Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Trans and Cis

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently had a spot of bother after she suggested that the experiences of transgender women were different from the cisgender women (I believe this is the term for those individuals who are born women, and either are happy to live as women, or, if they aren’t, don’t make a fuss about it—so we don’t know).

You might argue that it is impossible for Adichie, or any other cisgender woman, to talk with authority about the experiences of trans-gender women, because Adichie was not born a man, and therefore cannot possibly know what it is like to be a man, and, by extension, what it is like to be convinced that one would be better off as a woman, because in spite of one’s chromosome and anatomy one is convinced in one’s mind that one ought to be a woman.

Adichie’s explanation as to why she is reluctant to consider trans-gender women as—for the want of better phrase—real women was neither medical nor psychological; it was socio-political. Adichie said in her interview that if you lived in this world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it was difficult for Adichie to accept that you (a transgender woman) could equate your experience with the experience of a woman who had always lived as a woman, and not enjoyed the privileges as a man.

Adichie’s answer to this dilemma? Trans-women are trans-women, and cis-women are cis-women.

Adichie’s argument risks attracting the accusation, among other things, of making sweeping judgments about the privileges the men supposedly enjoy, and women don’t. She tries to link it to this peculiar condition, which, I believe, is recognised as some sort of psychiatric condition—although I’d wager a hundred pounds that such individuals, while they may experience a variety of emotional distress, do not consider the core issue, that they are born in the wrong body, as a psychiatric condition.

Going by Adichie’s argument, a man, who wants to be a woman for reasons best known to him, is, therefore, willing to give up the privileges of men. Why might he do that? I read that the Indian leader of the twentieth century, Gandhi, who led his country to freedom from British Imperialism, gave up on the Western attire and went through his life wearing a loin cloth. Gandhi took this step because he felt uneasy about wearing Western (or, for that matter, Eastern) dress that would cover his spindly legs and chest hair, when he saw that his countrymen were going around semi-naked because they were so impoverished under the British Raj that they could not clothe themselves adequately. Gandhi, who was a Western-educated barrister, and, at one stage, had a flourishing practice, decided that he too was going to live like his poor countrymen: if they could not afford to wear clothes and went around half-naked, so would he. You might say that Gandhi was displaying an extreme form of empathy. I should doubt very much that the men who choose to be women, and go all the way to have reconstructive surgery, do this because they want to experience, in a Gandhiesque manner, the disadvantages of womanhood. These men want their penises chopped off because they don’t like their penises; they want to have vaginas, instead.

And what about women who want to be men? This trans-business, surely, is not confined only to men who are desperate to be women. Adichie makes no comments about women who have had reconstructive surgeries, and, with hormonal treatment, boast cobwebs on their chins. One would, going by Adichie’s argument, suppose, that these trans-men can’t be real men because they have not enjoyed the privileges of being men right from birth.

Not surprisingly, many trans-women (if that is the correct term to describe these individuals) were unhappy at not being considered for the privileges of being full-women (or cis-women), although Adichie seems to think that it is no picnic going through life as a woman, and you’d be better off as men if you love the privileges (what might these be?). You can understand the dismay of the trans-women. They have gone to get lengths to achieve the appearance of what they always believed themselves to be in their minds, only to be told by some uppity novelist, who does not look like she has lacked privileges any time, that sorry, you are not a real woman because you lived as a man. It’s a bit like telling Nigel Farage that after all he is not going to be the British ambassador to the USA, when in his mind (and in the mind of, or, what passes for the mind of Donald Trump), he is the most suitable chap for the job, and, moreover, has gone to great lengths to improve the relationship between the UK and the USA now that we shall crash out of the Euro. Life is a bitch (or a trans-bitch).

