May 14, 2024

Novels that treat transgender side characters in a good way

There are some good discussions about transgender representation in books going on, most of them focusing on the works of visibly queer and transgender authors. That got me thinking: What about strong transgender characters in other books? 

There are a lot of novels and stories that presents negative and bigoted views of trans people, and in particular trans women. These characters are often sexualized, pathologized, ridiculed and presented as "traps" – a threat to cisgender adults and children.

However, there are also good books that do the opposite, books where the transgender side characters are just people like everyone else. I am going to present two books that passed my trans humanization test, and one that does not quite make it.

Summon The Angels by J.J. Campanella 

Campanella has published two books in their Eddy Bratenahl series. These are exciting and entertaining crime/thrillers with some drops of horror added – well written and well researched.

Bratenahl is a policed psychologist at the Chicago Police Department. As such he is not really supposed to take part in investigations, but for reasons that will become clear to the readers of the books he does end up doing detective work anyway, due to his experience and contacts. 

Amanda Richards is introduced in book 1, A Sum of Destructions, but it is in the second book, Summon the Angels, she plays an essential role. You do not have to have read book 1 to read book 2. 

Minor spoilers from here on.

When Amanda disappears she leaves her nephew Joshua in Bratenahl's care. He is soon engaged in the search for Amanda. The book then follows this search in parallel with a presentation of Amanda's past, including her training as a glass artisan in Japan. 

Campanella has clearly done a lot of research on Japanese culture, and that alone makes the book worth reading.

The reason Campanella passes my trans humanizing test is because Amanda is presented as a complete human being. She is treated with respect by the author (and most of the other characters), and the story about her transgender journey and her life as a transgender woman seems true and believable.

By the way, there is another strong female character that caught my interest. Mary Kate Calderon is a veteran  homicide detective working side by side with Bratenahl, and she has powers you rarely see in books like these. The book definitely passes the Behcdel test.

Summon of the Angels is a  real page-turner, but what makes me love it is the way they go beyond pure entertainment and explores more existential questions like the role of evil and suffering in people's lives. Amanda's life story therefore becomes one of many threads in a tapestry depicting love and hate in a world that is often hard to understand and embrace.



The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by S.A. Chakraborty

The story about pirate captain Amina al-Sirafi is equally fascinating. The book is set in the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Amina is a retired pirate queen who for various reasons is dragged back into her old kind of life, having to face threats and dangers of both the natural and supernatural kind in the area that is now known a s Oman, Yemen and Somalia.

She has to fight a "Frankish" mercenary and occultist named Falco Palamenestra, who has opened doors to forces you preferably should leave behind. 

The reason she has to face Falco is that the grandchild of the rich and poweful woman Salima is helping Falco find a magic object of great importance. 

This grandchild is not one of the most central characters in the book, for sure. But by the end of the book "Dunya" lives as Jamal. 

What makes  Chakraborty pass my unscientific trans humanization test is that Jamal is treated as any other character in the book. Being trans is just one of many sides of this person. He is not defined by his gender variance. He is not judged on the basis of his gender variance, and Amina's crew treats him as the person he wants to be.

If you are into exciting and creative historical fantasy, this book is for you.

Shannon Chakraborty: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi 

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

The late George Alec Effinger has written an exciting and surprising science fiction book set in the Middle East, in a fictional city called Budayeen, which seems like a mix between Cairo and Beirut.

This is a brutal world where you can enhance your mind with electronic plug-ins and where bodies can be altered to perfection. The protagonist Marid Audran, who is a kind of an anti-hero, it has to be said,  becomes involved in both local and international power struggles, which takes a hard toll on his quality of life, to say the least.

For some reason Budayeen is also home to a large number of transgender women, including Marid's own girlfriend, Yasmin. These transgender women have agency, and they are in general described as full fledged human beings. They are all treated with respect by Marid. 

So far so good. 

The fact that most of these transgender women are sex workers is not in itself disqualifying for winning my trans humanization prize. However, this approach makes it  much harder to overcome the sexualization aspect of transgender presentation.  

I am reminded of John Burdett's Bangkok thrillers, where the transgender sex workers are presented as some kind of exotic third gender (and not always with respect).  

Effinger is much more respectful of his transgender characters than Burdett.  The trans women are always addressed with the correct pronouns, to give one example. Still, when even Yasmin, refers to cis women as "real women", I find it hard to give Effinger a full score. 

I understand that the unique life stories of many transgender women give them a special life experience than is different from cis women. This makes it possible to present the trans women of this book as a special category of women. But the category of cis women is as diverse as the category of trans women, and it makes no sense to describe one of these categories as not "real".

Sure, this use of words may reflect the inherent logic of the world building done by Effinger, but choosing to present trans women as not real women, without problematizing this approach leads to a fail in my test.

George Alec Effinger: When Gravity Fails

Let me know if you have other book favorites that pass the trans humanization side character test!

Top photo: Adobe AI

3 comments:

  1. Some more books suggested over at reddit:

    WifeofBath1984
    Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb belongs on this list. One of the protagonists (NOT a side character) is absolutely gender fluid. And wonderful.

    Enso_X
    Not a novel, but the manga series Komi Can't Communicate has a gender fluid character that is amazing and treated with respect.

    arabsandals
    Ninefox gambit.

    CeronusBugbear
    Nightwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes

    JustJess42
    Anything by Glynn Stewart always has great casual queer inclusion, including trans folks. And I loved the unexpected (and IMO well-depicted) transition experience of a prominent character in Derek Kunsken’s “House of Styx”

    ReplyDelete
  2. @bladeofgoldnite.bsky.social writes:
    not really a side character, but Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki features a young trans woman who plays violin. aoki’s depiction of her struggles hit way too close to home for me. very good book. highly recommend.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good to see the Effinger series get a mention, IMO. Yes, it's of its time in terms of writing. Perhaps given the noir background a lot of cyberpunk (or is this post cyber?) leans on, I guess that may explain the number of sex workers. High tech low life, etc. That said, I think there's a cop who is trans masc.

    I remember enjoying it at the time and briefly spoke to the author via Usenet (yes, I'm old 🙂). I didn't have the courage at that time to ask him about his inspiration or if he'd had any feedback about the representation his characters have folk.

    ReplyDelete

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