Anne Strainchamps (00:00):
It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps.
What pronoun do you like going by?
Speaker 3 (00:07):
My pronoun is he and I present as a he.
Speaker 4 (00:11):
You can refer to me either as she or they.
Speaker 5 (00:15):
We just don't need to necessarily have gendered language.
Speaker 6 (00:18):
What sort of feels good to our ears when we hear it?
Speaker 7 (00:21):
The indicated degree of respect. Who doesn't want to be respected?
My name's [Henya 00:00:28] and I use she pronouns.
Anne Strainchamps (00:33):
We're having a lot more public conversations about gender these days, working to end discrimination against those of us who don't fit neatly into binary boxes, to make a wider range of gender choices possible. Where could we go from here? Ask yourself this.
Jules Jill Peterson (01:06):
What would it take for you to actively wish for and want there to be trans people in the world?
Anne Strainchamps (01:14):
This is [Jules Jill Peterson 00:01:15].
Jules Jill Peterson (01:17):
Want there to be trans women, want there to be trans youth, want there to be non-binary teens, to say not only that, what, some teens are non-binary, but I would never wish that on my own kid. What would it take to really say, "I celebrate this," that it's a happy childhood to have a trans childhood, that it's a happy event when someone questions their gender, that it's not a tragedy? Not just to accepting that there are trans kids or saying that they should technically be allowed to survive into adulthood. That's the bare minimum. What would it look like to celebrate and welcome them into the world and to say that, "We're happy that you're here? I want you to be here"?
Anne Strainchamps (02:03):
So that's what we'll do this hour. Imagine a world with more gender freedom. Jules Jill Peterson is a historian and trans writer, an author of one of the first histories of transgender children.
Anne Strainchamps (02:29):
I think a lot of Americans are feeling confused about gender today. They look around. I'm talking about older generations. They see their kids and their grandchildren shifting personal pronouns, suddenly talking about gender fluidity. I think the older generation sees trans kids everywhere all of a sudden. So what do you say to them?
Jules Jill Peterson (02:56):
It's true. This really is one of the first times that Americans in general are encountering trans and non-binary and genderfluid young people in the media. I think a lot of people are sort of asking, "How did this happen? How did we get here? Is this all just some sort of new cultural trend?" One of the things that I'm very happy to say is, as a historian, that on the contrary, actually, there's a well documented history of trans young people and other kinds of gender nonconforming young people. But for a long time their lives were much more subcultural. So in some ways the difference today is about publicity more so than about demography.
Anne Strainchamps (03:37):
You have done this historical research. That's a few years back now but it is so fascinating. I mean, you uncovered, for one thing, these amazing archives: stories of people who were going through gender change. Wow. How far back does it go?
Jules Jill Peterson (03:54):
It's quite incredible. I found evidence of people who understood themselves to be trans in the 1930s, the 1920s, including children who sort of understand themselves to be different than the gender that they were assigned at birth 70, 80, 90 years ago. I mean, it's really kind of staggering to think how, in some ways, our imagination of children's gender is so belated.
Anne Strainchamps (04:21):
I was really struck by someone you wrote about named Val. Can you tell us about her?
Jules Jill Peterson (04:28):
Val is incredible: one of the most remarkable trans youth that I was able to write about in my book. What I know about Val comes from a little bit later in her life in the late 1940s when she was at the University of Wisconsin Madison hospital hoping to finally get gender affirming surgery. If she had been successful she would've really been one of the first Americans to, at least on paper, officially get that kind of surgical set of procedures because American doctors were just pretty far behind their European counterparts in that regards. Anyways, at one point while she's kind of stuck on the hospital ward, while truly on another floor a whole room of doctors are arguing about whether or not they're going to actually go through with the surgery that everyone else has approved her for, a psychologist kind of wanders into her room and s they often do, just takes her life history again.
Jules Jill Peterson (05:24):
In telling her story we learn this incredible tale of her trans childhood. We're talking here the turn of the 1930s: the very beginning of the Great Depression. Val's growing up in a family outside of Milwaukee in a more rural county. The way she narrates it is that it was just obvious to everyone from a really young age that she was a girl, even though she had been assigned male at birth. And her parents were fine. They let her dress as a girl. They treated her as a girl. They called her by a girl's name. And when it came time for her to enter into school and go to kindergarten, her parents got together, talked to the county judge, talked to the school officials, and she went to school as a girl. It wasn't a problem at first. It's so interesting because we are being told every day that the idea of trans girls using the restroom or playing on girls sports teams is some sort of radical threat to the norms of American society. Here we have evidence from 1930 that that's not true. I just think it really stretches the mind and reframes where we think we are today.
Anne Strainchamps (06:35):
One thing that does seem new to me is non-binary as an option. When I was graduating from college in the mid '80s there were trans kids, but it was always you were switching from maybe your assigned gender to a different gender. It was always one thing. Now it seems like there's a new choice, which is not to choose: to refuse to settle.
Jules Jill Peterson (07:01):
Yeah. It's a really interesting and fast uptake of this concept. Some of it has to do with, in general, how language around gender and sexuality is constantly in flux, but this term has really become very popular. I think part of what it's trying to do is continue some political work that trans and gay and lesbian communities have been involved in for a long time. That really had to do with [de-medicalizing 00:07:28] our existence and identity. It's really the medical establishment that created that narrative of transition as moving from one gender to the other: that idea of crossing M to F or F to M. It was really that medical establishment that created that obligation and pressure. There's been a long political push to loosen that binary and to loosen that language. I think non-binary really follows up on a lot of that activism and that energy, but it's taking it in interesting new directions.
Jules Jill Peterson (08:01):
You mentioned the concept of none of the above or, "No gender please," or, "Nowhere in the system please." Saying that, "I don't feel like a man or a woman," or that "Some days I feel more masculine and some days I feel more feminine." I mean, these are really interesting conceptual innovations. They really challenge the kind of gendered system that we live under. A lot of people who identify that way or who are interested in it will say, "I don't want this to get resolved. I don't want to pin this down. I want to keep it messy. I want to keep it open ended." That, I think, is a really fascinating challenge to... Like, how do we... What kind of world would we need to live in for that to be celebrated and safe and affirmed? I mean, I think that's a fantastic challenge for us to take up, period.
Anne Strainchamps (08:49):
Right. And to say that you make things better.
Jules Jill Peterson (08:53):
Anne Strainchamps (08:53):
For everybody else by questioning the rules and the limitations that we all live with, whether it's about gender or how you make your living or how you live your life: all the different codes we live with.
Jules Jill Peterson (09:08):
Exactly. This is what I say often to parents who've just had a kid come out and often find myself in conversation with them when they're feeling nervous, worried, tacitly on board but scared and unsure, worried about doing the wrong thing. I say, "Look, this is actually a moment of celebration," and I can speak to this because I'm really lucky. I come from a family where my younger sister is also trans. We're very different people but we both share that in common and we've grown very close with our mom over the years. One of the things that we've kind of talked about is one of the gifts, from my mom's perspective, is that... and this is what I would say to parents... you get to travel with a trans person in your life. Not only do you get the gift of being able to support someone, which is so powerful when the world around them is not going to give them that support, you get to show up for that person. But also you are going to get access to perspectives that stretch your mind and allow you to see the world in dimensions and colors that most people could only dream of.
Jules Jill Peterson (10:14):
I think there's something really powerful about that. Imagine having the chance to question the world that you were born into and to nurture someone coming into themself. It's also not something that requires you to become an expert in gender. I mean, I appreciate that people really are hungry and are looking for, "Okay, I want to make sure I understand. I want to use the right pronouns. I want to use the right terminology." That's fantastic. But the truth is you don't have to become an expert in trans issues. You don't need to read up on all the medical stuff. You don't need to know all the psychology. You just need to know how to be in relation to someone and to offer care and love and affirmation. That, I think, is something that hopefully is a much more universal to possibility for all of us.
Anne Strainchamps (11:03):
Jules Jill Peterson teaches transgender history, politics, and culture at Johns Hopkins University. She's the author of Histories of the Transgender Child and writes a regular sub stack newsletter, Sad Brown Girl, about her experience as a trans woman of color.
Anne Strainchamps (11:24):
Coming up, God saved the queen diva, Big Freedia. Where would we be without her?
Charles Monroe-Kane (11:35):
And think a lot of people have been broken from the pandemic. I think it's going to get a lot worse this winter. What can we do?
Big Freedia (11:45):
Be free to keep putting out music.
Anne Strainchamps (11:59):
I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Big Freedia (12:06):
Well, there's many ways that you can twerk but the official way to twerk is to put your hands on your knees. You put an arch in your back and you make that zag go up and down.
