Finding Myself in a Book

Woman's holding a book in front of her face.
Woman's holding a book in front of her face.

Have you read a book that changed your life? A book that inspired you, or made you laugh, or kindled your imagination -- or possibly even saved you? I would argue that every book you've read has influenced you, even if just a little bit.

Now, what do you think writing that book did to the author?

Authors are a strange breed, typing away in coffee houses or spending hours talking to ourselves as we work out the flow of dialogue in a scene. Many authors would tell you they put their hearts and souls into the books they write.

And sometimes, they get their hearts and souls back out.

When I started my debut novel, Y Negative, back in 2011, I thought I was just a run-of-the-mill woman. Now, I had always appreciated the gender spectrum -- I've crossdressed, and role-played male characters throughout my life, and I have pictures that represent the masculine and feminine parts of me tattooed on each thigh that I got back in college. But I still considered myself a woman. One day, I was struck by an idea -- as most ideas do, strike you, that is -- about how much one's life is influenced by your gender. So I wanted to write a dystopian story about a person in a world where gender equality was so far skewed as to make the term "equality" almost useless. It didn't take long for me to decide I wanted the main character to be biologically female, but for society to be so predominantly male that this person lived and behaved like a man.

Yeah. I wanted to write a transgender novel having no idea what the word transgender meant.

The very first thing I did was plop my butt in front of a computer and open Wikipedia. I looked up crossdressers, which brought me to the term transgender, which brought me to transmen and hormone therapy and top surgery and sexual reassignment surgery and everything else that entails being a man in a female body. I read forums and blogs and books, and eventually worked up the nerve to talk to some friends.

And something happened in me that I can only describe as the planets aligning. These things I read... some of them I had experienced. Looking in the mirror and seeing a man? I had been feeling that since 15 years old, but had never known how to articulate it. Putting on men's clothing for the first time and being overwhelmed with liberation and relief? That had happened to me about 6 months before starting this research.

To be honest, realizing that I wasn't strictly "cis" was painful, because I asked myself all those hard questions: How much does being female hurt me? Do I want surgery? Do I want therapy? How much do I consider myself a man? And the more I researched and the more I worked on the book, the more this pendulum inside me swung from woman to man to woman, back and forth, over and over. Men's jeans. High heels. Short hair. Makeup. I was in this weird in-between where I would have shaken with disgust if you called me a "beautiful lady," even though I was wearing a dress and was perfectly happy in it.

So I started writing this story about a transman, and out sprang a character -- Ember -- who was unapologetic in his masculinity but still vulnerable and doubtful. He was angry, and he was scared, as all these feelings came out of me onto the page. I was trying to understand how my dysphoria manifested, trying to understand what made a man a man, or a woman a woman. Most importantly, I was trying to understand all the space in between, the millions of degrees between each swing of the pendulum where words like "man" and woman" were meaningless. There were times while writing Y Negative where I felt like both, or I felt like neither, and there remained Ember, female-bodied and male-minded, showing me that the distinction was in the eye of society, not within me.

Writing Y Negative changed my life. It taught me that these feelings and ideas I had experienced since I was in high school were not me "pretending I was crazy." They were real and other people felt and experienced them too. Writing this book let me express the emotions of trying to figure everything out -- the pain, the awkwardness and the strength -- and I emerged on the other side knowing that this pendulum inside me, this duality of male and female was exactly who I was. I identify as genderfluid now, thanks in part to Ember screaming in the back of my head for four years, wanting the world to know that he is a man, and screw everyone who didn't respect that. Sometimes that masculinity courses through my veins in a fire that envelops and empowers. Sometimes it lays idle, glowing faintly in my gut.

When I finished the first draft of Y Negative, I got a new set of tattoos. On my chest, in a language I made up during my over-imaginative high school years, are the words "He is beautiful." "He" refers not just to Ember, but also to me. I am somewhere in between, forever riding the arc of the pendulum, and I am beautiful.

I found myself in a book -- I just happened to have also written it -- and this book taught me I was beautiful just the way I am. I hope you find a book that speaks to you too.