by Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, Fiona Joy Green, and Dallas Cant
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters was published early in 2021. It has been nominated for an array of literary awards and held a position on the bestseller list. Peters has written several earlier novels and holds both MA and MFA.
When I received Detransition, Baby as a Christmas present, I didn’t know anything about author or plot—“Pretty cover,” I thought, and that was enough to get me to dig in .The old homily about not judging books by covers proved true because the story—important, yet relentlessly exploring variants of stress and sadness–was not particularly “pretty.” We get closest to the lead character Reese, who is acerbic yet deadly accurate in judging the sketchy motives and misdemeanors of everyone, herself included. This character, a trans woman, takes nothing for granted and seems always entering or caught in uneasy relationships and situations.
On first read though, I wrestled with some of the prose. The flow of some sentences seemed jagged and even awkward. I thought the author was trying to get too much in or perhaps struggling to find a language to convey things usually left unsaid—pain and worry, but also the pressure one feels doing something all the while knowing it’ll end badly.
That’s why I think there’s little reason to hope the open-ended ending bodes eventual happiness and the successful formation of a new family configuration, with three adults united by the birth of a baby. Here’s where the brilliance of the novel comes to the fore: Peters sets herself the problem of telling a story that has never been told. Can a heterosexual Asian woman join with a man (still in the process of detransitioning from being a transexual woman) and his ex- partner, a transexual woman, to build a family and practice three- way parenting? The narrative implies that replacing the traditional family is desirable given its investment in restrictive falsities and describes some characters as gravitating from birth mothers to mother figures in the trans community. Yet there is no certainty that a new family unit can successfully come to be.
In the end I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the author for telling me things about trans experience that were new to me and helped me to understand some of the imperatives and challenges that are part of refusing to conform to gender assignment. I hadn’t thought about the medical implications and expenses of drugs and operations—or about the role of makeup and fashion as more than frippery–as foundational to character assemblage. From this angle, the story also provides a context for other embodiments of trans life that resist medicalization and pursuit of traditional femininity, like Alok Vaid-Menon.
Apart from not telling us what happens with this baby and potential family, the story raises another question for me about the role of the reader. As a cis gender older woman, I sometimes felt almost voyeuristic on this reading journey. There are explicit sex scenes and frank discussion of the attractions of a woman with a penis. Is it fair to say that learning about these details is learning to see human sexuality more expansively? In a sharply-drawn scene, Ames goes for the first time to a novelty sex store, driven there by an awkward escort he has found in an ad. He is excited to try on women’s clothes and wigs, and slowly grows comfortable with the help of an encouraging and knowledgeable trans clerk. Then like a pail of ice water, a cis mother and daughter team enter the store looking for more standard rave wear. Ames describes the look of dawning recognition on the faces of the pair as they see erotic paraphernalia, the daughter backing out in half-disguised horror and the mother attempting a more jaunty exit by complimenting the clerk on the “fun” store. As Ames observes, the mom wants to be seen as hip and accepting. Yet after the pair leave the mood has been altered and Ames leaves without wanting ever to go back. In some ways as reader, I felt like that mom. I want to be an open and welcome reader—to feel there is room for me in this book. Yet there is something uneasy about the fit. Is promoting empathy and understanding goal enough, or is there an element of prurience in reading as an outsider?
~Jaqueline Mcleod Rogers
I first learned about Detranstion, Baby by Torrey Peters from members of the IAMAS (International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship) feminist mothers reading group. Learning that the novel had been named one of the Best Books of the Year by more than twenty publications, I eagerly anticipated reading its “unforgettable portrait of three women, trans and cis, who wrestle with questions of motherhood and family making”
I found myself devouring Peters’ direct and beautiful writing, her honest depiction of the complexity of characters, and the detailed complications of their multifarious lives. Her prose reminded me of the candid writing of multi-award winner Joshua Whitehead in Jonny Appleseed, where he recounts the difficulties of Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young Jonny, living off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city by fetishizing himself in cybersex work.
Both novels are based upon the authors’ lived experiences and their keen observations of their communities; they candidly depict the intricacies of human relationships, including friendships and sexual encounters between trans and cis people.
Upon my second and more attentive read of Detransition, Baby, I was drawn to Peters’ depiction of the power of the patriarchal promise of mothering and motherhood in the lives and identities of the characters. Ames, Katrina and Reese each have complicated relationships with the idealized notion and internalized expectation of mothering, parenting and family. Inventing a different family model, no matter how queer or revolutionary, is irrevocably connected to cis and heteronormative ideals of mothers, mothering and motherhood in some way. Omnipresent and essentialist cisgender parenting systems are internalized by most people, regardless of their gender identity or desire to parent. Peters’ explores these lingering and far reaching elements when exploring how Katrina, Reece and Ames explore a potential new way of creating family, raising a child and relating as family members.
