Thursday, 9 November 2017

Interview with Rachel Eliason

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Rachel Eliason, a fiction and nonfiction writer, speaker, the author of the biographical book titled “The Agony, The Ecstasy and The Buddha: One Woman's Month in Thailand having a Sex Change” (2017). Hello Rachel!
Rachel: Hello, thanks for having me here.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself? When did you decide that writing will be your vocation?
Rachel: I have wanted to be a writer as long as I wanted to transition. For years they were my two secret “W’s” wanting to be a woman and to be a writer.
Growing up in the U.S. Midwest in the 1970s and ’80s, I never heard anyone say the word transgender, and as far as I knew at the time, changing sex was something that only happened in science fiction. So I dismissed those feelings and tried to make the best of my life in the wrong gender.
But I developed a love of science fiction and fantasy, the one place where such things did happen. I read voraciously growing up.
Being a writer wasn’t impossible, but it was impractical at best. I made scattered attempts as a kid and later as a young adult to write and sell stories, but I never really stuck to it.
I remember telling my mother, shortly before leaving for Thailand, that was really scared me wasn’t the surgery or the transition. It was that it meant I had to become a writer. I had done something that I had once thought impossible, become a woman. So what was my excuse to not pursue my dream of being a writer? I had none.
Monika: You differentiate your science fiction and fantasy books written under the initials of R. J. Eliason from your contemporary YA LGBT fiction
Rachel: I do. I use my initials with my science fiction and fantasy writing, in the vein of many other writers in the genre, from J. R. R. Tolkien to J. K. Rowling. Not that I am on par with either of those names.

Available via Amazon.

I do this mostly as a courtesy to my fans. I have many sci-fi friends (I have been going to local science fiction conventions for years) that love science fiction and fantasy but never read books set in this world. I have literary friends that are the exact opposite, they read tons of contemporary fiction but loathe science fiction. Since I write both, I wanted it to be obvious at a glance whether a book was contemporary LGBT YA or speculative fiction.
I don’t make any effort to hide behind these names and when I make appearances I usually have both sets of books and talk about all my writing.
Monika: Your novels are primarily aimed at LGBT youth. Do you find such characters most inspiring?
Rachel: I find the outsider perspective to be intriguing. I like characters who have to struggle to find their place in the world more than those that fit easily into it. It’s tough when you live it, as most of us have, but it certainly makes more interesting characters. 
I’ve also spent a large portion of my life surrounded by LGBT people, even before I came out myself. My older sister is a lesbian. When I came out to my best friend from high school he told me he was a cross-dresser.
As an adult, I’ve always had a huge group of LGBT, Polyamorous, and Queer friends. For me to not write at least a few LGBT people into my novels feels fake somehow. When I read novels that only have straight people in them, they don’t feel completely real to me. Are there people out there who have zero LGBT people in their lives? (I know the answer, sadly, yes.)
Monika: In “Run, Clarissa, Run” (2012) and “The Best Boy Ever Made?” (2014) your transgender teenage characters face difficult moments when they want to build intimate relationships with their loved ones...
Rachel: Don’t we all? These two books in particular are set in my home state of Iowa and rooted in personal experience growing up in a small town. Clarissa’s mom loves her child, she just has no idea how to raise or deal with a trans child. The same goes for Sam’s parents in “The Best Boy Ever Made.” At least Sam’s parents do a much better job of showing that they love their transgender son, especially compared to how Alecia’s family react to Sam’s coming out.
This is the reality for many transgender people I know. The best many of us can hope for is family members who don’t understand but are willing to love us anyway. I hope that as society changes there will be more parents/family members that do understand and fully accept their trans kids.

Available via Amazon.

