None of the Above's compassionate telling of an intersex individual's story trumps its author's cis privilege
IW Gregorio’s book None of the Above (2015) is a brilliant example of an author writing about a community that she is not a part of. The story is so engrossing that you would not want to put the book down, and follows its protagonist Kristin Lattimer, an intersex person, whose life unfolds in this book for young-adults.
IW Gregorio’s book None of the Above (2015) is a brilliant example of an author writing about a community that she is not a part of.
This is a young-adult novel, and the protagonist Kristin Lattimer “discovers that she is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy ‘parts’.”
Gregorio is a practising surgeon, living in Pennsylvania. In her novel, Kristin is modelled after the first intersex patient she treated.
The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere
Is it okay if heterosexual authors write novels with queer characters? I think that is almost akin to asking whether it is alright for savarna authors to write books on dalit lives; for white authors to tell stories of people of colour; for sighted authors to pen fiction featuring visually impaired individuals, and for cisgender authors to write novels about trans and non-binary folx. I think you get the drift. I am drawing attention to asymmetries of power in our society, and the positionality of writers that might influence how they perceive, narrate and represent the experiences of those who are marginalised.
Last year, a filmmaker who identifies as straight got in touch with me to seek inputs for a queer love story she was in the process of writing. I agreed to help. After she finished her narration over the phone, it was my turn to give feedback. I found the premise quite problematic. The queer protagonist’s sexual orientation was used merely as a sensational plot twist in an otherwise boring storyline, and not developed as an aspect of his personality that was important to him. When I indicated this, the filmmaker replied that it was her story, and she could do anything she wanted to. That is justified, but I do not see the point in reaching out to a queer person for their perspective on a queer story if you have already made up your mind, and have no intention of hearing them out.
I support freedom of speech and expression, so I do not buy the idea that professionals who make a living by writing should restrict themselves to weaving narratives about people like themselves. In my view, imagination and empathy are closely linked; those who have a gift for holding readers spellbound with their words can play a significant role in challenging prejudices and correcting misinformation about communities that are stigmatised and/or underrepresented. However, authors can do this only if they are aware of their privilege and ignorance, and if they are open to learning, else they might end up reinforcing the biases that already exist.
This long preface is meant to underscore why I think that IW Gregorio’s book None of the Above (2015) is a brilliant example of an author writing about a community that she is not a part of. The story is so engrossing that you would not want to put the book down, so I will refrain from mentioning any spoilers here. You just need to know that this is a young-adult novel, and the protagonist Kristin Lattimer “discovers that she is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy ‘parts’.” She is a champion hurdler, has a boyfriend she is madly in love with, and goes to a school where she is voted homecoming queen shortly before her diagnosis. She lives with her father, misses the mother she lost to cancer, and has two close friends that she keeps no secrets from.
The ‘I’ in LGBTQIA+ stands for ‘intersex’. While this acronym is being increasingly used in Indian popular culture, you will rarely find intersex people being quoted in articles about pride marches or speaking on panel discussions ,or being featured in documentary films and television shows. This needs to change, because intersex people have their own concerns and issues to articulate, and these should not get wiped out just because there are not enough platforms for them at the moment. While Gregorio’s book is set in the United States of America, and not in India, it has much to offer Indian readers who are keen to learn about what it means to live as an intersex person — as a misfit in a world where it is assumed that you can either be male or female, where ‘none of the above’ is not an option.
Gregorio is a practising surgeon, living in Pennsylvania. In her novel, Kristin is modelled after the first intersex patient she treated. Like Kristin, this patient too had Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) and found out about it when she was a teenager. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Gregorio shares that the patient came from “a very poor and disadvantaged background,” was unaccompanied on her visits to the clinic, underwent surgery to remove her gonads, and usually came across as remarkably stoic. Even after the patient stopped visiting, Gregorio kept thinking about her. She wondered how the patient came to terms with her diagnosis, if she had a boyfriend, what happened the first time she tried to have sex, and if she told anyone about her condition. These questions inspired her while working on the novel.
Gregorio writes, “I think I was the first person to really talk to her about her condition and what to expect in the future...I worried about her support system. I also knew there were questions she would only think of after the appointment, so I made sure to give her information about the AIS support group. In retrospect, that was probably the single most important thing I did for her.” The compassion Gregorio displayed as a doctor is also evident in her craft as a writer. Unlike many from the medical community that she is a part of, she chooses the term ‘intersex’ over DSD — short for ‘Disorder of Sex Development’ — while telling Kristin’s story because “the word ‘disorder’ suggests something inherently ‘wrong’.”
Some of the characters in None of the Above address Kristin as a ‘hermaphrodite’. Yes, the word is used in a pejorative sense not only by students who are hell-bent on making her life miserable, but also by a doctor. Apparently, this was a difficult decision for Gregorio, but she made it “because intersex awareness isn’t widespread enough to have eradicated the term.” She also says that in recent years, the word ‘hermaphrodite’ has been reclaimed by intersex people in the same way that the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by gay men and women. I disagree here because ‘queer’, to me, encompasses many identities other than gay and lesbian. For now, let us focus on what Gregorio draws our attention to. Words that are meant to hurt us can be defanged in ways that centre our stories.
There is a lot in this book that works for me. It does not compromise on the fun and cheesy elements of a high school romance while filling up the pages with information that is usually tagged as technical, scientific, or medical. It keeps you involved in the relationships, situations and emotions that Kristin has to deal with. There is more to her than her diagnosis, — her love of running, her obsession with social media, her life at school, and hints of homophobia as well as transphobia. The novelist has been able to depict Kristin’s suffering without making her an object of pity, or a saint. This appears to be a much better way of sensitising readers about the lived reality of an intersex person, than handing them a pamphlet, and asking them to feel sorry.
I also like the fact that Gregorio does not present Kristin as a template for the way in which every intersex person’s life unfolds, while she also highlights how important it can be for an intersex person to connect with other intersex people. She mentions several individuals, support groups and organisations that she learnt from during her research process. More importantly, she clarifies that there are differences of opinion about surgery, particularly in the matter of ‘genital correction’ that involves children and the absence of consent. Kristin opts for surgery because of her fears and her life circumstances but she also knows the consequences and side effects. Other intersex people in the book do not make the same choices.
Why did Gregorio write this book? She says, “It was early 2009. I was pregnant with my first child, a daughter. Just months later, Caster Semenya’s story hit, and it became clear to me that intersex was a perfect jumping-off point for a discussion of tolerance, feminism, and gender essentialism. It begged so many questions: What does it mean to be a woman? What happens when you don’t fit perfectly into the gender binary? And what role does your biology play not only in who you love, but who loves you?”
I will add just one more question here: If you woke up tomorrow, and realised that the concept of gender was completely erased from this world, how would you make sense of everything in your life? I have no idea what I would do, but this is something worth spending time on. It seems a bit like going to a country where people speak a language that sounds absolutely unintelligible. That is terrifying because of its unfamiliarity, and liberating because there is no baggage to carry.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights.