- Articulating Transgender Narratives
Rachel Carroll’s Transgender and the Literary Imagination: Changing Gender in Twentieth-Century Writing is a critical addition to the expanding field of trans literary studies.1 Two other recent publications of note in this field are TransGothic in Literature and Culture, edited by Jolene Zigarovich, and a special issue of Victorian Review on “Trans Victorians” that I guest edited.2 Both of these works are quite specific in their respective focus on the gothic and the Victorian; by contrast, Carroll takes on a range of literary genres by British, Irish, and American authors published between 1918 and 2000 as well as contemporary films that reimagine some of these earlier narratives. As Carroll notes in the introduction, “A key concern for this study is the way in which transgender lives―whether historical or fictional―have been ‘authored by others’: named, defined and appropriated in ways which obscure, displace or erase transgender experiences, identities [End Page 590] and histories” (1–2). Carroll’s book delivers a crucial rereading of twentieth-century trans narratives that have been misread, mis-identified, and mislabeled for decades.
Writing about trans literature is challenging when an author attempts to juggle feminist, queer, and trans theoretical frameworks because of the complex nature of how these theories build on and battle one another at the same time. As theories emerging out of identity politics, the ramifications of these heated disagreements have personal and political implications. Some factions of feminist critique ignore trans people and are openly hostile to trans identity; some factions of queer critique demand a focus on sexual orientation (often to the exclusion of asexual, bisexual, and/or pansexual people) with cisnormative assumptions; and, some factions of trans critique only recognize full and complete binary gender crossings and heterosexual relationships. Rachel Carroll navigates these waters brilliantly in the introduction by painstakingly taking on each of the theoretical areas that have often proven uncomfortable with trans writing, trans theories, and trans people.
In a section titled “The Empire Writes Back: Transgender and Feminism,” Carroll notes the complexity of this relationship: “Composed of competing, and even contradictory, histories, politics and discourses, this relationship has taken different forms at different times” (10). Carroll carefully analyzes feminist theory from the Second Wave that often vilified trans people―particularly trans women―as monstrous. She does not, however, get stuck in these frameworks, but moves beyond them to explore what she calls a “recuperation of the transgender subject within the field of feminist enquiry in the 1990’s and beyond” (13). Carroll draws attention to various trans feminist critics who “seek to emphasise the common cause which transgender studies and feminism share” (14). The succinct yet detailed study of the evolution of feminist thought where trans identity is concerned lays the groundwork for the profoundly feminist argument that Carroll makes throughout. Likewise, in the introductory section, “Troubling Transgender: Queer Theory and Performativity,” Carroll scrutinizes reductive queer understandings of Judith Butler’s theories about gender and performativity, noting that Butler’s theories about gender and performance are often oversimplified to create a shallow understanding of gender [End Page 591] as performance―something Butler certainly did not intend―and this gets translated into reading trans lives as performative. Carroll makes this crucial point: “while some drag performers may also be transgender people, the gender identity of transgender people is not a drag performance” (19). The final section of the introduction explores pulling the “T” out from under the LGBT umbrella, a place where trans and intersex people are often ignored. She also articulates the need for exploring intersecting identities within trans narratives. Her carefully plotted and nuanced introduction teases out the differences as well as the interrelationships between feminist, queer, and trans theories, a move integral to this book.
Transgender and the Literary Imagination is divided into six chapters that explore a range of texts from George Moore’s 1927 novella Albert Nobbs to Jackie Kay’s 1998 Trumpet. Utilizing Virginia Woolf’s 1928 trans, queer, and feminist fantasy Orlando...