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Theme & Variations: An Interview With Juliet Jacques
Enrico Monacelli , September 25th, 2021 08:15

Variations, the debut short story collection from Juliet Jacques, explores a hidden histor of trans and non-binary Britain. She talks to Enrico Monacelli about identity, secrecy, and nationhood

It might sound like a cliché, but I’m glad I read Juliet Jacques’ latest book, Variations. I felt something significant moving in my guts while reading it. Something that truly made me feel better.

I kept on thinking about the first time I went to one of the few gay bars in the little town where I grew up. A place nested in the provincial sprawl, shadowed by the scrawny metals of the railroad tracks. It stood as living testimony to an underworld brewing in the provincial quietude, where drag queens ruled the main stage and the straight rugby jocks were, for once, the fugitive figures peeking at the action from the edges. I guess there’s truly no place like home and Variations took me there.

Feeling at home anywhere is never an innocent sensation, though, and it’s definitely worth investigating. I felt even happier to get the chance to talk to Jacques about the complexity of identity, history, and everything else that makes Variations such an interesting read.

Identity implies that, in some sense, you recognise yourself in a deeper history, and your book is a book about recognising what happened to the people who have crowed over the years the LGBTQ community in Britain. But identity and recognition are treacherous concepts that have caused quite a bit of stir, in university halls and pubs alike. So, my first question is: what led you to writing about the forgotten history of the LGBTQ community in Britain? And, especially, what role does identity and recognition play in this book?

First, I should say that Variations explores the specific history of trans and non-binary people in the United Kingdom, although of course, one cannot do that without placing them within the wider context of the LGBTQ+ community (and wider British history, but we’ll get to that later).

I first decided to write short stories exploring the diversity of the trans community in my early twenties – around 2003. I was reading plenty of gay male authors – Wilde, Genet, Cocteau, and Latin Americans such as Copi and Severo Sarduy – and some women who were read as lesbian or queer, Virginia Woolf, Ann Quin, and others. I found no literature by any authors who identified as trans, and the Transgender Studies texts I discovered around that time were North American. So I sensed the possibility of trans literature, but not the reality. It struck me that a volume of short stories, with a range of characters who either openly identified as trans or non-binary or could justifiably be read thus, all in different settings, would provide a more comprehensive starting point for such literature than a novel, especially if novels tended to secure wider readership.

Initially, I wanted the collection to be strictly contemporary, offering snapshots of trans lives across the world. This was too ambitious, and eventually I got sidetracked by other projects, notably my Guardian series about my transition (2010–12) and the book that followed, Trans: A Memoir (2015). As I wrote those, and got drawn more into journalism and activism, I realised there was little understanding of UK trans history, and being a History graduate, I wanted to explore it.

I tried first to do a straightforward non-fiction book, but the idea behind Variations had stayed with me, and I felt I could combine the two ideas, simultaneously trying to give a historical narrative and some literature to the British trans and non-binary community. This would also circumnavigate the problem of deciding who counted as trans, as I could raise questions about the motivations behind the behaviour of people who preceded twentieth- and twenty-first-century identities without having to answer them.

So, as you suggest, identity is very important in Variations. Many of the stories explore the forces that shape those identities, some more explicitly than others: the third one, ‘Reconfiguration’, imagines a case study that stretches inter-war sexologist Havelock Ellis’s attempts at a theory of cross-gender behaviour to breaking point; the seventh, ‘Standards of Care’, documents a transsexual woman’s efforts to satisfy the Gender Identity Clinic’s ideal of ‘femininity’ whilst trying to find a more authentic, and complex, sense of herself within the queerer parts of post-punk subculture. But it’s there in all the stories, whether they explore a trans couple’s struggle to avert media exposure in the 1950s, a radical queer collective in the late 2000s that falters under the weight of its own unexamined prejudices, or the decadent demi-monde of fin-de-siècle London, when behaviours we would now separate into categories of sexuality and gender were all criminalised as ‘gross indecency’.

Let me continue on this issue of identity a little more. Variations is closely tied to British history. The fact that all your characters are part of Britain is not a narrative contingency. It feels like their relation to their cultural background is the point of the story and they seem to claim, like Morrissey, that England is theirs and it owes them a living. But, contrary to Morrissey, there’s no sign of nationalism or blood and soil romanticism in your book. Why did you want to confront British history and its archives? And, more generally, why and how should we confront national identities in our day and age?

