Golden Boy – ABIGAIL TARTTELIN

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is her second book. It was described as a “dazzling debut” by Oprah’s Book Club. Published in 2013, the book has rapidly been translated into numerous languages and saw the author listed amongst the Evening Standard’s “25 people under 25.

It’s about an intersex teenager and, as such, is rare. There’s a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story

I now understand why some politicians want more time to spend with their family.

It’s accessible; written in a popular style and I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happened next. It’s written for the mainstream, no for some minority audience.

All families have secrets. The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world. They are even better at keeping them from each other. When a childhood friend abuses his trust in a horrific way, the family starts to unravel and, ultimately, seek to try to come to terms with its secrets.

Golden Boy won a 2014 American Library Association ALEX Award for Best Adult Books For Teen Readers and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA award for debut LGBT fiction!

But, after all that football, how did max cope in the changing rooms?

I liked the multiple narrators, seeing the characters through their own eyes and those of other people, and how they appear differently in each.

Tarttelin has described how she explores intersex to look at gender roles, expressing the view that, “I don’t particularly think men and women are very different”. In discussion with Interview Magazine, Tarttelin comments that gender is arbitrary, but “a lot of it is socially constructed”. She is concerned that some mainstream analysis of trans children exhibits a narrow world view and limited expectations of gender roles. Nevertheless, she argues that gender determines “whether you are physically intimidating vs. being physically intimidated”. Interviewed at Goodreads, Tarttelin says, “I could explore gender through the eyes of someone who had no need to define themselves as either male or female, but was pressured to do so by their family and community”. She deliberately placed her protagonist within an “‘average’ community and a loving family”, saying, “I often feel characters with alternative genders and sexualities are treated as outsiders in art, when in fact they are us, and they belong inside our communities. I wanted Golden Boy to take place in a town that readers could see as their own town”.[

 Fundamentally, autonomy is the issue at the heart of this book, rather than intersexuality

I wondered how true to life this was and then discovered that Golden Boy has also been well received by intersex audiences. The director of Intersex Campaign for Equality, describes the book as a “thoroughly engrossing novel with a pioneering perspective … The novel explores heavy, complex these with a disarming wholesomeness that elicits nostalgia for the novels of adolescence, making it a perfect fit for teen readers as well as adults.

Karen, a career-oriented lawyer whose self-conscious attitude especially toward outward appearances and the paranoia of what others may or may not think, compel her to be instinctively unhappy and controlling.

Steven, a moral and understanding father, yet busy lawyer whose active ambition tears him away from the knowledge and experience of his children’s emotional turmoil.

Max, an attractive, intelligent, athletic, obedient, and favoured all-star both amongst his peers and his family, is the center of the story’s narrative and the Golden Boy in which the book is named.

Daniel, Max’s highly intelligent, younger brother is an inquisitive, creative, but often overlooked little boy whose avid love for robots and video games affords him an escape from his mother’s critical eye.

Sylvie, a quirky and independent-thinking, social outcast befriends Max in a special way that essentially shows him a window to acceptance and love.

Hunter, Max’s childhood friend not only knows Max’s secret, but abuses it, which catapults and endangers their relationship to a complex level.

And Archie, a doctor who inherits the knowledge of Max’s crisis who learns to be an active advocate on his behalf and possibly others like him.

Interview with Author:

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis https://zaraalexis.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/book-review-and-author-interview-the-golden-boy-by-abigail-tarttelin/

  1. The subject of gender is a complicated one. What made you decide to write a book about the intersex experience?

I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on their womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could highlight how gender makes a huge difference in our experience of the world, particularly in terms of our physical vulnerability and social expectations of how we should behave. In researching intersexuality, I came to understand that conditions that weren’t life threatening were being treated as such. I was particularly perturbed by statistics and stories about the loss of fertility and sensation experienced by individuals following operations on intersex children, and the parallel between this and the way women today disregard their own comfort to perform painful rituals to maintain their beauty and acceptability in society.

