Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bibliotherapy: "Parrotfish" and "I Am J"

The other day I read about this thing they're calling bibliotherapy. Apparently “[the] program matches individuals struggling in any aspect of their lives with a list of books hand-selected to help them through tough times. You get your reading list after an initial consultation with a bibliotherapist in which you discuss your life, your reading history, and your problems.”

I am very much in favor of using books in this way – I've done it all my life – but I think it's absurd to pay £80 for a service Google can perform for free. Hey, people who are paying for book recommendations: Google. GOOOOOOOGLE. Remember, it like owns our lives now? That thing.

I am a book-lover, so when life is tough I seek out books to help. Novels about the subject I am struggling with are perfect for me, because they combine the escape of fiction with real-world-applicable insights about the topic in question: therapy in a paperback.

“Art is the lie that tells the truth.” – Picasso, quoted repeatedly in I Am J

My most recent self-prescribed bibliotherapy was a double dose of trans boy YA. When I visited the Amazon pages for Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish and Cris Beam's I Am J, I was informed that these two books are frequently bought together. It's my opinion that they should always be bought together. They make great companion pieces that between them present a decent variety of trans experience.

A couple of caveats (because I can never be nice about anything without criticizing it):

Both books are written by cis women, which is a fact I do not love. Both protagonists bind using Ace bandages, which, like, your very first Google search on binding will tell you is not a great idea. Parrotfish exoticizes and fetishizes the love interest character in that discomfiting white-guilt overcompensation OMG people of color are so much more ~beautiful~ way, and fat-shames the little brother character.

Having said all that, I did very much enjoy both books, and I really would recommend reading both as a reminder that there is no trans metanarrative, that trans narratives are as many and varied as trans people themselves.. My favorite thing about the books was really the differences between them.

Grady, the protagonist and viewpoint character of Parrotfish, is the more relatable character for me personally. Like me, he's white and middle-class, and can rely on parental support. He doesn't pathologize his own body overmuch; he's nerdy and uninterested in bulking up; he locates himself “in the middle of the football field,” which is the image he uses for the gender spectrum.
This one has been going around Facebook lately. I improved on it:

A 9-dimensional hypercube almost begins to express a tiny fraction of the complexity of gender identity as I experience it.
There's some emphasis placed on the idea that Grady is uniquely positioned to understand both girls and boys, and to facilitate communication between them. This was borderline irritating, and I probably would have found it full-on obnoxious had it not been for the juxtaposition of J, who complains about not understanding girls even more than I did when I was a preteen.

One of the blurbs on my copy of I Am J hails J as a “tranny Holden Caulfield,” which nearly put me off right from the start; but actually I liked the fact that J is kind of an asshole. It's a refreshing counterpoint to the idea – somewhat present in Parrotfish, and absolutely all over the small amounts of Christian trans-acceptance stuff I've come across – that trans people's experiences make them uniquely and preciously empathetic. J is a self-absorbed seventeen-year-old trying to find his place in the world; being trans makes it harder, but it doesn't grant him superpowers.

“Being trans wasn't special, and yet it was. It was just good and bad and interesting and fucked-up and very human, like anything else.” – I Am J

J is a Jewto Rican whose parents are poorer than Grady's (and much less supportive of him). The struggles he faces in coming out are tougher than Grady's, but in some ways his gender identity seems a little more straightforward. He's just a guy. He's always know he was a guy. He's desperate for T, which I'm not sure Grady even mentions by name. Grady's journey is more cerebral, more like my own: lesbian identity as “a pit stop on the queer and confused highway,” then reading a lot of books and websites that bring him to the realization of his transness.

“I guess I'd just been thinking about it for so long that I forgot changing your gender was not even a question for most people. They just took for granted being a boy or a girl. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be so sure of yourself.” – Parrotfish

The power of bibliotherapy is that it can make you feel less alone. Reading multiple books about something you're struggling with is a crucial reminder that you are not doing this wrong. These two books in succession (even if they are both written by cis people) seemed to give me concrete evidence that it's okay to be trans* in whatever way you are trans*. (And also concrete evidence that I really need to get on with writing my great trans SF novel.)

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