- David Shaw
- Imogen Binnie
Fifteen years ago, when Imogen Binnie started the novel that would become Nevada, she had pink hair and lived with approximately four roommates in a communal dwelling in Oakland, Calif., called the Bad Idea House. She published Nevada in 2013 with Topside Press, a now-defunct Bay Area outfit that focused on literature by and for trans people, with no expectation of critical or commercial success. In the punk spirit of anti-capitalism, Topside released it under a Creative Commons license so that people could distribute free PDFs of the book online.
Today, Binnie lives outside Brattleboro with her wife and their two young children. Her hair is silvery brown. And Nevada is still circulating, on a much larger scale. Almost a decade after the book's initial release, Farrar, Straus and Giroux issued a second edition last June.
Binnie got an inkling that she'd struck a chord during her first Nevada book tour — a mostly self-funded, "couch-surfing affair," she recently told Seven Days. Trans women showed up en masse to her readings, eager to tell her how the book had changed their lives. But Binnie never imagined that her novel would become an underground classic of the queer literary canon and a formative influence on other trans writers, including Torrey Peters, author of the 2021 bestseller Detransition, Baby.
"I think what happened is the thing that you want to happen with your indie rock band, where you play your music and you become popular among the people who like your band," Binnie said. "And then, very gradually and naturally, the interest develops until you can sustain, like, a big tour or whatever."
Nevada wasn't the first book by a trans author that depicted trans lives, critic Stephanie Burt noted in the New Yorker last June. But it was groundbreaking in its refusal to cater to cisgender readers — this is a book that assumes you already know the meaning of "cisgender," and if you don't, that's on you — and in its stylistic fidelity to the world from which it came.
"Nevada seemed to be the first book-length realist novel about trans women, in American English, with an ISBN on it, that was not only written by one of us but written for us," Burt wrote.
The protagonist of Nevada, 29-year-old Maria Griffiths, is a trans woman trying to get her shit together. She struggles to make sense of her emotions, in part because she feels so alienated from her body. As a kid, the book tells us, "being present in her body meant feeling things like: My gender is wrong, and My body feels weird, and My mind feels like it's being ground into the concrete by how bad I need to fix that."
Then Maria's girlfriend dumps her for being turtled up in her own head, and she gets fired from her job at a venerable bookstore for habitually slacking off while on the clock. In a burst of agency, Maria steals her ex's car and embarks on a cross-country odyssey to figure out how, in Binnie's words, "to exist like a three-dimensional person who cares about her body and her mind and her life and her friends and her lovers and is able to exist in a relationship with another person."
Her vision quest leads her to a Walmart in Nevada, where she meets a store clerk named James, a stoner who is apathetic about his relationship with his girlfriend and confused about his gender identity. Maria sees in James a baby version of herself and decides to make a project of him, which, predictably, goes poorly for her. To the extent that Nevada contains object lessons, one is that nobody can help you with your own story.
Nevada is steeped in the vernacular of the early-aughts internet, where many trans people, Binnie and her protagonist included, first found the language to describe themselves. The tone is vintage LiveJournal and Tumblr — glib and overcaffeinated and angsty-funny. (One eminently quotable passage: "That stereotype about transsexuals being all wild and criminal and bold and outside the norm and, like, engendering in the townsfolk the courage to break free from the smothering constraints of conformity? That stereotype is about drag queens. Maria is transsexual and she is so meek she might disappear.")
Nevada is a trans novel in which nobody transitions, a road-trip story in which the driving happens off the page and no one gets high on the heroin in the glove compartment. (The previous sentence contains no spoilers; such plot intricacies are beside the point.) In a new afterword to the second edition, Binnie writes that she consciously refrained from indulging non-trans readers' curiosity about what it means to transition.
"One of the things I wanted to confront in Nevada was the cisnormative idea that for trans people, first you are one of The Two Genders, then you are in a fascinating in-between place while you transition, and then you are more or less uncomplicatedly the other of The Two Genders," Binnie writes. "And because the mysterious in-between phase is the most salaciously interesting thing to people who don't have to go through it, I decided to cut it out."
Binnie, who is 44, grew up in western New Jersey, in a place not unlike Maria's fictional hometown in rural Pennsylvania, and earned her undergraduate degree in English and psychology from Rutgers University. Not long after Nevada was first published, Binnie and her partner replied to a Craigslist ad from someone in Westminster who was seeking horse care and $400 a month in rent in exchange for housing in a 400-square-foot cottage.
Binnie and her wife have since moved to a bigger house, though she said their increased square footage has been more or less canceled out by the presence of two small cohabitants: a 6-year-old who, according to Binnie, "is really into animals and being superintense about, like, death," and a 3-year-old who is "always kind of stoked to be hanging out."
In recent years, Binnie has written for a number of television shows, including the CBS legal drama "Doubt," starring trans actress Laverne Cox. A movie adaptation of Nevada, directed by nonbinary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, is currently in the works, though Binnie said she's not very involved in the production.
These days, Binnie spends most of her time working as a therapist for a community mental health organization in Windham County. During a recent Zoom interview with Seven Days, Binnie kept at least one white wing-tip-eyelinered eye on her 3-year-old, who was roughly 45 percent engaged in watching Rad, a 1986 movie about a teenage BMX racer.
- David Shaw
- Imogen Binnie
What was your life like when you started writing Nevada?
I was either living in a little house in Berkeley or a place in Oakland, and I was working in a bookstore called Pegasus Books, which I will always love. I was also volunteering for an agency called Community United Against Violence, which was a domestic violence agency in the Bay Area that was specifically focused on working with queer people. And I was singing and playing guitar in a band called Angela Chase. We were kind of awesome and — I was gonna say "kind of terrible." But we were really terrible.
In what way were you terrible?
Well, I was a singer, and I'm not good at singing. That was, like, a flaw the band had.
[Binnie then receives an urgent summons from her 3-year-old, who wants her to join him in the living room for the scene in Rad in which Lori Loughlin and Bill Allen dance on their bicycles to a gauzy '80s synth-pop soundtrack. Binnie twirls around the room, and her son executes a few remarkably competent 360-degree turns on his small bike, which has no pedals.]
OK. What were we talking about?
You were saying that you were broke and living in the Bay Area.
Yeah. I was broke, and I was hanging out with the queers. And during that time, I was like, I have found a queer women's community. Why do I feel like shit all the time? I had been a reader forever — I did an English and psychology major as an undergraduate — and I had been working in bookstores for a long time. And I was like, Why is there no overlap here? Why am I seeing so little non-shit trans representation?
I didn't have the confidence to think, I'm gonna nail this and have an Italian publisher in 15 years. But I was also like, Well, why not? I had done zines and lots of making stuff with no expectation of having it get big, and that was the idea — that maybe this book would get published by some small press in the Bay Area. And it just kind of took off. I made so many things that nobody cared about. Like, it's lovely to have people be so stoked on this.
What was the evolution of Maria? Did you know who she was when you started the book?
Totally. I also knew who James was, and I knew the structure was going to be in two parts. I wanted to engage with the idea that being trans is relevant before and after transition. What's often seen as so fascinating about trans people is the transition, where they're, like, growing boobs or cutting off boobs or whatever — these things that the right wing of our country is so focused on right now. And I was like, No, I'm not going to give you that. So the book was about putting stuff on the table and playing with it the way I'm choosing to play with it, rather than giving you what you're expecting.
But Maria is kind of an archetype: a white trans woman who grew up middle class and then lost access to that. I've known a lot of Marias. To some extent, I was a Maria. And it's that thing in writing where you get more universal by getting really specific — I think part of the reason that the book has resonated outside of circles of trans women is that a lot of this is normal, human stuff. So much of Maria's internal monologue is just anxiety. This is what it looks like when we're stuck on a thing.
In the book, Maria copes by dissociating into this hyper-cerebral state. The only time she can really access her inner world is when she's writing on the internet. What's going on there?
The internet changed being trans, because you could explore this stuff in a way that was not about your face and your body, or being in a room with people, or being seen. I remember getting to college in 1997 and thinking, I have no idea what's going on with me, but now that I've got access to the internet, I'm gonna figure out my stuff.
For a lot of trans people, being a kid and not having the language or paradigm of being trans, or being able to be trans, is traumatic. And there's a trauma response that's about being in your head rather than in your body. I think Maria hasn't figured out how to be in her body, and she's trying to theorize her way out of a discomfort that's just, like, in her nervous system. You can't think your way through that.
The tone of Nevada is very much of the 2000s internet. I don't think I've ever read a book that so effectively employs "like" as a sentence-starting conjunction.
Yeah. Some people have responded poorly to that. But a big thing I was trying to do with Nevada in terms of tone was that, if we're taking trans women's experiences seriously, in a way that I've rarely seen anywhere, the prose has to grab you and sweep you along and get as close as possible to the person having these emotional experiences. I was trying to write things the way Maria would say them. So being that informal was a choice. We're not being pretentious. We're not doing gender theory.
Does your job as a therapist give you creative energy, or would you like to focus exclusively on your writing at some point?
I don't trust trying to make a living from writing, which probably comes from having been barely employable for so long and barely scraping by. I've written for a couple TV shows, and hustling to get work in LA is not appealing. I really want to be in Vermont now. And I like doing social work. I like connecting with people. It would be weird to just be in my room writing all day.
I would rather be in a position where I don't need to make a hit in order to live. Like, Nevada came from a place of audacity: Could you believe we might have a book about trans women that took our experiences seriously and also did literary things? Being able to write like that — to be able to say, "I have a terrible idea, and I'm gonna make this thing and not worry about selling it so we can pay our rent" — feels important to me.
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