Much has been said and written of Nandini Krishnan’s book Invisible Men. From calling her out on transphobic attitudes to wrongful representation to unethical reporting, her book seems to have done it all. So where can I begin this review?
This book begins with a foreword that basically states that no one knows the world of trans-men. The writer, Manu Joseph, goes to lengths to display his inadequate knowledge by calling trans-men “women”. Today, there is ample information on how to address people within the LGBTQI+ community. Yet we have here, an obvious lack of understanding.
Manu Joseph is in great pain, trying to understand this book and its contents. Maybe he would understand it better, if he read the book.
This book is written entirely from the angle of someone masquerading as a ‘voice’ of the unlucky. For someone who has claimed to have done in-depth, even anthropological research on trans-men, there is a surprising lack of care in the narrative to curb the surprise. Throughout her narratives about Charupriyan, Selvam and Kiran, she is very surprised at their performance of masculinity. For a reader with little or no idea about the trans-male identity, this would be a very negative starting point, as it leaves one with the impression that trans-men are not quite men.
My review places before the reader what I feel is a gross misunderstanding of an already underrepresented community and identity. The segments of narrative where Krishnan manages to take herself out of the narrative are rather interesting to read. It is when she comes in with her need to explain and absolve herself of her impostor complex that the narrative gets hard to read.
From discussing how Bharatanatyam left her enamoured by ultra-femininity to shuddering at the thought of an ‘organ’ dangling between her legs, Krishnan sets the premise that she is definitely not wanting to become a man. Hence, surprise and shock. We see this throughout the book. The section of the book that records stories of trans-men from across the globe (well, mostly the West) is interesting and could be fertile ground for more research. As is the part where she has detailed conversations with cis-women partners of the trans-men she interviews. These two aspects can really reveal a very nuanced understanding of this microcosm, but one is left bereft of a narrative that ties these stories together.
The book does reach an interesting point when Krishnan reports the thoughts of Gayathri and Kavya, partners of Charupriyan and Kiran respectively. The narratives of spouses or partners is also fodder for a more developed perspective on the trans-male network. But it falls short again because of a reluctance to engage properly with this subject. Specifically, she shies away from delving into the details of transitioning and how hard it is for ‘femme’ presenting partners to deal with how this changes and moulds the relationship. These nuances have been mentioned as reportage, but this book could be so much more if there was some care given to them.
Maybe it is a pet peeve, but is it really necessary to keep referring to trans-men as ‘Transmen’? Her reiteration betrays a lack of concern, an absence of empathy. At times the author takes on a very cruel stance, like with her callous comments on suicide. She laments that those who aren’t with us did not see the love. There might be merit in wondering why people may have taken their lives, but to actually say that someone (Deepu, in this case) could only see the hate when there was so much love around them, is cruel.
When she speaks of the ways in which trans-masculine people structure and script their stories, there is a note of surprise. If the author had taken some time to think about the nature of coming out, with reference to trans-people, she would not mark her surprise so clearly. This betrays a lack of depth in thought and understanding. She states that coming out to the media is seen as more heroic. Maybe that is true for some. But the hierarchy she alludes to is problematic. Her assumption that it exists for all trans-people even more so.
Making one experience the same for all identities is not just insensitive, but also irresponsible reportage. If one has to distance oneself from a subject, then that note needs to be carried throughout the book. Her own voice is inaudible while chronicling some narratives, while with others she is unable to step away and makes some very problematic comments. For instance, she is very critical of Kiran’s disability which she blames on his parents’ inability to treat his polio.
There are points when she gets introspective enough to question her presence in the narrative. But this also is only lip service, as she doesn’t interrogate why she must ‘represent’ the voice of her subjects.
Others have reviewed this book for its blatant disregard of the voices of trans-men, and for its nonchalant attitude towards a community that is already lacking visibility. My critique is of her reportage. Where is her voice when it comes to speaking about those she feels have some agency? Why is she removing herself only from some narratives?
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