Writing for a Trans Audience: Talking with Torrey Peters
Torrey Peters’s debut novel Detransition, Baby, released from One World last week, is about three women—trans and cis—who plan to raise a baby together and create a family. It’s an ambitious, funny, and alive novel about transitioning, motherhood, and community. Early on in the novel, the protagonist Reese reflects that “while a trans woman might have been a muse, no one wanted art in which she spoke for herself.” Detransition, Baby is a clever rejection of that notion; Peters centers trans women’s voices, and explores, with wit and compassion, the complexities and truths of their lives.
Torrey Peters is the author of two novellas, The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Masters in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth. She grew up in Chicago, and splits her time between Brooklyn and an off-grid cabin in Vermont.
I first met Torrey Peters in 2014 in Portland, Oregon at a reading for Topside Press, a now-defunct indie press that published works about trans people written by trans people. Though I haven’t seen Torrey since then, I’ve eagerly kept up with her writing and also followed her on social media as she traveled around the country on her motorcycle. After I read Detransition, Baby, I couldn’t stop thinking about the novel, and couldn’t wait to talk with Peters about it. We chatted via a shared Google doc, which at first seemed strange—Peters said it was like we were corresponding “through an Ouija board or a ghost”—but it didn’t take long for us to adjust, as we discussed writing for trans audiences, mother figures, and the power of humor.
The Rumpus: Let’s start by talking about the title. Detransitioning is such a controversial subject, and as you illustrate in the novel, a lot of trans people would rather not discuss it—I think because it’s just not very common, and because the right uses detransitioning stories to fuel a transphobic agenda, similar to the ex-gay phenomenon. Why did you want to write about detransitioning, and did you have reservations about doing so?
Torrey Peters: The title is a pun, but I also think of it as a condition, where the comma is a painful knife’s edge that you walk as a trans woman. I wanted to fall off in one of two directions: to one side, if I could have a baby, be a mother, I think I would have felt a kind of legitimacy. In the other direction, if I could have found out a way to live comfortably in some kind of detransitioned state. These two options are represented by the characters.
Personally, I don’t have many reservations about using the word “detransition.” Detransition is always a looming option that floats out there for a trans woman if things get too hard, so we should be allowed to speak about it. The reason some people do detransition isn’t because they aren’t trans, but because the world makes it hard to live as a trans woman. I’ve been told that I should use the words “multiple transitions,” that this is the correct, proper, unoffensive phrase. But if I were to decide to live as a man, that’s not how it would feel to me; it would feel like a detransition. That word floats out there as a possibility for me, and so I feel like I own it, it’s mine—it doesn’t belong to the anti-trans crusaders—and I refuse to let them or anyone convinced by them take it from me.
Rumpus: Right, that makes so much sense. And, in the novel, Ames’s detransition doesn’t mean that Ames isn’t still trans. You portray Ames’s story with such complexity and richness. All the characters are so complicated, flawed, and empathetic. Reese and Ames are the central characters, and even though you don’t go into her perspective, Katrina is also a major character and key to the plot. I’m curious whose voice or which character came to your first, and if you can tell me more about writing these characters?
Peters: Reese probably came to me first. I wrote a scene, which isn’t in the book, where a girl demands sushi from a Grindr hookup (based on something I did once)—and the voice was Reese. But I didn’t know what to do with this voice. Then, I started writing about dissociation, how it feels to move through the world in a really dissociated state.
A short anecdote: I went to Mexico to take care of a friend who had surgery. But my passport hadn’t yet been changed. So I decided to wear this old suit—a sort of Reservoir Dogs suit that was the item of clothing that I hadn’t thrown away from pre-transition. So I thought, I’ll just be this weirdo in a black suit, and that will be how I reconcile the M in my passport in customs. Only then the airline lost all my other luggage. And I was actually in a pretty sad place in my life, having gone through a couple of breakups, and not having a job and stuff. So, I wandered around Guadalajara in this black suit, mumbling like I was the lost androgynous character from Reservoir Dogs, and it was just like, a moment of high dissociation, and also the thought loomed for me: what if I just never went back? It hurt less. And that was Ames.
Rumpus: Wow, that’s so intense and moving. It makes sense that Ames grew out of this place of dissociation, which I think many trans people have experienced on some level. When Reese and Ames were girlfriends, Reese was also a kind of mentor to Ames, who was just starting to come out and “learning to be a woman.” This is such a vital part of many trans people’s experience—discovering mentors or parental figures, and learning how to be a woman or man, which is to say, how to be ourselves.
