Nandini Krishnan's Invisible Men does many of us a personal and political disservice, writes interviewee featured in the book
Three of the many criticisms of Nandini Krishnan's book Invisible Men are that she maintains a voyeuristic curiosity about the bodies of transmen, that she consistently misgenders them, and that she sets herself up as the judge of whether people pass as the gender they identify with
Throughout the book, Nandini Krishnan maintains a voyeuristic curiosity about the bodies of transmen, writes Dr Bittu Karthik.
Misgendered pronoun use, which Krishnan repeatedly does in the book, is the act of socially forcing a transgender person to revisit their dysphoria.
She has also set herself up as the judge of whether people pass as the gender they identify with.
It was with a sense of sinking disappointment that I made my way through Invisible Men. The book’s premise is quite promising, because the narratives of transmen have rarely been welcomed into public consciousness. However, the writer, Nandini Krishnan, has loosely packaged the gut-wrenching stories of several transmen into a meandering and voyeuristic narrative that often denies us the very agency we have exercised in self-determining our gender. It does many of us a personal and political disservice. I am an interviewee featured in the book and am appalled at the way the book has taken shape.
A Life in Trans Activism, a book by A Revathi on her history of activism and support for transmen, features many of the same narratives by some of the same transmen interviewed for this book. In an ethically thorough process, formal narratives were faithfully transcribed from recordings without any intervention by the author, and translated back to the interviewees in multiple meetings to ensure accurate representation. Consider the care which she, even as a fellow transperson, takes to accurately represent the lives of transmen with minimal personal narrative interference.
Krishnan’s book is a stark contrast and stands as a testament to all the ways in which an uninformed personal narrative can fundamentally misconstrue and do an injustice to the self-narration of transgender men.
Sometimes, ordinary people, “laypeople” as Krishnan calls them, tell me this whole transgender thing is very complicated. How does a well-meaning cis person not offend trans people? The answer can be found right there in the book: Krishnan correctly says that when “interacting with someone who does not identify with the heteronormative binary, it is usually best to ask how that person would like to be addressed in terms of noun, pronoun and adjective”. What she fails to add, and to follow, is that being respectful is about then consistently referring to that person by their chosen noun, pronoun and adjective.
Multiple times in the book, Nandini Krishnan fails to respect the gender identities and preferred pronouns of the participants — to whom she has ostensibly listened to for hours while they talk precisely about their gender identities and lives. To her credit, Krishnan does seem to have gotten the memo that transpersons do not “change” gender the moment we undergo transformative physical procedures. However, she perpetuates the old, transphobic media trope of using names and pronouns that do not respect people’s chosen identities to describe them prior to their social transition.
One of the most egregious examples of her misgendering is when describing Living Smile Vidya’s book, the first published autobiography of a transwoman in India by Rupa Publications. The fact that Living Smile Vidya reveals her own given name in the book does not constitute carte blanche for any reader to refer to her by her given name and pronouns! This is akin to a white person thinking it appropriate to use the n-word to refer to someone and justifying it with the claim that this black person has used it for themselves. This is a book whose pioneering role in trans publishing continues to be largely ignored by the publishing fraternity. Penguin would do well to realise that with Invisible Men, they will be letting down readers who have come to expect a certain standard of sensitive and fastidious editing from such a publication house.
Krishnan uses inappropriate pronouns to describe interviewees such as Bilal and Rumi Harish prior to their transition. Some of the other examples of misgendering are quite bizarre — it is rare for a writer to make up entirely new and unheard ways of misgendering people. She uses the pronoun “R” to describe Rumi and “S” to describe Sunil, despite their insistence at not being referred to by any pronoun. (Conjugating R as R-self in particular sounds a lot like “herself”). It is hard enough to get society to accept the pronouns trans people use for ourselves without having to accommodate the products of the author’s imagination.
