Justin Cascio talks to T Cooper, author of Real Man Adventures, about writing, crying, and being a real man.
As I read Real Man Adventures, I took notes. Early on, I fill pages with my annoyances: with its insensitivity and self centeredness, its makeup of essays and letters that did not progress a narrative so much as enmesh its protagonist in a place and time: the world of things white people like, of trans rights and Unitarian style inclusion. As it progressed, I began to read this in a more “meta” way: as the evolution of a trans man’s consciousness, because we all seem to go through this second adolescence, full of discovery and change, but also agitation and righteousness, that makes us hard to be around except to others going through their own second adolescences. The letters we write to our parents, with the good news and bad news—good news, we know who we are now, and bad news, it’s not who you thought it would be—are the same, and yet different.
In addition to his own essays and letters, he interviews his wife, other trans men, his brother, the parents of other trans men, gender pioneer Kate Bornstein, and a male erotic dancer named ReDickulous.Through these perspectives, the progression takes on shape: this is the new bildungsroman, the transition novel.
I spoke to T Cooper by Skype, and we both reveled in the opportunity to talk to another trans man about our experiences discovering who we were, and how we were able to arrive there.
Cascio: First of all, your book cover is the best ever. Kitschy, old school boys’ adventure book, housing a book that is anything but. It doesn’t follow a typical narrative format, being composed of letters, interviews, essays, artwork, lists, diagrams, poems, and six-word memoirs, and reaching outward to encompass other people’s perspectives, and inward, where boys’ adventure books rarely go, into identity, emotion, and felt experience. There’s not much “T strides into the men’s room,” but there is quite a lot of discussion about the fears you and your wife have about you striding in.
How do you feel about your own book cover… as a child, did you feel that looking like a tomboy was important? What about how you look now: would you say the cover matches the contents?
Cooper: The idea for this book’s design and cover came from a pulp magazine survey book that my wife bought me. I knew that McSweeney’s considers the whole package when conceiving of a book’s design—even how it feels in your hands, considering reading a print book is such a tactile experience. I liked the idea of playing with that quintessential boys’ journey—man vs. beast, man vs. society—those tropes we learned in school. We looked at a lot of images before deciding on this one. The guy on the cover is half naked, and totally gay looking, which I love, because the book isn’t gay at all. The pulps from that era, the coverlines hinted at certain themes. It was very much “How to Be a Man,” “How To Please Your Wife like a Real Man,” “How to Protect Yourself from Prostitutes and Disease”—seriously. These were the stories in there. There were also “real-life” tales that read like fiction, you know, military adventures—a lot of, “How I Single-handedly Killed 20 Nazis”, or, “I survived being bit by a giant snake and losing my arm” adventures. So, I like playing with the epic hero’s journey, and visually the guy fighting the shark on the cover evokes that. My last book was about a polar bear who has to migrate to Hollywood because his native habitat is disappearing, and he, too, has to embark on the death-defying adventure of becoming a man.
Cascio: When did you first learn of the existence of trans men? How long until you applied this knowledge to yourself? Until transitioning?
Cooper: I’m forty. If I was doing it now I’d find out when I was twelve. But not til my early, mid twenties. How did you find out?
Cascio: In high school, I briefly considered becoming a therapist who counsels transgender people going through transition, but I thought of it without any consciousness. I felt very strongly sympathetic. And I felt that way too when I met my first trans man. I’m going to call her “she” because that’s how she lived. I was young and just trying to come out as lesbian, putting on vests and showing up at the bars and expecting something to happen, but nothing did. I was working as a secretary in a hospital and knew this woman who worked in another department, and I thought she was a butch lesbian. She seemed to like me and I wanted to talk to her. She was a lot older than me, close to fifty, but she said she’d never had sex and never would, not in that body, but that she was waiting for her parents to die before she could transition, that she could never bring that shame on her parents. And I felt terrible for her, but I thought that to show her that too much would be disrespectful, somehow.
