Life as a Trans Opera Singer

June 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

170512 HGO's L’incoronazione di Poppea

Playing Nerone for HGO’s L’incoronazione di Poppea – photo by Laurent Compagnon

 

The National Opera Studio asked me what it was like, to be a trans opera singer – and how we could all make our industry better.

So I wrote them this – I hope you enjoy it.

Where is our trans history?

June 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

What we find is not just the erasure of trans history through denial, shame, and lack of inclusion: it is an historical record of erasure, a pan-global register of undoing and enforced forgetting.

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My new essay, A Future Without a Past –  trans history, erasure, and possibilities – is now live at FreeWord as part of their groundbreaking series, All the Ways We Could Grow.

I really hope you enjoy it.

 

NB: a major new podcast

April 1, 2019 § 1 Comment

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Writing from the trashfire that is the UK’s current media landscape, it is such an unbelievable joy to be able to share some good news.

And this is really good news.

Writer/filmmaker/performer Amrou Al-Kadhi and presenter/producer Caitlin Benedict have gathered together some of the most exciting trans and/or non-binary creatives and campaigners in the UK, and made a SEVEN EPISODE LONG series for the BBC.

NB – BBC Sounds

Made by trans people, featuring trans people, covering the topics trans people want to discuss, without compromise – all on one of the biggest media platforms in the world.

This is the trans media I’ve been desperate for. And it’s so, so good.

We’re such experts at sharing the worst transphobia the media has to throw at us (see epic twitter thread here).

I’d love to see us put in even half that much energy into sharing a triumph like this.

Happy listening.

5 things being a published author has taught me

March 7, 2019 § 7 Comments

Trans Like Me, my first book, was published nearly two years ago, at the end of May 2017. 2018 brought the international tour, audiobook recording, and North American/Canadian release. Today marks the publication of the mass market paperback edition from Virago Press – cheaper, brighter, and easier to stuff in a pocket.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things that have changed during this time. When TLM was first released I made a post about what I’d learned during the process of levelling up from a blogger to a published author, as advice to anyone hoping to make the same leap, and as a way of clarifying my own experiences. Looking back now, it feels like I’ve learned just as much during these two years of ongoing book work – speaking, lecturing, recording, marketing – as I did in that initial upgrade process.

It helped me to take the time to figure it out and wrestle it in words. Here’s hoping it helps you too.

 

Lesson One: Your career is your career, and your demons are your demons…

…and the former cannot fix the latter.

For a great many of us, myself included, writing (and art in general) can function as a form of therapy. It’s where we go to explore the hardest, most challenging parts of life. But more than that – it can also be a place where we go to pin our hopes of being validated, of proving ourselves worthy, of finally feeling ‘enough’. And I’m sorry to say this, but that just doesn’t work.

 

That feeling ‘am I good enough?’?  You will never be enough, because nothing can ever be enough to placate that feeling. That’s simply not how that feeling works – it isn’t logical, and it can’t be solved by logical means.

The more reasonable, compassionate part of me is deeply soothed by the way my career has grown over the last two years. More than that: delighted, humbled, scared, and excited. It has made a signifiant material difference to be recognised for my work, to be paid for my work, to be given additional chances to work, and for those chances to be challenging and provide ongoing development.

But I still have those ravenous demons: feed me, feed me, feed me. The ones who can’t acknowledge a good review, or a great audience, or an amazing opportunity, because for some reason it ‘doesn’t count’, ‘it’s not enough’, ‘it doesn’t matter’. They are never satisfied. It isn’t a question of trying harder, because they will undermine every last exhausting effort. They are always chasing after some unknowable, unachievable, imaginary success that will make everything right. You cannot win the game on their terms.

I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that the only thing I’ve found that genuinely helps with those demons is therapy. And writing, while frequently therapeutic, is no substitute for the real thing.

 

Lesson Two: Your life will change, but only by degrees

Obviously, discard this point if you’re JK Rowling. Also, if you’re JK Rowling…no, I don’t have the energy to go there.

