Renowned author and essayist William T Vollmann commits to his protagonists. In the case of his most recent heroine, Dolores of The Book of Dolores, he tried to live as a woman. Dolores is a transgender prostitute who interests include jewelry and geology. She is a housewife who often dons a black and red corset. She carries a whip into the bedroom. As accurately and earnestly as possible, Vollmann transformed himself into the female character in preparation for the book.
And he learned a lot. Simply “from wearing women’s clothes” and living as his female alter ego, Vollmann experienced an “eductation [...] in shame and fear.” Like so many women, Dolores was subjected to “street harassment, slights about her appearance, even violence.”
The experience also seems to have convinced him of the third wave view that gender is performative: “I know that femininity is in part a performance. The woman who makes up her face before going out into the world, who holds her handbag in a certain way, and takes mincing, echoing steps in her high heels is expressing one category of femininity,” he tells New York. Of course, men do the same when inhabiting a conventionally masculine realm, and he himself so much as admits to feeling uncomfortable without a beard.
Some are disturbed by Vollmann’s alter ego, and they ask the novelist important questions. One woman who attended promotional events in Brooklyn Thursday asked “what right he had as a straight, white man to represent the experiences of a transgender Mexican prostitute” and “Why would [he] choose to privilege [his] experience over theirs?” These concerns must be addressed, and it seems Vollmann has considered them. He humbly responded to the woman at the event, “All I can do is try and possibly fail. In this case, make myself maybe a bit vulnerable and ridiculous and pathetic in the attempt to show my sincerity.”
What do you think about Vollmann’s choice to develop a female alter-ego? I myself am not sure: is it interesting and progressive or is it downright offensive? Let us know in the comments.
Thanks to New York
Images via New York