By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
Kirstin Cronn-Mills has already been asked the question.
Yes, she believes a straight woman can write a convincing story about a transsexual man.
“If people give me the attention because I’m straight and white,” Cronn-Mills said, “then I want to step aside and make space for other people to tell their stories.”
The Mankato author whose first novel for young adults, “The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind,” was published in 2009 and was a 2010 finalist for the Minnesota Book Award for Young People’s Literature, is also an English instructor at South Central College. She’s inclined to approach her writing with a certain academic weight and said the subject matter for her latest novel, “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children,” was not chosen lightly.
She thinks about her responsibility as a writer partly in terms of privilege. She being the white, educated, relatively affluent female should consider using her privileged standing in society to empower more marginalized populations.
And, as Cronn-Mills notes, young adult literature is “not the world’s best place for diversity.”
Her first novel concerned a high school female who grapples with sexuality after discovering a female classmate has a crush on her. In her latest, Cronn-Mills said she wanted to illuminate the experience of a transsexual teen beyond the so-called “coming out” moment most often portrayed in the media.
She made several visits to RECLAIM, a Twin Cities-based organization that offers counseling and other services to transsexual and LGBT youth, where she spent time gathering the day-to-day realities of transgender individuals. (Anyone who makes a $10 donation to the organization will receive a free copy of Cronn-Mills’ book).
The result is a novel that reflects the protagonist, Gabe Williams, as more than a startling gender revelation.
Gabe is a high school senior at Maxfield West, one of two high schools in the town that Cronn-Mills based not-so-loosely on Mankato. He’s the voice behind an eclectic, late-night show at the local radio station and a hopelessly addicted music junkie. He’s best friends with John, an older neighbor and music guru who is reputed to be the first man to play Elvis on the airwaves, and Paige, the popular girl in school.
Like so many of his peers, Gabe is hassled by his parents to get a job, clams up whenever he sees Heather Graves in the cafeteria and is unsure what to do with his future.
“The public’s view of LGBT individuals is often reduced to their coming out,” said Cronn-Mills, whose novel was released in September by Flux, A Twin Cities-based publishing imprint for young adult literature.
“Gabe also digs John (his musical mentor), music, girls -- stuff that takes him beyond the coming out narrative. As Gabe says in the book, he’s ‘just a guy.’”
And he’s a guy that Cronn-Mills strove to portray as realistically as possible.
The author’s language reflects the realities of teenage usage. Conversations between characters reflect the realities of teenage life. And Cronn-Mills’ prose spares little in exchange for subtlety (but what teenager does?).
Her portrayal of Gabe’s life is frank and unflinching. She includes the time Gabe nearly jumped off a bridge in junior high after getting his first period, and also the moment he purchases a prosthetic penis online.
She also illustrates a spectrum of reactions to Gabe’s transformation. His parents react distantly to his decision to trade a life as their daughter for that of their son. And his best friend Paige has her own moments of reluctance.
Fans of his radio show -- who call themselves the Ugly Children Brigade and conduct clandestine acts of (mostly innocent) public graffiti -- seem accepting at first. But when Gabe is officially outed to his fans, he is threatened verbally, then physically, by a pair of masked assailants.
“Violence, unfortunately, is part of the gay life,” Cronn-Mills said. “But by including the violence, I also get to include the people who pick Gabe up after the violence.”
Among them is John, a winning character whose longtime friendship with Gabe centers around their shared passion for music.
A former father and husband, John lives alone with only his collection of records, tapes and CDs to fill his home. John’s immediate acceptance of Gabe propels the protagonist to begin broadcasting his true self to the world.
Each week, John and Gabe pore over records in their collection to put together that week’s playlist for the radio show. From Prince and Mott the Hoople to Jerry Mungo, Rihanna and The Ramones, music becomes a binding force between the pair.
Cronn-Mills said the music in her novel has a biographical root in her life.
“I grew up in Nebraska, and on a good, clear night, we could hear KLMA from Oklahoma City,” said Cronn-Mills, whose blog at kirstincronn-mills.com includes a 10-hour playlist of all the tracks mentioned in the book. “Radio is an essential part of my life.”
To date, Cronn-Mills has received mostly positive, and several glowing reviews of her book. Still, she’s encountered some skepticism. She is careful to note that Gabe is not representative of all transsexual individuals. Rather, he is a character who exists “within the realm of possibility.”
Cronn-Mills said she never felt pressure to change any parts of her story to make it more marketable And she credited Flux for allowing her to write the story the way she envisioned.
“Sometimes, stories about people that are minority-cultured don’t sell,” she said. “And publishing is a business. ... Flux isn’t afraid to be edgy. They were the right ones to publish this book.”