioned that (cis) women enjoyed fascists.
Katrina, on the other hand, was unsure how to handle the news that Ames was a transgender, a reflex action. She even inadvertently outed Ames to their colleagues. It was, after all, a new world to her but her willingness to learn how to navigate this new world was her redeeming quality. Her heritage, however, felt more like a plot thickener, a device to introduce diversity to the story. The exploration of her heritage was underhanded and lacking. Despite the repeated mentions of it, the only detail of her heritage was the story of her maternal grandmother, an immigrant, being barred from having her own children. This exploration would have given the narrative a different and interesting complexion. Ames was more of a cipher. We get to understand him more as Amy but when he detransitioned, his character also regressed. Except for the flashbacks, his voice was the least audible.
Whilst it was not without flaws, it can’t be denied that Detransition, Baby vividly captured the landscape of the transgender spaces. It was further complimented by prose. Peters’ writing, with its precise and reserved tone, was an effective literary device as it unearthed the maladies that afflicted the characters. The leaps in time dug deeper into their concerns and what unspools is a poignant character study. The counterweight was the messy and chaotic drama that percolated as the paths of the characters intersected. To produce her searing debut, Peters incorporated humor with drama and accented it with dashes of graphic scenes involving violence and sexual abuse. There were even elements of the narrative that echoed Peters’ own story. However, the novel ended just when it was about to get more interesting.
“Why does she deserve to be so angry? What has she truly lost? Quietly, to herself, she answers her own question: I have lost a child. The statement jolts her. She hears in her own voice a latch sliding into place. She says it again, phrased slightly differently, I have lost my child. Is it grief she feels? Is grief even a feeling to which she is entitled?”~ Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby
At its heart, Detransition, Baby was an interesting work of comedy-of-manners. The novel also vividly captured the explosion created by the collision of masculine and feminine ideals. It satirized the prejudices the general public have towards transgender while not shying away from the issues the cracks within these transgender spaces. Beyond this interesting subject, it also probed interesting question on the definition of womanhood and motherhood, and on queer parenthood. The details of the lives of Reese and Ames/Amy made the narrative flourish as it underlined the role of the relationships we create and break. This was complimented by the rawness and the authenticity of the emotions displayed, leaving a deep impression on the readers. Whilst some might remember Detransition, Baby for the controversy attached to it, it was more than that. It was an interesting debut work from a rising voice that brought forth more in-depth discussions on personal and sensitive themes attached to gender and sexual orientation.
Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby was one of the books that nearly made it to my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List. However, there were just too many new books that piqued my interest and in the end, I had to cut some off, including Detransition, Baby. A couple of months later, I would encounter the book again, after it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It stirred quite the controversy as Peters was the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for the award. The novel missed the shortlist and the award was given to Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. Nevertheless, the controversy that ensued made me reevaluate my interest in the book. To cut the long story short, I bought a copy of the book and was one of several debut novels I read this year. I did like the premise. It was provocative to say the least and, well, I have read very little transgender fiction. However, the lack of a solid plot did affect my appreciation of the narrative. Peters has a palpable understanding of the subject but there were some questionable choices as well. The writing was fine and the raw but authentic emotions made it flourish. However, there was something lacking and the conclusion barely gave any answers.
Author: Torrey Peters
Publisher: One World
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 337
Genre: LQBTQ Fiction, Queer Fiction
Reese almost had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York City, a job she didn’t hate. She had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Now Reese is caught in a self-destructive pattern: avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men.
Ames isn’t happy either. He thought detransitioning to live as a man would make life easier, but that decision cost him his relationship with Reese – and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby – and that she’s not sure whether she want to keep it – Ames wonders if this is the chance he’s been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family – and raise the baby together?
This provocative debut is about what happens at the emotional, messy, vulnerable corners of womanhood that platitudes and good intentions can’t reach. Torrey Peters brilliantly and fearlessly navigates the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.
About the Author
Torrey Peters was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a professor while her mother was a lawyer. She attended Hampshire College. She also graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa’s writing workshop and a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College.
In 2016, Peters has self-published two novellas, The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. She followed it up with another novella titled Glamour Boutique. She has also written reviews on the works of transgender and gender non-conforming authors, such as Akwaeke Emezi. In 2021, her first novel, Detransition, Baby was published. This made the novel one of the few novels written by transwomen to be published by a big-five publishing house. It would earn more accolade as it was longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, making Peters the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for the prize. Her nomination, however, was met with heavy opposition by essentialists and purists. The novel did not make it through to the shortlist but invited conversation on the definitions of women.
Peters came out as transgender when she was 26-years-old. When she was 30, she started taking hormones to physically transition. In 2009, Peters married Melissa Minor but they eventually divorced. Peters is currently residing in Brooklyn, New York with her fiancé.