Book Review: Trumpet by Jackie Kay


I’m a book addict. I formed the habit young, and it’s still my best and primary tool for understanding myself and the world I live in (or wished I lived in). I’ve always had a rough go at writing about books, in part because I feel like I’ll reveal that I’m not smart enough to really grasp the nuances, and also because it feels like starting to deconstruct a book ruins it in some ways. I hated writing book reports when I was a kid, and I frustrated my literature professors in college by being able to talk about books breathlessly and eloquently (or at least coherently) but not being able to put together a meaningful written analysis of anything.

In short, attempting to write book reviews is probably a huge mistake. But there’s actually lots of trans literature out there, and it’s worth sharing.

The first (and so far best) FTM-themed fictional work I picked up was Trumpet, a story loosely based on musician Billy Tipton.  When Billy died, he shocked the hell out of his kids by turning out to have female parts. His kids turned Billy’s death into a media circus. Trumpet runs with this premise, but adds in a few additional factors–moves the action to London and adds in issues of race and immigration.

Joss Moody dies before the first page. The book winds us around the contours of Joss’ life and relationships through the narration of his widow, his son, and the book’s villain, a ghost writer chasing scandal, who twists facts and manipulates people to get her story. In contrast to the salacious account that the ghost writer tries to tell, a very human portrait of the absent protagonist comes to light in the negative space of his loved ones’ accounts.

The gender aspects rang true for me.  Joss is an authentically transgender character, and was allowed to be portrayed as such. He was blessed with being able to “pass” with a good binder and a good suit, but in numerous passages, it comes out how this illusion was also achieved with the help of natural bias and assumption about gender. When the funeral director prepares his body, discovers the breasts and lack of penis, it changes the way he sees Joss’ face:

He didn’t mean to but he happened to glance quickly at the face. It gave him quite a turn. The face had transformed. It looked more round, more womanly. It was without question a woman’s face. How anybody could have ever thought that face male was beyond [him].

It had never happened to him before. He had never had a man turn into a woman before his very eyes. He felt it to be one of those defining moments in his life that he would be compelled to return to again and again.

This part resonated with me so strongly because it is so fundamentally true about the core difficulty people have letting go of their gender perceptions. It is an unconscious process, and one that transgender people work their whole lives to achieve–to get to the point where others immediately perceive them as their identified gender and are not mentally locked into the sex they perceive. In other words, it highlights that void that exists because others do not see you as you see yourself.

It’s a beautifully written book. We never really meet Joss Moody as he was in life because we are so caught up in the distorted perception: the raw emotion of the grieving widow and the betrayed son and the bias of the avaricious interloper, who continuously mis-genders the defenseless, dead Joss. He is allowed some words in a posthumously opened letter to his son, one in which he does not discuss in gender in any real depth, but where he does get to stake a claim his identity. In this letter, he explains that his immigrant father, himself, and his adopted son had all undergone transformations of their identity in their own ways. About the lineage, he writes to his son:

That’s the thing with us: we keep changing names. We’ve all got that in common. We’ve all changed names, you, me, my father. All for different reasons. Maybe one day you’ll understand mine.

This book does not gawk at Joss or Billy or any of the historical figures that were discovered at death to be more than meets-the-eye. At the same time, it explains and addresses the temptation to do so, and maybe more importantly, the consequences of robbing our trans predecessors of their autonomy in defining themselves.


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