Cris Beam: Balancing the Artful and the Representational

“I think that whenever you’re writing a book about a community or an idea that is widely misunderstood you are always balancing on this precipice between art, education, loyalty to the community and a feeling of responsibility to treat the topic very carefully.”

Cris Beam’s new novel I Am J (Little, Brown Books) offers an in your face look into the life of J, a transgender teenager struggling to come to terms with his own identity, rejection from family and friends, and the quest to grow up on the streets of New York City. On the heels of her Lambda Literary Award winning nonfiction book Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Mariner Books), Beam is breaking new ground within YA and trans lit, creating a complicated character and plot that is, if nothing else, profoundly real.  I had the opportunity to talk with Beam about the process of writing I Am J, community response, and what she hopes readers will take away from the novel.

SL: Can you talk a little bit about what your creative process was like for I Am J?

CB: When I wrote my first book, Transparent, the original idea was to include a much broader trans community, but one of the main characters in the book ended up being my foster daughter so I had to change the focus to being a hybrid reported book and memoir. The scale pulled back, and got deeper and I just focused on four trans girls, and all the trans boys that I had interviewed fell out of the book, but they really stayed in my mind.  I started thinking about writing a novel. I also had a lot of teenagers come to me and say, “are you going to write a book for us, not just about us?”

SL: What were you hoping readers would take away from the book?

CB: I hope they have a good read, first and foremost, and I hope that they feel like they’ve had their literary imaginations sparked. I think that whenever you’re writing a book about a community or an idea that is widely misunderstood you are always balancing on this precipice between art, education, loyalty to the community and a feeling of responsibility to treat the topic very carefully.  You are torn between wanting to make sure your readers are getting a fair understanding, and wanting to create an honest portrayal of the complexity of human life.  I’m hoping readers will walk away feeling like they have some idea of a transgender experience, but also understanding that this is just one experience of many.

SL:  In thinking about representing this misunderstood community, what was it like for you with this being your second book about the trans community, and you yourself not being trans identified?

CB: Scary! It’s always scary. Issues of representation are always so fraught, and I’m scared always that I’m going to make a terrible mistake or do harm. At the same time, I felt very pulled to do this book.  It came about because a publisher came to me and asked me to write it and I had this idea in my head with a character pulling at me.  So I wrote 75 pages and gave it to the editor and she said, “does he have to be trans, and poor, and Puerto Rican?”  I was so horrified  so I said forget it, I don’t want to publish with you. But, I felt the character J was still so alive at that point, that I wanted to continue with the book. My agent shopped it around and Little Brown took it. Luckily they supported it as it was, and really believed in the project. They didn’t believe that all of these other identities are just add-ons, as though being white is the center, or being middle class is the center, and all these other pieces of who J is are just issues.  I felt even more compelled to do this book because of the hypocrisy, racism and phobia in the publishing world.

I felt like I needed to do it, but I do feel like issues of representation are really fraught, and always dangerous when you are a person that is not of that group writing about it. Yet, if we only write about our own experience firsthand in our cellular body, we would have a very limited imaginative literary world, so we’re caught.  Trans literature is still growing and that’s very exciting, but it’s still not a huge category. It’s dangerous because people look to you to be representative and be all things to all people. No one can be that.  If you are going to represent or write in a voice that is not yours, then you need to be very careful to listen to feedback.

SL:  Because of my own work, I was really excited to see queer youth homelessness as a theme play out in I Am J. There are only a handful of other books that go there. Can you talk a little bit about why you felt compelled to include homelessness as a theme in the book?

CB: That’s my daughter’s experience, and those are the kids that I know most intimately, and so for me that felt most authentic when writing this character.  It also felt scary to write that character because I had some readers that said we’re not ready for this. They said the community isn’t ready for this, and  the world isn’t ready for this, because we still need really positive role models. They talked about how we need something aspirational in a novel: parents who are accepting and a community that is accepting. To me that wasn’t realistic. I’m still seeing a lot of kids on the street.  I’m seeing a lot of kids whose parents aren’t accepting them and who either are kicked out or who run away or fall into that blurry line between the two where they get rejected and then they are homeless in that way that kids can be homeless where they don’t look like that mainstream cultural representation of homelessness but are definitely homeless. They are staying on people’s couches or they are shuffling between shelters and couches and cars and tricks — this kind of homelessness that is very particular to queer youth. I see it a lot, and I don’t think it’s anything that we should be afraid of. It’s culturally very dangerous when we say we have to present only our “best” face because what is that saying about ourselves? Is our best that you have a job? Is our best that you have a home? What is that saying about the people that don’t have those things?

SL:  Have you gotten any response from trans identified teens and what do they think about the book?

CB: So many, and that’s what’s been so great. A lot of people have said, “oh finally!” or “I’ve never read a book like this” or “I was so glad J finally found the courage to do what he needed to do, and when I read this I was crying and I was so mad at his parents and if I had the courage to be like J I could make it through.”  Those letters are what we live for. You don’t write for the money, you do it to resonate with people.  I’ve also gotten some letters from non-trans kids that have made me worried. They have said things like “I’m so glad you wrote this because now I understand what the transgender experience is.” That’s where I really cringe even though it’s well intentioned, and write back to that individual recommending other books, and reminding them that there are a range of experiences.