Out in America

Pam Harrison

Teacher of Senior English by day, writer of lesbian romance with a definite penchant for social realism by night, C.C. Saint-Clair was born of French parents in
Casablanca . Saint-Clair is a native French speaker, although she completed her formal education in the at The University of Texas, majoring in English Literature. She currently lives in
Brisbane, , the setting of the series that kicks off with Risking-me. She loves rollerblading on the bank of the
Brisbane
River at sunset. She has had seven novels published since 2001.

Unlike her character Alex whose feelings of loss, regret, anger and loneliness have been folding her inwards since separating from her younger lover, Tamara, Saint-Clair is happily settled with her partner of many years. Just returned from a challenging trek inside the jungles of
Sarawak , Saint-Clair is currently looking for a producer to take the screenplay adaptations of Morgan in the Mirror and Far From Maddy to the big screen.

I have to let you know that I found Morgan in the Mirror very poignant and thought provoking.

Good to hear as all my characters are really close to my heart. Though they are only figments of my imagination, I know that the pain they undergo is a real-to-life pain and that many thousands of women are undergoing similar struggles as we speak – be that the agony of the in-love/in-lust pain that Emilie feels in Silent Goodbyes or her fear of letting go in contrast to Jill’s and Laurel’s fears as victims of domestic violence, one at the hand her husband and the other at the hand of her lesbian lover – or the agony of a teenage survivor of incest like Marielle in Jagged Dreams – or the pain of an emotionally damaged 22 year old who has a major meltdown moment, as Jo does in Far From Maddy – or the unfathomable disquiet of Morgan’s mismatched gendered brain and body.

You’ve already been dubbed in the course of your career as The Thinking Woman’s Lesbian Romance Novelist, so I felt compelled to create a Thinking Woman’s Interview.  Why do you think you have been given this esteemed title?

It is a bit of a mouthful but it certainly is ‘esteemed’, as you say. The tag might be in response to the introspective nature of my main characters. From North and Left from Here to Morgan in the Mirror, all 7 novels, particularly those of the Risking-me series, carry a sensually-charged plot in which is embedded a realistic account of emotional survival – and that is the ‘thinking’ part of my romance novels.

Each plot is scaffolded in such a way as to provide food for thought as well as food for the senses.

Even as readers remain undecided as to whether my plots are sensual or erotic, I seriously believe that sensuality, desire, lust and, sometimes, yes, eroticism blend well within storylines that are realistic and gritty.

It’s been said that you are as passionate about the sensuality of your writing as much as about exposing the readers to your brand of romance, to the emotionally harsh landscape that you believe is the real life backdrop against which many women have to struggle, before they come into their own.  For those of us now discovering your books, give us an idea of what types of stories and characters you like to write about, and why?

Though I can ride quite comfortably the ‘passionate writer’ epithet, I am more interested in readers’ appreciation of the flagged ‘harsh landscape’ elements.

In regards to the characters I like to write about, it all began with North and Left From Here [Take II], one night, some 10 years ago. I came home feeling particularly jaded from a night on the scene. Though I had never kept a diary, I picked up a notepad and jotted down flashes of discomfort related to the alienating nature of the night’s experience.

The following day, I found myself fleshing out these snippets of raw emotion into full sentences and paragraphs, which later became the opening chapter of North and Left from Here. I took to this stream-of-consciousness style of writing like a duck to water; just like I had latched on to my lesbian identity at seventeen – and never looked back.

Once I had completed the manuscript for North, friends came up with the notion that, surely, there were women out there who would relate to my mind-meanders and they urged me to keep on writing and to consider publication. And I did just that – I kept on writing. From North, I moved on to cleaning up the Benchmarks manuscript and began work on Silent Goodbyes.

To this day, I still use my musings and personal insecurities as triggers for fictionalized plots, trusting that each might connect ripple and resonate at a personal level through the rich spectrum of women readers.

I begin by developing characters who can help me flag issues I may not have experienced first-hand but issues that affect millions of women daily. I’m talking about such issues as woman-to-woman domestic violence, emotional abuse at the hand of a parent, incestuous rituals, myriad of murky societal issues and, generally speaking, our vulnerability as women living in neighborhoods and communities gripped by socialized violence and, dare I add, mostly at the hand of the men we trust.

Research into each new plot idea – be it that of homelessness, domestic violence, loyalty to one’s lover or simply that of sailing a 35-footer around the Whitsunday islands of Australia – always leads to a search for authenticity – for authentic details.

