LESLIE FEINBERG launching and talking about Drag King Dreams at the Medical Sciences Auditorium (1 King's College), Sunday (June 18) at 5 pm. $5-$15 sliding scale. 416-922-8744. Rating: NNN
There really isn't a pronoun in our language that fits author and activist Leslie Feinberg or the protagonist of hir new novel, Drag King Dreams.
That's not surprising, because Feinberg has always been a lightning rod for gender identity issues. The pronoun "ze" and the possessive "hir" are Feinberg's preference. In Drag Queen Dreams, lovable loner Max is a complicated being whose sexual orientation and gender identity aren't handed unambiguously to the reader. Max self-identifies as a butch and lesbian only at the end of the novel, when ze's having a conversation in an Internet chat room with a femme-identified lesbian.
I found this slightly jarring and asked Feinberg about it by e-mail.
"For me, the identities and characters are not ambiguous," ze explains. "It's just that the author does not out them. They reveal themselves."
When I came out in 1994, I was handed a bag of books by my first gay friend as a form of indoctrination. One of them was Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg's first novel, which became a bestseller, has been translated into six languages and continues to be read in gender studies programs worldwide.
After the success of that book, Feinberg wrote two non-fiction titles, the award-winning Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan Of Arc To RuPaul and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink Or Blue.
Most of hir writing concerns the idea that more exists in and between humans than can be answered by the question Feinberg gets asked every day: are you a man or a woman? Ze has no easy answer.
"I can't separate out 'lesbian' and 'butch,' 'lesbian' and 'transgender' or 'lesbian' and 'gender'-queer,'" says Feinberg.
A journalist, fiction and non-fiction writer, ze is also a member of the Workers World Party and managing editor of the Workers World weekly newspaper.
Drag King Dreams will be a hit with hardcore Feinberg fans and with those interested in fictional accounts of the climate of repression and hysteria in post-9/11 New York City.
"War and racism are creating the conditions for a social explosion," says Feinberg. "The establishment here is moving to the right, as the population is incrementally shifting to the left. It's like continental plates shifting; eventually the quantitative friction generates a qualitative earthquake."
Feinberg approaches conventional political issues with the same complexity ze brings to gender. Max, the protagonist of Drag King Dreams, is pro-Palestinian and keeps up a long-term dialogue with a childhood friend, also Jewish, who isn't a Zionist but doesn't totally understand Max's position.
It's in the portrayal of their relationship, layered and loving, that Feinberg hits hir stride, conveying with tenderness the way friends can affect each other's political views when they treat each other with love and respect, even when their beliefs are very different.
On this point Feinberg is pleased to note, "I've actually had wonderful reactions, particularly from Jewish readers."
Max struggles with burnout, something a long-time political activist like Feinberg knows a lot about.
"I love the quote by Lenin: 'Sometimes decades go by and nothing seems to happen, and then weeks go by and decades happen.' The emergence of the million-fold immigrant rights movement in the United States in recent weeks is just such an example.
"For me, the best way to draw energy from the overall struggles for economic and social justice is to be in them."
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DRAG KING DREAMS by Leslie Feinberg (Carroll & Graf), 309 pages, $17.81 paper. Rating: NNN
Timely and biting, drag king Dreams gives voice to the voiceless but ultimately succeeds more as a political text than as a novel.
Max Rabinowitz, a bouncer in a drag bar, suffers from major burnout both personally and politically. As the book opens, ze and a cross-dressing friend are facing violent harassment on an early-morning subway platform. After the situation calms, Max leaves hir to commute home and later learns that ze was murdered. Immediately after that, Max's closest friend is hospitalized for AIDS-related pneumonia. Another friend is jailed for attending demonstrations, and a few "disappear" at the hands of the state due to racist persecution.
Max's friends rally to support one another in times of crazy upheaval and oppression, yelling at trans-phobic nurses, divvying up their paycheques to pay hospital bills and speaking out against racist violence and police abuses.
As an account of these issues, Drag King Dreams is a victory. As literature, it's sometimes clunky. There's a sledgehammer effect when Feinberg makes hir political points too explicitly.
On the other hand, hir characters are brave and unusual. In most mainstream fiction they'd be demonized, exoticized or just absent.
Still, they could use further development; some characters speak as if they were reading from a leaflet.
I welcome creative work that doesn't hide systemic oppression or pretend we live in a post-anything world. For this, Drag King Dreams deserves credit.