Monday, February 20, 2017

Evelyn Deshane on Angela Carter

Gender Negotiation

During the last year of my undergrad, I didn't think I could be surprised. I was completing the last requirements for an English Literature and Gender Studies degree, and enrolled in the one course I'd been waiting for since I picked these majors: Gender in Literature.

I was mostly disappointed. Not that the books we read weren't good—how can anyone argue with Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin?—but I'd already discovered them. I'd already consumed Woolf's entire oeuvre and dozens of critical essays on each author's groundbreaking books. The professor was wonderful, but even she wasn't wowing me with knowledge that I hadn't already found on my own time. As the class dragged on, I figured I would quit academia altogether (I'd been preparing my application for grad school, but tossed it aside come February) and take the manager position at a used book store someone had offered me in my hometown.

Then we read Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve. I devoured the entire novel in one sitting, completely captivated. The story is the stuff of B-movies (warning, spoilers ahead): Evelyn, a male professor in an American Wasteland, is captured by a gang of militant feminists, given a forced operation to change his sex, and becomes the "New Eve" who's going to save them. Eve escapes, is taken prisoner by a nihilist called Zero, and then escapes once again to find a movie star named Tristessa. Eve (now using she/her pronouns) soon discovers that Tristessa is also trans. The two fall in love, but Tristessa dies, and Eve decides to accept her fate in her new gender role as she floats into the sea. 

So yes—the story is trashy and horribly problematic in all the trope-y ways for trans people. The use of a forced feminization surgery as a major conflict point (and implied punishment) should have been enough for me to stop reading. But at the time, I had no conscious awareness of the trans community. All I knew was that I'd never read anything so poetic and earth-shattering about the dimensions of gender. Gender was mutable, it was changeable, and there was some negotiation about the body that every single person in the book had to go through. That's all gender was for Carter: a negotiation. Evelyn, the English Professor, took his gender for granted, but then it was changed, and the New Eve had to negotiate a way to be in the world after the fact. To me, the book was perfect—and what I'd needed to hear at the time.

The theory with which the professor paired the reading was Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto—something I'd never read before, either. I sped through that text and patiently waited for my lecture so I could hear more. And when that wasn't enough, I googled Angela Carter and fell in love with her work on my own time.

I had already missed the deadline to apply for graduate school that year, but I decided the year off in a book store would do me some good by allowing me to explore Carter all on my own. I read every book she ever wrote, including her kid's title Sea-Cat and Dragon King and her collected journalism Shaking a Leg. From these, I pieced together snippets of her biography, each time realizing I loved her more. When she won a prize for her first literary work, she used the money to leave her husband and went to live in Japan. Her time in Japan clarified her gender to herself, she wrote in a subsequent essay, and so did her time writing The Passion of New Eve. After her first husband, she never remarried—but eventually had her first child when she was in her 40s with her second husband, a man she met while he mended a roof across the street. After years of literary and academic achievement, she had a family—but only after her successes, never apologizing for living according to her own rules. She wrote about the topics I'd always wanted to write about—gender, sexuality, and the private sphere—and seeing her career trajectory as I waited to start my own in academia was wonderful.

When it came time to start my Master's Degree, I thought I was going to be an Angela Carter scholar. Not so much. During my gap year of exploring Carter and her world of gender, I also discovered the trans community. The real one, not the mixed up version in Carter's dystopian California. And I realized, deep down, why Evelyn the male professor who was forced to be female, suddenly meant so much to me at twenty-one.

I was trans. I never wanted to be a woman in academia, or a man for that fact, but something else all together. I wanted to negotiate my gender, render it poetically, and move on from there. Carter allowed me to see, for the first time, that negotiation was an option. Even if the world she attempted to create in The Passion of New Eve has its problems—the forced feminization surgery being one of them—it was still my first glimpse that a world beyond my birth gender was even possible. She gave me the tools to question and re-establish my desires, and not apologize for them.

Now, I'm a PhD candidate in trans studies, doing just that.




Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Lackington's Magazine. Their chapbook, Mythology, was released in 2015 with The Steel Chisel. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and currently studying for PhD at Waterloo University. Visit them at: evedeshane.wordpress.com

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