Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome to week four of Camp ToB '21! As a reminder for how Camp works: Each week from now through the end of August, we're going to discuss a novel (selected by you, the readers), at a pace of two books a month. At the end of each month, you will vote for one title as your favorite, and at the end of the summer, the community will pick one of the three favorites to advance to a berth in the 2022 Tournament of Books (ToB).
FYI, the five books we read this summer that don't win the pennant may still qualify for the 2022 ToB's long or short lists.
I'm going to be facilitating the conversations this month, with Meave hosting in July, and Andrew in August. For today, June's final discussion, we're wrapping up Detransition, Baby. The novel closes in a manner that's relatively open-ended: Reese, Ames/Amy, and Katrina have gotten closer to forming a family together, only to see it disrupted by a few bumps in the road that I'll leave vague for anybody who fears a spoiler (let's just say old flames and old patterns of behavior). The ending is open to speculation—will these three build a queer family together or not?—which should give us plenty to discuss.
For today's conversation, we're joined by Activity Leader Kwesi Junsan, who's joining us from the Philippines. Kwesi, hello! Please introduce yourself to everybody—where you're at and what kind of reading you enjoy.
Kwesi Junsan: I am stuck in a small apartment in Metro Manila, Philippines, just before the ballooning heatwave and our country declared the longest lockdown. However, I was raised far from here: a small town without access to libraries and bookstores. Reading was a privilege growing up. And living in an unprecedented and unplanned lockdown is a war flashback of my childhood, but I regained interest in reading after years of a reading slump from graduate school. I am a veterinarian, love films and books, and am currently studying—again!—to officially teach children. What an unusual year for a new normal, no?
Rosecrans: A very unusual year. So! Let's dive in. Broadly speaking, what were you thinking as you finished the first half of the book? Were you hooked?
Kwesi: I almost gave up.
Rosecrans: Oof. Yeah, me too.
Kwesi: Don't get me wrong. I love Peters's intentions, but there is something bespectacled in the story and structure. And bear with me. This will be long.
Rosecrans: It's the web, go as long as you like.
Kwesi: Producing books like Detransition, Baby in the Philippines would be a big talk. It breaks hetero-normalcy, which is preserved by lots of state and private apparatuses, including publishing. And commercial publishers would delimit such action. Only university presses would have the guts to publish such books.
Rosecrans: Perhaps more informally, that's pretty true of the States as well, at least until very recent years.
Kwesi: With our conformist and conservative upbringings, it's challenging to read and write literary works with LGBTQ+ themes. I have lots of friends who are LGBTQ+ and allies advocating for our rights and actively sharing their individual and collective experience. Their works are collected in anthologies, but forgotten or antiquated by time. As for trans works and progressive parenting—I don't mean there are none, but few works are dedicated to these themes and, again, only published by university presses. So, the idea of publishing and reading Detransition, Baby—the actions themselves—is tantalizing!
I am almost there. [laughs]
Rosecrans: Keep going!
Kwesi: I have read a trans Filipiniana published in the late '90s—a label of books related to the Philippines. Honorio Bartolome de Dios's Sa Labas ng Parlor [Outside the Salon] is a short-story collection of gay men, or bakla, coming to terms with their identity and the community, where trans characters are bounded by stereotypes of salons and hairdressing. After that, there are no single-authored books related to trans experience that succeed the collection. And unlike that book, Peters's novel crosses most boundaries of trans life and issues here. So, imagine the detachment for me as a reader, living in a conservative culture.
Rosecrans: How so?
Kwesi: The transition, like for the characters, is bumpy and alienating. We don't openly talk in the Philippines about modern or progressive parenting. Only recently, polygamous relationships, like throuples and so on, have become a hot topic because of Boys' Love (BL) circulating in social media.
Rosecrans: So, if I'm picturing where you're coming from (forgive me, I've never been to the Philippines), when you started reading the book's first half—
Kwesi: As a reader positioned to its origin, the first half is already overwhelming. And Peters's writing creates extra obstacles to understand the relationships of the three main characters.
Peters seems thrilled and excited about writing extensively. There are areas that I find long-winded, especially the first chapter, which is an excellent example of how much the author wants to share trans life in the States, throwing information here and there. For me, first chapters should accompany readers smoothly to the world the writer created. And every time I finished a chapter, I felt heavy in my head, but not my heart. I needed to take regular pauses: Think, reread passages, and rethink. I invited a friend to read the book with me to discuss it, but she couldn't get through the first chapter. I wonder if the novel was intended as a short story rather than a novel because I feel it was forced.
And for the matter of the heart—the writing lacks empathy toward the characters' lives.
Rosecrans: You know, this is weird, but for a novel that would seem to want to be 1,000 percent empathetic toward its characters' lives, I sometimes felt the same.
