Ah! It feels good to get back to this feature after skipping it for Narnia Week–just throws off my groove, you know? As I’m exploring nonfiction at the moment and heading home on Friday, I’m going to highlight two books I can only get at the library near my house–both the memoirs of transwomen, who transitioned in very different times.
Conundrum by Jan Morris
The great travel writer Jan Morris was born James Morris. James Morris distinguished himself in the British military, became a successful and physically daring reporter, climbed mountains, crossed deserts, and established a reputation as a historian of the British empire. He was happily married, with several children. To all appearances, he was not only a man, but a man’s man.
Except that appearances, as James Morris had known from early childhood, can be deeply misleading. James Morris had known all his conscious life that at heart he was a woman.
Conundrum, one of the earliest books to discuss transsexuality with honesty and without prurience, tells the story of James Morris’s hidden life and how he decided to bring it into the open, as he resolved first on a hormone treatment and, second, on risky experimental surgery that would turn him into the woman that he truly was.
Probably because I’m an American homebody, I haven’t encountered Jan Morris’ travel writing or any of her other writing, really. But her first memoir seems like a good place to start and get a handle on this remarkable woman, who, prior to transitioning in the late ’60s and early ’70s, served in World War II and, as a journalist, accompanied the first British attempt to scale Mount Everest. And let me tell you the sweetest thing I stumbled across while researching this post–Morris and her wife, Elizabeth, have remarried, since they were forced to divorce after Morris transitioned; but now it’s absolutely legal. Heartwarming!
As Conundrum was published in the ’70s, book blogger reviews are difficult to find. While the Observer considers it a classic and finds it a work of “curiously romantic innocence“, Cara Eisenpress at The Harvard Book Review finds Morris’ language flowery and a bit hollow.
Conundrum was published in 1974.
She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan
The exuberant memoir of a man named James who became a woman named Jenny.
She’s Not There is the story of a person changing genders, the story of a person bearing and finally revealing a complex secret; above all, it is a love story.
By turns funny and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the remarkable territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family. She’s Not There is a portrait of a loving marriage—the love of James for his wife, Grace, and, against all odds, the enduring love of Grace for the woman who becomes her “sister,” Jenny.
To this extraordinary true story, Boylan brings the humorous, fresh voice that won her accolades as one of the best comic novelists of her generation. With her distinctive and winning perspective, She’s Not There explores the dramatic outward changes and unexpected results of life as a woman: Jenny fights the urge to eat salad, while James consumed plates of ribs; gone is the stability of “one damn mood, all the damn time.”
While Boylan’s own secret was unusual, to say the least, she captures the universal sense of feeling uncomfortable, out of sorts with the world, and misunderstood by her peers. Jenny is supported on her journey by her best friend, novelist Richard Russo, who goes from begging his friend to “Be a man” (in every sense of the word) to accepting her as an attractive, buoyant woman. “The most unexpected thing,” Russo writes in his Afterword to the book, “is in how Jenny’s story we recognize our shared humanity.”
As James evolves into Jennifer in scenes that are by turns tender, startling, and witty, a marvelously human perspective emerges on issues of love, sex, and the fascinating relationship between our physical and our intuitive selves. Through the clear eyes of a truly remarkable woman, She’s Not There provides a new window on the often confounding process of accepting ourselves.
On the opposite side of the pond, we’ve got Jennifer Finney Boylan. A writer of many things–including an ongoing young adult series, Falcon Quinn–Boylan frequently appears on talk shows, writes for magazines, and teaches creative writing and American literature at Colby College in Maine. She’s Not There is Boylan’s most widely read book, and it was published in 2003–only seven years ago! Wow. I think it’ll be interesting to contrast these two stories; no two life stories are the same, even if they contain some of the same elements.
April at Good Books and Good Wine liked it, pointing out the heartbreaking relationship between Boylan and her wife, Grace, who struggles with the fact that the man she fell in love with is, in fact, a woman. Rebecca Ascher-Walsh at Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, pointing out the glorious ordinariness that follows Boylan’s transition–as well as the fact that Boylan never misses a chance to remind us her best friend is Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Russo, who contributes a foreword.
She’s Not There was published on July 29, 2003.