When my writing coach (the amazing Melissa Delbridge) said, “you HAVE to read “Jonas” by Belle Boggs, I thought she was telling me that because it contained prose that achieves everything she keeps reminding me to do: show don’t tell, avoid cliches (like the plague), set scenes, expand and contract.
Then when I scanned the story’s first page, I understood it was all that AND the subject matter.
“So what you’re saying,” Melinda repeated, slowly, not looking at her husband. They were sitting in bed on a Sunday morning. Yellow sunlight streamed onto the unread newspaper. “What you’re saying is you’ve never felt right … down there.”
Jonas explained, patiently, that it was not about down there — it was less about that than about his whole body not feeling right. Could Melinda imagine what it would feel like to have never felt like a girl? Like a woman?
Turns out that author Belle, a native Virginian, moved from Brooklyn to our area a few years ago. She’s 35 and lives with her husband a few towns over from me in rural Chatham County. She generously accepted my offer to chat on the phone about “Jonas,” which is published in her debut book “Mattaponi Queen,” a story collection published in 2010. Although you can find “Jonas” online, please buy the book. It’s lovely!
“Jonas” is a richly textured, gorgeously rendered story both elegiac and optimistic. It’s told from the point of view of Jonas’s wife, Melinda, a cheerleading coach and rather simple country girl with sophisticated insight. Gender transition is the plot, but the themes are all universal: family, love, acceptance.
Melinda has something in common with several spouses I’ve met over the years. Although her husband’s transition is an unwelcome shock, she finds this gentler version of Jonas compelling and their relationship more equal. Several women of transitioning men have told me, “I like him better now that he’s a woman. He’s nicer and calmer.” I didn’t experience that shift, nor did I expect to. Lina was sweet and gentle to begin with. I was greatly relieved that her personality did not change!
So let’s do a little Q&A with Belle Boggs!
Q: Belle, your stories are set in rural eastern Virginia in the vicinity of the Mattaponi River, where you spent your childhood. What inspired you to write “Jonas”?
A: I grew up in a very gendered places were girls started on the cheerleading path in third grade. I had an English teacher who was the cheerleading coach (Belle graduated from West Point, Va., High School in 1994) and I was thinking about the way she looked, buxom with big blond hair, almost cartoonishly feminine. While I was working on these stories I thought, what if there was something about her life that would throw this highly gendered way of seeing things into question.
Q: Well, you certainly found that something! What made you think of having a transgender character?
A: This is going to sound really dumb. There was a “Dr. Phil” program with a middle-aged couple who’d gone through something similar. They couldn’t understand why people couldn’t accept what they’d gone through.
Q: I found the transgender details of your story — both medical and emotional — to be quite accurate overall. What kind of research did you do?
A: I did a little, but not much. When it was edited, I got some help and some fact checking. But I didn’t want to do too much because I wanted the story to be focused on Melinda — on what she doesn’t know and what she doesn’t understand.
Q: Have you heard from transgender people or their spouses?
A: I’ve had a few people come up to me and said it was something their family has gone through and that they appreciated it.
Q: Without giving the ending away, you find a poetic and quite imaginative way of using a Faberge egg exhibit to illuminate Melinda’s journey. How did that come about?
A: I remembered this Faberge exhibit we had at the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. I went there with my mother. I wrote a lot of these stories at the New York Public Library, and so I checked out these books on Faberge eggs. About halfway through the story it occurred to me that would be a way to get Melinda to a better place. (Belle describes this in more detail in a blog post.)
Q: I read that “Jonas is one of your favorite stories to share at readings. Why is that?
A: Ah, yes, well based on anecdotal evidence, more people will buy the book if I read that story because they want to know what happens.
That is a very good reason, Belle! I hope you sell many more books, both this one and the many more to come. Thanks again for your time and generosity!