Each time I commit a manuscript to publication, I trust that women who, like me, have had no direct cause to ponder issues of abuse in their many guises or, for that matter, their position on the gender continuum, might care to keep these issues live in their thoughts, just a little while longer, even after they’ve turned the last page of their Saint-Clair novel.

Reality check: whenever a reader picks up a romance novel, it is fair to assume that she is not in the mood, not at that particular moment, for hardcore docu-drama material, but I go with the assumption that any ‘thinking reader of lesbian romance’ is willing to accept any meaningful issue as a backdrop provided the plot also provides her with memorable moments of vibrant sensuality, transporting visuals and escape.

In regards to the woman who has suffered in her flesh and in her mind any aspect of any issue flagged in any particular novel, it is my hope that, as she reads on, she will feel that her circumstances have been recognized and validated, and that she will hover on the last the last page feeling empowered and perhaps even vindicated.

The thing is that my ‘heroines’, unlike traditional characters of romance, always rescue themselves. Their quest is emotional fulfillment within their ordinary lives and the irony is that, within this simplicity lies the complexity of life and love’s role in defining it.

With your most recent book, Morgan in the Mirror, you step out of your comfortable pattern of writing lesbian novels with a common thread to introduce Morgan, a transgender Female-to-Male struggling with his desire to define himself as a man. What was the inspiration for bringing Morgan into this established series of books to tell his story?

It all happened quite accidentally during a dinner conversation when someone mentioned a friend of a friend who identified as an FTM.

“As a what?” I asked.

Immediately spurred into the challenge of writing a different *woman’s* journey, that same night, after a few cups of strong coffee, I began researching the fictitious journey of my new character.

Transgenderism, also known as Gender Dysphoria and even touted as the Third Sex, is an issue that has been a mystery to mankind for centuries, even to those whom it directly affects. Native Americans held the Third Sex in high esteem, believing that the Great Spirit had gifted them with extraordinary powers and they were allowed to trans-dress within their tribes without stigma, which amazed the Christian White Man immensely (Perhaps we should have learned more from the Native Americans).

The religion of Scientology widely accepts (but doesn’t advertise) the fact that we owned our gender identification from the very beginning that our souls were created, but life experience can often reinforce or aberrate it. There is much documented evidence by L. Ron Hubbard that it is indeed possible for people to be born into the wrong bodies even though one might identify themselves as the opposite sex. What are your own theories on Gender Dysphoria? Does it have a genetic origin as the medical world at large believes; is it a choice; or is there a possibility, as some might believe, of past lives, wherein a person whose spirit already identifies with either male or female gender might simply find himself or herself born into the wrong body, as so many transgender people feel?

When I began my research, the FTM station on the gender continuum had not been something I had ever had to think about. And because I hadn’t, I assumed that many lesbians, particularly those in my age group [baby-boomer dykes] hadn’t either. It’s always the awareness of what I don’t know, but feel I should, that triggers a new plot idea.

As I familiarized myself with the reality of female-to-male transgenderism, I came to discovered that this new character to whom I had already given a name – Morgan – born as a perfectly formed baby girl had had, in utero, a set of connections hardwired into her brain that were those Nature usually templated into a baby boy’s brain.

Morgan’s mother, 1 in approximately 30,000, thus gave birth to a perfectly formed baby girl who happened to have acquired the perfectly formed gendered brain of a bouncing baby boy.

Pam, I’ll pass on the reference to Scientology, but I did enjoy linking Morgan to some aspects of the Native American folklore. References to a bygone era show that rare individuals belonged to the Third Sex and became great healers – how much more empowering than the factual accounts of ‘found out’ female-to-male transgenders who, throughout centuries of Christianity, have been burned at the stake, drowned, stoned, trampled to death or ‘simply’ killed by insecure rednecks as in the modern day tragedy of Brandon Teena, or others who have had to live out their ‘unnatural inversion’ and ‘flawed’ psyche as Stephen has in The Well of Loneliness.

Having said that, many of the facts found on two-spirited individuals [kept light as not immediately relevant to my core issue] seemed to refer to individuals who had been born male but wore the trappings of women and so I have deliberately chosen to not link Morgan to the Berdache element of early Native American culture. Furthermore, these blessed beings seemed to be recognized as neither male nor female, hence the two-spirited ref – and that certainly is not what my Morgan is about.

