“Eventually you can't help but figure out that, while gender is a construct, so is a traffic light, and if you ignore either of them, you get hit by cars. Which, also, are constructs.”
Nevada by Imogen Binnie
Nevada is the darkly comedic story of Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York City and trying to stay true to her punk values while working retail. When she finds out her girlfriend has lied to her, the world she thought she’d carefully built for herself begins to unravel, and Maria sets out on a journey that will most certainly change her forever. Find out more about Imogen Binnie and Nevada at http://topsidepress.com/nevada/.
First off, for those who are partaking in the Prism Community Book Club and haven't finished the book yet, SPOILERS AHEAD.
I haven’t been this deeply emotionally affected by a book since Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope. When I read that book in high school, it changed my life. Here was this narrator who I saw myself in so much. I processed some of the stuff I read in that book for many years to come, and I still come back to it. It was like reading my own diary – so much teenage angst. With that, I related to Maria in Nevada just like I did in PDKF. It’s such an intense feeling to read a book and realize that an integral part of your identity is reflected in a character, to have her say things that make you feel euphoric, thoughtful, and just completely fucked up.
It’s remarkable. Now this isn’t to say that I identify with Maria completely. Far from it. I’m not trans. I’m a cis-bisexual female. I can’t identify with the emotional, physical, and mental stuff that is trans specific in the story. But living in Maria’s head, and when she said things about growing up through her punk phase, wow.
She just knew that she felt weird – but literally every teenager feels weird. Who doesn't feel weird? All the music she listened to was about feeling weird. All the books she read were about feeling weird. So when she was seventeen it didn't seem strange to hang out with, like, a kid who was really into racism and another, a future truck stop mechanic, in a tent, with a ton of flannel and a bottle of Everclear or a dozen hits of acid. In a cow pasture.
Nevada follows Maria, a queer trans woman in her late twenties living in Brooklyn with her cis-girlfriend. She works in a Manhattan bookstore, and the story follows her trying to deal with her life “…and shit.” Maria Griffiths is sick and tired of pretty much everything in her life. Her union job, her girlfriend Steph, and always thinking about being trans. Her new philosophy in life comes down to irresponsibility. But is that even possible?
The first time we meet Maria, our narrator, she’s being choked during sex by her girlfriend and fakes an orgasm. It’s not like she doesn’t seem to have a fulfilling life, but something is missing for Maria, and she doesn’t know what she wants. Maria takes us through how to navigate a world as a trans single woman, how to begin being physically present but mentally absent to everyone in your life, and how to come to terms with the young life of fighting against yourself to live a more open and fulfilling life.
Her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to lie about cheating just to get her to talk. She desires any sort of reaction from Maria, and when she gets none, their relationship “mutually” ends. Maria is cynical, punk rock, sarcastic, oblivious, and sometimes full of herself. She’s real. It’s not that she doesn’t care about things in her life, but she’s so used to dissociating from things that even after transitioning she can’t stop. Her breakup with Steph makes Maria think more about life, where she is, and where her life is heading. She takes us back to her life growing up and the bad decisions she’s made. But she’s not making bad decisions like that anymore because she’s just not making any decisions, and that’s the problem. She’s stuck in a life she created but doesn’t really like anymore. This is definitely the type of book where you’re living inside someone's mind. You follow Maria through this breath-taking adventure as she neurotically brings up some serious stuff in one breath and ends it with “…whatever.”
Then, with drugs, it’s like, she took them all, but always in such moderation that it wasn’t really dangerous. Even when she was throwing up or incoherent, it was in a controlled situation. She never went to jail, never had the police bring her home, never got caught breaking curfew or went to the hospital or anything
So here’s this fiery, punk-rock woman who reveals to the reader the full uproar of living as a trans woman. Not just the before and after, but all of the messy little details in-between that are nearly always overlooked. Nevada is a book that provides crucial trans narrative beyond the traditional. It tells Maria’s coming out story slowly in bits rather than all once, and it also drops a lot of gender and sexuality 101 in a way that both flows well with the narrative, but also answers a lot of questions that readers may have.
