Gender is a notable theme on this year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist and two of the books shortlisted this year (by the official judges and by the shadow panel) look at the lives and experiences of transgender individuals. ‘Amateur’ by Thomas Page McBee was also shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year and is an exploration of modern masculinity told through McBee’s training as the first trans man to fight in a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden. From a childhood dominated by male violence in which he was abused by his stepfather from the age of four, McBee untangles the tricky relationship between masculinity and violence, questioning if aggression is an exclusively “toxic” male trait.
McBee noted the differences in how he was treated following his transition in the early 2010s, such as how colleagues would now assume he was more “capable” in the workplace and how women he didn’t know would automatically perceive him with more wariness. His boxing trainer, Danny Mangual, was unaware that McBee was trans until shortly before the match itself but says it would have made no difference to how he coached him. The boxing element itself didn’t particularly appeal to me personally although it does generate some fitting metaphors about defensiveness and vulnerability. Overall, this is a thoughtfully written and timely book with some interesting commentary about the fluidity of gender – I’m not sure yet how it will score among the shadow panel, but I could see it being a potential winner of the official prize.
‘The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster’ by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a transgender trauma cleaner and former prostitute. Now in her sixties and in ill health, she was born male, adopted by an abusive family, and got married and fathered two children before becoming one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Australia.
Chapters focusing on Pankhurst’s trauma cleaning jobs in the suburbs of Melbourne are interspersed throughout her life story which mostly involves the homes of extreme hoarders or the scenes of violent deaths. However, the book is not so much about the trauma cleaning that Pankhurst does for a living, but rather the trauma Sandra has experienced in her own extraordinary life. The structure of the book reveals the many layers and contradictions of Sandra gradually and there is an added layer of intrigue in that she is probably the most unreliable witness of her own life you could possibly imagine – great swathes of her memory have either been repressed through trauma or lost through brain damage from years of drug and alcohol addiction. Krasnostein mostly avoids placing herself in the narrative too much but is evidently in awe of her subject despite not shying away from the less sympathetic aspects of Pankhurst’s personality. So even though it’s one of the least objective biographies I’ve read in a very long time, it is also one of the most memorable and fascinating.