Susan Kuklin, author and photographer of more than 30 books for children and young adults, is not afraid to tackle tough subjects. Her last YA title was No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row (Holt, 2008). Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, which pubs this month from Candlewick, is no exception. In it she interviewed, photographed, and then created individual profiles of six transgender or gender-neutral young adults. Through the intensely personal narratives, along with portraits and family photos, readers learn about the experiences of these resourceful and resilient teens and their struggles toward self- and societal acceptance. She recently sat down with me to talk about her book.
Thank you for introducing us to these amazing young people. I found their narratives to be incredibly courageous and compelling. Did you have the format in mind when you began?
Most of my books are written in first person. They are based on a series of long, taped interviews. I like to write this way because it creates an intimacy that I think teenagers respond to.
And finding your subjects?
I usually go to an organization or a group that I respect because it does a good job representing its clients, and I work from there. The reason I do that is to balance the book’s need for diversity with not wanting to turn anyone down. This time, I worked with Callen-Lorde Community Health Center here in Chelsea. They have a great reputation and a special program called HOTT (Health Outreach to Teens). I talked to them for quite a long time and we came up with a plan of how to find kids without in any way compromising the relationship of client/medical caregiver. Once the plan was in place, I started meeting the kids.
Did you even know what a PGP (preferred gender pronoun) was when you began?
No. No, I really knew nothing. I just knew that I wanted to learn about it. And so, I started reading books. I talked to people, especially at the HOTT program, and they educated me. I went to two or three conferences where people talked about being transgender. I thought that was very informative. I just started learning. Before I met the kids I had to do that. In the end, though, it was the teens themselves who taught me the most.
How difficult was it to shape these intensely personal narratives?
I consider my process to be collage writing. Some painters use real or found objects to fill a canvas. I use real or found words to fill a page. The words come directly from taped interviews with the teens. Sometimes my interviews with them are linear, while other times they are quite the opposite. Some of the teens began by describing what is happening in the immediate present, and then work backward. Others began at the beginning of their lives and worked forward. And some jumped all around. Later I transcribed the tapes and turned much of them into narratives. I added my own writing to move things along or provide additional information. Thus, the collage. To be sure that everything was accurate, the teens read their chapters throughout the editing process.
How hard was it to balance the need to define terms and convey the clinical information about transitioning without diminishing the raw emotional truths of the narratives?
Finding that balance is part of the creative process. I sometimes call nonfiction writing “hard fun.” Some of the teens, like Jesse, incorporated the information in his conversations with me. He was a great teacher. Additional material was written using my voice. I tried to stay out of the way as much as possible but for this book there is more “me” than in any other YA book I’ve done. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was part of the journey.
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a marvelous organization like the Callen-Lorde and their services.
That’s so true. One of the things I hope this book will do is open up the discussion for kids in small towns where they have little or no such services. That’s also why I felt it was important to include the Q & A with the clinical director of the HOTT program and the extensive resource list in the back matter.
You say in your note that one of the “lessons” you’ve learned is that once you get to know individuals who are different from ourselves, we are less likely to be wary of them. Can you expound on that a bit?
I think that’s what all my books are about. It’s writing about people who don’t have a voice. If you give them a voice, then maybe there will be more understanding. I want to know who these people are and not just lump them into a sound bite or into generic category. By giving people a voice, we acknowledge that they are complicated, interesting human beings. I hope these are nuanced portraits.
The photos are gorgeous and truly seem to capture the personalities of these dynamic individuals. Were you disappointed by Mariah’s decision not to include hers?
Thank you. I’m so glad that Candlewick agreed to publish them in full color. The first day in, Mariah said no pictures. We did about four or five interviews and she showed me lots of family photos. She’s gorgeous but she wasn’t ready to share her image with the world. It was her decision, and I respected her choice. I admit that I was disappointed, but I also thought it made an important statement–some people are just not ready for that type of exposure. Having one person who wasn’t ready to have their images shown says a lot.
Can you tell us about the Proud Theater?
I knew I wanted to branch out and not just keep this New York-area-centric. I talked to KT Horning in Madison, Wisconsin. She did some research and found the Proud Theater, a nonprofit organization composed of LGBTQ youth, allies, and children of LGBTQ parents. I talked to the people there and asked permission to come to a rehearsal. It was there that I met and later interviewed Luke. When I first met him, he was a bubbly teenager. Then I watched part of a rehearsal sequence in which he was performing a poem (included in the book). He was so powerful, it was as though he was a completely different person. There was nothing giggly about him. There was so much depth and wisdom and maturity. I asked permission from him and his parents to include the poem in his profile. I learn something new every time I read it.
I try to have the last chapter in my books send a message of empowerment. I think that Luke’s story does just that. The chapter has to do with what it’s like to be in the theater and to find an outlet, a forum for self-expression for others to appreciate. Luke was someone who was teased and taunted as a young child. Now he is a respected writer and actor. It is my hope that groups such as the Proud Theater proliferate all across the country. They are so needed.