I suppose. The issues surrounding mental illness, and the very separate issues surrounding our understanding of gender expression and gender identity, seem to be coming to the forefront of our social consciousness lately. Yet they’re both still taboo topics in many ways. Both communities—the community of people living with mental illness, either personally or due to the fact that a loved one has a mental illness, and the community of sexual and gender minorities—are becoming increasing visible and vocal, especially when it comes to how their members are represented in pop culture. I never set out to speak for anyone in this novel. I just had an idea for a story I wanted to tell and ran with it. The fact that the subject matter might be dicey never occurred to me. Literally. Until I realized people were going to get the chance to read it.
Which came first, the idea for John’s mental illness or Jane’s gender passing?
The seed of My Brother’s Name started years and years ago, with an idea I had for a story about marching band, actually. I had this idea for a short story about a girl drummer whose brother forces her to pass as a guy.
Yeah. Gender passing had been on my mind for a long time. I always loved stories of passing or gender-bending—Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando or Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Orlando, though, is really about a character who magically transforms from one gender to another. I played Orlando in a college production of Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of the Woolf novel, and I loved it. In The Passion, the line between passing and androgyny and not quite fitting into the gender binary is blurry.
But all of your literary examples have some element of magical realism or theatrical convention to them. How possible is passing in the “real” world?
All I know is people do it. Successfully. History is littered with examples of women who passed as men to join armies, practice politics, enter the workforce, generally escape the fate of their own gender in deeply misogynist cultures. Perhaps some of those women would now be described as having a trans identity, but certainly not all of them. Why then but not now? I’m not saying it’s easy, or without profound consequences, but those consequences are what interest me most as a storyteller, not the question of whether or not something that has happened before could happen again.
Would someone like Brandon Teena, or Hilary Swank playing him, be a more recent example?
Hilary Swank playing Brandon Teena, I guess that’d be an example of the kind of passing I’m interested in. Brandon Teena wasn’t passing. A trans person living as the gender he or she identifies as isn’t “passing” as anything. That’s an important distinction. The characters in the novel get some tips about passing from blogs and websites written by and for young transmen, but in no way do I intend the novel to represent a trans experience. Passing is pragmatic. It’s about a person with one identity presenting an alternative identity to the world.
So, have you ever thought you’d rather be male than female? Like, pragmatically?
Not since first grade. In first grade I desperately wanted to be able to change into a boy so I could go into the boys’ bathroom. I didn’t want to be a boy permanently, but I hated that there were spaces I couldn’t go or things I didn’t know. Like what the inside of the boy’s bathroom looked like. Then we had a tornado drill, and my class sheltered in the boys’ bathroom, and that scratched that itch. I couldn’t think of anything else boys could know that I couldn’t.
What about John’s schizophrenia?
I had the idea for the plot of the novel before I’d fully thought through the characters’ motivations. I was chatting with a friend who was a mental healthcare provider, regaling her with this kind of wild idea I had for a novel, and she said, “Have you ever heard of folie à deux? No? Look it up.”
You ever write that marching band short story?
Nope. That one’s up for grabs.
LAURA KRUGHOFF is a fiction writer whose work has been appearing in literary magazines and journals over the past decade. Her stories have been published in prestigious American venues such as Threepenny Review, The Seattle Review, Washington Square Review, and Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, and internationally in the feminist Canadian magazine Room of One’s Own (now known as Room Magazine). She is a recipient of the Washington Square Prize for Fiction for her story “This Is One Way,” a Pushcart Prize for her story “Halley’s Comet,” and a runner-up for a Nelson Algren Award from Chicago Tribune for her story “The Beekeeper’s Son.” In 2011, she was a finalist for the University of Georgia Press Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She also writes and performs non-fiction with the story-telling performance collaborative Second Story. Laura is a writer, scholar, and teacher, living in Chicago, Illinois. My Brother’s Name is her first novel.