This spring’s anniversary edition of the transgender young adult classic Being Emily features an all-new introduction by Harvard professor Stephanie Burt. In addition to being an internationally-recognized poet and one of the most influential poetry critics of her generation, Stephanie publicly came out and transitioned at Harvard in 2017.
Below is an excerpt from her introduction.
This is the book.
I’ll start again. There isn’t just one book that explained me to myself—there never has been, and my gender, my embodiment, are far from the whole of me. Also, Emily is in high school. I was already a grown-up when I came out, to myself and to my loved ones, not just as someone who had feelings about gender, who once thought they might be trans, but who well and truly was.
And yet. This is the book: the book where I saw the part of myself, for real, full-on, that I had only seen in profile, or in half-light, for so long. This is the book that said to me, in fiction, what I had waited to hear, and strained to hear, and sought and not quite found, in other books, and in real life: yes, you’re a girl. Or: yep, you’re supposed to be a girl. Or: Okay, you wished you could be a girl, consistently, for most of your life; you resented, and wanted to alter, whatever marked you as a guy; you’re already a girl in some ways, and you can be a woman in the others, if you want. You’re not alone. You won’t lose everything. It’s not too late. Some people—people you are going to want to meet—already understand.
Maybe you know somebody who needs that story too. Maybe they’re just like Emily, or not like Emily; maybe they’re 12, or 18, or 68. Maybe you are that somebody. Or maybe you’re looking for a good story about some teens who aren’t like you. Rachel Gold has now told a few pretty great stories about teens and people not long out of their teens. This is the one that comes first.
Like all Gold’s novels, Being Emily shows us trans and queer young people trying to live with one another, and maybe to undermine patriarchy together, finding and building better lives. More than the others, though (with the partial exception of Nico & Tucker), Gold’s first published novel clearly and centrally belongs to the genre of the what-to-do YA, the information-bearing, instructional, linearly plotted novel that shows readers what we might do and how to get help if we see ourselves, or our friends, in its characters.
When the first edition of this book appeared in 2012, that kind of instruction was not only achingly needed (it still is) but—especially for younger readers – shockingly hard to find.
Being Emily is far from the first book—or first YA book— with trans girl characters, but it appears to be the first novel in English (it’s surely the first YA novel) with a trans girl’s voice at its center, the first one you could give a trans girl and feel good about the idea that she’ll see herself in it. (As I did; as I do.) Earlier novels made trans characters into magical helpers, or obstacles, or problems, or (at best) grown-ups who had already learned to inhabit particular urban queer subcultures. Emily is none of those things: she’s a problem for other people, but in the way that all of us can be problems for friends or families. She is not A Problem, but a person who seeks love and makes decisions herself.
That’s in part because we see through Emily’s eyes. Teachers warn beginning writers not to start with their narrator before a mirror since that’s a clichéd way to show us a narrator’s face. But Emily looks in the mirror and sees…nothing: “I refused to look at myself.” There’s only “the version of me that didn’t really exist,” the male version named Chris. It’s a joke, and more than a joke, about how we see ourselves—or try to see ourselves—in stories, as well as a point about what trans people (in this case, trans girls) weren’t seeing, and need to see.
Three chapters later she does see herself. In her locked bedroom, through the clothes she’s chosen rather than the body that she has been given, Emily “slowly became visible.” By that point we know we are inside a novel made so that trans girls can see ourselves: and it gets better. I reread Chapter Four this year (that’s the one with the duffel bag) in a coffee shop with Grimes’s “Flesh without Blood” blasting out of the ceiling monitors: I had to try hard not to get up and dance.
Emily also sees herself in roles created by works of art, works that she can share with other characters. When Emily-as-Chris and Claire are “flopped out on her bed together reading a poem and talking about it, I forgot that I had to play a boy and got to be a person for a while.” That’s why she has to come out, but also why she doesn’t want to come out: “I couldn’t risk losing that.” I’ve been there too.
What’s better than poetry, if you need a body other than the body that the world has insisted you have? Role-playing games, of course: Emily is a reader, she saw herself first in the Oz books, but she’s also, deeply, a gamer. Gameworlds allow her “to step into a world fully female.” Gameworlds, too, are spaces we can inhabit “where you yourself are never quite yourself/And did not want nor have to be,” to quote the great cisgender (non- trans) poet Wallace Stevens. Gameworlds are like ours, but not; novels are like our life, but not quite our life; we can escape into them, or learn from the analogies we nd in them, and if they are good enough, we can do both.
Being Emily can let you do both. It can also show you what it’s like to change your mind about what’s possible. Claire tells Emily (whom she knows as Chris), “It’s not like you can turn into a girl or anything.” Maybe this Claire doesn’t know; or forgot, that trans people exist, which is plausible for a bright high school junior in exurban Minnesota in 2008. The Claire of 2018 might say the same words, but mean something else. Maybe: “it’s not like you can turn into a girl.” Trans people might already exist, for her, but elsewhere, as exotic grown-ups, on TV.
If you are an Emily, unless you are very unlucky, coming out as trans will let you make new friends, and the pretransition friends (and colleagues and maybe lovers) who stick with you – your Claires – may take a while to learn that you won’t abandon them, that you can (and you will) run out of hours in the day, but you will not run out of love. The Claires of this life have done a lot for the Emilys, especially early in the coming-out process. If you are an Emily, remember to give your Claire their own space and time for self-discovery, hours or days or months when he or she or they can be the protagonist and you can be the ally. That’s a novel I’d like to read too.
But I’m me – I’m an Emily; I cried all over a Kindle screen when I realized how thoroughly I am an Emily – and thank God, or thank the gods, or thank the forces of chance, or the good fortune that comes from Minnesota, because exactly when I needed them I found sentences like this one: “It was like sitting in a dark room for months and then suddenly having the sun fall through an open window.” That’s not about hormones, or winning a legal battle, or making irrevocable decisions; it’s about how it feels when somebody else sees you as girl for the very first time.
Stephanie Burt is an expert in American poetry, both in its composition and its critique. She has been called “one of the most influential poetry critics” of her generation by the New York Times. Burt teaches at Harvard University, sharing with students not only her expertise in poetry, but also LGBTQ literature and graphic novels and comics. She is the author of several texts on poetry, including Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence (2007), and The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016). Her essays have been featured in a wide range of publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. She has also published four full-length collections of poetry, among them Belmont (2013), and her latest, Advice from the Lights.