  1. What do you think is most challenging personally and socially for an individual who is intersex?

Society’s preconceptions and constructions surrounding gender force intersex individuals to make choices for the benefit of acceptance and not their physical health. In the case of Golden Boy, Max feels so much pressure from so many people to conform to these standards, but these standards are arbitrary and Max is a healthy individual. I do think standards are changing, and on blogs like Tumblr, there are certain courageous young people choosing or inventing their own gender labels, or deciding not to label themselves at all.

  1. How can people help in better supporting an individual who is intersex to ease those challenges?

Finding an online community like Tumblr where people can explore how to be, while remaining as anonymous as they like, could be really helpful in the case of intersex individuals. I think meeting people of any  ‘non-binary’ gender identity would help to realise that they are plenty of ‘different’ people in the world, and at the same time aiming to break down stereotypical gender roles within your community and household, so that there weren’t these strange, arbitrary lines drawn between us, would be beneficial to intersex people as well as women, men and LGBTQIA people in general.

  1. Do you think gender is more influenced by genetics, or an individual’s environment, or both?

I do strongly believe in genetic determinism, which is to say that the genes of an individual, along with environmental factors, determine the physical and behavioural development of an individual. I think more of our behaviour than we know can be attributed to our instinctive need to contribute to the evolution of our species, whether that behaviour be our urge to create art, or argue, or fall in love with a member of the same gender. When it comes to gender, aspects of our genetics, particularly our sex chromosomes, are significant factors in our development, but ‘gender’ itself is a human invention, a word we use to define the difficult to define, the in flux, the strange and unknowable. Like ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bi’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ and ‘intersex’ are finite terms human beings use to describe things that are not truly finite.

  1. The character, Max, in your book wasn’t told the details of his intersex genetic makeup, nor was his intersex spoken about or addressed by his family, and this seemed to be a crucial mistake in raising him since he had to deal with many unanswered questions about his gender growing up. How does a parent of a child who is intersex raise him/her in a healthy environment without imposing gender upon his/her child until which point the child may identify him/herself as a boy, girl, both, or neither?

To be honest, I think parents of children of all genders – intersex, female, male etc. – should attempt to bring them up neutrally with regards to gender. This is such a hard thing to do, particularly when there are many outside influences on children, and I applaud any parent who is making that really courageous and fairly self-sacrificial attempt. I think it’s important to read up on the subject to make yourself aware of how, for instance, toys are marketed in a gender-specific way, or girls are expected to be less rambunctious than male children, and how meek or fearful behaviour in a boy is often punished, but accepted in a girl. I’m currently reading Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind the Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine.

***

  1. You included statistics on intersex in your book. What is the ratio of individuals in the UK/Canada who identify themselves as men? As women?

I am not personally aware of a study that demonstrates the ratio of individuals who identify as male or female in Canada or the States. But if you find one, I’d love to be!

  1. Can babies who are conceived by individuals who are intersex, come to full-term and survive?

Not in every circumstance, but sometimes yes. For years intersex individuals were widely regarded as infertile by the medical community but, although certain conditions like CAH require immediate treatment to save the life of the baby, it is now known that intersex individuals can be fertile and thought that infertility in the past might have often been due to operations on the genitals at birth.

  1. Is it more likely for an individual who is intersex to have a baby who is also intersex?

Not that I’m aware. The rate of certain conditions is higher in some populations than others, but certainly not every intersex condition is passed down from a parent. As I understand it from my research, it is more likely for an intersex baby to be born to a female-male parental partnership, and for a female or male baby to be born from an intersex parent, than the alternative.

  1. Of all the characters in your book, who is your favourite one? Your least favourite one? Which character in your book was your favourite one to write?

Max is my favourite, but I’m very fond of Sylvie too. They are both heroes in my book. The Daniel/Max scenes were probably the most fun to write, but Max was certainly the most interesting character to be inside. I don’t hate anybody in the book, I try to present all characters – even the ‘bad guys’ – ambiguously.

  1. Of all the characters you have created, who do you believe is most like you?

There are aspects of me in every character in Golden Boy, but I’m probably most like Max and Sylvie. A little less bold than Sylvie, and a little more insistent than Max.

