Thursday, November 17, 2022

A brave book of love and understanding: A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter by Carolyn Hays


Listen up because this gorgeous, luminous, tear-your-heart-out and patch-it-together book is a love letter to the author’s brave transgender daughter. Please buy copies for friends, buy copies for yourself, buy copies for those who might rail against this so that they might read, open their minds and understand.

Carolyn Hayes is an award-winning, critically acclaimed, bestselling author who has chosen to publish A Girlhood; Letter to my Transgender Daughter under a pen name to protect the privacy of her family. Her novels have been published by Hachette, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins; her books are also widely translated. A Girlhood will have four overseas editions, including those by Picador UK and Flammarion in France. Her past books have been listed as New York Times Notable Books of the Year and Kirkus's Best Fiction of the Year, and she's written for National Public Radio and the Washington Post.   www.carolynhays.

So much of this beautiful memoir is about faith—the right kind of faith. Not about whose god is more powerful and why we should fight wars over it. Not about whose laws are more important. Yet, if you boil things down, the true nature of God is love, acceptance, kindness. (We also do not know if God is male or female or something uniquely God.) At several points you actually point this out to Catholic institutions. Why do you think people are so afraid to face their religions and say, maybe I want something differently, something more godly than what I’ve been told? How did your faith change?

If someone of faith truly admires and cherishes God’s creation—the rich beauty and complexity of our humanity—then why would they try to reduce gender to something that can fit in a box marked M and a box marked F. The complexity of our humanity (as well as the mysteries of the divine) have strengthened my faith. I’m awed, as I think we’re called to be. So, as I say in the book, in our house, we don’t snub God. We don’t try to reduce and simplify his work. 

We’ve had great support from the Catholic community and some heartbreaking rejections. 

What I want to say to parents is this: don’t let your faith leaders or politicians try to get in between you and your natural, abundant love for your child. If an organization is trying to make you choose between love and acceptance of your child and them, they aren’t a community of love. We’re made in God’s image. He loves us; we love our children. Full stop. 

The fascinating thing to realize is that your daughter is never stuck. The trauma belongs to you in this narrative—but not because you wish it weren’t so, but because you don’t know the right thing to do all the time. What was it like writing this book, and even more importantly, what was it like finishing it, and what is it like knowing it is going to be out in the world?

I knew I’d write this book one day but my hope was that it wouldn’t be necessary. That the rights and respect for the trans community would be strong and this memoir would feel antiquated. The opposite happened. The horror of having someone anonymously report you to Children and Protective Services for supporting your transgender child has since been signed into law by Governor Abbott of Texas where it’s being challenged while also terrifying the families who support their trans child. In eighteen states, transgender kids are banned from sports. In Florida, Governor Desantis is working to take away transgender medical care for kids in his state. There are death threats against doctors who serve trans youth; a bomb threat against Boston Children’s Hospital earlier this fall. This country has become completely unhinged around gender identity. Today? A New York Times piece that will be used as a battering ram to take away more trans healthcare, again targeting trans youth. 

But, as it was from the start, out there, the world is a mess. But my daughter? She’s thriving. She’s funny and smart and knows herself. She’s now a teenager and she’s kind and cheeky and brightens every room she walks into. My daughter is so elegantly and wholly herself. So many factions in American culture want to distort who they think she is, but they don’t know her. 

You said this astonishing thing: that every child teaches you how to raise them. This goes against every parental advice I’ve ever received (which I never followed) and it is brilliant. Can you tell us a bit about how your daughter taught you? 

Yeah, I guess parenting books don’t work when the writer admits each child needs their own unique parenting manual. 

When you’re on a journey with someone who’s had to fight to be their true self—their authentic self, you start to think about your own authenticity, not in gender necessarily, but in all the ways in which we hide who we are, who we could be, from not only strangers but those we love. It’s amazing to be reminded, over and over in simple daily ways, that you can be yourself. 

We’ve been taught, my generation, that the liberal thing to do was not to see color, not to see a difference if someone is gay or trans, but I’m learning that that is wrong. We should see those differences AND celebrate them. More books, more images, maybe what we love in the celebrities is their celebrating their differences. But what would you say to the people who say, oh it’s just experimentation, it’s just fashionable, kids cannot really know who they are or celebrity is fake? 

I’ve woken up every morning of my life and known that I’m a girl and then a woman. It’s been such a clear deep down truth that I don’t even acknowledge it. But then again, I don’t have to because every day of my life, the world around me has mirrored back to me that I’m a girl and then a woman. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a chart that shows the stages of development around a child’s understanding of gender—their own and others. My trans daughter followed that chart on the exact appropriate timeline, just not in the way we’d expected. Instead, she followed it as a girl; she was clear. Some kids do experiment with gender; some are non-binary. Some children would like to be out but have to reel it back in because their safety is at risk; this can be seen as a flip-flop but it’s actually a reaction to the flip-flop on supports around them. I’ll say this: it’s very different when a child is persistent, consistent, and acute. 

How is your daughter doing now? Are you worrying less for her? How will she approach the publication of your book?

She’s not thinking about the book at all. She’s busy with her life. Her French is really coming along. Math is sometimes tricky. She’s making a Christmas gift list that is, um, very long and detailed. She’s the baby of the family and roundly adored. I worry about all of my children in different ways; it’s something I’ve really honed. 

But yes, I worry about how this country is taking a new and hostile shape around her. I worry about the kids who don’t have the resource she has. I worry about the hatred that Republican politicians and influencers are stirring up against trans people in order to give their base someone to fear. These targeted attacks have real consequences for trans people--in education, employment, housing, self-harm, and death. I worry about the rates of violence against trans people in this country and around the world. And I can’t see a way to make these people in power stop targeting trans people. They’re getting so much out of it, from DeSantis to Chappelle. 

