Devon Llywelyn Jones is a fiction writer, poet, philosopher, activist, linguist, and multimedia artist. Born in Virginia, xi spent most of xir childhood and adolescence in southern New Hampshire, then attended Bard College for a B.A. in philosophy and linguistics. Since then, Mx. Jones has lived in the Boston area, writing and worldbuilding in the most excellent company of xir husband and three cats. Xi has also been active in local theatre since 2012. Xir début novel Tiresias, published in 2013, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Transgender Fiction.
Devon Llywelyn Jones, along with Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, H. Melt, Cam Awkward-Rich, and TC Tolbert, contributed as guest editors to The Offing‘s Trans Issue 2015, which ran from November 16-26, 2015.
Interview questions by The Offing Poetry reader, C. Russell Price.
C. RUSSELL PRICE: What books would you recommend to someone entering the realms of trans lit for the first time?
DEVON LLYWELYN: Part of me hates to suggest a book by an apparently cis author, but personally I consider The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin to be mandatory reading for fiction that explodes all traditional notions about what gender is and what point it serves. I believe the novel does have flaws, but it still changed my life, and it’s a beautiful, poetic narrative that effortlessly blends anthropological treatise, sci-fi mythmaking, and even a quietly queer love story. As for books by trans writers, in that regard I know mostly non-fiction — Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation, for one, and Kate Bornstein’s My (New) Gender Workbook. The latter I just finished a couple months ago, and while I have some disagreements with Auntie Kate, I think it’s phenomenally helpful for anyone hoping to better understand what gender actually is … and what their own gender is.
You write across genres, what compels the form of the work you produce?
Since you say form and not content, I’m going to interpret this as a structural or process-related question; I hope I’m not wrong. Right now, a lot of the writing I do is collaborative, serial storytelling with a couple other people who enjoy producing shared narratives in jointly constructed alternate worlds. An alternate world can be any genre, fundamentally, and I enjoy building settings from the ground up whether they resemble the real world closely or not at in the slightest. I see this kind of writing as a rewarding activity on its own — some others I know who write this way would just call it roleplaying — but it’s also like having a daily or weekly writing practice with a common thread tying everything together, instead of using prompts.
When I am inspired to produce something that’s actually meant for the public, I often pull from ideas I’ve had during this practice; but I may also pull from ideas like adapting an existing work into a new medium, or coming up with a narrative to give flesh to philosophical thoughts I’ve churned through. All of this usually means that the structure of the writing is calculated according to what would best represent the original, background concepts. So sometimes this means writing a novel, sometimes a play, sometimes a short story, depending on things like (for example) whether I need a lot of textual space to sort through all the developments and nuances. I also used to write a lot of poetry; now I find myself writing it rarely, but I think I may just be trying to figure out what I have to say in a poem that can’t currently be said in prose.
I also seem obsessed with parallel, intertwined narratives. I don’t know why. If I became famous for writing then I imagine my Wikipedia page would say something like, “Devon Llywelyn Jones, that parallel narrative author.”
Your debut novel Tiresias was astounding, what have you been working on since?
I have never had a relative stranger call my writing astounding, so I am a bit floored just to hear that. Thank you very much. What’s funny is that there is a lot of myself in the protagonist of Tiresias, but it’s an old self who has since evolved much further as a trans person. I seem to have written a roman à clef that two years later reads like purer fiction in my own eyes. The Devon Jones of today is now working on a stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is having a private reading in December before I revise it further for a public one. There are other adaptations out there, but to put it bluntly, I don’t like them. Outside of this play, meanwhile, I have a short sci-fi story in the works; it’s about a sexbot, so like all robot stories, that’s probably also a Frankenstein adaptation in an oblique way. Whenever I finish both of these things, there is another novel in me, one which will probably be five times the length of Tiresias, one which I can’t write completely on my own.
You are regularly updating your “Manifesto in Progress” on your webpage. One quote that really stuck out to me is:
I write sex. I write really queer sex. I write bizarre violence, and violence grounded in terrifyingly common real world situations. So, I suspect most of the people who’d like my writing may also have a preference for spec fic, sci fi, fantasy, et al., or for erotica, or for radical politics, or gritty drama.