I chose Britain mainly because it was what I knew best. In my first version of Variations, I wanted to write about transsexual people in Iran, given the strange way in which their government permitted transition as an ‘alternative’ to homosexuality (explored in the 2008 documentary Be Like Others). But I didn’t know enough about the society and didn’t feel I was the person to write about it, and not in the short story format – the same went for every other country besides the one in which I’d always lived. But Britain was interesting, with its history of legal suppression and persecution, the role of drag in so much of its popular entertainment from the music halls onwards, and its histories of industrialisation, notionally but often not actually democratic politics, war and pop culture, all of which I’d studied.

Then it was a matter of situating my characters within those trans, LGBTQ+ and wider histories. I drew from Susan Stryker’s Transgender History (2008), which argues that the industrial city allowed people to break their feudal bonds and move somewhere that allowed more anonymity, facilitating practices such as public (but still furtive) cross-dressing. This led to the introduction of laws to suppress such behaviour, especially after the high-profile trial of ‘female personators’ Boulton and Park collapsed in 1871 due to a lack of legislation, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, under which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned.

This happened in the UK and Germany before anywhere else, with British law exported to parts of the Empire; then, Stryker notes, sexologists began to strive for better understanding of sexual diversity and gender variance, with important works on gender identity coming out of Germany either side of World War I. Stryker doesn’t much discuss British sexology because the Germans did the definitive work, and sexologists such as Harry Benjamin moved to the US rather than the UK after the Nazis raided the Institute for Sexual Science in 1933.

Stryker then discusses media representation of transsexual people from the 1930s onwards, which was as sensationalistic in the UK as the US; the way transsexual people used memoir to counter this; the evolution of the Gender Identity Clinics to manage people’s transitions; and the emergence of organised trans politics, theory and culture, and the proliferation of trans and non-binary identities. I wanted to explore how this played out here, shaped by our politics and media.

The history that runs throughout Variations is one of imperial extraction, press intrusion, legislation from the Criminal Law Amendment Act to Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality (and, by implication, discussion of any LGBTQ+ subjects) in schools and public libraries in 1988. It’s also a history of trans subcultures, and how they intersected with literature, seaside entertainment, the film industry, pop music and the internet – all things I feel more affinity with, and affection towards.

As you say, it’s not romantic about these things – I’ve always hated patriotism, and in the twenty-first century, we’ve had many problems stemming from the UK’s refusal to acknowledge its diminished position on ‘the global stage’ or reckon with the crimes of the Empire. It was important for my trans protagonists to interact with that history, and not just as well-informed critics of it: one character serves in Mandatory Palestine and supports imperialism; another has a family business in India and complains about the ‘creeping Bolshevism’ of the country’s post-independence government; others display ignorance about (and sometimes unwillingness to understand) the realities of racism for post-colonial migrants to the UK. Intentionally or not, minorities are also capable of holding unquestioned prejudices against other minorities – skirting around this would have been to make the same mistake as the political mainstream.

Your book also warrants a question about the hidden reverse of the two previous questions. A theme that, at least to me, sticks out in Variations is secrecy, coercive or otherwise. Most of the stories are in the form of the hearsay, the first-person account and the archive. There are mostly glorious outcasts in Variations. There is a sort of innocent criminality that runs through most of your characters: they all speak from the cracks of history. Why is secrecy so prominent in your book? Did you want to do justice to the fate many people met throughout history, or is there something more?

As you suggest, secrecy is so prominent because it was often enforced: by the police and the law, by the media and wider society, and even by the Gender Identity Clinics, who – as the great trans theorist Sandy Stone put it – often “programmed [transsexual people] to disappear”.

There has been so much talk about trans visibility over the last few decades, and how it’s a double-edged sword: it can inspire people to come out, build communities and create work, but it also galvanises our opponents, and it can be safer to stay in the shadows. In the Victorian stories in Variations, the protagonists desperately want to write about, or simply live their proto-trans identities, but the state prohibits it, and they have to find strategies to navigate that.