Anne Strainchamps (12:28):
That's Big Freedia, AKA the queen of bounce: the New Orleans tradition that's part parade, part hip hop, and all twerk.
Big Freedia (12:34):
You could twerk upside down with your hands on the ground and your feet on the wall. There's there's many ways you can twerk. You can do one leg on the wall, one on the floor. Depends on how advanced you are at twerking.
Anne Strainchamps (13:09):
It doesn't get more advanced than Big Freedia, the gender-bending icon who's collaborated with Beyonce, Drake, and Lizzo, and started in her own smash reality TV show, Queen of Bounce. In Big Freedia's memoir, God Save the Queen Diva, she tells the story of growing up gay and gender nonconforming in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Orleans, of surviving gun violence and Hurricane Katrina, and of finding accept and self expression in bounce, the music and the movement.
Big Freedia (13:43):
From the jazz to the Mardi Gras Indians to the parades to the [secka 00:13:49] lines, it's a sub genre of hip hop but we definitely have our own twist of it, on it. There's a lot of repetitive lyrics used in it. But back then they were using a lot of phrases and those dudes were rapping and delivering bars.
Anne Strainchamps (14:11):
Charles Monroe-Kane caught up with Big Freedia at her home in New Orleans.
Charles Monroe-Kane (14:15):
Take us back to the first time you heard bounce. When was that?
Big Freedia (14:19):
I was in middle school. In my neighborhood, my best friend would come and he would come with a new tape or cassette by [Miss T 00:14:34] or [Cheeky Black 00:14:35] or Partners in Crime or DJ Jubilee and I would hear it at my middle school dances and going into high school and it was just something that just took me by storm and just took me off my feet. The first time I heard it I was like, "Oh my god, I love this. What is this?" Immediately I fell in love with it.
Big Freedia (14:57):
Choir and music was always my background. I was a choir director for many, many years. I traveled all around the world with the choir. I also sung with the Gospel Soul Children of New Orleans, the Gospel Music Workshop of America. I was very involved with it. I thought that I would be either a famous choir director or a music composer of gospel music or something. Like, I didn't think that I would be in the music that I'm in today. But when I just switched over the music and I took them by storm being this choir boy coming and stepping into the scene with this very choir-like voice... I would be in the club hitting choir notes and people would be like, "Damn. That was loud in my ear."
Big Freedia (16:34):
I was a victim to violence. I was shot. My brother was killed. I know many, many people in New Orleans who was either friends or friends of the family that was killed due to gun violence. And so violence is very much a big part of a problem that we have in New Orleans.
Charles Monroe-Kane (16:57):
Your description of being shot was just harrowing. I mean, you were very lucky that didn't go in your head instead of your arm. Just the descriptions in the power of what happened... But nothing in the book compares, to me, of the anguish of Katrina. And I will say, I've read a lot of accounts of Katrina. Your account was just probably the most harrowing I've ever read. Can you take us back to Katrina?
Big Freedia (17:29):
When Katrina hit, it was the moment of survival and that's what we had to do. I was stuck at home with my family: my sister, her newborn baby, my uncle, and my brother. We had to cut a hole in the roof from the inside. When the storm hit a tree, it hit my house and knocked off like the columns that hold the house up. And we were on the second floor. The house started leaning in the water. I saw... The tree smashed all three of our cars right in front the door and then the water rise over it.
Big Freedia (18:07):
We had to be rescued by a boat. We slept on a bridge. We slept at the convention center for a few days. They almost turned buses over. We had to be rescued on a cargo plane and then dropped to an army base then to a campground then to Shreveport then to LaPlace then to Houston then back to New Orleans. I was moving around trying to figure out where I was going, what I was doing, trying to rebuild my life and start my life. My family was trying to rebuild and start their life. Things were just all over the place. All of the material stuff, that didn't mean [jaysh 00:18:51] and I didn't care about all of that. The most important thing was having my family and being with my family and us living through these trying moments, because we saw a lot. We saw people on the side of the road dead in wheelchairs. We saw national guards shooting people. We saw people fighting over food and looting. It was just a lot of chaos and destruction and sadness. It was a lot for the city to go through. I'm glad I'm able to still be here living and to be able to tell the story.
Charles Monroe-Kane (19:31):
Big Freedia, you were talking about gun violence. You were shot. Katrina. Local corruption. And you're back in New Orleans. Help people understand the draw, because that's some tough times.
Big Freedia (19:53):
Yeah. This is home. For me, being a big part of the culture here and of the music scene, people wanted to hear our sound. New Orleans wanted to hear our music. When we started to play this music in different apartments at block parties, at clubs, people was like, "What that is? Teach me how to do that," or, "Teach me to move. I like that music." I started to get called all over the place to go perform and to bring a sense of New Orleans to my people and to bring a New Orleans party. People were excited. People had Red Cross and FEMA money so they're popping bottles. They got new outfits on. Even in these moments people are starting to rebuild their lives and go back to the things that they know that is normal.
Big Freedia (21:16):
I was out recruiting people. "Let's get back to the city. Let's rebuild our city." If I wanted the music scene to continue, I had to get people back. I had to help rebuild the city. I had to rebuild a scene of bounce music. How would this be? And how would it start all over? All I did was continue to grind and come up with new ideas and new gimmicks and give parties and everything I could think of I pulled out the hat.
Charles Monroe-Kane (22:03):
Okay. We're in a pandemic, I'm sure as you know, and has certainly hugely affected your life and going on tour. Hearing you talk, I'm like, "Wow, the whole country needs to dance." I think a lot of people have been broken from the pandemic. And I think it's going to get a lot worse this winter. How do we get people to get a taste of that joy you're talking about? What can we do?
Big Freedia (22:26):
Be free to keep putting out music. Okay? No, but artists... That's a moment for artists to create great music, great dance music, party music that will bring light into people houses, in their homes. I put out a Christmas EP that has bringing lots of joy and laughter into people home. You got to continue to put out great content that make people dancing, make people want to party and have a good time. Because in our everyday lives we go through situations, we go through problems, stress, whatever it is. But when you have that moment to put on some music and dance it takes you to another place for that moment. You know what I'm saying? You can go back to your stressing, your problems, but when you into your music and into your dance it gives you the opportunity to let all of that ish go away for a moment.
Big Freedia (23:26):
You never know. We just jump out of cars in New Orleans. I could be at a red light and if the right song come on, I'll just jump... open my door and bust my [inaudible 00:23:35] open right there and just stop traffic.
Charles Monroe-Kane (23:38):
I bet you stop traffic.
Big Freedia (23:39):
I'm telling you. You better go look at my Duffy video. We shut Canal Street down. Look, we just going jump in the middle of the street. DJ play it. He had the music on the back of the truck and we just like stopped the traffic. People were blowing. The police is across street. I was like, "Hell with it. Let's do it." And we held up Canal Street.
Anne Strainchamps (24:17):
Big Freedia, born Freddie Ross, is best known for popularizing New Orleans bounce music. Her reality show, Big Freedia, Queen of Bounce, was the most popular in Fused Network's history. Her memoir is called God Save the Queen Diva. And that was Charles Monroe-Kane talking with her, and because Charles knew you would want to see Big Freedia in action he put together some videos for you. Visit ttbook.org and get ready to dance.
Anne Strainchamps (24:52):
One of the most eyebrow-raising books of 2021 was Torrey Peters' debut novel Detransition, Baby. Rolling Stone called it the most subversive book of the year. It's a story about three women, transgender and cisgender, and an unexpected pregnancy. It covers a lot of controversial ground from trans men becoming biological mothers to one of the most taboo subjects of all, for many in the trans community: detransitioning. Peters told Charles Monroe-Kane that she found her inspiration in stories of divorced cis women.
Torrey Peters (25:25):
While I was writing this book I was trying to like kind of figure out my life. I was reading all these books, trying to be like, "What is a model for how to live?" I transitioned. I was in my thirties. I was trying to be like, "What's next? What does a trans life look like when it's, after you're on the far side of transition?" And I started reading all these books by divorced cis women like Elena [Ferante 00:25:49], like Rachel [Kosc 00:25:51]. There was something about it that was incredibly appealing to me. I realized that the trajectory of a divorce for women, for cis women, looks a lot like transition. You live your life in a certain way with believing that's it's going to look a certain way and then there's a rupture or a failure or a break and you have to start over without getting bitter or without reinvesting in the ideas that brought you to that failure in the first place.