Do you feel that trans writers (as well as gender-nonconforming writers) are drawn to these topics due to our marginalization or due to familiarization with the off-center?
Since you just made me reread my own analysis of my own writing, I got momentarily paralyzed by the reflection that “really queer sex” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and that “gritty drama” feels like a very trite notion. I had better update that document again. To actually answer your question, though, I would say that this is not actually my experience. I do have some trans friends who write, and they do also include lots of sex and/or violence, but the trans umbrella is a very big one, and that extends to the literary level. On the one hand, many trans people are very invested in working out our relationships to sex and to queerness through writing, myself included, and for me being trans is directly tied to being highly sexual, politically queer, and proudly kinky. I likewise find trans-relevant value in exploring violence, particularly as an entity separate from violation; as far as I’m concerned, the former can be consensual, whereas the latter is the antithesis of consent. But that is how some of us work. Not every trans person does. For every hypersexual trans person I’ve run across, I also know a trans person who would be insulted by immediately associating trans people with sexual activity. For every trans person I know who finds writing violence cathartic and liberating, I also know a trans person who would find it creepy.
You’re a fan of collaboration. Who would you like to work with?
You mean like writing a work of fiction together? Oh, please, China Miéville. If that man asked me to co-write a novel with him, I would wet my pants, faint, and consider myself to have reached a lifetime achievement, though the cost might be a lifetime coma. Other than him … I think I’d like to get to know some of the trans writers whose work I reviewed for this magazine. Surely we could make something interesting somehow.
I just want to give you all the claps for, “Having good politics will not make your writing readable. Saying your writing has no politics is wrong. Saying your writing has no political obligations is wrong. Having reprehensible politics will make me dislike you.” With the rise of trans visibility, do you find that your writing has taken a more political turn?
Thank you for the claps, you’re making me very bashful. Is my writing more political now? No, it’s probably been highly political since I was twelve. The politics themselves have changed, though. Ironically, I think that increased trans visibility has made me less interested in writing trans-centric stories, especially anything that follows the cookie cutter trans narratives we find in popular culture. I have every intention of participating in the queer & trans literary world, but I do not want my writing permanently filed under so-called “LGBT.” I would rather write stories with trans themes than about trans themes, if that makes sense. Trans individuals and our struggles will always be in my writing, because trans people are part of the world and we are not going away; but I always situate transness as part of a bigger thematic picture, because we are part of a big, complicated world. We are not the stuff of talk shows and “very special episodes.” My first novel had a trans protagonist, dealing with challenges that many trans people face, but if you were to ask me what the novel is about, I would say it’s about surviving abuse and then it’s about the psychological pitfalls of writing a story where you identity too closely with the characters. The fact that it filters these things through a trans lens … that’s kind of what I classify as important bonus material.
What has been your favorite moment of curating this issue?
I often describe myself as “stridently critical,” where literature and poetry are concerned, and in fact where just about any art and media are concerned. Some people who know me personally would flat out say I’m a Debbie Downer, a Negative Nancy, a bitch (hmm, why are all those terms female-gendered?), or a hater. Well, I can’t help it — stylistically I’m choosy, and in terms of content, I don’t tolerate insipid character development, politically compromising or reactionary storylines, or bigoted moral messages. I can rarely even find something I love on one level that I don’t dislike on another. So what thrilled me in curating the Trans Issue here? I found myself hating almost nothing. In fact, I genuinely enjoyed the majority of what I read, and I was stunned by how many pieces moved me and chilled me. It reminded me that while having a hostile reaction to status quo writing can be viewed as elitist, it is quite necessary and not elitist to repudiate the status quo in favor of elevating marginalized voices. Of course those voices are going to be more original and more compelling! Because what’s not original or compelling is simply what the establishment is allowing into its echelons: capitulation to whiteness, enshrinement of patriarchy, perpetual colonization, nihilistic alienation, dehumanization of the foreign, and worship of profits. Thank you, everyone whose work I read, for renewing my hope that true art does exist when you look in the right places.