Afterwards, my characters are more ambivalent: some want to live in ‘stealth’ but are too easily ‘read’ as transsexual; some struggle to deal with being outed; some are performers, with some of them wanting more separation between their onstage and offstage lives than others. It was vital to capture this contradiction – how the specific nuances of it changed over time, as trans and non-binary people became the subjects of legal, medical and media attention, but also the timelessness of it. Really, I wanted to think about histories that were never able to be told, let alone publicly documented.

Something I always found fascinating in your work is its honesty. In my mind, your previous work was a sort of crescendo of incredibly pointed accounts of your own life and your experience as a trans person, culminating in Trans: A Memoir. A portrait of you and your times. Variations breaks this pattern, in a sense. It is surely an honest book and it dabbles in real-life events, but most of it is your own fabulation of the source material. There is a sort of tension in Variations, I would say, between the concrete reality of LGBTQ life in Britain and the need to make life itself “readable” for an audience. Beautify the nitty-gritty, without betraying the flesh and blood of existence. What is, in your opinion, the role of honesty and storytelling in our collective life and in our communal memory? How did you approach your re-writing of British history? Did you want Variations to be a beautiful documentary, in a sense, or would you rather transfigure your sources?

Variations is, and was always intended to be, a work of literature, so it was important to use literary techniques to transfigure my sources: characterisation, imagination, attention to the voice and cadence of my sentences, and formal experimentation. The title never changed from my first attempt in the mid-2000s – Variations meant to capture a range of approaches to storytelling as much as the range of stories told. Of course it was crucial to be faithful to the source material, trying to make what happens to my characters historically plausible, and their wider worlds as accurate as possible, but the challenge of creating believable trans (or proto-trans) people was what excited me. In the writing, I felt the tension between these two things as a positive force – they weren’t mutually exclusive.

I’d wanted to turn myself into a character in Trans: A Memoir, inspired by ‘autofiction’ authors such as Sheila Heti, Lars Iyer, Chris Kraus, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who I was reading widely at the time. They made a game out of giving their protagonists the same first names as themselves, and challenging the reader not just to ascertain what was ‘real’ in a text offered as a novel, but also to ask if that even mattered. But in a book that would be taken as representative of the wider UK trans community, whether I wanted it to or not (and I didn’t), that wasn’t possible – I had to offer not just a poetically truthful text, but one that stuck to the facts of my life. Otherwise I risked portraying the community as fundamentally dishonest, in a media environment desperate to paint us as exactly that.

I used some literary techniques, creating a character study of myself (including my goals and motivations, strengths and flaws) as an eighteen-year-old, and a plot structure, took as much care over my sentences over my sentences as I would in fiction, and took the licence of writing up conversations like in a novel, even though I couldn’t possibly have remembered them word-for-word. (I checked these with the people involved, where possible, and changed some according to their feedback.) But Trans was, as you say, a very honest book: I decided not to hold back when talking about myself, to compensate for the loss of the freedom in discussing experiences provided by the alibi of fiction.

In Variations, I wanted to be honest about the realities of trans and non-binary existence in the UK, and the nature of the UK as I saw it, although my perception of the UK changed during the writing. As I said, I’ve never been patriotic and always hated patriotism, but after the 2017 General Election, in which Labour secured 40% of the vote on an arguably socialist, or least social democratic platform, I felt more positive about the country than ever before, an optimism that gradually waned.

After the 2019 disaster, my feelings of alienation from the wider politic came back acutely. (This is reflected in the fourth story, ‘The Exhibition’, which I began writing in autumn 2019, put aside during the campaign and finished in early 2020; its take on the British public becoming far more pessimistic due to the result.) But fiction is an act of empathy, first for the writer, and while my take on British institutions, especially Parliament and the police, is mostly negative, I hope my take on the wider public is more complex – you see transphobic prejudice across all sectors (including within the trans community) but also kindness, understanding, and solidarity.

I hope my storytelling, and that of other trans and non-binary authors writing fiction, helps to create empathy amongst its readers, in ways that complement the work being done in journalism and non-fiction. Literature can not only suggest trans people of the past were more present, and more complex, than history has been allowed to record, but also help to foster widespread cultural changes.

Variations by Juliet Jacques is published by Influx Press