Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gender: Profound and Mundane

Excerpt from Tomboy by Liz Prince
What I most often encourage students to write about, especially when it comes to memoir, is what is most mundane to them: daily details, describing how we even brush our teeth or wash our hair. Why? Because even if we don't wind up including that in a final memoir, the process of exploring - with curiosity - how we actually do daily mundane things can reveal more about ourselves than re-telling the most profound-seeming powerful bang-em-out dramatic trauma stories.

The mundane is where we connect with other humans. While not everyone has struggled with their gender identity, for instance, everyone has felt rejected for something they did in an irrelevant way. The above excerpt from Tomboy, a graphic memoir by Liz Prince, shows us this basic interaction. Though her story is specific - so specific as to have triggered my transgender wife into stopping reading the book half way through - there are also so many universal elements because Prince addresses the most basic and mundane aspects of how her non-conforming gender identity: tomboy - was rejected time and time again by the other kids (primarily) in her life as a kid.

While we cannot focus too much on the mundane in memoir (though there have been some trends in this direction lately), lest we bore our readers or lose the specific drive of the story, if we emphasize too much the controversial or hyper-specific aspects of our tale, we lose the regular readers we hope will connect with our memoir. Prince did a lovely job of getting both very specific - her graphic memoir is only about being a tomboy and really nothing else - she also left lots of room for connecting even if you haven't had to deal with your gender presentation being in conflict with those around you.

Most women I know, even those who are cisgender and gender-conforming (if you don't know what those terms mean, you are likely one or both - you both appear as you were born and labeled gender-wise, and you don't usually do things that pin you as being different than a woman), struggled with adolescence, for instance. While this scene is specific and painfully poignant for Prince, it is also completely mundane and relatable for most people at adolescence - male or female or neither:
There is a lot of insecurity inherent in gender identity - in our identities, in general, actually - and anyone who has lived through their identity being challenged (hint: that's everyone, at some level) can relate to a story like this at some level. At the same time, Prince stayed loyal to her own experience, not generalizing to make it relatable to all. 

Universal aspect? Your underwear being revealed to all. Specific aspect? They are "boy" undies when you are read as being a "girl".

So mundane. So profound. Trust the details of your life. Even when you tell of a pivotal incident - like the underwear scene above - make sure you stick with the tiny details. Don't tell us why it is profound or powerful, let the details speak for themselves.

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