Books

Kaya Wilson
As Beautiful As Any Other

“It seems difficult here for anything to become permissible without becoming compulsory,” wrote child psychologist Martha Wolfenstein in 1951. She was writing about parenting and how softening attitudes towards playtime soon transformed into a new catalogue of duties and demands. The same could be said for the entire field of gender and sexuality: acceptance of any identity or practice seems to inevitably calcify into another set of norms and expectations, a test of authenticity.

This is the context in which trans people exist and in which trans memoirs such as this are published. No matter how much we clamour to explain that there are myriad ways to be trans, we also know that every published word influences how we are read. Individual narratives form the foundations of how people understand us, transition and gender itself. Word by word. Brick by brick.

Kaya Wilson’s story is his own and stretches beyond the now familiar genre of the transition memoir. Wilson’s experiences are unusual and intriguing: growing up as a white child of white English and South African parents in Aruba, Tanzania, Indonesia, Germany and Britain; recovering from a near-fatal surfing accident; working as an ocean mapper on offshore oil exploration vessels and later as a tsunami scientist; mourning his father’s death; and grieving lost camaraderie as he contemplates men’s violence towards women while increasingly being recognised as a man. His writing is skilful and often lovely. He changes tack easily between different time lines and themes – trauma, inheritance, transience, grief and growth, to name a few.

The book fumbles when Wilson tries to bridge the gap between his unique experience and that of others. He’s not to blame for how every transition memoir becomes definitive of the trans experience, but I think this book deliberately courts such a reading. Almost all the citations are medical studies, rather than trans thinkers; a cover quote calls the memoir “authoritative”; the marketing material emphasises his science career. In the chapter on gender and genetics, things get really muddy. Wilson plays loosely with pronouns, alternating between “I” and “we”, which sometimes means trans people but more often a generic author’s “we” that seems to whisper conspiratorially to a presumed cisgender reader. “When we seek a cause for queerness…”, he writes at one point. I wonder if other trans readers will startle as I did and think, who does?

In the same chapter, Wilson cites studies of how trans people’s brain images resemble others of their gender, before acknowledging the data is patchy, the research disregards the nonbinary, and in any case such comparisons reinforce the cis specimen as the control. He notes that the hunt for causation is often driven by a desire to eliminate trans people – a search and destroy mission that begins before we’re born. But even as he argues that “there is no test to hold up as proof to those who don’t believe us”, he still reaches for examples of innate gender – the next page references a study on how trans and cis women’s inner ears produce sound. He also scours his past for signposts: the way he played soccer as a child, how he ran around shirtless. Despite the non-linear narrative structure, the logic here feels frustratingly linear, binary and fatalistic.

This pattern of acknowledgement repeats throughout the book: Wilson acknowledges something to move past it, rather than to grapple with it. He recognises, for instance, the privilege afforded by his race, class and nationality through his cosmopolitan childhood – everywhere his family lived, they were able to leave – and that whiteness shapes his experience of gender. But a beat later, he is back to how white men understand rape compared with white women, or what the white English aristocracy thinks of the white English middle class, and race disappears again. The acknowledgement serves as a disclaimer rather than a commitment.

I found myself looking forward to the sections about the author’s family, in which there’s an ease to the narrative and more grounding in time and place. Wilson traces his lineage through generations of repression and glimmers of resistance – fighting for bodily autonomy, slipping through loopholes, surviving against expectation, concealing the evidence, making do – as well as mapping the changing contours of his relationship with his parents through his transition and his father’s death.

In the preface, Wilson explains that the memoir touches on formative experiences of violence and its impact on his body without discussing the source, writing: “I have treated violence as a metaphysical thing that I name only as Violence.” This is an understandable decision, but as a result his treatment of the topic feels quite abstract. Different traumas bleed together in a series of extended metaphors. I think it’s possible to withhold details while being more specific in his rendering of the legacy of violence in his life. For instance, there is an opportunity here to address the way in which trauma is used to discredit trans people and deny access to care.

Trans people are under immense pressure to present a coherent and palatable origin story that helps cis people make sense of us – even when we are not seeking medical treatment, we are treated by laypeople as if presenting to them for diagnosis. We are supposed to be intelligent, untroubled, sympathetic and reassuring. As Wilson writes here, “if I do good, there is a hope that I will be seen as good”. It’s best if we stress that we were men or women all along, that transness was a temporary error of the flesh, quickly corrected and forgotten.

I’m grateful for books that are anxious and energetic and daring, that don’t bother looking over their shoulder to check if cis people are keeping up – Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You. But reading As Beautiful As Any Other, I felt jumpy, like I was anticipating rejection. I wanted to tell the author, you don’t need to explain or justify yourself. Not to us. 

Jinghua Qian

Pan Macmillan, 304pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Kaya Wilson, As Beautiful As Any Other".

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Reviewer: Jinghua Qian