Kwesi: It's more angry and preachy, more telling than showing. I'm not against telling. It helps writers frame their thoughts in their writing. But profuse use of it can be impenetrable. There is a lack of balance between telling and showing in the novel and the emotions involved. This is one of the issues I encountered reading Sa Labas ng Parlor—and one of the reasons why I have the patience and understanding for Detransition, Baby [laughs]. A resentful tone continued until the final confrontation of Reese, Ames, and Katrina. Personally, the characters' motivations were overshadowed by the writer's hands.
I hope I made it clear that reading this book is a personal and political act of love and hate.
Rosecrans: I think so. To be clear, if I understand you right, it was a personal/political act of "love" because you'd like to see more books like Detransition, Baby appearing in the world, specifically the Philippines? But "hate" because you didn't think it was a very good book?
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Reese had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Ames isn't happy either. He thought detransitioning would make life easier, but that decision cost him Reese—and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames's boss and lover, Katrina, reveals she's pregnant with his baby—and that she's not sure whether she wants to keep it—Ames wonders if this is the chance he's been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family—and raise the baby together?
Book description excerpted from publisher's summary and edited for length.
Kwesi: Indeed, I would love to read more books like this in the Philippines. But as long as people will not talk openly about issues specific to the LGBTQ+ community, especially the trans community, only fewer novels will appear on our shelves. We constantly need to discuss lived experiences to become visible, including street protests and mass media.
Did you enjoy the book?
Rosecrans: Truthfully, 50-50. I had sufficient trouble with it on a sentence level that I couldn't quite lose myself. At the same time, I was enraptured by the voice, the life lived now, and I was definitely pulled along by the melodrama. I mean, is it a book you strongly dislike?
Kwesi: I don't totally hate it, ha. Maybe I enjoyed it less compared to the other readers. But it doesn't mean it is a bad book; the problem arises from me as a reader.
Kwesi: There is an issue of style and taste. I find the first half unpassable, no, but I gradually savor it in the middle because the plot starts moving forward. It compelled me to finish it. But liking the second half doesn't mean it summed up my whole reading experience. It's more of a swing, liking and not liking at the same time.
Rosecrans: I think that makes a lot of sense. I'd say I probably enjoyed the first half better.
Kwesi: What did you think of the first chapter?
Rosecrans: I talked about this last week, but I found it a little difficult to find purchase.
Kwesi: My rule of thumb in reading: If I can't pass through chapter one, I will not enjoy—or worse—finish the book. But I also make exceptions; Detransition, Baby is one of them. And the second half of the book is more readable and exciting, don't you think? Where do you think the story directed to: motherhood or detransition?
Rosecrans: What a wonderful question. Given the book's open ending, where we don't quite know what will happen with Reese, Ames, and Katrina, I wished for motherhood, but I'd also kind of given up on all three of them by that point, I just didn't care much anymore.
The book is, among many things, a comedy of manners. Did you find yourself relating to one character more than others?
Kwesi: I'm not too fond of the characters; I can't relate to any of them. [laughs] Did you?
Rosecrans: Wait, I'm the one asking the questions!
Kwesi: If you have to force me to pick among the three, it would be Katrina [laughs]. It's not because she is of Asian descent, but because she is the only character who tries to understand Reese and Ames's situations. The others, especially the friends, are just caricatures of the main characters' past and present. Unlike Katrina, Reese and Ames are too selfish, too endowed to the intricacies of their insecurities. They don't want to be open with themselves and their partners. They can't understand that they still have privileges. They are lucky that they can adopt a child. In the Philippines, even if you pray novena every day, no child will knock on your door, unless you have children from previous partners. And though it is not ideal, perhaps, from a gender-sensitive perspective, Reese and Ames have decent work options. Here, either you work as a hairdresser, comedian, or call-center agent without livable benefits and salaries. It is obvious that Ames and Reese are a disaster from the start. And Katrina—O my gahd!—she is the victim of the situation—a bad literary device. She was not given space in the throuple!
Kwesi: And I am tired of Reese's defensive angst and Ames's passiveness. Their backstories did not help, either. Katrina, on the other hand, exists to make things interesting for both of them and us, the readers, to worsen the feud.
But I love how they throw their arguments. Their banters: the baby shop, the gala, etc. For Reese's background, she is intelligible and sounds very educated. She can counter all arguments and flex like she won something: ego, maybe. Though life experience is a good source of knowledge, do you think her character is believable?
Rosecrans: Great point. I talked about this last week a little, but with random asides to Vox articles? Dude, what?!
Kwesi: I have doubts because there are no books, films, reading, or bookshelves in the apartments, only mentioned if Reese (or Peters) referenced something. Correct me if I am wrong. Because for me, the writer was the one talking, not really Reese. Her arguments are on point, but sometimes, I don't think [Reese] listens to the other characters. She wants what she wants. Sorry, but I think she is a bully who tries to grow but fails. Well, characters are supposedly imperfect, but do you think they grow in the end? I believe only Katrina grows. Though she is still confused about her queerness, she somehow achieves what the other two did not—to decide for themselves. But it is not supposed to be her story—it should be their story.
