Some personal fragments of memoir serve as an introduction to the article, which eschews overdetermined theorisation in favour of an approach of storying and reading reparatively. An image combining the bisexual and transgender Pride flags visually expresses the value of a shared queer identity with different manifestations. This forms a springboard for the analysis of two memoirs: Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa (2016), by Anastacia Tomson, and Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph (2018), by Landa Mabenge. The analytical tool used is Leah Anderst’s suggestion of three tracks of narrative empathy, which invite the reader to respond to numinous scenes involving the narrating-I of the present of the text, the experiencing-I of the past, and other characters respectively. The article argues that through the process of narrative empathy in reading memoirs, an imaginative experience of conviviality can be forged, which imbues contamination with positive energy, and builds bridges between perceptions of difference, with possible real-life increases in empathy and altruism.

All hail the May Queen! There I am, sitting enthroned alongside the May King. I am wearing a long white gown and cradling a bouquet, while the King wears white trousers and shirt; both of us sport long trains, which two attendants of the appropriate sex held as we processed up the kindergarten path to our coronation with floral coronets. My only surviving, spectral photograph of the event shows a row of little boys on the left, and a row of little girls on the right, all in white and barefoot, who threw petals over us on our way to the dais. Aged four, we look like a miniature bridal entourage, and this has the appearance of a festive celebration at a small school in Durban, South Africa, in the mid-1950s. For me, however, the build-up to the grand day was fraught, as my mother had no idea about ancient rituals of England or appropriate attire and working on the concept of “beauty queen”, she made me a satin sash emblazoned with my title as May Queen. The kindergarten teacher, a woman of strong opinions, denounced this abomination, and eventually won the battle of wills. My strained expression in the photograph bears witness to my tumult of emotions at having the sash removed from my shoulder. I imagine I must have felt simultaneously embarrassed, ashamed, sorry for my mother, angry with her and the teacher, and relieved that the fuss was over.

Looking back over many decades at this memory, I discern patterns that entrenched a sense of difference in my psyche. May Day has deep ancient roots in Europe, as it marked the cusp of spring and summer, and celebrated the coming season of warmth and plenty. However, in the southern hemisphere the opposite seasons rendered this ceremony inappropriate. Similar imported colonial templates were constantly disturbing to me as I grew up. My parents were born in South Africa into the working classes, never travelled outside the country’s borders, and had no affiliations with the United Kingdom. School presented me with a different field of reference and terminology; I oscillated between what was practised at home and what was preached at school—and church—and I learned code-switching as a survival skill.

The white clothes worn for May Day symbolised the purity and innocence of childhood, and the colour white was traditionally associated with angels and the virginity of a bride. At that time in South Africa, all the children in the kindergarten were “white”, a word that perplexed me as we were not actually white, and black people were not actually black. As a member of the white minority—linguistically, culturally and politically riven between speakers of Afrikaans and English—I was privileged in multiple ways under the reprehensible racist regime of the ruling Nationalist Party. Despite the uniting factor of white apparel for this May Day celebration, the gender division was clear in the placement of children in the tableau. The usual colour worn by girls from the time of birth was pink, representing softness, gentleness and unconditional love, while boys were dressed in blue, associated with strength, courage and confidence. The rhyme that dictated appropriate colour choice in clothes for girls declared: “Pink and blue will never do; All the boys will wink at you.” This portrayed boys as active pursuers, while girls bore the responsibility of avoidance by appropriate behaviour. As I reflect on this faded photograph, I discern the early imprinting of ideologically laden binaries of gender, race, class and sexuality. I further note how a hierarchical order was naturalised in this carnivalesque scene, as epitomised by the king and queen at the top, the attendants below, and the ordinary children onlookers at the bottom. Life was a competition with crowned winners, although the criteria were unclear, and even success was no guarantor of happiness.

