This is an address which I gave as part of a session at the Beyond The Border 2016 Festival at St Donat’s in South Wales. The invitation to speak came after the Festival Director David Ambrose had seen me give a keynote speech at the Storytelling Symposium in Cardiff the previous year. That speech was “Storytelling and Activism” and a full transcript of it can be found on the Liverpool Storytelling blog. I refer to it in this address which is dedicated to the connections between Gender and Myth (although I actually refer to a wider range of story than myths). The gender connection came about because one of the Festival’s themes was Transformation and because, as a practicing transgender artist for whom this might be considered my Special Subject, I was invited, for the Cardiff Symposium, to address issues of transgender relative to activism. (In fact my transgender other and I have created a transgender epic “The Mandayana”) Although there are some issues and themes in common this is a different speech.
I warned the St Donat’s audience that I realized I had taken on two huge subjects in Gender and Story and expressed the hope that I might, if I did nothing else, raise some pertinent questions and help them to find a focus for discussion and further reflection. This was recorded for transcription but what you have here is worked up and slightly embellished from the notes I prepared in advance of the address.
I want to start by speculating on why we have gathered together to consider gender in relation to story. It’s always possible simply to celebrate the relationship between the two, and we will do that today, but I suspect that many of you are here this morning because gender is something contentious. Why is gender an important aspect of story? Is it something to do with the exercise of power? Gender has a role in delineating power, or hegemony, and if we see power predominating in one area of gender rather than another it is because we so often define gender in terms of opposition, and a clear divide between masculine and feminine. We feel that we live in a world of imbalance and that imbalance is endangering us. Gender has come to be the deepest principle of division in our lives. Once we have passed beyond the distinction between being and not-being, – once we begin to be – gender is a fundamental definer of ourselves. And that definition is binary.
The Binary concept is apparent everywhere in our contemporary lives. It dictates the way our computers operate and therefore everything digital. On or Off – they seem to be our options, and gender is required to follow suit. Masculine or feminine? But the Gender Binary has been subject to question for some time now and we are challenged to present an alternative. When I have lectured groups, quite often students, on Gender issues I found myself using the idea of a line, a line stretched across the space, and I say that gender is a continuum and that everybody in the room is somewhere on that line between an absolute masculinity and an absolute femininity. Then I see individuals pondering their position on the line.
But gender is a complex thing and I was never very happy with the one-dimensional line. It made it hard to reconcile the many aspects of gender into a single point. Then I came across QR codes, the square signs which are a new form of barcode and have been used in shops and advertising. A QR code seemed to me to offer a richer two-dimensional combination of differences which was nearer to our experience of gender. The question became, How much of what? not, How far along the line? And then I realized that we all had an even more refined and inclusive code inside ourselves, our DNA, and since our DNA pattern is unique to each of us the best definition of gender difference is that each of us is unique in our gender-profile. And that would be the end of the matter were it not that gender opposition is already so far encoded in our cultures that we can’t make a clean start in defining ourselves.
Turning to Story now I want to ask if it has a gender. Can gender be encoded in individual stories? I often find myself, in speeches, referring to the work of Ursula Le Guin, the eminent fantasy and science fiction writer. In her book of essays “Dancing At The Edge Of The World” she devotes two essays to gender issues and in one in particular she very clearly defines a gender-distinction in story. She looks back to early societies and distinguishes between hunter-stories and gatherer-stories, between stories of the swift precipitate killing of animals and the slow accumulative gathering of provisions, between the heroic story and the life story.
We haven’t time now to explore the deeper gender-implications of that distinction but I would encourage you to read the essays. For Ursula Le Guin stories are sites for gender difference. And stories of gender difference are clear in our origin myths. An origin story which depicts, as in the Bible, woman as the product of a spare part of a man, differs from the origin myth of the African Dogon people who conceive of each new human as containing both a male and female soul.
But is story itself gendered? Story is of course an account of change through time, and change can imply progress and progress can be seen as a masculinist concept of human development. But time can also contain process, which can be seen as a female quality, and so story is implicated in another gender continuum, between progression and procession.
Is gender also encoded in the activity of story-telling? If we look at a whole range of human activities we can see that some are considered more the province of men or women. Road-building? – men mainly do that. Bridge-building? – the same? Cooking? -traditionally woman’s work. But now, as our traditions evolve and change, and when we can know more about cultures across the globe, the situation has become less clear. In some cultures it is the man who does the weaving, and in others the woman. But however complex the distinctions it is clear that stories are gendered, story itself is gendered and story-telling is gendered. Hence our need to consider the relationship between Gender and Story.