Torrey Peters (26:21):
The ways that all these divorced cis women were talking about their life was mirrored for me as a trans woman who was in some ways starting over in my thirties. Then basically I was like, "Well, you actually helped me. It wasn't so much an olive branch as a gratitude. Thanks for doing that." And actually, as a trans woman, I think I've experienced a couple things that maybe would be helpful to these divorced cis women. So let's make it like a conversation.
Charles Monroe-Kane (26:48):
Why did you write this book? Were there certain circumstances that led you to say, "I'm writing this book"?
Torrey Peters (26:53):
I think it depends like which character you're focusing on. In the case of [Reese 00:26:58], I was in my thirties and I was just trying to figure out how do you live? How do you find meaning in life? Do you get a career? Do you have a husband? Do you make art? Do you have a baby? I was looking around to all the other women in my life, mostly cis women, to see like how they went forward. A lot of them were getting married. A lot of them were having babies. As a trans woman, a lot of that was not really possible. It was sort of like aspirational: the idea of, like, where does a trans woman get a baby? Adoption? Obviously, trans women can't get pregnant. But also adoption agencies aren't like rushing to give babies to trans women.
Torrey Peters (27:41):
The other things are equally difficult. Sometimes getting jobs when you're trans and like visibly trans or finding... I mean, finding lovers is one thing, but finding somIgbody who you wants to settle down with you for the rest of your life is oftentimes very difficult for people. But the thing that seemed hardest was the question of can trans women be mothers. And so I was kind of like, "I'm going to go right at this incredibly difficult thing of trans motherhood." And then the second thing I thought about was, with the character of [Aims 00:28:13], why is it difficult to be a trans woman?
Charles Monroe-Kane (28:13):
Wow. Right. Why?
Torrey Peters (28:21):
And what happens when life is really difficult for Aims. It's the difference between being trans... Aims is trans, but Aims detransitioned because his life as a trans woman was so difficult. I use he pronouns for Aims. So he detransitioned and so he stopped doing trans. So he is trans but he stopped doing trans, and that distinction as a way to like move to through the book and to basically explain the other problems of the other trans women was really useful to me. There was a political thing as well where detransition has been weaponized, I think, by mostly bigots and transphobes. I wanted to talk about detransition the way that trans people talk about detransition, which it's something that comes up for us. It's not something that's so taboo that we don't talk about. It just has ended up being a thing where we don't talk about in public because whenever we talk about it it gets weaponized against us.
Charles Monroe-Kane (29:20):
Can you do a reading, another reading, for me?
Torrey Peters (29:23):
Charles Monroe-Kane (29:23):
I'm trying to find it exactly... because it actually fits this perfect. Here it is. It's on page 31.
Torrey Peters (29:32):
"'I forget what it's like being around trans women,' Aims admits, 'that for once I'm not the only one constantly analyzing the gender dynamics of every situation to play my role.' 'Welcome back,' Reese says, seeming considerably cheered. 'You must have also forgotten that I taught you everything you know.' 'Please. The student surpassed the master long ago.' 'Girl, you wish.' It's like coming home: that quick girl. Something warmer and sweeter than this spring sun heating his neck and the ice cream lingering on his tongue. It's scary seductive, emphasis on scary. Start looking for that kind of comfort and he's bound to make a fool of himself.
Torrey Peters (30:11):
"The temptation to beg for inclusion pulled at him every time he spotted a trans woman on the street, on the train: a stab of need for recognition by her. Most apostates must feel similar, whether Amish, Muslim, ex-gay, whatever. Back when he lived as a trans woman hardly anyone spoke about detransition. It was treated as the purview of conversion therapists and tabloid headlines. 'He was a man, then a woman, then back to a man!'
Torrey Peters (30:37):
"The topic of detransition was boring. The reasons for it were never complex. Life as a trans woman was difficult and so people gave up. Even worse, to discuss the possibility of detransition gave hope to the lunacy of bigots who wish that trans women would simply detransition, i.e., cease to exist in any kind of visible and hence meaningful way."
Charles Monroe-Kane (30:59):
I'm going to be honest with you, that broke my heart, that part, and it bothered me the whole book. That's near the beginning. It's like page 30. I like their play back and forth. But the part that bothered me... and I'll read it to you... it says, "Life as a trans woman was difficult, so people gave up." I'm like, "Damn. People didn't give up for the reasons I thought people would give up." They kind of gave up because the bigots won again. You wrote those words like that's a bummer. You know what I mean?
