By Jessica Emery
International Transgender Day of Visibility is 31 March. This month we are celebrating transgender talent, shining a spotlight on a fantastic book and author.
Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl took fifteen years to write. It was so worth the wait. The novel is a radical romp through early 90s American queer subculture. Flirty, filthy and fun, Paul is a bildungsroman following our protagonist of the same name – except sometimes that is not his name. Sometimes he goes by Polly.
Through Paul Polydoris, Lawlor playfully explores gender fluidity. Paul is a secret shapeshifter who can change his body from male to female, hench or petite. Add freckles or body hair. Retract their Adam’s apple. Remove or gain a penis, vagina and breasts.
Paul does not just shift between bodies, but also towns and aesthetics. The book travels through many cites of queer cultural importance and revolution: Iowa, Chicago, Provincetown and San Francisco. There is also a healthy dollop of New York. Of course, the fabulous and stylish Paul blends in wherever he goes, be that at the Chicago leather bars, Riot Grrrl concerts or the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (strictly no men). The landscapes of the book are places Lawlor themself has lived, the vibrant details attesting to this.
It is not only Paul who bridges the gap between femininity and masculinity. Many of the characters toy with, or eschew entirely, societal expectations surrounding gender. Paul’s smorgasbord of characters offers the reader the queer representation so often lacking in mainstream media. Paul has everything: from ‘lipstick lesbians’ to a commune of tool-yielding, dungaree-donning ‘dykes’. From leather clad men in dungeon bars to the flourishing gay fashion scene. Though Paul is set in the early 90s, the characters are easily recognisable as friends of yours – or if not, people you would want as friends! This contemporality is just one reason why it is quickly becoming a cult classic.
Alongside the people in the clubs and on campus, Lawlor also writes of the AIDS activists, most of whom are significantly older than Paul. They are campaigning against the lack of treatment and appalling media representation of AIDS. The AIDS crisis is a subtle and dangerous undercurrent throughout the book, breaking Paul’s (and the reader’s) heart at the end.
Paul is infused with a wide range of head-bobbing underground and subculture music. Paul especially likes covers of songs where genders have been inverted, particularly if that turns the song queer. He meticulously creates mixtapes, pondering what the music he chooses will say about him, what it will say to his lover.
The reader can imagine the same level of curation from Lawlor as they decided which songs would make the cut. Some avid readers have even created Spotify playlists, providing a soundscape to the book. Find these playlists, and you will be immersed in Patti Smith, Cyndie Lauper, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails, Suzi Quatro and queer icon Prince, amongst so much other talent. Plug in your headphones, take a walk down the street and feel like Paul for a moment.
Paul breaks boundaries. So too does Lawlor’s writing. A little reminiscent of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (more essential queer reading), a touch of magical realism goes a long way in exploring themes of gender identity, queer politics and questions of belonging.
Printed by Picador in the U.K., Paul has become one of the first books written by a trans or non-binary person to move outside of smaller presses. It has found itself sitting firmly in most bookshops, not just LGBTQ ones. This offers hope to other trans and non-binary writers looking to break into the world of commercial books. And of course, it provides the vital gift of representation to readers wanting to see themselves in contemporary fiction.
Lawlor is proudly non-binary, and of their novel, says: ‘I guess I say it’s autobiographical fiction in order to signal that Paul’s shapeshifting is drawn from my own negotiations of social demands around gender. Not all of the book is based on my lived experience, certainly: it’s very much fiction. But many of Paul’s struggles have been my struggles and many of his pleasures my pleasures.’ Perhaps it is because Lawlor has drawn upon their own lived experiences that the book is so vivid, so vivacious.
Paul is a celebration of queer culture and identity. For Paul, switching gender is as easy and fun as changing a hairstyle; perhaps this is a comment from Lawlor on how freeing it can be to break outside of the societal confines of gender binaries.
Representation of trans people is key to trans liberation. For further reading, please check out Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith and I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya.