My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

Earlier this year John  Boyne found himself in the middle of a media storm about his new book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The transgender community, especially on twitter, went for him fiercely: the title itself was considered offensive.

Mya Nunnaly, a poet, wrote an open letter to Boyne which includes,

You {John} write that “however, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity.” HER new identity, John. HER early 20s.

As I understand it, the moment a boy (say) reveals that he believes he is a girl it is incumbent of everyone to treat her with respect and use her name and the appropriate pronoun. In fact I should’ve written ‘the moment a boy (say) reveals that she believes she is a girl…’

It may have caused less offence had the title been, My Sister’s Name was Jason.

The other issue was the use of the word cis. The word originally was, and is, used in molecular science but has been adopted by the transgender community as the opposite of trans. I am a cis man because I live as the gender of my birth. Most people are of cis-gender. Transgender are people who don’t live as the gender of their birth. Boyne inflamed the debate even further by publicly writing in the Irish Times on April 13, 2019, a piece entitled, Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis. However, a word, when given an opposite, is strengthened. If our language only had the word ‘tall’ and its opposite was simply ‘not tall’ anyone who was ‘not tall’ would, I believe, feel left out, thought about in the negative, disrespected; but having their own word, ‘short’ gives both words equal standing, equal weight, and therefore gives equal respect.

I often feel that if the word ‘black’ in American society was able to be used as the equal opposite of the word ‘white’, which is the correct use, and not as ‘less than’ the word ‘white’ race relations in the US would be a lot healthier.

I see the word ‘cis’ as just another adjective to describe me. If I was in a group discussion about international politics with people of different nationalities it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with, ‘Well, as an Australian caucasian man I think ……’; similarly, if I was in a group discussion about diet with people who were either vegans, pescatarians, or omnivores it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a meat-eater I think …; and if I was in a group discussion about gender with a group that included trans people it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a cis man I think…’ It is just another adjective to use appropriately when necessary.

However, the focus is not on Jason/Jessica but on her younger brother, Sam, who represents Boyne’s chosen audience:  young cis readers. This is his sixth book for young readers, the most successful being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Sam tells it as he sees it: Boyne has chosen Sam as the first-person narrator. The language is clear and simple and a lot of what goes on around him he doesn’t fully understand. This background is heightened by his parent’s work: his mother is a cabinet minister, Secretary of State, eye-ing off the Prime Ministership, with his father as her Chief of Staff. The stakes are high and the media are always lurking in the bushes. 

The title is clear and  basically foretells the story. It is actually a quote from the text; a text narrated by a cis boy who like other cis people don’t understand trans people and sometimes get it wrong, particularly with language. As one trans journo put it in Boyne’s defence … he’s on our side; he’s waving our flag, he just got it upside down.  

“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.”                                                                                                                    John Boyne


Not a Virgin by Nuril Basri

Translated by John H. McGlynn

Nuril Basri pic
Indonesian writer, Nuril Basri

Nuril Basri has worked in many itinerant jobs including as a waiter on cruise ships. However, writing is his passion. He has several published works in Indonesia and Malaysia. This translation from the Lontar Foundation is his first in English.


This  book is surprising. It deals with masculinity, and sexuality – not subjects I expected to read in a book written by a Muslim –  set in the sub-culture of modern male youth on the fringe, literally and figuratively, of Jakarta, the sprawling capital of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. Machete-wielding vigilantes, Islamic religious teachers, transgender hairdressers, rapists, drug dealers, indifferent parents, gay clubs, and drag queens populate this story of religion, youth culture, gender identity, and sexuality.

The tone is light-hearted, sometimes comic, sometimes dramatic and written in the first person as Ricky, a displaced teenager tries to find an identity and family to call his own. He stumbles into the dark playful culture of the cross-dressing beauty salon community who speak their own language: gayspeak, Queen’s Speech, or Salonese as a way to isolate themselves from the mainstream which only harbours for them ridicule, ostracisation, and violence.

It feels as if Basri, a young man himself, is aiming his tale squarely at young cisgender people just like Ricky, while at the same time normalising the transgender characters who, like everybody else, are searching for love, a room over their heads, acceptance, work, and freedom.

I’d never thought our relationship would reach this stage, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. Paris was keeping me, after all, wasn’t he? He bought me clothes, treated me to meals, and gave me pocket money regularly. And he had just bought me a very expensive pair of shoes. He had the right to touch me. Though I silently objected, I did realise, deep in my heart at least, that this day would come. I just didn’t know that today would be that day.

The climax of this scene is comic but the intent is clear: the normalisation of sexual difference. In fact, it’s the comic nature of this scene that normalises such behaviour.

To give you a taste of Basri’s style you can read this scene (Chapter 21 of Not A Virgin) as published online in Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016 here.

The Lontar Foundation promotes Indonesian literature and culture through the translation of Indonesian literary works. It was established in 1987 and is still the only organisation that promotes Indonesian culture through literary translations.

You can buy the book directly from Lontar here.