Nandini Krishnan’s linguistic incompetence also plays into her misgendering. Her other novel form of misgendering comes from her uninformed translation of the Tamil pronoun ‘adhu’ as ‘it’, which is an inaccurate translation of the colloquial use of the word in non-Brahmin Tamil to refer to someone familiar. Again, Krishnan is not entirely clueless — she acknowledges that this is probably a politically incorrect thing to do — but she goes ahead anyway to refer to a person non-consensually with that dehumanising pronoun. She justifies this by claiming that a trans woman named Priya Babu had informed her that “pre-operative transwomen” must earn their female pronouns — failing yet again to see a distinction between language use within a community, and appropriate use of language from anyone outside the community, regardless of whether they identify as an ally or “friend”. But certainly, one must wonder about the dereliction of duty by the editors in not doing a simple check for the accuracy of the author’s translation.
More understandable is her ignorance of the hijra bhasha that transwomen employ. Unfortunately, despite this ignorance, she gamely attempts to translate the word “panthi," used by transwomen, as “cismale”. By this token, she misgenders Selvam by describing him as “not a panthi”. However, several of us transmen have been referred to as panthis by transwomen, and the word panthi refers to a man, whether cis or trans. In describing Selvam instead as a “pre-operative transman whose biological functions were identical to mine”, she disrespects and misgenders him, violates the NALSA judgement of the Supreme Court by specifying the state of his body, and makes an uninformed statement about his biological functions (yes, they might share some biological functions such as digestion and micturition, but she seems unaware that both gender and sex are about other parts of the body). Clearly, Krishnan’s misgendering is not limited to problematic pronoun use.
Misgendering is perhaps most stark in the drawings in the book. Apart from being quite amateurish, they disrespect transmen’s bodies in the crudest possible ways.
The first sketch is one that sticks to her favourite trope, that of wedding trans history with Hindu mythology, and it depicts Shikhandi as a flat chested man with W-shaped genitalia — I assume this depicts a vulva/vagina. This crudeness is beyond disrespectful, and other such illustrations follow in the book, such as depictions of hijab-clad “girls” dreaming of being “boys” — derisive images that are all extremely disrepsectful and ignorant of the reality of trans lives. Even the cover of the book is demeaning, picturing transmen as men emerging out of the head of a distinctly woman-like face. Many transmen have never identified as anything but men or boys, have never looked like that cover page, and have certainly never wanted to be represented by such an image. To depict transmen as such is an inexcusable misrepresentation.
Krishnan has provided many examples in the book where transmen have corrected her perception of transmen as “not men” — for example, when she tells one man he looks like “some guy”, and he replies “I am some guy”. Yet, she persists in referring to transmen as another category of “neither-man-nor-woman” while describing her interpretation of a story in the Ramayana, echoing the very definition in the 2016 version of the Government of India’s Transgender Persons Bill that she criticises. This is one of many examples where she clearly fails to learn from the central conceptual framework that girds transmen’s lives: Transmen are men, plain and simple!
Nandini Krishnan sets herself up as the judge of whether people pass as the gender they identify with. She writes, “I saw nothing of the woman in him” about a Manipuri man running the lottery; “I sensed no femininity in S”; and “the only feminine features on Bilal were his large eyes and soft mouth”. She comments on a transman’s voice “betraying his gender,” despite the fact that before he spoke he was in fact being correctly perceived as his gender – male — implying that it is Krishnan who does not see his gender as male. Transmen as a group fail before the Krishnan screening committee. Krishnan speaks of her sympathy towards the “Peter Pan-like appearance” of transmen, the “apparent youth of transmen, particularly pre-transition”. She speaks of how “the hairless faces and high-pitched voices of those who had not started their hormone therapy made it easier to picture them as little boys”. [Nandini, I am 35 years old and do not take hormones. Kindly do not picture me as a little boy. It is bad enough that the Government of India declared in their Trans Bill 2018 that I would have to either live with my parents or in a shelter home]. She writes of having worried about seeing transmen as innocuous since they “lack the organ most women have been taught to dread”. This quaint, old-fashioned phrasing belies the fact that while she questions her own dismissiveness of toxic masculinity in transmen, she does not question her inaccurate assumption that transmen are lacking in penises — penises that are too dreadful to be called penises.
