Children's publisher Puffin has said it is proud to be publishing John Boyne’s novel about a transgender teen, after the book was labelled "transphobic" by some campaigners, and an article the author wrote in the Irish Times about the subject received criticism on social media. The book My Brother's Name is Jessica, out tomorrow (18th April), is about a boy’s journey to understanding and accepting his transgender sister.
“John Boyne is one of the world’s most beloved writers, and we are proud to be publishing My Brother’s Name is Jessica,” said Francesca Dow, m.d. of Penguin Random House Children’s. “It is a wonderful piece of storytelling that takes a timely look at the complexity of gender identity from one family’s perspective, and explores the importance of empathy and understanding. My Brother’s Name is Jessica follows twelve-year-old narrator Sam and his relationship with his sister Jessica, a transgender teenager who transitions throughout the course of the novel. The story reflects a family’s journey from a place of ignorance to one of acceptance and celebration although we understand this is not every trans person or family’s experience.”
However, some campaigners on Twitter have called the book "transphobic" and have objected to its title, which they have said misgenders and dead-names the character Jessica. Boyne has also been criticised for an article he wrote in the Irish Times, entitled ‘Why I support trans rights but reject the word cis’.
Transgender performance poet Jay Hulme, who has read the book, tweeted that the novel “hits so many stereotypes we've fought against for years” and that there is “a focus on trans people's bodies", particularly Jessica's hair and genitals. The parents and aunt are also written as unhelpful stereotypes, he said. The Growing-Up Trans Twitter account, which is run by the father of a transgender child, said: “The story lacks even a whiff of authenticity. It perpetuates and enforces stereotypes, and normalises transphobia. Penguin Random House needs to learn from this experience.”
However, Boyne said the novel reflects Sam’s struggle to no longer refer to Jessica by the gender Sam has always known her by. In a statement to The Bookseller he said: “I am not Sam, and do not condone his behaviour or agree with his stance at the beginning of the book. I chose to write Sam and Jessica’s story as a deliberately imperfect one in order for me to highlight the mistakes people make and how important empathy is.
“In writing My Brother’s Name is Jessica my hope is that children and young adults—particularly ones who are perhaps not already familiar with transgender issues—will come to this book and start to understand that anyone struggling with these issues needs support and compassion, not judgment. I have tried to write the best novel that I can. I might have succeeded or I might have failed, but I stand by it. I welcome debate and am interested in people’s views on this subject. I do not believe that the trans community bears any relationship to, or any responsibility for the abuse I have received online. I stand 100% behind all trans people, I respect them as brave pioneers, I applaud their determination to live authentic lives despite the abuse they also receive, and I will always do so.”
Boyne initially responded to some of the complaints following publication of the Irish Times column, but has now deleted his Twitter account.
He is not the only author to have been at the centre of Twitter controversy recently. Young Adult writer Zoe Marriott has also been criticised over the setting of her book The Hand, the Eye and the Heart, a fantasy novel inspired by the Chinese legend Hua Mulan, to be published by Walker in Spring 2019.
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