Torrey Peters is an author who exposes characters, breaks them down and leaves readers to pick up bits of themselves in the wreckage. Peters released a series of self-published novellas to a loyal online audience before publishing her debut novel, “Detransition Baby,” in 2021, which won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction and earned a place on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She is releasing a collection of four novellas titled “Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones” in 2023.
In the opening reading and Q&A of the 2022-2023 Zell Visiting Writers Series, Peters made the packed Stern Auditorium at the University of Michigan Museum of Art laugh, think, self-reflect and possibly cry. Rackham student Josh Olivier introduced Peters as an author who lets her characters think, hurt, love and learn. Through Peters’s unique voice on and off the page, the vulnerable characters of “Detransition, Baby” come to life. Peters quickly summarized the novel: a discussion of motherhood through the lens of a trans woman (Reese), a detransitioning trans woman (Ames) and a cis woman (Katrina) whose stories converge in unexpected ways. She then laughed, saying that standing alone on stage was just like “reading in (her) room.”
Peters spoke bluntly and effortlessly, as if she were reading to herself rather than to a rapt audience. She opened the reading of “Detransition, Baby” in Reese’s perspective. She relayed a poignant yet hilarious scene with Talia, a young trans woman and drag performer whom Reese views as a daughter. Peters’s voice boomed through the auditorium with rhythmic imagery and humorous observations, bringing the drag bar to life. Words of fire and brightness enwrapped Talia as burning city lights sparkled through the scene. She quickly pivoted moods on every page, making her work constantly entertaining and purely human. She joked through Reese’s motherly protectiveness and mused about her despair about the next generation. As Peters tore apart and uplifted each person in her novel, she used a justifying, almost pleading tone, as if the audience already knew and loved the characters.
In the second passage, Peters changed perspectives to Ames, a detransitioning trans woman explaining her identity to the woman she has gotten pregnant. Peters portrayed Ames as completely depersonalized as she drew us into the world through Ames’s eyes. Peters read with her usual blunt voice, forcing us to find the meaning and gravity behind each word. She delved into a long and complex allegory for the community of trans women who transitioned in the early 2000s: the lost juvenile elephants with no generation to look up to, left with trauma, pain and violence. The allegory is emotional and scientific, intense and thought-provoking. The audience went silent, reflecting for a moment before roaring with applause.
The Q&A felt even more personal. Sitting in spot-lit lounge chairs, Master of Fine Arts in Fiction candidate Marne Liftin and Peters discussed the development of “Detransition, Baby.” Peters described her writing as airing dirty laundry, reflecting on things that once hurt her and looking back to find it all funny. She told the audience that what once was “gender,” became “haha, gender.” After discussing her experiences with mansplaining in a Home Depot, Peters returned to a more serious tone. She reflected on how the novel pushed her to share things hard to admit about the female and trans experiences. Her discussion was as entertaining and diverse as her writing.
As the Q&A opened to the audience, many readers took the microphone to thank Peters for her honest, beautiful work. The discussion, now between hopeful learner and mentor, remained open and entertaining. Peters revealed her view of fiction as an answer to an “urgent, burning question” — in this case, a question of trans identity and the various forms of motherhood. The writing process was also a self-exploration. Years ago, Peters lost her luggage while traveling in Mexico. Every day, Peters wore a “Reservoir Dogs”-style suit, living in a partial state of dissociation and androgyny that confused everyone she passed. Returning home, Peters wrote as if she were “still in the suit” — giving life to Ames. She told us that Reese was her “catty, bitchy side.”
Peters revealed that she wrote “Detransition, Baby” to explore her undying questions of motherhood and gender. She also told us that she wrote for any audience who could find an affinity with her work. The novel, which Peters dedicated to divorced women, is for anyone searching to “start over.” As every reader finds ourselves in Peters’s work, we see that we are still evolving. We see that that is okay.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at email@example.com.