Anyway – for the majority of published authors what you’re doing pre-publication is going to be very similar to what you’re doing post-publication. For me that was public speaking, broadcast and print media, lectures, and arts events. I’m still doing all of those things – what’s changed is not the kind of work I’m doing, but the scale of it, and the fact that I’m no longer (always) going it alone. Those changes have built on the foundation I had in place before I even had an agent. And, even with the help of my publishers, I wouldn’t be doing half of what I do now if I’d allowed myself to become complacent.

It is not an easy world out there for most writers. There’s a myth that once you have a publisher you can just sit back and wait for the money to roll in. But the truth is that you have to make the most of every opportunity: make your own events, tap every network, apply for jobs/residencies/placements, sell tickets to shows, promote the hell out of your book. It may not seem fair – it may not match the image of ‘the writer’ that many of us carry around in our heads – but it’s the reality of the industry.

Being published isn’t a Cinderella story – it’s more like slowly building a house from the foundations up.

 

Lesson Three: A great many people who review your book will not, in fact, be reviewing your book

They will, however, be using it as a hook to write about whatever else it is they want to say. Sadly, this applies to professional journalists just as much as to GoodReads reviewers.

It is immediately, and painfully, apparent which reviewers have read the book, and which ones have just read the press release and then skimmed the first and last chapter. These reviewers are happy to ascribe their own views to you, and then go off in whatever direction they please. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about this – and the best advice I can give is to learn how to shrug it off, because it will happen more frequently than it should.

When it comes to reviews, I know that some authors recommend avoiding them altogether. I prefer to take the opposite viewpoint, and look for trends. When it’s clear that the reviewer hasn’t actually read it, then feel free to discard. Of the rest, look for the common denominators, the points that come up again and again, and see how those insights can improve your writing. But don’t let someone take up space in your head when they haven’t even done you the decency of letting you into theirs.

 

Lesson Four: It is impossible to please everyone

Here are some of the things people have said about my Trans Like Me: that it is far too complicated and academic, and that it’s too simple and straightforward. That it placates cis people, and that it’s too angry for cis people to want to read. That only trans people will want to read it, and that trans people have nothing to gain by reading it. That I’m both too didactic and too vague, too extreme and too conservative.

More than any other experience, writing a book has taught me the truth of the fact that the reader is the co-creator of the work. And, in a few select cases, the sole creator.

It’s difficult when the most negative people (and the ones most likely to make up their own version of events) are the loudest, whether that’s through negative articles in the press or bullying on social media. But what really helps me is to remember my original aims with my work, and who it was I actually wrote the book for.

At the end of the day, why would I want to be praised by people I don’t respect? A trans positive book, from a trans feminist perspective, was never going to be popular with the right wing press or online trolls – whether of the TERF or the MRA variety. If it had been popular with them, then something would have gone horribly wrong. Thank god they hated it – it proved I was on the right track.

We – myself, my agent, my editors, my publishers – set out to create an accurate, compassionate book which would break out of the two most popular genres of trans literature to date – the memoir and the academic tome. I wanted to write something which was impeccably researched, and still easy enough to read on the bus or the train. I wanted to write it for the teenager I was – someone desperate to find their place in the world – and for the adults I know now, who want a genuine, open-minded and open-ended discussion about who we are and where we’re going. On every measure we set for ourselves, we have succeeded. What bigots want to say about that is irrelevant.

 

Lesson Five: The work goes on

You will never say all that you want to say in one book. Even that one book will never quite be over – there’s always more to add, always another edit it could have had and, sadly, always another typo to find.

But beyond that book – the work goes on to other books. Other projects. Other ways of engaging. And it’s okay for that to take a while to come into focus. It’s okay for one project – particularly a debut – to be all consuming while it’s happening. It’s normal not to be able to see beyond it, particularly when it hits the stage of writing where it feels like your brain has forgotten that it ever knew any language at all, and your fingers refuse to type.

But that stage does come to a close, and while that is a process of loss and ending as well as celebration and success, it also propels you to the next step.

