THEM: Surviving Between and Outside Literary Boundaries

Lizzy Shramko

Picture this. You are a ‘Sapien on the dance floor. A Pteridophyta DJ has just finished their set. The floor clears out, and the DJ comes your way. Their mouth is surrounded by “root-like tendrils” and their fronds vibrate in ways that catch your attention when they laugh. Inexplicably you realize there is an attraction between the two of you—something you have not experienced with a Pteridophyta, or even know was possible. This attraction morphs into a fragrant, explosive, intimate, and by all means interspecies experience that you will probably never forget.

This is the premise of one of the pieces in the debut issue of THEM, a magazine that artfully traverses literary boundaries. Levi Sable’s “Glitter on the Dance Floor” is a sexy, visceral story that pulls readers from their own embodied experience into a world where ‘Sapiens and Pteridophytas share social spaces, a world where protein packs provide nutrition, and where characters communicate beyond words. This story exists alongside our reality; it pushes our boundaries of humanness, physicality, and intimacy. And it is also an example of how centering writing around non-normative gender markers creates a space to transform the way we think of identifiers, the ways we build characters and the possibilities for narratives.

THEM is breaking social/political boundaries in addition to the new literary worlds they are opening up. It’s described as the country’s first trans* literary magazine. But “trans*” is not nearly as succinct a descriptor as one might suppose. Unfamiliar with the terminology? Editor Jos Charles describes it as this: “’Trans*’ is an umbrella term meant to include not just transgender identities, but any person who does not exclusively identify as the gender assigned at their birth.” But don’t get it twisted—THEM is not trying to make metanarratives about trans* writers and the stories they have to tell.

Charles goes on to explain, “It was my hope with THEM to facilitate a space that prioritizes writers who address trans* bodies in their complexities—work that doesn’t appeal to ‘being trans*’ as if it were one neat, complete narrative. No one is ‘just trans*.’"

Race, class, ability, and sexuality are just some of the intersections that constitute the violence trans* folks face.

The journal was founded by Charles to open up a space for genderqueer and trans* writers that did not pigeonhole them in the ways that some LGBTIQ publishing forces traditionally have. In an interview with Lambda Literary, Charles explained, “My first concern is facilitating a space where trans* writers can find solidarity and respect for the multitude of differing identities among us.” Currently, Jae Cornick and Emerson Whitney are also co-editors for the magazine.

THEM's debut issue

So how else does this magazine open new world of literary possibility? That’s beautifully illustrated by Calvin Gimpelevich’s story, “Innovation, Reversal, and Change.” The story temporally reverses a coming of age narrative, one which recounts the dissonances that the main character encountered when transitioning across age and gender. It’s a powerful move that exposes the alienation felt by the protagonist while illuminating the confusion they feel compounded by other characters’ reactions to their changing body. Gimpelevich ends with this: “You are a six year old girl in the shell of a physically impressive man. The distinctions between your mind and your body are blurred. You are young and old and strong and weak.

“You are, in short a conundrum.”

Clearly, trans* writers do not all experience the world in one way. Thematically “trans* writing” cannot function as a genre—even if some publishing houses might disagree. THEM is daring not only because it opens up a space for trans* writers, but because it has illustrated in their first issue that they seek out work that defies literary convention. It calls for writers who actively challenge the status quo. And while many of these writers might do this to survive, it is clear that these moves will have larger implications for the world of literature. Our literary history is built around the rules of binary gender. Gendered names. Gendered actions. Gendered destinies. I challenge you to find a book from the canon or popular culture that does not have these components—where a central part of the story and the character’s identity does not revolve around their gender. Ernest Hemingway? No way. Jonathan Lethem? I don’t think so.

The truth is, if you think about how obsessed our culture is with assigning gender and ascribing meaning to this identifier, it becomes clear that a journal that calls for trans* submissions is not radical—a society that violently defends and rewards the illogic of cisgender logic is radical.

Here’s hoping that THEM continues to publish boundary-breaking work. The complicated and diverse voices it promotes—which at this moment exist on the margins of the literary world—will come to redefine the ways we think about language and literary convention. Aside from the political and social implications of this work (of which there are many), as consumers, editors, and writers—we would be vastly better for it.

THEM is currently seeking submissions for their summer issue. They will be accepting pieces until April 15. You can submit here.

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