I expect I shall be reading this book again, and again. I’m drawn to the depth of understanding of gender, motherhood and mothering that Peters’ offers, as well as to her insights into human relationships on various levels, whether they be in friendships, with colleagues, between lovers, or among parents and children. I’m eager to engage further with her wisdom of gender systems and her vision of creating new family structure.
Before I knew anything at all about Detransition, Baby I saw its cover everywhere on gay twitter. It’s funny how much online community, design, and aesthetic draws us toward particular cultural objects. It seemed like all the queers I knew, especially the ones who appreciate bright colours, patterns, and the weighty beauty of a hardcover were talking about this book (you know who you are). I added it to my oodreads instantaneously. This was early 2021, and I had just joined a book club started up by a close friend. Sure enough, as the collection of gays and gay adjacents we were, three different people suggested reading Torrey Peters’ debut novel.
I picked up the last copy McNally in Winnipeg had, and dived deeply. I often struggle finding momentum with fiction, but Peters had done something special and I could not put this book down. Detransition, Baby invited me in with constant wittiness and heart wrenching truths of fucking, loving, and living as trans queers in hetero, cisnormative cultures. As a queer, nonbinary sl*t, Peters’ prose continually struck chords for me. I saw pieces of myself reflected in Ames, Reese, and Katrina’s characters, a testament to Peters striking ability to story compelling and honest lives. So much of the novel felt like conversations with my closest queer friends. When I wasn’t reading this book, I found myself quite literally missing the characters. But it’s really not about me…
What I find extremely important and radical about this novel is that Peters has created this story where trans people, in this case fictionalized characters, are as messy, complicated, and contradictory as cis people are allowed to be in every space they go, and in every form of media which revolve around cis hetero lives. This moves trans canons beyond narratives of tragedy, hardship, and death that constantly narrate and pigeon-hole trans people, particularly trans femmes. Of course, these themes do come up in the book, but they are pieces of the characters overall lives rather than the definition of them. Peters grasp on gendered dynamics is profound, and she does not shy away from grappling with how systems of power trickle into the day to day and within queer and trans communities themselves. Nor does she play ignorant to the ways that trans people turn these weighty systems into forms of pleasure, fetishization (particularly of cis white men), and as means of livelihood (here here to trans sex workers – I love you).
There are moments where Peters critique of or understanding of white supremacy and racism within trans and cis relationalities is lacking, an inherent condition of being white in the world as it currently is. But I believe this is intentional, and as such allows the story to grapple with intersecting systems of oppression, how we relate to one another, and where tensions arise in and across communities. This makes me think of how many more stories written by, about, and for trans people are needed – and how many stories have gone untold due to biases in publishing. It is my hope that this is only one beginning of many many avenues of trans brilliance, of trans sex worker brilliance, and trans stories that shake up the status quo as acts of necessary and generous love.
Jaqueline McLeod Rogers is a mom of two young adult daughters. She received a PhD for studying fiction by women and has worked full time as a professor with an interest in writing and women’s experiences. She is currently serving as Chair in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing and Communications at The University of Winnipeg.
From the perspectives of teacher / writer / scholar, she has a longstanding interest in the reflective, educative, and revelatory nature of personal writing. Does writing a parenting blog necessitate presenting news about close relations and relationships? What is frank and fair and what constitutes stepping over the line in talking about others? What are dangers of unsanctioned digital talk? Are there measures or flexible standards to guide how much to reveal about self and others, and how do these questions play out for bloggers with an online presence?
Fiona Joy Green, (she/her)is a cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, straight feminist mother who believes in the power of revolutionary feminist motherwork. She is a White immigrant and holds the position of Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. She’s interested in the agency of children and mothers, in gender identities, and in the ability of matroreform and feminist motherlines to contribute to feminist parenting, feminist theorizing and feminist praxis. Dr. Green is the author of Practicing Feminist Mothering (ARP) and co-editor of five Demeter Press collections that address evolving feminist parenting practices and maternal pedagogies. Her current interests include exploring parenting and families in relation to the everchanging digital world. She and Dr. Jaquline McLeod Rogers are co-editors of the forthcoming collection Parents/Kids/Internet: Domesticating Technologies and co-authors of the website Family Blog Lines:Tal[k]ing Care.
Dallas Cant is a white queer settler and multidisciplinary artist who has recently completed a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. They are interested in fusing mediums of poetry, textile sculpture, videography, and smutty digital portraiture to create work which grapples with the representation of sex work and ongoing calls for decriminalization. Dallas recently co-curated SWARM alongside Dr. Roewan Crowe, focusing on queer and feminist methods of bringing together. Dallas’ video work has screened in spaces like PLATFORM centre for Photographic & Digital Arts, Images Festival and Gimli Film Festival.