The Saga of ‘Detransition, Baby’
U.K. Women’s Prize nomination earns anti-trans backlash
Detransition, Baby, the January debut novel from author Torrey Peters, has been long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prestigious U.K. literary honor. In response, a number of female writers—including the long-dead Emily Dickinson—penned an open letter that says including the novel “communicates powerfully that women authors are unworthy of our own prize,” given that the author is a trans woman.
Peters’ debut is a complicated and heartfelt look at queerness, motherhood, relationships, and family, centered around trans women. To give you an idea of how queer and sexually explicit the novel is, I’ll share one of my favorite tweets of all time:
good evening here is my 76 year old dad sending me a list of words he doesn’t understand while reading detransition baby pic.twitter.com/V59KRC5e52
— no handsomes allowed (@mazel_toph) March 25, 2021
The Wild Women Writing Club, who released the open letter on April 6 using psuedonyms and the names of famous authors, has two-fold criticisms: that a trans woman cannot be nominated for a woman’s prize and that Peters’ novel promotes violence against women.
“Reese [the protagonist] believes that to be a woman means to be abused by men, hence [she] actively seeks out male abusers—like Ames,” writes the open letter. Changes are my own. “[She] ‘spent a lifetime observing cis women confirm their genders through male violence.’ [She] equates femaleness with submission to male violence—to be ‘vulnerable’ & ‘delicate’ is what makes a woman. For Reese, ‘woman’ is no more than a gender identity detached from any real female body. This is a repellent, retrograde idea; an idea only confirmed by the decision to longlist Peters for the prize. Can you see the misogyny?”
The issue of trans womanhood is the stuff of JK Rowling’s long-cancelled opinions, and an issue that the Women’s Prize Trust has specifically addressed. As Peters says in a tweet, “I’m very honored to have DETRANSITION, BABY long-listed for the Women’s Prize. I was eligible this year due to work by those before me—especially Akwaeke Emezi. Once again, I am indebted to a sacrifice made by a black trans person.” The Prize nominated Emezi for their novel Freshwater in 2019, but they declined to be included after the prize’s committee asked for information “on their sex as defined by law.”
Doubling down, the Women’s Prize Trust affirmed this rule in a statement on April 7: “The Prize’s eligibility rules remain unchanged since it was launched 26 years ago: anyone who is legally defined as a woman can be entered for the Prize by a publisher…[T]he word ‘woman’ equates to a cis woman, or a transgender woman who is legally defined as a woman.”
Many of Peters’ fans and supporters, including authors Garth Greenwell and Carmen Maria Machado, took to Twitter in defense of the writing club’s second issue—that the novel includes sex that equates misogyny and femininity.
“So people have taken a complex work of literature, excised certain sections that serve a particular ideologically driven argument, & pronounced upon the whole. This absolutely invalidates any claim you make to discerning between exploration & reproduction of misogyny,” wrote Greenwell in response to a now-deleted tweet. “Brilliant women writers, cis & trans, have explored the eroticization of violence. It is bad faith to claim otherwise.”
“If they simply acknowledged they didn’t know how to read a book this would be so much easier,” replied Machado.
“Elmear MacBride’s book was ‘controversial’ but people didn’t propose she get *kicked off the shortlist* because her book had ‘ambiguous’ depictions of a protagonist who seeks out self-destructive sexual relationships and gains pleasure from them,” tweeted comedian Arthur Chu, referring to the Irish novelist who was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2014 for her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
In a show of solidarity, Peters’ UK publisher, supporters and a number of feminist bookstores across the US have purchased or given away copies of Detransition, Baby to interested readers, or donated their profits to trans-related charities.
When your open letter does nothing but cause a spike in Torrey Peters' sales pic.twitter.com/MdHjjPO9JS
— Dean Van Nguyen (@deanvannguyen) April 7, 2021