Novel Re-Imagines Ancient Transgender Myth

Photo: Ali Smith

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The Greek goddess Iphis, raised a boy by her mother Telethusa to escape fatal persecution, had to jump through a lot of Olympic-sized hoops to marry the woman she loved. But considering today's process, she had a sweet deal. Iphis and her mother were pretty close, so instead of the routine sex change operation (sadly not an option for deity minors), Telethusa prayed desperately for her offspring and Iphis received her endowment promptly before the wedding ceremony. No scars, no hormone supplements and no side glances on MUNI. Y to X chromosome faster than the line at Cheese-N-Stuff.


In "Girl Meets Boy," Ali Smith takes this idealistic, almost unfairly happy parable and wraps it around her cynical, poetic finger. She depicts title female Anthea's love for title male (yet female) Iphis with raw literary landscapes ("Every vein in my body was capable of carrying light, like a river seen from a train makes a channel of sky etch itself deep into a landscape"), artistically comparable only to the endless Utah frontier in John Ford's westerns. Yet Smith can sum up the relationship between Anthea's sister Imogen and her lover Paul in utterly laconic terms; "I feel met by you," Paul says to Imogen.

The sisters alternate narrating the story, each with a voice so distinct that it's hard to believe Smith didn't collaborate with someone. Younger Anthea, upon re-discovering her sexuality, exudes vivacious curiosity, while elder Imogen struggles with a loquacious conscience and playing a maternal role to her daydreaming sister. Iphis, the mythical creature causing all the ruckus, is reincarnated as Iphisol, the alter ego of Robin, a controversial graffiti artist whose motivation is as mysterious as her gender.

For such a fast read, the novel tackles a bevy of controversial issues. And despite its UK setting, the storyline transcends national boundaries. Imogen considers working for Pure, a bottled water company with corporate aspirations, but shudders at the idea of a life of vertically integrated marketing strategies and public deception. She suffers in silence from anorexia, which only magnifies her Type-A personality. Her personal discomfort with Anthea's sexual orientation is pacified by addressing homophobia in a troubling, neurotic inner monologue about the stigma of words like "gay," "normal" and even "dyke." Imogen's perspective, though somewhat masochistic, gives a thoughtful voice to skeptics outside the LGBT community. Her diplomatic facade grows tremendously, and she learns to compromise with personal ideology.

Anthea, meanwhile, references Facebook and MySpace as confusing teenage milieus: "Whenever I tried to access myself, whenever I'd try to click on me it was as if I knew that one morning I'd wake up and try to log on to find that not even that version of 'I' existed anymore." In redefining her sexual orientation, she finds an interactive identity is equally harder to pinpoint. But Iphisol's intrigue is the true stimulus for Anthea to find purpose and action in her young life.

The myth of Iphis plays a delicate supporting role, making occasional appearances in dialogue. Iphisol holds her namesake in heroic esteem, honoring the myth deeply: "I love Iphis ... Dressed as a boy to save her life. Standing in a field, shouting at the way things are." Instead of shouting, though, a la Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," Iphisol defaces public property. Smith's words have never made a public offense more admirable.

Deface public property with Stefanie at [email protected]

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