The home also had lessons to impart. My mother told me stories of her own childhood, four decades previously, in Cedar Road, Durban. The denizens were widely varied. There was the Bradshaw family. Mrs Bradshaw, Phyllis, was branded by a friend of my mother’s as a PRW, which was explained to me afterwards as meaning a Point Road Woman, a woman of loose morals. Mr Bradshaw committed suicide and was discovered hanging by his eleven-year-old daughter, Joy. (Are these two snippets what E.M. Forster called story, or could they be configured into plot? Was there in the juxtaposition an implied causality?[1]) Then there was Frank Appleby, who was labelled, in the terminology of that time, a “hermaphrodite”. He always wore a jacket, no matter how hot the weather, to conceal his breasts. Despite (or because of) being part of a small, close-knit community, these individuals suffered narrative categorisation and memorialisation based on a single attribute of difference. The only occupant of the small road whose name is widely remembered today is Miss Esther Roberts, who lived in the biggest house on the corner. One of the first women anthropologists in South Africa, she performed ground-breaking work on Zulu traditions and culture as well as the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church, the second largest, African initiated church based in South Africa.[2] Her home is now a museum, and she was honoured by having the road next to her house named after her. From all these stories of my mother I imbibed ideas about difference, shame and success, including the policing of women’s sexuality, the possibility of sexual variation, and the value of education and progressive thinking outside one’s own cultural framework.

Religion was a source of confusion and terror for me. Having been indoctrinated into various forms of binarism, I was intrigued to attend the Roman Catholic wedding ceremony of one of my father’s co-workers, a Zulu man named Cletus, and observe what I would later term syncretism. The wedding ceremony was a High Mass. Cletus was wearing a traditional isiphandla, or goatskin wristband, that connotes a connection to ancestral guardian spirits,[3] and the bride was heavily pregnant, frowned on both by the Church and according to traditional strictures on premarital sex and pregnancy, although “many easily forgive the transgression because it provides evidence of fertility”, which was an important aspect of Zulu women’s social role.[4]

My beloved father maintained there are more hypocrites inside the church than outside it, and he read me adult fiction, including The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Sherlock Holmes stories, The Time Machine and The Scarlet Pimpernel, all of which foregrounded the effects of hypocrisy and social injustice, and emphasised rationality, consequences for actions, kindness and hope. When I was eleven my father died, and I was comforted, not by religion or thoughts of an afterlife, but by his final words, addressing a vision of his favourite brother, George, who died at Delville Wood in the final year of the First World War: “Oh Georgie,” my dad said, “you’ve come for me!” This survival of familial love struck me as luminous, profound and transcendent.

My parents were not typical role models in their relationships with me: my father was more nurturing, and my mother more assertive and punitive. I was told that they once dressed in each other’s clothes for a fancy-dress party. My mother enjoyed singing, accompanied by a gay man, Harold Brymer. On one occasion my parents threw a party, and my mother caught Harold kissing another man in the kitchen. Appalled, she told him never to do that again in her house. What was I to make of these confusing stories? There were differences from the norm in gender roles and sexuality, and although they violated customs and laws, they were tolerated as long as they were within acceptable limits, or for fun, or concealed. I encountered people with disabilities, including severe mental disability, and my parents and I were friendly with Jewish people. I was shocked when my mother explained why some of her friends had numbers tattooed on their left forearms. Such observations opened my eyes to the horrors of being ostracised, or worse, for being considered social contaminants. Distrust and discrimination were rife in wider society, which consisted of an oppressed black majority and other officially designated races. Within the race groups there were also fault lines, in language, religion and politics. Being a poor, white, English-speaking girl with some scepticism towards Christianity placed me in a miniscule minority of outsiders.

Adolescence was perplexing to me at a time in South Africa when draconian laws regulated conduct in terms of heteronormativity as well as racial stratification. First, I fell innocently in love with a girl, and marvelled as my heart leapt in her presence. Then I discovered I also found boys attractive. Books from the library had long been my source of understanding and virtual conviviality, and I stumbled upon a book which mentioned the customs of ancient Greek and Roman men, who engaged in homosexual as well as heterosexual practices. My gaydar twitched and developed as I discerned the meaning of coded references in other books, but as these all concerned boys and men, my questions concerning women’s sexuality of whatever stripe remained unanswered. In adulthood I completed an MA in Women’s Studies, writing a dissertation on women characters in South African novels who flouted social taboos by engaging in sexual relations with men of other races. Spurred by my own acknowledgement of my sexuality, I subsequently encountered the slew of texts that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s on the topic of bisexuality. This became the topic of my PhD thesis, focusing on South African fiction published after apartheid, and since then I have published widely on representations of gender, including transgender, and sexuality in a range of South/African and other texts. These vignettes from my life gesture towards the effects of ideological state apparatuses on my development, and the possibilities which burgeoned in a democratic South Africa.

