On April 8th, CLA presented best-selling author Torrey Peters, and it was a night to remember! She read from her debut novel, Detransition, Baby, which follows “three women – trans and cis – whose lives collide after an unexpected pregnancy forces them to confront their deepest desires around gender, motherhood, and sex.” (We highly encourage you to check out Ian Munoz’s fabulous book review of Detransition, Baby here!). Peters read from three distinct sections of her novel, illuminating the work’s range, depth, and impact. As Peters read, she occasionally paused during or between readings to offer the audience context or pockets of humor. In doing so, Peters cultivated an atmosphere of inclusivity, which extended to her one-on-one discussion with Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us and Island of a Thousand Mirrors.
Nayomi Munaweera began the discussion by inquiring about Toni Morrison and other minority writers’ influence on Peters’s journey. Peters explained that historically books published by trans authors imagined a cis audience, which framed their work. Pushing against this, Peters’ 2012 NYC writing group, which was comprised of trans writers, wrote for one another. That is, they centered themselves as the audience which subverts traditional literary patterns of trans literary perspectives and experiences being marginalized. Peters further noted that this idea was informed by the artistic objectives of minority writers and, more specifically, Toni Morrison, who rejected self-censorship to appease a white gaze.
Peters and her NYC writing group's move to radically and intentionally reject heteronormative literary expectations had a few effects.
“It meant that we didn’t have to slow down when we were writing. . . . When you’re writing for a trans woman, you get to write at a full out sprint. You get to use language that you use with your friends.”
Writing minority literature shaped both why and how Torrey Peters writes.
The conversation then shifted to discuss possible pushback Peters received from the trans community concerning aspects of her text. While a controversial segment of her novel produced discussion surrounding who should have access to trans-women discourse, Torrey Peters illuminated a powerful observation concerning how people’s awareness of gender is being informed and shaped by the trans community. She explained,
“Dominant culture [picks] up the lenses of the minority culture and [takes] it [to see] themselves. This is the moment [for example] that white people [discover they] have a race. Reading works by black scholars or scholars of color. . . . This is the moment when straight people are like, ‘oops, I have a sexuality,’ and they define their sexuality by terms created by queer scholars. . . . Right now, we’re in the moment where cis people are like, ‘oh, we actually have genders.”
To say the least, Torrey Peters is a blisteringly smart and inquisitive individual. The way she located her work’s impact within a larger dialogue about gender identity and performance was illuminating. For example, Peters discussed social behaviors that reinforce expressions of masculinity in a humorous and informative manner, offering her own personal insights as well.
In this same vein, Munaweera asked a question concerning the regressive expressions of femininity presented in the character Reese from Detransition, Baby. The question provided Torrey Peters an opening to beautifully discuss how fiction provides unique opportunities to give characters problematic perspectives and see how they play out. In the case of Reese, she (the character) believes that a real woman's gender is affirmed through male violence.
Peters explained that the pervasive presence of violence against women in society aids in the shaping of what is a “good woman.” She cited popular culture that romanticizes abuse in heterosexual relationships, which affirms the concept of a “good woman” as it is intricately connected to violence. On the other hand, Peters revealed that trans women are not afforded the same opportunities to affirm their femininity. Instead, trans women are expected to be feminists that reject and challenge regressive presentations of femininity. From this, Peters said,
“I would argue that trans women are not seen as women [in society]. . . . So I wanted to give [gender reaffirmation] to Reese and have Reese embrace this [regressive expression of femininity]. . . .Then let her express those ideas, and over the course of the book, take a look at Reese and ask [if those ideas are brining her happiness]. ”
Consequently, situating Reese within a seemingly regressive relationship paradigm that challenges expectations of trans women as ostensible feminists unveils the power of fiction. Peters expressed that fiction has the capacity to state dangerous ideas and offer readers the breadth to decide which ideas they will embrace or eschew.
What is undoubtedly clear is that Torrey Peters is the type of author and individual to cultivate a safe space from which those who inhabit her sphere feel seen and respected while never negotiating herself. In the same manner, Detransition, Baby is an unapologetic literary art piece that invites audiences of diverse backgrounds to step outside of their familiar worlds, but it never negotiates its attention to the trans woman community. CLA has been honored to have Torrey Peters as our guest. If you have yet to read her debut novel, we highly suggest that you buy a copy here!
Up next on the CLA docket is Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen to close out our Spring 2022 Reading Series! For more information, head on over to Reading Series.