Dr Yves Rees is the winner of the Australian Book Review 2020 Calibre Essay Prize, for their essay Reading the mess backwards. Rees is an historian, a writer and a podcaster. They co-host Archive Fever history podcast and co-founded Spilling the T, a transmasculine writing collective launched this year. As Rees put it, their winning essay is “a story of trans becoming that digs into the messiness of bodies, gender and identity”. We spoke with Rees about the writing process, the importance of trans memoirs, and how bodies exist in the world.
Right Now: I was thinking about your essay and the way it’s both essay and memoir. And I was wondering what you think about the power, or the usefulness, of that hybridisation between the two forms?
Yves Rees: Yeah, that’s really good question. And something I’ve thought about quite a lot. I’m drawn to both writing and reading the memoir genre, because I think personal stories are incredibly powerful at connecting to other people and building empathy and living in someone else’s shoes. I read heaps of memoir. I think a memoir can do political work that straight non-fiction, factual, essayistic writing often struggles to do, because it has that added personal connection. But memoir alone can potentially be apolitical and just tell a story. So, I really like the memoir-essay hybrid because you can tell that personal story, make those connections, but also connect it to broader structural, social, political issues. And in the case of my essay those issues are about gender identity, bodies, queerness, mental health, things like that.
RN: And does that come quite naturally to you as an academic as well? Re-employing that form in different ways?
YR: My academic training, my training as an historian, has trained me to always think historically and structurally, to always see individual lives, individual experiences in their broader social, cultural, historical context. So, thinking in those terms comes naturally. I don’t really know if writing in that way is a product of my academic training. Academic writing has a reputation for being pretty dense, and often just a bit clunky and ugly. There are obviously exceptions to that rule, but I think it is often a deserved reputation. So, in many ways I’m working against my academic training in trying to write essays that are elegantly written and accessible.
RN: That brings me to something else I was wondering about. Your essay is a really precise collection of memories and thoughts that span many years, and at no point was I lost, but how difficult was it to pull those, I suppose, disparate experiences together into one narrative? Did that come easily?
YR: Yeah, it did come easily. I wrote it reasonably quickly and it kind of just came out of me. I’ve been holding these experiences inside me and trying to understand how they all fitted together for so many years. Over the last few years, as I began to make sense of them in my mind, that narrative all tumbled out in one go. I edited the text, but I didn’t do a lot of structural editing and thinking, “How does it all fit together? How do I make it make sense?” It just came out as I wanted to tell it.
RN: When you wrote, did you have a readership in mind? Were you thinking about cisgender people or trans and gender-diverse people, or neither or both?
YR: My ideal readership is to speak to both cis and trans. As a trans person myself, I know how incredibly important it can be to find pieces of writing that speak to your experience and make you feel less alone. One of the hardest things about being trans is just how incredibly isolating it is and how so often one doesn’t even know any other trans people, at least to begin with. For me at least, it was through reading memoir and life writing that I really first found my sense of community and those words helped me articulate my identity. I wanted to give that back, in a sense, to trans readers. But I also want to reach cisgender readers because I think there’s a very poor understanding of trans issues in contemporary Australia, particularly in regard to non-binary trans and gender-diverse identities. And I’m very conscious of the ways in which compared to many trans people, I’m incredibly privileged. The trans community in general is extremely marginalized and have very high rates of unemployment and homelessness and disease. I’m kind of an outlier in that I’m upper middle class and highly educated, I have an academic job and I’m white. So, I suppose I feel a responsibility to use that relative privilege to do some educational work, trying to build empathy and understanding among cisgender readers.
RN: You’re also an educator in another sense, already. Does that help you with that job?
YR: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. When you come out as trans you just have to do so much work educating the people in your life, your immediate friends and family, to get them to understand. I think my desire to educate a cis audience came from that. This sense that I’ve had to do all this work, I’ve had to learn this vocabulary, I’ve had to learn what kind of sentences and metaphors will help people understand. Having done this labour, I might as well try and do it on a bigger stage.
RN: Speaking of language, in your essay you mentioned that there was no language for what you were experiencing at the time, or you didn’t know it – it wasn’t part of the public vernacular. How different do you imagine it would have been if that language existed?
YR: Oh, hugely different. I look at people not that much younger than me, ten or 15 years younger than me, coming of age at a time where that language does exist, and how people in their teens and early 20s now seem to have a willingness to identify as queer or somewhere within the trans and gender-diverse spectrum, which simply didn’t exist when I was that age. There are obviously complex factors in play, but I think a lot of it has to do with the sense of having a language and a vocabulary around these terms. And interestingly since I published my essay a number of women who are older than me – Gen X, baby boomer age women – have contacted me saying, “I had a really similar childhood, I felt very similarly about my gender and my body growing up, but it would never occur to me to identify as non-binary or transmasc at any point in my life, because those concepts didn’t exist”.
RN: I was reading an article you wrote in ABR, “Writing trans and gender-diverse lives,” and you were talking about the importance of popular trans memoirs to help build empathy and reduce stigma and educate the public. But you also identified a certain danger in one type of trans narrative becoming the standard understanding of trans experiences. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? Does this essay respond to those narratives?
YR: The conventional trans memoir narrative is that, “I was born in the wrong body, I had all this trauma, and then I came out as trans and transitioned medically and socially to the other side of the gender binary, and I found myself and everything was resolved.” That’s the caricatured version of that narrative. That’s certainly the true experience of some people. But the trans and gender-diverse community’s experience is incredibly diverse. And a lot of people don’t have that experience. For a lot of people, myself included, neither side of the binary feels like home. There’s a lack of cultural representation of what it means to somehow exist in this messy, indeterminate space. My essay was partly an attempt to articulate a different type of trans narrative that didn’t have a neat resolution, one that was open-ended, and was at ease with that indeterminacy.
RN: You cite Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in your essay. Are there other texts which have stood out to you, or been formative to you, as a writer and as a trans person?
YR: Well, The Argonauts has a pretty special place in my journey. That’s the book that made me first question my gender identity. I read it shortly after it was published in early 2016, and it totally shattered and reconstructed my view of myself and the world. But books all along the way have been so pivotal to understanding who or what I might be if I wasn’t cis. Because I know a lot of trans people now, but I didn’t three years ago. The works of Thomas Page McBee have been hugely important to me. He’s a US trans writer who has written several memoirs. Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg was also really significant. I’ve also gained much from Queerstories, a live storytelling event. It’s run by Maeve Marsden, who is Sydney-based, but there are events in other cities as well and it’s a podcast. Also, Quinn Eades, who is a colleague of mine at La Trobe, has been a really important figure in articulating a transmasculine literary voice Australia.
RN: I was looking at some of your academic work, and your essay from 2012 about the Australian body and nationalism. In the essay you examine “the body” as a site for the construction and performance of Australian identities in interwar London. It’s a totally different story, but it just made me wonder, as an historian, have you also been an expert in thinking about all types of bodies and their experiences and their political roles?
YR: Academics often say, “Our academic interests are not accidental”. They’re deeply personal. And I think I was writing about bodies back in 2012, or I first started researching that piece in 2010, because I was trying to understand my own body and make sense of it in the world, and this was an intellectual way in. We don’t talk enough in general conversation about how the ways in which bodies are imagined is deeply political. There’s the kind of obvious gendered and racialised aspects, but also the ways in which different national communities are seen to have certain types of bodies and may become bearers of certain kinds of visions of nationality, which is what I talked about in that article. I’ve always been really interested in the way ideas relate to flesh and blood or how bodies exist in the world.