Have you ever read a book where the first hundred pages had you completely absorbed, absolutely clinging to the author’s every word, but then the second half of the book… well, things started going wrong, the author said strange things that made you rethink aspects of the first half you’d dismissed as quirks, and in the end, you’re left wondering how to weigh the good against the bad? No Soy Persona – a collection of autobiographical narratives, poems, and a long essay by Uruguayan, Mexico-based intersex trans woman writer Fabiola Estradiol – felt that way to me: a breathtakingly beautiful, gripping, and radical book that’s tarnished by its perplexing, tedious, and sometimes regressive portions.
When the preface that opens No Soy Persona (a title that translates literally, though in an unsatisfying way, as I Am Not A Person and more aptly but less directly as I Am Nobody, I Am No Person, or even I’m Not Human) said this book was written for people who didn’t know about gender or intersex issues, I took the statement seriously. No book can provide everything for every audience. And a book without a specific focus and vocabulary suited for its intended readers' risks being a poor match for everyone that picks it up. The preface also warns:
This text is absolutely explanatory; it is not for your enjoyment; there won’t be any eroticism, nor descriptions of lustful desire… This book is a message towards finding meaning in the treatment of the Other...
It was clear then, No Soy Persona was meant as a kind of primer for cisgender readers. Here they would find answers to their questions about gender laid out in Spanish by someone with first-hand experience. And it had arrived early in terms of the new wave trans literature, having been originally self-published in 2005 and re-released with added material in 2011. So what I expected as I started reading was something like Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness (2014) which I thought was an incredible resource for cis people and trans people who were just finding themselves. But Mock’s book faced a ruthless editorial process, which brought together her background as a magazine writer with staff editing by the big publishing company that released the book. A process that drained a lot of the life and artfulness and complexity that Redefining Realness might have had: its prose was polished until it felt generic, the Hawaiian words she used were italicized as if they were alien things, everything was defined and spelled out for the reader’s convenience.
No Soy Persona, however, is a decidedly experimental memoir: it’s a funny, weird, sensual as well as romantic, irreverent, and messy book. There are narrative pieces in the book that pull off literary maneuvers I’ll never forget – mind-blowing stuff that should have had schools inviting her to teach writing workshops. And there are poems throughout the book; deeply personal poems that sometimes reflect on her body, her joys, and troubles while sometimes veering out towards the abstract where they absolutely defy her stated goal of educating through the statement of facts.
In fact, the first thing the reader will notice about No Soy Persona is that it does the opposite of what the preface says The first two pieces in the book – a narrative fragment titled “Basquiña” (meaning skirt) and a poem titled “Bulbo” (bulb, stem, rounded protuberance) – share sexual themes, with the first piece describing the sheer happiness and sensual pleasure a woman feels while getting dressed in her desired clothing and the second being a brief poem about masturbation. Together these first two pieces do something very bold: they suggest the profound sense of liberation (including sexual liberation and literal sexual release) that closeted trans women experience from being able to wear what they want and finally, at least for a little while in private, feel at home in their bodies. I transpire, she writes in “Basquiña”, the ecstasy of my erect and … overflowing femininity touched with eroticism and innocence. A page later in “Bulbo”: There rains a snow hot and white with its blind lips.
You might think these opening pieces place us far afield from the Trans 101 memoir this was supposed to be, and that’s right in a sense. But this is the crux of No Soy Persona, a book where all that is joyous, shameful, and terrifying about trans and intersex life is made into art. Estradiol is too free and skilled for a writer to simply put together objective statements to trace the arc of her self-discovery and the journey towards living her own life.
And what I love about No Soy Persona is its really effortless, stylized prose; the way that her writing rushes ahead and restlessly shifts into different modes and perspectives, challenging the reader to keep up. This shape-shifting nature of her writing is charming as hell, but it’s also hard to understand in an autobiographical work: why keep moving from one devastatingly effective way of writing to another? Why make the reader wonder who is speaking every time we get to a new narrative piece?
For example, “Abrojo Cloroprenico” (Plastic Thorn) is a great piece. It also happens to be narrated from the viewpoint of the author’s ex-wife. That is, where the previous narratives were written from Estradiol’s own perspective, here Estradiol reflects on their marriage by imagining what her wife must have thought at the time. It’s a loving portrait of her ex-wife, which follows the trajectory of her life from the abusive childhood she survived and ultimately escaped by marrying Estradiol to the devastating series of miscarriages they struggled through before having their first child. Estradiol’s ex doesn’t appear to us a perfect person – she’s clearly struggling with Estradiol’s inability to conform to the male gender she was assigned at birth – but there are signs that the unresolved issues in their marriage will eventually lead to a rupture.
The next piece, “Uranismo Plexiglas” (roughly, Queered Plexiglass) shows us exactly how violent that inevitable rupture was. However, when the perspective shifts again at the start of this piece, we’re lost. Now we’re apparently in a dialogue between Estradiol and an unnamed male speaker as she debates whether to make a grave decision. As the framing device of the dialogue soon gives way to another literary device – a narrative told through Estradiol’s perspective which begins on the night her marriage falls apart and cuts back to give us an overview of the nine years of their marriage before advancing through time to that fateful night once again – we are disoriented, but sensing that something horrible is going to happen keeps the reader’s eyes glued to the page.
