The trans art of storytelling: 'Nevada' by Imogen Binnie

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 8:10pm

NOSELL

Berkeley Community Media

It’s the early 2010s in New York City, and Maria Griffiths, a trans woman in her late 20s and the protagonist of Imogen Binnie’s 2013 novel “Nevada,” is writing a blog post in an internet café. After recapping the strange few days she’s had, she turns to a speculative exercise:

“I imagine that you’re familiar with all the stereotypes around transsexual women: that we’re all sex workers, that we’re all hairy, potbellied old men, that we’re all deep-voiced nightlife phoenixes, that we’re all drag queens, that we’re all repressed, that we’re all horny shemales with 12-inch cocks…. Can we talk about what the actual stereotypes around transsexual women should be? The ones that hit a little too close to be funny.” 

The taxonomy of trans women that Maria goes on to write is really more of a self-portrait. Trans women are, she writes, addicted to the internet (the place that guided many of us out of the closet) and often a little socially inept, awkward and unsure how to take up space in the world. Maria notes that “trans women try to shirk their male privilege before transitioning, disappear into themselves, and then can never really get back out to become assertive, present, feminist women.” 

Binnie’s novel is concerned in a large part with the problem implied in this blog post — how do you become a person when you’ve been avoiding yourself for so long before transitioning? Maria doesn’t have an answer, although she’s very good at identifying and picking apart her problems, relating them back to the structures of oppression she’s learned to identify. It’s just that she can’t get from there to a decision. Maria is painfully passive, almost directionless in her inability to assert herself. 

The novel opens with a crisis that forces Maria to act: Her girlfriend Steph, over vegan brunch one day, tells her that she cheated on her with a mutual friend. Maria’s reaction is to shut down, “wishing there were something to say but really all she can think is, okay, whatever.” She goes to work like nothing happened, only remembering later that she should probably do something. Something like talk to Steph about it. She doesn’t, though, and even has a hard time thinking about it.“The more she tries to think about it, whittle it down to how she feels about their relationship, the slipperier it gets. Thinking about Steph is like trying to squeeze a fish.”

Instead, her thoughts rove over everything else, as if manically trying to avoid the issue at hand. Maria recaps her job at a Strand-esque bookstore in Manhattan, her past, her unresolved conflict with her own transness; all the while she avoids Steph for two days. It becomes increasingly apparent that this crisis struck her in such a way as to expose the fault lines of her tenuously maintained existence, and she spends most of the first half of the book unpacking her own life in a long, unspooling inner monologue. Maria’s life has depended on her own ability to avoid herself that during this moment of crisis the avoidance starts to take on the air of self-sabotage. She’s late for work a few times and gets fired, right after Steph breaks up with her before she has a chance to do it first. Suddenly, she lost the apartment she shared with her girlfriend and she’s jobless in one of the most expensive cities in America. 

At this point in the narrative, Maria’s avoidant tendencies go into overdrive: She borrows Steph’s car and decides to steal it and road-trip across America. As you might have guessed, this doesn’t help either. 

When next we see her, she hasn’t showered in weeks and has just arrived at a Walmart in a small town in Nevada. Before we see her again, though, we meet James, a local, who is “hotboxing the bathroom of his apartment halfway down the hill from the Wal-Mart.” He’s just had an argument with his girlfriend Nicole, and the only reason he’s getting stoned instead of making amends is that “she’s right to be mad: there is something wrong with him. He has no idea what the fuck it is, but he does need to figure it out if he’s ever going to have a normal human relationship.” If you get the sense that James’s internal monologue resembles Maria’s, you’re right: When he’s not watching art-house films or getting high, James fantasizes endlessly and tortuously about becoming a woman. Unlike Maria, James’s particular avoidance takes the form of abusing marijuana and masturbating a lot, but it’s avoidance nonetheless. 

When they meet, the two of them are mutually fascinated with each other — James because he has never met a trans woman before, and Maria because she’s certain James is also trans and doesn’t realize it yet. They establish an uneasy rapport, get high together and eventually decide to drive to nearby Reno together.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say that this sequence, which has the vibe of cosmic deliverance, also refuses to become overwrought or predictable. Maria doesn’t save herself, and she doesn’t save James — both of them are too far in their own heads to realize that they share their alienation. They come close, but never quite get there. 

This novel, which is now out of print (though still widely available), has acquired a cult following since its publication in 2013. Its resonance with young trans women is undeniable, and legions of trans writers have cited it as an influence. Not only does it center the subjectivity of a flawed, complex trans narrator in a way that so few other books have, it also acknowledges the difficult, awkward stage following transition, when you have to actually negotiate life in a trans body. So much writing about trans people tends to assume that trans life ends with formal medical transition, leading inevitably and unproblematically toward self-actualization. In reality, we have to deal with the enduring wound of our previous life and the difficulty of adapting to a new one, a state of being that “Nevada” portrays unsparingly, but with a lot of compassion. Binnie doesn’t have any answers for this quandary, but in portraying it, lets a little light in for those of us living through it.