Here we must be more specific because there are different kinds of story. If story is giving an account of things, there is yet a difference between what I will call Consumer Stories and Shared Stories. The Consumer Story we perhaps know best from the news-media, where an account of things is considered as Information and exchanged or provided for profit, In this it is Communication, something different from Shared or Community Stories where a form of communing prevails. Of course the situation via a vis story cannot be rendered quite so simply. If the commercial consumption of story is aligned around profit not truth, what happens when I buy a novel? Or read a history-book which I have borrowed from a library? And Story as information is not always about a physical commodity. What about internet news sites? Or my blogs?
Whether physical or virtual, the selling and buying of stories is implicitly capitalistic and mercantile and this situation obtains where story is produced as text. If capitalism is intrinsically masculine then texts are the subject of consumption, and, in this, they do not differ entirely from the spoken stories of the historic balladeers and African Griots. Where there’s an exercise of power and patronage then story is in a sense objectified and we may be justified in suspecting that its potential truth has been compromised.
Now told stories have a life of their own. They are subject to growth principles. There are stories which I would call “wild” or “free” stories and these tend towards negotiating a truth between teller and told-to. They also mutate (the modern idea of memes is akin to this) and they grow and even decay. Stories can restore the truths in themselves, can heal the untruth laid upon them, but some untruths linger on. Like established foot paths, like legislation (Section 28, for example), like libel, like political accusations, stories can become enduringly fixed in form through the action of cultural habitude.
If story can be corrupted and co-opted for the exercise of power, and if telling can be commodified and monetized, and if this results in a significant imbalance in our lives then we need to do something about this. Gender is where we feel that imbalance most. Hence we can consider story as a cause, a way of addressing the imbalance and restoring balance, and gender is where we can make that attempt.
It is an attempt which we are making already. In story as in theatre we experiment with regendering familiar stories, like Cinderella or the plays of Shakespeare, We can re-inflecting existing narratives to cast new light on them. In my Cardiff address I spent some time explaining how I had taken one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – The Man Of Law’s Tale – and re-inflected it to represent the point of view and authentic experience of its female protagonist. We value the work of story-tellers like Clarissa Pinkola Estes who have deconstructed many traditional stories to uncover dimensions of gender which we had previously ignored. We have come to value personal accounts of real situations and narratives of actually-lived experiences as alternative histories, and, above all perhaps, we continue to gather in circles and share stories in the traditional way.
I am not alone in thinking that all this is not enough, not adequate to the imbalance which we are feeling in our lives. The situation vis a vis Gender and Story needs attention. Recent events have suggested that we need a lot of rebalancing. Story can be fundamental to this, so we should continue our explorations this morning. After all for many of us at the Festival it’s our Special Subject.
So let’s look at trans, – transgender. It is, as I say, my special subject and transformation is a theme of this Festival. Does a trans perspective help us to address story as a rebalancing?
I should offer here, as background, the thought that many experiences are represented by transgender, itself a partially useful term to bring together a range of terminologies– trans-sexual, transvestite, drag, cross-gender, hermaphrodite, gender-queer, intersex, androgyne, and many more. All this brings with it category issues, issues of status and presentation – and raises questions about the outcomes of desire
It is a complicated situation and therefore complicating. I think that transgender is a usefully complicating – maybe I could say queering – factor in modern culture. It is, for a start, anti-binary. In this respect trans presents as a useful problem for cis-gender others in society and for the Binary. Binary is categorical and an excess of category can lead to polarization and conflict. It is certainly an indicator of decline. In the Song Dynasty of China history tells us that one room in the Imperial Palace was subject to so many protocols of use and behaviour that they filled two 11,000 page books. When your civilization is as categorical as that you know that it is headed for the rocks.
While I am dealing with the complications offered by trans I’d like to mention the individuals I call Gender-Jokers. They offer themselves as provocateurs, (and I am using the word “Joker” here in the sense of a challenging intermediary, akin to the Trickster in Boal’s Theatre Of The Oppressed) Perhaps the most prominent Gender Joker today is Grayson Perry, the ceramicist, designer and prominent transvestite media icon, but I might as easily refer to another artist I saw recently performing at the Hackney Empire, the American, Taylor Mac, Taylor Mac comes onstage like a distressed Christmas fairy but he (and he disputes the pronoun most inventively) has had considerable experience in community theatre, and he, like Grayson Perry, uses his public prominence to reinforce the need for mutuality not division. There are many Gender-Jokers in the world offering dislocation to a world crucifying itself on gender and division
I’d like to look at the stories which have gathered around the experience of trans and to point out the importance for storytelling of prepositions. There are stories by, for, and about transgender. Stories “for” transgender are welcome and offer ways of strengthening our community often by reflecting us to ourselves. Stories “by” trans individuals are also welcome. They contribute to cultural diversity and, if accepted into the canon,- a significant “if”- can help to shift the centre of gravity of cultural discourse.
