Skip to content

Very Special Episodes

The present tense of trans fiction

My friend and I recently devised a little game. I brought out my piles of trans books and she examined them, then we tried to place them in one of two categories. The first pile was for books that we felt catered to the cis gaze; there’s a certain brand of trans literature that treats transition as a scar, a trauma that irrevocably marks the body. Instead of treating trans-ness as an ontological orientation, this brand of trans lit treats transition as an event with a definitive beginning and end. My friend quickly set Jan Morris’ autobiography of her transition, Conundrum, in this first pile.

The second pile was for books that we felt went beyond transition. We included books like the gorgeous Lote by Shola von Reinhold and the post-apocalyptic horror novel Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin. There were many we argued about—books we loved that we felt were made for trans people but reified cis tropes, and books that eschewed easy categorization like Jackie Ess’s Darryl, about a cis man who befriends a trans woman and enjoys being cuckolded. As we went through my bookshelf, I pointed out to my friend that many of the books in the first pile were written primarily in the present tense—such as Torrey Peters’ breakthrough love triangle Detransition, Baby and Imogen Binnie’s girl-on-the-edge Nevada.

Anne Branigin wrote last year in the Washington Post that “many trans creators—whether they are working in Hollywood, video games, publishing, media and the fine arts—still have to rely on cis people to fund, produce, and distribute their work. Because of this, a certain kind of trans story is often repeated: one that fixates on a character’s transition or coming out.” In films like Mutt, trans-ness is treated as just another kind of diversity instead of a rupture. Trans memoirs are particularly at fault, often delivering the kind of ugly gray duckling metamorphosis mass audiences crave. Morris’s Conundrum was an early text that set the pace of literature to come, crossing over into the mainstream due to its easily accessible narrative. Morris knew she was trans when she was young and, when she was old enough to do something about it, she traveled to Morocco to undergo surgery. Now trans memoirs and autofiction have become a cottage industry. They range from the esoteric to the giddy: Jacob Tobia, Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, Elliot Page, Cecilia Gentili, Juliet Jacques, and McKenzie Wark. The diarist has always sold better than the revolutionary. These memoirs have leaked into the landscape of trans fiction, the genres often conflated in lists of work by trans authors.

At a panel on trans literature last year, Jo Livingstone asked a variety of trans authors if they subscribed to the idea of trans-ness as a genre. The panelists wavered. The question, from the standpoint of the writers, was unanswerable. They were in conversation with other trans writers, yes, but they could not define what conventions constituted trans as a genre. As visibility ramps up, the desire to consume trans media follows. Put another way, as trans life is imperiled, we continue to desire representation. Malin Hay has written about the way BookTok “valorises the chaotic, the immediate and the authentic.” Readers want the real trans experience. Trans BookTok remains a popular force. Listicles with titles like “28 Inspiring Transgender Books (by Trans Authors)” abound. Because readers are so hungry for role models, the market regards trans life as a marketing ploy. But, in the wake of trans-run presses like the now-defunct Topside and LittlePuss as well as the commercial success of Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, has the market constructed trans-ness as a genre in and of itself?

These kinds of groupings obscure questions about genre and craft. They fail to contend with what makes trans-ness legible. Coherence is considered more important than close reading. Because of this, trans lit is often evaluated by critics based on what it says about the trans experience, instead of what it says about literature.

The diarist has always sold better than the revolutionary.

There are certainly ways to narrow the field. Kay Gabriel has written for the Yale Review about the discursive elements of “trans realism” in Binnie’s Nevada, often considered an ur-text of trans lit. Gabriel asks if such novels have toppled the conservative aims of realism or merely remixed them. Similarly, McKenzie Wark has analyzed the origin myths of trans lit. Too often trans fiction is billed as a political mode of writing focused on “representation.” The market posits that identities are a genre unto themselves without considering the ramifications of remaking gender in the image of acceptable dissent. Representation and cultural validity are not political identities, and an imprecise means to evaluate art.

If politics alone cannot provide the means of interpreting a so-called trans genre, what can? What craft considerations are obscured when we think of art merely as a vehicle for good or bad representation? Trans writers may have turned to fiction to evade the purity dialogues that haunt trans memoirs. Being a body for political discourse is exhausting. That’s why trans fiction bites back through irony, dark humor, closely narrated rumination, strangely triangulated desire, and—often—a resistance to classification. But there’s another craft choice that sticks to trans realism. Why are so many trans novels written in the present tense?

Perhaps because on the surface the present tense can feel harrowing the way being a trans person can feel harrowing. But it’s a gamble. The present tense can exacerbate both bad prose and loose ideas; to harness it like a flashlight and not a hammer requires delicacy. In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin considers how the present tense can be singularizing, well-suited to thrillers or navigating extreme tension but not necessarily for historical novels or switching multiple points of view. Le Guin often played with gender in her work from The Left Hand of Darkness to her beautiful story collection The Birthday of the World; she questioned the premise of gender itself while deploying the past tense to zoom in and out on her enigmatic worlds. Even without the present tense, Le Guin is able to cast a riveting trance, leading the reader into the deep waters of shape-shifting, genderless beings.

