Festival preview: Kaya Wilson

Ahead of his appearance at Byron Writers Festival 2021, author Kaya Wilson discusses his acclaimed memoir of gender transition and identity, As Beautiful as Any Other: A Memoir of My Body, and how his day job as a tsunami scientist crosses over with his writing.

What was the initial impetus to write the book? What were the key questions or ideas you were compelled to explore in the embryonic stage?

The embryonic stage was much more of a diarised account of transition and my life through 2016 onwards. It was raw and unconstructed. I basically wrote a 1,000-word essay every week on whatever was happening at the time. I didn’t set out to write a book as such, I just came home from the doctor after disclosing that I was questioning my gender and the first essay burnt out of me. It was a good process, I learnt a lot about what got me angry or sad or joyful and how I wanted to use my voice and what that voice would be. Looking back on those essays, I was able to be playful and try different things out. The process of learning about myself at that time included discarding a type of self-consciousness and that new freedom really shows up in the essays. The book became longer thematic essays based on that original writing and although that writing served a purpose, there’s a reason you’re not reading them!

What other books that deal with the transgender/queer experience might have served as influences on As Beautiful as Any Other?

There’s plenty of great trans literature out there. I’ve read Feinberg, Ortberg, Stryker and so on. Lately and locally, I’ve really enjoyed some of the graphic storytelling from Lee Lai and Fury. These are all influences that became a part of my thinking but if I was going to draw a direct line, I can’t go past Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, with the ease of transition between ideas. I would also include Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. My title is a bit of a tribute to that book, which itself is a tribute to James Baldwin. Coates is not queer but the book is queer in its anti-hegemonic stance. I also look to many writers, queer and not, often poets writing prose, for the kind of lyricism I enjoy. I just read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, which I found just breathtaking.

What were the biggest challenges in both writing the book from a technical standpoint, and then readying it for publication?

Anything bordering on memoir is never about just you. You write from within a community and a family, so finding a respectful balance that honours your own truth and does not overly impinge on anyone else’s is always going to be a challenge.

Encountering some kind of recognition and taking the right steps towards accessing a publisher is really difficult and a huge achievement on its own. I was extraordinarily lucky to be represented by Jane Novak from fairly early on and receive her advice. She is a literary matchmaker at heart with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Can you give an overview of how your work as a scientist had a bearing on writing of the book and its subject matter?

Working as a scientist has generally been a parallel experience to my writing and the convergence of the two has a lot of tension to it. I was doing a PhD in tsunami science at the same time as writing this book, so they will forever be linked in that way. Two things came directly out of it. Firstly, the dancing approach to chronology and creativity with descriptive language in the book were a kind of rebellion from the very prescribed and stringent writing style of academic science. In my creative writing this part of me was very much untethered and I suspect fertilised by the limitations I felt in my science world.

The other direct product of my science life was the inheritance chapter. Trans people generally have a well-founded mistrust of and reticence to engage with the establishment of science, in particular medical science. Science also has a philosophical hubris in method and declarations. Peer review is hallowed ground, nothing else is given much credence. I live in both worlds and I found myself exploring the treatment of transgender people and bodies within the peer-reviewed literature and a kind of quest science has been on to define the causes of queerness. This was murky territory that I felt compelled to enter and write about and redefine for myself as much as anyone else. Every so often a science article comes out with a headline about trans brains or something and I wanted to challenge the unexamined and damaging narrative that perpetuates. Nothing in that chapter is neutral.

How far has Australian literary culture come in recent times in serving diverse voices such as yours?

The Own Voices movement certainly feels like it is gathering momentum. In many festivals and publications, a white, straight uniformity is becoming unacceptable and we are hearing voices that were muffled in the past. But you know, these are slowly grinding gears. Appropriating marginalised voices doesn’t really carry much penalty in terms of popularity or sales. The burden of representation for the few marginalised voices that are published is very real as these voices still aren’t quite a chorus. It’s also hard to see what the changes are like behind the scenes. I’m fairly new to looking behind the curtain and I don’t quite yet understand the power structures that exist, but I welcome the changes that are happening.

What other writing projects do you plan to undertake in the future?

I’m not completely sure yet… something will take a hold of me, I’m sure about that. What it will be, I don’t know. I suspect I will want to give a bit of poetry to something that doesn’t normally get it. In the meantime, I’m enjoying free weekends and processing my new life as a published writer.

As Beautiful as Any Other: A Memoir of My Body is published by Picador Australia.

Byron Writers Festival