Gender Diversity in Writing: A Q&A with James Stryker and Release Day for BOY: A Journey
James Stryker’s new book, BOY: A Journey debuts Monday!
I devoured the ARC for BOY in a couple of hours on a frigid, snowy afternoon, and it is brilliant. It follows the story of Luke, a young man with a chip on his shoulder, who learns after his father’s death that Jay, his father, was a transgendered man. Luke’s personal evolution from self-centered boy to a caring man is a story that is fraught with emotion, told through the different points of view of three men who loved Jay for different, often complicated reasons. Luke’s initial feelings of betrayal grow into an intense curiosity and need to know why Jay hid the truth from him, and he seeks out Tom, his father’s oldest, most trusted friend. Meanwhile, Luke’s brother in law, nicknamed ‘Ginger’, deals with the fallout at home after the loss of his father figure and professional mentor.
James took time to sit down with me in my cyber-library where we talked about writing gender-diverse characters, who are at the core of his last novel, ASSIMILATION, his new novel, BOY, and two of my own recent works.
James: So, what has always impressed me about your writing is how you continuously push boundaries even within the LGBTQ spectrum.
Elisabeth: That’s what writing is all about, isn’t it? Pushing boundaries of imagination and maybe making people think about things in a different light. Fiction can help broaden how someone sees the world, and that’s especially important for gender diversity. We’re constantly bombarded by societal messages and expectations of what gender is, based solely on our anatomy. It happens all our lives, from the day we’re born. Society says that there is a hard psychological disconnect between male and female, and we can’t be both. It’s demanded we conform to a male or female role. I believe people are starting to reject that conformity and recognize that all human beings are capable of both roles—there is no disconnect.
James: But the concept of being outside the binary can be difficult to comprehend. Why do you think that is, and how would you explain gender fluidity?
Elisabeth: Being outside the binary is something I believe is far more common than people realize. Being male or female is important for means of reproduction, but it has little to do with who we feel we are on the inside, how we express who we are, or whom we find sexually attractive. To me, it is the ability to recognize and express the part of the “self” that doesn’t match outward gender. Because society has drilled it into our heads that you can’t possibly be both, it can even cause body dysphoria.
James: That makes sense, and it sounds like there are many similarities to being transgendered.
Elisabeth: Definitely. But someone struggling to understand might be confused to learn that it’s actually very different from being transgendered, which is the central theme of your new book, BOY: A Journey. How would you explain the important differences between the two?
James: There are many interpretations, but for me the key difference is the word “fluidity.” Being transgendered isn’t something that is in a state of flux. In BOY when it’s revealed to the main character, Luke, that his father was a transgender man, his mother offers a simple explanation to his question of “what that means,” if I can quote it here.
Elisabeth: Of course!
James: Thanks –
“It means his gender identity didn’t match his body. His brain was that of a regular man, but his body didn’t develop correctly. He was born with the physical characteristics of the opposite sex, and that’s how he grew up,” she said. “When he was legally able to, he changed his name, he began hormone therapy, he moved away, and he started a normal life.”
Elisabeth: I love the way she says ‘he started a normal life’. It kind of confirms that everything that went before wasn’t his normal life.
James: Exactly – once he transitioned he achieved his definition of normality without any variance. So at its base, what Luke’s mother describes is what transgendered means to me – a definite, consistent sense of a gender identity that is, devastatingly, incongruent with one’s physical characteristics. The typical reaction to being transgendered is taking action to bring the body more in line with one’s identity, while for someone who is gender fluid, permanent body modifications usually wouldn’t be high on the list. In my experience, a gender fluid individual is comfortable “flowing” while a transgender person would wish to be recognized within the binary.
Elisabeth: Gender fluidity seems to be an individual thing in regard to comfort level. Some of the people I interviewed in my pre-writing research found it liberating, while others found it more confusing and dysphoric. But I think you’re correct when you say a transgendered person wants their gender identity recognized, not their anatomy.
James: I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of your novels, but your latest story, “All That Entails” made the cut into NineStar Press’s “Beneath the Layers” anthology. Congrats!
Elisabeth: Thank you! I’m very excited to be included.
James: Can you give your audience a sneak peek of what they can look forward to?
Elisabeth: I wrote Darian and Henry’s story after wondering how a transgendered individual in the 1700s could have coped with being forced to be female, having virtually no rights of their own, and being married off to a husband they’d never met.
James: Fascinating. It really was well-done and I don’t think I’ve read anything like it.
Elisabeth: I don’t know if this story’s been told before: a gender fluid, bisexual nobleman meets his unexpected match in an arranged marriage with a transgendered man.
