This is a review essay of four new books about trans issues: Trans Like Me by C. N. Lester, Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, The Secrets of My Life by Caitlyn Jenner, and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee.
The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.
These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.
Read the full essay at the New Statesman
The relationship between Sylvia Plath and suicide – the extent to which she glorified death in her work, and has been glorified for her death posthumously – has niggled at me since I was a teenager reading her for the first time. In an essay at university, I compared her to Medea based on a fairly overwrought reading of one line of Ariel: not strictly supported by the text, but the closest I could get to explaining the witchy and destructive power invested in her most famous work.
Yet the death she is famous for is a poor representative of her as a writer. It gives no account of her vivacious wonder at the miracle of her own children, for example, in a poem like You’re: “Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on.” Nor does it recognise her tremendous funniness: The Bell Jar is savagely witty, something that comes as a delightful surprise every time I go back to it.
When The Lancet Psychiatry commissioned me to write an essay about art, influence and the phenomenon of suicide contagion, it became an opportunity to reckon with all the parts of Plath I struggled to reconcile. The end result is something that made me understand her, and the cult around her, more than I ever have before.
Sylvia Plath was 30 years of age when she died by suicide in 1963, and in her lifetime published only one volume of poetry and one pseudonymous novel. But in the subsequent decades, this material has been joined by a large body of posthumous work and has become the basis of a furiously contested mythology, profoundly shaping the understanding of the relationship between art and suicide. Indeed, her death inspired the landmark work of literary criticism on the subject: her friend Al Alvarez’s The Savage God.
Read the full essay at The Lancet Psychiatry (subscription or purchase required)
New Jersey almost banned child marriage this week. But then Governor Chris Christie had a think about it and decided to veto the bill – on the grounds that it “does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state”. To which the only sensible response it to say “duh”, given that, according to the organisation Unchained At Last which campaigned for a change in the law, most marriages involving at least one minor are indeed religious arranged marriages.
This law was not supposed to comport with religious customs; the entire point of it is that religious customs such as these are very bad indeed.
While the median age of marriage in the US has crept up into the late twenties and early thirties, the laws that allow children to be married have stayed on the books and, sickeningly, in use. In New Jersey, 16- and 17-year-olds need parental consent to get married, but with the approval of a judge, it’s possible to be contractually locked into a lifelong sexual relationship at even younger ages.
Read the full column at the Independent
The narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s short novel is feeling his age. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again,” says Waldo, in an arresting first sentence. Our man is a film-maker, though these days feature-length pictures are beyond him and he sticks to making shorts. In fact, a lot of things are beyond him: “almost paralysed and dead”, he can no longer get about on his own, and he hasn’t had sex with his ravishing and 22-years-younger wife Zenab (or indeed with anyone else) for some years.
But his creativity has not wholly deserted him, and nor has his libido. From his bedroom, he eavesdrops on Zenab (Zee for short) and their dubious friend Eddie, a film industry hanger-on supposedly working on a retrospective of Waldo’s work. And from what he hears, Waldo crafts a narrative of adultery. “Working with sound and my imagination, I envisage the angles and cuts, making the only substantial movies I can manage these days, mind movies.” Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, his fixed perspective and total boredom allow paranoia and fantasy to thrive; but is it possible that, like Stewart in Hitchcock’s movie, his invention has cracked the case open?
Read the full review at the Guardian
The political bloodbath of June’s snap general election will have two big losers. Firstly, the Labour Party, which is facing its worst result since 1935. And secondly, women. Labour has done more than any other party to get women into Parliament. In 2015, 191 female MPs were elected – a record high of 29%. Even though the Conservatives held an overall majority, more than half of the women (99 to be precise) were Labour.
It’s concerning that the best we’ve managed on female representation is still less than a third. It’s also alarming that most of that representation comes from one party – in this case Labour. Because this election looks set to disproportionately hit women. At this rate, we’re headed for a more male Parliament and, whatever your political affiliation, that should worry you.
Female representation in Parliament has improved so many things – maternity leave, equal pay – as well as being visual role models, says Labour MP Rupa Huq. And, she adds, ‘Labour has been responsible for almost all equalities legislation.’ Labour’s 1997 victory doubled the number of women on the benches from 60 to 120. That only happened because Labour imposed all-women shortlists in winnable seats. Historically, where women of all parties had been selected, they’d been set up to fail.
Read the full feature in Grazia
Here’s progress: the British left seems, finally, to be letting go of the delusion that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is doing OK with the electorate.
John McDonnell can still flannel about how Labour “surpassed expectations” with its catastrophic results in the local and mayoral elections, but he’s increasingly a lone voice. Even the mighty powers of Corbyn supporters’ cognitive dissonance can’t turn a crushing defeat into a success.
Here’s more dismaying news: though the hard-left is tentatively recognising the disaster for Labour, when it comes to attributing responsibility, it’s still high on self-regard and wishful thinking.
There are many reasons for Labour’s long-term decline, and Corbyn himself is a symptom as much as he’s a cause. But for the left, the guilty party is obvious. Labour has lost because of the voters.
Read the full column at the i
Whenever I hear about Conservative men calling Theresa May “Mummy”, my first instinct is to shriek: “What the hell is wrong with you?” My second instinct is to stow that question because really, if I started attempting a full catalogue of answers to it, I would be here all day.
The unsettling trend broke cover during the 2016 Tory leadership election, when Giles Dilnot (then a BBC journalist) tweeted about running into an MP who smilingly told him “It’s time for Mummy”, which is a scene that becomes more like the reveal of the big baddie in a Doctor Who episode every time I imagine it. Head tilted, eyes bulging, the henchman invites the main villain to enter the scene in a flurry of dry ice.
Read the full column at the Independent