October 15, 2020

Books

Character study: Craig Silvey on ‘Honeybee’

By Steve Dow

Author Craig Silvey

The author’s first novel since ‘Jasper Jones’ raises questions about who should tell contemporary trans stories

At age seven, Sam Watson plays a honeybee in a school performance, fitting perfectly into a homemade costume with wings fashioned from wire coathangers covered in stretched pantyhose and a stuffed stinger tail with black velvet and yellow satin stripes.

An audience cheers as Sam collects the pollen. “People treated me differently,” Sam says of being a bee. “I felt like I could be myself.” When Sam’s troubled mother nicknames her child Honeybee, Sam feels loved.

But by 14, shamed by a stepfather for wearing dresses, Sam feels low self-worth and has thoughts of suicide, the bathroom reflection of facial hair and a square jaw foreshadowing lethal consequences: “The man in the mirror was my enemy. And he was going to kill me.”

Western Australian author Craig Silvey has a talent for writing about outsiders, his young adolescent protagonists doubling as narrators, speaking in the first person. His new novel, Honeybee (Allen & Unwin), is about a transgender teenager.

The story is compassionately told, arriving at a time when trans people have become more visible in popular culture – for example, in TV shows such as Pose – while conversely being depersonalised by reactionary newspaper columnists and the author J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, who has unleashed diatribes about trans women being called women as well as the existence of mix-gendered bathrooms.

I first met the affable Silvey in 2016 in the timber mill town of Pemberton, a wine and avocado region situated 335 kilometres south of Perth. There, his enormously popular novel Jasper Jones was being turned into a film, directed by Rachel Perkins, and Silvey, who had written the screenplay, was standing on the film set with a MacBook, reading aloud lines to the actors between takes. The story had also been successfully turned into a stage play, adapted by the playwright Kate Mulvany.

In Jasper Jones, the protagonist is Charlie Bucktin, a white teenager aged 13 going on 14, who relates the story of his Indigenous friend Jasper – an outcast in the town – and his own troubled mother. The book and film were set in the 1960s, when Australians as a whole were more narrow-minded on social issues such as Aboriginal rights and women’s equality.

As a white, cisgendered, heterosexual male, Silvey’s authorial right to tell that story went largely unquestioned, helped by the distancing techniques of a white teenage narrator’s filter and the half-century between the story’s setting and the book’s release.

This time, however, questions are being raised about who should tell contemporary trans stories, and how. In a review at Guardian Australia, author Fiona Wright, while conceding she is not trans, wrote of Honeybee: “It feels othering, or almost exploitative, even as Sam is always portrayed with great compassion.”

Speaking via FaceTime from his home in Fremantle, Silvey, 38, says he researched trans stories extensively while writing the book, which was originally intended to be a play. He met with people from groups such as Sydney’s Trans Action Warrang and TransFolk of WA.

“Sam is imbued with the testimonies I collected, so it was a collaboration,” says Silvey. “There’s no description of dysphoria or gender identity that is left to invention; everything is informed by those testimonies … in the most responsible and respectful and sensitive way possible.”

What did Silvey think of Wright’s critique? “I appreciate the sensitivity around the fact I’m a cisgendered author writing a trans narrative. I acknowledge that the ‘trans reveal’ has been a toxic trope historically in trans media representation, almost always borne of cisgendered authors. I understand there’s a sensitivity to that.

“But I challenge the assertion that this is true of Honeybee; that it is a plot device that I use in Honeybee. The truth is that Sam’s gender identity is slow to unfurl. The reason for this is this is a story about character. This is Sam’s story. She’s been made to feel ashamed of her identity and the expressions thereof from a young age,” Silvey says.

“She is cautious about telling people the truth, and also unwilling to admit it to herself. This is true of a lot of trans and non-binary people, [judging by] what has emerged from my research and the testimonies I encountered.

“Sam is slow to confide. It would be inauthentic and inaccurate for me in terms of framing Sam’s character for her to declare what she feels at that moment as something that is secretive and shameful. I don’t think this is exploitative, I think it speaks to character.

“As the novel progresses, it speaks to Sam’s growth and acceptance not only of herself but also the love and support she receives from this auxiliary cast of characters.”                                                                           

Another author, Liam Pieper, reviewing Honeybee for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, complimented Silvey’s “radical authorial empathy” in the book, but questioned its reliance on narrative tropes of trans women being criminalised or the product of broken homes (in the novel, Sam robs a bank, while Sam’s mother is a Fentanyl addict and stepfather a violent stand-over merchant).

Pieper also says the narration “deploys deliberately vague language around pronouns … eliding an important facet of trans identity”.

Silvey says he is unsure what is meant by this criticism. Speaking to The Monthly, Silvey uses the pronouns “she” and “her” for Sam; in the novel, however, which ends before Sam’s 15th birthday, Sam does not use personal pronouns, while the back-cover blurb gives Sam the non-binary pronoun “their”.

“It’s not my ambition to overwhelm the [trans] space or try to present some kind of definitive trans experience,” Silvey adds. “All I’ve tried to do is attend to Sam’s very specific story and her very specific set of pressures and circumstances in a very specific time and place.”

There will very likely be a screen adaptation of Honeybee. “Producers are circling,” says Silvey. “I think my agent is going to set a deadline in a couple of weeks for offers and then we’ll start hearing some pitches. It’s looking like, at the moment, it may be suited as a series drama.

“But I do see it as a feature as well. You may have noticed it’s got quite a cinematic quality and a pretty solid three-act structure.”

The book and potential screen adaptation coincide with continuing culture wars over transgender people’s rights. In this environment, Silvey is clearly an ally of trans people.

In July this year, Rowling tweeted young people are being “shunted towards” hormones and surgery as a “new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people”.

“It’s disappointing and it’s hurtful,” says Silvey of Rowling’s statements about trans people, “particularly since she’s been so influential for generations of young people.

“I can’t speak to what’s informing her comments, but they do seem to emerge from a place of fear and misunderstanding and ignorance, and they’re regressive and they’re hurtful.

“But there is unification of the trans and gender-diverse community and allies being vociferous in their repudiation of those comments. That’s been heartening to see.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.

@dowsteve

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