In her 2003 column for Newsweek, “Outside the Bright Lines,” Barnard alumna Anna Quindlen wrote, “Tolerance is the rice pudding of modern behavior; it tastes sweeter than bigotry, but no one would confuse it with a parfait.” In other words, tolerance is more like a distant runner-up to the ideal—an ideal, Quindlen believes, that can be found in the pages of Jennifer Boylan’s first memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.
“The way in which people insisted on valuing her on the basis of who she was and not their confusion about what she had done represents the best of human behavior,” Quindlen wrote, marveling at the support Boylan received when she came out as transgender in 2000. To borrow Quindlen’s metaphor, then, it seems the parfait would be the unapologetic acceptance of another’s humanity—a comparison that I’m sure most marginalized individuals could agree with.
In 2014, 11 years after Newsweek published Quindlen’s column, Boylan was named the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard. Quindlen was humbled by Boylan’s appointment, calling it an “unexpected honor.” To the rest of us, it merely epitomizes the scope and the vision of Columbia’s inimitable creative writing departments.
On a cool and cloudy day in mid-April, I arrive at Boylan’s office for our interview 20 minutes early. She’s eating a falafel on her lunch break and asks if I can come back in 15 minutes. No problem, I say, and retrace my steps down the narrow corridor of Barnard Hall’s English wing, embarrassed and a bit nervous.
During the 14 years since She’s Not There became the first work by a transgender American to become a bestseller, Boylan was named a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times op-ed page, a consultant for the television shows Transparent and I Am Cait, and the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD. This summer, I had the opportunity to intern for GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy organization based here in Manhattan, and I witnessed firsthand the great responsibility Boylan bears as a leader of an organization that does such vital work to accelerate acceptance of marginalized communities.
After pretend-shuffling through my notes in the hallway, I return to Boylan’s office and apologize for arriving so early. I’m perpetually 10 minutes late to things, I tell her, and I really didn’t want to be late for this.
“It’s no problem,” she says, as she brushes the crumbs from her hands, and then immediately directs me to her window. “You see that big crane?” she asks. Her office overlooks the construction of Barnard’s Milstein Teaching and Learning Center that’s slated for completion in August 2018. “Every day, I get to listen to these giant machines just outside my window.”
“That really sucks,” I say, and it does suck, especially because I learn from Boylan that she does much of her writing in this very office. She shows me to a chair that looks a lot like a La-Z-Boy.
“Make yourself at home,” she says, and gestures at the handle that puts the footrest up. I tell her, no, I’m fine, I really don’t need to be horizontal for our interview. She laughs before collapsing onto the brown, suede couch across from me. “So what are we talking about today?” she asks.
This is when I geek out for five minutes, telling her how much I admire her work as an activist and a writer, et cetera, et cetera.
“I don’t know you, but I’m a big fan, too,” Boylan says. “Getting your degree through [the School of General Studies], that’s not a small thing. I’ve had a lot of GS students over the years.”
I make a mental note to register for her Gendered Memoir course next year. Boylan only teaches at Barnard in the spring, and she’ll introduce a second course in 2018, which may or may not be called Reinvention and Revision. She says she wanted a clever name for the course, “because revision sounds like I’m harshing your mellow.”
“Revision is the thing that I think writers are least interested in, and it’s in fact the thing that makes all the difference,” Boylan says. “Even at Barnard and Columbia, where students are incredibly talented—I mean, it’s just insane how talented some of these students are—but if I say the thing is due at midnight, I know a lot of them are being written at 10:30 and 11 the night it’s due.”
Among many other things, it’s the “practice” of creative writing that Boylan wants her students to learn. “If your idea of creative writing is you sit down and the moonlight shines through the window and an idea comes to you and you give birth to the story like ‘The halcyon stilling the waters of the sea,’ that’s not how stories are written. Well, maybe a story can be written that way, but then you’ve written one story, and now what?”
I ask Boylan about her own practice, and she says she tries to write every morning for a couple of hours, including Saturdays and Sundays. “If I can do 2,000 words, that’s a very good day,” she says. “I usually have a project, and it’s changed a little bit since I’ve come to Barnard—January through April I tend to write short pieces.” She mentions her Modern Love essay that the New York Times published the week before our interview, called “From Best Man to Puzzled Woman.”
