Gender, Sex and Identity in Recent Fiction

I love the serendipity of reading two or more books on similar topics in quick succession. It must be the subconscious at work rather than deliberate choice, but through this enforced proximity the books always end up illuminating and enhancing each other.

watchdisappearEva Dolan: Watch Her Disappear

You know by now how fond I am of Eva Dolan’s work, which is a sophisticated mix of police procedural and social commentary via the Hate Crimes Unit in Peterborough. Her writing style in the first two books was very rich, of such literary quality that almost every sentence begged to be read twice, to become fully aware of all the implications. Since then, perhaps because of editorial pressure, her style has become a little more down-to-earth. Although I miss the earlier style, I have to admit that this does make for much faster reading, without ever becoming pedestrian.

The plot: middle-aged but attractive Corinne Sawyer is attacked and killed while out jogging by the river. At first the police suspect it might be a serial rapist escalating his crimes, but when it turns out that Corinne was Colin until a few years ago, the Hate Crime unit gets called in. Zigic and Ferreira soon discover that she was not the first trans woman who has been violently attacked in the local area. As usual with this hate-crime-fighting duo, they encounter deep-seated prejudice, accusations of being bigoted themselves, and families where resentment and bad feelings rule supreme.

The author has the knack to take on really difficult and topical subjects, and make us question our assumptions about them. We get to see not only the unhappiness and fear of transgender and transvestite people, the lack of understanding and support which they experience, but we also come to see the impact it has on their friends and families. These are complex situation which deserve sensitive treatment and our loyalty is often conflicted, our sympathies lying with both sides. There is just the right balance between compassion and judgement, sadness and justice.

Dolan seems to have covered now nearly all aspects of hate crimes with her series set in Peterborough: migrant labour, white supremacists, disability and now the trans community. There are hints that their unit might be wound up and I wonder if that is because the author fear she may be running out of topics to write about without repeating herself. Sadly, the hate crimes themselves seem to be here to stay.

guapaSaleem Haddad: Guapa

If Dolan’s book makes you think it’s hard being a transvestite or transgender in England, you should try being that – or gay – in a Middle Eastern city (unspecified country, although there were bits which reminded me of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria). A fish out of water regardless of where he goes, both in the US and in his home town, Rasa describes 24 hours of his life after he has been discovered having sex with a man by his grandmother. Politics, hypocrisy, corruption, violence and shame all jostle in a world where nothing is quite what it seems but the truth seems far too dangerous to discuss openly.

Rasa is an interpreter for Western journalists by day, an occasional protestor during the Arab Spring and, at night, he parties at Guapa (which means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish), an underground club catering for the ‘hidden’ LGBT community in the city. He is also desperately in love with Taymour, who is about to get married to a girl in order to please his family. After Rasa’s grandmother makes her shocking discovery, one of Rasa’s friends, the drag queen Majid, is arrested by the police for political protest.

Within the space of 24 hours, the novel gives us a generous slice of Rasa’s world, showing an increasing alienation from both Western culture and his own, as he tries to untangle his own ‘betwixt and between’ identity. The author himself is a mix of Lebanese-Palestinian and Iraqi-German, has grown up in Jordan, Canada and Britain, and worked for Médecins Sans Frontières, so he knows what he is talking about.

The prose is slightly pedestrian at times, and there are occasional instances of information dumping. Some readers might be put off by the polemical discussions between Rasa and his friends about what constitutes eib (shame, unclean), or between Rasa and his fellow students in the US about Islam. It can sound more like a treatise than fiction at times. However, for me it was quite eye-opening: being a double outsider in a world where so much is forbidden, and even more is swept under the carpet. A nuanced insight into a world that to us in the West is often presented as a straightforward dichotomy: black and white, extreme poverty and obscene wealth, inner city rubble or luxurious hotels and oil sheikhs in fast cars.



14 thoughts on “Gender, Sex and Identity in Recent Fiction”

  1. You tempt me to read Eva Dolan —perhaps I will read the earlier books with a literary bent. Literature is my weed.

    I stay away from pedestrian, shallow texts: they put me off quickly, I cannot relate. Thank you for being instrumental in bloating my TBR mound.

    1. Haha, I aim to do a lot of damage to a lot of people’s TBR lists! But then, you fellow book bloggers always have the same effect on mine. I particularly recommend the first book in the series. Let me know how you get on.

  2. These topics *do* need coverage and discussion – and it’s interesting how your reviews highlight the different approaches these two books take. I wonder if setting the discussion in a crime novel is going to have more effect than one that preaches too much; although the latter does sound very eye-opening.

    1. I think of myself as very open-minded, but because I don’t have any trans friends (obviously, I do have gay friends, but not in the Middle East), it was a great insight into their world. That’s why we need a diversity of books – to get to know the world and humanity in all of its richness. How can people be against that?

  3. I like Eva Dolan’s work very much, too, Marina Sofia. And this one (I admit I haven’t got to it yet) sounds very good. I give her credit for tackling difficult subjects without forgetting to tell her story. Interesting that you’d be reading Haddad’s book at the same time – serendipity indeed, and it’s good to know that authors are willing to take those risks.

    1. They remind me, in a way, of the more socially engaged Scandinavian or French crime fiction. You know, the kind that holds up a mirror to our society, without ever becoming too preachy.

  4. The polemic of Guapa might be an issue – depends on how well its handled. But yes, this is why I like reading books from outside my country, it introduces me to ways of life and ideas I would otherwise not experience.
    BTW I’ve not read Eva Dolan but you tempt me to give her a go

  5. Thanks Marina, great write ups. I am now super intrigued by both these books. I hadn’t come across Eva Dolan before, and I think a hate crimes unit is a brilliant way of writing credibly about very important and complex subjects, look forward to trying it out.

    Its interesting what you said as well about Dolan’s language changing over time. I am reading some crime at the moment where the prose seem to be caught somewhere is between fast and slow, and therefore it becomes difficult to understand where you are resting at certain points. Did you find her slower, earlier writing style still kept the plot moving, even if it was heavier?

    1. Yes, it worked perfectly for me. It was by no means slow, just that every sentence was drenched in meaning. I quite like a subtle, dense style, where you may need to read the book again to get the full flavour. Even so, you get a lot out of it on the first reading.

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