Thursday, March 26, 2009

Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian

I'm getting back on the horse and making time to read once again. I had to take a little break there for a while, and now that I spend so much time outside with my adorable puppies, I'm finally getting back into reading.

I picked up Trans-Sister Radio at McKays Used Books and thought it sounded intriguing since I had recently seen an episode of 20/20 titled, " 'I'm a Girl' - Understanding Transgender Children". I was so moved by this show, I thought it was just heartbreaking to see these kids born physically inside one body and hormonally born with the other. I also recently saw an episode of Private Practice, where they discussed the birth of a hermaphrodite baby and the burden placed on the parents to choose this child's fate as to which sex it should be. These issues are rarely discussed in our society and I think people are afraid to recognize how real they are. What if something like this happened to your child, or your best friend's child? How would you respond? How would you love them and encourage them through it?

The book was definitely interesting, though there were issues touched on that even made me a bit uncomfortable. It's not a memoir or a biography, it is a work of fiction. I definitely wouldn't say run out and read this, if your not prepared to keep an open mind on what these lifestyles and issues can include. But nonetheless, I'm glad I read it, for I believe it gave me some insight into the struggles and thoughts of people who live their lives with these circumstances.

Description: This sympathetic novel about the effect of a sex change on a romantic relationship, a family, and a community could almost be sold as a textbook--a kind of transgender Guide to the Perplexed. With its calming tone and scrupulous sensitivity to the feelings of all involved, it sometimes reads like a textbook, too. But while nobody is likely to launch a protest campaign over the cautious revelations of Trans-sister Radio, that's precisely the subject of Chris Bohjalian's seventh novel, in which a male college professor in a small Vermont town transforms himself into a woman. Even Dana Stevens's initial step in this direction--donning women's clothing--elicits a powerful reaction from the community.

And what about Dana's new girlfriend Allie Banks, a beloved local schoolteacher who fell in love with him before learning of his plan? Her initial instinct is to end the relationship. Then she decides to stand by Dana, inspired rather than daunted by her stuffy ex-husband Will's opposition to the "effeminate" guy she's dating, and by the horrified reactions of the parents at her school. She does, it's true, continue to love Dana after the sex reassignment surgery. And she stoically endures the threatening notes in her school mailbox and the crude graffiti on her front door, as well as the minor vindication of a local public radio story on their battle. Yet Allie never makes the emotional shift from heterosexual woman to lesbian. Breaking off the affair, she spends months mourning the man she had fallen in love with.

Assuming, as we are meant to, that Dana is outwardly becoming the person she always was inside--that biology is anything but destiny--there's only one character who undergoes a profound change over the course of the novel.
Structuring his story around the transcript of a fictional National Public Radio feature on transgender, Bohjalian shifts the point of view with every chapter: the characters often seem to be enlarging on comments they had made for broadcast. We hear from Dana, Allie, and Will in turn, as well as Carly, the daughter of the divorced couple. In this sense, Trans-sister Radio gives everyone equal time. And for good or ill, it has none of the bluster or transgressive charge of Gore Vidal's late-1960s bombshell, Myra Breckinridge. Instead it brings transgender home, rendering it (to quote Dana herself) "domestic as a balloon shade or a perennial garden. And just as harmless." --Regina Marler

Rating: ***

Recommend: I think it takes a certain audience to process this kind of material.


Ti said...

When I was in college, we analyzed a case study that involved a young child, in school, that was dressed only in neutral colors and had features that weren't gender specific. Basically the findings stated that the child did not lean towards one gender or another because no one attached any stereotypes to him/her. I thought that was interesting. Your review made me think if it again.

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of Bohjalian, and I personally LOVED this book. I just thought it was one of the most interesting ideas for a novel, and he pulled it off so well - I got so drawn in to these characters' lives. If you haven't read another Bohjalian, I'd suggest Midwives as well.

Anonymous said...

The book "Middlesex" also deals with this topic, if you are interested in reading more fiction along the same lines.