Jennifer Boylan Wants Less Gender Theory, More Justice
After a trio of memoirs and appearing on Caitlyn Jenner's reality show, Boylan's return to fiction brings her career full circle.
Portrait of Jennifer Boylan by Jim Bowdoin. Portrait and cover courtesy Crown Publishing
Few things are better than being around trans women who no longer give a shit about what others think of their gender, and Jennifer Finney Boylan exuded that exact vibe when I met her at her Manhattan apartment last Sunday. Her post-church black flats were about as ladylike as she gets these days, she said before plopping them down on her coffee table midway through our interview.
Boylan's new book Long Black Veil (out now from Crown Publishing) is a return to adult fiction after a decade-long career as a novelist in her "previous pen name," as she referred to her pre-gender transition work. That career began with The Planets in 1991, followed by two more novels over the course of that decade and then a trio of memoirs after her transition. She's perhaps best known for the first, 2003's She's Not There, which brilliantly captures the inner life of someone struggling with their trans identity. The novel is also her return to book writing after her stint as a reality TV star, when she played mentor to Caitlyn Jenner in I Am Cait.
Like Boylan herself, Long Black Veil is hard to pin down: It's nominally a thriller, but it's character-driven like literary fiction; it deals with somber themes like murder and shifting identity, but it's suffused with comic moments; it features an ensemble cast yet extends Boylan's exploration of the deepest recesses of trans experience.
I sat with Boylan on her comfy leather couch to hash out her mystifying novel, her return to writing after that trip to Hollywood, and why she's plenty radical, as a writer as well as a trans woman.
VICE: How would you yourself classify Long Black Veil?
Jennifer Finney Boylan: I would call it a literary novel of suspense. Of course, in some ways, I'd like for people to think that there's never been a book like this exactly. There aren't a lot of writers who are doing what I'm trying to do.
Is there any connection between the way you play with genre and your trans experience, in the sense of not doing things the way people would expect?
I've always loved the way that gender and genre are almost the same thing. It makes sense, in a way. When you change gender, you sort of change genre. So when I went from male to female, as a writer, I also went from fiction to nonfiction. I published three or four novels under my previous pen name, and when I came out, I started writing nonfiction. For a while, I was convinced that this was because—and I'll say this as un-pompously as I can—living a life based in truth and authenticity meant my writing would depend less on invention. The fact that I'm back in fiction now may only mean that I'm more comfortable in myself.
"You can say what you like about Caitlyn Jenner, and a lot what you would say I wouldn't disagree with, but the day after she came out, everyone in this country knew a transgender person."
Not to spoil the book, but it does have a major trans character.
It's worth noting that there's a trans character of an older generation. She comes in contact obliquely with a young trans person who's in high school. It's two very different generations and ways of being in the world, and I really liked writing about that.
I know that when I first came out, I was determined to not be seen as trans. Passing was really important for me. I tried really hard at passing. And I respect people for whom that's important. It's become less important for me, though. As time has gone on, I identify more with the younger person in the book than the older one.
There was this moment in the book where the trans character said something like, "I guess I'm more forthright or aggressive about saying how I feel because I have this past." It really made me think about the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie situation, when she implied that trans women weren't women. I was wondering if you have thoughts about that?
First of all, I love her. I think she's one of our most important authors, and I revere her—she is speaking about black experience in a way that has not been spoken about before. I'm a big fan of hers.
When she spoke about the differences between trans female experiences and cis experiences, she was, in some ways, saying a thing that's true. If you're a late transitioner, your experience in the world has been different. What she didn't say and what I wish she said was that that makes one no less a woman. Trans women are women. We're a particular kind of woman, but our womanhood is not to be interrogated, questioned, or criticized. No one deserves to have their humanity as the subject of a clever thinkpiece. When I see these pieces about, "Are trans women really women?"—unless you're a transgender person, shut the fuck up.
I think I say this in the book somewhere, but a different way of looking at it is: If your clever complex doesn't reduce the suffering of real men and women, maybe you need a new theory of the world. It's disrespectful to abstract our experiences for a clever little conversation. This isn't about theory—it's about the real lives of people who are marginalized and threatened and at terrible risk, especially trans women of color. We need fewer thinkpieces and more justice, more mercy, more love.
There are many situations where the main thing that I have to do is listen, including when we're talking about other transgender people, whose experiences I'm not the expert on, and other queer, gender-nonconforming people. I've been protested more than half a dozen times, and three times I've been protested by very conservative people who somehow object to the idea I exist. The others have been by other trans people, who are angry that I'm not more radical. I think I'm plenty radical.
Of all the trans writers that I've read, I feel you like you capture the interior of trans experience most vividly.
There are a lot of trans writers, and I think that's great. But most of us are writing essays and blogs and columns and memoirs. Or people are writing theory. There are a lot of people who write fiction, but not many that have been trained as fiction writers and novelists, who have had careers as writers. There are so, so many great bloggers now—Brynne Tannehill is great. Monica Roberts is great. It's amazing.
When I first started coming out in the late 90s, there was no one in the culture. Because of that, it was like we didn't exist—like we were being told that there aren't stories about people like you. You can say what you like about Caitlyn Jenner, and a lot of what you would say I wouldn't disagree with, but the day after she came out, everyone in this country knew a transgender person.
"I can't sing like Candis Cayne. I can't act like Jen Richards. I'm not beautiful like Janet Mock. But I can tell a pretty fucking good story."
More than one person has told me something like, "The best thing that came out of Caitlyn Jenner was the conversations that Jenny Boylan and other trans women had on her show."
Especially in season two. Was it a mistake? I don't know. We began season two with a big political argument, and we ended the season opener with all of us essentially fighting her. I think it turned a lot of viewers off. People watch those shows for escape. Even if they don't, a lot of people don't want to hear that Caitlyn Jenner was a Ted Cruz fan.
Nonetheless, I think I Am Cait was maybe the most radical show that was on television for trans experience. And that message had to be delivered through the medium of a Ted Cruz voter. Some people threw up their hands and said "No, I won't listen to that." I think we lost a lot of people that way, but there were a lot of cool conversations we had. The conversation around t-r-a-n-n-y I thought was particularly interesting, because it showed how we each come to that word. We managed to do it in a way that was respectful of each other shone a light on the diversity of our community, and the fact that‚ hello, duh, we don't all agree on everything, including transness itself.
Having been on a reality show and exposure to that type of celebrity, what drew you back to writing?
I think I was kind of a failure on TV anyway. I don't really care about being pretty, for one thing. On that show, I tried to talk about writing and storytelling now and again, because it's what I know how to do. I can't sing like Candis Cayne. I can't act like Jen Richards. I'm not beautiful like Janet Mock. But I can tell a pretty fucking good story. It's the only thing that I can do and know that I'm doing the thing I was born to do.
Interview has been condensed and edited.