Torrey Peters’ debut novel, Detransition, Baby, reads like a traditional, expertly done bourgeois domestic novel — but, with a trans woman at its center, it's also unlike almost anything that's been written before. It’s funny and gossipy and insightful and cutting and absolutely delicious, all while tackling issues from a lens that has been missing from the literary world for way too long.
The book introduces readers to Reese, a trans woman; her ex, Ames, who has detransitioned; and Ames’ lover, a cis woman named Katrina. When Katrina unexpectedly gets pregnant, the unlikely trio begins the process of reimagining what a family can look like, exploring questions of gender, community, and what we are allowed to want out of life along the way. Detransition, Baby avoids tidy narratives, instead choosing to hew closer to reality with storylines and characters that are imperfect and messy. Peters has a unique ability to tackle heavy subjects while not taking herself — or her characters — too seriously. You understand that she is in on the joke, delicious jokes that are written explicitly for trans readers without concern for whether cis readers catch the humor.
Below, we speak with Peters about her book, the complications of identity, and "the ennui of heterosexuality."
Refinery29: Why did you want to write this book?
Torrey Peters: In a lot of ways, it was my own attempt at solving what I call in the book: “the Sex and the City problem.” Once I was at a certain age, in my 30s, I wanted to figure out what mattered to me and how to find meaning. I looked around and saw the way other women were finding meaning — family and career and long-term partnership — and I didn't know if any of those things would apply to me as a trans woman.
One of the great things about fiction is that you can create a test case for yourself. You can create some characters and wind them up, put them in motion, and see how you feel about the options that are out there. In this case, what I was looking at was: Why was I drawn to the idea of motherhood? Was it for my own identity [as a woman]? Was it for the sake of a child? Was it validation? Was it because I actually have a maternal instinct? All those questions were muddled up in my head, but this book was a way to begin exploring them. From there, that leads really easily into family and stability. Did I really want those things? Or was it the culture around me that made me think that I needed them? How could I refashion them to suit me? Because I think one of the things that the book talks about is that we have a lot of ideas about family, or especially nuclear family, and what happens to those ideas when you have a trans woman at the center of them.
I’ve grappled with similar questions from a different perspective. I left a marriage with a man, and my partner is trans and I am trans, and we're raising kids together. And so these are questions that I've asked myself, and I've never seen a book explore them in the way that this one did. I think seeing different stories out there, asking what is possible, is really important. It’s why I appreciated the character of Katrina. I don't think of this book as being for cis readers. But you have this Katrina character, a cis woman, who is sort of that lens in for cis readers. Was that done intentionally?
Yeah, it was. The Katrina character was an interesting technical challenge for me. There have been a lot of stories of what it's like to be pregnant, as a cis woman. I don't actually have anything to add to those stories. But I also wanted to emphasize that Katrina's an important part of the family. I do a close third person [writing] to the two trans characters. And I chose the two trans characters to do that with because I felt like the way that they approach family, readers would be less familiar with, and if I included Katrina's view, I would be reproducing what's already out there. So for technical reasons, I didn't approach Katrina the same way as I approached the two other characters.
But at the same time, I also thought that Katrina is equal and a vital and necessary part of this arrangement. There's this metaphor at the beginning [of the book] about divorce being like transition. And so [for her] to have a divorce, this woman trying to find her own sense of meaning, she was a sort of analog for the characters in the various ways that they run back and forth and transition. If cis readers need a character to identify with, okay, here's one. But also, I think what you see is that the characters [are] all making mistakes and trying to find themselves, and it gets really jumbled up so that there isn't, at the end, a clearly cis perspective. In the end, the trans characters do these things within the [existing] system, and this cis character is the one who makes the kind of mistake that a queer character might normally make and is more ideological in some ways than the trans characters about the potentials for this [family]. I wanted to bring cis readers along for that because my first books were really within a framework of ‘T4T,’ which was the framework in which I was writing. And part of this book for me was realizing that there are a lot of cis people in my life who I really love, and they had things to teach me and I had things to teach them, and my life would be enriched with a conversation between them and myself.
Something I think the book does really well is you talk about the idea of cisheteronormativity and the way that structure hurts everyone who's living under it. You call it “the ennui of heterosexuality” in the book. We see Katrina grappling with that, of being unfulfilled by the life she was living and the cultural expectations that were forced on her. I thought that was a really interesting way to both show how experiences of cis women and trans women are different, and yet their shared experiences of womanhood and the system that everyone is trying to exist under harms all women.
I read a lot of books for divorced women when I was writing this and I felt like they had something to teach me. And by the same token, there were so many times that I wanted to be like, ‘There is an entire world of people who already have talked about this." Among a lot of cis straight women, there are these problems with the way that gender is functioning for them, and they're not sure how to name it. But in the book, for instance, there's [this scene] at a doTERRA essential oil party, where these guys go upstate for a bachelor party, and they're like, slamming whiskey and wearing flannel and chopping wood. And I just look at [something like] that like, You guys are doing a gender. That's gender play. And that's fine. The thing is, you can actually separate "lumberjack in the woods" from all of the structures of heterosexuality that suck. If you're a lumberjack in the woods, it actually doesn't mean that you have to be taciturn and emotionally closed off and isolated as an expression of your masculinity. You can just dress in flannel if you feel like it.
