Chicago author Laura Krughoff asks questions about identity in her debut novel
By LAURA KRUGHOFF November 8, 2013 5:08PM
Updated: December 17, 2013 3:28PM
As the second child of hippie parents growing up in the Midwest, I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs, right down to boys’ underwear. When I finally got my own pair, I was surprised and disappointed that girls underwear didn’t have a convenient front pocket. But I only remember wanting to be a boy once — in first grade after discovering boys and girls had different bathrooms. I hated knowing there was a place boys could go that I couldn’t. After our class sheltered in the boys’ bathroom during a tornado drill, however, that desire vanished.
This desire to know what someone else knows, to go where it seems I can’t go, is part of why I write. When I started working on my debut novel, “My Brother’s Name,” I didn’t have some grand point I wanted to make about gender identity or passing. I just had questions. Is it possible for a young woman to adopt a masculine identity? What are the consequences if she does? How much of who we are is dictated by who we were born to be? How much is left up to us?
I’d never felt conflicted about my own gender identity, but I’d long felt curious about the possibility of performing another. The examples of gender passing I had were literary — from Shakespeare’s comedies to Jeanette Winterson’s “The Passion.”So I took the freedom of fiction writing as permission to answer my questions by creating a character who chooses to pass as her brother, not because she thinks it’s who she really is but because she feels it’s what she must do.
Part of the thrill and attraction of passing — and of writing a character who passes — is that it comes with such risk. My protagonist runs the risk of being discovered. She is always in the process of constructing her identity, and the longer and more successfully she maintains it, the more she has to lose. One risk I have run by writing this novel is that of straining credulity. I know readers’ first reaction to this story might be quite skeptical. Is passing even possible? And, if so, isn’t it crazy?
History is full of examples of women passing as men — to join armies, practice politics and enter the workforce. Importantly, passing is a pragmatic decision. Confusing gender passing with transgender identity is a risk I’m cautious about. And in the five years or so that I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen tremendous change in the social recognition of transgender issues. Trans individuals have come out and told their stories in ever greater numbers, making it clear how terribly far we have to go to make a safe and accepting world for them. I don’t want readers to think my novel is an authentic representation of a young transman. What I do want is for my readers to ask questions about what it means to have any identity.
Hear Laura speak at the Assistance League’s Books and Brunch event Tuesday (visit ACLW.org for more info). Purchase “My Brother’s Name” wherever books are sold; signed copies are available at City Lit Books and the Book Cellar.