  1. What first inspired you to become a writer?

Everything inspires me to write. Writing is a compulsion for me and I can’t stop!

  1. Who are your favourite authors? Which authors do you think have greatly influenced your work?

When I was sixteen or seventeen, my English teacher gave me a copy of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, and I realised that I could write about anything, literally anything. Until then I had just read the classics, and although I love them, they didn’t show me that contemporary culture was an acceptable topic for a novel. I don’t have specific favourite authors, but one of my favourite books is The Good Women of China by Xinran.

***

  1. What are your top three favourite books?

I couldn’t choose three! I think the point of books is to read hundreds. Three of my favourites are The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Just Kids by Patti Smith.

***

  1. What book are you reading right now?

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani. It’s phenomenal, and because we share the same US and UK editors, I know Sahar and she is SO lovely, so for both these reasons, I recommend people read her book.

***

  1. What does your working schedule look like? What is your writing process like?

Right now it’s crazy, because we are in the run up to publication and at the London Book Fair so I am getting my website up, meeting my publishers, doing reading events – which I love! When I am writing, I switch that world off. When I am beginning a novel, the writing comes in dribs and drabs. When I reach 21,000 words (my tipping point), I run away from society and write for five to six hours non-stop every day to get the first draft done. Usually this takes about a month.

  1. What are you working on right now? If you’re working on a second novel, can you tell us a little bit about it?

My second novel has to be in to my publishers in a year. I have a few ideas but I haven’t begun to write them yet! I am looking forward to touring the US and Canada and making notes about the different places I go to. I think that might get me inspired!

  1. What are some techniques you use to combat writer’s block?

I think you just have to ease up on yourself and not be mean to yourself! I can push myself too hard, where the best writing comes instinctively. The best thing to do is to get out into the world and live your life – that’s the really inspiring stuff.

  1. What do you like to snack on when you read or write?

Sometimes to keep myself going I get jelly babies. It doesn’t help, but my Mum always gets them when she needs a bit of a sugar rush and I’ve picked up the habit just because it reminds me of her! I tend to neglect food when I’m writing because I get too distracted by it’s yumminess, but I always think a big, hearty meal after a good writing session is needed, because it does take a lot of energy! I like a nice beef burger and fries!

***

  1. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to when you’re working on a novel?

Usually nothing, but I do like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and if maps was playing over and over in the background, I think I could write. I listen to The National a lot but that makes me get up and dance too often.

Yeah, for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs!

***

  1. Which is your favourite genre to read? To write?

To read: literary fiction, whatever that means. I like a book to be lusciously written, with beautiful prose and words I don’t know. I like to get to know a character and learn something meaningful about life. I don’t really read thrillers that often, unless they are the quiet, intense, character led kind. I think I’m still finding my voice in terms of writing. I enjoy writing in the first person, and I hope my use of language will continue to develop.

  1. What’s your favourite saying or quote?

“Worry is like a rocking chair, gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

That’s from Van Wilder, Party Liaison.

  1. You’re house is on fire! What three things would you take with you before escaping the smoke and the flames?

Laptop, humans (includes one teddy bear), hard drive.

  1. If you could have dinner with three people at the same time, who would they be and why?

My Mum, my Dad and my brother. It would be hilarious.

  1. If you could describe yourself in only three words, what words would you use?

Cheerful, hopeful and interested.

  1. What do you enjoy most about creative writing?

A lack of boundaries.

  1. What’s the best advice you can give someone who’s an aspiring writer?

Don’t throw everything else away. Live your life out in the world too, because a writer’s words are only as good as their inspiration.

Thanks, Abigail, for taking the time to share a little bit about yourself and your thoughts on your new novel, The Golden Boy! It was certainly a pleasure to read the book and to get to know you through this interview. Congratulations on your publication and the best of success for your next project! – Zara

***

Quotations:

“I guess you’d maybe be under this category?” I say, pointing to ‘Not XX and not XY.’
“I guess so. Wow. One in one thousand, six hundred and sixty-six births. That’s a lot.”
….”Though, I had an oveotestis when I was born, and it says here that’s one in eighty-three thousand.”
“…What’s an ovotestis?”
“Um…where you have tissue of both an ovary and a testes in the same gonad.”

