Described by Roland Barthes as ‘a marbled, iridescent text’ in which ‘we are gorged with language’, Severo Sarduy’s Cobra (1972) is a novel about a drag queen from the Lyrical Theatre of Dolls, and his/her quest for physical transformation. It’s also a novel about writing, and its transformative possibilities. In Cobra’s opening pages, its narrator deliberates on the nature and purpose of literature, arguing first that ‘writing is the art of digression’, then that it is ‘the art of recreating reality’ and then ‘the art of restoring history’.
This latter principle intrigued me when I first read Cobra. It was 2005. I was 23, a few years before starting my own transition, and it was this book that made me realise how little literature I’d found about trans people – drag queens, transvestites, transsexual, non-binary or whatever – by trans people. As much as I enjoyed Cobra, I realised instinctively it wasn’t that: years later, French activist and filmmaker Hélène Hazera told me it was ‘a gay man’s fantasy of what trans living is like’. Up until that point, most of the ‘LGBT’ novels and plays I’d sought out were by gay men – Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet and Copi, and (of course) Oscar Wilde – or queer women such as Radclyffe Hall or Virginia Woolf.
These writers made me feel I could picture myself, and other trans people like me, within literary culture, but the absences inspired me as much as what was present. They depicted people who cross-dressed, and in Hall’s case, a protagonist with the name ‘Stephen’ who was assigned female at birth and identified as an ‘invert’, but I couldn’t find anything with a major character who was openly trans, or which explored trans history, politics or culture in any depth. So, I decided to write a set of short stories about a range of trans people in different times and places, using a different form for each one, to be called Variations.
Around the same time, I discovered a wave of 1990s trans theorists, mostly North American, who encouraged trans people to write openly about their experiences, to counter negative portrayals in mass media and their political repercussions. Sandy Stone told trans people to think of themselves as ‘a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption . . . has yet to be explored’; Kate Bornstein asked if the creation of a ‘transgendered writing style’ could produce an ‘identification with a transgendered experience’, putting a trans spin on Héléne Cixous’ influential ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975), which implored women to write about their embodiment.
I could never have hoped to attempt Variations without these thinkers, though as it turned out, it took many years for those initial ideas to develop, and I needed to both write and live more before I could complete it: I did not start the version that has just been published by Influx Press until 2015.
By then, far more theory had been published, but still very little fiction, especially outside the US and Canada. My original concept for Variations – of a range of trans stories across many times and places – was too broad: I decided I would explore the history of trans people in the UK, from the Victorian period to the present, looking at how they interacted with politics and the law, sexology and the health service, the media and each other. Sarduy’s processes in Cobra of ‘recreating reality’ and ‘restoring history’ were important, but so was his narrator’s ‘art of disorganising an order and organising a disorder’.
In the short stories I’d written before, I often inserted a fictional protagonist into a real-life scenario to make elements of that scenario cohere around that protagonist, devising my central character to draw out whichever subtexts I wanted to explore. Several of my Variations took historical events as their starting point, from a 1846 newspaper report of a cross-dresser tried for ‘frequenting the public streets for an unlawful purpose’ to Time’s influential 2014 article, ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, via the Alternative Miss World pageant in 1978 and the protest against Clause 28 in Manchester in 1988, but my desire to see someone like myself within literary culture led me to set one story in particular, ‘A Wo/Man of No Importance’, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895.
For this, I created a character called Arthur – sometimes Anthea – Parr, a young writer who moves from Manchester to London to enter the circle around the fin-de-siècle art and literature journal The Yellow Book, and hold drag balls in London’s clandestine queer underground. This to me was ‘experimental’ writing in its purest sense, of testing a thesis: what if someone with an irrepressible drive to cross-dress had entered that Decadent literary scene? Such a character could bring out the scene’s proto-trans elements, such as Wilde’s obsession with the Victorian cross-dressers Boulton and Park – whose high-profile trial collapsed in 1871 when the court realised it didn’t have a watertight law under which to charge them. Or the discovery by police of quantities of women’s clothing when they arrested Alfred Taylor, who was tried alongside Wilde under the ‘gross indecency’ clause of the Criminal Law Amendment Act passed in 1885.
In my story, these became key details in a narrative driven by Parr’s determination both to write a trans/queer short story and to live it, and the conflict this brought with the Yellow Book crowd, concerned at the potential legal ramifications when the Wilde trial already put them under scrutiny. I decided, however, that while the story should be created around a character like Parr, it should not necessarily be in Parr’s voice. Instead, I made my narrator anonymous, recounting the events twenty years later in an ultimately unpublished pamphlet, raising questions about who gets to speak, and the processes by which trans voices had been silenced.
I asked myself about every protagonist in Variations: what would I have done in their situation? What advice would I have given them? Would I have liked them? I would doubtless have kept my distance from Parr, knowing (like my narrator) that his irrepressible nature spelt trouble, but I inhabited Parr more than any other character, especially when reading ‘A Wo/Man of No Importance’ to an audience at the Oscar Wilde Temple at Studio Voltaire in November 2018, dressed in the kind of late Victorian costume that Parr may have worn to the story’s pivotal drag ball. Creating a sense of community around the book felt vital: at its heart, Variations is an act of kindness towards trans people, restoring them into a history from which they have often been erased, recreating reality in a way I hope Sarduy – and not to mention Wilde – would have appreciated.
Image © Sheila Tostes