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  • Is the Trans in Transnational the Trans in Transgender?
  • Jessica Berman (bio)

When Orlando falls into his transformative trance at the midpoint of Virginia Woolf's romp of a novel, he is an agent of the British Empire in Constantinople, at the moment of receiving his newly conferred Dukedom. The ceremony is a pageant of Empire, which gathers "people of all nationalities" to celebrate Orlando's status, while the text makes frequent reference to the show of British superiority in this event.1 Yet, awakening as female, Orlando also awakens to life with the Gypsies, abandoning, for a time, not only the ambassadorial dwelling and its trappings of imperial power, but also his/her national identity. Orlando "dressed herself in those Turkish coats and trousers which can be worn indifferently by either sex" and then rode off where s/he had "often … longed to be" (103–04). In the following chapter, upon her return to England as female, Orlando discovers the ongoing disjunction between outward gendered appearance and inward sex, and the narrator remarks that "often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above" (139).

Scholars have often explored these moments of the novel as part of Woolf's critique of imperial masculinity and, more recently, as episodes in her work where Woolf both "extends and works against" modernist racialized aesthetics, "establishing a place for the sexually polymorphous white woman … and … contesting the ideological parameters of national inclusion."2 But only a few scholarly examinations of Orlando begin from a transsexual or transgender perspective.3 In fact, the fantastic or modernist elements of the novel have sometimes been read as disrupting any representation of "real" transgender experience.4 [End Page 217] Even fewer scholars have linked the process of sex and gender transformation that Orlando undergoes in the middle chapters of the novel directly to his/her transnational movement and to our ability to read the novel within a transnational frame of reference.5

To the contrary, I begin with this episode to highlight the paired critique of national and sexual identification in Orlando, and to point out its implications for our efforts to build a global critical perspective on early twentieth-century literature. Woolf's novel, like other twentieth-century narratives, demands to be read as what I call a "trans" text, one that challenges prevailing assumptions about national belonging and scenes of reading, asking to be situated in the context of transnational modernism or twentieth-century "world literature" at the same time as it raises the question of gender and sexual identity as a constitutive dimension of those critical categories.6 This kind of a "trans" text challenges the normative dimensions of regimes of nationality and disrupts the systems of embodied identity that undergird them. It pushes us to recognize that any discussion of transnational or world literature must also attend to the assumptions of embodiment and gender identity that are attached to the concept of the nation. By attending to the "trans" dimensions of Orlando as well as later work by Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Jan Morris, and Iqbalunnisa Hussain, I will suggest that we reframe the conversation about transnational, world, or planetary literature to better acknowledge the centrality of sexuality, embodiment, and gender to national and transnational categories of belonging—along with any critique of them—as well as to better recognize the importance of transgender theory to our understanding of modernism/modernity and twentieth-century global literature.7


To be sure, by situating Orlando's gender transformation in Constantinople, Woolf drapes it in familiar Orientalist garb—the fluid Turkish trousers seem to offer options of identity not available in England; his encounter with Eastern otherness cloaks Orlando in transformative mystery (Johnson, "Writing the Land," 106). Woolf clearly participates in a British tradition that deploys Turkey as the exotic border between East and West, the site of desire and possibility.8 Yet reading Orlando as a trans text also asks us to see how far Woolf moves beyond the easy mobilization of Turkey as an Orientalist trope, or the simple codification of transgender identity as...


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