"All I do is mother people": On Torrey Peters' Detransition, Baby
Peters' first novel combines eroticism, humour and motherhood in a trans comedy of errors
For months, the question plagued me: “Have you read Torrey Peters yet?”
My writing partner, Kat, asked me this every time we met up for our seasonal summits. In between discussion of how the writing was going (or not), the conversation would normally drift into a dissection of our literary influences, who’s words we hoped to one day measure up to. While I rambled on about aiming for Elena Ferrante’s bitingly raw honesty or Sally Rooney’s easefully realist dialogue, Kat would invariably stop my monologue with, “But you still haven’t read Torrey Peters yet.”
I finally (finally!) got around to reading Peters’ work during the first lockdown last spring. Desperate for books while the library was closed, I turned to e-books and downloadable PDFs, switching from my usual habit of paperbacks to digital. Two of Peters’ novellas - The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, both of which she self-published in 2016 - were available as free PDFs on her website. I downloaded both, read The Masker, went to sleep, then woke up and immediately read Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. After putting off her work for the better part of two years, I finished a good chunk of her oeuvre in the span of twelve hours.
I texted Kat. “I finally read Torrey Peters.”
“And?” she wrote back.
“SHE’S SO FUCKING GOOD!!!”
Peters’ latest and first full-length novel, Detransition, Baby, was published last week by One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House. While her previous novellas were written specifically for trans women, Detransition, Baby follows three women - two trans and one cis - as they plan to co-parent a child together in New York City. Even though the set-up may seem like fodder for a quirky queer sitcom, the novel, firmly rooted in the genre of a domestic comedy of errors, reveals more serious and heartbreaking truths about the realities of trans women’s lives.
The novel begins from the perspective of Reese, a 30-something trans woman who so desperately desires a baby she states, “I have a gift for mothering. All I do is mother people. I want to be a mom so bad that I make everyone my children.” Enter Reese’s ex-girlfriend, Amy - now detransitioned and going by Ames - who accidentally gets his boss, a Jewish-Chinese divorced cis woman named Katrina, pregnant. While one timeline of the story follows the three figuring out how to potentially raise the baby together, the other follows the rise and fall of Reese and Amy’s years-long relationship, illustrating how it began at a picnic for trans women, and ultimately, how it crumbled apart on a sidewalk outside of a baseball diamond.
Detransition, Baby weaves together two of the core themes of Peters’ previous work (the novel itself is an expansion of another of her self-published novellas, 2017’s Glamour Boutique). The novel combines the themes of sexual fantasy and fetish in The Masker with the rich examination of romantic relationships and intra-community fighting among trans women in Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. Still, the story also broadens its thematic scope, with Peters writing a cis woman as a main character for the first time. At a virtual book launch sponsored by Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic, Peters stated that she was inspired to do so after reading books by divorced cis women, namely Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. In reading these books, Peter’s realized the similarities between trans women and divorced cis woman “less in terms of identity and more in terms of affinity”: that both had to start their lives over completely midway through their lives, change their names, and most importantly, not turn bitter against a world that was unable to make sense of their existence.
While Peters’ previous novellas are razor-tight affairs easily read in an hour, Detransition, Baby not only broadens Peters’ writing in terms of audience and subject matter, but also in terms of sheer length. The novel is a thick one, and certainly not one that can be completed in a quick sitting. Detransition, Baby languishes in long, sprawling chapters of gossip-laden dialogue and erotic back story, in the grand tradition of self-indulgent domestic novels. However, Peters’ skewers the genre with her satirical sense of humour, making fun of the 2010s mainstream - both queer and straight - with scenes set at (while also poking fun at) the GLAAD Awards and, of all things, a doTERRA essential oils party. Peters’ first published novel combines her signature eroticism and psychological take-downs with both humour and heart, setting the bar higher for contemporary women’s fiction as a whole.
While Detransition, Baby is receiving quite a bit of mainstream buzz, it certainly isn’t the first or only great contemporary work written by a trans woman. If you’re looking to read works by trans women writers from the last few years, I would recommend the following. Have more recommendations? Drop them in the comments below!
Nevada by Imogen Binnie (Topside Press, 2013, link goes to free PDF)
Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang (Metonymy Press, 2016)
Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante (Metonymy Press, 2019)
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya (ECW Press, 2020)
A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett (Topside Press, 2014, link goes to free PDF)
Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Casey Plett and Cat Fitzpatrick (Topside Press, 2017, link goes to free PDF)
There Should Be Flowers by J. Jennifer Espinoza (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016)
Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019)
it was never going to be okay by jaye simpson (Nightwood Editions, 2020)
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock (Atria Books, 2014)
Crossdresser: Growing Up Trans in the 1990s and 2000s by Kat Rogue (Self-published, 2018, link goes to free PDF)
I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes From the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020)
What Else I’m Reading: I recently finished Bryan Washington’s Memorial, as well as Aubrey Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, so I’m batting three for three on five-star reads in 2021 so far. I also adored Harron Walker’s new column for W about her “flop era.”
What I’m Listening To: I loved Bryan Washington and Ocean Vuong’s conversation about writing, queerness, and getting their work adapted by A24 (!!!) on the latest episode of the production studio’s official podcast. As Vuong stated, “You know the merch is going to be fire.”
What I’m Watching: I’m not a big David Lynch fan - I generally find his stuff far too disturbing for my sensitive temperament. Still, last weekend I re-watched his 1990 film Wild At Heart, starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern - LET THAT COMBO SINK IN - for the first time since I was a teenager. I also watched his critically acclaimed 2001 film Mullholland Drive for the first time ever. I had no clue what was happening for most of it, but I had an enjoyable time yelling “What?! WHAT?!” at my television all the same.
How The Writing’s Going: I’ve been working on the second draft of my novel, Bridge Burner, since January of last year. I just passed the 80,000-word mark, which I initially thought was going to be the end of it, but I still have the entire third act and 30,000 words left to write. Writing is magical and also extremely painful.
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