The article is about how her friendships with the men in her life have changed since she transitioned in 2000, and, more broadly, the challenges of navigating a gendered world that began to treat her differently once she started presenting as a woman. At one point during our interview, while she is telling me about her newest novel, Long Black Veil, she hops up off the couch to pull a book from her shelf. The book is the novel Getting In, which she published in 1998 under her former byline, James Boylan.
“Check that out,” she says, pointing to the author’s picture on the book’s jacket. “Look at that lovely man.” The person in the photograph certainly bears a resemblance to the woman that stands before me, but he otherwise exists in an alternate universe. The photo strikes me as quite sad, only because I can imagine how much turmoil Boylan must have been enduring, just a year before she came out as transgender.
“The kind of humor that I most love is the kind of humor that comes out of suffering,” Boylan says. She explains how she used comedy in her memoir She’s Not There to describe a scene in which she contemplated suicide. “There’s something about looking at the world through this particular pair of eyes that… It’s almost like being born with an understanding of the absurdity of having a body, and yet the nature of life often is suffering.”
“I say that to myself all the time,” I tell her. “That life is suffering, I mean.” I’m remembering a conversation that I had years ago with a close friend, about how people misinterpret the Buddhist teaching of “life is suffering.” The phrase sounds nihilistic, yet it is only referring to the impermanence of life and the way that it is ever changing. And with change often comes suffering.
I look around Boylan’s office, at the bookshelf stuffed with novels and textbooks, a Grateful Dead poster—Boylan says she “was mostly a hippie” in her 20s—and the beautiful Japanese print that is hanging above her head. (In a follow-up email, Boylan will tell me that the print used to belong to her mother: “In addition to its sweet vibe it makes me think of her and her mantra: Love will prevail.”) It’s true that much of Boylan’s work is about suffering, but mostly it honors the impermanence of things,—homes, relationships, perspectives, genders—a distinction that exemplifies not only her cleverness as a writer, but also her resilience as a human being.
Over the summer I read Boylan’s second memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, which carries an equally poignant but more somber tone than her first. In it, Boylan writes about growing up in a house that was inhabited by ghosts, as well as the unraveling of her relationship with her older sister, Lydia.
“It almost killed me writing that book,” Boylan says. “It’s my darkest book. But I use the metaphor of haunting as a way of talking about the way that we occupy our bodies and make our peace between who we were and who we become.”
Boylan was living in a haunted body until she began to transition in 2000, when she was still a beloved English professor at Colby College in Maine. Recalling Quindlen’s article about the support Boylan received from her loved ones, I ask how her students responded to the dramatic changes they began to see taking place within their professor.
“If we frequently these days see how bad people can be, it is worth noting that occasionally the opposite is true,” she tells me, reiterating Quindlen’s sentiment. After She’s Not There was published, Boylan appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about her memoir. She says that they showed a B-roll of interviews with her students at Colby, who said things like, “She’s always been our favorite teacher,” and even, “I don’t really understand this, but I guess this is an opportunity to learn something.” But Boylan can’t help but speculate what the response might have been if, say, she was a person of color, or if she was transitioning from female to male. “I’m aware of the way that privilege plays a role in what’s happened to me.”
Suddenly the drilling starts in the construction site outside the window, but Boylan doesn’t seem to notice. I wonder if, by this time, she’s learned to drown it out. “Does it ever get exhausting?” I ask her. “Do you feel like your daily life is about educating people about trans issues?”
“My daily life is about teaching people about storytelling,” she answers quickly. “I’m not the poster child.”
It must be a difficult position for her to avoid. After all, the moment that Boylan chose to write about her trans experience was the moment that she became a torchbearer of the modern transgender rights movement. And whether or not that was her intended outcome, the decision required an incredible amount of courage and endurance—and yes, ultimately, a mastery of storytelling.
What Boylan has no energy for are the “insulting little think pieces” that she finds in the pages of the New York Times and the New Yorker that challenge the validity of the trans experience. “I’m exhausted refuting assholes who think that it somehow does the world a benefit to call into question the humanity of people who are fighting for their lives,” Boylan says, just as the drilling outside gets even louder. She moves closer to the edge of the couch. “And you know how I refute these people?” she asks, leaning in. “I refute them by living.”
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