New YA novel f2m: The Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy (Ford Street, 2010) by no means sets out to be sensational but it is likely to get a lot of people talking nevertheless. It charts the eighteen-year-old narrator’s physical transition from Skye, female, to Finn, male. Co-author Ryan, a female to male transgender person himself, was able to bring his personal experiences to bear on ensuring the verisimilitude of the narrative.
I read the book at one sitting – it’s a fast-paced and compulsive read. Of course, Finn’s decision to transition does not just impact on him. One of the strong-points of the novel is how Finn tells his family and friends (in particular his fellow members of a feminist punk band) of his decision, and how they then react. We get a fair inkling of the medical process, including counselling and psychological assessment, though Finn’s main source of information comes from internet forums and websites. I came away with a strong feeling of inevitability – as though deep down everyone around Finn knew, like he did, that this was the real person now showing on the outside – so that opposition and prejudice fall away.
This is a novel with a happy ending and very little fall-out – Finn emerges with his relationships intact and indeed, many of them stronger than before. Real life is probably a bit messier; however, f2m: The Boy Within will be a boon to any teenager with feelings of gender anguish and will help to promote tolerance of, and indeed empathy with, those who feel trapped in a body of the wrong gender.
You can read my 2007 interview with Hazel here. She was awarded the prestigious ASA (Australian Society of Authors) medal last year but this, her latest book shows that she is not resting on her laurels! This photo of Hazel and Ryan was taken at the launch of f2m: The Boy Within in Melbourne, Australia on February 14th. We couldn’t be there but we are happy to welcome Hazel and Ryan to the PaperTigers Blog to tell us a bit about the background to writing the novel. With Hazel in Melbourne and Ryan in New Zealand, this was definitely a project that exploited modern means of communication!
So over to Hazel Edwards:
Co-writing the first YA novel with an ftm (female to male) trans author on the controversial subject of transitioning gender has been a significant and satisfying collaboration. Hence “f2m” in the title, meaning the two of us, as well as ftm in texting format. Neither of us could have written this book without the other.
I’ve known Ryan, since he was presenting as an 11-year-old girl. He’s now a man of 33. We decided to co-write YA fiction, based on the sequence of medical and psychological ftm facts. Transitioning from female to male is more unusual than the reverse. Only one YA novel, Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2007), existed on this ftm transgender topic in 2008 when we started writing, but ours is the first by a trans co-writer. Another excellent YA novel, Luna by Julie Ann Peters (Little, Brown & Co, 2006) is about transitioning from male to female (mtf) – not the same, but more common.
Our novel with the working title of f2m (female to male) was intended to be more than sexual anatomy. Our aim was to show the universal theme of ‘coping successfully with being different’, via a ‘coming of age’ story, but with humour and compassion plus punk music. Our character Skye who transitions to Finn is 18; a legally significant age for driver’s licence and hassles about ID etc.
How Autobiographical is f2m: The Boy Within?
f2m: The Boy Within is fiction. At our Melbourne meeting mid 2008, we decided to collaborate on a novel, which would NOT be autobiographical. We explored novelisation via email & webcam, and used Skype keyboarding to record our novel problem-solving. Simultaneously, we also recorded our typed correspondence on Skype as a legitimate part of our collaborative plotting.
Family history mystery is a sub-theme. I constructed a fake family tree for Finn’s past, to include the fictional intersex ancestor who would have been infertile, and plotted the recessive gene which may have been carried into our character’s generation. Thus, beloved Great Uncle Al, who was also Alberta, was created to parallel the younger siblings. This accurately portrays tendencies for intersex to run recessively in families, despite no direct line via children. However, creating a fake- history to fit with the narrative of war dates and medals was a challenge.
A curious ‘naming’ coincidence occurred. I realised how many minor characters we hadn’t named and that it was important to get the consistency of surnames and birth dates right, to demonstrate inheritance and genetic possibilities. If there was to be an earlier ancestor who was intersex (and infertile/unable to have biological children, it would need to be medically accurate. At that point, I suddenly realised we hadn’t given the Gran character a named husband or a surname. Randomly, I’d chosen SMITH as the family name, since it was generic and historically there had been various kinds of smith crafts. The great grandfather’s name was William Smith and so her maiden name would be Smith. We’d called her Bev, because initially I’d called the three siblings A, B and C (and the nephews D and E).
Then it hit me.! My co-writer Ryan’s real grandmother’s surname had been Schmidt. And all through the book, we’d been stressing that it is NOT autobiographical. Had the ex-German Schmidt family chosen a generic English approximation of their name as did many migrants? I’d have to check with Ryan as his grandmother passed away some years ago… And so we changed the fictional surname to May.
Working together, the pronouns were the first challenge for me. It’s so hard to start saying ‘he’ and ‘his’ when you are used to saying ‘she’ or ‘her’. My compromise was to use Ryan’s name more, rather than the pronoun. Now, I have no problem with ‘he’ and ‘his’ and I think of my co-writer as a thoughtful male with keen observation skills from ‘reading’ others in gender roles.
Early on, Ryan corrected my use of pronouns with the fictional female character Skye who changes to Finn: Feb 9th email – “Skye is a ‘he’! Even in early transition. Ryan.”
How Many Drafts?
During eighteen months of concentrated work there were possibly 40 drafts. By tracking only on the constantly updated master, then Skyping the manuscript for the co-writer to add, we didn’t have so many versions that updated work was lost.
A co-author in another time zone means you are fresh at different times but we worked well together. Between us, in earlier drafts, we picked up on some anomalies. We realised that the birthday cake would be stale before Dad’s 50th party, since extra chapters had intervened since the cooking! Finn suffered fatigue from injections not yet given and we had to monitor who acknowledged Finn’s male name. Getting the medical details and terminology right also required lots of checking.
We have aimed to humanise gender transitioning rather than sensationalise a taboo subject. And hope the book will move into new electronic formats easily accessible to thoughtful YA readers.
And now, we welcome Ryan Kennedy:
Being my first novel, there was a lot to learn.
Collaborating online was nothing new for me – I regularly work with people I never meet in person, but never on creative projects. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed through a few short words in a chat window. There are bonuses too: no travel time; picking up a conversation that the other person left off hours ago as if they had just spoken the words; phone with video that costs only as much as an internet connection.
Being the transgender half of the writing team, it was up to me to bring my trans perspective to the project and make the transition story real. It would take years of research for a non-transgender person to write this kind of story while accurately reflecting what we feel and experience during transition. At the same time, I didn’t want to ‘represent’ all trans people by presenting only one way to transition. This is just one possible way to transition – there’s no one correct way. It’s a fictional character’s experience based loosely on my own.
I was just as committed to presenting an accurate version of the punk scene as I was a transgender character. It’s a culture that’s often misrepresented. On the musical side there’s everything from pure noise bands to skilful musicians, and everything from those who’ve had many music lessons to self-taught artists. The fans are diverse and welcome diversity, and there’s a culture of questioning and equality. I found it a great setting to explore my identity and I am dismayed when punk is portrayed as being wild for the sake of wild. Its rebellion is usually focused towards social change. Some rebellion is healthy. Transgender people are gender rebels.
Thank you very much, Hazel and Ryan!