A PHOTO ESSAY BY FIONA MAEVE GEIST
I started doing estrogen rituals about a year ago. I came out as trans sometime before that and had problems with medication for some time before I started injecting estrogen. Photography is your enemy when transitioning—or at least it is for me—because there is not a linear path of before/after especially when you had an inadequate hormone count for half a year. Traditionally, there is a tracked change of Week 1 on HRT, Week 2 on HRT, and so on; because so much focus was already put on my body and I was not able to focus on my appearance (always focus on your appearance in photography when transitioning) so I started taking photographs of my weekly shot (.4ml of 40mg/ml estradoil valerate) with books I was reading which evolved into a project of documenting something other than my changing body. The context in which I was changing rather than the body that was changing in the context. This is a list of 10 books that felt particularly relevant to this project. This is not an attempt to sketch out something like ‘10 books that are integral to being a trans woman in 2017’—I’m not arrogant enough to think I represent all or even most trans women—more modestly, it is an attempt to document why certain books were extremely meaningful to me while transitioning.
I would like to thank Sonya Taaffe, Molly Tanzer and Zak Sabbath Smith for being enthusiastic about their writing being included in my rituals—even if they didn’t make this list.
1. Whore (Nelly Arcan)—Arcan’s debut novel—a quasi autobiographical rant by a Quebecois escort deriding her clients, but also the relations that define her as a whore—has a sort of bleak humor and voluptuous cruelty. The narrator, Cynthia, holds court addressing her voiceless psychoanalyst (the reader) about the boredom of being an escort, her hatred/indifference towards her clients, what she considers the inherent competition between women. It’s never clear how serious Arcan is being when she makes claims about a female misogyny borne out of endless competition for the attentions of men. However, her caustic feelings about other women—frequently referring to them as Smurfettes, as the goal of all women is to be the only woman in the world, the center of all attention—is a good preparation for hardening one’s heart to cruelty. Specifically the cruelty of navigating a world where being an ersatz woman—in the eyes of others—opens one up to ridicule from women. A book to peruse while indifferently swiping on Tinder waiting for your phone alarm to tell you it is time to take your medication.
2. I’ve Got A Time Bomb (Sybil Lamb)—Lamb’s fiction by way of plausible deniability memoir, breaks with the trans lit fixation with being presentable; Lamb doesn’t seem to care if her reader even likes her, as she details a litany of crimes starting in the aftermath of Katrina and her recovery from a traumatic brain injury. If the mainstream trans obsession is being like cis people or, at a minimum, being liked by them is unbearable this is the way out. A book for when you feel vaguely guilty about laying a hex on a famous trans woman in the hopes that she will finally shut the fuck up.
3. White Girls (Hilton Als)—White Girls concerns itself with Hilton Als (gay, black, male) relationship to the figure of white women. I don’t think Als and I have the same relationship to that particular figure but we certainly are both defined by it. Als interrogates this relationship talking about a variety of white women that have defined his life (personally) and with a more meta approach to white womanhood—including his argument that for awhile Truman Capote embodied mythic white womanhood. Importantly—at least for me—Als asks how you can love something that despises you and takes gusto in an almost orgiastic meanness as he manages the complex juggling of both idolizing white womanhood while reading it to filth with gusto. A book for when you sincerely wonder how to determine if your feelings about other women qualify as misogyny.
4. She Said Destroy (Nadia Bulkin)—Nadia Bulkin’s debut collection contains a dazzling array of stories but of specific relevance to this list are: “And When She Was Bad” and “Girl, I Love You.” Detailing the complex relations of the Final Girl and monsters and an exploration of revenge centered by women’s friendship. The gulf between these two stories—in terms of content and tone—feels particularly poignant because it brings up a productive tension (at least for me) about what women are supposed to be (and all of Bulkin’s collection asks great questions, those two were just easiest for me to single out). Relevant to this list, these are stories for when you cry looking at a mirror and ask harsh questions about who the fuck is staring back at you.
5. Singing With All My Skin and Bone (Sunny Moraine)—Moraine’s collection has a wide ranging set of fascinations drones, sex, violence, transformation; but what sticks out is how timely—while deeply individual and personal—stories about the collapse of empire (“Come My Love and I’ll Tell You A Tale”), suicide (“Dispatches from a Hole in the World”) and longing (“A Perdition of Salt”) feel. This is without delving into their gore splattered retelling of “A Little Mermaid” (“So Sharp that Blood Must Flow”) or the title story about magic and self harm. I’m not sure how to capture why this collection (especially the title story) is something I cannot stop coming back to when I stick a needle into my thigh and deposit .4ml of of pharmacology to manage who I am.
6. Shit Luck (Tiffany Scandal)—I ask myself a lot “could things be worse?” The answer when I’m not being melodramatic is yes obviously things can be fucking worse! Scandal’s novella gets into making yourself at home with the worst happening over and over and over again. There is also a scene with a drowning in cartoonish amount of menstrual blood—which if that doesn’t make you want to read a novella I’m not sure what will? This is a good story to read after a bender while trying to keep straight which thigh you are supposed to inject in this week.
7. The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert (Rios de La Luz)—This collection is decidedly not about me and yet, because Luz is such a phenomenal storyteller the barriers of experience that theoretically should be around stories such as “Morena,” “Curls,” “Enojada,” and “Tarot”—that feel like deeply personal stories from a very particular standpoint—become familiar stories rife with bittersweet feelings and connections. Stories for when you wish you knew more people but also wish you were more understanding.
8. Nails (Emma Johnson)—A really uncomfortable story about the space between cross dressing and transition that deftly splits the difference between “unsettling and sad” and “hilarious and humorous.” There is something really provocative about the ending and how it frames sexuality and gender identity (and I loathe spoilers, buy a copy). A short for when you look through craigslist personals and look at a mirror and ask if you made the right choice.
9. The Drowning Girl (Caitlín R Kiernan)—Most relationships do not last the first year on HRT. That isn’t really relevant to CRK’s dark and fantastical drama concerning unreliable narration and haunting—Abalyn is the stable character regarding relationships—but the disorientation and confusion felt really real as I processed the dissolution of my longest relationship. It also probably helped a lot that Kiernan writes some of the best weird erotica hands down and generously binds it into the narrative. I don’t know how to do justice to this book; it was at the heart of me changing my ritual from stacking academic books I was processing with my injection to posing books that were deep under my skin with a needle.
10. Cartoons in the Suicide Forest (Leza Cantoral)—A conversation about how I plan on reading this during my surgery recovery (when I get around to it) and how this collection is about trying to figure out what it means to be female sparked this list. What stuck with yours truly was the way that violence shoots through everything alongside longing—especially in the title story, “Dope” and “Last Dance on Heroin.” A collection for listening to Hole and trying to figure out an outfit while feeling like something isn’t quite right.
Fiona Maeve Geist resides in WXXT country with her cat and has a PhD in interdisciplinary philosophy she hasn’t figured out a use for or how to bring up without sounding like a pretentious bitch. Outside of an academic piece she co-wrote about trans sex work, all of her projects are forthcoming. She would like to thank her sweethearts (in chronological order) Nihils, Beck, Hannah and Daphne for accepting all of the weird shit she won’t shut up about.