Tuesday, April 2, 2013

YA & Intersex


by Lianne Simon and Abigail Tarttelin
Lianne Simon
Lianne Simon

Lianne
Intersex protagonists are rare, especially in young adult novels, even #yasaves books. So I was really excited to hear of Abigail Tarttelin's upcoming novel Golden Boy. When I contacted her, she was gracious enough to consent to talk about our books and about intersex in general.

Hi, Abigail. Thanks for taking the time to have a chat with me.

Abigail
You're welcome. I've just started your book! I'm just a few pages in but it's wonderful to read a novel that seems to share the same philosophies as Golden Boy. Can't wait to see how it turns out! :)

Lianne
Wow! Thanks! That's great.
Abigail Tarttelin
Abigail Tarttelin

Abigail
The only books I've read on intersex individuals are Middlesex and Annabel so it's wonderful to see a fresh perspective.

Lianne
Middlesex was a great family saga. The representation of intersex was okay. Annabel I haven't read yet, but I understand it's well written. Getting yourself pregnant isn't, um, very likely, though.

Abigail
I thought Middlesex was a beautiful book, and it had me hooked, but the aim with Golden Boy was to reach a wide range of people and to present intersexuality as something that can and does happen to average people in average communities, and not just outsiders (Middlesex).

Annabel—again I enjoyed but I had read that it's impossible to become pregnant in that way.

Lianne
What got you into writing?

Abigail
I have always been as compulsive a writer as I am a reader! Strange, short bursts of stories litter my laptop. But I started to write novels when I realised I had things to say that I wanted to share with other people.

And you?

Lianne
I woke up one morning while on vacation with a need to tell a story. Over the next six months I lost 30 pounds, quit my job, and finished a first draft. I trashed it though, because by then I knew the characters better.

Abigail
Haha! What an incredible story! And a metamorphosis in itself. Had you written before Confessions?

Lianne
I hated language arts in high school and didn't take any English comp in college. But I wrote lots of software. It was rough to change to writing English after that.

Abigail
It must have been! We don't actually have English comp in England. Strangely enough. We only have English Literature after the age of 16, which is critiqueing. Before that we have English language, but no writing fiction—only journalism, that kind of thing.

What kind of intersex community is there in Atlanta or Georgia? Or do you reach people online in general?

Lianne
I don't know anyone else in Atlanta, although there must be someone. I belong to the AIS-DSD support group and go to their national meetings sometimes. I've also been to the UK group. At Oxford and other places.

I phase in and out of denial. It's nice to go to the meetings, to see old friends, but it also reminds me that my condition is real.

Sometimes I'd rather be normal.

Abigail
Understandable. The aim is always to feel 'normal', but it's the restrictions and viewpoints of others that get in the way!

Lianne
Yes. But some of it comes from within.

None of the kids in my classes were smaller than me until 5th grade. It disturbed me when I kept growing after high school and got so tall.

Okay, so 5'6" isn't tall to most other people.

Abigail
Haha! But it's tall when you're growing up! Was Confessions autobiographical in a sense?

Lianne
I started with my life and my personality, added things that had happened to friends, and then let it all flow out as it would.

But the details are fiction. Mostly.

Although... I was angry when I found out that Mixed Gonadal Dysgenesis had changed my face. Because the pixie face thing had a profound effect on me.

Abigail
That's such a brave choice. My first novel was much more autobiographical than this one, and I found some of that difficult to deal with. This one is much more based on thoughts, imaginings and themes I walk around with.

How did the pixie face thing have a profound effect on you? I haven't read far enough to know if it's in the book!

Lianne
Growing up I knew two things—I was the smallest of my peer group, and I had a cute face.

Abigail
Really? When did you find out? About MGD I mean..

Lianne
I didn't have a name for my condition until I was an adult. After I got my karyotype (46,XY/45,X), I went back and read up on the condition. It explained my small size as a child, my crossed eyes, my heart murmur, my malformed kidneys, my spatial problems, my turned up nails, my failed puberty, the single palmar crease on my left hand, and the shape of my face...

But it was my small size, my lack of coordination skills, and my face that made being a girl seem easier than being a boy. How chauvinistic is that!

Abigail
That is muy chauvinistic. What a world we live in! Did you feel comfortable with being a girl as opposed to boy? Or do you think it would have been better to walk a middle line as it were; to never have to choose?

