Writer Jamie Hood’s debut book How to Be a Good Girl defies easy classification into typical genres, given that it moves seamlessly between poetry, cultural criticism, fragments and pandemic diary entries. It’s a unique work from a writer who has developed a cult following from her previous work, which includes a New Inquiry essay called Fucking Like a Housewife, inspired by Mad Men’s Betty Draper, and an essay about the concept of the chaser – the straight man who sexually pursues trans women for being trans – published last summer in Trans Studies Quarterly. Hood’s writing is marked out by its reflections on love and desire, which nestles alongside violence and trauma without the feminist piety that much writing, especially online, tends to invoke.
How to be a Good Girl as a title signals more of a question or a fixation than an instruction manual or guide. Hood not only poses the question of how to be a good girl, but whether a girl even ought to seek goodness. Perhaps inevitably for a trans author, Hood even implicitly considers whether one must be good in order to be a girl. At one point, Hood’s narrator considers and rejects the self-improvement messages so frequently touted as a solution to women’ s pain: “if i could afford therapy i should be perfectible; a good girl”, she writes in the rushed abbreviations of a diary entry or iphone note. Yet, she continues, “as far as i am able to tell therapy is a tedious arranging of the self as w an appointment book”. The book compellingly documents one woman’s longing for something absent, in many ways capturing what all of us feel in this time of isolation and grief.
VICE caught up with Hood recently over Zoom to discuss her remarkable debut, how to work as a writer in a pandemic, how to represent trauma in art and the burdens on trans women who make art.
VICE: What struck me about the book is it’s the first published work I’ve read that is written during and set inside the time of the pandemic and lockdown. The book is written like a diary but its nonlinear so there’s this sense that time must mean something but it also means nothing – which is how a lot of us feel right now. Did you only decide to write it when you had to quarantine?
Jamie Hood: Yeah, as soon lockdown started in March. I went from having three jobs to having zero jobs. That was terrifying and remains terrifying. The pandemic happening was a real jolt to me because I had always considered bar jobs as something that I could rely on forever, you know? No matter what happens, I could always bartend, and having that rug pulled out from under me was a total shock – especially as a trans woman [because] there's never guaranteed employment for trans women. It always kinds of pains me to imagine monetising art, but I no longer had the economic freedom to not consider that as an option. And so I just started documenting the quarantine process – I’ve always kept diaries but lots of my creating before had been stolen moments between bar shifts. Now I had all this time.
A lot of people I know, particularly women, spent lockdown reflecting on past trauma and relationships that perhaps they’d blocked out with the busyness of pre-pandemic life. In the book, you write “trauma speaking through me to me – its virus-like quality; preoccupied in self-replication at the potentially fatal expense of its host” which seems to evoke that sense of personal struggle enmeshed with this huge catastrophe. Is that part of why the book has this very unusual hybrid form?
All the books that I am working on currently as manuscripts are all multi-genre or otherwise hybrid. I just like the possibility of multi-vocality in a book. I love reading miscellaneous texts: I love reading diaries. I love reading letters. I read Virginia Woolf all the time; I reread her novels every couple of years. I think of her as someone who's formally very strange - something like The Waves is a totally different novel from The Voyage Out or Jacob’s Room. I think I have always been drawn to people to do very strange things formally even if they're operating in traditional forms like novels or essays.
You write candidly in the book about trauma and – let’s be frank – I mean trauma as a result of rape. Yet the book is very ambivalent about the potential efficacy of therapy. while there’s the common cliché that confessional writing about trauma might be therapeutic. What do you think of that? Why do you write about it?
So in this book, I allude to rape as a central trauma of my life and there's this section where I say “this is not my rape book, this is not my rape book, this is not my rape book”. It’s literally not: I do have a full fucking gigantic manuscript about rape elsewhere, which is also very disjointed, and refuses to create a totalising narrative about rape.
One thing I talk about in How to Be a Good Girl is that I think that rape refuses narrative. I think that there are some traumas that we talk about as being unspeakable, when they are in fact speakable – we can speak about them. What people mean when they say they’re unspeakable is the sense that what they do is disorient the possibility of telling us a big story and the possibility of there being a subject who is telling the story. Rape especially is a trauma which is about divesting someone from their selfhood, and from the integrity of their body.
Writing about rape was deeply retraumatising at first, but I think it’s gotten easier. Writing isn’t fundamentally therapeutic – it’s about taking control of the narrative. Writing allows me to feel like an authority over my own life. This is where I think my writing is also relevant to my transness, because for trans women our authority over our own womanhood and who we say we are is frequently divested from this.
It’s interesting you mention transness here because one of the tweets of yours I remember most vividly from last summer in the wake of JK Rowling’s transphobic essay “TERF Wars” was about how much you hate arguments that essentially say “trans women are real women because men hurt us”. You said something like “I’m not a woman because I got raped I’m a woman bc i’m a fucking woman”.
Well, it’s mobilising your entire gender identity around perpetual violence. I think this is also a problem with certain iterations of feminist discourse, like the “men are trash” sort of discourse. When you fundamentally see gender as a binary, which is not men and women, but rather people who violate and people who are violated – that is a deeply disturbing way to conceptualise what gender dynamics rests on. If that's the foundation of how you imagine a woman, I think you have much bigger problems than going up to [trans women] rape survivors at poetry reading and telling them “welcome to womanhood!”, which is basically what has happened to me.
Your book is out at a time where there seems to be more trans women getting published – Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby seems to be a novel that has crossed over into the mainstream (i.e. cis) literary scene. Your book speaks a lot about embodiment – when it alludes to transness it does so in this very bodily way for example in reflections in not having the capacity for biological motherhood. Do you want to be seen as a trans writer?
It's a complicated question, I think because on the one hand I definitely have an audience that has a lot of trans people in it. [But] I do have a fear of being pigeonholed as a writer. The problem there for me is not that I don't want to write about transness, but rather that I don't want to be imagined as speaking for trans women. I don't like that: it makes me deeply anxious and uncomfortable.
A bigger fear for me is not that I’ll be pigeonholed for writing about transness but for writing about trauma. Yet at the intersection of those two fears is a concern that I never want people to read my work and think what I’m saying is that transness is a trauma. I imagine myself as a woman and the transness is kind of incidental. A lot of my [Betty Draper] essay was trying to grapple with that from the vantage point of being a woman who feels very exiled from certain heterosexual structures of existence. The disappointment with men in my work is, if you like, the straight girl feeling and the sense of exile is the trans feeling.
How to Be a Good Girl is Jamie Hood’s first book, and is available to order here.