However, when Morgan risks a crippling fall, literally every inch of the way, as he climbs unroped some 600 meters upwards to reach a cliff ledge on which he intends spending the night, alone, uncomfortable and cold, in readiness for the break of dawn that will see him farewell his recently departed father, I allude to what, in traditional Native American culture, is a Vision Quest.

As an avowed lesbian who loves women and has no gender dysphoria yourself, writing this book must have been an enormous reach for you. What was the extent of your research required to make Morgan a believable and sympathetic character?

Stringent research was necessary for factual information in regards to gender dysphoria, the Benjamin Standard of Care, hormone therapy, chest reconstruction, packing and peeing [standing up] options and so on, but what I have injected into the Morgan plot is genuine empathy – a compassionate understanding for all the biological females who share Morgan’s station on the gender continuum. It is the same empathy that I have invested in Jill, Marielle, little Jamie and Jo – survivors of traumatic experiences flagged in Risking-me, Jagged Dreams and Far From Maddy.

Anecdote: for the ‘avowed’ lesbian that I am – one who has loved women from the age of 17, one who was raped some three years later but was not awarded justice from the courts and one who, to this day, has no understanding at all of the subtleties of heterosexual sex -imagining my Morgan as a post-transitional male being sexually active with Christen in a sensual way [some have since said erotic] did require a major leap of imagination and serious projection out-of-*my*-box. All for the good cause.

I understand that Morgan is now listed on the F 2 M International [FTMI] website and under Gender Studies topics as a must-read book for all audiences. Is this a huge success for you? Did you think your book would be received this well, and why?

I was over the moon when, in time, transmen behind high profile F2M websites such as FTM Int’l and FTM Australia agreed that Morgan would fit nicely on their list of FTM and SOFFA-friendly resources – [Significant Others Family and Allies – PFLAG equiv].

I was equally ecstatic when Niq, an F2M newsgroup Moderator, along with several other transmen, all strangers to me, but who have since become good cyber buddies, also chose to ref Morgan in the Mirror on their personal websites. But then again, I was devastated by flames received from other Moderators of TG groups [not FTM-specific] who, though they admitted not having read Morgan, objected on principle that, as a lesbian, I had absolutely no right to write about something I ‘knew’ nothing about and how dared I!

One of my answers to such narrow mindedness is that, first and foremost, I am a woman. Next, I am an educator. My brain, same as everyone else’s, allows me not only to think and research but also to imagine, empathize and create.

My other argument is that I write fiction. Nowhere have I ever come across the proviso that a writer of fiction has to have walked the path, any path, herself.

What, I believe, a writer of fiction needs to do, beyond researching accurately the core issue that is to be embedded in the storyline, is feel genuine empathy for her characters – an absolute respect for the community it spotlights, as well as have the power of imagination and literary ability to make it all hang as a readable package.

Back in 2003, I became interested in the societal issue of long-term homelessness by ‘choice’ and ended up writing Far From Maddy, centered on Jo, a 22-year-old survivor, just barely, of her mother’s emotionally abusive behavior. Needless to say, I haven’t had the Coalition for the Homeless or the Association for Victims of sexual Abuse, in regards to Jagged Dreams, flame me to say that my characters, Jo and Marielle, were not representative of their entire lobby and how dared I write about something I had not experienced first hand.

I mean, who would even suggest that Virginia Woolf had no business creating the character of Orlando or that Arthur Golden’s much acclaimed Geisha – written in the first person – is an attempt at misrepresentation?

Paradoxically, a great many fears, hatreds and prejudices about the transgender issue continue to persist even within the gay and lesbian community. I came across this review of Morgan in the Mirror from a lesbian reader in Australia who seemed to have a problem with the book:

C.C. don’t know if you’ll ever get to read this, but I really need to ask why on earth you’d go ahead and write such a story. A freak is a freak is a freak. A chick who’s not happy even being butch and who wants her bazookas chopped off is a freak.

I’ve read “ALL” your novels but … if that the stuff you’re going to give us from here on….count me out. And my friends.

jane PTBF (Proud To Be Female)

How would you answer this reader? Do you feel she is missing the point of Morgan in the Mirror?

Oh, yes, I remember this post very well. A friend of mine came across it on amazon.com and pasted it for me in an email. Her tongue-and-cheek subject line to me was: something new for u to consider.

