Saturday, 17 March 2012

REVIEW: Nina Here Nor There - My Journey Beyond Gender, by Nick Krieger (4*)

(Beacon Press, 2011)

I picked this one up on a whim, partially because it's one of the shortlisted titles for the Indie Lit Awards this year, in the GLBTQ category.  It is a refreshing new take on the transgender memoir by travel writer Nick Krieger, about his journey from Nina to Nick.  This isn't a standard 'I was a woman, now I'm a man' tale, however - which is what makes it really stand apart from other books in the genre.

When Nick's transformation began - I saw it as a transformation rather than a transition, because it feels more triumphantly beautiful than the latter term implies - he was still Nina Krieger, a sporty lesbian surrounded by strong, feminine women she called her 'A-gays'.  But when she moved to San Francisco's Castro neighbourhood, she was unexpectedly drawn into a whole new community.  Here there were people who wore binders and 'packed', people who had surgery but didn't take hormones, people who took hormones but didn't have surgery: a surging, diversely queer group that took the traditional concepts of 'male' and 'female' and completely broke them down into a fluid and highly individual concern.  In these new surroundings Nina finally found the means - and the confidence - to explore her own relationship to her body and her gender, in particular her complete detachment from her breasts and her preference for a male image.

While this may sound like a typical transition story, it really isn't.  By the end of the book, Nina has become Nick, 'she' has taken on the pronoun 'he', and he has taken the huge (and long awaited) step of having top surgery to remove his breasts.  Since then he has also taken testosterone to accentuate his male features.  But Nick Krieger is not a man, nor does he want to be.  As a genderfluid or gender variant individual, he is happiest at a personally determined point between male and female.  And that, I think, is what makes this book so interesting.  Krieger's exploration of his own body, values, relationships, assumptions and experiences invites the reader to do the same thing, regardless of who they are.  There is no sense of 'It was terrible being this person, so I changed myself' - instead he writes with great positivity about his journey towards a full understanding and full expression of himself.

I really enjoyed it - and I think I might enjoy a reread even more, now that I have a better idea of who's who and know a little more about the author.  It made me think about myself from a different perspective, and I found Krieger's honesty inspiring.  He doesn't make sweeping statements about the transgender experience, but instead keeps his focus personal and subjective.  It is a book about self-discovery and identity that I think everyone can learn from, and I like the fact that he charts this self-discovery one stage at a time.  He never apologises for choosing to do something or not, for taking things slowly and perhaps making decisions later that he wouldn't have thought possible before.  That, after all, is how people evolve.  The book is often drily amusing, often quite moving, and always fascinating, and I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in gender, sexual identity and LGBTQ literature. 

Notable Quotables:
  • "As part of our ongoing personal investigations, we'd fallen into a knowledge-share.  I'd tell her about transgender history, pathology, and theory from my self-assigned reading list; she'd tell me about binding, packing, and gender bending as it was practiced.  She readjusted her bulge again.  I stared, embarrassed by my transparency, my eagerness to discover what was beyond my books and absorb what Jess must have learned directly from the sources."
  • "I use words to express myself and yet they do not define me, cannot crystallize a life that is in constant flux.  Words are tools for communication like gender is a system for organization.  And even as I play into the system by choosing a bathroom, a pronoun, a box on a form, I see it was a framework built upon faults, an institution that oppresses us all with some victims suffering more than others, a juggernaut.  Some people see it as a binary, a spectrum, a continuum, or a rainbow.  But when I envision my own gender, it is with my eye to the lens of a kaleidoscope that I spin and spin and spin."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.

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