The Bookshelf: Author Alex Myers Challenges Gender Norms in New Novel

Nov 8, 2019

Alex Myers is the author of "Continental Divide."
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

Novelist Alex Myers came out as transgender in the mid-90s, when society's understanding of what it means to be transgender was less clear than it is today. 

In his new novel, "Continental Divide," Myers writes about 19-year-old Ron, who was born female, and grew up in Tamworth, New Hampshire. Ron decides to reinvent himself as a man by moving west to work on a ranch in Wyoming. Alex Myers is an English teacher at Philips Exeter Academy. NHPR's Peter Biello stopped by his classroom earlier this week to talk about "Continental Divide," and the challenge of coming out as transgender. 

Read Alex Myers' Top Five Reading Recommendations:

  1. "Copperhead" by Alexi Zentner. High school student protagonist who grapples with his family's racist beliefs (and practices)... topics that are front and center in my mind.
  2. "Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan. Story of an enslaved boy in the 1800s on a sugar plantation who ends up serving an eccentric inventor. Wonderful historical imagination.
  3. "A Long Way to a Small, Angry, Planet" by Becky Chambers. She calls this a space opera (it's the first in a trilogy). I call it delightful escapism: another world, other species, rollicking adventure, and good writing.
  4. "The Prince of Los Cocuyos" by Richard Blanco. A memoir of his childhood in a Cuban family in Miami, wonderful story about realizing queer identity.
  5. "Sorted" by Jackson Bird. Another memoir, this one about a trans-guy who came out recently. It's a good one for folks looking to understand trans-identity and particularly coming of age in the time of social media.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

So this book "Continental Divide" is about a character named Ron, who grew up in Tamworth, New Hampshire, and starts to make the transition to becoming a boy, a man. What parallels do you see between Ron and your life?

I think there are a lot of parallels. I grew up not in New Hampshire, but in rural Maine. I came out when I was about to turn 17. It did feel young at the time. A lot of people commented that it seemed early for me to be making up my mind about such a huge part of myself. Of course, the book is set in '92. I came out in '95. Nowadays, I see students who who are coming out as young as kindergarten and knowing very much who they are. The parallels in my own life would be a rural childhood, a feeling of always being a boy despite society telling me that I was a girl, and then going off to a more urban college experience with a bit more exposure to a range of differences.

The events of this novel take place in the early nineties. If Ron were to come out today in 2019, how do you think it would be different?

I think today, in 2019, more people know the word transgender and more people have exposure to a range of transgender identities. I think if Ron were coming out today, he would find more understanding, but maybe not more acceptance. I think sometimes people get what transgender is about on a superficial level, but they still don't know how to care for and love a transgender person. But I think at least he wouldn't meet such a vast quantity of ignorance.

One of the things that I thought was very interesting about this book is the the question of when do you tell people that you are transgender and how much do you tell? Do you say anything at all? Ron has a couple of situations where he just wanted to reinvent himself to the new people around him as a guy. And then he was outed and it didn't work out so well. So then Ron says, OK, well, I'll be upfront with everybody right away. And things went a little bit better that way. How do you know how much to share and when?

Many of the transgender people I work with and am friends with, especially those of us who have the privilege of being able to pass as the gender we live as, have been tempted to or tried to go, quote-unquote, "stealth." That's the term within the community for living as that gender identity and not telling people. And many of us who have done that have found it alluring at first and then completely unsatisfying. For myself, I've ended up feeling that I'm stifling some part of myself and I generally end up wanting to tell people that I'm gonna be close to. That said, it's seldom the thing I want to tell people right off the bat. I rarely meet somebody and you shake their hand and say, "Hey, I'm transgender." There have been times when I've done that, but usually I'd like to get to know them as a colleague, as a human being, and then as we get to know each other and in the natural process of becoming closer, it's something I would bring up, you know, as soon as I can, but not forcing it.

I wanted to ask you about the question of masculinity that keeps coming up in "Continental Divide." Ron really wants to seem like a man, the man he feels like he is, but he's not sure how to do it. He's got brothers as an example and there are ideas that people hold about what men do. For example, he's with his love interest, Cassie, and Cassie looks into his fridge and says, "Oh, condiments and milk. Clearly, you're a guy." But there are other measures of masculinity, for better or for worse. How did you go about creating Ron and making the struggle appear on the page?

I based Ron on a lot of people that I've known, a lot of trans guys and their coming out experience. A lot of us, and a lot of the friends I have, felt like society wants to sell you this wholesale picture of what it means to be a man, that there's this one sort of size of masculinity and you're gonna have to fit yourself to it. I wanted Ron to go through all of those stages of saying, does this part feel right to me? You know, maybe I'm not athletic or maybe this sort of toughness that I'm expected to have doesn't feel natural to me. Do I have to have it if I want to be a man, or can I be a man on my own terms? I think not just transgender people, but cisgender people face that a lot. I wanted Ron's journey to reflect not just trans experience, but human experience. A lot of cisgender guys that I work with, especially working in a high school setting with adolescents, I work with with boys who who who who feel, "I love to sing. I love to dance. Some people will judge me for that. But for me, it feels right. I can still do that and be a guy. Right?" I want to be able to sort of explore that and validate that.

One of the things that works out in Ron's favor is that his version of masculinity, how he chooses to embrace and express it, works really well for his love interest, Cassie. 

Yeah, absolutely. I think Cassie herself is a little bit gender nonconforming. She's always thought of herself as a straight woman. She's always loved horses. Those can be very quote-unquote "typical feminine things," but also they can be non-typical feminine things or non-feminine typical things. She has circulated in this masculine world on this ranch, tending the horses with the wranglers, and had to be their equal. She had to assert herself. I think in some ways she's a tomboy, and in other ways, she's a feminine, straight woman. So encountering Ron, she has to ask, what does it mean that I'm attracted to a person who is not male bodied? What does it mean that I'm attracted to a person who maybe isn't typically masculine in this Western or Wyoming kind of way?

So in writing this story about Ron figuring out who he is as a transgender person in the world, who were you writing this book for, essentially?

I was writing this book for a couple different audiences and it's been fun to get out and do some readings early on. In part, I was writing it for people who are transgender. I don't think we have enough representations of people who are honestly like us, not dramatic, not traumatized, but who reflect the maybe the minor traumas and the real lived experience of a trans person. I've done some readings at LGBT centers and I love it when when lines get a laugh that I know you can have to be in on the joke to get. That's very gratifying that people see themselves and get what's happening there. I wrote it in mind of people who love a trans person and maybe who are trying to learn to love a trans person. Maybe you're a grandparent who's had a grand-kid come out as gender-queer. Maybe you've met your first transgender co-worker and you want to understand them, but you don't want to burden them with all your questions. I wanted to write a book that would help to explain it, but not make it preachy. And then I really hope that people will pick this book up, maybe they like the jackalopes on the cover or whatever, and they say "this looks interesting" and they'll read it without knowing it's something that's about a transgender person, and they'll be surprised to find themselves in some way reflected in what happens there. 

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