In Juliet Jacques’ compelling, subversive and vital debut collection of short stories, trans history and the myriad forms of the lived transgender experience are vividly and powerfully conveyed.
Variations is a collection of short stories that vividly fills in the blanks in transgender history. Telling stories across time and across Britain, from Oscar Wilde’s Victorian London through to a Belfast blogger documenting their transition in 2014, they offer a much needed lens onto the past.
Whilst the stories are fiction, they are based on found material and real life events. Each one is written in a different format – from that of an academic paper on the subject of ‘Eonism’, to diary entries, letters, interviews, articles, conference papers and film scripts. Each story also opens with a short ‘authorial note’, providing the context of time and place, a reimagined setting within which each ‘document’ has been produced. For example, at the opening of ‘Reconfiguration’ we read:
“This paper was published in Issue 2, Volume 14 of the Journal of British Gender Studies in spring 2020. It was first presented at the Recovering Queer Lives conference at the University of Sussex on 31 May 2019.”
These notes confer a degree of authority onto the stories: what is written becomes fact, becomes history, becomes source, becomes a fixed point in a hitherto absent – and untaught – history. These fictionalized intros have the effect of making the reader want to check the sources mentioned; they feel real. The repeat of this structure for every story flags the support that has been missing in telling the transgender experience.
In ‘Never Going Underground’, we meet Marina and follow the events of her chance encounter in 2003 with an ex-boyfriend from university, Johnny, and his now boyfriend, Stuart. Johnny insists the three of them go for a drink to catch up and asks Marina to recount the details of their relationship back in 1988 to Stuart.
Set against the political backdrop of the real-life protests against Section 28, a clause in the Local Government Act preventing local councils from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, the story Marina tells is a coming of age one. ‘Martin’ as she was at university, meets Johnny at a Gay and Lesbian Society night out. Through Johnny, Marina learns that how she feels about her own gender and sexuality is not only a personal issue, but a matter of political importance. Understanding the establishment are as frightened as her own family and flat mates, by an expression of self that is outside their mainstream heterosexual experience, inflames an activism in Marina, albeit amongst an at times uneasy set of allies.
In the retelling, we experience the excitement, the moment of belonging, as felt by Marina at the protest in the 80s. However, by the end of the story she is ultimately alone in the bar, the gay couple having gone home together. Only the bar person, Marlene, whose own trans experience appears little changed to Marina’s despite the passage of time, remains. Marina struggles to find words of comfort, but Marlene has read adventure into Marina’s story and feels more hopeful and positive about her own journey as a result.
As with so many of the stories, this one is told in layers. A ‘short story’, not necessarily autobiographical, is published in 2003/4, in which events from the late 80s are recounted in the early noughties, to an audience of a mute gay man and a young trans woman on the cusp of her own gender and sexuality journey.
The issue of loneliness, of the unrelenting challenge of finding connection and place in a world that is unwilling to understand, is a repeated theme. In ‘Standards of Care’, we follow the journey of Sandy Payne as she transitions on the NHS in the 1970s. Again we are exposed to critical moments of connection – in particular the befriending of Sandy by the much cooler punk, Elena, after meeting in the Charing X doctor’s waiting room. United by their loneliness, their love of music and their challenges with the process and the system surrounding transition, they become the community and support they each need. It’s exciting and heady for a time – expressed in Sandy’s initial exultation at attending an Alternative Miss World event together – as well as frightening, having to face down abuse that is both verbal and at times physical. Ultimately the grounding of the friendship is practical and pragmatic: at the critical point of transition – the week post-surgery – Elena and girlfriend Hattie come to stay in Norwich to help Sandy, and the camaraderie that emerges is more akin to soldiers on a front line.
In each of the stories, the protagonists are battling with the brutal challenge, as expressed by the protagonist Zelda in ‘The Twist’, of “…how hard it is to love and be loved in a world that hates you.” The stories explore the ways in which different individuals have sought to resolve the conflict of defining who they are for themselves within a resistant society. Whilst the type of resistance changes with the years, the fundamental struggle for self-definition and acceptance – both internally and externally – does not.
Variations is a witty, compelling and subversive collection of short stories which asks us to examine how we understand the world around us. It is a testament to the power and importance of telling stories – all stories, and as fully as we are able to – as they bring the vitality, validity and complexity needed for our fuller understanding of lived experiences.
Juliet Jacques’ Variations is published by Influx Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Author photograph in feature image by Robin Christian. See @robin_silas for more work and commissions.
This review was commissioned as part of Frankie Dytor’s series, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
In von Reinhold’s debut novel, the forgotten black modernist poet Hermia Druitt is rediscovered one day in the archives. As Mathilda goes on a hunt to find out more about this elusive figure, a kaleidoscope of aesthetic joy ensues. Mathilda, we are told, is one of the Arcadian types: those with an “inclination towards historicised fragments”, but not one infected with the more insidious forms of history-worship. Instead, as she explains, “I would not get thrown off track: I could rove over the past and seek out that lost detail to contribute to the great constitution: exhume a dead beautiful feeling, discover a wisp of radical attitude pickled since antiquity, revive revolutionary but lustrous sensibilities long perished”. This series likewise wants to use the past in new and unexpected ways, that trans the archive and queer the record.
Join us to celebrate the dazzle of the b a r o q u e!
Submissions for this editorial are now closed. Read the series so far here.
Feature image: Juliet Jacques courtesy of Influx Press, credit: Robin Christian.