Monika: In “Tales the Wind Told Me” (2011) you collect tales of myth and magic indicating that they are always interwoven with your everyday life …
Rachel: I’ve always been very imaginative. I’ve loved myths and fairy tales.
In the late nineties and early two thousands, I was also a big fan of Charles De Lint. I loved the way he wove fairy tale creatures and ideas into the regular world in his novels. I loved the idea that we all had a “heart place” that was the center of who we are. Some can go there in their minds, others can go there physically through magic.
I wrote several of the stories in Tales the Wind Told Me in the early two thousands and I tried to consciously recreate his style. The Maiden and the Troll and Troll Child have trolls living in Des Moines, Iowa.
I wasn’t out as transgender at the time, but my gender identity is on display in the collection nonetheless. Gemone is a science fiction story about an alien world and a sexless servant that is offered a chance to become female.
Monika: In “Bear Naked” (2013) and “The Case of Nikki Pagan” (2013) you discover even more challenging realities …
Rachel: “The Case of Nikki Pagan” is about an intersex child going through surgery against her will. Intersex is a term for people who aren’t easily defined as male or female. It can result from a wide variety of medical reasons. They are often subject to surgical “correction” to the gender that the doctor thinks most appropriate. However, we are learning that doctors are often wrong and that early surgical intervention leads to a great of trauma for intersex people. Opinions on these issues are slowly shifting, more and more intersex people are allowed to grow up and voice their opinion before doctors try to “correct” them.
It was an emotionally difficult topic to tackle. And my own mother was nearing the end of her life at the time I wrote it. Nikki Pagan became a cathartic character and book. I don’t think I’ve cried so much at the keyboard as I did writing that book. But in the end, I am glad I wrote it.
“Run, Clarissa, Run,” “The Best Boy Ever Made,” and “The Case of Nikki Pagan” form a sort of legacy for me. All three speak to the pain I felt as an outsider growing up. They all are an attempt to speak to my younger self and say, “no matter how bad it seems now, you will get through it.”
The main characters in all three books have a lot on their plates. But they are the heroes of the story. They find a way to get through it. And to young trans people I say, you will find a way. No matter how hard things seem right now, keep fighting. You are stronger than you think. You will make it through. Together we will make the world better for people like us.
Since those three books, I’ve returned, mostly, to the kinds of books I loved as a kid. Science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy. Books and stories that escape the limitations of the real world.
“Bear Naked” starts a three-book series about shapeshifters. The main character is a were-bear in love with a werewolf. And a best friend with two were-otters. Because who doesn’t love otters? And because I can’t write a book without LGBT characters, the two otters are gender-queer lovers. And there is a lesbian werewolf in the pack.

Available via Amazon.

“The Mage Chronicles” is an epic fantasy. Mary, an orphan with mage-level magic is content to be a simple healer until a mission from her old teacher forces her to realize her full powers and confront her past. (And, of course, there are several LGBT characters.) “Zoey and the Zombies” is an apocalypse book featuring a trans character who fights zombies and helps lead her group to safety.
My current writing project is an ongoing science-fiction serial, released in monthly “episodes” on Amazon and twice-weekly scenes on the free reading app Wattpad.
The Galactic Consortium opens with aliens showing up in earth’s skies. But they aren’t aliens at all. They are humans like us, claiming they terraformed this planet. Now they are back to use earth as a base for their exploration of this galaxy.
Season one: “The Girl in the Tank” is completed and available as one big book. Season Two: “Shoshone Station” is being released on Wattpad now.
Monika: This year you published your memoirs “The Agony, The Ecstasy and The Buddha: One Woman's Month in Thailand having a Sex Change” Why did you decide to write such a personal book? Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Rachel: I decided to write this book because I thought it might be helpful to other transwomen, especially those looking to go to Thailand for surgery.
I did my best to not pull any punches about the experience. Why and how I made the decision to go to Thailand. The prep before the surgery, the highs, and the lows of recovery. The first time I dilated after surgery. Everything.
Not every transwoman wants or needs surgery. But for those who do, there aren’t a lot of personal accounts.
I didn’t write it thinking it would be a best seller. In fact, I held onto the rough draft for over a year because I just couldn’t justify paying for editing and production on something with such a narrow audience. But I hope it helps even one person to try to decide about surgery or planning their surgery, that will be enough.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Rachel: I transitioned in my mid-thirties and I wish I had done it earlier. Of course, as I’ve already said, I didn’t know the word transgender growing up. I didn’t know that other people felt like me, or that there was anything to be done about it.
The first time I met a trans person was in my late twenties. She was gorgeous and so naturally feminine that while the meeting remains with me years later, I had trouble identifying with her. I would say, “if I could be that beautiful, of course, I would transition.” I kept that as my excuse for the next couple of years. Meanwhile, I met a woman, got married, and had a kid.

Available via Amazon.

It wasn’t until after my divorce, in my mid-thirties, that I started to really deal with my own gender issues. I remember thinking, “I’ve done everything society says I should; married, had a family. And it’s not changed how I feel.” From that point on I knew it was up to me to discover the path that would make me happy. I tried living as a gay man, but that didn’t make me any happier. Finally, I started to admit that what I wasn’t happy with was myself. I didn’t want to live as a man anymore. That’s when I started to see a counselor about gender issues and the transition.


All the photos: courtesy of Rachel Eliason.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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