LGBT+ art and queerness was refreshingly unapologetic in its display this year at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
By the time the video feed had patched in and Torrey Peters’ talk on her 2021 novel Detransition Baby began, Carriageworks’ Bay 17 was overflowing with bleach-dyed hair and Dangerfield overalls.
For myself and many others, Detransition Baby was a breath of fresh air for the queer literature scene. Throughout her talk, Peters’ made it very clear who she was writing for; transgender women, like herself, navigating the difficult taboos around motherhood and bodily autonomy, without the explanations and justifications that are so often expected of trans creators in their work.
Inspired by her experiences living in Brooklyn amongst other transgender women, Peters’ novel gives ‘the full 100 per cent’, not slowing down for its cisgender readers, nor holding back on its taboo content.
To Peters, this approach lends itself to storytelling, not education. “You’re not writing an essay in fiction,” she says. Her work is based in experience, or ‘moods’, not political ethos.
“You can live in a mood, you can live in a tone…[fiction] is a place to discover these moods,” she says.
The character of Ames, a former transwoman who has chosen to continue identifying as male, plays a pivotal role within the story. Peters herself described the character as a vessel through which she could ‘get inside the head’ of this unspoken demographic of detransitioned men, and seek to understand their experience.
To Peters, gender exists in a state of constant flux, and representing it through her work, the choice to turn back on the transitioning process is reframed as a decision, rather than an error.
“It’s not a mistake, it’s a possibility,” she says. “Let’s make it a possibility. Shame festers in the unsayable.”
The story being told sucks.
In writing openly and fearlessly about very real issues facing transgender women, she works to destigmatise the difficult conversations surrounding trans motherhood, and the concept of detransitioning.
Peters was just one of many creators exploring the boundaries and taboos of the queer experience. In a panel hosted by Sarah Malik, authors Omar Sakr and George Haddad discussed the unique experience of growing up as queer Arab-Australian boys in a society which demonised their sexuality twofold.
In discussing their new novels (Son of Sin and Losing Face, respectively) they spoke generously about the expectations associated with their masculinity and cultural identity, and how the orientalist stereotypes of the predatory Muslim male intersected negatively with damaging connotations of homosexuality with ‘sexual deviance’.
“The story being told sucks,” quips Sakr.
Current representations of Arab-Australian men are fraught with stereotypes and downcast, tragic stories of death and sadness. Although he confronts some of these issues within Son of Sin, Sakr believes that fiction is “about showing all the people in my world at their most complex and beautiful”.
“It’s not that wild for us to write about, because it’s what we know. It’s what we breathe… it’s in our bodies,” explains Haddad. The close-knit, hierarchical world of Western Sydney is brought to life on the page in Losing Face, in all its complex, intricate and beautiful glory, telling stories that challenge and reinvent ideas of Muslim masculinity and ‘bro-hood’.
The bravery of these creators in speaking and writing about their experiences as vulnerable queer minorities cannot be understated. These experiences of listening and engaging with diverse, queer creators fearlessly pushing the boundaries of taboo and convention really encapsulate the essence of the Festival. It did not just ‘Change My Mind’, but cracked it wide open.
Main image of Carriageworks by Ro Roberts.