Tuesday 3 June 2014

Interview with Renee James

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Renee James, a Chicago-area writer, former magazine editor, and owner, the author of "Coming Out Can Be Murder" (2012), a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, licensed hairdresser, blogger, and wilderness adventurer. Hello Renee!
Renee: Hello Monika, and thank you for your interest!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Renee: I am a grandparent, now in my sixties, married and still devoted to my wife, and trying to be a successful novelist. My understanding of my transgender nature is a still-evolving mystery, but I'm finally at a point where I enjoy the complexities it brings to my life (except when I use the ladies' room in a straight restaurant).
Monika: Is there anything like transgender literature? What does it mean to be a transgender writer?
Renee: It seems to me that there is a very rich body of transgender non-fiction, especially autobiographies. I haven't found much in the way of transgender fiction, and I think this is a terrible shame. Storytelling is the best way to connect the straight world with our world, and it's not happening. That also contributes to the dearth of screenplays and stage plays that feature strong, effective transgender women.
I'm not sure being transgender makes being a writer any more difficult than it is for everyone else. We live in a time when book publishers and book stores are shrinking and tidal waves of books are being published every year—around 150,000 in the US alone, probably more than that in Europe. So the odds are horribly against you getting a book deal with a top publisher.
I encountered some rejection based on my gender and my transsexual heroine when I was soliciting agents and reviews for 'Coming Out Can Be Murder.' Many males and some females just couldn't cope with the penis-swap proposition. I also had a hard time getting mainstream reviewers to take a book about a transsexual woman seriously—the publishing world expects transgender books to be erotic fantasies. But the flip side of that is, that I had several reviewers pick up my book because it had a transsexual heroine and they were curious.
An ironic side note: the most pointed snubs to my requests for reviews came from high-profile transgender women, including authors.

Monika: “Coming Out Can Be Murder” is the by-product of a fictional journal that is a reflection on what your life might have been like if you had chosen to become a transsexual woman rather than marry and raise a family as a bi-gender male. What inspired you to write that book?
Renee: The journal was therapy for me, and it was addictive. I traveled on business a lot in those days, and I worked on the journal in airplanes and airports, and hotel rooms instead of reading novels.
It was tempting to create a fantasy life for my character, but I made myself inject the realities I experienced when I went out in public in my female persona, and the workplace realities faced by my transsexual friends who had transitioned at work. As therapy, it kept me from lapsing into that dream world many of us have where everything in our lives becomes perfect as soon as we transition. As I made my fictional character deal with the realities of transsexual life—making a living, finding a place in society, having friends, etc.—I also began to understand my own gender issues more clearly.
The journal became very consuming and in a relatively short period of time, I had around 50,000 words. As I re-read it, I realized some of the scenes were really good, and the heroine, the future Bobbi Logan, was a unique character—different from me, and different from any character I'd ever encountered in literature. At that point, I decided to write a novel based on the character and incorporating some of the scenes I'd already done.
Monika: Is the fictional character you created much different than you?
Renee: Quite different, though I cursed her with my male proportions and my enduring sensitivity about my appearance. I did this because I wanted my heroine to introduce straight people to the life of the kind of transgender women who are most visible on the street. Bobbi has many virtues that are unique to her: she has an artistic gift (for hair), a powerful sense of aesthetics, a gentle disposition, a wry sense of humor, and most of all, she transitions and lives full time as a woman, something I have not done.

Coming Out Can Be Murder (2012)
- see here.

Monika: Correct me if I am wrong but you have not published other books since then. Why?
Renee: I've written drafts of two books since then. One is about Bobbi's second life, set five years after the first book. I'm still revising it—the first couple of drafts were written with too much passion and not enough story and scene craft. I hope to have a reading draft done by mid-June. I have gotten some interest from agents and publishers in the manuscript, so I want to take my time and get it right.
The other manuscript is going to take a full rewrite (or more) and is probably several years away from publication, at best.
I should add that I spent a year after finishing Coming Out Can Be Murder marketing it to reviewers and readers. I also spent quite a bit of time last year working on a new version of the book with an LGBT publisher, Riverdale Avenue/Magnus Books. The new version was published in March 2014 as 'Transition to Murder.' It includes a significant plot change and is the basis for the sequel.
Monika: In the years 2005-2010 and again from 2012-2014, you supported the transgender cause through editing the Chicago Gender Society's newsletter, The Primrose. What was the focus of the newsletter?
Renee: The Primrose is, first and foremost, a newsletter for and about the members of Chicago Gender Society. My publisher (Katie Thomas) and I tried to also use the newsletter to showcase the voices of the transgender community. We encouraged CGS members to contribute articles, essays, and poems—anything that expressed their transgender experience, be it personal or reportorial. For the past couple of years, we also published essays and features about the transgender experience from bloggers and activists elsewhere in the country.
If I were younger, I'd give serious thought to doing something like the Primrose as an e-zine for a national audience. We have many, many great bloggers in our community, but there is no central location readers can tap to find their work easily. As a result, many trans people read only a small fraction of the thoughtful prose produced each week about the transgender experience.
Monika: Are you still active as a journalist?
Renee: I still write columns in my male identity for two trade magazines I was affiliated with in my magazine career, but that's winding down and I expect to be full-time on fiction next year. The journalism income is nice, but my heart isn't in it anymore.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Renee: I was very lucky to have several great role models when I finally came to grips with who I am and started deciding what to do about it. What made it so enriching for me is that these ladies were friends and we had similar life experiences so our conversations traveled well beyond the limits of gender identity.
When we did talk about gender issues, I learned some vital lessons that I fear many of our sisters don't learn, the most important being that gender is not your identity, it's just part of your identity; and some transsexuals choose not to transition or transition only partway because other things in their lives are more important and could be put at risk.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Renee: The pain and anxiety that my wife experienced in the months and years I spent exploring my transgender identity. I tried to go back into denial several times just to stop the anguish, but she insisted I keep peeling away the layers of subterfuge I had created over the years.

