Yesterday, I reviewed The Bone Palace, discussing some of the queer representation in the novel but only briefly touching on the trans matters covered; today, I want to engage specifically with that topic, in the context of Cheryl Morgan’s discussion of the book.
Her piece focuses on the character of Savedra, the transgendered consort of the prince. Throughout the book, Savedra is gendered and presents as female, and the narrator, like the cast, uses the pronoun “she” of her; she is presented as a mistress of the prince who can never marry him because they could not have children. So far, one would think, so good; Morgan’s objections to the book start here, though. In a world of magic, there appears to be no surgery to make Savedra’s “treacherous” (a word she uses) body match her self-image; while problematic on one level, a magical cure for transsexuality is also problematic, erasing the huge, every-day struggles of people in the real world. Compassion might argue for erasing those in the novel but making transsexuality look “easy” is as much a lie as making it look impossible; Savedra is a woman, and she is seen putting effort into her appearance on a regular basis.
Savedra is also a femme woman. This isn’t the only image of women presented in the novel; Isyllt is relatively unfeminine, although she does have a taste for dresses and jewelry, while Ashlin, the queen and a friend of Savedra from the start of the book, is a soldier through and through, and indeed the most competent fighter in the novel. The Bone Palace does see Savedra suffer for her femininity at times; during the Ball, she struggles with her dress during an assassination attempt; but then earlier in the novel, she kills an assassin attempting to kill the royal couple, demonstrating clear physical capabilities. This isn’t the awful stereotype of a femme trans woman unable to fight for fear of breaking her nails, but rather an image of a trans woman who is still very capable.
Morgan’s biggest problems with Downum’s book fall largely out of two specific events. In each case, I think The Bone Palace is doing something very different to what she believes it is. The first is a piece of dialogue described by Morgan as follows:
Both women make a point of stating that they don’t normally go for girls. From Savedra’s point of view this has some legitimacy because Ashlin is a very macho woman. But from Ashlin’s point of view the statement can only be seen as implying that she sees Savedra as male.
The dialogue is as follows:
[Savedra and Ashlin kiss]
“I don’t like girls,” Savedra whispered when she could breathe again […description of her arousal…]
Ashlin’s laugh caught in her throat. “Nor do I. But I like you.” (p230)
That Savedra introduces that phrase, and that Ashlin is replying to it and making the point that despite not normally liking “girls” each likes the other, to me has a completely different implication from that drawn by Morgan; Ashlin is here reinforcing the idea of Savedra as female, saying that she is the exception to a general heterosexuality, just as Ashlin is Savedra’s exception. This is a problematic model of sexuality for other reasons, but as far as gender presentation goes, this dialogue seems to me to be actively reinforcing that Savedra is a woman; that she still has, and is able to enjoy using, her penis (“traitourous flesh”) absolutely does not undermine her trans identity, since there are trans women out there who are in that situation.
The second passage quoted by Morgan is this, with Morgan’s discussion:
She offers Savedra the same deal: switch sides, and she can have a real female body to inhabit. Isn’t that what she has always wanted? Ginevra would have to die, but that’s a small price, right? It is an horrific suggestion, and one that Savedra declines, but not quite for the obvious reason.
Madness, Savedra would call it. Abomination. Temptation.
Nikos had always said he loved her, not the flesh she wore. Did he really mean that?
“No,” she said at last. “I can’t”(p425)
So yes, there are moral considerations, but the main reason Savedra says no is that being given the choice has forced her to confront the “reality” of her relationship with Nikos. For all her fine fantasies, she is forced to admit that when it comes down to it Nikos wants her as she is, not as she imagines herself. If she had a female body, Nikos would not love her anymore.
Again, I think Morgan is interpreting the passage in a counterintuitive way. The first, gut reaction Savedra has to the suggestion is indeed that it is horrific; that she then also thinks about it in the context of her relationship doesn’t undermine or remove that first reaction. Furthermore, her statement that Nikos loves her, not the flesh she is in, seems to me to be the exact opposite of the statement Morgan believes it to be; Savedra is Savedra, and it is her soul (The Bone Palace is very openly dualistic) Nikos loves, her female soul, no matter what her body appears to be. She does not reject the offer because Nikos only loves her for her male body, but because Nikos loves her whatever body she is in, so accepting the horrific offer wouldn’t actually have any benefit for her.
In the end, Morgan’s analysis of the gender politics of The Bone Palace strike me as incredibly wrongheaded; whereas she believes Downum to have written an anti-trans text on the level of Russ’ Female Man, it reads to me as a very trans-positive novel with an excellent, honest, empathetic and thoughtful depiction of trans life.