I have not personally known any trans-gender individuals. Years ago I vaguely knew a woman who was married to an IT specialist. I had met her husband in a social do. He was a pot-bellied man with an Arafat-style beard and thick glasses. He had a square face, rubbery lips, and kept one hand in the pocket of his trousers, twiddling, I hoped, loose change. He looked rather dull and did not speak much. The woman, on the other hand, was physically attractive, if slightly on the bigger side (nothing wrong with being a full breasted woman who likes chocolate gateaux) and had an air about her, the way she looked at you, which suggested that she had just finished a marathon sex session. She also had opinions on most matters which she did not hesitate to express. I had also heard that a few years earlier the woman had had an affair with one of our colleagues in the company. In the course of the evening the main topic of the woman’s conversation was how she was going to have children, and how a year-long maternity leave (even on full pay) was not enough. The husband sat listening unenthusiastically to all this. I asked the woman how long the two had been married for. They had been married for almost ten years. I asked her whether they had now decided to have children. This turned out to be a mistake. The woman became tearful, and I was subjected to a tedious account of the unsuccessful efforts the couple had had over the years to have children. I wanted to tell her, “Look woman, I am just trying to make small talk, seeing as you have been rabbiting on about maternity leave for the past half an hour.” But I didn’t, because that would have been rude. “We even had David’s sperm count done,” the woman announced at a volume that could have been heard in the next restaurant. We all waited to hear what she was going to say. “He is OK,” the woman revealed after a dramatic pause. My only thought was that the talk of maternity leave was a bit premature seeing as the woman had trouble conceiving. The couple, I learned later (by this time the woman had left the company), did not have children. In fact the marriage broke down, after the woman found the husband dressed in women’s underclothes late one night in the garden shade. (Poor woman. She thought that all the lingerie he bought was for her). The man with the beard is now a woman (probably as photogenic as psoriasis). He provides support to trans-gender individuals, and is also writing a novel (what a surprise!).  

I wonder what the square faced man with rubbery lips would have made of Adichie’s comments about the male privileges. To me, Adichie’s comments do not ring true. If she were to say that she did not consider a trans-woman a woman because, let’s face it, no amount of cosmetic surgery is going to change your chromosomal make-up; you may shave off your chest hair and have false breasts hoisted on your chest, and pay (or, if you are in the UK, get the tax-payers to pay) to create a vagina that is literally and figuratively going nowhere, you will never have other female internal organs such as the uterus and ovaries, you are never going to menstruate, you will never have children, and, most importantly, you are never going to be as good as the real women at being upset, that would have been accurate. I should hazard a guess (and it will be a guess) that most men would not be interested in a facsimile when they can get the real version, if you get my drift. Would you go on a vacation to Slough when you can go to London? (Even the tourist office in Slough probably advises the tourists that they should get the f**k out of Slough on the first available train, and go to London).

That’s what Germaine Greer—bless her!—the old battle-axe did a couple of years ago. Greer said: “Just because you lop off your d**k and then wear a dress doesn't make you a ******* woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a ******* cocker spaniel. . . I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his d**k chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”

There was a predictable furore over Greer’s comments, and I think some lecture of hers arranged at Cardiff University was cancelled, because some student body with the collective maturity of minus 250, and outraged members of Idiots’ Anonymous were threatening to throw tomatoes at her.

Greer does have a point, it could be argued, which she expressed in her customary forthright manner (she is Australian, so she hasn’t got the British talent, despite living in Britain for decades, of saying unpalatable truth without sounding offensive).

If you ask me, the issue is the sense of entitlement. Not happy that you are going bald? Have a hair-transplant. Unhappy that your tits are too small? Insert breast implants. Ashamed of your chipolata, and want a big fat sausage?  Go under the surgeon’s knife. Not prepared to age gracefully? Have a botox. Not happy that you are a man (or a woman), and would rather be a woman (or a man)? No worries; the medical science will make it possible for you. Except that it won’t. You can inject yourself with a bathful of hormones and chop off as many body parts as you want, the reality of your chromosomes will not change. Psychiatrists and psychologists may disagree. They will lecture you on the intolerable inner turmoil these individuals face because of their conviction that they are born in the wrong body, and the only way to bring some sort of inner peace is for them to be allowed to have series of medical and surgical procedures so that they can go through rest of their lives as parodies of sex they can never genuinely be. OK, being eaten up by misery usually does not improve things, but, surely, there must be other ways to deal with this self-pity (preferably those which do not put extra burden on the cash-strapped NHS). You could try Stoicism, or Mindfulness . . . whatever. Somehow train your mind to accept that you can’t get everything in life you want. You were born a man (or a woman). Deal with it. If you are not able to crow that is probably because you are not a rooster. You are a hen. Learn to live with it.

