Only recently did I learn about “Trans-Sister Radio,” a 2000 novel focused on a woman – Allie — who stayed with her boyfriend – Dana — after he transitioned to female. They eventually broke up, but, well, I don’t want to spoil the twist at the end, because you really should read it if you’re at all interested in these topics or in an all-around good read. I finished it in a few days. The author is Chris Bohjalian, a ridiculously prolific novelist living in Vermont. (How do you do it, Mr. B?)
(The book was recommended to me by my pal Jessica after my Globe article came out. She was a person I’d known in Boston as a man and wrote to tell me she was transitioning, and also, sadly, that her marriage was ending.)
I especially connected with Allie’s conflicting feelings about Dana. How could she love him so much as a man and then feel differently only because of a gender change – while Dana was in most ways still Dana. How could I overcome this obstacle and not Allie? Is it because I’m more OK with being with a woman, even though it’s not what I would have chosen?
Also pitch perfect was Dana’s post-transition elation juxtaposed with Allie’s grief. That was by far the hardest time for Lina and me. Though we were not on the verge of breaking up, I wasn’t sure we’d make it through intact. It was rough.
The story was about community, too. Allie was an elementary school teacher in small-town Vermont and she and Dana were harassed by villagers and parents. Of course this happens, but I think Allie and Dana could have lessened this by being proactive and understanding – by sharing their news with locals and asking for understanding. Instead they were defiant. I’m not saying transpeople should ask for forgiveness or apologize, but I do think we in the trenches should be compassionate about people who have had no experience with gender variance. Allie was shocked and initially disgusted with Dana’s admission, so why shouldn’t she expect others to be as well. In my experience, if we open our hearts to people, they respond in kind, or usually try their best.
And now, a few beefs. Dana’s sexual reassignment surgery (genitals) happened within a few months of her living as a woman, which goes against the medical practice of waiting one year. Dana is gorgeous without a trace of manliness beyond big feet and height. This is so not the norm, especially without facial surgery. My other complaint is a professional one, so most people probably won’t notice or care. But the plot includes two public radio shows about the couple – both produced or involving radio journalists with very close ties to them. Seems implausible. But most important was I could suspend disbelief on all these points, and I’m sure you can too. Enjoy!
I feel a little silly commenting on two pieces in a row, but I’m also a writer (historian) and I know how much feedback counts. I found Trans-Sister Radio several years ago in an airport bookstall, about the same time that Jenny Boylan’s She’s Not There was also on display. I thought that their being sold in such a place was a good sign. I agree that it’s a really good read, that Bohjalian did his homework, and that he gets the voices pretty right. I do remember a review by Dallas Denny, who didn’t like Dana. Her ground for that was that she already knew she intended to transition and got into a relationship with unsuspecting Allie almost cynically. Maybe. But that also can stand for a lot of transgender people who fight themselves, want to be normal, struggle, get involved an innocent person, and end up causing a lot of pain that they could have avoided with honesty, pain for themselves but, more culpably, pain for others Maybe the whole phenomenon, right now, of TS kids coming out early and honestly can start to answer that problem. I hope so. In any case, fiction always is a symbolic drama and Trans-Sister Radio may have reached people who otherwise would know only sensational stories.
Thanks, Elaine. And, yes, comments always welcome, as many times in a row as you’d like! Dana didn’t bother me. I found his/then her character to be realistic. I think she truly fell in love and, well, love doesn’t make sense. I think Dana wasn’t the least bit malicious, just scared and maybe selfish, but, hell, we are all selfish. I think in general we do the best we can with what we have at the time, and I think that was the case here.
I think that is why I liked the book so much, he captured the complexity, both internal and external, so well. Even though Dana didn’t always do the right thing I could understand where her decisions came from and could easily relate.
I agree, Brad. I thought it was quite amazing how Chris, the writer, nailed his characters. Very impressive research!
Since I started this conversation, perhaps the point of Dana getting involved with Allie as a guy is that people do stumble and do go down paths that they wouldn’t take if they only thought clearly. And then have to deal with the consequences. In that, I see myself, no question.
Well, yes, but there are sooo many factors that go into “thinking clearly,” and who really does anyway, because we’re all so very ego driven, which can be heatlhy and not. I guess what I feel is that Dana wasn’t a bad person. Absolutely he should have told Allison. She also could have walked away when he did tell her, but she chose to stay. Relationships, as we all know, are just a million shades of gray!
I think I need to re-read the book 🙂
This is on a different track, but related. Diane, have you read Kathleen Winter’s Annabel? It centers on a genuiinely hermaphroditic figure growing up on frozen Labrador. I think it’s incredibly well done. She gets the different voices of her main characters and rounds out all of them, including the father’s child who decides for himself that this child will be a Boy and then comes to terms with the child’s one need to be who the child actually is.
Oops, realized I never answered this. I have not read it, but have heard about it. Speaking of hermaphrodites, Jeffrey Eugenides of “Middlesex” fame is speaking at our local (Durham, NC) bookstore in a couple weeks. And dang it all if I won’t be away. Still, exciting! Thanks for the heads up, Elaine.