I don’t know all of what that is for me. I have another book I’m aiming to finish this year. I can’t say yet whether it will be good enough to show anyone, although I’m hoping it will be. What I will say is that publishing a book has allowed me to live its full life cycle in a way that writing books without publication (as I have done before) has not – and that is a tremendous gift.

I hope it’s one you get to experience for yourself.


 

Recommended by The New York Times, Times Literary Supplement, and Publishers Weekly, Trans Like Me is available worldwide in all good bookshops and online, in paperback, audiobook, and e-book.

Book covers

 

What’s the difference between Channel 4’s Genderquake and Jerry Springer?

May 10, 2018 § Leave a comment

Optics, not content. Writing for The Huffington Post on the exploitation of trans people and out of date controversy. Read it here:

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/genderquake-channel-4-propped-up-old-prejudices-and-dressed-it-up-as-controversy_uk_5af40b2ee4b09bb419e527c8?cf5

An incredibly busy year

April 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

There’s a reason why there was no blogging for the rest of 2017…or for the beginning of 2018, and I think it’s a good one: I’ve been on book tour, on album tour – and writing and speaking everywhere else but here. Only so many hours in the day – and a lot to try to remember – but I’m finally remembering to fill everyone in on the blog.

2017 was UK based: book festivals, community events, training days, university conferences, scratch nights and book shops. The kind of things I’ve been talking about – trans lives, gender, change and hope – are all featured in the BBC Radio 4 show below  – and in the accompanying article.

Word of Mouth

CN Lester on language and gender identity

For the Photographer’s Gallery, I wrote about the challenge of the cis gaze – in the street, and backwards and forwards in time:

Being seen

And for the Barbican: the struggle to understand other trans people without collapsing their realities into our own.

Trans lives: whose words?

 

The highlight of 2018 so far has to be the trip to Sydney to speak to the All About Women feminist festival as part of a trans panel featuring Sally Goldner, Jordan Raskopoulos, and Eddie Ayres. I’m still processing how transformative the whole experience was – but the panel is on YouTube for all who want it:

Feminism Beyond Gender Binaries

And I had the best interview experience ever with SBS…

SBS CN Lester

 

The rest of 2018 is shaping up to be just as full: shooting an art project with Daniel Barter, recording the audiobook for Trans Like Me in May, getting ready for American publication in June , preparing for the most ambitious Transpose ever in December, and gigging/speaking around the country. And trying to finish my PhD.

Twitter and Facebook are best for more regular news – but I’ll try to update here more often. Enormous thanks to everyone who’s read this far – and in particular the people who’ve been reading for years, and the book besides. Onwards and upwards. And, finally, in white tie and tails…

 

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credit to AbsolutQueer photography

The Production of Ignorance

July 25, 2017 § 4 Comments

What the media gets wrong about trans people, how misinformation is perpetuated, and what we can do about it. The first chapter of Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us – in all good bookstores now.


 

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Daily Express, January 2011: ‘“Half Man” gets new breasts (and guess who’s paying £78k).’

Courier Mail, October 2014: ‘Monster Chef and the She Male.’

The Times, February 2016: ‘I’m just a bloke, says sex-change soldier.’

Daily Mail, October 2015: ‘Children as young as FOUR being given transgender lessons.’

 

We’re often the butt of the joke: The Sun’s 2011 game ‘Tran or woman?’. There’s an air of the freak show about us, an invitation to peer into the bizarre realities of our lives: ‘Transsexual, 44, elects to die by euthanasia after botched sex-change operation turned him into a “monster”.’ Even when the intent is celebratory, we are marked out as different and strange: CNN’s list of the most influential people of 2014 described actress and advocate Laverne Cox as ‘The Gender Bender’.

Here are a few of the things the media shows, and has shown, trans people to be: confused, deceitful, delusional, damaged, predatory, brave (sometimes), pitiable, pathetic. A punchline, a warning, a mistake.

Here are a few of the things I am: a singer, a teacher of music, a good (if forgetful) friend, a loving child and grand- child, a loved and loving partner. I am a doctoral student, a decent cook, too ambitious, too anxious, a composer of all kinds, and someone who tries, at least, to be better than my worries would have me be. And I’m also transgender.

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