As already mentioned, the colours I encountered early in life were white and pink and blue. Another dimension now enters the picture, as depicted in the bi flag, which consists of three stripes: bright pink on top, representing attraction to the same gender; blue at the bottom, representing attractions to different genders; and the combinational colour in the middle, purple, representing attraction regardless of sex or gender. Rallying behind a flag bestows a sense of identity and community, which promotes conviviality, but the danger of identity politics is that it can become exclusionary. The challenge I have faced as a reader, an academic and a literary critic is to use my earlier experiences and empathy to engage in fruitful contamination—used as a reclaimed term expressing radical possibility—in order to analyse cultural artefacts. The narrative of self-exposure of aspects of my childhood that I have recounted to this point reveals my positionality, vulnerability and impulse for meaningful connection, which provide the bedrock for my response to two transgender memoirs in the later part of this article. The trans flag consists of three colours (which also featured in the first part of my story), in five stripes: white in the middle, light pink on either side of the white stripe, and light blue at top and bottom. The pink and blue represent traditional colours for baby girls and baby boys, respectively, while the white represents intersex, transitioning, or a neutral or undefined gender. The following image shows a pairing between the two flags, demonstrating my aim.

nimaid, The Bisexual Transgender Flag (version 2b), 2019 [5]
This image illustrates convivial dialogue and understanding between the categories of bisexuality and transgender. As Max Wolf Valerio observes, transgender and bisexual individuals:

can both celebrate the capacity of human beings to experience and claim revelation. The bisexual breaks the rule that you must choose between man and woman; the trans[gender individual] violates the rule that you must be recognizably and distinctly either a man or a woman your entire life from birth to death. The idea that people carry within them the capacity and the desire to radically alter their biological sex and social gender […] is experienced by many as heresy. The wilful claiming of a unique and perplexing revelation.[6]

This quotation illuminates the consonances between bisexual and transgender identities, which both possess a transgressive capacity to challenge systems and raise questions about gender, sexuality and political meaning. However, both are also firmly shaped by and embedded in the basic, although mutable, frameworks of gendered living in different social contexts. There are marked differences between the lived experiences of cisgender bisexuals and trans women and men. For instance, while cisgender bisexual men and women encounter discrimination and biphobia, they may also enjoy possibilities beyond heteronormative constraints, as well as perhaps being accorded heterosexual privilege. However, trans people face considerably more stigma, vilification, harassment and, on occasion, worse, associated with their affirmation of their gender identity. I argue that the two transgender autobiographies I analyse actively appeal to a reader’s empathetic response by the use of various techniques that call for identification and model the value of empathy towards represented previous manifestations of the self and others. My own vectors of identity, in particular my bisexuality, colour my responses and degree of identification within these texts as I use my fragments of autobiography as a point of departure for my discussion of narrative empathy. Other readers will also find points of connection in the various appeals to intimacy and empathy embodied in both books.

There are various theories which underpin my discussion, which will be handled in thumbnail style. My chosen interpretive mode is reparative reading, a term developed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a methodology that engages with literature receptively, rather than through the influential mode of the hermeneutics of suspicion, which Sedgwick terms paranoid reading.[7] The form of reparative reading is one of attachment rather than detachment. Robyn Wiegman comments that reparative reading is favoured by many queer feminist critics, as it replaces a literary criticism based on “correction, rejection, and anger” with positive attachments including compassion, affection, solidarity and even love, enabling the critic to “value, sustain and privilege the object’s worldly inhabitations and needs.”[8] An apposite term employed by Wiegman is that of “feeling backwards”,[9] which is the mode in which I began this essay, situating my own history and memories as a basis for my response to the subjectivities revealed in the two memoirs I am to discuss: Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa (2016), by Anastacia Tomson,[10] and Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph, by Landa Mabenge (2018).[11]

This emphasis on a personal reaction to literature, rather than an abstract application of a template of theory to a text, in which the critic disappears, has recently been adopted by respected South African literary critic Michael Chapman, who describes it as a “storyable” response of “an attachment of the voice of the work to the voice of the critic” in which “the feel of the work begins to inhabit the feel of the critical response, and vice versa.”[12] This critical lens and practice, which privileges narrative over thick theory, is similar to my own approach in this essay, and is particularly appropriate to a contemporary South Africa, which is riven with so many differences and myths that the finding of common ground in reading and writing constitutes an act of bridge-building.