Before I forgot, do you think the kinkiness and sex built the characters' identities? We hear Reese discussing the body and psychoanalysis nonstop. I'd love to hear about Ames's detransition more than Reese's ciswoman problems, but I don't know where the story is going.
Rosecrans: Let me change the direction of the conversation. This is an odd question, and one I kind of disagree with on its fundamentals (I realize I'm the one posing it), but perhaps it will spark conversation: Who is this book meant for? A trans audience? The cis world? I'm thinking about Emily VanDerWerff's review: "If you are a cis person seeking to empathize with trans women, this book wouldn't be a bad place to start. Just don't try to talk to me about it without clearing out your calendar to give me time to vomit my every innermost anxiety in your general direction."
Kwesi: I read that review. She has impressive arguments. Interesting that she finds Ames's character fully sketched, which I'm afraid I have to disagree with. Going back to her statement, the last sentence sounds like Reese talking shit to me again. [laughs] But I, again, can't entirely agree with VanDerWerff.
I still liked the book even though I have significant issues with it. I don't think it would be an excellent book to introduce transwomen to readers. In the discourse of literature, yes. But we have to acknowledge that other trans novels and other works exist aside from Detransition, Baby. Putting aside the big publisher, the accolades, the reviews, the book requires a certain level of reading skills. I don't mean I plan to recommend the book to children [giggles]. I mean, even for adults, Peters's work requires specific knowledge and patience. I don't want to use this word, but it will be enjoyed more by people in universities or graduates who enjoy "critical discourse." Or, maybe not, I just assume based on my experience moderating book clubs and gatherings.
Foremost, I don't think it is crucial whether the book is intended for cis or trans readers. From the perspective of the publisher, this is vital in their sales and consumerist practices. But writers who want to tell unheard stories, like Torrey Peters, don't need to think of their readers. They put it in public to share different perspectives, to be read by everyone and enjoyed by many.
Rosecrans: Wonderful. Yes.
Kwesi: And of course, there is the issue of culture and place.
I am curious why you ask this question. Have you read any books with trans characters? I read a young-adult novel years ago. It was an eye opener, and I think it is accessible compared to Peters's work, maybe because it was my first encounter. There is a catch: The story was told by an outsider, unlike Peters's. And there is a booming children's literature focusing on gender. I don't typically read young-adult novels, but there is some sort of accessibility in reading them, especially since English is our third language. I accidentally came across Julie Anne Peters's Luna in college. Swear, the book received many bad reviews because of Peters's lens as an outsider and the protagonist's point of view: She is sharing her brother's struggle to transition and her prejudices. Though my present self might find it already less enticing and problematic, it still opened me to the fluidity of gender and identity. A reader has to start somewhere, even if it is unrecognizably problematic at first. And as new books are published, we will come across undiscovered stories like Detransition, Baby, where we realize our predisposed biases and fully appreciate the complexity of the nature of the novel and the subject.
Rosecrans: "A reader has to start somewhere" is exactly right. Well, thank you, Kwesi, for joining this week and sharing so much—and thank you, everyone, for participating. We'll see you in the comments, but before that, make sure you vote in the poll below to select your favorite book from the month. As a reminder: each month you, the readers, are going to select your favorite of the two books read, and the winner will head to the end-of-summer finale, where the winner of that poll will receive an automatic berth in next winter's Tournament of Books.
On a personal note, since I'm leaving the booth today, I want to send an enormous thank you to all the ToB folks who have supported my new nonfiction book Everything Now on its way into the world. Steam seems to be building—we just got a rave in this weekend's New York Times Book Review—and I have a feeling there's some Rooster-community oomph oomph behind it. I'd love to see a ToB-er win a skateboard next week!
Finally, join us here next week when we'll announce which of June's novels "won," and then our very own Meave Gallagher will lead the discussion of robots, retail displays, and future society found in the first half of Klara and the Sun (through part three). See you then!
Our Sustaining Members make this event possible. Please take a moment to find out why TMN and the ToB depend on your support, and consider becoming a Sustaining Member or making a one-time donation. Remember: Sustaining Members get 50 percent off all ToB merch at the TMN Store, including Camp 2021 designs!
The Camp ToB 2021 Calendar
- June 2: No One Is Talking About This through part one
- June 9: No One Is Talking About This to the end
- June 16: Detransition, Baby through chapter four
- June 23: Detransition, Baby to the end
- June 30: Klara and the Sun through part three
- July 7: VACATION
- July 14: Klara and the Sun to the end
- July 21: Whereabouts through "At the Cash Register"
- July 28: Whereabouts to the end
- Aug. 4: Peaces through chapter eight
- Aug. 11: Peaces to the end
- Aug. 18: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch through page 137
- Aug. 25: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch to the end
- Sept. 1: Announce summer champion
You can find all our summer titles at our Camp ToB 2021 Bookshop list.