Monday 3 July 2023

Interview with Kyle Mewburn

Monika: Kyle Mewburn is an Australian-New Zealand writer, journalist, traveler, teacher, and transgender activist. She is the former President of the New Zealand Society of Authors (2012-2016). Her books have won many prizes and awards. She lives in Millers Flat, Central Otago, and writes junior fiction books. In 2021 she published her memoir “Faking It: My Life in Transition”. Hello Kyle! Thank you for accepting my invitation.
Kyle: It's my pleasure.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Kyle: I could probably say a few million words about myself. But I think your intro is a pretty good summary. Though I might add I live on a 2-hectare property near a tiny rural community at the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand with my wife, Marion, two cats, two goats, a pair of sheep and 20 chickens.
Monika: Before you chose writing as your vocation, you had many jobs: journalist, teacher, dishwasher, interviewer, traffic surveyor, apple-picker, machine operator, and Kibbutznik, just to name a few. Did you enjoy them?
Kyle: I tried to enjoy every job I had - or at least enjoy the people I was working with. Most of the jobs I did while travelling, so I was never especially fussy. Though I did turn down cleaning toilets in a London hospital. A girl's got to have some standards. And I didn't really enjoy drilling small holes in tiny doorknob pieces for 8 hours a day. At times many of those jobs felt like a waste of time, apart from topping up my finances. But looking back it did expose me to a lot of very different people from vastly different worlds with some extraordinarily varied worldviews. As a writer, it's been such a useful asset when I'm trying to develop characters.
Monika: How did you discover your writing talents?
Kyle: I've always enjoyed writing and secretly always imagined myself becoming a writer. But I was convinced from an early age that it wasn't a real job - or at least not a job someone like me did. I was raised to think everything had to have a specific purpose. My father certainly wouldn't have supported any of my family pursuing any career that wasn't directly targeted towards making money. Which is why I eventually studied journalism and advertising. They seemed like the only valid jobs that involved writing. But neither were really for me.

For more info about Kyle's books, visit her website.

I started writing fiction and poetry while I was travelling, just for fun, mostly. Though I did submit quite a few short stories to various magazines etc. With absolutely no success. It wasn't until 1997, when Marion began making enough money from her ceramic art to support us both, that I decided to give writing a real crack.
Monika: You can boast almost 50 books and you started writing in 1997, so this is more than one book per year. How do you come up with your stories?
Kyle: Ha. Well, I may have started writing full-time in 1997, but I didn't get my first book published until 2004. And I've had a bit of a slow patch the last 5 or so years, so really, most of my books were published between 2004 and 2016. Ah, the glory days!
I'm never short of ideas for stories. Unlike many writers, children's writers in particular, I'm not at all inspired by real life. Though I'm constantly being told "You could write a story about that", it very seldom happens. My stories are generally sparked by a phrase or a small germ of an idea that just tickles my fancy for some reason.
Monika: Is it difficult to write junior fiction books in comparison with books for adult audiences?
Kyle: That's actually quite a difficult question to answer. I think writing for children is a lot easier from a process point of view. It's definitely a lot shorter and far less arduous. BUT, having said that, I also think it's also a lot easier to come up with good ideas for adult stories than stories for children. Most writers are adults, so it's a simpler thought process to imagine what other adult readers might enjoy. Adult writers are, more or less, writing for themselves. When you're writing for children, you really have no way of knowing with any certainty if your story idea will appeal to kids. In the end, you have to be able to tap into your inner child - or, more specifically, a memory of your childhood self - and trust your instinct. And I believe whether you have that instinct or not is a specific talent in itself. You either have it, or you don't. And even if you do, it's still going to be a bit hit-and-miss. 
Monika: What inspired you to write “Faking It: My Life in Transition”?
Kyle: When I started my transition in 2017 - or should that be when my transition became public because I'd told Marion 5 years earlier - I decided to share my journey on Facebook. As a result, a publisher friend at Penguin approached me to ask if I'd be keen to write my story. How could I refuse? If she hadn’t asked, I suspect I would have waited many more years until I shared my story. Who would want to read about my life?

"I think writing for children is a lot easier from
a process point of view."

Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Kyle: I've been incredibly lucky, I think. Nobody important to my life has had a problem with my transition. Marion has always been completely accepting and supportive. Coming out to her was by far the hardest part of the whole process. Not because I was afraid of losing her - after 25 years of being married, I was pretty sure she'd be understanding. What I really feared was that she'd pity me as well. I wasn't sure I could handle that.
My friends have been utterly empathetic. I know there are a few people in our local community who definitely have a problem with me, but most people have generally been very supportive. Apparently one local transphobe got up in the pub one evening after a few beers and declared: "The valley is being taken over by gays and lesbians and what-nots. We need to have a ratepayers' meeting to figure out how we can get rid of them." The unanimous response by the other patrons was to tell him to pull his head in. As the local "what-not" it's weird that it didn't occur to him that I might also be a ratepayer...
Though having said all that, I've recently discovered perceptions aren't always what they seem. I was delighted and somewhat surprised, that all my family seemed to take my transition very well. I kind of expected my mother and younger sister to be supportive, but I was rather shocked (in a good way) that both my older brothers did as well. They're both rather self-centered, even narcissistic, with narrow world views on almost every subject. And they're certainly not liberal in any way. They take after my father, basically. And he hasn't talked to me in 20 years, since I once dared criticise his actions.
Monika: It is important to get this kind of support.
Kyle: So I was utterly amazed, and quite touched, that my brothers accepted the new me. Or at least I thought they did. But recently I've had a couple of incidents that made me rethink the nature of their 'support'. Like on my first trip back to Brisbane (my hometown) last year, one brother suddenly launched into a defence of JK Rowling, and my sister-in-law ended the discussion with "there's only biological gender, because everything else is too confusing". Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. I left fuming, and vowing to never return. Then my other brother and sister-in-law decided the best present to give me for Christmas was a pair of men's boxer shorts... with an extra large comfort pouch. WTF?
So apparent 'acceptance', I've discovered, doesn't always mean people accept me on my terms. It doesn't mean they accept me as a woman. I suspect the only thing they actually accept is that they're such lovely people for not discriminating against their brother's mental illness. SIGH!
Monika: Why did you choose Kyle for your name?
Kyle: I've always been Kyle, and I felt it was neutral enough to work post-transition. If Cameron Diaz can pull off a typically male name, why couldn't I? I also had my career to think about. I wasn't keen to 'lose' my back catalogue of titles by changing my name. There was also a degree of stubbornness. Why SHOULD I change my name? In some way, I think it's undermined my transition a little insofar as keeping my name has made it even more difficult for people to use my new pronouns. But in the end, I decided it's more important to feel 100% like me than pander to anyone else's problems.
Available via Amazon.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Kyle: Yeah, that's a biggy. I was quite obsessed with the notion of passing for a very long time. It was probably THE biggest obstacle to coming out. I spent hours trawling through YouTube videos trying to find encouragement. But even though I found loads of amazing trans women on-line who looked, and sounded, utterly incredible, any hope was quickly dashed as soon as I looked in the mirror.
I knew I wasn't brave enough to come out without some FFS. At the same time, I didn't want to entirely lose myself. Or, equally importantly, I didn't want Marion to feel like she'd lost the 'me' she knew entirely. In the end, I chose a surgeon in Argentina who specialised in subtle modifications rather than wholesale changes. According to the surgeon, all my features were within normal female parameters, but together they presented as completely male. So apart from a major hair transplant to restore my hairline, there were mostly just small tweaks. Sometimes I do wonder if I should have chosen something less subtle because I'm certainly under no illusion that I pass.
Monika: So how can we cope with it?
Kyle: I'm not sure there's any special way to 'cope' with it. In the beginning, I was super self-conscious about every interaction, especially as I've never tried to modify my voice in any way. So even if people don't know for sure I'm trans as I approach them, they certainly will as soon as I open my mouth. Personally, I've chosen to meet every stare or askance look with a smile. And, again, my genetic stubbornness plays a big role. Why should I be expected to make such an effort just to try to pass? Especially when we're doomed whether we do pass or we don't. If we don't pass, we're looked down upon as though we've failed some secret test. Failed to be real women. If we do pass, then we're being duplicitous and, if we're eventually 'found out', we're likely to experience very negative, even violent, responses.
In the end, I've kind of accepted being trans is a political act. I like to think, or imagine, I'm playing a small part in entrenching acceptance. Why should I, or any trans woman or man, have to pretend to be anything except ourselves? It's not my problem if you're uncomfortable with it, it's yours. Some days it's a lot easier than others.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person that opened your eyes and allowed you to realize who you are?
Kyle: Totally. It was on a daytime talk show in Australia when I was about 13. There were three women from the Les Girls cabaret talking about their lives. It was the first time I realised I wasn't alone in my belief that I was born in the wrong body. Growing up there were loads of cross-dressing comedians, but they always played it for laughs. This was the first time it was real, and serious. On the downside, the fact the women had all suffered terrible abuse and violence kind of convinced me I'd never be brave enough to come out.
Monika: Did you have any transgender sisters around you that supported you during the transition?
Kyle: Millers Flat (my village) has quite a big rainbow community, proportionately speaking. There are around 20 LGBTQI+ folk within a 20km radius. In a population of less than 500, that's pretty substantial. But I'm the only trans person. Since I came out I've gotten to know many of the other trans women in Otago, but our paths seldom cross coincidentally.
"Nobody important to my life has
had a problem with my transition."
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Kyle: Despite the growing number of angry, deluded voices flooding social media around the world, New Zealand is still quite a safe place to be trans. The population is very supportive, by quite a huge margin as well. A recent poll I read suggested over 90% of Kiwis believed trans women were women, for example. And my experiences in our local area - which is very rural, conservative and quite strongly Christian - certainly back that up. Of course, the manufactured 'culture war' is likely to have some negative impact on people's attitudes, but I'm hopeful things won't deteriorate too much.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Kyle: I'm not a huge follower of fashion, though Marion and I regularly go on clothes-shopping trips in the city. When I first came out I spent a lot of time wearing dresses and skirts, which helped boost my confidence. I was also very keen to give people as many clues as possible that I was, indeed, a woman. Of course, it didn't always work. I could be wearing my frilliest blouse, makeup and extravagant earrings and there'd always be someone who would still call me 'Sir'. Seriously?
In the end, I realised comfort is way more important. So now I'm mostly in jeans and a top. Though I do like to dress up when the occasion presents itself.


All photos: courtesy of Kyle Mewburn.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

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