Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Walk on the Mild Side, by Catriona

CRAFT : We are living in interesting times. How have the social unrest and societal perception shifts changed your work? 

Aren't we just? 

I've been rolling those two phrases around my mind for a while, as I was thinking about this blog - the social unrest, societal perception shifts - because there are so many things each one might mean. 

"The social unrest" might mean people taking to the streets of Minneapolis to protest a filmed murder that didn't look like being punished. Or it might mean people taking to the streets of Orange County over being asked to skip a beach trip.

These strike me as two very different categories of outrage. But neither one has changed my writing: I've had a pretty settled view of justice, morality, community and hypocrisy for a while now (thanks, Mum and Dad). 

Of course that view colours the tone of my work. I'm squarely in the camp of "dignity culture", believing that all people - all beings - have intrinsic worth beyond their wealth, status or productivity and I'm not much interested in tales that depend on "honour culture" for their moral force. Which isn't to say I'm uninterested in stories about honour culture: toxic masculinity, corrosive loyalty, respect fixation . . . fun times, right? 

But for today I'm going to concentrate on those societal perception shifts, because I have been on a journey when it comes to how to write about one particular kind of lived experience different from my own.

As a beginning writer I conceived of a story with a mysterious character - a film producer - trying to adopt a child from Russia through unusual channels. She's had a lot of plastic surgery and the Scottish narrator has never met anyone like her.

‘You don’t think I’m up to making an action adventure?’ said Patrice. 

‘Sorry,’ I said. 

‘Don’t be,’ she answered and she smiled. That was a sight to behold. Her top lip curled away from her teeth, which were large, perfect and many in number. It kept going until she got that crease under her nose, like Julie Roberts when she's really grinning, that crease that reminds you your mouth is one of the places your insides begin. Her bottom lip spread out across her chin in a movement unrelated to what was going on above. Nothing else moved a millimetre, but her eyes shone, and some of the carefulness disappeared from her. Somehow, I had passed some test that I didn’t even know I was sitting. Something had changed and it never changed back again. It wasn’t a big change; Patrice never got normal. But from that moment on she got with the rest of us – in normal’s orbit.

Two hundred and fifty pages later, we find out that Patrice is adopting, and is watchful, and has had plastic surgery, because she's trans. I never thought twice about it in 2005. It was a good twist as far as I was concerned. She's a sympathetic character and she gets a happy ending. No problem.

But things change.

Over the years as I met and got to know more trans people, as I read and considered trans characters, I learned that the trans plot twist is annoying at best and depressing at worst, even when there's no hate-as-entertainment in the story. It's up there with 'The professor is Black!' and 'Joe the plumber is Jo the plumber!' and 'He's married to another guy!' and all the other ways people's identities can (but maybe shouldn't) serve as punchlines. 

Patrice bothered me more and more. Look, I know progress isn't a straight shot for anyone but trans rights are particularly fragile and patchy. And they're under current attack, enraging and bonkers though that might be. (Holly Woodlawn hitch-hiked her way across the USA in 1962! And everyone was fine!)

Anyway, a couple of years ago I finally put a note on my website - here - and vowed to do better. 

I'm trying to do better right now. This year, in another book (Last Ditch Motel No. 4) I've got another trans character and although this is a comic novel, his identity is not a punchline. The punchline, after less than a page of set-up, is the assumptions we make, no matter where we're making them from. So, right at the start of the book, Della (a Mexican woman) is talking to Todd (a gay man) about the new, post-divorce, arrival at the motel: 

His ex-wife’s . . .” Della was saying. “I don’t know how much I can say.”

“Unfaithful? Addicted? Abusive?” said Todd.

“She punched him when he caught her making out in a taxi with her coke dealer,” said Della. “So, I think, all three. Only, he’s very religious so it was taking a lot of work to get him ready to leave.”

Todd and I exchanged a look. I said it. “Very religious? How is he with ‘the gays’? Not that we all have to hang out or anything but if he’s going to be a pest . . .”

“Oh, he’s good,” said Della. “I mean, I think. I think he would be good.”

“Why?” said Todd. “Why so breezy, Dells? I’ve never met a man religious enough to make divorce a problem who was ‘good’ with any other kind of fornication. Which is totally what he’d call my long happy marriage where no one makes out in taxis with coke dealers.”

“I don’t want to gossip about him when he’s not here,” Della said. “But believe me, he’ll be okay.”

“Oh really?” said Todd. “Have you ever actually broached the subject? Has it come up? Why would a hardcore Catholic macho-man who’s too embarrassed to admit his wife hits him be such a willing volunteer for the rainbow coalition?”

“He’s Muslim,” Della said. “And trans.”

I think it's different. I hope so. I've still got time to change it. Cx


Ann said...

Catriona, you know how much I loved Straight Up, and of course I look forward to the next Lexy. You handle these issues so naturally that I can, for a moment, forget that there are issues.

PS. That’s meant to be a compliment. Xo

Josh Stallings said...

You are brilliant. And you open willingness to talk about where you got wrong and where right is inspiring. The combination of your skill and your ever evolving views keep me happily coming back to your novels.