On the one hand, I saw red – didn’t have my rose colored glasses on at the time. On the other, I was totally dismayed by this woman’s narrow-mindedness. I also found the post scary in an ultra-rightist sort of way.

If she had signed off with a contact address, I would have reminded her that, in most of the communities in which we live, love and work, many of us, lesbians, are still considered ‘deviants’ in one form or another. Yes, even if the media talk about same sex marriage, even if mainstream TV showcases Tipping The Velvet and the L Word and even if the seriously kinky dildo of old has been born again as a sex toy. Even if ‘lesbian dancing’ – already an acceptable alternative back in the ‘20s – is, once again, becoming a trendy grooving dance alternative for straight women and, no doubt, a powerful aphrodisiac for the male onlookers.

I think it’s safe to say that in our cities and towns, large or small, homophobia is alive and well. The term ‘Gay bashing,’ has not yet become obsolete. A great number of women identifying as lesbians must remain in the closet for fear of losing their jobs, their children or both – and be ridiculed in the process. We also know that homophobia stems, if not from a streak of stupidity, then from a much documented ingrained fear of the unfamiliar.

The French say: “Il ne faut pas mourir con,” which unequivocally translates as, “One shouldn’t die stupid.” It clearly suggests that what you don’t know about, you can always find out – and be a better person for it. I agree.

More kindly, I could have replied to this ex-Saint-Clair fan that I wrote Morgan in The Mirror mostly for women like her, dykes who make life difficult, some times extremely so, for FTMs who would, for the most part, welcome an ounce of our understanding and a pinch of our friendship. With this person, I could also have shared one of my mother’s sayings in regards to my own reaction to certain personality types: “You don’t have to marry them, darling, you just have to be nice to them.”

What do you believe is the potential relevance of this particular novel to readers?

There is approximately 1 woman in every 30,000 who experiences genuine gender dysphoria – different from identifying as trans for cultural reasons. However, many bio born women have a tougher go at it than Morgan as their female body shapes do not readily lend themselves to blurring or presenting as male. Having said that, the story I wanted to tell is one of a young girl who, identifying as male at an early age, risks ‘living the lie’ before she can alter her body to match her gendered brain as she searches for congruence.

At 23, post-chest reconstruction, some 16 months into testosterone hormone therapy and fully dressed, Morgan presents convincingly. However, deceit comes at a cost and, in the case of someone like Morgan, the more extreme the deceit, the more painful and complicated the disclosure.

Beyond disclosure, sooner or later, has to come the courage to disrobe and thus the courage to risk everything that has been gained through stealth, including self-respect and the loss of a love affair potential, namely with Christen, the 35 year old policewoman who has had no reason to question Morgan’s gender. Disclosure, too, comes at a cost. Honesty is not necessarily rewarded in our society – something that many of us can relate to, regardless of the specific issue at hand.

If you could sum your message into one sentence, what would that message be?

I would simply share a thought about myself: my life has, for the most part been safe and comfortable, but how different a person might I have turned out to be if I had had to live, if only a few years, in Morgan’s moccasins?

I understand you have already released a second edition of North and Left From Here (Take II). What do you want your readers to know about this latest book?

I began writing the original manuscript here, in Australia, some 10 years ago, but left it dormant during the years I moved back to Paris. It’s only upon my return to Brisbane – having written Paris-based Benchmarks in the meantime – that I dug out the old North manuscript, blew the cobwebs off it, redrafted most of it while spinning it around from a 1st to 3rd person narration.

In its essence, North is a tad autobiographic. Like Alex, at thirty-five and a half, feeling old and ‘past it’, I found myself terribly … stuck.

Escaping back in time to previous moments of fireworks sexuality only exacerbated my longing for real-time connections. But the moment came when, like I had, Alex promises herself that she would no longer succumb to the familiar lust-cocktail of body chemicals and quick-fix Band-Aid affairs to dig herself out of the emotional ruts.

Thank you for indulging me in this interview.

My absolute pleasure, Pam 🙂

Pam Harrison is a professional and freelance writer and resides near Fort Knox, Kentucky. For more information visit her website at http://www.realm-of-shade.com/

Got a comment or question? Email talkback@outinamerica.com

Morgan in the Mirror by C.C. Saint-Clair

* Paperback: 212 pages

    * Publisher: Bookmakers Ink; (February 2004)

    * ISBN: 0972678913

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