It wasn’t until my grandmother died, and it hit me really hard, that I investigated the resources I had. I was best friends with and living with a man who studied gender performance. He had a whole shelf full of books—I could have started with Kate Bornstein and worked my way through to Judith Butler, if I wanted to—but I never touched them until after my grandmother died. I took a lot of time off work and smoked a lot of cigarettes and just read. I started with Stone Butch Blues, and even though the book ends differently for Jess, by the time I finished the book, I knew what I wanted and needed to do. I got on the internet and started searching.
Cooper: I was about 25 and doing I guess what was considered performance art in a troupe called the Backdoor Boys. It was a boy band. We toured a bunch and were written about by gender theorists. So that’s probably how I was introduced to the world. There was a German guy we performed with one time, and he made an impression on me. He was the first person who I knew who was taking testosterone.
But there was just a dearth of information when I was coming up. I have a younger friend who at age 13 or something was on the internet and had access to all this info, pictures of surgery results, chat rooms, all sorts of support. I met him and he was pretty much transitioned and not even out of high school. I was like, “Fucker.”
But my path is just my path. I maybe could have figured shit out earlier, but then I wouldn’t be me, and I like who I am. Sometimes I’m still like, “You little fucker.” These young kids’ parents are like, “Are you comfortable in your skin, dear? Can we get you some testosterone, or perhaps somebody you can talk to about your feelings?” I do resent him a little for that.
Cascio: You talk about your voice in this book. First, there is your physical voice. How do you feel about the way you sound? And as far as your interior voice, do you think that you managed to convey that well in your book? Is that you in there, in other words?
Cooper: As far as my literal voice goes, I don’t think about it that much. I don’t think about it, and then a moment will happen where I suppose I’m speaking differently. I’ll be on the phone with a credit card company, and later my kids will tell me, “You’re talking so mean.” I guess I talk lower and sound angrier when I’m trying to get my business handled. So those are the times when I notice it. I guess I don’t sweat it too much. I was never one to obsess over taking selfies every two weeks, showing them to friends or strangers on the internet. That’s probably generational because I have a deep distrust of the blast of no privacy on the internet. It’s not as though I had a goal in mind of what I wanted to sound or look like. I wanted to just look and sound how I would. We all have our own paths, including transition. Everyone is unique, everybody is going to respond differently if they’re taking hormones. I mean, sure, I wish I sounded like Barry White sometimes.
Cascio: Don’t we all.
Cooper: Don’t we all. Whatever, I feel comfortable being in the world. When it was higher though, I was definitely uncomfortable, but I’m fortunate not to be there anymore.
Metaphorical voice? I’ve been at writing for a while, coming up with characters, telling stories or conceiving of these so-called heroes’ journeys. This time the character just happened to be me, but I don’t think of it as my story, necessarily. There are, by design, many more voices in the book than just my own. I don’t think I could have told this story if it was just me, all the time.This is also why I put out the CD that came out with the book. I wanted a lot of people weighing in on the subject of masculinity in different mediums. I’m lucky to know a lot of musicians, and I asked them choose different chapters of the book and write songs in response to them. Artists like Dynasty Handbag, Geo Wyeth, Kathleen Hanna and The Julie Ruin. Uh, nothing? Who else, have you heard of the writer Rick Moody?
Cascio: I’m sorry, no. I’m sorry I don’t know anyone… I just live in this little valley where I bike to the farm for vegetables, and walk my dog along the river. I have this internet job but other than that, I could go days, weeks, without seeing the news. I don’t have a TV. I don’t listen to the radio.
Cooper: [Rick Moody] is an author, and he also writes and plays music. He contributed an original song to the CD and also played with his band [The Wingdale Community Singers] at one of my events for the book. Uh, since you live in a cave, have you heard of a little TV show called American Idol? Do you know Clay Aiken?
Cascio: My husband watches it, so yeah. Again, I’m sorry that the only one I know is the American Idol.
Cooper: Yay, there you go. [Clay Aiken] didn’t write a song for the CD, but he performed one at another book event, and also read from the book with me. He played the part of my wife, and also the part of the US Department of State when I was trying to get my Passport with the correct gender marker on it. And he played ReDickulous, which was awesome to hear him talking about how big his dick is (in ReDickulous’ voice of course). All throughout the tour I asked different guests to read with me, a lot of them literally taking the words out of my mouth in prose and music.
There, I talked about voice.