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THE PROBLEM WITH CRAIG SILVEY AND ‘HONEYBEE’

Book review
Book review

When I meet people for the first time or in certain contexts, they will often get around to asking, “Have you read ‘Honeybee’?” I’ve come to learn that it’s an oblique way of people saying, “We’ve read the book and we’re hip to you, sister,” almost as if they think that Craig Silvey’s novel gives them the keys to the trans clubhouse.

When I told my work colleagues what I thought of ‘Honeybee’, they immediately rebutted me with the, but he did his homework, meme. What Silvey has done with his claim that his book is well researched and that he, “would not have proceeded without the blessing of trans and non-binary people,” is given everyone who is not trans or gender diverse a basis on which they can discount the lived experience of every trans person they meet. By doing so, he has set back the agency of transgender individuals by decades.

Until recently, my answer has always been, “No”. I did try to read ‘Honeybee’ when it first came out but I couldn’t get past the implausibility of the opening scene where two people are on the same bridge intending to jump and end up talking each other down. I mean I know you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief when you’re reading fiction, but that was a bridge too far for me, so I put the book down and forgot about it. Until I recently started a new job and some of my work colleagues became quite insistent that I should give the book a go.

I took home the copy proffered by one of my workmates and spent part of a weekend reading it, returning to work on Monday to their eagerness over what my thoughts were. My response was something along the lines of the book plumbed every vile stereotype about the trans experience and that the time I spent reading it enhanced my existence not one iota. Further, I opined that Silvey’s fiction was dangerous because all he did was create the illusion that trans people and their experiences can be lumped into some sort of homogeneous melting pot. Dangerous because Silvey and his publisher, Allen & Unwin, went out of their way to say how meticulous the research behind ‘Honeybee’ had been.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article, Silvey is quoted as saying that, “…he read countless testimonies, perused internet forums, watched video confessionals, interviewed gender diverse people, and worked with trans and gender non-binary diverse support groups. He says he would not have written the novel without such research – and he would not have proceeded without the blessing of trans and non-binary people.”

It’s this aspect of Silvey’s work that makes it dangerous. When I told my work colleagues what I thought of ‘Honeybee’, they immediately rebutted me with the, but he did his homework, meme. What Silvey has done with his claim that his book is well researched and that he, “would not have proceeded without the blessing of trans and non-binary people,” is given everyone who is not trans or gender diverse a basis on which they can discount the lived experience of every trans person they meet. By doing so, he has set back the agency of transgender individuals by decades.

We are only just emerging into a world where the primacy of transgender people’s experiences is recognised by the medical profession, governments and the wider community. Just. Not much over a decade ago my gender was rejected by a leading Perth psychiatrist who purported to specialise in transgender medicine. He — yes, of course he was a man — told me that I didn’t look and act like a transgender woman. His cruelty set back my transition journey by a decade.

Recently, I appeared before the Gender Reassignment Board where the magistrate who runs the show told me that my application “ticked all the boxes” and then proceeded to be unceasingly angry with me when I provided him — yes, of course he was a man — with some feedback. My insights included asking why when the Board wrote to me to summon me to their meeting they addressed me as ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, when they were fully aware of my legal name and gender. His reply, as he fiddled with a rubber band and failed to look me in the eye, was, “That’s just our process,” at which point I suggested that the Board should be holding itself to the very highest standards, given the nature of their work.

These are just two examples of my own fight for recognition. It is a battle that I endure daily, constantly. Silvey’s novel and its purported ‘blessing’ from trans and gender diverse people adds additional and unnecessary weight to the lives of trans people. What Silvey has done is give licence to those who have no lived experience, but still think they know better.

A little while ago, I commented on my personal Facebook page that Craig Silvey is the Margaret Mead of Transgender anthropology. By this, I meant that his foray into understanding the individual worlds of transgender people is comparable to the work of discredited anthropologist, Margaret Mead, a white American woman who is best known for her ‘study’ of Samoan culture and who was later pilloried for her gross misunderstanding of that culture and was revealed to have been duped by some of her Samoan informants.

Silvey’s ‘Honeybee’ has some similarities with Mead’s work. I’m not suggesting that he was duped by any of his trans and gender diverse informants, but I am struggling to understand how Silvey could have been so well informed and yet written such an ill-judged novel that trawls every negative stereotype of the trans experience, does nothing to highlight the uniqueness of each trans person and tops it off with some stunningly base gender reveals and some idiotic coincidences that save the life of his main character. I wouldn’t care for a moment about Silvey’s piffling little novel, except people keep presenting their reading of it to me as if it is code for, “I see you.”

What may have been occurring as Silvey spoke to trans and gender diverse people is something akin to the ‘Hawthorne effect’. In the late 1920s a study was undertaken at the Hawthorne Works to see whether changes in lighting on a production line would increase workers’ productivity. The study concluded that increased lighting did indeed improve productivity, but it was later concluded that it was the novelty of being researched, having people pay attention to them, that led to the temporary increases in work output.

Making up around one per cent of the population, trans and gender diverse people are one of the most marginalised and oppressed social groups. What impact did worthy novelist Craig Silvey think he would have when he inserted himself into the lives of some people in our marginal group and then passed off his novel as being well researched and, therefore, valid in its representation of trans and gender diverse people? How could those same people possibly have rejected his work under those circumstances?

Silvey deserves to be censured for his trickery and for the mendacity of ‘Honeybee’. That’s what I started to do when I posted the comparison to Margaret Mead on my Facebook page, taking care to tag his page in my post. I also posted some other comments in various places and after around the third such post something interesting happened. I found I was no longer able to tag Craig Silvey’s page. My interpretation of this was that Silvey, or whoever runs his page, did not want to deal with my insights, so they put me in the digital equivalent of the sin bin. I direct messaged Silvey’s page and still have not received a response.

So, I’ve written this, instead, because I think my perspective is worthy of consideration and I will allow no one to silence my voice.

I could care less whether Silvey writes about things that are outside his experience. That’s not the issue here. What is at stake is Silvey’s nonsensical claim that ‘Honeybee’ was well researched and had the blessing of trans and gender diverse people. For that, Craig, and for the harm you have caused, you should apologise, unreservedly and wholeheartedly.

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