Rabih Alameddine’s sixth novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope, the California Book Club’s August selection, is attentive to how different aspects of a single self intertwine. Identities such as race, homeland, gender, and career fold into one another and into the present. The book is told by Mina Simpson, a trans Lebanese doctor who travels to the Greek island of Lesbos to treat Syrian refugees. But the way the English language prioritizes the order of these descriptors does not match the attention they’re given in The Wrong End of the Telescope. Mina is, first and foremost, a doctor with a job to perform. That’s not to imply that her ethnicity or her transness is absent from her motives throughout the novel; rather, such attributes contribute to her direct perspective and quiet empathy in ways that are complex and organic.
Alameddine’s book has garnered praise for what it does not do as much as for what it does. It condemns voyeurism (“This is the first novel I’ve read that gives ample room to the ugliness of certain camp volunteers,” Dina Nayeri wrote in the New York Times) and avoids simplification. It also rejects tropes often deployed in books about trans characters. Casey Plett, author of Lambda Literary Award winner Little Fish, has been a vocal critic of what she calls the 21st-century Gender Novel. These are “books about Gender with a capital G” in which “stale, demeaning tropes” are rehashed “despite the authors’ apparently good intentions.” Gender Novels pay excess attention to the genitalia of tortured trans characters in the processs of surgically transitioning. Their cis authors fail to develop their characters’ inner lives, Plett argues. The Wrong End of the Telescope avoids the traps of the Gender Novel. “Refreshingly, Mina’s transness is just one of many elements in her story,” Plett said in her review of the book in the Guardian. “There’s no cheesy transition narrative.”
Here are four other complex books that feature trans protagonists and avoid the hackneyed tropes of a transition story. These books are written by trans authors.
Nevada, by Imogen Binnie
After a breakup prompts Maria to steal her ex-girlfriend’s car and reverse-commute west from New York City to Nevada with a bag of heroin, she appoints herself mentor to store clerk James, who Maria is convinced is trans, even if James is uncertain. The novel fits into both the trans fiction and punk literature canon. First published in 2013, it is memorable and endures because of its unforgettable protagonist and progressive perspective on gender and existence under capitalism. MCD X Fsg Originals reissued the book in June 2022.
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
The complications of love and family in cis hetero relationships have birthed millions of novels. Stories of trans characters written with the same nuanced attention are more rare. Detransition, Baby describes the intersection of the lives of Reese, a trans woman; Ames, Reese’s recent ex-partner who has detransitioned after living as a trans woman; and Katrina, Ames’s new, cisgender girlfriend. When Katrina becomes pregnant, Ames, unwilling to take on a traditional father role, invites Reese into their relationship as a potential third parent. But as they consider the weight of their future, some challenges tear them apart, while others reveal how similar they really are to one another.
Small Beauty, by jia qing wilson-yang
After the death of her cousin causes immense grief, Mei abandons her city life and support system for the countryside. Existing in a fog of sadness and solitude, she eventually finds new connections to her family and its history and reflects on being mixed-race. Her experiences include encounters with dead relatives, discovering a hidden queer relationship in her family that reorients her in her history, and an appreciation for the network of trans women whom she counts as friends and mentors. Small Beauty won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction.
Gender Euphoria: Stories of Joy from Trans, Non-binary and Intersex Writers, edited by Laura Kate Dale
This anthology of 19 essays by trans and nonbinary writers purposefully counters narratives of transition that revolve around gender dysphoria and feeling out of place in one’s body. On the contrary, Gender Euphoria homes in on the joys and comforts of transitioning. These writers get specific, focusing on particular gender-affirming experiences or perspectives—like wearing a bridesmaid dress or getting a tattoo—that spur confidence and happiness.•
Join us on August 18 at 5 p.m., when Alameddine will talk to CBC host John Freeman and a special guest about The Wrong End of the Telescope. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.
Critic Anna E. Clark writes that Alameddine’s novel reaches beyond the banal. —Alta
Alta contributor and Bay Area author May-lee Chai (Tomorrow in Shanghai) has won the 2022 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction, judged by essayist José Vadi (Inter State: Essays from California). —Gulf Coast
CONVERSATION OVER FOOD
Los Angeles author and CBC selection committee member Lynell George (A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler) writes about the significance of a New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, and its Jim Crow–era origin story. —Preservation
WEST COAST SENSIBILITY
Literary magazine Air/Light’s sixth issue features work by Ben Loory, Diane Mehta, and Sven Birkerts. —Air/Light
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