Not all trans lives move ever-forward. I am wary of how the present tense freezes trans bodies in time. Despite attempts to fracture linearity, the present tense can easily serve as a trauma tunnel, narrowing the possibility of trans life into a singular narrative. The present tense can move us through time with ease or force us to neurotically reenact past trauma. The use of present tense is a clever means of engaging with trauma and its ongoingness, but it can also overwhelm characters by hardening them into vessels of trauma.

At the end of the present tense, the past tense may offer a new beginning. The ability to shift in and out of what hannah baer once called the “trans girl suicide museum,” a dark place only written in the present tense where one is unable to see beyond their own dark room. Trauma collapses the past into the present and eats away at the future. Contemporary fiction, whether trans or not, has had many success stories with first-person, buzzy books written in the present tense. But it isn’t the only way to write.

Imogen Binnie’s Nevada finds clever ways around this temporal disparity. Nevada is a rare trans novel that incisively wields an ironic narrative distance from its characters, who all seem to think they have unlocked the secret of gender. Written in the third person present tense with multiple viewpoint characters, Nevada follows a disaffected trans woman named Maria. She’s working at a bookstore (not unlike The Strand) before breaking up with her girlfriend and stealing her car to drive across the country. Once in Nevada, Maria tries to get a twenty-something guy named James to admit he’s a trans woman. She quips about biking around Brooklyn, failing to cum while getting choked, and hitting it big on the LiveJournal circuit. A throwaway joke about her transition is a rare instance of the past tense: “Whatever. It was a Very Special Episode.” She’s clearly not someone who likes to look back. This kind of bite evades the “before transition” origin stories that cis audiences crave. So many cis people want to witness a transition timeline, clinging to the alleged stability that terms like AMAB/AFAB bring. Scholar Laura Horak has dubbed this formulaic temporality “hormone time.” Binnie thwarts such simple readings through irony. It’s certainly not the only way to reroute audience expectations over trauma plots, but it’s one of the fastest ways to antagonize a cis reader while still creating an engaging story. For trans lit to grow, it must move beyond mollification.

Trans novels do not need to be optimistic—that would be absurd—but books like Nevada reckon with the full complexity of trans life.

On the other hand, Eliot Duncan’s recent novel Ponyboy offers a public crucifixion, letting trans trauma splay out for all to see like St. Sebastian pierced with arrows. “To all the boys who were first girls,” the opening dedication declares. The book follows the titular trans boy as he comes to terms with his lesbian girlfriend in Paris, hooks up with straight artists, and parties in Berlin. Frequently the book relies on wistful melancholy to describe transness. “My life sentence as a woman, girl,” the titular narrator moans. Ponyboy is caught in a sea of drugs, parties, and women who don’t see him. No one seems to see Ponyboy. Except the trans femme best friend he occasionally hooks up with. They touch “the boy of [him.]” Ponyboy finds liberation in straight T4T sex: “Toni’s core is an ocean. My cock is a swelling mast. We fuck with bruising grip, become true.” If my trans boyfriend described sex with me with this level of corny tenderqueer affect, I would throw a hissy fit of monumental proportions. While T4T sex can be liberatory—and more trans authors should write trans boy on trans girl action—it can also be mundane. Like all sex, it has a rhythm.

Duncan’s choppy prose flirts with the past tense but primarily barrels forward in the present, chronicling endless traumatic experiences. Nearly every trigger warning applies; each horror is brushed past without delving into their roots or consequences. Rape, drugs, and self-destruction all pop up only to disappear by the next visceral scene. Poems, Testo Junkie, “Nietzsche’s cock-consciousness,” and Kathy Acker pastiches frequently interrupt the text. There’s even a letter addressed to Brandon Teena. The present tense is particularly suited to this collage aesthetic. Rushed, choppy, on edge. The past tense is weighty, it contends with the novel as a historical document. The present tense is often employed in commercial genre fiction to get the reader to race the clock. What next, what next, what next, the heartbeat races. Raven Leilani’s Luster ends up feeling not unlike a thriller. As we read Ponyboy, we’re waiting for the next Big Bad Thing to happen.

Ponyboy’s drug habit quickly takes a suicidal turn. Tense changes abruptly from present to past in a meager attempt to contort a chronological timeline even as things march on more or less sequentially. It isn’t until the third act that Ponyboy attends rehab and takes a break from the jittery prose of clubbing. It’s the most refreshing part of the novel, watching Ponyboy interact with cis men in recovery. The prose finally comes alive describing the aching, slow pulse of life. Ponyboy even finally gives us his central conceit. “You don’t need to put me in the past tense,” he thinks. “I’m right here.”

