Wednesday 23 January 2013

Interview with Josephine Emery

Monika: Today’s interview is with Josephine Emery, an Australian writer, screenwriter, script editor, and media and publishing strategist, from Cairns in Queensland, known for her work on Freedom (1982), Fever (1988), and The Coming (1981). She was the Director of Literature at the Australia Council for the Arts and Head of Screenwriting at the Australian Film, TV, and Radio School, and worked as a features journalist.
She is the author of "The Real Possibility of Joy: A Personal Journey from Man to Woman” (2009), shortlisted for the 2010 Nita Kibble Award for Best Life Writing by an Australian woman. Hello Josephine!
Josephine: Hi, Monika. It’s a little strange for me being asked to do this interview. I seem to have moved on a lot in my life since my gender history was a real concern of mine. Or writing, for that matter.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Josephine: I’m 65 years old. I transitioned around the age of 58-59. Second Saturn Return to be astrologically specific. I’ve reached the point where I can say goodbye to the need to identify myself as a writer. I now live in a village of 1200 people, grow my own vegetables, and make bespoke furniture from reclaimed timber.
I fill in as editor of my local newspaper when the editor’s away. I’m getting better at blues guitar: playing slide, bottleneck, resonator. I’m catching up with the things I didn’t do enough of in the previous 65 years!
Monika: Which screenwriters or movies are your inspirations?
Josephine: I learnt to write movies by watching and rewatching Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. I also love Billy Wilder’s scripts (and his direction). I still laugh out loud through ‘Some Like It Hot’. It’s the only drag movie I’ve ever liked! But the best dramatic writer I learnt from was William Shakespeare. That man knew how to nail an audience!
Monika: What is the difference between writing a book and writing a script?
Josephine: A script is nothing until it’s produced. It’s merely a template. A book is a book the moment you finish writing it. A movie script has to complete its story in 100 minutes. A book can go on as long as you can hold the audience spellbound. A book is something you write and wrestle with alone.
A movie script (once the first draft is finished) is something you co-create with director, producer, key actors. A book takes place in the reader’s mind. A movie takes place on a screen in front of you. The differences are vast.
Monika: Do you place any autobiographical elements in your scripts?
Josephine: I’m very happy to say, No! :-)

The chainsaw of reality.

Monika: Which of your scripts are you most satisfied with?
Josephine: The last one I completed. ‘Maiden Voyage’. “A solo yachtswoman, her boat sinking in Antarctic waters. A runaway freighter bearing down on her. Once aboard she finds the crew is dead. Its cargo is precious beyond belief... and death is stalking her.”
It’s my response to ‘Runaway Train’, 1985, Jon Voight starring, which is based on a screenplay by the great Japanese director: Akira Kurosawa. ‘Maiden Voyage’ will probably never be produced.
Monika: You are the author of “The Real Possibility of Joy: A Personal Journey from Man to Woman” (2009), an autobiographical book about your transition. Why did you decide to write it?
Josephine: Above all, I want to ‘normalize’ the process of gender change. I wrote for non-gender variant people to get inside the shell of someone having to go through the process, to feel it from within and so understand it as part of the full range of human expression on this planet. I want people like ourselves to be able to feel whole, complete, and part of the human race again.
Monika: Has your transition influenced the way you write your scripts and books?
Josephine: Yes. There’s a far deeper tonal, emotional range now. I’m prepared to go places I was trying to keep locked up when I was still hiding myself from others...and from myself. Mind you, the price has been that my new work - with the exception of ‘The Real Possibility....’ is no longer attractive to publishers. Possibly because I shift the transgender experience into the centre - rather than on the periphery - of the story.
I have a new novel, ‘The Soul’s Code’ and it presses too many buttons in publishers for them to feel comfortable with it. They tell me ‘it’s beautifully written but there’s no market for it’. Thank you, guys.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Josephine: Originally on a coconut plantation on the north coast of the tropical island of New Guinea. Then we shifted to a sheep farm on the southeast coast of South Australia. I grew up in the country and learnt many of the skills that are now coming back to me here in this very rural village.

