Monday, February 14, 2011

Just Another Character in 'Getting Mother's Body' by Suzan-Lori Parks

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

Renee and Sparky have been talking about books this week, which made me think about my own reading experiences. I read a lot of what are often called “trans books” - books by trans people (and sometimes non-trans people) about trans subjects. I also read “non-trans books,” which encompasses pretty much everything else.

But the most pleasant surprise comes when a trans character is incorporated into a book among a variety of characters - when he or she simply has a place among an “ensemble cast,” no more or less outstanding than anyone else in the book. In this case, which exists, but is rare, you don't have a “trans book” or a “non-trans book” - you just have a great book.

And such is the case with Getting Mother's Body by playwright and author Suzan-Lori Parks. This is not a new book. It was published in 2003. But it will always be on my shelf, and it will always make Parks stand out to me as a very special author (but she doesn't need my accolades - she's already won the Pulitzer for her play Topdog/Underdog). 

I read Getting Mother's Body, Parks' debut novel, along with her plays Topdog/Underdog and Venus, in preparation for attending a lecture that Parks was giving in Denver several years ago. I had not read her work before, but I figured that, if I was going to see an author speak, I should know what she had written.

This novel follows Billy Beede, a young pregnant woman hoping to find some real family jewels that were allegedly buried with Billy's mother, Willa Mae. The story introduces us to a cast of characters in Billy's life, some of them interested in the jewels as well. 

Each character stands out in his or her own right, and the book pulled me in from the first page. But the true delight came when I was eventually introduced to Dill Smiles, a character with a female body and a masculine gender identity who had lived comfortably as a man until he was outed by Willa Mae.

Dill Smiles is not a “trans” character. He is one of the many multi-faceted characters in this book, which is what makes the book so special and Parks such a genius. After her speech, I stood in line to get her signature on the books in my new Parks collection. When it was my turn, I told her that I was a trans man and how much it meant to me to discover Dill Smiles in her book.

She was delightfully gracious. For all her awards and praises, Parks appears to be a very down-to-earth woman. I would have loved to talk to her more about why and how she created this character, who she consulted, if anyone, and who she knew who was trans. Of course, with the line backing up behind me, there was no time for this. But maybe it wasn't necessary.

Asking her to define or explain Dill Smiles would have turned Smiles into a “trans” character. As it was, Smiles was a character who, among other things, was trans. Smiles had a life story, problems, quirks - just like every other character in the book. And the fact that he was just another character among the many who played an essential part in the overall story was what made it so special.

Sometimes it's just nice to be - with no explanation required. And it's always a pleasure to read a great book. So if you haven't read this one, now's the time.