But even in the present tense, Ponyboy never fully emerges. He melts down. The novel gives us a victim who tries to tame his demons. While trying to be a novel about becoming, it reads like an unpolished account of breaking down. Trans novels do not need to be optimistic—that would be absurd—but books like Nevada reckon with the full complexity of trans life.

If Ponyboy is the kind of present tense novel best suited for cis audiences, K. Patrick’s Mrs. S hits on how present tense can, at its best, inhabit a body with grace and curiosity. It is imbued with pathos and eros without needing to fracture or revert to cliché. A young matron at a girls school watches over her flock. The headmaster’s wife is gorgeous, dripping with electric sexuality. The matron denies a young, available lesbian in favor of a possible illicit romance with the titular headmaster’s wife, Mrs. S. If you’re afraid of yet another sexless lesbian affair, have no fear. The hot, brash butch and the headmistress consummate their love over and over again in luxurious prose. Glances and desperation build. “I had been hoping for an opportunity to confess, to tell her who I am.” The narrator’s sexuality and gender collide, something unnamed, something nuzzling “butch” and “trans” without wading too deeply into the swamp. Desire drives the plot. She’s taken for a ride, jealous of the enthusiasm the Girls have for the headmistress. They are allowed. She is not.

In Mrs. S, the present tense injects every physical interaction with the possibility of erotic contact. Like a thriller, each moment is leading us toward the sexual charge of consummation. Patrick uses the present tense to highlight the immediacy of the body in a sensual cat-and-mouse game. “Her calves are arrows through the grass. In the broken shade she puts things in her mouth and calls out their names.” Chests are like glass, the placement of fingers and arms achingly detailed. “For a moment I think she might touch my side, finding a rib, or maybe my arm. She doesn’t. It is unbearable.” The horniness of foreplay before the first thrust. Then at dinner, with the older woman’s husband in the other room, Mrs. S navigates our young Don Juan close to her. The matron takes the bait: “I find her throat. My fingers in her mouth first. She tips back her head as if to accept my fist.” This is the desperate game of desire that the present tense can articulate, that sudden drowning. Mrs. S is an erotic masterpiece.

What Mrs. S isn’t is an explicitly trans text; it is a gender nonconforming text and subsequently troubles the very idea that trans can be a coherent genre. The narrator wants to be an enigma and known at the same time. Like many trans people, the narrator is perceived as cold or inscrutable by their peers. The matron understands “that I am not able to be immediately understood, to be read one way or another.” So much of this unreadability is a careful calculation of revelation by the gender-troubled subject. When Mrs. S tries to touch the narrator’s tits, a struggle ensues. Mrs. S is just beginning to use a dildo while the narrator is already differentiating manhood from masculinity, the stickiness of gender. The narrator sidesteps larger questions of gender. She doesn’t stop fucking to explain why she binds or the cultural conditions that make butchness visible to some women and not to others. The pace of Mrs. S lets gender act as subterranean architecture, a technology that unlocks desire. Rather than getting bogged down like Ponyboy, the narrator of Mrs. S lets her sexual awakening hint at a new possible gender horizon.

It’s not just books about those early in thinking about their gender that harness the present tense. Soula Emmanuel’s gut-wrenching and lyrical Wild Geese uses the present tense to etch five life-changing days into the reader’s heart. Phoebe is a thirty-year-old trans woman who’s moved to Copenhagen from Ireland to complete a PhD. She’s shrunk her life to be as small and ordered as possible, house-sitting and savoring the sights of Denmark. “I am thirty years old and living in postscript already.” She watches hedgehogs with whom she feels a deep connection. Emmanuel has an ear for etymology, that “phantom purr.”

Once again, the present tense is exploited to distort time. While Mrs. S is a ticking time bomb, Wild Geese is a race against the clock. Phoebe’s life plods along until her idyll is disrupted by her ex, Grace, who tracks her down for a surprise visit. Suddenly Phoebe’s small life is contrasted with Grace’s bombastic personality and reckless assuredness. Over five days they reconnect, fight, and reminisce. But the whole time the reader knows the whirlwind can’t last. Three days can feel like forever—but every love affair must cross the threshold of the mundane. Phoebe knows she will have to return to her daily life. The stakes of such a return feel high. The novel uses timestamps to move us through the days like a countdown to love, or something near to it. “It is a kind of furious freedom, attempting romance with someone you have already failed it with.”