To your knowledge, has there ever been a book like Boy before?
James: Actually, after finishing Boy, I had one of those goosebump moments – I was wandering through the library and randomly picked Jackie Kay’s Trumpet from a shelf. Trumpet was inspired by the life of Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician who lived his adult life as a man, and it follows a son who discovers his father was born biologically female.
Elisabeth: So, your main character learns his father was raised as a female? How did you approach that?
James: Original drafts had Luke focused on the concept of Jay being transgender and difficulty accepting his father’s LGBT identity. After several, several attempts, I realized that the conflict didn’t align with Luke’s character or what I wanted for the book. Changing the struggle to Luke’s overall relationship with Jay and feelings of inadequacy and insecurity made the story flow smoothly. And I really didn’t want to write another “challenged to accept” book – it felt verging on LGBTQ stereotypes. Do you ever come across that in your own writing? How do you avoid common pitfalls when developing plots or creating characters?
Elisabeth: I think the most important thing to remember is that the characters are, first and foremost, human beings, with flaws and attributes just like any other human being. Once I figure out who they are, I work on what’s in their heads, and do some research if there’s any question on how they might react. For my sci-fi novel Dalí, I interviewed several persons who identify as gender fluid. The character is physically neutral and identifies as neither male nor female, but is capable of assuming a masculine or feminine identity in different situations. I also researched the Hijra community, because there is a large intersex population in the future I imagined, fighting to be recognized as a third gender for the human race.
James: Dalí is ground-breaking in so many ways, I really applaud you for the amount of work you put into it. In addition to the meticulous world building, I loved your characters. Dalí has a “larger than life” quality, yet maintains relatability.
Elisabeth: That’s something that really struck me also: the humanity of your characters: the ability to relate to them, and understand what they are going through. How did you prepare to write them?
James: I try to search for parallels between my characters’ experiences/emotions, and my own. “How did you feel when” and “how would you feel if” are common questions I repeatedly ask myself.
If I could rewind to a question you asked a bit ago – my “approach” to writing a character who learns his father was raised as a female. I was struggling to write Luke as being intolerant and unwilling to accept Jay because I can’t relate to those sentiments. To finish the book I needed to change his character to allow me to draw from feelings I’m familiar with – insecurity and inadequacy. For even my “worst” characters, I need to identify with the core emotion and let it “mutate” to extreme.
Elisabeth: And I can think of some pretty intense characters in your books! It can be a little scary as a writer to recognize the darkness in ourselves and transmute it into a character.
James: You’ve got that right! The best example I can think of is Robert from Assimilation. His actions make my stomach roll, but he’s driven by a passionate desire to have his family reunited, which I understand. I can still write him with empathy even while his motivation compels him to do terrible things. I was actually a little nervous to put Assimilation out there because of how dark it becomes – representing the LGBTQ community is something I take very seriously, and a negative reaction to the book weighed heavily on my decision to publish. Is that something you’ve worried about, or what feedback have you received from the LGBTQ community on your writing?
Elisabeth: So far, it’s been positive. I want to continue to be sure I have input from several different viewpoints in terms of sensitivity when I write LGBTQ characters.
James: Gaining viewpoints is great advice for anyone wanting to include gender diversity in their writing. But what do you feel is the most difficult aspect of representing the gender diverse community?
Elisabeth: I want to make certain my characters live and breathe, and that they connect with people on an emotional level—that they’re recognizable and others might see themselves reflected by them in some way.
There’s a huge push for diversity in books, and also a push for “own voices” –what would you say to an aspiring writer, who might be non-binary but uncertain whether they should share their writing, about the importance of representation in literature?
James: I feel that a beautiful quote by Senator Robert F Kennedy from his South Africa address speaks volumes to what I’d advise:
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
I can understand how representing gender diversity can be intimidating for anyone, whether non-binary or not, and there are disagreements even within the LGBTQ communities themselves about ideal representation etc.
Elisabeth: I agree, even in the community, it seems there are varying opinions.
James: Definitely, and I think the scarcity of characters outside the non-binary scope contributes to a feeling of isolation for many LGBTQ readers. Traditionally, things that are “odd, unnatural, and not okay” are shuffled into a dark corner and not talked about. Each piece of gender diverse writing “stands up” for a marginalized group, supporting that gender outside the non-binary is nothing to be ashamed of. To a writer considering sharing their story, I’d say that every ripple is needed to form the current, and we need you!
We need books like Dalí and stories such as “All That Entails” to celebrate the presence of gender diversity. I appreciate all the work you’ve continued to do, Elisabeth, and can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
Elisabeth: Likewise, James, and congratulations on the release of BOY: A Journey!