The first few years of being trans can’t help but feel a little like your teens, and I’m not even referring to the whole HRT-induced second puberty thing. The start of transition is just a uniquely awkward, unsure, and overwhelming time. People start looking at you differently, you reevaluate relationships with even your closest friends, you don’t really know what kinds of clothes you like anymore, and for some reason way too many people expect you to have your shit together. It’s easy to feel like there’s an essential part of yourself that you’re only just beginning to understand, but the rest of the world is refusing to slow down and give you the time you need to figure it all out.
It’s this feeling of disorientation and unease that I most associate with Emily Zhou’s debut short story collection, Girlfriends. Through seven narratives, Zhou assembles a collage of young, newly out trans women as they navigate hookups with barely-acquaintances at crowded parties, complicated roommate love affairs, co-dependent queer friendship, and the general what-the-fuck-are-we-doing nights that make up one’s early twenties. In “Performance,” Lara balances sex work, the unwanted attention of her friend’s long-term boyfriend, and a burgeoning romance with a friend of a friend. Kieran helps her father and his trans former co-worker turn an inherited home into a bicycle store in “Do-Over.” “Gap Year” follows a college-age narrator’s intense yearslong crush on Genevieve, a straight trans girl attending the same school.
The trans women in Girlfriends often find themselves stuck in the spiderweb of someone else’s drama or self-implosion. Even as they become tangled up in their own love affairs or drunken misadventures, Zhou’s protagonists stand witness to the busy world around them. Their point of view allows each story to float through scene to scene as both character and portal. Reading Girlfriends can feel like people-watching at a particularly eclectic party while your insightful, biting, and painfully self-conscious friend whispers judgment and gossip in your ear. Through her whispered or slurred commentary, we learn that everyone at this party, cis or trans, is just as confused as everyone else, especially those who want you to think otherwise.
No one is quite on stable ground in Girlfriends. Childhood best friends evolve into abusive adulthood situationships. Friends drop, pick up, and re-drop partners. Parents or queer elders are just as prone to upheaval and delusion as the young adults they want to guide. Across her collection, Zhou depicts a fluid and complex queer social scene through appropriately murky fiction. These stories are never content to conclude with resolutions that are steeped in personal clarity or epiphany but instead with moments of quiet, tender respite, closing with late night bottle rocket shows, nights of quiet insomnia, or conflicted bathroom escapes. It showcases Zhou’s confidence in her fiction that she so readily leaves her characters in that dramatic sweet spot between cohesion and unease that defines the best work of the genre.
What Zhou seems to suggest is that none of us ever “figure it out.” In fact, for some, there may be no need to at all. There’s a passage in “Do Over,” the collection’s closing story, that I find myself returning to again and again:
Dysphoria is a scary word, and for a long time I thought it was reserved for moments adjacent to desperation, madness, disintegration – I read once about a trans woman back in the day who cut her own junk off when she got denied surgery. Now I think maybe the thing with dysphoria is that it doesn’t begin or end anywhere in particular. I wonder about that woman – I could see myself doing something like that if I was less afraid of pain, if only to force this fine mist of vague unease to coalesce into something, like holding a magnet up to metal shavings. Does the magnet reveal the true nature of the metal, or just one of the properties it happens to have?
Our current language around dysphoria has always felt so trite and insufficient to me that I always appreciate whenever other trans writers attempt their own definitions, but Zhou’s prose offers more than simple explanation. While it might initially feel a bit too on the nose to say that everyone, regardless of gender, in Girlfriends is dysphoric, Zhou demands that reading. We are taught to think in terms of big catalysts that kick start even bigger changes. Too often, I hear cis friends ask me about my life “pre” and “post” transition, and I find myself explaining that it’s not nearly that simple. Transition, like puberty or aging in general, isn’t so much a single catalytic act, but a stumbling and awkward road filled with many smaller realizations, changes, and revisions. If dysphoria isn’t something with a beginning or end, then attempts to combat it are just as nonlinear and unending. And while not every character in Zhou’s fiction is reckoning with gender, all are dealing with their own feelings of displacement, distress, or unease. Each is waiting for a magnet to appear and sort their shaved metal selves into more easily understandable forms, but Zhou knows that isn’t going to happen. The story is in those moments of confusion and the quiet breaths we take in between.