Fathers & Sons

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The lived, proud experience of transgenderedness is taking its rightful place in contemporary literary writing — and this tender yet hard-boiled memoir is a searing exploration of parenting and gender-creation.

Howard Cunnell’s early life in a National Front-infested coastal town in the 1970s was overshadowed by the absence of a father who left before he was born. His journey into adulthood was punctured by the compulsive violence and addiction he used to blot out the pain of loss and rejection. Now, living in Brixton, he is a father, and his middle daughter, mixed-race teenager Jay, is becoming his son.

Cunnell is comforted by the emotional poetry of Whitman and Ginsberg, and the muscular prose of Carver, Kerouac and Hemingway (who, we learn, had a transgendered child himself), and deserves the accolades he will receive for his book’s painterly, masculine honesty. Between the lovely lines, however, is a fierce exposé of the institution of the family and the construction of gender and community in 21st century metropolitan multicultural Britain. The difficulty of staying in relationships, of creating an environment for young humans to grow in, is expressed as Cunnell and his partner by turns break, abandon and renew one another.

Distress frequently spills over, but even if help is at hand in austerity Britain, does anyone have the courage to ask for it? It’s only when Jay, a footballing tomboy who has been self-harming and hating school for a year, is finally able to tell “her” mother that “she” is a boy and wants to live in a boy’s life and body, that the parents finally seek the support of professionals.

A shining factor in Cunnell’s narrated self is his ability to lean on friendships and learn from his children. Rose, the youngest daughter, teaches him, “Gender is performative, Daddy.” Cunnell takes the point and reviews not only how he has learned to be a man, but the manifestation of performed masculinity in the transphobic attitudes and violence Jay has to endure (he is mugged; the school assigns him the disability toilet; he is constantly mispronouned) while going through the agonisingly slow process of social and physical transition.

Jay has to find his own tribe, his own support system, his lovers, in his own ways. Cunnell can help so far and then has to let go. In gender-conditioning we are compelled to join a performance. No wonder then the widespread quest for non-binary identities and gender fluidity as young people try to be kinder to themselves and others. In this book, performativity is applied to parenting too. Cunnell questions his thinking and actions, and tenderly describes his partner performing motherhood. He considers what makes a father leave his own children.

Cunnell portrays himself as flawed and often selfish, as wanting to love helpfully as it’s the only thing he can see that makes life bearable. Parenting in capitalist society is painful, for so many. Highly recommended for all who want to understand and support young trans people, and defend and develop the accessible health services we all need.