There are potential perils in the use of transitive or “contaminating” dual subjectivity in writing and critical practices: it too is time-bound; it can veer into mere self-indulgence and navel-gazing, providing another way of placing a template on the work of literature being examined than theory does; and the focus may be so specifically on one issue that others are downplayed, belittled or misrepresented. In considering who speaks, for whom, and who listens attentively and receptively, an intersectional viewpoint offers a corrective to some limitations of using subjectivity as a tool in literary criticism. In addition, considering specific instances of similarity and difference guards against inappropriate over-identification, speaking for the other/author, or harsh judgements.

Using my own fragments of memoir based on my intersectional subjectivity, foregrounding my marginality based on the bisexual vector of my identity, allows me to engage with certain similarities and differences in the two memoirs compared with my own experiences. Distinct but similar negative stereotypes and cognitive rigidity lead to prejudice towards bisexual and transgender people on the basis of ambiguity intolerance and essentialist beliefs.[13] However, research also reveals that encountering counter-stereotypes promotes more flexible thinking, and reduces prejudice.[14] Other research tracks enhanced empathy in people reading a fictional story that emotionally transports them.[15] The first-person, intimate voice of autobiography or memoir, with its reference to the real world and real people, makes a special claim on the emotional response and understanding of the reader. I would suggest it functions effectively to reduce ambiguity intolerance, essentialist beliefs and prejudice, and increase empathy.

While literary critics examining the genre of autobiography have generally suggested that a standard readerly response is a hermeneutics of suspicion, Leah Anderst adopts an approach much more in line with my own in this article.[16] Anderst bases her work on the philosophical theory of empathy developed by Peter Goldie, who explains it as entering imaginatively into another’s experience as recounted in a narrative.[17] While empathy has consonances with sympathy, emotional identification and emotional contagion, Goldie characterises it as a complex, intentional act of perceiving another, fully characterised person’s point of view of affective and cognitive states embedded in a narrative, and allowing for imaginative re-enactment.[18] Anderst explores the ways in which two autobiographies call readers to intimacy through clear instances of internal, narrative empathy that “show the way and lead readers down multiple paths toward affective responses, toward empathy, paths already foreseen and cleared by the [writers’] own narrative empathy” with themselves in the past and with represented family members.[19]

As trans journeys are always specific and personal, there are also noteworthy differences between Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa and Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph. Significant contrasts between the two authors’ experiences of transitioning stem from factors including race (Tomson is white, Mabenge Black); place (Tomson’s book is set in Johannesburg, and Mabenge’s in Mthatha, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town); religion (born into Judaism and Christianity respectively); and gender (Tomson is a woman, and Mabenge a man). However, the texts also share common features in their fleshing out of the trans flag’s pink, white and blue. Both memoirs describe instances of bodily dysphoria, and the problems associated with living in a limbo of contamination of neither/nor and both/and as they travel from inhabiting one gender identity as perceived by others to an authentic, chosen one. Both Tomson and Mabenge itemise troubling and distressing issues with family members, school, religion, the medical establishment and officialdom. However, both also express their gratitude for the empathy they experience from others: family, friends, employers, and virtual as well as in-person support groups of similarly positioned individuals. In addition, both attain much gratification and convivial response from their own activism.

In terms of the form of autobiographical writing, Anderst’s discussion of the three tracks employed as readers respond to the authors’ implicit call for understanding and an empathetic response is useful for my own analysis of the two memoirs. In the first track of narrative empathy the autobiographer directly connects with the reader; in the second track the narrating-I of the present explores the effects of experiences of the past on the experiencing-I; and in the third track the narrating-I connects with other characters, modelling empathy.

In the first track of experiencing narrative empathy, concerning the ways in which the author reaches out directly to the reader, the laying bare of intention offers the possibility of readerly identification and sympathy. Always Anastacia achieves this effect variously. In the first place, she directly addresses the reader in the Preface, comparing her own experiences as a trans woman with her hopes for the reader’s reaction to her memoir: “I chose to combat prejudice and hatred with empathy and understanding. […] I entrust my secrets to you. All I ask for in return is your compassion.”[20] This intimate address calls upon a reader to respond ethically and kindly to the disclosures to follow, as one would hope for a similar reciprocal respect when sharing secrets in one’s own life.