At Chicago Be-All conference (2012).

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Renee: I think that's a very regional or even local question. Here in Chicago, we're getting there. There are many parts of the city and suburbs where transwomen are safe, there is less resistance to hiring transwomen by corporate employers, and there is a growing acceptance of our health care needs.
I think a lot of other northern cities are similar. It's much harder in rural areas and in the southern states where many people can't even accept having an African-American president. But I think we are making great progress everywhere, even in the south.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Renee: No doubt about it, at least in North America. Time Magazine has just published a cover story on that very theme, and several prominent LGBT activists in Chicago have been making that very statement ever since marriage equality became law here.
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far? 
Renee: Like everyone else in our community, I'm sick of transwomen being portrayed as prostitutes and buffoons. Part of the problem is us—we just haven't generated many stories about transgender women that show us as successful, bright, accomplished people. The core problem is that we haven't won respect from the media yet, but that's evolving pretty rapidly in North America and I think there will be great opportunities for transgender heroes and heroines in the near future.
To me, the most obnoxious problem right now is Hollywood using cisgender actors and actresses to play transgender women. The argument that the role should go to the best talent makes me want to puke. It's like using a great white actor in blackface to play Martin Luther King. I don't care how great the actor is, it's an insult.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Renee: From what I've seen locally, the transgender community has prospered mightily from the largesse of gay and lesbian communities. We trans people are a tiny minority and many of our numbers live at or near the poverty line.
We are poorly organized, poorly funded, and have a hard time working together effectively. The gay and lesbian groups are strong where we are weak and have embraced our cause because they actually do believe in equality and freedom for everyone. Thank goodness we have them on our side!
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Renee: Truthfully, I'm not fully aware of Harvey Milk's work. I think we have a very effective national advocate in Mara Keisling, founder, and president of the National Center for Transgender Equality. We also have a cadre of transgender intellectuals and celebrities who have implemented things like GLAAD, a non-profit that rides herd on media references to transgender people.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Renee: I engage in politics as much as I can stand it. I contribute to political campaigns which is painful because every contribution brings a new avalanche of solicitations for more contributions. I have done some door-to-door work for my local congressional candidate. I write letters and sign petitions for causes I believe in.
We represent less than 1 percent of the population so we really can't tilt an election by voting as a block. Politically, we're probably better off being active members of LGBT advocacy groups and developing spokeswomen who can call on elected officials as educators rather than power brokers. Educating political staff, a role engaged by Mara Keisling, is a much under-estimated tactic in American politics, but it can sometimes be more effective than money.


Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Renee: What a truly profound question—on so many levels! I'm at an age where I recognize the difference between the sex-and-romance kind of love, and transcendent, life-altering love. I enjoyed sex-and-romance love immensely in my young and middle years, and I'm still a sucker for a good romantic comedy.
I had the good fortune to pursue romance right into the arms of my wife and as we have faced the thrills and calamities of 26 years of raising children and grandchildren, and forming and re-forming our relationship, we have created a bond that goes beyond romance, a bond that defines us as individuals and a couple. I don't mean to paint this as a panacea—our life together has been hard at times. It's like we're two lovers whose lives alternate between the honeymoon suite and a foxhole in a long-running war.
The challenges forge the bond we share, and the bond defines me now. I wouldn't have it any other way. Indeed, as I write Bobbi Logan's story, I'm haunted by the need to give her a foundation for transcendent love.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Renee: My age and body type argue against any fashionista urges I might have had otherwise. I've also come to realize that the XX-chromosome women I tend to admire most do not favor ultra-feminine presentations.
I favor casual clothes for mature women - jeans, slacks, below-knee dresses, sandals. To keep life simple, much of my wardrobe is black and white, but my faves are rich in warm colors. In warm weather, I especially love long sleeveless dresses but I hardly ever wear them outside the house because I'm so self-conscious about my muscular arms and shoulders.
As a side note, I spent last week at an intensive writers workshop and as I looked around the room I realized that my taste in clothing and presentation was a lot like the cisgender women in our group…we are writers first… Levis, t-shirts, comfortable shoes, quick-brushed hair, minimal jewelry, and makeup. Of course, if there had been a formal dinner at night we could have had fun with that…
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Renee: At my age, my first wish is to survive those years in good mental and physical health. Beyond that, I want to do all I can to deliver my grandchildren to adolescence in good emotional and intellectual shape, and I want to make sure my wife has the option to pursue whatever will fulfill her most, in terms of her career.
For my personal, selfish goals, I want to place my second Bobbi Logan book with a publisher who will help me get it in front of traditional book reviewers and straight audiences where it can do all of us a lot of good. I hope to have that happen in 2015. After that, I will do the re-write of my manuscript about a Vietnam veteran and his anti-war activist college lover meeting each other 40 years later on a canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Renee: Don't let your gender define you. Just because your brain and body aren't connected the way you want them to be, don't let that keep you from getting a good education, pursuing a fulfilling career, or being a giving and faithful friend. If you wait until your gender issues are resolved to pursue the rest of your life, you will be a failure no matter what plumbing you have.
Monika: Renee, thank you for the interview!
Renee: The pleasure is mine, Monika.

All the photos: courtesy of Renee James.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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