Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Transgender Story: Jazz Jennings and Meredith Russo Ask the Questions



Jazz_MeredithJazz Jennings and Meredith Russo are transgender women who have both written young adult books this year.  Jazz wrote Just Jazz, the story of her life so far (she's fifteen) and Meredith wrote If I Was Your Girl, a fictional account of a transgender teen that draws much of it's inspiration from her own life experience.  Their books released a month apart and we asked if they would be interested in doing a Q&A together.  They were game and below are the questions and answers they sent to each other asking about being a role model, dealing with haters, the changing landscape for trans people, and Star Wars, among other things...

Questions for Jazz from Meredith:

MEREDITH: I was reminded as I composed these questions that you were born in 2000, that you're only sixteen years old, which, frankly, is bonkers. I stand in awe of you. I'm almost thirty, with an adult life and most of the stability that entails, and there are still days where the combined pressures of life as a trans woman, life as a queer woman (I saw that you came out as pan, which is so good and I'm so happy for you), life as a woman full stop, and the negative aspects of now being a semi-public figure get so bad I can barely get out of bed. And you're dealing with all of those, far, FAR more media attention, and the nightmare of puberty and high school to boot! How do you deal with it? Where do you find comfort when you need it? How do you tune out the haters?

JAZZ: Actually . . . I'm only fifteen—my birthday isn't for a few months, lol! Sometimes it's hard being in the public eye, but I have coping mechanisms to get me through the more stressful times, and I'm a resilient person. I'm pretty good at tuning out the haters. I don't care what they say—their opinions don't matter to me. I focus on the positive and all the people I'm helping by sharing my story. I find the most comfort from my family and friends. They give me strength during rough times. I also make sure I get a lot of what I call "Jazz time." When I'm not busy, you can always find me binge-watching movies and TV shows on my laptop, or tinkering with my new camera.

MEREDITH: To that end, you're a role model for young trans people everywhere, which is amazing and exciting (I think about my life if someone like you had existed when I was a kid and it would have been so much better) but also, as I'm slowly discovering, a lot of pressure! There's an expectation that you have to be, you know, respectable, which is all well and good for adults, but high school and college are meant to be messy. You're meant to be working out who you are, stumbling and falling, making glorious mistakes that will shape your identity for the rest of your life! Do you feel a pressure to appear as "normal" and respectable as possible to satisfy these demands, or do you feel comfortable allowing yourself to enjoy the sharp corners and rough edges of this time in your life?

JAZZ: I definitely never feel pressure to be anyone other than myself. I'm far from perfect and make mistakes like everyone else. I think it's important for people to know that I'm human and stumble. However, I always manage to pick myself up and dust myself off. I'm vulnerable just like everyone else.

MEREDITH: The main character in my book begins her transition at about sixteen years old, whereas I didn't start until I was TWENTY-six. I don't know anyone who transitioned as early as Amanda, let alone as early as you, while you obviously know plenty of people who transitioned in adulthood. How are the two experiences different, in your experience?

JAZZ: Every transgender person's experience is different. I was lucky because I had the love and support of my family right from the start. I didn't have to go through male puberty, and I didn't have to live the majority of my life as a lie, appearing to be someone I'm not. With that in mind, I would say that my experience was easier compared to the struggles of other transgender people who transitioned later in life. This is one of the reasons that I share my story. I want trans youth to know that it's okay to come out of the shadows and be true to yourself so they don't have to experience more pain by waiting.

MEREDITH: Cis [non-transgender] people are more aware of our struggle every day, and many of them want to help, but privilege often makes their participation fraught and occasionally even harmful. What advice would you give to a cis person who wants to be a good trans ally?

JAZZ: It's important for the transgender allies to be as respectful as possible. They should educate themselves as much as possible and remember that not all transgender people are alike. It's okay to ask a trans person what pronouns they prefer to use and let them know you'll be there for them in times of need. It's not about encouraging them, but rather embracing the decisions they make.

Questions for Meredith from Jazz:

JAZZ: If I Was Your Girl is your debut novel—congratulations! I've seen this book all over the Internet and love that it is being promoted as a "big-hearted" novel about love, life, and being true to yourself. What inspired you to write it? If readers can take away one thing, what do you hope that would be?

MEREDITH: My main inspiration was that I didn't feel particularly served by a lot of the trans stories being written by cis people (not that their efforts weren't admirable!) and I wanted to write the book I badly needed when I was a teenager. The reaction I want depends on whether the reader is trans or cis. I want trans readers to walk away from the book feeling a little more okay, a little less alone, and a little more hopeful. I want cis readers to walk away with a better, fuller understanding of the struggles and basic humanity of trans people.

JAZZ: If I Was Your Girl deals with some really difficult subjects like bullying and prejudice. What type of research did you do about these hard facts that so many people in the transgender community face?

MEREDITH: I didn't need to do a lot of traditional research, honestly. As depressing as it is, I mostly just fell back on my own experience and the experiences of my trans friends. We've all got our horror stories and completely justified fears, and that's what made it onto the page.

JAZZ: Something that really sticks out is the need to have hope, to be kind, and to have empathy and be brave, which is such an inspiring message. When you were writing, were there moments in the book that you felt were crucial to this underlying message?

MEREDITH: Yes. In the flashbacks I showed Amanda surviving her suicide attempt and discovering that her mother is supportive before showing the attempt itself, because when that scene does come, I wanted it to be understood that Amanda's situation wasn't as bleak or hopeless as she thought it was. Things aren't always that simple, of course, and real life can be unimaginably cruel, but a huge part of the book was my desire to emphasize the importance of hope. Empathy comes in with the theme of secrets: part of Amanda's growth into adulthood is her realization that everyone around her carries something that weighs on them, and to show how friendship, trust, and mutual openness are the antidotes to isolation and misunderstanding.

JAZZ: Finally, one of the things I love is that you are a self-described nerd! I am also a big sci-fi fantasy fan. What is it about video games and big movies like Star Wars that captures your imagination?

MEREDITH: When I was younger, it was pure escapism. I hated my life, I hated living as a boy and being mentally ill, and inhabiting these big, fantastic worlds (in the case of sci-fi/fantasy) and places where I had a feeling of real control over my environment and my identity (in the case of video games) helped me feel safe and stable. I still appreciate both for those reasons, but also because while at their worst video games are mindless, often violent time sinks, and sci-fi/fantasy can be shallow or reactionary, at their best I think they are some of the best ways to examine and contextualize ourselves and open our imaginations to previously unexplored possibilities.


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