The timestamps don’t just move across the three days of Phoebe and Grace’s reunion. Most of the time the stamps propel us forward like a jet engine, but they also allow us to move through the course of Phoebe’s transition and relationship with Grace. Without whiny nostalgia, Phoebe reckons with her youth. She tenderly looks back at her younger self, wondering what doors she preemptively closed in order to avoid further possible pain. Without losing momentum, Emmanuel is able to flummox the reader’s timeline, never giving us a voyeuristic picture of pain while still allowing us into the full dimensionality of Phoebe’s life.

Phoebe dreams of being left alone to watch Murder, She Wrote and eat meals for one. Living in the present tense is about tending to the small garden of one’s own life. The return of a voice from Phoebe’s past only emphasizes the way her timeline has collapsed. There is no future tense. “It is strange, strange beyond interpretation, to hear a mouth from my past damn the problems of the present.” It is only through this rupture that Phoebe realizes she has “mistaken [her] skirmishes for life itself.”

If trans is a genre then its edges are marred. Who gets included in the archive?

Emmanuel doesn’t write something optimistic as a corrective. She’s building a house that is lived-in with Rihanna, gray skies, empty coffee cups, and Irish concepts of death. This isn’t a novel about grasping for a bourgeois life, it’s about believing in the future. “To chase horizons, you have to believe in horizons, to know they are not empty and sheer, and we’ve both been too hopesick for that.” This is a novel about dealing with hopesickness in the apocalypse, finding ways to desire life beyond nightmares, even if the reparative moments are small. Reading Wild Geese, I was reminded of Le Guin’s short story “Betrayals” about an old woman with her pets and books who’s trying to live out a small life after a civil war on a fictional planet. To me, it is the ultimate story about small moments in the aftermath of grief, the way tending to our lives can be an act of community. In the story, a man who was on the opposite side of the war slowly begins to enter her life. At first she’s resistant, believing that she should live her life in exile. But when he saves her cat from a fire, she is forced to reconsider him.

Living in community doesn’t always feel good. But getting through, being kind, falling in love, doing good even when everything feels like shit—that’s how we live in the present. Phoebe and Grace do not end up together. But that was never what it was about. Grace is still a catalyst for change. She seems to inspire Phoebe to start talking to another trans woman at the gay bar. The future tense is finally reopened. We are left with an open door. Phoebe calls her mom for the first time in a long time, letting the dial tone fill her silent apartment.

Andrea Long Chu once made an infamous declaration in Transgender Studies Quarterly: “Trans studies is over. If it isn’t, it should be.” To Chu, trans studies is the bastard child of queer theory. She refutes Susan Stryker’s claim that trans studies is queer theory’s evil twin, asserting instead that trans studies is the twin queer theory ate in the womb. “The womb, as usual, was feminism,” Chu wryly declares. In her vision, trans studies is superfluous. “This is what happens when a massive offload of queer methods and concepts with the label TRANS hastily slapped over their expiration dates meets an influx of political capital courtesy of the current transgender identity politics.” Perhaps we must now ask the same question of trans lit.

If trans is a genre then its edges are marred. Who gets included in the archive? Is Divine a trans figure? The camp of John Waters certainly feels trans. What about people whose output was more ephemeral than novels, like Bryn Kelly’s “Other Balms, Other Gileads”? What about the topsy-turvy films of Pedro Almodóvar? In The Skin I Live In, Antonio Banderas castrates his daughter’s rapist before performing multiple surgeries that transform the rapist into a trans woman. Revenge trans feels like a camp genre waiting to happen, alluding to castration myths with more than a nod to Tiresias, the blind prophet turned into a woman for seven years as punishment. So is trans an embodiment, an affect, or a genre? Do we even want trans to be coherently marketable?

The case study of the present tense illuminates how trans-ness can adhere to a variety of affects and genres. Whiny, gorgeous, horny, depressing, optimistic, ambivalent, and everywhere in-between. There is trans fiction in the present tense doing interesting work in and outside of the trauma tunnel. But what does adhering to the present moment, no matter how dark, do for trans temporality? Too often, it denies the muddy waters of transition in favor of linear time. While delving into the past tense can occasionally give cis audiences the transition timeline they too eagerly crave, it also opens up the ability to explore the multiple intimacies, reinventions, and expeditions trans people set out on. Trans fiction in the past tense, from Casey Plett to Emily Zhou to Shola von Reinhold, can sweep through history and affect in a way that commercial fiction written in the present tense rarely can. This isn’t to say each isn’t without its own merits, only to point to the wide field available to writers. It is easier to sell books about trans trauma than complex narratives of ambivalence.

I’m not convinced trans is a genre. Certainly it is not as coherent as “domestic fiction,” itself often considered the bastard daughter of “women’s fiction.” In that sense trans-ness as a genre is a marketing tool to condense a vast array of gender experiences into a singular one. Books like Wild Geese and Mrs. S offer ways that evade the commercialization of queer and trans life. We need books that acknowledge the pain of our current moment and books that imagine how to live in the ruins. I look forward to reading all of them.