Torrey Peters’ first novel is not your garden-variety transgender novel (if there is such a thing). Let’s start with that title: Detransition, Baby (One World, Jan. 12) is a pun that puts two of Peters’ unexpected themes right on the book’s cover. Reese is a trans woman in her 30s, given to affairs with married men, who wants more than anything to be a mother. Reese’s ex, Ames, was a trans woman named Amy when they were together; now he has detransitioned—stopped taking hormones and begun presenting again as a man—and accidentally gotten his boss pregnant. Katrina wants to keep the baby but is unsure about Ames’ reliability and doesn’t yet know about his complicated gender history. Can this odd trio navigate the raft of life and relationship issues they face? Compulsively readable, funny, and smart, Detransition, Baby is a novel that cisgender and transgender readers alike will power through—and discuss for some time to come. (Book clubs, take note.)
Peters, 39, is the author of two novellas, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker, and part of a vanguard of trans writers bringing their stories into the mainstream of contemporary fiction. (While she gives away her novellas for free on her website, the new novel is published by an imprint of the Penguin Random House juggernaut.) Peters spoke with us over Zoom from her home in Brooklyn; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
All three of your characters are facing what one calls the Sex and the City problem. Can you explain?
As you get into your 30s and the questions of beauty or youth start to come back with diminishing returns, you’re like: How do I make meaning with the rest of my life? Sex and the City offers four answers for women: You can be a Miranda, have a baby; you can be a Charlotte, find a husband; you can be a Samantha and have a career; you can be a Carrie—and Carrie’s a little bit of all of it, but generally she finds meaning through art until the end of the series. It’s only now, with my generation, that trans woman can even aspire to face the Sex and the City problem. I mean, that’s the thing about having a baby, for a trans woman, we can’t just go out and have one. But I do think we’re at a place where we aspire to have that problem, whereas previous generations were just aspiring to survive, as women. The idea of, well, I’m going to make meaning out of my life as a woman—that was a luxury. A lot of them did it. A lot of them did a great job of it. And there are incredible, inspiring trans women in generations before me, but it wasn’t quite the same. Here’s a track, and here’s a point in your life—what are you going to do with it?
Some readers will be surprised to discover that motherhood is such a big theme in the novel.
Motherhood is one of the ways that women my age find meaning that isn’t easily accessible to trans women. I probably can get boyfriends, or husbands these days, or I can get a job. Motherhood isn’t easily available to me. And it’s still, in this culture, one of the experiences that defines womanhood. So instead of working around it, I wanted to write a book that wrote right into that distinction and right into the ways in which that isn’t available. Being trans is like walking a knife’s edge, where sometimes you’re tempted, if I could just detransition, things could be easier. Or, similarly, if I could just have a baby and be a mother I would be validated, nobody would question my right to exist or my right to these feelings. I have the same maternal feelings, it’s just sometimes they feel quite thwarted.
You have a character, Ames, who has detransitioned. That’s a very charged subject. Is it scary to write about that?
Yes, it’s scary in two ways. One, it’s politically scary. These detransition stories are used as a cudgel in trans debates, especially in the U.K. right now: People do detransition, and that’s how we can say that trans people are a mistake, and they shouldn’t be transitioning, et cetera, et cetera. You say “detransition,” and people immediately think that you’re that you’re going to be using these stories to make a point. And I didn’t want to do that. I actually just wanted to say why somebody would detransition.
The second reason why it was scary is that, you know, the real reason that most people detransition that I’ve known isn’t because they were wrong about having transitioned. It’s because life is hard as a trans woman, and it’s an escape. And so writing about detransition is like putting that escape on the table. When you have a hard day, or something happens, you can normally never reach for that. But when you’re writing about it, it’s right there.
Would you say something about the dedication of the book?
I dedicated the book to divorced cis women. I think divorced cis women are going through a very similar thing as a transition—they literally have to change their name, not get bitter, not get disillusioned, restart a life at a time when you’re not supposed to have to restart a life. And, you know, when I was figuring out how to live, how to find meaning, personally, I read all these books that were largely by cis women in their midlife. I read Elena Ferrante, I read Rachel Cusk, books like that. And the stuff that they were talking about, the way it felt for them to figure things out, was exactly how things felt for me. OK, our bodies are different, and we had different paths, but I’m able to make a leap, like most cis women are able to make a leap to Ferrante. They are not growing up in the slums of Naples in the ’50s. But they’re able to make an emotional analogy. Similarly, I was able to make an emotional analogy. The contours, the outlines of the emotional movement are very similar.
Did you have an audience in mind while you were writing Detransition, Baby?
I thought a lot about audience. I [previously] wrote these novellas that were for trans girls—there was this thing called t4t, which is a trans-for-trans cultural thing. That was initially what I was trying to do: write for trans women. But as I was writing the book, I started thinking that maybe that’s not actually the end point. It’s happened in other marginalized literatures, where you write for [your own] group, and it turns out that everybody else can keep up. As people learn about trans culture, about any marginalized culture, they start to see their own way of living through that lens. I believe that we’re at this place in the way that we talk about gender where trans thought is starting to move through mainstream culture. I’m looking to cis women, in some ways, for models of how to live—but actually there’s a lot that trans women are doing in terms of gender that is beginning to be relevant to [cis women]. So the audience that I was thinking about was the people who are there for the beginnings of that exchange.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.