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By Way of Sorrow by Robyn Gigl is a Triumph for Trans Rights and Battling Transphobic Attitudes

By Victoria Bromley, Lily Baldanza, Hannah McWhinnie and Eleanor Bowskill


Transgender representation is paramount in the publishing industry to uplift trans voices and champion trans rights. By Way of Sorrow is a leading force for inspiring trans authors and educating readers. The legal thriller tackles transgender rights in the justice system and details the personal journeys of two transgender women who are treated differently based on how they “pass” in society. It’s Gigl’s delicate yet fierce perspective which serves this novel as a literary powerhouse that should not go unmissed.


By Way of Sorrow follows protagonist Erin McCabe, a defence lawyer who takes on the case of defending Sharise Barnes, a trans woman on trial for murdering Mr William Townsend Jr, one of the most respectable men in the state. Through gruelling trials and exploitation from the press, McCabe is faced with defending not only Sharise’s crime but also protecting herself as her identity as a trans woman is an even hotter topic on everyone’s tongues.


Within the novel, there were moments when Erin would correct others’ misuse of transgender terminology. Gigl said that this was “definitely an attempt to educate readers,” and when asked for the best advice for correcting misuse of transgender terminology in a conversation, she explained how it’s not so straightforward. Were someone confusing terminology accidentally, then they “would not be offended if they were corrected.” Meanwhile, someone intentionally misusing terminology is trying to “insult and demean the trans person” so is not likely to “listen to the correct usage.” Gigl doesn’t waste her time and simply uses “the correct language in responding to them.”


We were curious about the challenge Gigl must have faced with writing from the point of view of the antagonists. However, with disrespectful and transphobic perspectives being “far too common” in society, for Gigl, “getting in the heads of people like that was not that difficult.” What was deemed the most challenging for Gigl was avoiding “turning them into cartoon villains.”


It was so heart-warming how Erin’s nephews were very accepting of their aunt, despite their parents’ hesitation to welcome Erin into their home which Gigl agreed is reflective of a more understanding and open-minded younger generation. Gigl said that “each succeeding generation is more accepting than the previous one” which may result from easier access to information, or that trans people are more visible now than when Gigl was growing up. Yet she wants to be clear that she doesn’t mean “there are more trans people” than before, “just that there are more people who are out and open about who they are as opposed to remaining in the closet for their whole lives.”


Photo by: Verve Books

Having practised law for “decades,” and being involved in “a significant number of criminal cases,” Gigl decided to take on the advice for authors to “write what you know.” After a “30-year hiatus” from writing, after starting her first manuscript in 1980, she combined her knowledge of the legal system and love for literature into writing a legal thriller. Having a very clear insight into her field, Gigl didn’t need to undergo much research for the novel, apart from researching DNA as she “had never handled a case with DNA evidence before” and wanted the novel to be credible.


The extent to which transgender people “pass” often has to do with their physical appearance. In the novel, Erin was accepted due to her outwardly feminine features, whereas Sharise was not seen as a “real woman.” Gigl shared her true story, pre-transition when conversing with a female law partner about her thoughts on what it would be like when she returned to the office as Robyn. She said, “It all depends on how you look. If you look like a guy in drag, it could be rough. If you look like a woman, everything will be fine.” Trans and cisgender women alike are judged on their appearances, and trans women can either “blend in” by “passing” as a woman or are often “bullied and harassed because they stand out.”

In the acknowledgements, Gigl discussed how Peg, Erin’s mother, was a character based on her mother. While Gigl’s mother was “very much against” her transition at first, she was “very supportive” after the transition, reminding Gigl that she was her child and that she loved her. Gigl said that her mother’s “wicked sense of humour” transpired into Peg’s character, but not all of Gigl’s life experience is reflected in the novel.


Gigl thanked her publisher Verve for taking a chance with her book as it was written by a trans author about two transgender characters. Gigl said it is “critically important” for trans authors to be published, along with “authors from other minority communities.” Through By Way of Sorrow, Gigl hoped to “normalise trans people” and provide them with a “positive representation of themselves” rather than “an image distorted by the media or politicians.” Gigl recommended trans authors: Jennifer Finney Boylan, Torrey Peters, Dharma Kelleher and Renee James.

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