Variations: transgender memoir, theory and fiction

Buckell, Juliet (2019) Variations: transgender memoir, theory and fiction. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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This practice-based, Creative and Critical Writing PhD consists of eight short stories that tell a history of transgender (hereafter trans: a label that covers transsexual, transvestite, transgender and non-binary) people in the United Kingdom from the Victorian period to the present, and a critical thesis about the uses and possibilities of such a project after nearly a century of writing by transgender people that has almost exclusively been autobiographical or theoretical, putting my stories (or ‘Variations’) into their historical, political and theoretical contexts. Between them, the Creative and Critical aspects of my PhD demonstrate not just the infinite possibilities of gender self-identification, but also the possibilities for their creative expression, helping to ignite a British literary culture that is not just transgender but also trans-genre.

Based on extensive reading, interviews and research, my creative practice moves from the constitution of trans identities via urbanisation (shown in my first story, A Night at the Theatre), legal persecution (A Wo/Man of No Importance) and sexological definition (Reconfiguration) to the challenges of the media ‘outing’ transsexual people (Dancing with the Devil), the marginalisation of trans people within gay and lesbian-led political movements (Never Going Underground) and the portrayal of trans people within mainstream UK cinema during the 1990s (‘The Twist’). Moving into the 21st century, it looks at some of the fractures that made it harder for trans people to organise outside of mainstream political parties or LGB (and not always T) institutions (Crossing) and the frustrations of trying to work within the mainstream media, to make trans people not just more visible in themselves, but also to raise awareness of their social concerns (Tipping Point). The stories are set in a variety of locations – several take place in London, but others play out in Cardiff, Manchester, Brighton and Belfast. They feature a range of protagonists, starting with male-to-female cross-dressers, taking in the country’s first transsexual men of the inter-war period, to the transsexual women who found themselves on the fringes of the gay liberation movement after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, and the emergence of non-binary people in the 21st century.

The Critical Commentary builds on this process of creative-critical practice. It looks at how and why memoir became the dominant mode of trans writing, with autobiographical texts becoming a crucial means for trans authors to counter the tropes of exploitative press coverage. It also asks how transgender theory arose (almost exclusively in North America) through critiques of those memoirs, addressing the work of Kate Bornstein and Sandy Stone in particular. It looks at the reasons for those two genres forming the framework for nearly all writing by trans people about trans people until very recently. It concludes by proposing that new forms are needed that will enable more complicated contracts between authors and readers than have been possible in non-fiction works; and enable us not just to bridge, but to transcend the divide between ‘memoir’, which has long been characterised as written for ‘outsiders’, and ‘theory’, positioned as being written for ‘us’ [trans people]. In this light, it concludes that fiction, because of its capacity to speculate about characters’ motives rather than simply describe their actions, might be able to provoke people to think about the historical presence of trans people, and the formation of a ‘community’ with shared social and political concerns, in different ways.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Arts and Humanities > English
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR0120 Other classes of authors, A-Z > PR0120.T73 Transgender people
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 27 Aug 2019 09:32
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2022 15:48

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