This aspect of their relationship connects to the novel’s larger theme of motherhood. There is also this incredibly powerful section in the novel where you write about orphaned elephants, comparing them to trans women, who have also been orphaned, in a way—since so many older trans women did not survive. Was that something you always wanted to explore, this aspect of trans relationships and nurturing/mothering, in a book about potential motherhood, or did that unfold as the novel developed?
Peters: The orphaned elephants section was one of the first things I wrote; I just didn’t know where to put it for a long time. I also didn’t know how to talk about the fact that trans women who are the same age have ended up raising each other and teaching each other, and how that creates hierarchies and hurts within communities. I still don’t always know what to do with it, how to navigate it. Closeted trans women—total strangers!—write me occasionally, and although they don’t put it in these terms, essentially they ask me to mother them, to teach them how to be women and make their way in the world. And when I reject them (as kindly as I can), because I’m busy and I’ve become an adult who has learned the importance of boundaries, they lash out! I wish there was a defined and established generational process, where elders can teach just-out girls. That culture and process exists in pockets of trans culture, but it isn’t widespread. I have a couple of trans mother figures myself and a couple of trans daughter figures. I don’t feel I can be responsible for every lost trans girl, even though my heart aches for them. Instead, I hope that through my stories, other girls slowly learn the joy of caring for each other—I don’t mean trans people as an entire class of people; it’s easy to get boundaries confused that way—I mean the other specific individual trans girls who you want in your life.
Rumpus: Something I loved so much about this book was how you wrote from inside the trans women’s and queer communities. It felt free from the cis, straight gaze. But, at the same time, the novel is open and generous, not closed off to cis or straight readers, and probably will introduce many readers to lives, and a culture, that they never thought much about. So, this is a two-fold question. The first part I’m a hesitant to ask because I feel like straight, cis, white male authors never get asked this question, but I know it’s something you’ve talked about and is important to you: Who is your audience?
The second part: How did you navigate writing a novel that will speak directly to trans women but also engage other readers without hitting readers over the head with obvious Trans 101 lessons? Do you have any particular strategies? I think that’s something so many trans writers struggle with, including myself.
Peters: Well, to the first question: I think that straight, cis, white male authors ought to think more about audience, not for political reasons, but just I think if they did more of them would be great writers—I’d argue the very best ones already do! For myself, I used to not think too much about it, and that was a period when I wasn’t that good a writer. I wrote for everybody and nobody—and as usual when people do that, the nobody option became my readership.
But, after I transitioned, I read some books by trans women who were all friends with each other—Imogen Binnie, Casey Plett, and Sybil Lamb—and the books felt so true. I saw it happened because they were writing for each other, and by extension, for other trans women. When they imagined writing for a trans audience, their stories became one hundred percent story, instead of like ninety percent Trans 101 and ten percent story. It is honestly so much harder to impress a trans person when you talk about trans stuff. Cis people get so excited about hormones or whatever, but trans people yawn. So, the bar is really high. But the great thing is: if you clear that bar, and impress trans people, it turns out that cis people can keep up! Cis people like ambitious work written at a flat-out sprint, too! It’s something that I see in other minority or marginalized writing. Toni Morrison famously wrote for other Black women, and it turns out, everyone else feels her words, too.
In the case of Detransition, Baby, I began to think less in terms of identity, however, and more in terms of affinity. I felt that I had an affinity with divorced cis women. That divorced cis women had to remake their lives in a manner similar to gender transition. And so that’s where Katrina came from. Katrina is sort of like, a new member of my audience—I looked for an address that spoke to trans women, but also spoke to divorced cis women. I hope the next book I write finds yet another level of affinity.
Rumpus: I love that idea of writing with affinity and writing to your audience—that cis readers will keep up (or they won’t). Trans people don’t often get to see ourselves reflected in literature or film, and if a story does include a trans character, that storyline is typically a tragedy. You write hard truths about the inequities that trans women face, about the violence against trans women and high rates of suicide. But this novel is not a tragic story; it’s a very funny and witty book. Do you think humor and satire gave you another way to reframe how trans characters and stories are typically portrayed? What drew you to using humor as a way to talk about trans lives and experiences?
Peters: What’s that old saying? Humor is just tragedy plus time? Because this novel took me like five years between starting it and it now getting published, stuff that first seemed tragic had grown funny. I’m pretty deeply ensconced in the trans community, and the complaints that you hear tend to recur, and recur so often that they become either intolerable or funny. Without really meaning to, that’s the place I started writing from. There are some things that happen in this book that are intolerable, but even more, there’s a lot about being trans that I just find hilarious. I wrote the trans lifestyle as I experience it, which is with a lot of laughter.
