You can signal your stance on any number of topics with a well-placed novel. Between autofiction, political purity, and murky narrators, we’ve been trained to fact check characters’ moral failings as our own. Authors and characters are conflated, their politics becoming one and the same as biographies are increasingly read as manuals on how to read an author’s work. Many trans women have been held to the fire with this morality test. I don’t know if trans women writers will ever forget the virtual thrashing science fiction writer Isabel Fall received for not revealing her biography alongside her short story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.” Isabel Fall was bullied off the internet due to unverified claims about her identity. Few believed she was a trans woman and for that she paid dearly.
Too often trans women are scapegoated, their work denied an audience, not allowed to play, not allowed to bite without being considered dangerous. Perhaps we need a little more danger. Fiction, despite popular self-help books, is not a genre built upon self-improvement. Novels aren’t only for learning political do’s and don’ts. What we learn from fiction is a less tangible affair. Reading fiction gives us feelings that shape us but not always in ways we can articulate.
Gretchen Felker-Martin’s masterful genre-bending horror novel, Manhunt (Macmillan Feb 22), has already gathered an incredible amount of steam online for its premise. Imagine a world where testosterone induces crazy, murderous urges. The plague, of course, is called “t. rex.”
Felker-Martin’s novel is her mainstream debut but her work has circulated online for years. Manhunt is an incredible book. I haven’t read a book this close to the bone in a long time. It’s an edge-of-your-seat, gripping account of a world overrun by TERFs as they seek to eradicate trans women. They’re murdering trans women out of fear that once they lose control of their estrogen levels, they will turn into testosterone-fueled monsters. That trans women are, in essence, men.
Beth and Fran are two trans women sheltering with each other as they take out TERFs and the hordes of men at their heels. As they journey through the ruins of America, parts of which have fallen to the New Womyn’s Commonwealth, they team up with Robbie, a Native trans guy who’s been living alone on a farm after the death of his family and girlfriend. Rounding out their team is Indi, a cis woman doctor who knows how to artificially supply estrogen to those in need.
The novel is told in many strands, often producing a whiplash pacing that works best during battle. We jump from Beth and Fran as they encounter their own forms of transmisogyny, Robbie dealing with being hated as a traitor, Indi working on experimental fertility treatments and facing racism and fatphobia, to Ramona, a TERF whose allegiance is wavering.
As grim as it sounds, it’s an incredibly acerbic and witty read, going down with equal parts tenderness and brutality. J. K. Rowling dies in a Scottish castle. A group of women feed traitors to a pit of horde-men “like Jabba the Hutt serving his dancers up raw.” New Moon is “the Mormon lady’s vampire story.” At least the end of the world promises the end of being asked to play Settlers of Catan. I couldn’t agree more.
From cis complicity in transphobia to the difficulty of forming queer community, Manhunt tackles difficult subjects with vision. Beth and Fran are forced to reckon with their on-again-off-again relationship after Fran is promised a “boutique pussy” by a cis woman. Of course, the powerful cis woman in question also loves to toy with Fran, her “dickgirl.”
The interplay of cis power and trans vulnerability is never drawn in stark shades, instead both are capable of great harm and subversive acts of kindness. The power divide is steep, especially here where one wrong move by a trans woman can result in being literally thrown to the wolves. What Felker-Martin exposes is the emptiness of cis people who “don’t even love each other.” Trans characters continue to hold each other even as they betray each other again and again. It’s these moments of T4T ache that hurt the most.
Both Beth and Fran wonder what it would mean to be a “real girl” in the world they inhabit. Beth is envious of Fran’s ability to pass. In fact, Fran is ultimately the one to go behind enemy lines while Beth is pressured into being a “daddy,” a sex worker who pretends to be a man (or at least male-adjacent) for women wanting to get off. It’s a cutting commentary on the disposability of trans women in dating–Beth is forced to work as a daddy only after a hookup is deemed “weird” by a cis woman. The idea that trans women are inherently predatory looms heavy over the book, even in circles where trans women are told to expect refuge.
As the TERF army invades Boston stringing up trans women as they go along, we begin to follow a soldier rising through the ranks. Ramona provides the book’s primary TERF representative. But she has a secret—she’s a chaser with a nonbinary lover named Feather. The scenes between the two are incredibly textured with vitriolic longing. Through Ramona we are also told about the Maenads, trans women who join the TERFs through surgery. It’s an interesting detour, though the concept is never fully fleshed out. Who are these women? How do they feel murdering fellow trans women? There are some answers, but the story of the Maenads hints at an untold tale.
During a game of Never Have I Ever, all the trans characters admit they pray. It’s a sweet moment ruptured by the fact these are people who have to pray. Zia, a Black trans women who appears throughout the novel, remarks, “I mean, we’ve got our bullshit dyke drama and whatever, we’re all fuckin’ traumatized and sick and they don’t make psych meds anymore where we can get at them, so that can get a little rough, but we’re a family, too.” It’s a turning point for Robbie as he contemplates the many betrayals he’s seen in his short life. Indi too ruminates on “every time she’d heard the words ‘queer community’ used like a cudgel.” It’s a sobering reminder of our present moment. It doesn’t shut down the reality of conflict, only opening the conversation to consider harm with more space.
When Beth reflects dissociatively about her past life, filled with sexual violence and social stigamization, she recalls being cast out of a queer house at the beginning of t. rex. A “circular monologue about accountability and “abusive” tones of voice.” It’s a crushing refrain familiar to too many trans women cast out by “self-professed socialists whose politics hewed closer to Nancy Reagan than to Marx or Engels.” Outright TERFs aren’t the only enemies. Many of the trans characters point out that it’s those who say nothing that are the most frightening.
That’s not to say the TERF rhetoric isn’t terrifying. The vitriol of Teach, the TERF Supreme, always brings things to a screeching halt: “You may think that you’ve remade yourself, that believing in your own womanhood makes you a woman, but between your legs is a weapon of war that has terrorized us for a hundred thousand years.” We’ve all seen the same ideas on Twitter. This is a postapocalyptic novel that hews close to home.
When I finished the book, I walked out of my apartment and went on one of my sick sad walks. I let a few tears run hot as I passed the McDonald’s and the liquor store. I thought about boutique pussy and FFS. I thought about my trans girlfriends calling each other on the phone to talk about roommate drama. I thought about the tenderness of T4T couples, the special way someone can see you in your cold February bed and call you beautiful. I felt embarrassed at the simplicity of it, the truth of it, of course it was special, no need to point to it. I also thought of the nurses messing up my hormones in the hospital, the men on the street, the cis people who didn’t know any better, the conversion therapy room. Of course special things should be called special. No matter how fragile.
I left a long voice note for one of my trans girlfriends, “I just need the next person I talk to not to be a cis person.”