My Top Five Favorite Texts Featuring Transsexuals

by a contributor

from Will Cordeiro, author of Pilgrimage:

  1. Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ovid’s poem can be considered the locus classicus of transsexual literature, though there are several other ancient examples not to be missed, including The Satyricon and Plato’s Symposium; amor, as one of my Latin teachers long ago liked to point out, is at both the figurative and literal heart of Metamorphosis. The Caeneus episode in Book 12 recounts how the virgin Caenis was raped by Neptune, who then granted her one wish—she was transformed into a man who could not be wounded. Ovid’s epic as a whole, however, is one of continual change, narrative weaving into narrative, bodies mixing into other bodies, as the poem twists and braids to show how desires reinvent themselves. The idea of identity is itself only another myth.
  2. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography. The swashbuckling titular character, probably based on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, refuses to age: whooping it up through several centuries, he becomes a she and hobnobs with historical figures, from Elizabeth I to Alexander Pope. Taking hundreds of years to complete her novel, the eponymous heroine demonstrates how imaginative vivacity can overcome facile limitations such as time and gender. The title probably alludes to Ariosto’s outrageous gender-bending epic, Orlando Furioso, which features the fierce transsexual warrior Bradamante (a work that is also highly recommended, especially in the ottavarima translation by Barbara Reynolds, unless you’re lucky enough to know Italian).
  3. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. The sado-masochistic etiquette teacher, Myra, brings a whole new meaning to “finishing school.” The novel’s nonstop camping unceasingly refers to classic Hollywood films: whereas Orlando’s quixotic gender transformation is induced by literature, Myra’s is cinematic—her worship of divas seems to drive her to become one, with results that could be described as simultaneously disastrous and sublime. The book was perhaps inevitably adapted into the 1970’s cult film of the same name, starring Raquel Welch and bringing Mae West out of retirement. The film version (initially X-rated in the, ahem, “uncut” version) intersplices the gaudy Technicolor romp with short clips from the Hollywood films of Myra’s lexicon, as the filmic rewrite becomes even more directly citational in its approach to deconstructing the performative identities of those it portrays, sometimes blurring lines between the characters and actors, fiction and metafiction.
  4. Severo Sarduy’s Cobra. A Cuban drag queen undergoes a sex change in which she channels the pain of the operation into her voodoo-like doll and double, after which s/he’s rounded up into an outlaw motorcycle gang of Buddhist “bears” (and Bulls, and Tigers, oh my!).The loopy story loops around itself to swallow its own tale since the text prefers to leave staid conventions—such a narrative coherence—behind in a Barthesian jouissance that begs that its language be cruised. To give one example of how the text spins its new skin of signifiers, rending all straightforward codifications illegible: the glossolalia of the title Cobra refers to—among many other things—the Spanish word “cobrar,” which can mean to change (money), the COBRA group of post-surrealist painters, the Biblical serpent, and the Cobra Woman of Maria Montez. Enough slang’s slung that you can’t help getting bit by this ouroboros, experiencing your own readerly multiplicity even as you vicariously drain pleasure and painfrom its various dolled-up characters.
  5. Will Self’s Cock and Bull. The book is structured as a pair of novellas, in the first of which a woman mysteriously grows a penis she uses to rape her callow, alcoholic husband and in the second of which a sensitive footballer finds a vagina forming in the crook behind his knee. Each side of this tidy binary, however, reflects and refracts the other in troubling ways. The stories contrast the repressive gender norms of contemporary British society with the weird and wooly ways that sexuality breaks out in unforeseen places, the body budding and bumbling up disobediently to one’s will. The title, of course, alludes to going to great narrative lengths for nothing, and Self’s style by turns seduces and manhandles its reader. How much the text partakes in the misogyny it critiques may be a dangerously open question, but Self’s infectiously razor-sharp wit will leave one festering. The book skewers the grotty class realities and overwrought gender dichotomies that imprison its characters, and its so-called magic realism comes off more like spot-on verisimilitude, showing how one’s true self often takes a fantasmatic turn.