Further ways in which Tomson connects with the reader, albeit not as directly as in this first instance, include: revealing the techniques of handling the material, which is not chronologically organised; the narrating self’s changing attitudes towards her body, nakedness and photographs of herself; exposés of social prejudice; and the sharing of hard-won triumphs. Each of the 45 brief chapters is headed by a title and a number on a positive/negative axis, accompanied by a date, such as the first chapter: “With pride”, Day 0, 1 July 2015. The narrative then proceeds in achronological order, with 35 chapters set in the negative zone prior to day 0, when the narrating-I has left her former employment as a doctor in a joint practice and has publicly shared her trans identity, interspersed with 10 chapters in the positive zone after this watershed moment. The specific dates suggest the keeping of a journal, while the numerical scale suggests a different mode of reckoning; the kaleidoscopic order, the shifting tenses between past, present and past perfect, as well as the use of different fonts suggest the imposition of an original mode of communication between author and reader, the decoding of the thematic significance of which relies on empathetic engagement with the workings of non-linear memory, both one’s own and the author’s. Conventional patterns are shown to exist, but their contamination allows for imaginative entry into another’s shaping consciousness that transcends rigid scales or linearity. Participating in this process of reassembly aligned with the trans experience chimes with my own experience of actively creating meaning from fragmented elements.

The next way in which Tomson reaches out to the reader is through representations of her changing attitudes towards her own body and photographic images of it as she transitions. She describes her disaffection with her younger manifestation in terms of her genitals, but on Day 0 she observes her nakedness with joy: “Now, standing in front of my mirror, naked and exposed, I don’t feel vulnerable. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of me. I am worthy. Majestic. Freedom is mine at last. […] The future belongs to Anastacia.”[21] Previously masculine attire felt ill-fitting, physically and metaphorically, but once she expresses her femininity in clothing and through the effect of hormones, she increasingly relishes her sense of comfort in her own body as depicted in selfies and professional images, validated by friends and family.

Tomson’s descriptions of examples of social prejudice and oppression suffered by her, and even more severely, as she points out, by South Africans less cushioned by privileged than she is, are heart-rending. She notes: “Being trans, especially visibly so, is dangerous. Often, it meant being shunned by friends, rejected by family and harassed on the street. Sometimes, it even meant being beaten up, raped or murdered.”[22] This unemotional, factual account serves to mobilise the reader’s affective responses of horror and empathy. By contrast, the moments of success, such as when the I-persona chooses a resonant forename for herself, Anastacia, and when she learns to use “not just my speech, but my voice” with the assistance of her speech therapist, are filled with a joy that I find infectious.[23] Readers may also be interpellated into considering to what extent they possess the freedom to express themselves authentically, fully, or against the grain of convention. As Anderst comments: “Telling stories about ourselves presupposes a certain amount of intimate sharing with an audience, and that intimacy, even though it remains one-sided, as it must in the reading of an autobiography, can prepare the way for a reader’s empathetic response to the autobiographer or to others within the narrative”.[24]

The second track of narrative empathy to be considered concerns the trajectory of affect between the narrating-I of the present and the experiencing-I of the past, and the effects of these on the reader. One instance in which this can be observed in Always Anastacia is when the narrating-I recounts her feelings towards different phases of her experiencing-I: “I mourned my childhood scars, my adolescence spent in isolation, my lost young adulthood. I felt sorry for the child I had been, and I had sympathy for the adult I’d become,”[25] This in-between zone is represented in terms of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “This was limbo, the grey area between sorrow and jubilation, exile and redemption, injury and convalescence. Male and female. The box in which I was the cat.”[26] The anguish is palpable in this place of contamination or interstice, where two states, the former and the one-to-come, are present, but the stakes are lethal.

