THE ART OF BEING NORMAL
by Lisa Williamson
(David Fickling Books ISBN: 1910200328)
I’m so surprised and relieved at how much I loved this book. Surprised because I’ve learnt to expect little authenticity from non-trans authors who chose to include trans characters in fiction. Relieved because I don’t feel obliged to explain a long list of problems in a way which may be viewed as ungrateful or even deluded because … hey! … the author was trying to be positive.
Lisa Williamson gets it.
By any standards The Art of Being Normal is well-constructed. The main characters are developed beautifully so that you can’t help empathising with them. There is tension and pathos … it had me in tears at times … and a reveal which I must admit I did not see coming. It also deals movingly with some grittily unpalatable realities, not by any means all to do with being trans, while still being none the worse for a gloriously sentimental denouement.
It’s wonderful to be able to recommend a book which parents, teachers and young adults can be sure they are going to enjoy while at the same time finding an authentic portrayal of trans kids’ lives mostly filled with the same kind of concerns as their own.
The book is written from the viewpoint of two parallel narrators and the only thing which I found consistently jarring was that, once the narrator known as “David” had clearly revealed herself as Kate to Leo, the other narrator, Leo still refers to her as “David’ and uses the pronoun “he”. I’m not suggesting this couldn’t be justified by saying it might authentically have been the case. I do however wish that it had been used as a powerful teachable moment. The struggle to claim our gender identity experienced by trans people … the lack of entitlement … is something which I think few cisgender (non-trans) people grasp. As Paris Lees has written:
Research shows that the majority of trans adults got the memo we were trans at around 5 years old – a realisation most of us felt we needed to hide: “It soon becomes clear that to be different in this way is socially unacceptable and as such the most common response is concealment of their true feelings.” If we also know that 94% of people who walk into gender identity clinics are adults, that means, although the figure is accelerating, only 6% of trans children are currently being identified. In other words, most trans kids are suffering in silence.
Even Williamson’s blessèd publisher, David Fickling, describing in his forward how the book has “changed his perception of the world”, refers to “the boys in this book” despite one of the protagonists on the very first page making no bones about who she feels she is: “I want to be a girl”. Such misgendering may seem like a small thing to most people but to a trans child it is huge.
It probably shouldn’t surprise me either how some of the reviews of the book slip blithely into the usual clichés about “young people struggling with gender identity” (The Guardian), “a tale of a teenager’s struggle with identity” (The Telegraph) when this is so clearly not what Williamson’s book is about. Her characters give no sign of being anything other than clear about who they are. Her story is emphatically not about some imagined internal gender struggle taking place in a vacuum inside the protagonists’ heads. It’s about the struggles young trans people experience when dealing with the gender expectations mainstream cisgender society dumps on them. As such I think it’s a breath of fresh air.
One last thing … before writing this book Lisa Williamson worked at the Tavistock NHS clinic in London which specialises in treating trans children and I have to say I do find the rosy picture she paints of the ready availability of professional support for such children in the UK misleading. While we may assume things have improved somewhat, research only a few years ago found that 1 in 5 GPs are unwilling to help with referrals to gender services and 60% of those who wanted to help felt they lacked the information to do so.
For trans kids and their parents seeking support and advice on this topic, I’d recommend contacting Mermaids, GIRES or Gendered Intelligence. There’s good advice at NHS Choices and a growing collection of great videos at All About Trans