Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

beingjazzThis is a tough one to review. Jazz Jennings was fifteen when she wrote it, and I want to say things like “this is a book written by a teenage girl, so take it with a grain of salt”, but there’s something about that that feels icky and dismissive of teenagers. Teenagers are as complicated as adults, albeit in different ways, and are capable of creating amazing art. I don’t want to write this book off because it was written by someone who was fifteen.

Jazz writes with a lot of heart, compassion, and authenticity. It’s obvious she cares deeply about the trans advocacy work she’s doing, and the simple fact that she’s doing it is absolutely worth celebrating. So often teenagers are dismissed as not being whole people, their voices ignored, and so this book, which is so clearly her own–her voice, her story, her insecurities, her triumphs–feels both worthwhile and important.

I think the larger problem with this book, for me, has to do with the essence of memoir itself. It’s hard to write a memoir without the clarity of distance. It’s hard to reflect on events and experiences when you’re still experiencing them. I loved that this was a whole book written by a trans teenage girl, in which she simply writes about what she cares about, but it lacked depth. I don’t think that’s Jazz’s fault. I don’t think it’s because she was only fifteen when she wrote it, or because the things she was writing about weren’t worthy of a memoir. I think it’s because the book lacked that central element of successful memoirs: reflection.

To me, this book read like a (sometimes problematic) Trans 101, grounded in Jazz’s own unique experience, rather than a memoir. I found myself mostly unmoved by it. That sounds callous, and I don’t mean it to. Jazz is articulate and courageous and it’s impossible not to both respect and root for her. It’s just that the book felt like an even split between sections intended to educate cis readers about trans issues, anecdotes about middle school drama, and celebrity encounters. Without any sort of reflective lens, middle school drama is just pretty damn boring.

The fact that I wasn’t super impressed or moved might be partly because I’m not the target audience for this sort of book. As a cis reader, I try to seek out as many books by trans writers as I can. There is no such thing as “the trans experience”, only the unique experience of every trans person. I try to read as many different kinds of stories as I can, in an effort to push back against the dominant cultural narrative that tends to stereotype trans people in ways that are violent and hurtful. But this book (though I loved Jazz’s honesty) didn’t open any new doors for me. I can see how it absolutely might do so for other readers, and I especially think that teen readers might be more engaged with it, as it deals with things that are more relevant to teen lives than to mine.

There were moments throughout where, as a queer cis reader, I felt uncomfortable. There’s a lot in the narrative that felt very heteronormative and dismissive of those who fall outside the gender binary. There were a few instances where Jazz refers to groups of people as “he or she”, rather than simply using “them”, which was disappointing. Jazz writes a lot in the first part of the book about her experience as a young kid, and how she was always drawn to “girl” clothes and “girl” toys. My criticism has nothing to do with Jazz’s own experience, which is obviously hers to write about however she chooses. But there was little to no discussion in the text surrounding heteronormative gender stereotypes (be they about clothing, toys, behavior, or appearance), and the ways they harm both trans people and cis people.

I don’t want to explain away the things I found problematic about this book because of Jazz’s age. It’s disrespectful both to her own intelligence and capacity for empathy and understanding, and to all the trans kids out there who don’t have the privilege and support that she did, who are also poor or of color, who are living within a system that often does not understand or include them. It seems likely to me that twenty-five or thirty-five or forty year-old Jazz might have written a more nuanced book–not because she’d be older, but because she’d have had the advantage of refection.

All that said, this is still a book worth reading, and a book that I am so glad is in the world. Despite all my criticism surrounding its shortcomings as a memoir, there’s still something liberating and wonderful about a fifteen year old deciding to just go ahead and write one anyway. It didn’t speak deeply to me personally, but I have no doubt it will speak to others. Please don’t make this the only trans memoir you read. But definitely make it one of them.

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