Stories “about” transgender are more contentious – questions arise as to why should these stories be heard? and if they are heard are they falsified or skewed? In Cardiff I took those gathered through a series of newspaper reports which appropriated trans experiences and subjected them to different levels of bias and disinflection. Although I haven’t the time to do that this morning, I would suggest that everything, as so often, depends on who is recounting these stories to whom and in what circumstances.
And here I should say that there is the trans experience that doesn’t want to be a story. When I was in Hong Kong – and this is replicated in many places – I found it difficult to make contact with trans individuals because their lives were based on a simple physical gender conversion. Once they had transitioned they wished to merge into the background in society and achieve invisibility, or at least anonymity. For these individuals there is no trans story. Equally there are non-trans-stories or trans non-stories. For a period New Zealand had a trans MP, Georgina Beyer, something that might not have merited the attention it received. Thankfully for Georgina and all of us it became a story that succeeded in belonging to itself. Nor can we forget that stories change through eras and across cultures.
If there are to be trans stories we need to consider whether they are unique in form and content. If trans can be fitted into conventional story-structures, are conventional resolutions enough? Can conventional stories do justice to the truth of transgender? Here are six instances of conventional story tropes to consider.
Trans as destination – In this order of story trans is looking across a line or a divide. There is another place or state where they wish to be, In conventional resolutions a protagonist sets out to reach that destination and achieves some kind of fulfilment. For a trans individual, however, such a journey is often not possible, and the story becomes a tale of futility, wish-fulfilment achieved at a price, or a perpetual state of longing. In “The Bacchae” by Euripides the king who cross-dresses to get close to the Bacchae is destroyed by his foolishness. In a recent memoir by Susan Faludi about her father who transitioned later in life we are faced with a story of someone who wished to erase their past. For the trans experience there is no Promised Land and no easy crossing.
Trans as process – in this story the individual undertakes a journey and the journey is one which they may have to struggle to join, or be very brave to take. Along the way there will be challenges before they return to the original location with a developed attitude to life. W H Auden expressed the relativity of this story in his portrait of Southern Italy.-
“the myth of an Open Road, Which runs past the orchard gate and beckons Three brothers in turn to step out over the hills And far away, is an invention Of a climate where it is a pleasure to walk And a landscape less populated Than this one.”
A journey like this, inflected towards a Northern European morality, is rarely the transgender experience. For the trans individual there may be no return and none may be wished for.
Trans as outsider – In Cardiff I drew a distinction between the “excepted”, individuals who are forced to the margins of society and beyond, and the “accepted” whose lives define society’s norms. Beggars, outcasts, travellers –so many familiar from Arabian Tales – these are the excepted of traditional story, but their story-fate here is to become enriched, empowered, elevated. The surrounding society is not transformed and social forms are not amended. This may be the transgender experience but it is not the resolution needed.
Trans as magician or seer or shamen – we can think of Tiresias the Greek seer who lived as man and woman and we can think of witches and wizards with gender-ambiguities but such figures are always outsiders, and they appear as an interlude in some-one else’s story. For most trans individuals it is not enough to remain an outsider.
Trans as disguise – This is the story of “I am not what I seem”. We are told of girls who go off to be soldiers and sailors attaining prowess if not power, and occasionally men who attain beauty and sexual influence through disguise. These are conventionally about presentation rather than Identification and this permits the release of alternative energies, but such stories conclude with the disguise being stripped away. Trans, needless to say, is not about simple reversible disguise.
Trans as an Interlude in myths and the big composite stories – we hear of the warriors in the Mahabharata taking time out to experience the “other” gender, and characters in Sidney’s “Arcadia” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron” experience comparable respites for learning and character formation. These are culturally fascinating stories, susceptible of many levels of analysis, but they are not, essentially, transgender stories.
If transgender experiences don’t fit the stories we have they challenge us to create new stories. I asked, can trans can be fitted into conventional story-structures? are conventional resolutions enough? I believe not, because gender is of a different order to living somewhere or lacking status or enduring oppression or lacking opportunity. We are not born into gender, we are born with it. What complicates us at birth is the “Other”, the difference within us and my consideration of that difference will lead me to my conclusion.
I have already concluded that we need new stories and new story structures which point towards the future. I’ll suggest some, but before I do let me just indicate two trans concepts or dichotomies which underlie our lives. One is concerned with the difference between Performativity – the definition of Gender advanced by Judith Butler in “Gender Trouble” in which gender is the active road to Intentionality – and Being or simply becoming. The other dichotomy of concern to trans individuals is between a change of status (the road to influence) and trans as sufficient diversity.
