April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Debut Author Meredith Russo on Trans Teens in YA Lit and “If I Was Your Girl”

If I Was Your GirlIn Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl (May 3, 2016), an SLJ Popular Pick and one of the first books published by Macmillan’s new Flatiron Books imprint, Amanda is the new girl at her high school. She recently moved in with her dad and has caught the eye of sweet Grant, a popular athlete. The teen is trying her best to fit in and hopes her new friends don’t discover her secret–when she was born, she was named Andrew by her parents. With nuance, lyrical flashbacks, and much heart, Russo’s debut tackles the timeless topic of coming-of-age and finding your place in the world through the life of a trans teen.

Were there any misconceptions you wanted to dispel with If I Was Your Girl?

That trans people are inherently dysfunctional or that our lives are inherently tragic, since nearly every story told about us either paints us as (mostly…) benign basket cases or kills us off/traumatizes us so cis characters can learn to appreciate life. I wanted to show people that, yes, Amanda has her tics and rough edges, but only because the world makes her existence hard, not as an inherent function of that existence. I wanted to write a story that shows [how] a trans person can come through their own trials, looking after their own interest, mostly okay.

What made you decide to include flashbacks to Amanda’s life pretransition?

I wasn’t going to originally. I was ambivalent about readers knowing her birth name, and I wanted to focus a story on a trans character’s post-transition life, since that’s something you almost never see. I originally wrote the scenes currently included as flashbacks as writing exercises to try and better understand Amanda, but then it turned out they were too good to throw away, and, I realized, they really help to lay out the stakes for readers—Amanda’s fear of being outed isn’t just abstract with these flashbacks in play, because they are a very real demonstration of what her life was like before Lambertville and what it could go back to. There are some flashbacks that aren’t dark, too, of course. I included those because I want as many printed words describing good things happening to trans kids in the world as possible.

The characters Amanda encounters have a wide range of backgrounds and identities that color their reactions to her. How much of that was drawn from your own experience with people?

If we’re talking about their reactions to her transness, I’ve encountered everything you see in the book. I’ve encountered people who are extremely respectful and supportive at first, only to use it to hurt you when they’re upset with you. I’ve encountered Christians who mean very well and have good hearts but who kind of struggle to mesh their theological beliefs with me. I’ve encountered totally normal, seemingly apolitical people who you’d never expect it from who turn out to be my fiercest defenders. I’ve never been attacked, thankfully, but otherwise, if it’s a thing a cis person says to Amanda about being trans in the book, there’s a good chance it’s been said to me (and most trans women) at some point.

We meet an older trans woman who is important to Amanda. Were there any people or characters in your youth who you looked to for strength or inspiration?

I didn’t have any trans role models because even in the late 1990s/early 2000s, where would I have found one? Unless we were being paraded around as tragedies, horror stories, or jokes, trans lives were still lived largely in the shadows when I was younger. Now that I think about it, I didn’t really have anyone I was capable of aspiring to become or anything like that, because you kind of have to be able to imagine yourself as an adult in the first place to strive for that kind of thing, and that wasn’t something I was capable of. Virginia is the person I wish I had when I was young.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who identify as transgender?

There’s this terrible, awful line you’re going to have to walk between compromise and marketability. The fact of the matter is that cis audiences are going to be the people buying most of your books, and huge numbers of cis people know so little about us that they’re blown away by The Danish Girl (this is the second interview where I’ve thrown this movie under the bus and it won’t be the last). There are things they aren’t ready for yet (though it’s changing quickly!), but, at the same time, if you do everything you can to appease them, you’ll end up with a book that could have been written by a clueless cis author anyway, so what’s the point? It’s tough to strike that balance, but so incredibly important.

What has been the most exciting part about being a debut author? The most disappointing?

The most exciting thing has been all the new people I’ve gotten to know. I’m friends with people I never would have met (a couple of them idols of mine) because of this book. The most disappointing part is that—and I know this probably sounds sarcastic—a beam of light didn’t carry me away to Narnia or whatever. I woke up the day after my release party with a headache, a mouth that tasted like a foot, bad hair, and work to do. You just did this huge thing, and then life goes on almost like it never happened, like the day after you put away the Christmas tree.

What more can librarians and the publishing community do to fight against the prejudice that drives decisions like the one in North Carolina?

Librarians can do two things. First, make it widely known that your physical building itself is a place of acceptance and respect. Place signs clearly stating that trans people won’t be punished for using the correct bathrooms; prominently feature artwork and decorations celebrating diversity or declaring your stance on these issues. Second, make sure you’re paying attention to LGBT releases and working to put them on your shelves (with a preference for books written by LGBT authors) but, just as important, work hard to make your visitors aware of them.

Publishers can also do two things, besides the bare minimum they should already be doing as employers to protect and respect their LGBT employees. First, if you have two manuscripts about a trans character, one by a cis author and the other by a trans author, buy the one by the trans author (unless it’s garbage, I guess, but only then). If you’re looking for an artist or a model for the cover of your trans book, hire a trans artist or model if you can find one. And so on. Second, I want you to go back and read the advice I gave to aspiring trans writers. Remember how I told them to be ready to compromise? It’s your responsibility to do everything in your power to make sure they’re compromising as little as possible.

What are you working on next?

Two books, one adult, one YA, both about very different trans characters. The YA’s got this magical realism vein going through it that I’m really excited about, and the adult fic’s a nonstop ride of disillusionment and disappointment. Good times all around.


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What Can Be Done to Increase Diversity in Literature for Children and Teens?
Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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