I think equally, whether you’re trans or not, you gotta delight a reader. And laughter is a really good way to surprise a reader, to pull them through a book. A good plot and some laughter, and I’ll go pretty much anywhere as a reader.
Rumpus: In terms of the novel’s structure, you structure it around the time of conception. So the narrative shifts back and forth—from eight years before conception to twelve weeks after the conception. How and when did you figure out the structure for the novel, and did the structure inform the writing process—did you move back and forth in time as you were writing it? Or, what was the process?
Peters: I moved back and forth through time as I wrote. I tend to discover things about my characters as I discover their past. It was like, Why is Ames this way with Reese and Katrina? and then I could move back in time, to say, the scene at the Glamour Boutique, to learn who he was, what kind of experiences formed him. It’s a little bit how I slowly come to understand myself in my adult life. Like, Why am I like this, why did I do that? and then I think about childhood, or past relationships, and am like, Oh yeah, right: coping mechanisms, or trauma, or just simply habit and upbringing. That’s kind of the structure of the book.
And, I have always liked intertwining timelines, which, when done well, have the satisfaction of putting together a puzzle. A certain click of rightness when all the pieces fit.
Rumpus: This is your debut novel but you’ve published two novellas. The novella is such a forgotten and interesting form. What drew you to the novella, and did you always know that Detransition, Baby would be a novel? Was your writing process different for the novel?
Peters: The novellas were a project that I was really into around 2016. I had this idea that trans women could all self-publish novellas. That it would become a literary scene. It’s kind of the perfect length for creating community, I think. A novella, unlike a novel, might take three months to write, and that’s a reasonable amount of time, even if you are writing in precarious living or financial situations. They are small enough that they don’t cost much to print and ship. And they are short enough that other readers are willing to take an hour or so to see what they do. You can read one on a commute. So, I had this idea that I would subscribe to Adobe Suite and Lynda.com so that any trans woman who wanted to could log in with my passwords and design and publish her own novella. That we would just skip the gatekeepers of the publishing industry.
The idea didn’t exactly catch on right away. I think, now, I see it happening but there was a five-year lag. A lot of people I proposed it to were like, “No, this is everything hard about publishing with none of the possibility to make money.” So, I just went ahead and did it for myself as a model.
I had this idea that I was going to write five novellas, each in a different genre, addressing a different trans issue. So The Masker was horror, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones would be post-apocalyptic fiction, and Detransition, Baby would be a soap opera. However, it turns out soap operas are a really long format, and Detransition, Baby just got longer and longer, and soon it was clearly a novel, and then after two years, I was emotionally in a really different place than in 2016, and I just committed to it being a standalone project that had different goals than what I had first conceived. That’s also why I published it in a traditional manner.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting that this book began as a soap opera, like Tales of the City. I’m curious what the other two novellas were going to be about (or their genres), and if you plan on returning to them?
Peters: I don’t think I fully knew! But I can tell you now that my next project is a queer financial thriller, which I haven’t really seen before, but I have a vision for it that I’m excited about!
Rumpus: That sounds fantastic. Who do you turn to for inspiration when you’re writing? I’m curious if there were particular books you were reading or considering while you were writing Detransition, Baby, or if there are books you want this novel to be in conversation with?
Peters: About twice or three times a year I find a book that I get totally obsessed with, and usually it’s because they come from disparate places with lessons I can bring home and apply to trans lives. Like so many people, for a while I was obsessed with the Ferrante novels—I wanted that same ferocity and willingness to make choices for trans novels. Recently I’ve been obsessed with Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies—his manner of talking about identity and money feels really instructive to me for how to talk about trans lives. It actually is one of the inspirations for that queer financial thriller I mentioned above. Another inspiration in that regard was Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which just—to sound like a 90s stoner—kicked ass. It was just so kickass. I was like, wow, he detailed such a complex socioeconomic landscape, but also, it felt like being a little kid and reading my dad’s copy of The Stand. And then there are all the trans writers I really do feel like I’m directly in conversation with. T Fleischmann, Casey Plett, Kai Cheng Thom, Jamie Hood, Cooper Lee Bombardier, Davey Davis, yourself… I could go on for a long time.
Photograph of Torrey Peters by Natasha Gornik.