Craig Silvey on writing from a trans perspective: 'A novelist is required to listen, to learn'

Jasper Jones author’s new novel wades into a discussion about ‘own voices’ that asks: even if it’s written well, should it have been written at all?

Art imitates life in the opening scene of Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee. A transgender teenager, feeling helpless and alone, leans out from a highway overpass, ready to jump and end their life. It recalls a situation when Silvey’s brother and sister-in-law helped talk a young transgender person down from a Perth overpass.

Silvey uses this pivotal moment to explore what happens after his fictional teenager, Sam Watson, sees an old man named Vic at the other end of the bridge. Vic is smoking his last cigarette and, like Sam, is there to kill himself. An unlikely relationship blooms, showing the transformational power of familial love.

The outcome for the real teen remains unresolved for Silvey. The young person was bundled away by police into an ambulance; Silvey’s family were unable to track them down to offer support. The writer was left with a real person and event that existed primarily in his imagination.

“It inspired me to educate myself about the challenges this character would be facing,” Silvey says on the phone from his Fremantle home. That is how the character of Sam came into being.

Honeybee is one of four big Australian novels being released at the sweet end of the publishing year, when shoppers are beginning to contemplate which books to give as stocking stuffers for Christmas. Silvey joins Trent Dalton, Jane Harper and Richard Flanagan, whose novels publishers and booksellers are no doubt pinning their hopes on to help revive what has been a tough sales year.

Craig Silvey
‘It inspired me to educate myself’: Craig Silvey, the Australian author of Honeybee and Jasper Jones. Photograph: Daniel James Grant

But while he can’t promote his book with the usual tour, he takes comfort in the fact that people are still reading: “Reading is a solitary activity that makes us feel less alone,” he says. “In periods of calamity and isolation, reaching for a novel makes perfect sense.”

Like much of his writing, including his award-winning 2009 novel Jasper Jones – an Australian classic that has since been turned into a play and a film – Honeybee focuses on a young teenager’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Silvey keeps returning to these themes because they are universal. He says it is “rich terrain for a novelist to explore” and “a ruthlessly difficult path to navigate … if you are part of a marginalised community”.

In Honeybee, mayhem abounds: the 14-year-old protagonist stumbles into performing in a drag show, attempts a failed bank heist, lands a plum job, unexpectedly gets cashed up and becomes a police informer. Silvey asks us to suspend belief, but this is fiction – the novel is a page-turner and a tear-jerker that trades reality for emotional heft. It sits comfortably in the same cross-over space between young adult and adult commercial fiction as Jasper Jones, though Silvey describes it as “adult literary fiction”.

As a straight, cis-gender man, Silvey is “acutely aware that Sam’s journey is not my lived experience” and he welcomes scrutiny of his ethics, process and intention in telling a story that does not emerge from his own experience.

To research, Silvey says he interviewed trans and non-binary people of various ages and backgrounds, spoke with support groups, read as widely as he could, listened to testimonies, watched video confessionals and listened in on online discussion forums. “What is required of a novelist is to listen, to learn.” He says that the “brave and inspiring” trans and non-binary people he spoke to were “enthusiastic and encouraging” of Honeybee, partly because they rarely have the chance to be the heroes of stories. Silvey says he could not have written the novel without their contributions.

But even with the best intentions and deep research, Silvey is treading into contested space by writing from the perspective of a transgender character. Readers, writers and publishers increasingly demand stories that are told in “own voices”. As Ernest Price, a transgender writer and high school English teacher, tells the Guardian: “No matter how good your intentions, no amount of research will substitute for the depth of feeling that comes with lived experience. The best outcomes simply lack nuance; the worst examples descend into caricature.”

Because they so rarely see themselves in books, Price says, “there is a very real possibility that this book will be well-received by many young trans readers … [but] it is taking up space that could be filled by work written by trans and gender diverse writers”. If Honeybee moves readers to a new empathy for transgender people, he ventures that the next step is for those readers to seek out books by authors such as Alison Evans, Ellen van Neerven and Tom Cho, in which “they will find their understanding of the world truly enriched”.

The cover of Honeybee, a new book by Craig Silvey out 29 September 2020.

Honeybee risks being criticised for its portrayal of a transgender teenager as a product of trauma, but Silvey says his aim was to present Sam as a fully realised character who contends with trauma as well as their many joys and ambitions. He wanted to write an ultimately uplifting story and is “enormously proud of this book”, calling it, “as close as I’ve ever been to actualising my initial intentions for a work”.

Silvey hopes that gender diverse people will feel represented, visible and respected by Honeybee, and that it is ultimately “a life-affirming story about the importance of support and understanding and community and love”. He adds: “I want it to be a force for good.”

• Honeybee by Craig Silvey is out now through Allen and Unwin

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636


Justine Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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