A further example of the attitude of the narrating-I to the experiencing-I occurs when the age-old, self-pitying cry of “Why me?” erupts in the experiencing-I (a cry which may be familiar to many readers). The narrating-I comments that it’s impossible not to feel aggrieved about her unsolicited quirk of fate, but concludes with a sage reminder to self to direct inwards the same empathy conveyed towards others: “you try to treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding that you show to your patients.”[27]

The narrating-I describes her rupture with her Jewish faith, having experienced little compassion and understanding, instead feeling like an imposter, and rejected because she is transgender. She registers discomfort at disturbing elements in the sacred texts of Judaism that include endorsement of slavery, the murder of innocents and violent revenge. In addition, she is offended by the misogyny embedded in daily prayer recited by men, giving thanks to God for not making them women. She expresses her inability to reconcile her own value system with the religion in which she was raised, and this tussle with the precepts of organised religion may be a familiar one to some readers, enabling empathetic connection with the author and narrator.

A final example of the second track of narrative empathy flowing between temporal variants of the narrator occurs in the final chapter, which is also the last chronological day recounted by the narrating-I. In this chapter, titled “Break-up”, the experiencing-I symbolically kills off her masculine persona by throwing out all his clothes. However, she empathetically connects with her former self and accepts her own role in acquiescence to social pressure and norms. She concludes with a scene of catharsis:

I know he’d been bad for me, but that he’d wished he hadn’t been. I cry for him, knowing he’d done his best, but that he’d never felt it was enough. I let my tears flow, the way his never had.

When the bags are sealed and his scent is gone, I forgive him. I forgive myself.

And I forgive the person I had tried so desperately to be.[28]

This empathetic bidding farewell to “Him” is a fitting testament to a split-self accepting the past and embracing a holistic future.

The third track of narrative empathy in memoirs involves the thread of communication between the narrating-I, other characters and the reader. This is seen in Always Anastacia during descriptions of the narrating-I imagining the dread in the minds of family and friends contemplating that a trans woman may look like “‘a man in a dress’ (as if this is the ultimate horror!).”[29] She visualises the possible reactions of intimates, while simultaneously laughing at this projected horror. This displays a capacity to accept the imagined responses of others, while preserving her self-esteem and dignity. The economical portrayal of this mix of emotions is likely to inspire recognition of similar wry perceptions in readers’ minds, enabling empathy. Instances where the narrating-I describes appreciation for understanding, warmth and compassionate support from others also generate an empathetic response in the reader. Most compelling of all the examples of the third track of narrative empathy concerns the changed relationship with her mother. The narrating-I admits her own guilt and remorse about the rift between them, enters imaginatively into the mind of her mother, and reaches out to rekindle their bond, as mother and daughter. Tears are again a somatic marker of deep, cleansing emotion:

I admitted to her that I had pushed her away and kept her at a distance, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately. […] I told her that I knew that she felt guilty for what had happened to me, and to my relationship with her. I told her that I never wanted her to see me hurt or broken for fear that it may worsen the guilt she carried. That I didn’t blame her, and held no resentment, and that for so long I had wanted things to be better between us, but I didn’t know how to change them.

As my mother put her arms around me, I cried in front of her for the first time in almost twenty years.[30]

This description of the courageous and empathetic act of communication with the mother offers an opportunity for the reader to imagine the dynamics of perceptive dialogue in changing strained relationships—both in this vignette, and in others from their own experience—thus flinging open the door for recognition and fellow-feeling. In this chapter, at the end of the memoir chronologically and thematically, the author in all her manifestations has come to a state of compassion for self and others. The achronological fragments are now resolved into a unified, coherent and affecting whole in which all three tracks of narrative empathy are displayed.

Becoming Him is a more harrowing read than Always Anastacia; however, it is also deeply hopeful. There are two ways in which the author Mabenge communicates directly with the reader in the first track of eliciting narrative empathy. The first of these connections is seen on the cover of the memoir. On the top right is a small red triangle containing a faded, three-quarter view of the face of a serious little girl, the ascribed identity the younger Mabenge was forced to assume. Occupying much of the cover is a full-colour, full-face, head-and-shoulders portrait of him as a bearded male adult. His beaming face directly looks out at the viewer, and his head is surrounded by six triangles of radiating colours, giving the effect of a multi-hued halo. The contrast between the feeling-tones of the two images invites a responsive smile from the viewer/reader. The process of becoming him is artfully depicted on the cover, as is the sub-title’s emphasis on triumph.

This tone is continued in the second example of the first track of narrative empathy, which promotes intimacy between autobiographer and reader, seen in the memoir’s epigraph:

To those who have been denied their truths by a

world that dictates who and what they ought

to be. To the beautiful beings that exist beyond the

social definitions of gender and identity.

