Words by Saskia May
An international bestseller, Torrey Peters’s debut novel Detransition, Baby, is rich in plot, characters and themes, from sexuality and gender to relationships and family.
Set in the thriving metropolis of New York, Ames- formerly known as Amy- has de-transitioned and entered into a relationship with his boss, Katrina. When Katrina finds herself pregnant, Ames is shocked as he was sure that he would not be able to conceive due to his previous hormone replacement therapy, which would have rendered him sterile.
Whilst Ames still identifies as a trans woman, he has found it too exhausting, both physically and psychologically, to present as a trans woman in a transphobic society intent on harming and refusing that identity. Revealing to Katrina his trans history in the wake of the pregnancy, Ames gets back in touch with his ex, Reese, a trans woman who desperately longs to be a mother. As a single woman approaching her 30s and with a limited income, Reese is becoming aware that her chances of adoption are slim. As the trio come together to negotiate and consider the rearing of a child, difficult and intense conversations take place.
We might think of Detransition, Baby in light of queer theory, of Jack Halberstam’s notion of the queer art of failure. Where heterosexual, hetero-reproductive markers of success often lie in the conceptions of marriage and children, failure may be attributed to those of the queer community, who do not enact these events or expectations. Yet failure can pave the way for new beginnings, a return to the drawing board of life, by which to consider new ways of living and being. Peters writes this book for both trans women and divorced cis-women, acknowledging that they may have had to ‘start again’, having faced patriarchal oppressions that may have confined their growth and agency. Peters’ novel enables us to consider that failure to conform to a hetero-reproductive view of life may create enriching new avenues where we may move away from an obsession with futurity, and instead embrace of a kind of positive nihilism whereby everything in the present matters, because the future is not the end goal.
At times I felt that Peters lost her flow in her writing, the dialogue felt tired and clumsy, the centrality of plot discarded for stories which ran off into the distance. These side line narratives felt contrived and unneeded, yet Peters truly shines through with her construction of Reese. She veers from being nurturing to the children at her work and her fellow ‘baby-trans’, to being self-destructive and volatile.Through Reese, Peters creates a nuanced and realised character, just as dysfunctional and flawed as anyone else as opposed to a trans ideal who is only brave and noble.
Reese can be concerningly self-absorbed and yet her concern for her legacy is moving and poignant. Observing that her trans community is something like that of orphaned elephants, Reese notes that she is left with no previous generation due to the AIDS crisis and suicide. Finding herself with no ‘mother’, Reese portrays a generation lost without former guidance, strugglingto form a meaningful sense of life in a hetero-reproductive, cis world.
Peters notion of mothering between trans women brings to mind Patricia Hill Collins’s notion of ‘othermothering’ in black communities, whereby mothering is not always enacted by the biological mother, but by a range of individuals, from sisters, to friends and grandmothers. Peters’ depiction of a queer family that might break the confining nuclear model is exciting. This novel paves the way for more literature that concerns itself with the complex, intersecting issues of gender, sexuality, and futurity.