Lianne
When I was nine, I was the same size as my six-year-old sister. We shared clothes and toys and... I was happy, but my health was improving and my father decided it was about time I started acting more like a boy. My older brother was tall and strong and handsome. How bad could that be? So I was okay with that.

But my body didn't get tall and strong. I didn't get muscles or facial hair. By the time I saw an endocrinologist about it, I liked my feminine looks and didn't want to lose the rest of me by taking testosterone.

And I was sick of being so different from everyone else.

So I talked the endo into letting me take estrogen.

And then I talked Mom into letting me be a girl.

Abigail
Wow, what a brave and incredible story! How long has it been since you started taking estrogen?

Lianne
I started estrogen in 1974.

Abigail
When you were growing up, was there anything you found to read on the subject, like Middlesex etc? I'm not sure there are many books around - I've read Herculine Barbin, published by Foucault around 1980.
barbin

Lianne
There was nothing, unless you count Bugs Bunny. :)

Abigail
Haha! The infamous sexless bunny.

Lianne
Herculin Barbin's autobiography is the best personal story I've read on intersex. The movie version, Alexina, was pretty good.

Abigail
I thought the autobiography well written as well as being so informative! And I didn't see the movie version...

Lianne
What was the inspiration for Golden Boy?

Abigail
In the months running up to the idea for Golden Boy, I was thinking a lot about gender and how it defines us. How being born in one body, which is almost a completely arbitrary event, can seal your fate. If you have a vagina and are small, you are much more likely to be a victim of rape or sexual attack, and so you become a cautious person, you go home earlier, you fear the dark alleyway, you don't wander off to discover the world alone. Parallel to this, if you are strong and tough and born with a penis, you are more likely to feel impenetrable, to feel you can fight back an attacker, to be unaware how someone small might feel intimidated by your advances. I think my generation was brought up with a lot more equality than the last, and by the time one becomes an adult, and is expected to adopt a typical gender role, it comes almost as a surprise to find that your body has taken choice away from you to an extent. I was lucky enough to have seen XXY a few years before, at the cinema, and began to think about intersexuality as a way to discuss my feelings about gender.

Lianne
Yes. I know that being frail and small as a child made me less assertive.

Abigail
On top of this, I felt that intersexuality wasn't being discussed at all in mainstream media, and wanted to present a story that was accessible to parents of intersex children and those children themselves, which is why Golden Boy is set within a loving family in a fairly average community.

I am also small and frail and I completely have felt the same. You have to really work on being assertive!

Where as I think for big people with deep voice it comes easier.

Lianne
Yes. I wonder, though. My tall, strong, and handsome brother was gentle.

Abigail
Did that make a difference to wanting to be who you are? In terms of choosing a gender, I mean.

Lianne
My brother? No. I don't think so. Being small and frail? Yes.

Abigail
Are you still close to your sister?

Lianne
Yes, although we don't live near each other. And we don't need to talk much. Probably should anyway.

When I came home with breast development, she thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

Abigail
That's so sweet!

Was it hard with your parents? Having only read the first chapter or two of Confessions, I'm seeing a difficulty with the father? Was that autobiographical?

Sorry to fire off so many questions! I'm so interested to meet another writer who has written about an intersex teen. It's nice that Jamie is within a family too. I have a large family and it feels very relatable for me to read.

Lianne
My father wanted what he thought best for his son. Yes, quite a bit of the novel's father-child interplay is from my life.

Abigail
Did the sexual politics of the 50s/60s affect the way your parents reacted, do you think? I think it must be very different in some ways for parents now, and then in some ways, exactly the same.

Lianne
There were fewer options. School would not allow my hair to touch my collar. I couldn't attend school as a girl without a change to my birth certificate. The dean in college reminded me that I was enrolled as a boy and could either be that or go home.

Abigail
Unbelievable....

It's strange isn't it how people see gender as such an important thing. It's like any LGBTQIA issue, people are either cool or disturbed. It's hard to find a middle ground.

faces
Lianne
With intersex, it's at least partly because they don't know what it is.

Here's a photo taken when I was nine. And one at the time I changed my legal status.

Abigail
How cute you were! What a sweetie.

And now beautiful—your face looks exactly the same!

