The PEN America World Voices Festival, a weeklong international literary festival that focuses on human rights, is ongoing in New York City this week, and this year’s theme of gender and power seems more pertinent and urgent than ever. While over 150 writers from across the globe gather at the festival to bridge borders through the power of words, Electric Literature has opened its Recommended Reading archives to those of us who can’t be in NYC, offering eleven short stories and a poem that examine gender’s power and its bonds, that question its limitations and celebrate its liberation. Among the excellent selections—which cover topics from hyper-masculinity to feminism, sexual assault to eating disorders, gay love to black womanhood—it’s hard to choose what to highlight, but two stories that tear down the cisgender binary itself stand out. In “Little Boy” by Marina Perezagua, translated from Spanish by Jennifer Early, an intersex woman who survived the bombing of Hiroshima tells her story at the intersection of gender, war, and motherhood. And in Calvin Gimpelevich’s “You Wouldn’t Have Known About Me,” a man comes to know a group of women during his stay at a gender reassignment facility in a tender and visceral story about the body’s limitations and its beautiful possibilities.
In “Little Boy,” a young woman moves to Japan with her boyfriend and, while her relationship deteriorates around her, she gets to know her elderly neighbor known only as “H.” In a mix of broken English and Japanese, H. slowly reveals her story, starting the day in 1945 that the US dropped the atomic bomb from which the story gets its title on Hiroshima. In harrowing detail, H. describes the melted flesh of the blinded victims, the evaporated kimonos that left their prints seared into skinless bodies, the babies turned to ash in front of their mothers’ eyes. She details how two-thirds of her body was burned and her eyes were swollen shut and she couldn’t feel anything but pain—she couldn’t even tell if she was lying on her front or back in the hospital; her only indication was which way her urine pooled when she pissed herself. H. reveals such personal details and more, but it takes her a long time to divulge that she was born intersex and was forced to live as a boy before the bomb:
H. showed me a few photos from over the years, but they were all taken after the day of the attack. It surprised me that she used to say the bomb had had a positive effect on her appearance, and she couldn’t recognize herself in photos taken before that Monday, 6th August. She told me that the bomb had dared to change parts of her body that disgusted her, had sketched out new features that she later made permanent through surgery. This had seemed like a harsh statement, but at that point I still didn’t know that, before the attack, H. was already a victim, and out of all of those close to her, the bomb was the only one who could see her as she really was.
Gimpelevich’s “You Wouldn’t Have Known About Me” centers on the experience of a group of trans patients getting top or bottom surgery in a Canadian gender-reassignment clinic. The narrator, a trans man healing from top surgery, describes the new patients as they arrive for their own procedures, excited and nervous, with family or partners or alone:
Annie is wind burnt, bottle blonde, and wearing pink slippers. She was a pilot. Like me, testosterone has squared her face out, which makes her insist she can’t pass. Lisette, disagrees, says she’s just middle-aged. Lisette, herself, is narrow and golden, hair pulled in a loose bun. Her mother, darker, petite, worries her hands. She wants my thoughts on the surgeon, but one of the nurses cuts in to announce dinner and help me get off the couch. I lock my elbows into my ribs and let her pull on my hands. With enough clench my stomach takes most of the pressure and my shoulders don’t shift and then it isn’t so bad.
Gimpelevich doesn’t shy from the medical details, down to emptying the fluid from the drains placed in the narrator’s sides, or the patient América who uses dilators to expand her vaginal canal. The characters face these challenges head-on, with patience and grace. But the story isn’t merely about the process of transition, it’s about love—the love of family and the love of self. This love manifests when one woman applies her makeup before going into surgery even though the surgeons will wipe it off in the OR, and when two of the patients fool around one last time pre-surgery, and when the narrator holds another patient’s hand while she’s in pain, and when a mother keeps accidentally failing to use correct pronouns but catches herself and keeps trying, trying.
One thing that both “Little Boy” and “You Wouldn’t Have Known About Me” have in common is that they center the experiences of non-cisgender people while avoiding turning them into spectacle. The characters in Perezagua’s and Gimpelevich’s stories are nuanced and specific, and while both stories deal frankly and honestly with genitalia, the characters are never reduced to or defined by their anatomy. It can be a tricky thing in this society that often gawks at non-binary people, that asks inappropriate and invasive questions to transgender people, that is still largely ignorant of anything outside the cisgender binary, but both “Little Boy” and “You Wouldn’t Have Known” deal unflinchingly with the physiological aspects of being intersex and trans while also portraying their characters as full and complex and intricate human beings, people who are whole and whose identities are so much more than being male or female or trans or intersex or gay or straight or any of the many labels that are constantly placed on them. These stories also do the important work of centering populations that are still drastically underrepresented and marginalized even in our usually-progressive literary community. But more than all of this, Perezagua’s “Little Boy” and Gimpelevich’s “You Wouldn’t Have Known About Me” are breathtaking and intense, heart-swelling and eviscerating, and, above all, they are damn good stories.
Logo art by Max Winter.