Book Review: Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques

July 17, 2020


Trans: A Memoir, Juliet Jacques
Verso Books, 2016

LGBTQ+ | Life-writing | Independent publishing

Juliet Jacques sets out to dismantle stereotypes of trans experience and to disrupt the trans autobiography. Jacques notes that transsexual autobiography has often, voyeuristically, focused on transition and gender reassignment surgery, and so Trans: A Memoir far exceeds this formula. We get an intimate and detailed portrait of Jacques’s self, constructed from her interests in music and culture, her employment history, writing career, mental health and a recognisably British landscape. She also illustrates the reality of gender reassignment as a lengthy process and sequence of systemic requirements, as well as the ongoing nature of problems post-transition, and not a ‘flipped switch’ moment in which all her problems are solved.

Jacques also wants to dissociate trans identity from the pervasive “trapped in the wrong body" narrative. Jacques explains that she never thought of her dysphoria in these terms and portrays the complex development of her gender identity over decades, which included experimentation with homosexuality, cross-dressing and drag. This experimentation, however, was often a result of limited awareness of different gender identities and the meaning of these ‘terms’, something which Jacques attributes to Section 28 policy which banned the schools from educating on homosexuality and queerness in 80s Britain. Section 28 is just one of the systemic problems facing trans people that Jacques exposes in this memoir; others being impeded routes to employment, benefits and sick leave.

Although Jacques sets out to disrupt the conventions of the transsexual autobiography, the memoir is more conventional in general autobiographical terms; it’s linear, consistently paced, and aside from the occasional theory-based sub-chapter, the form is traditional, making it easy to read. Jacques achieves her aims of disrupting trans stereotypes partly through the telling of her own experience and partly through queer theory and an enlightening historicisation of how such notions came about (for example, how the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ narrative became so prominent).

The theory, however, is not intimidating, usually discussed in terms of how Jacques came across theoretical concepts and how they reframed her thinking, with only a few more-heavily-theoretical sections which helpfully contextualise larger points. All use of theory in Trans: A Memoir is very readable and is far from the intensity of theoretical application in Testo Junkie.

Jacques’s storytelling is intimate and specific. She shines a light on the everyday in order to critique the larger socio-political systems that have created her experience of gender, but this focus on the everyday also bears witness to what it’s been like for her to live as a trans women. The telling of individual and 'micro' experiences of harassment tell a powerful story, as do the small moments of acceptance (for example when friendly shop assistants help Jacques find suitable women’s clothing without judgement); but the fact that these moments are so memorable to Jacques, shows that there is a long way to go in terms of acceptance of trans people.

Trans: A Memoir is a more-than-worthy read, but should be just one account in a larger selection of trans books on our shelves. Further reading might include Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia, or Julia Serano’s A Whipping Girl and Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie for more meaty, theoretical and important insights into trans and non-binary identity.**

Check out this Goodreads list for more trans reading

Please let me know your trans life-writing reading recommendations in the comments below, especially by authors from beyond the UK and the US, as my reading has hitherto been limited to British/American authors.

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