The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.
Writing a novel is like being transgender, because both often require the most daring leap of imagination. One asks of an author to create a world that has not existed before, while the other requires a person to believe in the sentience of a self that the world tells them couldn’t and shouldn’t exist. Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox dares to conjure a world in which Jack Sheppard—the notorious thief and working class hero of eighteenth-century England—is a modern transgender man, so convincingly that the reader is left to question the worth of accepted fact over what they perceive to be fiction; this too has something in common with what we trans folks have to deal with as we navigate our transitions, daring to challenge others’ perceptions of what to us is the deepest truth.
In Confessions, Rosenberg asks this vital question: just because no one has written about trans people in the eighteenth-century England, does this mean such persons didn’t exist? How can we actually know when that society systematically prevented those who were not white, straight, cisgender, male, and rich from circulating their versions of the world? What we know of that world is nothing but what those in power have conjured, and Rosenberg’s book acts as a counter-history not just of trans people but a whole community of oppressed and marginalized people, so deftly rendered that it not only sets itself against and beside received narratives, but demands to be read and re-read for generations to come.
It’s also fitting that the central story in Confessions is wrapped within the shell of another narrative, that of disgruntled university professor Dr. R. Voth, also a trans man, who finds the manuscript that contains Sheppard’s tale. He maneuvers through a dystopian, ultra-corporate university system that is too close to our current one for comfort, while documenting his travails both personal and professional in footnotes that are cheeky, alarming, and incisive.
Rosenberg himself is a professor of eighteenth-century English literature, and it’s tempting to read Voth as a skewed projection of a contemporary academic’s journey, the way I imagine that he must have labored on this novel for many years without much institutional support, as academic literature departments (I’ve belonged to a number, including Rosenberg’s PhD alma mater Cornell), often view creators of literature with suspicion and vice versa, so that Confessions as the brilliant product of both authorial imagination and academic scholarship must have faced many obstacles towards fruition. Moreover, at a time when trans issues have garnered outsized attention in media yet trans creators continue to be subject to widespread discrimination and harassment—often in educational settings—it’s all the more reason to celebrate this great novel about a trans person that was written by an actual trans person.
Confessions belongs in any queer syllabus because those who deny trans people’s existence continue under the mistaken assumption that we are a contemporary anomaly of Western medicine, rather than who we actually are, a people who have existed as long as people have existed. As someone born in the Philippines, a society that possesses a long indigenous tradition where third-gender babaylan occupied an esteemed place in precolonial society, this is a conviction I feel in my very depths and see in the eyes of trans and gender-nonconforming people from my country. But here in the US, I have looked into the eyes even of those who consider themselves our allies and seen skepticism, looked even in the eyes of other trans people and seen them doubt their own courage and power. I find it hard to imagine anyone—cis or trans—reading Confessions without regarding us in awe, without understanding that we come from countless generations of enlightenment and strength, a legacy that Rosenberg embodies, both through the characters in his singular novel and in his very writing of it.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.