Torrey Peters (31:32):
Yeah. I mean, there's two things that I say here. One is that usually it's not that people are wrong about their gender. There's this idea that people detransition because they made a mistake and somehow it's irrevocable so therefore we shouldn't let people transition or shouldn't let them feel what they want. No. People don't tend to detransition for that reason. They tend to detransition because people are cruel to them and eventually you get sick of people being cruel to you. You get sick of your family not talking to you. You get sick of people not treating you nicely on the street. You get sick of not having access to jobs and things like that. And you know that if you detransition, you can get your family back, you can get a job, you can get treated with respect. So the temptation to detransition is always there.
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:21):
I was thinking about the word weaponization, or being used as a pawn, or all... It's like for the trans folk I know, who inside their own group were completely open, but outside I think that detransition was a dirty word. Don't use it. But there you are writing about it, having characters live it in a flawed way. Are there people that are annoyed, upset with you inside the community for doing this? I can imagine.
Torrey Peters (32:49):
Yeah. But I think a good book should piss off everybody. It's like come to my feeling. It's like on one hand there's people who are like, "You're airing dirty laundry. You're sharing all of these secrets." On the other hand, there's people who are like, "This is a book about, in some ways, trans women joining the nuclear family. You're like an assimilationist. You're capitulating to family values." I think the fact that like the radicals and conservatives both find something objectionable in the book means that it's hitting a spot where I wanted it to hit.
Charles Monroe-Kane (33:23):
Your characters are kind of boring. They're like normal people and they're flawed. And I was wondering if that's liberation.
Torrey Peters (33:30):
I want a life that is in some ways banal. I want to be able to just go to the store, have people I care about, have friends over. I don't want everything to be a struggle. I don't want everything to be a drama. So to have characters who... and I definitely don't think that the burden for trans people should be that they're all perfect heroes, that they're all like amazing inspiring cases. No, like I'm not an inspiring case. I'm just a person. My friends are just people. And it's not actually very funny or enjoyable to have to walk around the world being like, "I am a hero. I am an inspiration." No. I just want to be a person, want to tell a few jokes, want to have a good meal, and like...
Charles Monroe-Kane (34:16):
Have a glass of wine.
Torrey Peters (34:17):
Have a glass of wine. Whether or not that's liberation, I'm not sure, but it is a step forward from the kind of expectations and burdens that have been placed on trans people historically to be always outsized and special in order to justify being alive.
Anne Strainchamps (34:45):
Detransition, Baby is Torrey Peters' debut novel. Charles Monroe-Kane caught up with her on Zoom.
Anne Strainchamps (35:10):
Coming up, Nigerian novelist Akwaeke Emezi identifies in ways that go beyond gender: way beyond.
Akwaeke Emezi (35:18):
I am illegal back home and I'm also quite visible, especially because I'm not just out as being a queer and trans Nigerian in flesh terms, but I'm also like publicly saying I'm an ogbanje, which is like a combo of like... People don't believe either of these things are real and you're coming through with both of them. It's a lot.
Anne Strainchamps (35:42):
Writing as trans, non-binary, and also more-than-human. That's next on To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Anne Strainchamps (35:58):
What if there was a gender that wasn't male or female or even anywhere on that spectrum? What if there was an entirely different third gender? Welcome to the world of Freshwater, the debut novel by Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi. Emezi identifies as trans, non-binary, and also more-than-human, which takes a little explaining. In Emezi's native Igbo culture, there's a kind of spirit called an ogbanje and this is a spirit with not one but multiple identities, which can inhabit the body of a person. In Igbo culture, that's considered a third gender. Steve Paulson has more.
Steve Paulson (36:43):
In the novel Freshwater, Ada is a Nigerian baby born with a chaotic mix of spirits inhabiting her body. These spirits take turns narrating the story, sometimes individually and sometimes as a collective we. It took me a while to wrap at my head around this premise but it's central to how Akwaeke Emezi sees the world, both in the book and their own life. Emezi says pretty much everything that happens to the novel's protagonist actually happened in Emezi's own life. Here's a passage from early in the novel in the voice of these ogbanje spirits.
Akwaeke Emezi (37:25):
"So there she was: a fat baby with thick wet black hair. And there we were: infants in this world, blind and hungry, partly clinging to her flesh. We've always wanted to think that it was a careless thing the gods did rather than a deliberate neglect, but what we think barely matters. It was clear that she, the baby, was going to go mad."