May you all journey into becoming the butterflies

You were meant to be.[31]

This heartfelt and hopeful dedication will resonate with many readers who have either suffered the ill effects of the imposition of social definitions of normativity, or who know people who have “been denied their truths”.

The second track of narrative empathy involves the feedback loop of affect between narrating-I, experiencing-I and the reader. Towards the end of the memoir, recounted almost entirely in chronological order, there is a thumbnail description of Mabenge’s self-reflection on his life experiences, which he divides into four sections: “the child who was loved until the age of eleven, the teen who was violently abused, the adult who carried the wounds, and the new self who is now working towards transformative love for the self and others.”[32] In the first phase of his life, his fervent conviction that he is a boy is refuted by his family although he is swathed in love at home by his Ma and his grandparents, and because he is perceived as a girl he is confused by his physical attraction to girls. He is then devastated to learn that his Ma is in fact his aunt, after the couple he refers to as The Mother and The Father or The Zombie come to claim him back, after having given him to Ma “like a packet of rice”.[33] The reader is privy to descriptions of emotions of rejection, terror and despair as the experiencing-I is subjected to endless domestic work, vicious beatings and psychological abuse in the new household of hypocritical pillars of the church. The narrating-I concludes his graphic descriptions of atrocities with a tearful and heart-wrenching cry: “At the age of eleven I am ready and aching to die.”[34] Over later years the young protagonist is further depressed when his menarche confirms that his destiny is to be a woman. Shame haunts his continued feelings of sexual desire for other girls, as “sinful” same-sex relations are proscribed by the church The Parents attend, and “will reserve me a VIP suite in hell.”[35] The Mother heightens his terror by her repeated threat (not to be taken lightly) that if she finds out a child of hers is gay, “I will kill them.”[36]

Horror at such cruelty tempers the frustration the reader may feel at the portrayals of the experiencing-I at the University of Cape Town, where he embarks on self-destructive behaviour, drinking to excess and ignoring his studies. This frustration is a mirror image of that felt by the experiencing-I whose behaviour stems from his inability to fully express his masculinity. However, when he attempts suicide by cutting his wrist, the extent of his depression and despair is fully revealed, encouraging an empathetic response from the reader. A dedicated therapist at the university, supportive friends and the family he lived with first, to whom he returns after his suicide attempt, all provide him with the support needed to rescue him. He discloses his true gender identity to his empathetic therapist, who advises him to work on the trauma of his abandonment and abuse before taking steps to address his gender issues. For any reader who has felt thwarted by difficulties in coping with an inability to confront their situation publicly, these accounts of long postponement of recognition of an essential element of his identity call forth fellow-feeling. Despite the therapist’s advice, after returning to UCT, Mabenge starts exploring his attraction to women, and over time adopts a butch lesbian persona. He then gains the confidence to disclose his true gender to trusted friends, and eventually embarks on his journey to full self-actualisation.

The joy of the narrating-I is palpable and infectious as he recounts his entry onto the “male bandwagon” by starting testosterone injections: “I know I have begun a journey of a thousand miles by taking this pivotal first step. I have entered the hospital a man trapped in a woman’s body, and will leave a man emerging from a body that has trapped him all of his life.”[37] The disclosure of his gender to his 89-year-old grandmother leaves him awestruck at the unconditional love displayed in her response to him: “The only duty I have is to be supportive of you whatever you do with your life. When you were eight years old you told me you were a butterfly, and I told you to be the most beautiful butterfly you can be.”[38]

Surgery to remove his breasts leaves him feeling elated, and he is further filled with euphoria after his hysterectomy, the gender-affirming surgeries having validated his life in his chosen name of Landa. This is heartening to read, but the warts-and-all memoir describes another downward spiral in the still-traumatised experiencing-I, culminating in his beating up his girlfriend, and later burning all her clothes. This brutal honesty may be perceived by some readers as alienating, but in an empathetic response readers observe the self-recognition and remorse portrayed, and may identify with the narrator in remembering injuries they have inflicted on others and themselves, stemming from their own past histories. Empathy is further enhanced by the narrator’s contrition for his toxic behaviour and his decision to assiduously pursue anger management, seek forgiveness and turn his energies to service towards university students who identify as transgender; his laudable successes accord him conviviality and a sense of triumph.