Josie's guitar.

Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Josephine: I was 4 years old when I first saw, without a doubt, that I was a girl. But it was 1951. I had no one to turn to, no reference point. So I hid my secret knowledge for the next 50 years or so.
Monika: For most transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college, or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Josephine: No. I masqueraded very successfully as a boy! No one knew a thing. I was a bright kid and by the time I was 14 I was also athletic. I hid myself away.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Josephine: This is all documented in ‘The Real Possibility...” I finally accepted the reality of my gender after my father died. I was about 56. I was in total turmoil. I was living on pills and booze and trying to hold down the job as Head of a teaching department at a Film School. I was already divorced, and my second partner left me. I was alone. No support. It was very difficult. I took a new job, as Director of a government arts strategy unit and I finally came out there. My change had no obvious effect on my job.
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow to transition even in the late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Josephine: Well, that’s me. Advice? Do it! But get yourself super-fit beforehand because there will be a lot of surgical downtime. I was 10 hours under the knife in Thailand for my facial surgery. And get cashed up. It will cost a packet. I estimate it cost me $100,000 all up: from electrolysis through hormones, reassignment surgery, breast surgery, facial surgery, &c. But do it.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Josephine: Role models were almost all negative. I walked out of Almodovar’s movie, ‘All About My Mother’. It relentlessly portrayed us as loser junkies and hookers. Thank you, Pedro! There were no good role models so I decided to turn myself into one.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Josephine: Losing the love of my children.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Josephine: Female friendships are wonderful!

Josie steps out.

Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Josephine: Married for 20 years. Another relationship for 10. Then I changed. Confusion and one-night stands followed. I don’t know the answer. I don’t seek another person’s love. I feel complete in myself. But I do yearn for soul companionship. But that’s not necessarily in a marriage! Put me down as, ‘confused’.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in Australian society?
Josephine: On the whole, I think we’re doing quite well. We’re finally emerging as a recognizable group of people - sometimes that annoys me, I just want to be myself, not a member of a group.
But I have complete acceptance here in this little country town. Everyone knows me, knows my past. It’s not a problem. I think if we present ourselves well, as credible citizens, then that’s how we will be accepted. My TG colleagues all have fulfilling lives.
Monika: We are witnessing more and more transgender ladies coming out in the USA. Unlike in the previous years, some of them have the status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modeling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you witness the same trends in Australia?
Josephine: Yep. There are more of us around and more and more our gender history is less and less an issue.
Monika: At the same time sometimes we get horrible news about transgender women being killed or beaten. How can we prevent it?
Josephine: There are horrible stories of all sorts of people being murdered! One of the shocks of going from man to woman is to discover the essential vulnerability of womanhood.
I think there is something to be addressed within the male psyche that is prone to act out violent impulses on people it perceives as ‘other’. As long as a particular group is perceived as ‘other’, as ‘not like us’, then those violent impulses are given haven. Hitler traded on it. We have to find our common humanity.

Glamour days.

Monika: Are you involved in politics or political lobbying? Do you think that transgender women could make a difference in politics?
Josephine: I’m not ‘involved’ in politics. But every breath I take is political in the sense that I live my difference proudly, unashamedly and I do not step back from it. ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me, God,’ as Martin Luther is supposed to have said to the Inquisition.
Monika: In one of your interviews you said that Christianity and Islam never took comfortably to the idea of gender variance. Why is that?
Josephine: They are monolithic, paternalistic, and judgmental. CG Jung pointed out that patients who presented to him with a sexual problem invariably had a spiritual problem and vice versa. To be transgender is to live in the reality of the fluidity of the human essence - the soul. We are a daily contradiction to their most basic and rigid beliefs.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Josephine: No.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Josephine: Yes. I have moments of quiet and intense joy when I am one with all creation. That takes some beating!
Monika: Josephine, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!

All the photos: courtesy of Josephine Emery.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

For more info on transgender biographies, visit TRANSGENDER BIOGRAPHIES.

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