If the world has mostly got worse over the last thirty years, as perhaps anyone who was twenty thirty years ago has always thought, one thing that has got dramatically better is the opening up of possibilities for the expression of sexuality and gender. The recognition not only of transgender identity but genderqueer and nonbinary identities is liberating in a way that wasn’t easy to imagine in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up. We did have books in our house by Jan Morris, alongside books she wrote as James Morris, before she transitioned – her book on Oxford, written as James Morris, gave me an early Romantic feeling for Oxford that wasn't entirely undone by the years I lived there. I find the argument that transgender women don’t share the same experiences as cisgendered women no argument at all because who shares the same experiences as anyone? I can remember the same argument once being made about lesbian women who didn’t have the same romantic experiences as straight women. But who has the same romantic experiences as anyone? I don’t think anyone now would say loving a woman is less of a woman’s experience than loving a man, and having a childhood as a boy can’t be any less of a woman’s experience than having a childhood as a girl, given that some women have boyhoods, some have girlhoods. And the possibilities opening up for more complicated or more fluid gender identities can be welcomed without any contradiction or any loss of transgender identities. I’d like to be open to all the possible ways we can find to live our lives, not shutting down any possibilities but adding to a lovely array. I wouldn’t want to lose any of the possibilities, even problematic ones, because what gender concept isn’t problematic and what gender concept doesn’t have its possibilities for identity freedoms? The concept of the tomboy could mean all sorts of things for girls, in a way that the idea of the sissy never usefully did for boys when I was growing up. For a few years from around the age of 8 or 9 I liked to think of myself as a tomboy, which to me only gave me a word, and a kind of permission, for the way I liked going into the bush more than going to birthday parties and didn’t much like the kind of girl culture that was marketed to us, or perhaps was sold to us more by some of our peers than anyone in advertising. If I identified with literary tomboys like George and Jo, it was as a girl not as a boy being labelled a girl. For me, being a tomboy made me no less a girl, but opened up possibilities for what a girl could be. It had a kind of age limit to it, which for a transgender boy must have been an unbearably painful limitation, but if the concept could be kept in play alongside other liberating and available non-binary and transgender identities, perhaps it could still offer its own freedom without closing down any possibilities for others. One of my favourite novels, my favourite Virginia Woolf novel, is Orlando, and I love the Sally Potter film as well, the way Orlando swoops so joyously through the centuries and from one gender to another, with some irritating bureaucratic complications but nothing to trouble his, then her, sense of self. I was always also going to love essa may ranapiri’s collection ransack, with its series of letters to Orlando, and its ransacking of an impossibly inadequate language for all its ardour and despair, and I do love it, through and through. It is a reminder that Orlando’s freedom from body dysphoria and chemicals and hormone replacement therapy is not the experience of everyone (but what experience is?), a reminder that Orlando’s ease was always a fiction. But it is also a joyous and complicated and profound celebration of desire, intimacy, struggle, self-seeking and self-making, spaces between words, freedoms in quotation marks, “a sunrise with my gender / embossed in its peaking,” “a laugh that hit the high ceilings and tangled with the light”… Every time I read it (quite often) I find more to find, and every time I read it I want to see the world and our words held open to make space for everyone to be whoever it is possible they can be.
Often I read that being brave isn’t about being unafraid, that you can only be brave if you are afraid. I would like to believe this, and it is obviously more useful to believe you can act bravely without feeling you have to wait to feel unafraid, or would have had to have been a braver person in the first place. I can’t help thinking, though, that it isn’t exactly what we mean when we talk about someone being brave, and it isn’t what we’re going to be looking for when deciding who should lead us into battle. Maybe there were other battle leaders besides Boudicca who were far more frightened than she was, but it is her bravery I’d have been counting on in the fray. I can’t help noticing, too, that some people are kinder than others. I think even those of us who might not be as kind as others ought to try to be kind, and we can model our behaviour on the kindest people around us, but I don’t think it takes anything away from someone’s kindness if it is so natural to them to be kind that they would find it harder not to be kind. People can be more or less sociable, too, without anyone saying you are only sociable if you see people when you really don’t want to, without anyone saying it isn’t friendliness if you actually like hanging out with me. I don’t want to only see people who are making a particular effort to see me but would much rather not. Having said that, it is very nice of anyone who ever did make a particular effort to see me and I hope it turned out better than you expected.
I am having all my American literature students write blog posts, because although I like to write exams, I find out far more from the blog assignment about what my students are reading and thinking, more than I could ever have imagined from reading most of their exam answers. But, they tell me, no one has actually read a blog since 2010 – everyone now listens to podcasts, and scrolls through twitter and Instagram. We don’t have the attention for blogs, they said, though I would have thought a podcast took more attention than a blog (I am not very good at listening). I wonder whether it is really an audience shift, driven by a changing capacity for attention, or whether it is the writers (or presenters) who are directing the shift, by choosing to present their work on different platforms? It does feel as if our attention-capacity is changing, but what is changing it, if not our engagement with these different kinds of presentation? Is it really the change in available technology that is deciding how we communicate with each other? Does anyone write a diary anymore, for instance? For writers like Virginia Woolf – and later, Sarah Manguso – this was a daily necessity, a form of expression so compulsive that a day without writing in the diary felt for Woolf like “a tap left running,” with it being not the writing she imagined as a running tap but the day itself, as if writing somehow stemmed the flow of time. Could the diary really have become so important to so many writers just because paper was cheap, and ready-made exercise books were sold in stationery shops? And if writers began at some point, perhaps in the 1990s or 2000s, to stop writing diaries and start writing blogs, simply because of the availability of personal computers and the internet, how strange to think that a shift in technology could involve such a shift in audience, could really lead to the end of one kind of writing and its replacement with a completely different genre, with a completely different purpose, answering, surely, completely different needs, and maybe involving a different way even of imagining the self. Did the diary not so much answer a need for secret self-reflection, as create it? And then, if being able to publish blog-posts somehow replaced the need for secrecy with a need for an audience, what happened to the need for self-reflection and for memory-recording when the podcast took over from the blog as the genre audiences listen to, and Instagram took over as the platform people post on to? (And we haven’t even got our solar panels up and writing yet!) My own Instagramming still feels unfamiliar and strange to me, as I wonder who is going to look at these pictures, and why I am posting them out to people who aren’t here, and why I don’t send them to friends as part of an email correspondence, that would still be a conversation of sorts between two people. (But who would I email photos of squares to?) It isn’t just a shift in self-expression or even just a different form of communication, it creates a different and strange sort of relationship I think. But then, doesn’t also the novel, or the poem? There is hardly anything stranger than how well you can know a writer through a novel, or a collection of poems, and how diminished the relationship with them is in, for instance, the signing line at a book festival.