There are some barriers between men and women which simply can’t be breached: men can go to great lengths to look and live like women, they can’t be women. Women, similarly, can never be men. That is the biological reality.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book of the Month: NW (Zadie Smith)

British writer Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW (for North West London in which the novel is set) is the state of London novel.

The novel, set broadly in three sections (there are five parts), tells the story of the lives of the three main protagonists of the novel: Leah Hanwell, Felix, and Keisha (or Natalie). A peripheral character, Nathan makes intermittent appearances.

In the first section we meet Leah Hanwell, a thirty something woman of Irish descent. As the novel opens Leah is fleeced by a drug-addict, whom Leah has known over the years. The drug-addled woman, who goes by the name of Shar, enters Leah’s flat one afternoon and manages to relieve Leah of thirty pounds by telling her the faintly possible (but mostly improbable) story of her child having been taken to a hospital (she can’t tell Leah the name of the hospital, which, you would have thought, should have made most people a tiny bit suspicious). Afterwards Leah is suitably berated by her French-African husband (Michel) and her mother for her gullibility. Shar, as it happens, went to the same state school Leah went to and lives in the nearby poor estate where Leah grew up. However, when Leah (and on one occasion, Michel) unwisely try to confront her, Shar’s companion gives them the message to leave Shar alone. Leah has a school friend Keisha who lives in a nearby, very posh area with her successful husband. Keisha is of Caribbean descent. Her family lived next door to Leah’s, and the two girls have been close friends since their school days. Keisha has left her council house life behind her and has become a successful barrister. She has also changed her name to Natalie. Natalie Blake lives with her husband, Francesco—the product of a brief liaison between a rich Italian countess and a Caribbean train driver—works in the city. Leah herself has a university degree in History but works in a council-run office for black teenagers. Leah and Michel have managed to move out of Caldwell, the run-down council estate in Willesden, of her childhood, and move into a nearby and marginally better (but still working class) area. Michel, in his quest to become rich, has taken to online investing. Leah and Michel meet regularly with Natalie and Frank, and are frequently invited to their dinner parties. Such invitations are a source of great pride for Michel (who runs a hairdressing saloon) although Leah suspects that her childhood friend is bored by the association and continues to invite them to the parties only out of an old sense of loyalty even though these meetings are beginning to irritate her. As the first section ends Lea and Michel are meeting with Natalie and Frank at the house of one of Frank’s rich friends to watch the Notting Hill carnival from a vantage point and safe distance. It is while they are at the friend’s house that they hear on the television that there has been a stabbing in their area, of a man called Felix.

In the brief second part / section of the novel we meet the murdered Felix, in the days leading to his pointless and senseless murder. Felix, a young black man, is a recovering drug addict (I think that is the phrase). He used to deal in and supply drugs, too. But Felix has turned the corner. He no longer takes drugs, he has got a steady job in a garage, and he is in a relationship with a woman with whom he hopes to settle down. He has taken to visiting his Rastafarian father, Lloyd, perpetually high on the cannabis airplane (and in urgent need of a shower).  Indeed so suffused is Felix with the zeal to inform other drug addicts, including his former customers, about his path to recovery that on the day of his murder he visits an aristocratic white woman, now a junkie, with whom he has slept in the past. Felix informs the junkie that he has moved to the next level; he would no longer be sampling her wares, as he has a girl-friend of his own who is prepared to sleep with him and without demanding drugs in return. The next level Felix is talking about turns out regrettably to be the next world as he is knifed in the streets of Caldwell who have taken offence to his suggestion to them in a packed London underground train that one of them should consider taking his feet off the opposite seat so that a pregnant white woman could sit there.

