I was optimistic yet skeptical when I picked up Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel, which features an intersex protagonist from Labrador. On the one hand, I was excited to be able to read and feature this book on my blog, since intersex characters are so rarely explored in literature and this was the first instance I had come across in Canadian fiction. On the other hand, I knew that the possibility was probably relatively high that this exploration by a (straight cisgendered) writer who isn’t intersex might be disrespectful and/or inaccurate. After slogging through this nearly 500-page novel, I have to say: it could have been worse, but it certainly could have been better.
For the most part, Annabel resists the temptation to sensationalize the life of Wayne/Annabel, the main character. Winter does a great job depicting the joys and terrors of being a gender non-conforming kid; she delicately and insightfully deals with a lot of the issues of shame about the gendered and sexual body that her protagonist has to confront. These are intersex experiences that I think will resonate with many trans and queer folks, especially women, and Winter depicts them thoughtfully and skilfully.
The theme of secrets and shame is explored in avenues other than intersexuality–for example, in the marriage of Jacinta and Treadway, Wayne/Annabel’s parents. I really appreciated this approach and how the novel emphasizes that it’s not only intersex folks who deal with shame (about their bodies or otherwise). The book doesn’t fall into the trap of contrasting Wayne/Annabel’s shame/secret with so-called normal people’s self-assurance. Winter also confidently provides a critique of the non-consensual medical procedures that many intersex people have been forced to undergo, as well as a feminist argument about the right to control one’s own reproductive health.
So it’s not that Annabel doesn’t do anything right. For me, though, where it failed felt significant enough to mostly erase where it succeeded. Let me explain: Winter regrettably introduces a medical sub-plot where Wayne/Annabel ends up impregnating him/herself. I cringe just thinking about it. In an otherwise realist and perceptive book, this sensational and implausible plot device is not only unnecessary but offensive. I was really disappointed that Winter chose to include a physiologically impossible pregnancy instead of exploring some of the actual complexities or realities of intersex folks’ lives.
Later on in the novel, after having taken hormones for most of her/his life as a result of Treadway’s decision to raise his child as a boy, Wayne/Annabel decides to stop taking them and deliberately pursue a different gender presentation. Shortly after beginning to appear more feminine, [trigger warning] Wayne/Annabel experiences a sexual assault. I couldn’t help but read this assault as some kind of marker of “essential femaleness.” Throughout the novel, Winter uses only the name Wayne and the personal pronoun ‘he’ to refer to her protagonist; understandably it might be difficult for some readers to visualize this character’s later feminine gender identification and presentation. Because of this, I saw the sexual assault as a way to convince readers of Wayne/Annabel’s femaleness. The implication that only women are sexually assaulted and that this kind of assault is somehow proof of the female nature of the character readers have known as ‘Wayne’ up until this point is deeply problematic. It honestly doesn’t really matter to me whether Winter intended this or not; as a feminist I find it very offensive.
Here’s to hoping that the next time a book featuring an intersex character gets so much praise (the year it came out Annabel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Giller, and the Governor General’s Lit Award among others) it’s written by someone who can resist this pattern of sensationalization; is it too optimistic to wish that this next book might actually be written by someone who’s intersex themselves?