By Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Note from Malinda: Today I've invited author Kirstin Cronn-Mills to write a guest post about her experience writing her second novel, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (forthcoming this October from Flux), which tells the story of an 18-year-old trans guy. In her post, Kirstin explores the tricky issues of privilege and advocacy that arise when writing outside your own personal experience.
Let’s be blunt: I have privilege, based on my skin color, my straightness, my education, and my income level. And I wrote a book, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (out October 8 from Flux), and spoke in the voice of an 18-year-old trans guy named Gabe Williams. Trans individuals are marginalized like crazy in this world. I am not. Hmm, you say. Why would she do that? And is she allowed to do that? Here are my answers to both questions.
I started Beautiful Music in January 2005. Ideas collided and wham, a novel appeared. I’d decided to write about radio and music, two longtime loves, and I’d just read Luna by Julie Anne Peters, and was wondering if there were positive transition stories out there. I was also planning a literature class for my day job, and I wanted to include LGBT voices. I stumbled across a book called Phallus Palace by Dean Kotula, a nonfiction book about female-to-male transsexuals. BOOM. Gabe started talking to me.
I figured a radio mic would be great for a guy to hide behind, and music could help him through the bad times. The universal ideas of hiding and comfort, coupled with a unique character, would work well, plus I’d give him supportive, loving people in his life to make his transition more positive. Yay! Good story! I can write this!
Um. NO. I was out of my depth. Then coincidences started to happen. A trans man was the president of the student association at the university where my husband teaches, so I interviewed him and his wife. In the Twin Cities (90 miles away), there was a gender exploration group for youth, and their leader allowed me to visit and listen to their stories. I was meeting trans individuals everywhere I turned, including my own students who outed themselves to me. I was cautious and courteous when asking for help. My new friends were extremely generous.
BMUC went through nine zillion drafts, but it got me an agent who believed deeply in the book (Amy Tipton, you’re amazing). It was rejected over and over, sometimes for its subject matter, then finally purchased in August 2010. I was thrilled. Still, I kept thinking, “am I legit? Did I do the right thing? Why the hell did I write this book?”
I wrote BMUC because I loved writing it. I love underdog stories, I love coming of age stories, and I love the idea that music can save us. But I also wrote it because I believe this statement is true: if one of us is oppressed, all of us are oppressed. If I can make a teeny tiny crack in oppression, I’m all for it. Human rights are not open for conversation. And trans individuals (LGBT individuals in general) have their rights kicked around like soccer balls — and they’re never the winning team. Those are my first two “whys.”
Am I “allowed” to write it? Sure. I’m a fiction writer. I use my imagination to step into other people’s shoes, even people in marginalized groups. But that question generates another question, related to privilege: should someone like me write in the voice of an oppressed person?
My answer is yes, provided I use my privilege to interrupt the power dynamic. I advocate for the trans community anywhere and any time I can. I also give back — money, volunteering, whatever I can share. But it’s privileged to even claim to be an advocate. People might assume that trans individuals can’t/don’t/won’t help themselves, or that I’m self-indulgent or self-serving by being “helpful.”
To mitigate those claims, I try and advocate a bit differently. I say, “hey, here’s a group of people you need to learn from.” Then I walk away, and trans individuals speak for themselves. People listen to me and give me respect because I’m white, straight, educated, and relatively wealthy, plus they tend to trust me, for better or worse. If I can use that power to provide a space for everyone’s voices, I’m all about it.
I also know my privilege (and advocacy) can piss people off. Understandable. Some trans people may see me as an invader, a plunderer of stories. Some may see me as a tourist, coming in to admire the scenery and pick up surface facts. My goal was to be a guest — to visit, learn, appreciate, and be in community with everyone. Hopefully that vibe will come through the book.
Here are two other reasons why I wrote BMUC. Back in December 1993, in my home state of Nebraska, Brandon Teena was killed for being himself. Remember the film Boys Don't Cry? I will never watch it again, because Hilary Swank’s performance is astoundingly painful, and it’s doubly awful to watch it as a Nebraskan.
In Minnesota, where I live now, trans woman CeCe McDonald was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison for defending herself against a racist, transphobic attack, because she killed her attacker. Should she be sanctioned? CeCe has said the responsibility for what happened was mutual. But she may have to serve her time in a male prison — the state will get to decide her gender. Will the state support her as a woman? I hope so. Could the situation have been avoided if her attacker had some positive knowledge about trans people? Probably. Maybe a kid who hears me talk about BMUC will refrain from being a deadly asshole to someone like CeCe McDonald or Brandon Teena.
Ultimately, I wrote the book because I admire the hell out of individuals who blur and reject the gender binary. They’re outlaws in this culture, and they’re true to themselves. They don’t let others tell them who they are. I wasn’t true to myself for a long time — like a fool, I did let others tell me who I was. I kept my authentic self under wraps for years. So if a person can persevere through harassment, misunderstanding, stereotypes, violence, and downright hate while staying faithful to who s/he/zhe is, that person deserves mucho respect from me. For me, s/he/zhe is a role model, and writing about people we admire should be OK.
Kirstin Cronn-Mills writes young adult novels and adult poetry. She teaches at South Central College in North Mankato, MN, where she is the faculty advisor for SCC PRIDE (People Really Interested in Diversity Education). She lives with her husband and teenage son and is very much into goofing around. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is her second novel.