MR. JONATHAN WILSON
We'll wrap up today's show with Bookend.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Our monthly look at the local literary scene. In this edition, we sit down with Alex Myers, the author of a new novel called "Revolutionary." Now, while most novelists develop a deep connection to their protagonist, Alex Myers' link to Deborah Sampson, the heroine of "Revolutionary," is especially strong. Deborah Sampson, a real historical figure, was a woman who dressed as a man to fight as a soldier for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Sampson's gender-bending story struck a chord with Myers the very first time he heard it when he was a little girl.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
That's right, Alex Myers used to be Alice Myers. In fact, Myers, who started talking openly about his transgender identity in his teens, went on to become Harvard University's first openly transgender student. Myers moved to D.C. last year and now studies at Georgetown and works here at American University. We met on a sidewalk bench just off of Connecticut Avenue in Northwest, not far from Myers' apartment.
MR. ALEX MYERS
I knew the story from when I was very young. It's a story that my grandmother told me, but it's not something I ever imagined writing a novel on. I was in an MFA program, I was writing a lot of short stories, and I decided, I've got to take advantage of this MFA program and try to write a novel. When I thought about what story I would want to tell, I thought, I've got to tell a story that I know deeply, and that I can spend a lot of time with.
MR. ALEX MYERS
And I thought back to Deborah Sampson's story, and I have personal connections to it, not only because of my grandmother telling me the story, but because of my own life. And so I felt that it would be interesting on many different levels, the history, and her character, as well as the resonances about gender.
You know, you're very open about your history. In the jacket flap of this book, you talk about -- you were raised as Alice, right? And you've been a transgender activist for most of your adult life, even going back to it as a teenager. I'm wondering, in terms of, you know, when you think about Deborah Sampson, and the gender issue that she's dealing with, back, you know, hundreds of years ago, how similar is it to your story and how different is it?
It was a question that I wrestled with a lot as I was researching and writing the book. Because I don't think that our stories are all that similar. Deborah ran away from home at 23. She disguised herself as a man to fight in the war. I think that gender at her time was very different than gender at our time. And for me, I always felt, from when I was very little, that I was a guy, and that's how I wanted to live, and I just had to figure out how to do it. I don't know, and I don't think I can ever know, that that's what Deborah wanted, but I do get the sense from how she lived her life, both as a woman and as a man, that what she really wanted was to be free and independent, and that was not permitted to women in 1782 Massachusetts.
And so I think that's why she chose to live as a man. However, I do think I have -- and my life story is pertinent to hers and I can relate to her, because of the similarities of what it's like to try to pass as a man. And just sort of the physicality of it as well as the moments that would be psychologically confusing. You're trying to negotiate this world -- for her, a very masculine world of the army, but she's never had any experience of what it's like to live with men. She's always been a woman up to that point. So that's something that I could relate to her about.
I'm curious about the choice to really talk about your life in relation to the book, or be open with it even on the jacket flap. Did you at all worry that people wouldn't judge this book on its merits, and they'd only judge it on, you know, oh, this is a transgender activist writing about this interesting story about gender, and they wouldn't actually pay attention to your skill as a writer?
It kind of cuts both ways, in some sense, with my novel and my being transgender, which is that some people might not pick it up because it's written by a transgender person. They'll say, oh, that's gonna be political or it's gonna have commentary that I'm not interested in. I just want a good story. And other people will pick it up because it's by a transgender person, and they might not necessarily care about the writing. I think, though, that the book would stand on its own, you know, written as it is, whether you knew anything about the author or not. And that was the primary goal was just to write a good novel.
So did you think at all about, you know, just putting this out, Alex Myers, no bio, let me just put this book out there and see how people react?
No, I didn't ever think of that, or publishing under a pseudonym or something like that. Again, these days in publishing, the author's story often becomes part of the package of the novel, and people want that. When I go and do book readings now, it's very funny. The first thing people want to know is, which parts are true and which parts aren't true. And after they ask that question, they want to know about my relationship to the book. I think they'd ask that, even if I weren't transgender. I think they'd say, why did you tell this story?
And suppose I were a woman, and I had served in the military and that's why I told the story, well, that would be the point of interest to them. So the fact that I'm transgender is just my point of interest. But I think there could be many angles that an author could come at this story and have relevant life experience to bring to the composition of the novel.
Transgender issues and issues of, I guess, sexual preference are, you know, a very hot topic in our country right now, because the country's changing so much right now. You've been an activist for a long time and are unafraid to call yourself that. Do you feel a responsibility to have your fiction play that role as well?
I guess I do in some ways, although I certainly have written a lot of stories that have nothing to do with gender or gender identity. I really -- I look at myself as an advocate for transgender rights and transgender identity. And oddly enough, in many ways, I advocate that just by living a normal life and then going out and being out as transgender. I came out in mid/late '90s, and that was a time when transgender was still a very new term, it had been popularized in the early '90s.
And people really regarded trans as freak. And part of what I sought to do by living as an out transgender person is to just normalize the category, and be a good person, a good neighbor, a good teacher, a good citizen, and all of that is transgressive because I am transgender. So, I do seek any opportunity to speak about or write about gender identity, because I feel it's something that people are curious about and people often don't understand.
That was author Alex Myers, speaking with me about his new book, "Revolutionary." You can hear more of our conversation, and a clip of Myers reading a scene from "Revolutionary," on our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Lauren Ober, Lauren Landau, Tara Boyle and Bryan Russo. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Tyler Daniels. Lauren Landau and John Hines produce "Door to Door." Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts," and our "Door to Door" theme, "No, Girl," are from the album "It Was Easy" by Title Tracks and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. We have information on all the music we use on metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.
You can also hear the entire show on our website by clicking "This week on Metro Connection" or by subscribing to our podcast. We're also on iTunes, Stitcher and the NPR news app. We hope you can join us next week when we'll be breaking the mold. We'll check out a program designed to bust through glass ceilings in the world of technology. We'll find out why several local universities are trying to teach college kids how to be philanthropists, and we'll go underground to tour a tunnel designed to be a game changer in how D.C. deals with its waste.
The tunneling industry is a very niche group. We're like gypsies, we all come from different places to place them.
I'm Jonathan Wilson in this week for Rebecca Sheir, and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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