Lianne
Not the prettiest ever, but not the face of a boy either.

Abigail
I don't know—I think little you is so cute! Yes, not the face of a boy though!

You must have felt so trapped before the change in legal status. Was it frustrating to change legally, or was it a liberating moment?

Lianne
Not being either sex was frustrating.

At my job as a boy, I wore girl jeans and a loose shirt to hide my breasts and hips. I quit one day, got on an airplane as a girl, wearing girl jeans and a T-shirt, went to San Francisco to have surgery to allow vaginal intercourse as a girl. What I had before that wasn't capable of vaginal intercourse as a boy.

Mom got my birth certificate corrected. Back then it took a parent and a physician saying a mistake had been made. More than anything else, the new birth certificate allowed me to have a life. So, yes—it was liberating.

Abigail
I sometimes think it's very hard during sex to assume roles you feel aren't right for you. That must have been so difficult in a sense!

Lianne
Well... I never had sex until I got married. And before surgery I was too afraid to even try.

Abigail
How did you find the publishing process?

Lianne
I signed with MuseItUp Publishing. They're a great outfit and are very conservative with finances. Because it can take a while to get your paperback published after the ebook is released, they allow their authors to opt out of print. Which I did. They let me use the post-editing manuscript. Selp-pubbing the paperback was fun, because I got to maintain artistic control. It's tough, though, marketing a paperback without a big publisher behind you.

Abigail
It's a beautiful cover.

Lianne
Thanks!

Abigail
How did you reach the intersex community on your own to get the word out about Confessions?

Lianne
I gave away some copies at our last AIS-DSD meeting. Most of my intersex friends have been supportive.

What sort of research did you do for Golden Boy? Friends? Internet?

Abigail
I found research for Golden Boy pretty hard going actually! There was so little information on the personal experiences of intersex people, and so much conflicting information on the science. In terms of science, I relied heavily on the internet for the initial research, and then ran it past a medical consultant. In terms of the human experience, I read several blogs and spoke to several intersex people online, but, not wanting to misappropriate their stories, I relied on my own feelings and imagination. I really think what needs to be said about DSDs (although I hate that term!) is that there are people behind them; people who are just like any reader of any gender identity, so for the narrators' personal emotions, I explored my own feelings.

Funnily enough, it's been easy to sell the book to a mainstream audience, but harder to get to the intersex community itself because my publishers aren't really in the know. And I'd love the book to reach people to whom it could really make a difference.

Lianne
It's too bad there's not a politically correct term for ***.

Abigail
Yeah exactly. Like 'intersex' is used a lot now, and so that's the term I'm using in the book, but even that means 'in between two things' ie 'not a thing'. I actually like some of the beauty and mythology laced up in the term 'hermaphrodite,' but sadly I think a lot of people use the term disparagingly. And of course it's not accurate for some ***s.

Lianne
Yes.

One of the issues for intersex people is the medicalization. Ambiguous genitals are a cosmetic problem not a disorder. However, most are caused by medical conditions that can rightly be called disorders.

Hermaphrodite as a medical term is fine. It just means the presence of both testicular tissue and ovarian tissue. That's what I had. Of course mixing the two, in my case, meant neither one worked properly.

Abigail
Yes, how brilliantly put! Re: the above about medicalisation. In Golden Boy, the protagonist is not negatively affected in a physical sense by their diagnosis, so what we explore is people's reaction to a diagnosis that is only a problem because of other people's reaction! But there are so many angles to explore and I felt this was one that I really wanted to write about.

Lianne
With Confessions I was hoping to raise awareness among fellow Christians. You know the Westminster Confession of Faith? Reformed Presbyterian? Covenanter? That's my background. I was appalled at the way some intersex adults had been treated by Christians. And I'd spent more than ten years working with a support group for kids with MGD. So far, though, the most interest has been from people in the LGBT community, in spite of the Christian content of the book.

Not surprising that you've had more success in the general public. Intersex is a relatively small group of people.

Abigail
True! But still, if Intersex Society of North America is right, there must still be millions!

Lianne
Most of the intersex adults I know don't like to talk about it much, at least not in public.

Abigail
That's a really interesting mix of topics, Christianity and intersexuality.

Lianne
Yes. Agents told me flat out that they couldn't market the combination.

Abigail
Of course. It's a difficult mix, because in talking about it, you help to make people realise you exist, but you also somehow define yourself as whatever condition you have. Which isn't exactly accurate, because you are you, no matter what gender.

Ha! I had the younger brother of Max, my protagonist, being autistic and they told me to tone that down too.

Funnily enough, one of the main goals with Golden Boy was to make the atmosphere and setting of the story so beautiful and intriguing that, even for people who might normally be 'put off' by the topic, you were drawn into the world and had to continue reading!

Lianne
That sounds like a great approach!

In Confessions I wanted to convey emotion more than anything else. Jamie lives in a castle in the sky at times.

Abigail
Yes, I already like the dreamy narration, the way Jamie meanders from the present to past!

Lianne
One other reason I wrote the book was to become more vulnerable, more open, and to eventually have my friends and church know more about my past now that they've known me for so long.

Abigail
What a lovely reason. Do you feel happier about things now you've written the book? More comfortable in your skin, so to speak?

Lianne
It's made denial more difficult. Which should be a good thing, at least in the long run. Some in the church have read my book.

Abigail
How have the other church friends reacted?

Lianne
Most said they enjoyed the book. One wished that the family had been more active in solving the issues (rather than Jamie's friends).

Abigail
That's a nice reaction. I think once people understand the human side of any LGBTQIA issue, and the fact that it's arbitrary, you don't choose to be what you are etc, they come around. It's the not understanding that's the big problem!

Lianne
One last question? How have your friends reacted?

Abigail
Those that have read it so far (it's out in May, but I have been passing around a few Advanced Reader Copies!) have unanimously loved the book. The most touching reaction was from my 84 year old Grandad. He understood, of course, that the novel is not really aimed at his age bracket, and we discussed how gender and sexuality were not really issues teenagers thought of when he was young. He thought, however, that the writing was beautiful, and he said that he understood why the issue is important and needs to be explored and discussed, which meant so much to me. What a cool old fella, huh?

Lianne
Definitely.

Abigail
He's an inspiration to me! And one of the wisest people I know.

Ok! I have to go! So lovely to talk to you and I hope we can chat again.

Lianne
Thanks!

Golden Boy is due to be released in May. Be sure to check it out.

goldenBoy

















Click on the image to buy the paperback.

"The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world.They are even better at keeping them from each other.

Max Walker is a golden boy. Attractive, intelligent, and athletic, he’s the perfect son, the perfect friend, and the perfect crush for the girls in his school. He’s even really nice to his little brother. Karen, Max’s mother, is a highly successful criminal lawyer, determined to maintain the facade of effortless excellence she has constructed through the years. Now that the boys are getting older, now that she won’t have as much control, she worries that the facade might soon begin to crumble. Adding to the tension, her husband Steve has chosen this moment to stand for election to Parliament. The spotlight of the media is about to encircle their lives.

The Walkers are hiding something, you see. Max is special. Max is different. Max is intersex. When an enigmatic childhood friend named Hunter steps out of his past and abuses his trust in the worst possible way, Max is forced to consider the nature of his well-kept secret. Why won’t his parents talk about it? Will his friends accept him if he is no longer the Golden Boy? Who is Max Walker really?

Written by twenty-five-year-old rising star Abigail Tarttelin, Golden Boy is a novel you’ll read in one sitting but will never forget; at once a riveting tale of a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story like no other."


cover180















Click on the image to buy the paperback.
Buy the ebook here

"From the heart of an intersex teen, one who must ultimately choose male or female--family or true love--comes the story of a deeply emotional and perilous journey home. This is a young adult novel unlike any other--an authentic portrayal of the issues faced by a child growing up with a sexually ambiguous body.

Jameson can be like other boys after minor surgery and a few years on testosterone Well, at least that's what his parents always say. But Jamie sees an elfin princess in the mirror, and male hormones would only ruin her pretty face. For him to become the man his parents expect, Jameson must leave behind the hopes and dreams of a little girl. But what is so wrong with Jamie's dreams that they can't be her life?"

1 comment:

Wendy said...

This is a very honest discussion. I was ignorant to this condition. It must have been difficult to talk so openly about your private lives. It sounds as if you are two strong, well adjusted women now. I wish you happiness and plenty of book sales.