And those kinds of ways of talking about gender and playing what's under that, I think a lot of us who have to figure out genders that don't always fit seamlessly with bodies, we've developed languages and techniques around this stuff. If you want a lumberjack, you don't actually have to marry like, an actual lumberjack. These things can be played with! I think a lot of cis people and some gay people are wrestling with this, as trans people have. I think we're at a place in our culture where cis people are figuring out their system largely through ideas that were developed by trans people.
Can you say more about that?
It's sort of like heterosexuality. People came up with that word because they first understood homosexuality. So now when straight people talk about their own sexuality, they're largely talking about their sexuality through terms that were developed by people talking about homosexuality, so it's a queer lens through which straight people understand their own sexuality. I think something similar is happening with gender. Now cis people went, "I have this kind of gender." That's actually a way of understanding gender that comes from trans people, that comes from trans thought. And now cis people are using it, in the same way that they use ideas of heterosexuality that came out of the opposite of homosexuality. And if there’s going to be trans thought in the world, I hope that people learn how to talk about it and use it.
Detransition is a popular [anti-trans] talking point. And so, you not only include it in the title, but you have a main character who has detransitioned. One of the biggest arguments that TERFs have against allowing people to transition is ‘what if they change their mind?’ I thought it was really smart to show someone choosing to detransition because of a transphobic world and how hard it was to live as a trans person, and not because of making a mistake or being wrong about their gender. But I want to ask about the decision to include the Amy/Ames character, someone who had detransitioned.
For me, detransition was something that always belonged to trans people and never belonged to transphobes. It's not a possibility for cis people to detransition. It's only a possibility for us, trans people. So it doesn't belong to them to turn into their talking points. That's not for them. They don't get to say who gets to use it or what it means. They don't own it. Trans people own it because it's only a potential for us.
And it's a conversation that, if people who detransition want to talk amongst ourselves, as trans people, then let's have that conversation. This is my entry into the conversation. But my starting point for this conversation isn't, "What do transphobes say?" Their arguments are not my starting points. And I think that the fact that they've been so successful in taking a concept that that doesn't belong to them and weaponizing it means that instead of not talking about detransition and hiding it and ceding that ground to them, we ought to talk about it and we ought to be ready to talk about it. Because I know detransitioned people, and they didn't detransition because they made any mistakes about who they are. They may have regrets. And, let's talk about regrets — regrets are real. And sometimes you make decisions that are really hard to undo, whether it's transitioning or moving across the country, you don't get that time back. If everybody wants informed choices, then we should talk about what actually causes people to make choices like this?
So, when I think about these issues, I think about trans people. I don't think about whether or not it's going to be weaponized, because that's a distraction. There's this quote by Toni Morrison that says, in part, "The very serious function of racism is distraction." And a lot of what's going on here with [transphobia] looks to me like distraction. Where you say something outrageous, you complain about bathrooms, or you complain about wild cases that don't exist, and you make a lot of noise, you distract people. And then people don't even notice that nobody gets to talk about the real issues. And so for me, the important work is to not be distracted. I didn't even really address these talking points, because I don't care about them. They're a distraction. They're not interesting. And so that's how I feel about the concept of detransition. [Transphobes] don't have anything to do with it. I refuse to let them distract me from those to whom it actually belongs.
You also do a really good job of distinguishing the ways in which culture and community are different for trans women of color and white trans women, and the impacts of that, as well as really grounding the reader in the fact that these are white trans women that you are writing about. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It's important to talk about the fact that what I know, and what I'm writing about, is largely white trans women, and a culture that's largely inhabited by white people. That's important to me, too, because it has to do with the way that I want to operate with this stuff outside of the text as well as inside of it. If I make clear who I'm talking about inside of the text, then people know this is a voice — it's not a universal story. I don't want to speak for Black trans women, I don't want to speak for trans women of color, and they don't want me to speak for them. I want to speak for myself. So if you know that this is a story of one trans woman, then you can say, "Oh, we have context for this, this isn't the story of being trans, full stop. This is a story of a certain kind of white trans woman." And in order to have the full story, we need to talk to Black trans women, to Latina trans women, to Asian trans women.
That actually provides me as, an artist, with freedom, because I can say bitchy things. And I feel comfortable being bitchy about things that happened inside of my own culture. I feel fine making fun of white trans women, but those same jokes wouldn't land as well if I was making fun of Black trans women or Latina trans women, so I need to make those demarcations. Not just because it's, politically, the right thing to do, but because it's important for the quality of the art, to be specific and to be incisive as to what's happening. And the more that stuff is made clear, actually, the more freedom I have to say outrageous things.
You chose to end the book without actually answering whether there was going to be a baby at all, or what the family structure might look like. You have an entire book that's grappling with this question, and then you decided to leave it unanswered. Why did you do that?
I think that either way, it ends up being prescriptive for something that's larger than the characters. So if I say that the situation at the end of the book is they are going to just return to their previous patterns, that would have been a more emotionally satisfying ending. You just end in tragedy where things are as they always are, shit’s gonna suck for trans women forever, and you punch the reader in the gut and walk away. And a lot of books do that, and people are satisfied without and they are like, This is a beautiful, tragic ending.
But I don't actually believe that trans women can't change, that we're always just going to go back to our patterns of destructive behavior. And so writing a book that had an ending like that felt dishonest to how I actually felt, but similarly, I think if I said, "Well, then they raised a baby together," that ends up being quite prescriptive. That the way you solve your problem is to have an alternative family structure, this is how you do it. So I invite you, as the reader to answer that question because if I do it for you, then that's only one person's thoughts. Whereas if we do it together, it actually becomes like a way of life and a culture and a lifestyle and a real possibility.