In Cardiff I distinguished between the diversity of the wild-flower field and that of the sea’s edge. In the former something of everything is contained in a given area. In the latter every individual has a unique and singular position on the edge of being, and it is this latter which I believe best identifies Transgender (and maybe other) diversity – living on the edge but belonging. The achievement of such a diversity is one of the new stories we need, the story of the creation of an authentically new society, rather than an individual destiny. This is an idea about “the trans which we would like to have” and it requires us to envisage the emergence of a world beyond conventional gender. Ursula Le Guin envisaged such a world in her science fiction novel “The Left Hand Of Darkness” and you can read her account of what she thought she was telling us in the book of essays I mentioned earlier.
There are also ideas of duality. We have, and need more, stories of two sensibilities in one body. We have the Shamen, and Tiresias, and also the Chinese bodhisattva Kuan Yin. In contemporary fiction we have Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. All in different ways communicate a release of new energy, the exercise of a different kind of power. We need more such stories. We also have a small number of stories about individuals who belong in two worlds. I can think, for example, of the transgender protagonist in the Hop Ciki Yaya detective novels set in contemporary Istanbul. Such figures offer a kind of magic mediation in society, like Gender Jokers but without the public prominence.
And after Diversity and Duality there is Singularity. We need stories about the power of separateness and difference, which is in some senses a new power, useful in a world of transition. The American writer Gore Vidal wrote an essay on the passing of Eleanor Roosevelt which concluded in this way,-
“Now we live in a society which none of us much likes, all would like to change, but no one knows how. Most ominous of all, there is now a sense that what has gone wrong for us may be irreversible. The empire will not liquidate itself. The lakes and rivers and seas will not become fresh again. The arms race will not stop. Land ruined by insecticides and fertilizers will not be restored. The smash-up will come.
To read of Eleanor and Franklin is to weep at what we have lost……We’re really on our own now.”
For Gore Vidal in 1962 this was an expression of loss but to be “on our own now” in a post-Binary world, not devoid of relationships but not dependent on them for our self-definition, may be our best hope. In Cardiff when considering Constance in “The Man Of Lawe’s Tale” I made much of the idea of Pity and “choosing what must be and in choosing it changing it”. It is not about “can do”, but “will be” and it is an exercise of singularity. Virginia Woolf in “To The Lighthouse” invokes the line from Cowper’s “the Swimmer” – “We perish each alone” to capture the sense of isolation each of her characters feels. I wonder if we are now ready to adventure with the obverse idea – “We flourish each alone.”?
These are in the nature of challenges to story derived from the needs of the trans situation. There is one further challenge which trans offers, to something beyond or beside story, to the idea of a unified sensibility. Is there such a thing? Can we have a resolved centre? The Iron Law of Mental Health is, Thou shalt not be conflicted
(or to use the words of William Blake,-
“Reasoning upon its own dark fiction
In doubt which is self-contradiction”.)
Yet the great psychotherapists of the post-war era, Bowlby, and Winnicott, for example, did not see a unified sensibility as a human “given” but as a state of being to be achieved and maintained. Most of us live in such a state beset by personal irresolution.
Is transgender a way of dealing with – by accepting – the internal disunity most people experience? To be conflicted does not obviate your being what you conceive of yourself as being. There seems to be a kind of disunity, an existential dissonance, in our lives which is not altogether unproductive. Recently I began a reading of Proust and was reminded by a comment on that writer by Walter Benjamin that there is a joy that can only be apprehended from the perspective of profound unhappiness. My Cardiff speech concluded,-
“We’re reaching inside for our own “inner transgender” if you like, or, to put it another way, we are reaching for our problematised souls and we’re bringing them out. And if we can do that then I believe that we can prevail and I would say that – well, I know that – the Activist’s Tale is in all of us.”
Is this the basis on which we can transform ourselves out of the present situation? If so, to do so, we need new conceptions of ourselves – and our selves. We need a two that is not a binary, not excluding. We need complementary energies which run in parallel or intertwine on a journey together. We need Duality in Singularity.
And modern science and technology have recently offered us two such Promised Lands. One is quantum power, a conception beyond binary which will offer multiple attachments and simultaneous existences, and transform the ways we compute and relate. The other is Nuclear Fusion. We have lived a long time with Fission – I think of the fearsome Warp-spasm in the old Irish Epic “The Tain“, and of Robert Oppenheimer at the inception of the atomic bomb quoting the Hindu epics, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Fusion, though, the application of energy to create more energy, like Quantum power, may offer a way beyond the Binary and categorical difference.
And mentioning the great Hindu epics, – like “Kali” which has been told at this Festival –also the Greek stories especially as re-inflected by Roberto Calasso – and I could mention our own transgender epic “The Mandayana” in this connection – leads me to conclude that the greatest stories allow for a kind of universal equivalence, in which gender (and power) is as fluid as our lives together need it to be, – and these stories are essential to our troubled times.