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"Men get more freedom": women and memoir writing

Juliet Jacques spoke to Dawn Foster about her new book, Trans: A Memoir, and the struggles of gender typecasting in the media

Credit: Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques' book Trans tells the story of her transition as much as it functions as a cultural bildungsroman, from her early life in Sussex, to London, via Manchester and Brighton, encompassing thoughts on the media, music, literature and politics. Here she discusses the task of journalism and the gendered struggles in writing, avoiding typecasting and revealing personal lives in public writing.

How did you first approach the task of memoir writing?

I was commissioned to turn my Transgender Journey blog for the Guardian into a book, so I started by trying to expand the existing articles into chapters and maintaining the same style for the new material. It didn’t work: the blogs relied on hyperlinks and comments to provide further information and argument and had to be rewritten; the tone, aimed at people who might stumble across the articles rather than those who had chosen to read a book, wasn’t right either. I finished the first draft and then had to rethink.

How important was the structure?

It was vital. I had three problems: how to incorporate trans politics, history and culture into a personal narrative; how to write about my relationship with the media; and where to begin. My editor suggested opening with the Guardian piece on my sex reassignment surgery to provide a sense of self, and that introduced the media theme. From there, I could start at university, which made the storyline about becoming a writer engaged with trans issues work. He also said to split off shorter theoretical interludes from the personal chapters, which meant that I could get the balance right. 

How did you piece together the memories and corroborate them? There’s a lot of quite exact speech throughout: did you try and reconstruct conversations with friends, or assume a more fictional licence?

One reason the first draft didn’t work was because I thought it was cheating, somehow, to talk to friends about my past. Starting the second, I interviewed people who would feature heavily in each chapter, and that gave me the necessary distance to turn myself into a protagonist with definable traits and motivations. Regarding the exact speech, in some cases I could remember dialogue, or had it written down; in others, where possible, I agreed it with the other person in the conversation, trying to make it truthful even if it wasn’t accurate, word for word. Working out those scenes was the most enjoyable part of the process – in particular, my friend Joe would text me very funny suggestions for how I should portray him.

Credit: Juliet Jacques

What worried you about sharing several deeply personal episodes?

I knew that I would have to write extensively about my family and that was terrifying. Having worked so hard to keep them onside when I transitioned, and then to make sure that they were happy with the Guardian blogs, I worried about writing something that alienated them. I had similar anxieties about close friends. On a wider level, I already felt drained by having given away so much about my physical and psychological life – the very prospect tired me, and I was exhausted for months after submitting the final manuscript.

Which memoirs informed the book?

Several transsexual memoirs, but I was influenced more by critiques, by trans theorists, of the clichés in these older narratives than the texts themselves. (Theory and memoir often bled into each other, as the theorists drew heavily on their own experiences.) Otherwise, I didn’t read many – it’s not a genre I like. Rayner Heppenstall’s memoirs of his literary life were important, and I loved I am Zlatan, which took great creative licence with dialogue, to hilarious effect. 

Do you think women are encouraged to reveal more of themselves in their work, while male writers are assumed to be objective and natural experts?

I do – especially women from minority communities (of race, sexuality and gender identity).  I think men get more freedom to write about subjects detached from their lives, and also that male accounts of their lives are assumed to be of wider interest, especially if they are not from minority communities. Laura Bennett’s recent Slate piece was quite prescient on how the form and economics of online writing have exacerbated that, I thought.

What pitfalls did you try to avoid while writing?

I didn’t want the book to fall into the old trap of building up to surgery as an elixir, or climactic point in a Hero’s Journey – hence putting it first, and emphasising the quotidian aspects, ending not with the conclusion to the medical process but a moment of boredom at work. Memoirs in general can be solipsistic: I aimed to place my story within its historical, political and cultural contexts. Specifically with a transition memoir, I tried not to reinforce negative stereotypes of trans women whilst remaining honest about my experiences and not kow-towing to prejudice, which was a difficult balancing act.  

How have you worked to avoid being typecast? Many female writers I speak to struggle to convince editors to write anything other than comment and first person pieces.

During the Guardian series, I got frustrated that I only ever got asked to speak about trans issues, usually within the context of my own transition. I used to write about plenty of other things – basically, I had to start again, covering several subjects for little or no money. The New Statesman gave me a completely open remit, which helped a lot, and I ended up feeling that I was spreading myself too thin. But still, I’m only rarely asked to speak or write about things that have no trans content at all. 

What next?

I’ve started a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing, so for the next three years, I’ll focus on short fiction, experimental texts for art publishers and essays on literature and video art – basically, what I was doing before I fell into writing about trans issues. I may still do bits of journalism if I find something to say in that format but it won’t be my priority.

Trans is available now from Verso books.

About the author

Dawn Foster is a London-based journalist, writing predominantly on social affairs, politics, economics and women's rights. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New Humanist and openDemocracy. She regularly appears as a political commentator on BBC's Newsnight and Sky News. Follow her on Twitter: @DawnHFoster


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