Steve Paulson (38:00):
Wow. That is wonderful. That is such an evocative passage and it raises all kinds of questions. This baby is born with multiple personalities and it makes me wonder what, who, exactly is this collective we that is mentioned here?
Akwaeke Emezi (38:17):
Well, Ada isn't actually having multiple personalities. That's a very, I think, Western-centered way of putting it. What she has is a plural self or as a singular collective.
Steve Paulson (38:33):
Wow, okay. Can you explain that a bit more?
Akwaeke Emezi (38:36):
All these different selves are her and she's them. It's really, in her case, a side effect of being embodied. Her primary predicament as a protagonist is that she has a body. An ogbanje is an embodied Igbo spirit. In Ada's case, her spirit is not fully synced with her body, so you have the plural we, which is, again, a singular collective. It's one plural spirit. It's a bit of a paradox, I'm aware.
Steve Paulson (39:14):
So ogbanje is part of Igbo cosmology. Was that the world that you grew up in? I mean, did the people around you, your family members, did they talk about this?
Akwaeke Emezi (39:25):
No. It's categorically something people don't talk about because colonialism and Christianity, mostly. All this stuff is considered pretty taboo to talk about. I've had readers who ask their parents about aspects of our indigenous religion or culture after reading Freshwater and their parents got very alarmed. However, you don't have to believe in something for it to be real. What you'll find out in a lot of cultures is that even though people claim not to believe in indigenous cosmology anymore, they still know that it's real. So my dad is an example. He's Christian, evangelical Christian, and yet he'll still have exorcisms performed on his hospital if he thinks someone put a... he lives back home... if he thinks someone put a curse on it. And I asked him. I was like, "If you don't believe it's real..." he literally calls it mumbo jumbo. I'm like, "If you don't believe it's real, why are you doing something about it?" There's this understanding, again, that you don't have to believe in something for it to be real and for it to have power. Bearing that in mind, what colonialism did was convince them that it was evil. Then indigenous fate traditions are considered of the devil.
Steve Paulson (40:54):
Emezi says an ogbanje is a spirit with siblings. In the novel, they're called the brother-sisters. And they're not always friendly.
Akwaeke Emezi (41:08):
They're slightly trollish in nature. Like, they just like to troll humans and they think it's amusing, I think, to go back and forth and to torture families is with their births and deaths.
Steve Paulson (41:23):
They're kind of tricksters, right?
Akwaeke Emezi (41:25):
Yes. That's very much it. They're very trickster-like. They don't... As with most non-human entities, they don't hold humans in much regard.
Steve Paulson (41:38):
This is so fascinating hearing you talk about... You're basically talking about an alternative view of reality here.
Akwaeke Emezi (41:45):
Yes. But there are multiple realities based in multiple cultures. With Freshwater, there's this Toni Morrison quote that I use every time I talk about the book where she says, about her work, that she stood at the borders, at the edges. She claimed them as central and she let the rest of the world move over. So with Freshwater, what I wanted to was center a story in this Igbo reality because what I want people to think about really is what makes it difficult for us to acknowledge that someone else's reality could be just as valid as ours. How much of us thinking that our central reality is the only one true real one is based on colonialism and white supremacy enacted on a global scale that says, by force, this is the one true reality and all indigenous cultures are ignorant and backwards and dismissed them as not real, as speculative fiction or fairy tales, magical realism, superstition, a metaphor, literary conceit. So with Freshwater, I wanted to tell a story that was rooted in a reality.
Steve Paulson (43:07):
As you've suggested, some people will interpret this kind of cosmology that you're describing in the book as magical realism or speculative fiction or something like that. You have said that this novel is actually very autobiographical, right?
Akwaeke Emezi (43:21):
Yes. It's literally autobiographical. I interviewed my mom for it.
Steve Paulson (43:25):
Akwaeke Emezi (43:27):
I don't remember most of my childhood so my mom sent me all these emails, giving me all these stories, and she picked it to name of her character in it.
Steve Paulson (43:37):
Emezi says some of the conversations in the novel between the ogbanje spirits were lifted right out of Emezi own journal entries written 10 years earlier.
Steve Paulson (43:51):
One thing that's really striking about this book, about the different selves who inhabit the body of Ada, your central character, is that some are female and others are male. It's one thing to sort of think about that in a metaphorical sense but if you take that idea literally this is really a radical rethinking of gender.
Akwaeke Emezi (44:14):
I agree. Sometimes I can't believe they let me publish it.