Becoming Him includes various instances of the third track of narrative empathy, which reveals linking communication between narrating-I, other characters and the reader. The narrating-I enters compassionately into the mind of family members, most notably The Mother on her deathbed, who drops her gaze and sheds a tear on seeing him, possibly signalling contrition. His long-standing terror and loathing of her undergo a cathartic sea-change: “Within a second my hatred of her is reduced to pity. I have a moment of pure revelation: all that is required of me is to leave her to her truth and try to find it within my own heart to forgive her.”[39] This moment of generosity towards a woman who has behaved monstrously towards him sparks empathetic admiration within the reader. Wider links to others, those constituting a historical heritage of queer identities, is provided, through mention of instances of acceptance of African and Native American people who refused the binary divisions of gender, later violently disrupted by heteronormative patriarchal colonialism. This perceived unity among colonised gender-variant people highlights the abhorrent effects of colonialism and apartheid, particularly well known to South African readers, and the problematic privileges accorded to whiteness.

Both Always Anastacia and Becoming Him illustrate the attainment of voice by the author, previously silenced by binary social norms, in bidding farewell to their deadnames and recounting the triumphant results of their transgender journeys. My own bisexual identity as displayed in my “storying” predisposes me to perceive substantial overlaps (as well as differences) between my experiences and those recounted in both memoirs, leading to convivial identification and empathy.

The title of the ineffable Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography is the question posed by her adopted mother: why be happy when you can be normal? Alas, many of us who don’t conform to social expectations of gender, sexuality, religion, or physical or mental health, among other intersecting vectors of identity, don’t have the choice of being “normal” in the eyes of family or society at large. Both among the ranks of the “normal” and the variant there are those who stereotype and reject others. When I belonged to a queer women’s group in my home town, a lesbian member constantly expressed biphobic opinions, and has recently published a number of transphobic articles in the local newspaper. Another member of the group said to me, “I wouldn’t have been in the same room as a bisexual until I met you.” Although this certainly was a backhanded compliment, the anecdote illustrates the possibility that knowing an individual—either in person or through a crafted memoir—can shift perceptions in a more generous direction. Biphobia and transphobia are prevalent and painful, but alliances are powerful, and leveraging one’s own experiences of difference can allow meaningful entry into the lives of others.

This process of forming alliances is given visual expression in the confluence of the bi and trans flags, with the four colours, pink, blue, purple and white, as previously illustrated. Although my subject position inclines me towards reading particularly empathetically, I have argued that both memoirs exhibit a productive contamination through the subject matter of journeys of transition, accompanied by three tracks of narrative empathy, which function to elicit numerous points of empathetic connection. Such responsive readings resonate with the mode of reparative reading, and responding to the two memoirs in this way can act to reduce ambiguity intolerance, essentialist beliefs and prejudice, and increase convivial empathy.


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  9. Ibid., p. 14.
  10. Tomson, Anastacia. Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball. 2016.
  11. Mabenge, Landa. Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph. Johannesburg: MFBooks. 2018.
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  16. Anderst, Leah. “Feeling with real others: narrative empathy in the autobiographies ofDoris Lessing and Alison Bechdel”. Narrative. Vol. 23. No. 3. 2015. pp. 271-90. DOI: 10.1353/nar.2015.0017.
  17. Goldie, Peter. The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 178.
  18. Ibid., p. 195.
  19. Anderst, “Feeling with real others”, p. 287.
  20. Tomson, Always Anastacia, p. xiv.
  21. Ibid., p. 6.
  22. Ibid., p. 159.
  23. Ibid., p. 146.
  24. Anderst, “Feeling with real others”, p. 280.
  25. Tomson, Always Anastacia, p. 106.
  26. Ibid., p. 107.
  27. Ibid., p. 110.
  28. Ibid., pp. 198–99.
  29. Ibid., p. 94.
  30. Ibid., p. 83.
  31. Mabenge, Becoming Him, n.p.
  32. Ibid., p. 192.
  33. Ibid., p. 12.
  34. Ibid., p. 31.
  35. Ibid., p. 58.
  36. Ibid., p. 46.
  37. Ibid., p. 147.
  38. Ibid., p. 152.
  39. Ibid., p. 140.