But I have hope that the tide will turn. And we’re seeing signs of it in the younger generation who came out strong to vote in the midterms. 

I have to have hope. My faith demands it. 

Stephen Policoff talks about Dangerous Blues, his "kind of a ghost story," being haunted and disorganized, and so much more.

Stephen Policoff's Dangerous Blues has been called "kind of a ghost story." It's about love and death and one man and his twelve-year-old daughter being haunted by the loss of the woman they both loved.
Says Susan Choi: "Policoff is a seer of the ineffable, the unbearable. A joy to read."

Policoff's first novel, BEAUTIFUL SOMEWHERE ELSE, won the James Jones Award and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His second novel, COME AWAY, won the Dzanc Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His third and most recent novel, DANGEOUS BLUES, was recently published by Flexible Press. He is Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU.

 A portion of the proceeds from Dangerous Blues will benefit the National Niemann-Pick Disease Foundation, a non-profit, patient advocacy and family support organization dedicated to supporting and empowering patients and families affected by Niemann-Pick disease, through education, collaboration and research.
Thank you so much for being here Stephen!

So, your other novels also feature Paul Brickner and Nadia and Spring in a chronology of events which I love. Was this always your intent?  Did you feel like one novel was speaking to you and urging you to write the next part? And will there be another book after Dangerous Blues?

I had no intention of writing a trilogy, and in truth if someone really cared to comb through the 3 books, the timeline makes very little sense (Nadia is pregnant with Spring in 1991 in Beautiful Somewhere Else, in Come Away, written 10 years later, Spring is barely 5, and in Dangerous Blues she is not-quite-12). Come Away (Dzanc Books 2014) was very much meant to be a follow-up to the first novel, but after that book, I was pretty sure I was done with Paul and his wife Nadia and their little girl Spring.  But when my wife Kate died in 2012, I wondered how I might write about this—writing is how I process almost everything really—and it occurred to me that Paul, who has some kind of porousness to the realm of the unconscious, might be the best vehicle for exploring what it feels like to be haunted by the past.  Right now, I think I am done with Paul. But I’ve thought that before, so who knows?
Music plays a huge part in this book, and I know your daughter was interested in music, “Music Today” won the Fish Short Memoir Award. What does music mean to your writing?

My daughter Anna, who died in 2015 of the dreadful rare, neurogenetic disorder Niemann-Pick Type C, was indeed a passionate lover of music, and some of the songs she loved (“Little Surfer Girl,” “Box of Rain,” “Love in Vain”) thread through Dangerous Blues.  Music is one of the things which gets me through life, certainly, and I often listen to music while I am thinking about whatever I am working on—though rarely when I am actually writing, because I am easily distracted.  In college, I had a friend who was a passionate blues aficionado, and I always found those melancholy/humorous songs to be tremendously relatable.  When I was formulating  Dangerous Blues, I heard some of those songs again for the first time in many years, and the hauntedness of some of the brilliant/desperate people who sang them really seemed to connect to what Paul goes through in the novel, how he relates to the world, how he learns to cope with grief, loss and fear.

I often say that the things that scare us are what we need to write about. We need to be the canaries in the coal mines everyone faces. Why do we write what we write, and how do you think we can get at that?

I was not sure that I wanted to write about losing my beloved wife Kate to cancer, but eventually I knew I would have to, just to understand how I felt about the world.  I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said that she needed to see what she had written in order to understand what she thought about things, and I fully embrace that aspect of writing. At the same time, I did not want to write a straightforward book about my loss and grief.  I wanted to allow other characters to feel haunted and obsessed by different elements of life and our weird world, and that intuition really helped me create the somewhat intricate realm of Dangerous Blues.

What kind of writer are you?

A disorganized one?  I think that can be said of many writers.  People have often said to me, You must be so disciplined and organized to write these books…which makes me laugh usually, because I am totally undisciplined and thoroughly disorganized.  But I am obsessive enough that I usually end up forcing myself to get down to work, and when I do that, I can get a fair amount done.  I hate it when I see other authors advising writers on how to do your work, on what makes a real writer.  A real writer is one who writes, regardless of the circumstances, success, or rewards.

You’ve said about your work, Love it. Hate it! Want to kiss the cover! Which I think is part of every novelist’s journey. I personally only love my work when I am writing it, then the terror comes in.  Is that your experience too?

I usually think when I am working on something that it is the best thing I have ever written and arguably the best thing ever written by anyone….then when I read it over, it seems lumpy, clotted, and vile.  When I was younger I hated revising; now I love it, and feel like that is where you turn the dross into gold (or fool’s gold anyway).  When it is published, I usually can’t stand to look at it, even if I know in my heart that I did a fine job. I am quite proud of Dangerous Blues, and reading from it at my various Book Events has gone well, but I can’t imagine actually reading the novel from start to finish again.  I need to move on, and hopefully will be able to get down to work on another project in the near future.

You don’t like to read fiction while you are writing? What work influences you?

I do read fiction while I am writing but I don’t like to read any novels which seem remotely like what I am working on.  I read some ghost lore, and some blues history while working on this novel but in my reading for pleasure, I have hugely eclectic taste: Denis Johnson, Kafka, Yiyun Li, Dickens, the Brontes…I dipped into all of those books while I was writing Dangerous Blues.  Music, too, influences me hugely.  I doubt any writer has influenced me more than Bob Dylan.  And Brian Wilson’s exquisite melancholy also finds its way into my writing process. And the beauty and sorrow of every day life.  That is what really gets to me every time.