Throughout the book, Krishnan maintains this voyeuristic curiosity about the bodies of transmen, tracking transitions, not even sparing a transman who died on the operating table by describing him as having a “vestigial uterus”. The uterus figures even in the way she uses old, sexist uterine tropes to describe transmen as making “histrionic, sometimes hysterical, declarations”. At the outset of the book she describes transmen as “born with the anatomy of womanhood and the conviction of manhood”. Later, she uses the voices of imaginary characters to suggest to the reader that while transmen might see themselves as men, the world sees them as women: The watchman who “would have seen a girl in tears, not a boy in depression”; the “transwomen” who found a transman to be “a woman who had the body they so desired”; the policemen talking to the “girl they saw on the bed”. Likewise, she reminds the world through a transman’s paraphrased narrative that transwomen have “the same male bodies as any cisman”.
Krishnan doesn’t spare the partners of transmen either, scrutinising whether partners of transmen “betray discontent,” wondering in what ways did “surgery change the relationship,” stating that these partners “ached to have biological children with the men they loved”. This is apart from an ableist and transphobic passage where she describes a couple singing love songs to each other that no “sane cisgender” couple would. Perhaps the most disgusting part of the book is where she attributes Kiran’s disability to the failure of his parents to “administer six bitter spoonfuls of vaccine”.
In one heartbreaking segment, she concludes a passage about a trans man who has described his successful move away from the indignities visited upon him — from a forced marriage and forced femininity, towards living independently as a man with his partner — with her own imagination of him wearing a sari and making chutney at home. She puts him back where he escaped from, instead of honouring his journey. In an interview about the book, she describes him as having given birth “as a woman”. These humiliating references revisit the original acts of sexual violence this man faced. For transmen, sexual violence is often perpetrated not just as sexual violence against a man, but with the intention of misgendering transmen and “showing us our place” in the assigned gender binary. It is an act of violence and power aimed at taking away the power of self-determination for trans men. It takes some serious insensitivity for a cis woman not to realise that a survivor of sexual violence must be given the space to speak in their own words precisely to take back that power of self-determination. To feminise a transman survivor of sexual violence in imagining him as a married and pregnant “woman” is to reinforce the intention of that act of sexual violence. [Knowing this man as a friend makes it quite difficult for me to describe how devastated I know he would feel at reading this.]
Another devastating moment is when Krishnan refers to an incident where a transman “got his period for the first time in months and bled heavily. But he refused to wear sanitary pads”. She goes on to describe his trauma while performing on stage, having to wear a skirt. This was one of many examples where the book triggered my own dysphoria — the intense pain a transgender person feels when forced, either socially or physically, to confront a body that does not match the brain’s somatic expectation of that body.
Lest any cisgender reader imagine that pronouns are trivial, you must understand that misgendered pronoun use is the act of socially forcing a transgender person to revisit their dysphoria.
Krishnan finds other moments in the book to remind the reader that transmen menstruate, in one case solely to claim she is woke enough to have forgotten that a transman might, while making it clear that earlier she had not “begun to see transmen as male, at least not as male as cismen”. While conceding in the foreword that she made several transmen “revisit extremely traumatic incidents in their past”, she confidently decides that she must, because otherwise, how could she let “the world know about their lives”?
This theme, of Krishnan doubting the ethics of her research and then going right ahead out of a need to play cisplaining saviour, reverberates throughout the book. In the introduction, she wonders whether she is being voyeuristic in focusing on surgeries, but then goes ahead based on the assumption that transmen need information on these surgeries. Transpeople who can afford an English book this expensive will certainly have had the resources to find the considerable amount of information on the internet. More worryingly, a transman whose family refused to support his transition, with the exception of one family member, recently lost the support of that member because they read Invisible Men, and concluded that the surgeries did not sound like they would make for the “complete” manhood that Krishnan describes a doctor saying “all transmen want”. This is terribly alarming, because apart from affecting the mental health of the trans reader, it is affecting crucial, life-saving support systems as well.