I had to read back through the first pages of “Uranismo Plexiglas” a couple of times before I understood what exactly was going on. But the problem for me wasn’t the technical twists and turns Estradiol was using – that’s the stuff that had me turning the pages of No Soy Persona like if I was reading a Stephen King novel and rushing ahead to where the monster would be revealed. The way Estradiol keeps the reader off balance and expertly denies us information makes for a reading experience that’s akin to having a thriller in your hands. She uses this technique of rationing information throughout her narrative writing – a piece titled “Yesca” (Kindling), for example, has us asking questions like who the second person (you wake up, you go outside) narration is centered on and what horror awaits us with a title that hints at being set on fire – and it’s extremely effective.
What kept slowing me down in those narrative pieces was Estradiol’s bizarre commitment to referring to herself with masculine word endings. This happens across the book and is applied even to the detached part of her mind she has a conversation within “Uranismo Plexiglas.” It’s an issue I might have chalked up as an odd way for Estradiol to put a line between the old days when she wasn’t free to live her own way, and the present, especially since she uses feminine pronouns and word endings in her most recent writing online. But Estradiol goes on to try rationalizing some ugly gender essentialist beliefs in the 40-page essay that ends the book.
I don’t what Estradiol meant to accomplish with this long essay, which attempts an analysis of gender through linguistics, makes a detour into discussing trans womanhood and finishes up by critiquing the way Catholic doctrine is used against gay, trans, and intersex people in Mexico. If the goal of this essay was to educate cis readers, Estradiol fails at that task. Her language is too technical, her approach is too theoretical; she cites Plato and Heidegger, but hardly provides examples to help readers follow.
There’s sex, she tells us (which according to her is determined by a person’s anatomy), and then there’s gender, which is a separate, purely social thing. For Estradiol, sex is a “biological construction.” Except that she also tells us how incredibly varied people’s bodies are and how arbitrary are the meanings given to intersex people’s bodies. Maybe that’s because the notion of sex is a social construction too? Frustratingly, though, she ignores that possibility. Of course, none of this serves to clarify the range of experiences and feelings we saw in the poems and narratives writing earlier in the book, which in all their subtlety and artfulness left too much unspoken. For all the times that the book sees Estradiol called a deviant for wanting to see herself and to be seen as a woman, there’s no point in the book where she explicitly explains to the reader that closeted intersex and trans women feel arousal when wearing feminine clothes, not because of any fetish or anything that they’ve chosen, but because of the powerful mix of emotions (fear, shame, happiness, longing) brought out by dressing in a way that feels liberating. And what I’ve written here doesn’t even scratch the surface of this topic.
It’s also unfortunate that Estradiol makes genital sex to be an unshakable, all-powerful biological fact. She works to build a logical argument for this belief of hers, but it’s the same cold, senseless logic of gatekeepers and bureaucrats who care more about enforcing rules than about the people they hurt. At one point I asked myself, does Estradiol misgender herself so relentlessly because she doesn’t believe she was enough of a woman at the time the events in the book took place? If she was speaking for herself that would be one thing. But Estradiol seems to apply that essentialist thinking to all intersex and trans people.
According to her, there are people who merely think they’re women (like transgender women who, she argues, no matter how they feel or live or what their bodies are like will never “acquire the condition of a woman”) and then there are real women who are capable of giving birth. Setting aside all the ways her argument falls apart, why is she splitting hairs in a book that’s supposed to educate a general audience?
Later in the essay, she also talks about how transgender isn’t the most accurate language if you look at the prefix trans more closely (Estradiol: trans people don’t move across or through gender, sweetie… I’m paraphrasing) so her solution is to make up the word anagenic for us to use. Again, why do this here? Why not draw from the body of intersex and trans women’s writing that was available online at the time she wrote this essay and try to give readers practical knowledge?
I haven’t said much about the poetry in the book so far, but that’s because I found it unremarkable. Not that these weren’t interesting poems. Visually they sprawl across the page in broken fragments, and she does use unusual phrasing and metaphors to make everyday scenes poetic. Maybe it’s the fact that she does a lot of looking back in these poems that keeps them mired in sentimentality without reaching immediacy: back when her dog was alive, back when she and her wife were together, back to moments she shared with her daughter. And it doesn’t help that the poems are scattered across the book, often falling between narrative pieces that have cliff-hanger endings so the reader can’t help wanting to speed past them to find out what happens next.
I know that I’ll return to No Soy Persona repeatedly in the future, and when I do I’ll look forward to getting lost in her narrative work. I’ll flip through the pages of poetry without expecting much, hoping I’ll be able to connect with them or find something meaningful there. And if I have the energy I’ll cautiously wade through the long essay to get a better sense of what went wrong, what happened to limit her inquiry this way.
Artwork - Yishay Garbasz Four Generations/ Wu Family, 2007, C-print, 38.3×48.8cm, ed.8