So a gay Irishman has written a novel about a trans girl. Outrageous by Deborah Ross in The Times 18.04.19

The original article is here.

John Boyne is the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the Holocaust novel written for younger readers that was published in 2006 and later made into a film. It chronicles the forbidden friendship between nine-year-old Bruno, the son of a commandant at Auschwitz, who lives just outside the concentration camp, and Shmuel, the Jewish boy who lives within it, on the other side of the fence.

Even though the book topped the bestseller lists everywhere and attracted some rapturous reviews, it was not liked by all. Some hated it, in fact. It trivialised. It glossed over one of the worst atrocities in history. It “misrepresented the Shoah by turning it into a simplistic, sentimental fable”, said The Jewish Chronicle.

And I didn’t much care for it myself. But at no point did anyone say that Boyne should not have written it or should not have gone anywhere near the subject because he is not a Jew. However, this is not the case with My Brother’s Name is Jessica, Boyne’s latest YA novel, for which he has already been attacked every which way and hounded off social media. Because he is not transgender.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica is published today and is the tale of Sam, who idolises his elder brother, Jason, who “calls the family together to tell them he’s been struggling with a secret for a long time” and “Sam doesn’t understand” because “what do you do when your brother says he’s not your brother? That he’s your sister?”

I have not read it, so it may be absolute crap, for all I know, or it may be brilliant — could go either way — but that sort of doesn’t matter. It’s about whether it’s allowed to exist and I will defend its right to exist, vigorously and strenuously, although probably not to the death, because one has to be sensible about such things and think of one’s responsibilities.

But some members of the trans community, most of whom haven’t read it either, have already declared all-out war. It should be called “My Sister’s Name is Jessica”, they say, because once you state you are a particular gender, that’s it, end of. And that’s true, but mightn’t it take Sam a while to make the adjustment? Nothing happens in a vacuum, after all.

Most of the outrage is directed at the fact that Boyne, a white, Irish, gay man, is not trans, so the question becomes: who gets to tell these stories? Not everyone, obviously, but novelists, surely.

It’s their job to inhabit characters different from themselves. It’s what they do when they go upstairs to write. And sometimes their characters are beautiful and nuanced and complex and fully realised, and sometimes they’re not, which is when you throw the book across the room and call it a day. But they must be allowed to do it. Otherwise? The outrage would be limitless and typical complaints from readers would run as follows:

“I am astonished and dismayed to find that Gustave Flaubert was not a bored housewife who lived beyond her means to enliven a provincial life and therefore I can never read Madame Bovary again and regret ever having done so.”

Or: “I loved Brooklyn and the journey of this young woman from Ireland to America in the 1950s and her romance with that builder fella, to whom she lost her virginity, and now you’re telling me Colm Tóibín is a man? And not heterosexual? I can’t believe I was so deceived.”

Or: “Brokeback Mountain was written by a straight woman? Is this a joke?”

Or: “That Virginia Woolf. Who wrote Orlando? She was trans, right?”

And lastly, Striped Pyjamas may be more curse than blessing, but, according to a study in 2015, more British schoolchildren had engaged with it than had ever engaged with The Diary of Anne Frank. So it’s getting the subject out there and putting it about for further discussion, which has to be important. And that’s all I have to say apart from: fight who you like, but just leave novelists out of it. Thanks.

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