What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
I was a slow starter when it came to reading, and I found it painfully difficult. I have Enid Blyton to thank for turning that around – and my mother, for switching characters’ names to combat some of the sexism. I went through a stage of needing to read at every available point – while eating, while walking, as a way to trick myself into falling asleep – and the various Oxford companions were great for that.
Your new book, Trans Like Me, sets out to ‘break down the most common myths about trans lives’. Which books first spurred you to question conventional gender binaries?
It wasn’t so much being spurred on by books as seeking out answers in books that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Bill’s New Frock by Anne Fine was a favourite when I was little; and when I got older and could access the internet for recommendations, I fell in love with the Dykes to Watch Out For series by Alison Bechdel and My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein. Visiting Gay’s the Word [bookshop in London] for the first time and being surrounded by books written by and for people like me was a crucial moment of my teenage coming out: I didn’t know a single other trans person except through books, which were a lifeline.
Which memoirs would you recommend as giving the most vivid and accurate accounts of trans experience?
I’d prefer to give two recommendations: the first for Janet Mock’s exquisite Redefining Realness, and the second for readers to move away from the memoir and look at other aspects of trans writing and scholarship. A good start would be the novels of Leslie Feinberg, history by Susan Stryker and cultural analysis by Julia Serano. As trans writers, we’re often pigeonholed by our personal experiences; focusing instead on the complete trans body of knowledge is far more freeing.
What books offer useful insights into forging the kind of world you would like to see?
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was given to me at a critical point in my life, and it made an enormous impression. That and the works of Audre Lorde – in particular Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Sister Outsider – inspire me by the ways in which they seek to challenge the game itself, and not just the players.
What is the last book that you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, to an old friend – it’s a great comfort. [But it’s] something she already knew, so now I have to think up a suitable replacement.
What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
It depends on the desk and the stack. I’m currently working through Susan McClary’s early essays, and trying to find the time for a leisurely read of my supervisor Lisa Colton’s latest book. But the aforementioned old friend realised that I’d never read Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – so those are waiting by the bed.
CN Lester is a doctoral student of music at the University of Huddersfield and the author of Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us (Virago).