You may know Ariel Schrag as the author and illustrator of a series of graphic memoirs (Potential, Likewise), or as a writer for The L Word. She also received the most exuberant name-check in the Le Tigre song “Hot Topic,” a nod she returns with a wink in her debut novel Adam. When 17-year-old Adam Freeman ditches his boring scene in Piedmont, California, to spend the summer with his lesbian sister Casey in New York City, he’s hoping for life-changing excitement in one form only: girls. When he meets Gillian, the girl of his dreams, fun turns to major confusion as he realizes she has mistaken him for a transman, the most plausible explanation for why this cute young guy is hanging out with a bunch of lesbians. The book is riotously funny, deeply romantic, and a head-clearing breath of fresh air in its look at sexual and gender politics. I asked Schrag via email about Adam, trans inclusion then (the book is set in 2006) and now, and The L Word (because I simply couldn’t resist).
In just the past few years, trans visibility has increased, and transpeople have begun to receive more respect and consideration. Your novel is comic in tone and often ironically grapples with trans-related issues. Did you worry about charges of trivializing the lives of transpeople by taking this approach?
The premise of the novel is supposed to be provocative. It’s supposed to ignite feelings of “Oooh, that’s ‘problematic.’ ” Fiction should get people thinking and talking and the idea of a cis teenage boy passing as a trans man brought up many issues and questions for me, which is why I wrote Adam. I don’t believe a premise alone can be trivializing. If someone finishes the book and finds the story trivializing, I’d be interested to hear why. If you haven’t read the book, I’d ask that you refrain from forming an opinion until you do. Gender and sexual identity are things I’ve struggled with in my personal experience and the lesbian/trans subculture of the East Village/Williamsburg is the world I’ve lived in for the past 15 years, so though told through a cis straight boy’s eyes, it’s a novel that’s very close to me.
In terms of issues around gender, what changes have you seen between 2006 and today?
Much has changed in terms of trans visibility in the past eight years and I don’t believe Adam would make sense set in the present day. Adam posing as a trans man comes out of his initial ignorance about trans people in general. Because, in 2006, trans identity is something the outside world seems to know nothing about, Adam feels less accountable. Today, though there’s still a long way to go, most teens (especially from the Bay Area like Adam) are more educated about trans issues. Also, with increasing trans visibility, I imagine people in their late teens or 20s who are transitioning now have a different experience from those in 2006. In the early 2000s it felt like no one outside our subculture bubble had any idea what we were talking about when we talked about transitioning. It was a feeling we resented and, for some, took a certain thrill in.
Before even opening the book I intended to ask about your time writing for The L Word. Thankfully Adam tags along to an L Word viewing party with his sister in one of the book’s funniest scenes. Did your experience with the show help?
Writing for The L Word was an amazing experience. It was my first “real” job out of college and pretty much my dream job—to sit in a room with five super talented lesbians and come up with stories all day long. I got the job through my entertainment lawyer, who also represented Rose Troche, who was an exec-producer. Killer Films had optioned my graphic memoir Potential, and I had written a screenplay, which I used as a writing sample.
When I interviewed with Rose and Ilene Chaiken for the job one of the things I talked about was how in my generation, especially in places like NYC or SF, a lot of lesbians I knew were transitioning into men. Ilene was interested and wanted to tell a trans story on The L Word. The Moira/Max storyline was groundbreaking in many ways—I’d never seen a TV show fully chart someone’s transition before, but of course there were also aspects of the way it played out that made me cringe (primarily to do with Max’s costuming, that facial hair!).
I liked the idea of Adam first realizing what “transgender” means through a Max episode—because I think that storyline introduced many people to it—but at the same time for Adam to be at this party full of lesbians talking trash at the screen. The scene is both revelatory and discombobulating. Also, I found it amusing that this room full of lesbians—half of which were in the process of transitioning into men—were making gagging noises at Tina making out with a cis man.
You’re primarily known for your graphic memoirs and writing for TV, both of which give the viewer something to look at. How did it feel writing a novel and knowing it was up to us to visualize?
Knowing readers would be internally visualizing the story is what excited me about writing a novel. There is something wonderfully subjective that happens with prose. I may be describing the environments Adam finds himself in or giving hints at what characters look like, but ultimately, it’s a world created by the reader. I’ve had various friends tell me how they imagined the apartment Adam, Casey, [and their friends] June and Ethan live in and it’s always some version of an apartment they’ve lived in or been in at some point. Because of this, the story becomes intensely personal in a way that doesn’t happen when the storyteller provides the image. I love that the book exists in people’s minds the same way their own memories or fantasies do. I think it makes the story “real” in an unparalleled way. There are also, of course, things that comics and film do that prose doesn’t. I love the raw emotion and subconscious access the drawn line in comics achieves. I love the collaboration between writer, director, DP, actors, musicians, and producers that film allows.
Adam is such an easy character to like, despite my initial impulse to consider him the enemy. What if anything do you think that says about our ability to get along across intersectional boundaries?
Adam is “the enemy” symbolically, since he is the definition of privilege, but I don’t think the twentysomething queers he comes into contact with necessarily see him that way. They’re more indifferent to him. He’s Casey’s boring little brother. Occasionally he’ll say something clueless or offensive, and Casey and co. will use it as an opportunity to lecture, which is really more about their desire to lecture than about Adam.
Of course, Adam and Gillian never would have gotten together if she’d known from the beginning he was 17 and cis. They end up having a unique, special bond, but Gillian needs the idea of a shared experience (being queer, being female-born, being 22) to allow herself to like him. What we have in common with people is what makes us feel safe and comfortable, and common interests make for enjoyable conversation. But it’s almost always the things that are different about someone that truly excite us.
Despite his genuine goodness, some of the people Adam prejudges (especially summer roommate June) or innocently misjudges reveal themselves over time to be more complex and sympathetic than he’d thought. June also presents a study in contrasts when her identity politics are undermined by anti-Semitic behavior toward their landlords. In a story already knee-deep in layers, why was it important to include these shifts in perspective?
Everyone prejudges people for a variety of reasons upon meeting them. Sometimes our prejudices are validated, but more often a person surprises us as we get to know them. It’s a universal phenomenon that I thought was important to emphasize in a book about identity. Much of Adam asks the question: Is identity something we experience internally or is it something dependent on the eyes of another? When Adam is anxiously preparing for his date with Gillian in the Scholes Street apartment bathroom he asks himself: “Did you really need another person to make you who you were? Yes.” For some trans people this is why it’s so crucial to transition. Whether a trans person has surgery or not, what’s important is being identified by the outside world as how they feel inside. Not just important, but for some, life or death necessary. There’s all this rhetoric around “Be yourself, don’t care what other people think.” But it’s impossible to not see yourself through the eyes of everyone you come into contact with; and through that process we develop a sense of self.
I don’t believe June is anti-Semitic, as in actually a person who hates all Jews. When someone we don’t know angers us, we all tend to latch on to whatever information we do have about the person and that becomes a dock, a resting place for our anger. It feels better to have something to hate, some explanation, rather than nothing to grasp onto. We cling to prejudice when it gives our minor affronts meaning. June is just as susceptible to this as anyone else. All she knows about the landlords is that they are Hasidic, so she fixates on this. Also, because the Hasidic landlord refuses to shake June’s hand because she’s a woman, June feels justified in her hate-speech, as if her rants are an opposition to religious misogyny. Hate begets hate. And being Jewish herself, June also feels a certain comfort and exemption from prejudice accusations, is even gleeful in her anti-Semitism because she is safe from anyone calling her out. She is “more Jewish” than Adam, Casey, or Ethan, so who are they to tell her to stop. Of course, this logic is ridiculous. Members of a group are often prejudiced against that group and should be called out. But unless you’re also a member of that group people feel uncomfortable doing this.
Near the end of the novel [spoiler alert] Adam ends up at Camp Trans, the protest camp at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and instead of being tarred and feathered, something unexpected happens. Why did you choose to set this climactic scene here?
One important thing about Adam’s deception is that other than letting Gillian infer that he’s a trans man, he doesn’t actually do all that much to deceive her. He doesn’t change his physical appearance in any way and they barely have any conversations about it. “[H]is being trans rarely even came up. She knew he didn’t like to talk about it, so it was almost always avoided or hopped over in conversation, like a wobbly-looking stone when crossing a creek. They talked about everything else.” Alone, Adam obsessively educates himself about everything trans, but apart from a couple moments with Lionel at Karaoke, he never actually uses this information in conversation. At no point does he pontificate on what it’s like to be trans or make up some backstory about a girlhood. He is essentially himself.
Gillian believes Adam to be trans, it allows her to see him in a certain light, but that light is created by Gillian, not Adam. The primary thing Adam does to maintain the deception is hide his erections. The existence of his penis is the dominating element of the lie. The fear is that Gillian will discover the penis, be disgusted and horrified, and leave him. I thought it was interesting then, to have the climax of the novel take place at Camp Trans, a protest against MWMF’s policy of excluding trans women, a policy that is largely defended by the fact that some trans women have penises, and the belief that penises have no place at MWMF. Adam, Gillian, and the other Camp Transers listen with surging emotion as trans activist Julia Serano performs her spoken word piece “Cocky”—a piece, in part, about the absurd power “the penis” holds, how society and culture has infused it with all this symbolism.
Men themselves should be held responsible for their actions— whether that’s rape, misogyny, abuse of physical and emotional power, or harmful political indifference. But the penis is just a flesh body part. We need to remove all the symbolic power the penis holds and see it merely as a piece of anatomy that some people have and others don’t. The climactic scene with Gillian in the woods is supposed to elicit different, strong reactions. Adam’s deception is unequivocally wrong, that’s obvious from the beginning— but having him “tarred and feathered” at the end would have been predictable and not especially thought provoking. More importantly, that ending did not feel real to me. I find the ambiguity that happens instead more interesting and the questions it brings up are the reason I wrote the book.
Adam leaves the San Francisco Bay Area to spend the summer in New York City, both hubs for culture, political activism, and GLBT strongholds. I know you’ve lived on both coasts, but would you ever consider setting a story in so-called “flyover” country?
I’ve only ever lived in California and New York, so I don’t have much experience in the flyover states. I’m not opposed to setting a story there, but grounded fiction works best when you can describe a vivid and realistic environment. The details of a native go a long way.