Despite justifying her dwelling on medical procedures for the sake of the hypothetical Indian transman reader, the book is clearly looking to rich, Western, cis voyeurs for an audience. There is no other reason to rely on Hindu mythological tropes to contextualise the history of transpeople, largely transwomen, in India. To do so while recounting a list of transmen in recorded world history who are almost entirely from the West is also an act of selective, saffronised historical memory. In describing the only transmasculine-relevant myth of Shikhandi, Krishnan also takes a bizarrely sanghi turn by referring to the myth of his exchange of genitalia with a yaksha as “arguably the world’s first undocumented sex change operation”. This facepalm moment joins the list of cringeworthy myth-as-medical-history claims that has left all of us in the science community in despair.
It is unclear whether Krishnan covers the question of trans identity in conflict zones such as Kashmir and Manipur in order to understand the intersections between these experiences, or to just add sensation value — crude titles of chapters such as 'Why Didn’t the Indian Army Want to Search Me?' certainly suggest the latter. This kind of voyeurism takes a somewhat colonial ethnographic tone, with awkward descriptions of thick dosais as a novel indicator of poverty and long-drawn descriptions of the invective directed at her by a transwoman whom she misgenders. The latter passage, in which a transwoman is justifiably enraged at Krishnan walking into her own neighbourhood and misgendering her, is evocative of Krishnan’s general response to the criticism around this book, which is to see herself as an innocent do-gooder being mysteriously yelled at by menacing transpeople.
This, then, is the central puzzle of the book — the question of how Krishnan learns so little from her work and even from her own introspection.
It is unclear whether she suffers from a form of cognitive dissonance, or whether the book was published in such a rush that she was unable to move towards some semblance of an integrated narrative. She wonders if she is voyeuristic and othering, she panics about “reducing people to anecdotes”; the answer to all these questions is “Yes”, and yet she never reaches that conclusion herself. She states in the introduction that she learned she could hurt her interlocutors with language that misgenders, and then goes ahead to do exactly this. She knows we are often near suicidal from being misgendered, and then makes a book that has triggered dysphoria and suicidal ideation in many transmen.
Even more ironically, Krishnan excoriates the writer Chimamanda Adichie for her own insensitivity in seeing transwomen as somehow distinct from “women”. And yet, a quote from Krishnan’s writing about Chimamanda Adichie would easily apply to Nandini Krishnan: “Adichie consistently refused to apologise, and sought instead to ‘explain’ herself”. Krishnan’s particular form of explanation is somewhat bizarre: she has defended her lack of an apology by claiming that these are “honest opinions” — but then, prejudice is almost always honest and naked. When policemen have asked me what my body looks like, they are expressing their “honest” curiosity. When the draconian trans bill was drafted that strips transpeople of the right to self-identification and punishes rape visited upon transpeople with vastly lower sentences of 6 months - 2 years in comparison to rape upon transwomen, it was based on the recommendations of another Krishnan-like self-styled expert, Piyush Saxena. This man also provided the Hindustan Times with some “honest opinions”: that transwomen are “sexually very hot”, and that the differential punishments for rape upon a transgender person versus a cisgender woman were justified because “vagina rape causes a different sort of mental trauma to the lady”.
The sole role the writer of the foreword plays is to make Krishnan look better than him. Manu Joseph has already flexed his muscles writing derogatory essays about people he knows nothing about, famously writing that my friend Rohith Vemula may have simply died due to “depression” rather than institutional repression. He continues this kind of “honest” airing of his prejudices, describing transwomen as “muscular eunuchs” even as the Government of India has learned not to use this derogatory word. He puts all transpeople in our place in his mental assignment of the gender binary, describing transwomen as “men who strive to become women” and transmen as “women who wish to become men”. He grandly declares that “gender is not a spectrum” and that those of us who disagree are charlatans. He ends by stating that transmen are “women who use the latest medical advances to liberate themselves from their gorgeous female shapes, who will cut away their breasts, destroy their long flowing hair” and, somewhat bizarrely, “fix agonising penises”. Apart from asserting that transmen are “women”, it is clear that his idea of women is from a gaze of objectification, essentialism and archaic condescension. His idea of penises is a bit harder to fathom, but perhaps he ought not to project his own penis agony upon the penises of transmen.
