Saturday, 19 October 2019

Book review: Sorted, Jackson Bird (2019)

At the beginning of last year I read and reviewed a book about a trans woman titled ‘The Trauma Cleaner’. The author of that work of creative nonfiction, Sarah Krasnostein, is Australian. I felt her book to be masterful in its ability to capture the trauma and difficulties that beset the woman at the centre of the drama – whose name is Sandra Pankhurst – before she arrived at where she was at. By framing the narrative in overlapping sections – parts of the past and parts of the present – Krasnostein was able to build suspense as well as render in full the complexity of Pankhurst’s life.

In ‘Sorted’, Jackson Bird, who went the other way – from being a girl to being a man – the journey to sorting out his life was different because so many of the achievements of Pankhurst’s generation have made life much safer for trans people than they were in the past. Not that all the problems have been solved, it has to be admitted. Intolerance can still define the relations between some people who are comfortable with the gender they were born with, and others, who are not.

But I would hazard the suggestion that such clashes are less common now than they were in the past. Certainly, reading Bird’s account, the number of people who were supportive of his desire to transition overwhelmingly outnumber those against the idea. No such tolerance was extended to Pankhurst. In fact, there is no such conversation mentioned in Krasnostein’s book, as far as I am able to recall this far away from the time I read it.

Bird’s writing style reminded me of a blog – complete with photos and notes and poems – but it seems, in parts, to have been written without an enormous quantity of revision. An occasional lapse into cliché, the odd unfortunate turn of phrase, nothing very serious. Offsetting such shortcomings his story is told in a way that makes it seem that he is talking directly to you. The tone is intimate and engaging.

Yet the narrative arc – from hardship and doubt to fulfillment and success – is a bit neat considering the kinds of things you must feel when you sense that you exist outside the mainstream. Although Bird goes into some detail about how he felt at various milestones in his transition from female to male, there appeared to me to be a certain lack of self-awareness at the core of his rendering of what it means to be one gender or another. Or of what it means to be human. It seemed like it was the outward signs of gender that were uppermost in his mind: the evidence that other people were able to appraise and judge. Such things seemed to be the most important things to him, rather than what he, himself, felt about himself. It is as though, in Bird’s mind, the interior life of the individual is entirely determined by what other people think and say. He seemed to lack some degree of agency when he was young but, then again, aren’t we all, when we are young, still trying to work out who we are?

In Krasnostein’s book, Pankhurst is given a greater degree of personal agency than Bird allows himself to possess. Against all the odds, with no online resources to turn to, no examples to use as a guide, and no-one to draw comfort from, Pankhurst made the transition. In her case, the man who becomes a woman (at a time when police routinely bashed cross-dressers just for the hell of it, and when homosexual men were ruthlessly slaughtered by gangs of city toughs) is an individual who struggles against terrible odds for the independence he craves and, ultimately, achieves. In Bird’s book, the barriers fall, it seems, as soon as they are approached, without even a need to touch them with an outstretched hand.

Having said these things, I feel that Bird’s book should be read by politicians who want to support with concrete action whatever claims they might have in terms of valuing diversity. If the West is to stand for anything, then diversity and tolerance has to be at the centre of that project. Nothing less than complete personal autonomy is acceptable, as long as it does not impinge on the freedom that others, likewise, deserve.

Just a final note, this time to the publishers: the break-out boxes were very hard to read on a Kindle and I wished, for this reason, that I had bought this book printed on paper. I missed out on quite a bit because of this technical problem with the digital file.

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