Susan Faludi’s work has always been au courant. Her 1991 debut, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, tackles gender and feminism and the sexism that emerged in the ’80s in response to feminist advances. In her latest work, In the Darkroom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes again about a hot-button civil rights issue—transgenderism—and again the politics are personal. In 2004, Faludi’s father, who was Steven Faludi at the time, asked her to write about his decision late in life to transition from Steven to Stefánie. Here, Faludi writes about identity, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and primarily, about getting to know her father, an incredibly complicated person who sent word of her transition after a 25-year-long silence.
Did your father get to read this book before he died?
It’s funny because I finished it in a readable form about a year before my father died, and I said, “It’s ready and I showed a draft to my editor and she loves it,” and my father’s reaction was, “Oh that’s wonderful!” And my father went around and crowed about it but never asked to see it. Which I’m still puzzling, one of the many puzzles of my father. And I’m not sure why. My father got ill about six months after; at that point, that’s where all my father’s concentration went, although she was still announcing to people that this book was coming out. In a funny way, what she cared about was being seen and perceived, and [she] wanted very much for someone to tell that story and picked me to tell it. I sometimes wonder that my father, maybe in a subconscious, way meant that as a gift: “you write the book you want to write”; my father always talked about it as the book that you are writing.
Early in the book you confess the thoughts you first had about your father when you landed in Hungary—that no woman would place her pocketbook on a cart like your father did, that her breasts didn’t seem real. Now that you’ve finished the book, do you still feel that shame?
No. That burned away pretty fast, I have to say. Even at the time, I was already interrogating myself about why am I—somebody who is a big believer in gender fluidity—why am I reacting this way? The whole business of dressing up, wearing makeup, that was something that almost became invisible to me very quickly; that was the easy part. The hard part was dealing with all the ways my father hadn’t changed.
Like her stubbornness, her inflexibility…
My father had this habit of projecting a wall of sound, often about trivial things, to the degree that you wanted to run from the room screaming. I think my father was really struggling against the propensity to dominate and trying to rein in her anger with this vision of herself as being kinder, gentler, a feminine new identity, but the anger and flash floods of rage were still there. So all of that was difficult, and the biggest thing that was difficult for me was that we had been estranged for so long and all of the emotions that went along with that, like deep regret and shame on my part that I let it go so long. So all of that became much more of the difficult terrain for us to navigate. In a funny way, talking about what it means to be a woman was a common thread between us.
One aspect of the book that’s so admirable is that it could’ve been just a book about your father, but it’s a much deeper story about nationalism and identity, for example. When did it become apparent that your investigations of those topics would undergird this book?
It struck me fairly early on and certainly by the latter half of the 2000’s, by 2010 when Hungary had its big national election that shifted the country to the right, that I began feeling like every time I went to Hungary, I was doing two major searches for identity: my father’s on the gender front and Hungary’s casting about to reimagine itself from a communist to a capitalist state, ultimately to a neo-fascist state. My father referred to her sex change as “the change,” and Hungarians referred to the shift from communist to free-enterprise democrat as “the change.” The writer’s mind is always looking for that metaphor.
You obviously started writing this book before transgenderism became such a contested topic in America, but nonetheless, I guess because transgender politics are so nasty right now, I was so pleased to see the humor in this book. You’re very frank about people’s bodies in this book, including your own. Had you felt from the beginning that humor was essential to this story, and if so, why?
It’s one inheritance of my so-called national identity that I have this morbid, gallows, Central European humor in my brain, a dark but mordant view of the world. I normallyfeel like there is something funny about sex and sexuality in all of its forms. Even as something that is deeply profound and essential to our beings. Something I hope we can all find amusing in ourselves.
So what’s next for you? Maybe something a little lighter? A book about the circus or something.
This book had its circus moments. Or gardening. Something that doesn’t have a gender.
Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.