Another justification Krishnan cites in lieu of apology is in claiming that some of the interviewees remain friends with her. This question of friendship is an important one, given that Krishnan ingratiated herself with several interviewees, me included, by claiming to be a friend of other interviewees. As I clarified to the author after reading the book, friends do not write voyeuristic narratives about their friends. While she was carefully respectful in her descriptions of interactions with those of us who bear substantial class and caste privilege, she has taken seriously problematic liberties with some of the working class, Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan interviewees who were interviewed in non-English languages. For example, the book features not just their formal interviews, but takes up several pages describing informal interactions with their friends and partners to which she was privy in good faith — but which they never imagined would make it to the book. Some of these partners and friends are not open as community members, and they certainly did not consent to being interviewed. Krishnan reverted to only those whom she formally interviewed in non-English languages with an English script, and they did not trouble her for translations out of trust. Many of these interviewees have years of experience dealing with reporters and have never had a violative experience of this kind.
Despite her relative care to not offend her English-speaking interviewees, most of the openly trans interviewees who have read the book have denounced or distanced themselves from it. Non English-speaking transmen have come to realise how Krishnan has written about them through the slow process of our doing what the author is ethically bound to do: translate the final script. Although Krishnan did include some undistorted transcriptions of voice recordings, large sections of the book are paraphrased and attributed to transmen in ways that distort their narratives. She also lazily lifted several pages worth of material from the Facebook posts of transmen; as well as sections from plays and myths, most of which are not even remotely related to transmen.
If Krishnan had been more sensitive and had learned from what her interviewees told her, we might have been more forthcoming. Such a book might have been worth reading.
Those of us who believe cis people can learn to fully understand their trans friends, and have seen amazing allies who do, have had our hope for the evolution of cis cognition somewhat wrecked by this book. Krishnan is troubled by Gee’s assertion that her book, in claiming authorship by inserting her own narrative into a body of work largely populated by the labour of storytelling shouldered by transmen, is an act of epistemic violence. And yet, despite his explaining to her the process by which she could ethically compile and translate an anthology of their narratives, she decides that the route that would enable her to claim sole authorship and the right to tell other people’s stories is the one she wants to take. While she justifies this by saying she wishes to explain her own journey as an ally, all she reveals of herself in this journey is her own transphobia and her self-image as sympathetic listener, with many nights spent crying tears of sympathy into her pillow.
Krishnan even worries about visibility, and asks how “transpeople as a community benefit from visibility,” and yet never makes the connection between this and my own response in the book to her questions which explained to her the fact that transmen benefit from our relative invisibility. Other explanations I gave her about the relationship between trans and intersex identity have been chopped up into fragmented quotes and distributed between disparate sections of the book, not making any sense in some of those contexts. The narrative is disjointed and the editors were clearly on vacation. The questions she asked me about violence and employment discrimination faced by transmen were discarded in her final narrative, which choses to largely focus on sensationalised stories and attempts to dig up intra-community tensions for the reader’s voyeuristic pleasure. Knowing most of the interviewees, I can see the points at which each of us got wary and withheld substantial parts of our narratives from the book. My mistake was to not withdraw my narrative from the book outright. It is a serious political mistake to have participated in a book like this because the concern is that once a book is written, published and publicised by Penguin, it becomes the authoritative book on a subject, despite being riddled with mistakes and derogation. One only hopes that the Krishnans of this world are not set up as “experts" on the community who draft draconian laws that make our lives substantially more difficult, in the way that jokers like Piyush Saxena have been. As it stands, this book may only be accurately read as a half-baked compilation of partial narratives of transmen. Instead, go read A Revathi’s A Life in Trans Activism for the real deal.
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