...nobody really wants to be a trans woman, i.e. nobody wakes up and goes whoa, maybe my life would be better if I transitioned, alienating most of my friends and my family, I wonder what'll happen at work, I'd love to spend all my money on hormones and surgeries, buying a new wardrobe that I don't even understand right now, probably become unlovable and then ending my short life in a bloody murder.
Nevada has sharp prose, and an intense writing style that makes the story so much more appreciated. The writing is talky and run-on, really conversational or whatever, kind of like this, and the dialogue isn’t clearly marked so you don’t know when you’re reading Maria’s inner or outer monologues so it just makes you, as a reader, so much more aware of what you just read because the fact is, fuck, you can for some reason put things into words effectively and make the reader understand them and make them want to know more, learn more, about the characters and their stories. The long run-on sentence is exactly how this book is written AND IT WORKS SO WELL. It’s so relatable. It’s specifically written, funny where I actually laughed out loud, and darkly hard-hitting to the reader, at least for me, that it made me feel welcomed into the story as if I was actually following Maria around.
This story is so complex. Maria lets us into her own world, and shows us that it’s not easy coming out, transitioning – Life doesn’t end after you come out, and your gender and sexuality don’t cease to exist to be relevant. In fact, Maria grapples with how to live a post-transition life and how to “exist like a three-dimensional person who cares about her body and her mind and her life and her friends and her lovers and is able to exist in a relationship with another person.” When she’s fired from her comfortable bookstore position and her relationship ends, she “sorta-borrows, sorta-steals” her ex-girlfriends car, buys a bunch of heroin, and sets off to ponder gender, hetero-normativity, and emotional repression from social conditioning.
There is this dumb thing where trans women feel like we all have to prove that we’re totally trans as fuck and there’s no doubt in our minds that we’re Really, Truly Trans. It comes from the fact that you have to prove that you’re trans to psychologists and doctors: the burden is entirely on your own shoulders to prove that you’re Really Trans in order to get any treatment at all. Meaning hormones. It is stupid and there are these hoops you have to jump through, boxes you need to check: I have only ever been attracted to men, I have never fetishized women’s clothes or done anything remotely kinky, I have never been sexual with the junk I was born with. Pretty much you have to prove that you’re totally normal and straight and not queer at all, so that if they let you transition you will be a normal het woman who doesn’t freak anybody out, and so we often, as individuals, internalize these things, and then we, as a community, often reinforce them. All of which is relevant specifically because you are supposed to have known you were trans since you were a tiny little baby.
Along the way she meets James, a boy working at the Star City, Nevada Wal-Mart somewhere near Reno and realizes that he's like she was at 20; bored, confused, trying to present as a man but failing, stuck in a relationship he kind of doesn't want to be in, and hiding it all under a thick haze of drugs.
As she helps James face admitting that he's maybe/possibly/probably trans, she also gets a chance to process through the history of her own life and realize the things that she's also been avoiding. Through her interactions with James, Maria tries to be that of a trans mentor and explains her experiences to an someone outside of her own world, but you can't quite figure out if she's talking to James or just talking. The ending took me by surprise that I closed the book and exclaimed how much I hated it to my partner. I had so much investment in this story, and the narrator. Though the ending was abrupt, intellectually I was satisfied. Emotionally, it didn't provide complete satisfaction. It left me feeling half fulfilled and half bereft. But if you think about how the story starts, an emotionless sex scene between Maria and Steph, and how the book ends, another emotional sexual encounter between James and Nicole, it mirrors the other. Maria may slip back into old ways, or James may make changes in his life to create his own fulfilling ending. It could go both ways, and maybe that’s why the book ended on such an equivocal note.
So my request to other cis-identify, non-trans gender folks: read this book! Not only is it amazing, but it’s thought-provoking, challenging, and I guarantee you’ve never read something like it (unless you read PDKF as a teenager) and you’ve never experiences characters like this.
Imogen Binnie writes a column for Maximum Rocknroll magazine as well as the zines The Fact That It's Funny Doesn't Make It A Joke and Stereotype Threat. Her novel Nevada won a 2013 MOTHA award and then lost at the Lambda Literary Awards. She lives near Keene, New Hampshire with her girlfriend and their jerk dog and, most recently, their tiny little kid.