“absorbed your twin in the womb, giving you both your own female genitalia and his male genitalia.”

You’re in Sylvie’s bedroom, says my brain.
Yup
Are you gonna do it with her?
No, how can I?
Oh, go on. You want to bury your face in her hair so bad. What’s the worst that could happen.”

“due to societal pressure to be normal and fear of differences, being intersex may just ruin their life.”

“I don’t get what the difference is between a girlfriend and a friend who is a girl. Max has said things about them being attractive, but is that the only difference?”

 Now I’m too tired and scared to say anything positive, to be proud of who I am, to be a good big brother to Daniel, to be anything but indifferent. I don’t believe in anything I used to believe in anymore. Growing up, you believe the friends you have are good people, you believe your parents are always right, you believe that when the hard times come, you’ll know what to do, you’ll get through it, you’ll be the hero.

But then the bad things happen and everybody lets every­body else down. And you realise that old friends can be bad people. Your mum and dad can’t fix everything. You’re not the hero you thought you were. It was just that you hadn’t had anything that difficult to deal with yet, so you didn’t know that you were really the coward. That you were really weak. No. I don’t believe in the things I used to believe anymore.

I already have apathy about everything surface-deep, and everything deeper is changing for the worse and it’s my fault: Mum, Dad, Sylvie, Daniel, all of it. I used to think I wasn’t trying at all to be the best brother, the best son, the best footballer, the best friend. Now I realise I was trying really /hard. I’m starting to understand that attempting to be perfect has been the goal of my life. Our lives. Attempting to be this fault-free, smiling person in this loving, happy family that fits so perfectly in this pretty, inoffensive little town. What was so bad about that goal, after all? Only that I couldn’t do it. That I let everybody down. I’ve been so down about it, so depressed thinking about all the balls I was trying to juggle that I’ve dropped, and now the cogs are turning towards total apathy about it all, everything, and all I can think is that I am a shell of a human being. I’m a pushover. I’m to blame.

It’s not Hunter’s fault that I didn’t push him off me, and it’s not Mum’s fault that I didn’t stop the abortion before that last second. I guess I wouldn’t have kept it, but I can’t help thinking that I might have, if things were a little different, because I’ve spent so much time recently thinking about it and feeling sorry for it, and crying over it. Because it wasn’t the poor baby’s fault how it was conceived, no more than it’s my fault that I’m intersex.

But it is my fault, how I’ve reacted to my diagnosis, how I’ve dealt with it. Who I’ve become.

It was my turn to make the hard decisions. I had to count on me and me alone to hold my life and my family together. But I let all the voices get too loud and I didn’t listen to my own voice, that central thing at the heart of me that was beating like a drum, insistent, like falling rain on a window, saying that I should stop, give myself time, that I shouldn’t just do what everyone else said, that I should fight back and be who I am rather than who everybody else wanted me to be. I’m not the hero boyfriend Sylvie deserves. I’m not the hero big brother Daniel needs. I’m not the perfect son my parents wanted. I’m not the champion, or the parent the baby needed.

Dealing with trans individuals in the clinic did not prepare me for dealing with Max, because being one gender and wanting to be another is a completely different thing, perhaps even the opposite, of feel­ing, as perhaps Max does, OK as you are, but forced to choose. As a doctor, most of the health issues we work with involve a clear-cut right or wrong way to be. It is not OK to be obese, it is not OK to have cancer, it is not OK to eat sugar all the time. Many moral issues are the same: it is wrong to be racist, it is wrong to pay men more than women for the same job, it is wrong to murder. Perhaps this is why intersexuality is so controversial. The ‘norm’ is to have two separate genders, and when someone presents as different from the norm, we think they are ‘wrong’, we call their condition a ‘disorder’. But how detrimental is intersexuality, really, to a person’s life?

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