Steve Paulson (44:19):
But you talk about breaking down the gender binary here.
Akwaeke Emezi (44:23):
Yeah. There's a quote that I think is used as an epigraph somewhere in the book that was written by this researcher, [Misty Bastian 00:44:31], who researched ogbanje in Nigeria and postulated that they were a completely separate gender altogether because even in how children were treated in Igbo culture there's a way you would treat girl children, there's a way you would treat boy children, and ogbanje fell into a whole separate category where they were treated very differently because they were recognized as a different grouping altogether.
Steve Paulson (45:00):
This notion that maybe ogbanje are an entirely different gender, tt sounds like you related to that personally yourself. Does that go back to when you were growing up? And did you not feel like a girl when you were growing up?
Akwaeke Emezi (45:13):
I don't discuss my gender identity publicly, usually, because I wrote an essay about it and that pretty much said everything I wanted to say publicly. I will say that for ogbanje it's... You have to remember they're not human. Gender is a very human thing. You can kind of categorize them as trans because now you have a gender that is different from the gender assigned at birth, which is the technical definition of someone who is trans. In this case, the gender is non-human. Like, it's just outside of the categories altogether. If you're engaging with ogbanje you're engaging with the idea of non-human entities in indigenous cultures. It kind of breaks the box open and your thinking kind of has to like zoom out to encompass these new possibilities.
Steve Paulson (46:11):
This essay that Akwaeke Emezi wrote, published on the website The Cut, tells the story of Emezi's own radical surgery at the age of 28, which removed their uterus and fallopian tubes. Emezi had spent years suffering from gender dysphoria, which led to profound depression, and even an attempted suicide. In the essay Emezi says, "The gender I'd been raised as was inaccurate. I'd never been a woman," and goes on to say, "The possibility that I was an ogbanje occurred to me around the same time I realized I was trans, but it took me a while to collide the two worlds." Emezi also had an earlier breast reduction surgery, which is described in the novel.
Akwaeke Emezi (47:00):
"Ada used a therapist to assist with our carving plan and we discovered that humans had medical words, terms for what we were trying to do: that there were procedures, gender reassignment, transitioning. We knew what we were planning was right. Then the broad shoulders and the way they taper down to narrow hips and small buttocks finally fits. Men's clothes draped properly on his body. We were handsome. We considered removing the breast utterly and tattooing the flat of a chest bone, but that decisiveness still felt wrong. One end of the spectrum, rocketing unsteadily to the other end, it wasn't us. Not yet. So we chose a reduction instead of a removal. We cut down the C cups of blatant mammary tissue to small As: flat enough to not need to not move, to be a stillness."
Steve Paulson (48:02):
One thing that was kind of revelatory to me as I was reading this book is I was thinking about the pronoun they that at so many trans and non-binary people use and I've sort of always thought of this as kind of a linguistic trick. It's a way to avoid using he or she. I've never really thought of they as maybe something you could literally use to describe yourself and it seems like that's what the book is doing here because non-binary is not just about rejecting gender categories. It's about rejecting the notion that we have a single unified self. Does this make sense to you? I mean, sort of this whole redefining what personal identity is? Making it plural?
Akwaeke Emezi (48:47):
I don't know if non-binary is about having a multiple self. I think it's very different for each person. But I do think that the idea of abolishing gender as a fun and fascinating one. Like, if you think of the categories as walls, what happens if you just collapse all of them? The idea that clothing intrinsically has no gender... It can't. It's an object. So things like makeup have no gender. We assign these things genders, colors, really arbitrary things. What happens if you just withdraw all those assignations?
Steve Paulson (49:32):
Which Is so interesting because still other people, the outside world, will often try to peg you, categorize you, in gendered terms. But then if you don't believe those, if you don't accept those categories, I'd imagine that can be pretty hard to navigate through the world.
Akwaeke Emezi (49:48):
I mean, now it becomes like we're getting into a whole existential thing. Are you what you think you are? Are you what other people see you as? If no one sees you as what you are, are you still the thing?
Steve Paulson (50:01):
Anne Strainchamps (50:13):
That's the Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi, author of the novel Freshwater, talking with Steve Paulson.
Anne Strainchamps (50:36):
That's it for this hour. To The Best of Our Knowledge is made each week by a tiny team of audio producers: Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening, and come back often.
Speaker 18 (50:53):