The rest of the sections of the novel tell the story of Natalie Blake, Leah Hanwell’s friend, the reader. The third part, which is the longest, traces Natalie’s life from her impoverished working class childhood in the 1980s to her present day opulence. (It is never really explained why she changes her name from Keisha to Natalie). Along the way the reader meets a host of secondary characters such as Rodney—Natalie’s first lover and a failed lawyer—and Frank whom she ends up marrying and having two kids with, and whom, as the years go by, she falls out of love with. Natalie takes to moonlighting as a prostitute, indulging in gleesome threesomes with folks who have a thing for what is acronymically described on the website on which Natalie has opened an account as BF.  It is inevitable that Frank will stumble on to what Natalie is getting up to (or down to depending on what her customers wish). This leads to a confrontation of sorts between Natalie and Frank with Natalie (briefly) walking out on her family. In the brief fourth part Natalie runs into Nathan, a bright boy from their school who has now become a homeless junkie. In the company of Nathan Natalie takes a detour of the area, from Willesden across Hampstead Heath to Hornsey lane. In the (even briefer) final part of the novel Natalie has returned to the loveless marriage and is impervious to her husband’s suggestion that she should find another place for herself. She then visits her childhood friend Leah where she remembers an incident from her (you hope) brief career as a prostitute which she is convinced will throw light on the unfortunate murder of the unfortunate Felix.

NW, Smith’s fourth novel, was published after a gap of almost six years after the 2006 Orange Prize winner On Beauty. It has flashes of brilliance but ultimately fails to enthuse. The plot, such as it is, is vapour thin. The novel is more like a hotchpotch of novellas which are loosely linked, as the same characters appear in them. You might say that the same underlying theme binds the different sections of the novel: the life in the twenty-first century London. 

There is no settled feel to the narrative style. The first section is narrated in a James Joyce-stream-of-consciousness style. While there may be fans of this style I am not one of them. Stream-of-consciousness is not my—what’s the term stronger than ‘not my cup of tea’? In keeping with the Joycean influence Smith has done away with speech marks in this section, replacing them with dashes to indicate spoken speech. (She is not the first modern author to do this. Nadine Gordimer prefers this style, first used by Joyce, apparently, in all of her novels.) At times, the use of dashes makes things more confusing than they are already, as the characters change contexts mid-sentences. And since what they are saying is most of the time utterly banal, it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than testing the reader’s patience. Mercifully Smith jettisons the stream-of-consciousness style and returns to the more traditional territory (with punctuation marks) in the second part (involving Felix), which—peppered with astute observations of London life—is the most engaging part of the novel; also the funniest, until the reader is stunned into silence by Felix’s sudden and tragic death. The third, and the longest, part of the novel which tells the story of Natalie Blake is uneven. It consists of 185 chapters, many of which a paragraph long, sometimes comprising only a single sentence. Perhaps Smith is trying to give an idea of Natalie Blake’s life in a series of snapshots. You might not find it to your taste as you are jerked from one chapter to the next; reading this section is a bit like riding in a car on a road full of potholes. The chapters have got titles, some of which, if you have the interest and the aptitude (I don’t) to decipher their links to cultural phenomena, you might find interesting. The narrative style is detached—the protagonist is frequently referred to as Natalie Blake or Ms Blake. Keisha Blake changes her name to Natalie, probably to distance herself from her working class black Kilburn background; but she finds herself returning, time and again, to her parents’ flat rather like a murderer returning to the scene of crime. Natalie also has a secret life; that of a prostitute. Smith leaves it to the reader to figure out why this highly successful barrister, married to a rich socialite, feels the need to visit strangers in their apartments and have torrid sex, and walk the streets wearing skimpy skirts under which, as Felix observes, minutes before his death, the muscles of her buttocks ripple. You struggle to make any sense of it; it is unconvincing to say the least. In the final part of the novel it is linked to the murder of Felix in a very contrived manner.

Zadie Smith once wrote (while responding to James Wood’s criticism of White Teeth, Smith’s debut, and most famous, novel) that writers do not write what they want; they write what they can.

Zadie Smith (real name Sadie Smith) is generally recognized to be a prodigious talent, ever since she burst on the British literary scene in 2000 with White Teeth, her brilliant (if flawed) debut novel.  She has been selected twice in the Granta list of the best young British writers in 2003 and 2013.  I have read all of Smith’s subsequent novels up to NW, of which I liked The Autograph Man, perhaps her least successful novel, the most. On Beuty, which fetched Smith the prestigious Orange Prize is beautifully written, but is so heavily inspired by E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (without any official acknowledgement, if I remember correctly), you could almost call it derivative. NW, Smith’s fourth is, for me the most disappointing; but she remains one of my favourite writers.