Books

What Stories of Transition and Divorce Have in Common

In writing her new novel, Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters found inspiration from a different group of women navigating change.

Multiple images of the cover of Detransition, Baby
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by One World Publishing.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On this month’s Outward podcast, Christina Cauterucci and Bryan Lowder spoke with author Torrey Peters about her new novel, Detransition, Baby. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: Detransition, Baby follows Reese, a trans woman in her 30s who desperately wants to be a mother, and Ames, Reese’s former lover and a former trans woman who now has detransitioned and lives as a man. Ames’ girlfriend, Katrina, a cis woman, has an unplanned pregnancy, and Ames suggests that the three of them co-parent the child together. Dramedy ensues. The book is also full of general observations about trans culture and tangents about the way gender operates. How many of those moments are debates you’ve had with friends, slivers of trans life that you’ve been waiting to document and explore?

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Torrey Peters: An overwhelming majority of them. About halfway through the writing process, I thought, “Instead of saying these things on Twitter, I’m just going to put them in the book.” I talk in the book the way I talk with my friends: a little gossipy, slightly bitchy. It was fun to have a place to put that that wasn’t as loaded as having these conversations in real time in public.

Cauterucci: Detransitioning is a topic that has been weaponized against trans people and is also an incredibly difficult conversation to have within queer communities—and, I imagine, especially in trans communities. In your novel, different trans characters have different perspectives on detransitioning. What made you want to explore the issue?

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Peters: I know people who detransitioned, and the way it gets talked about in the media is not how I talk about it with my friends who have gone through periods of detransition.

J. Bryan Lowder: At one point you write that it’s “boring,” that the reasons for detransitioning are often unsurprising. That was surprising to me!

Peters: When you ask questions like “Why did I transition?” or “Why do people detransition?,” sometimes the answer is, “Well, I just kind of want to make my life marginally better in one way or another, and I’m compromising in negotiating in whatever way that is.” So when Ames detransitions, it’s not because he had some, like, huge revelation about his gender. It was more like: “My life is really hard on a day-to-day basis as a trans woman. My feelings are hurt a lot, and maybe I can emphasize advantages in the outer way that I navigate the world instead of my inner life and my identity in that negotiation.” That is a kind of negotiation that everybody does. It doesn’t matter if you’re trans. What are you going to wear in the morning is a negotiation of your presentation versus how you want the world to see you. Sometimes things about trans life are that banal.

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Lowder: I can’t really think of another work of fiction where the scaffolding of this story is just so deeply queer—the concepts that are invoked, the politics, the debates, the humor. When you were writing, were you ever concerned about how cis readers or nonqueer readers would react to a world that is so deeply queer?

Peters: There have been periods of my life where I’ve felt adversarial to cis readers, but I’ve come to a place where I think cis readers can keep up. I like to peg trans writing to other minority literatures that came before it. So I think a lot about what was able to be said by Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison. I think about Toni Morrison saying, “I’m writing for Black people.” When she published Sula, if you read the review, the New York Times didn’t quite get it. But in the subsequent years, it turns out that all sorts of readers, white readers, readers of all sorts, can get it. Toni Morrison didn’t slow down to explain, but we can all keep up.

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Cauterucci: I felt like it was a privilege as a cis reader to be welcomed into this world in a nondidactic way, to be trusted to understand the story and come to my own conclusions about it. In fact, you dedicate the book to cis women. You seem to have a lot of empathy for cis women. Where does that come from?

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Peters: I didn’t always have it, but as I was writing this book, I was reading a lot of books by divorced cis women like Rachel Cusk, and I was really deep into Elena Ferrante. I saw a trajectory in divorce stories, where you have an idea about yourself and what your life is going to be like until a certain point. Then there’s a break from that, and you have to reinvent yourself. You have to move, make new friends, change your name. You have to not get bitter. You have to not get resentful. And you also can’t just reinvest in some of the same illusions that got you there. Otherwise, you’re going to have a second failure.

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That arc is exactly the same as a transition arc. At the point where the divorce stories have the divorce, I transitioned, and I needed to figure myself out, figure out how to live. And I took a lot of comfort from those books. It wasn’t just “Oh, I have empathy!” I learned. I learned what it means to make a hard choice, what it means to not just live in your messy emotions. All the things that divorce books were doing, I needed to learn.

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As I was writing, I realized, “You know what? I think I have something to say back to these books.” I think my experience as a trans woman will be useful. This way I have of thinking about gender that I learned from other trans women and thinking about what I want—I think a lot of, like, straight cis women could find comfort in thinking about their attraction or their gender in ways that trans women have come to think about their genders and attractions in order to negotiate the fact that none of us get to have this fit us perfectly.

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Cauterucci: It’s a pet peeve of mine that so many fictional representations of queer life are about coming out, homophobia or transphobia, dying, or starting out as queer and then ending up not queer. Maybe it’s because I am starting to enter the middle period of my life, but I want more depictions of what queer life is like when you’re already out, you’re not going back in, and you’re just living your life and making decisions within a queer context. I appreciated that your book talked about the desires these women have that don’t have to do with Am I trans or not? or things like that. Were you trying to fill a gap in a trans literature or fictional depictions of trans life?

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Peters: I wanted to write a sincerely adult novel, in the uncoolest sense of adult! There’s a way in which the concerns you just talked about seeing in a lot of queer literature are also concerns that you largely find in young adult books. Who’s going to love me? Who am I? What if my parents reject me? Is the world scary? Those are YA concerns. I don’t mean that in a derisive way. I just mean that that’s a particular set of concerns that have been conflated with what it means to write queer books.

When I was looking at those divorce novels, I thought, These are adult books. These are books about questions like: “What if my kids don’t like me? What does it mean when I’m locked into the choices I’ve already made in my life? The whole world isn’t my oyster anymore. I’ve made choices, I’ve got to live with regrets, and my past is always going to define me.” Those are adult concerns. I wanted to see what those adult concerns looked like if I applied them to my life.

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Lowder: One of the things that I thought you wrote most beautifully about is queer intergenerationality. Ames has a really moving passage about juvenile elephants. He’s talking about it from a trans perspective, but I related to it as a gay man too. Could just explain that metaphor?

Peters: Elephants have a culture: It’s a matriarchal culture. Elephants are also huge—they have a lot of power. They have a lot of emotions. It’s the mothers who teach young elephants how to behave, how to not lash out, because if an elephant lashes out, it creates a lot of destruction with just one swing of that trunk. So elephants spend a lot of time learning from elders how to control themselves.

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Then poachers came along, and they killed an entire generation of mother elephants who would have taught young elephants how to control themselves. And oftentimes they did it in front of the young elephants, who were then traumatized. So what ended up happening is that you had groups of traumatized young elephants running across game parks and various countries wreaking havoc, just having no social codes, not understanding how to control their trauma and rage.

When I thought about what it looks like to be trans, especially on the internet but also in basic society, there are ways that we interact with each other and sometimes end up ostracizing each other, hurting each other. This metaphor felt really resonant in that the mother figures who would have been like, “Hey, girls, chill out,” we lost them to HIV. We lost some to substance abuse. We lost them to suicide. We lost them to going stealth because they couldn’t be openly trans, so they just disappeared into cis hetero world. So we ended up being an orphan generation who is now itself ourselves how to be and making a lot of mistakes, and sometimes creating a lot of damage along the way.

For the full episode of Outward, which also includes a discussion of the efficacy of shaming circuit gays who traveled to Mexico in the middle of a pandemic, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or listen below.

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