In 2013 the American trans journalist Daniel Mallory Ortberg co-founded the feminist website The Toast. Today he writes Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column, hosts the Dear Prudence podcast, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Texts from Jane Eyre: and Other Conversations with Your Favourite Literary Characters (2014). Guardian Australia spoke to him as he touched down in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival.
You are appearing in a panel on teenage heartthrobs. Tell us more!
You can absolutely expect long discourse conversations about how it was impossible to tell the difference about a guy who had floppy hair and your soulmate in the 90s. That might be the bulk of the conversation.
The Melbourne Writers Festival is also hosting a live Dear Prudence session …
It will be my first international show, my first time tackling Australian problems. It’s a lot like the podcast. There tends to be a little more vamping; there tends to be a little bit more me telling everybody how to live their lives. Then there are questions from the audience. There have been nights where it has been fun and a little boisterous; then there have been nights where we have gone very deep into intergenerational trauma.
Have your live shows ever got out of control?
The last time I did a Dear Prudence live show it got very intense – I think I needed a week to just go home and sleep and recover. We actually ended up stopping the recording. It was the sort of thing where people were talking about ongoing issues with family members, people who had committed abuse to them in the past. It’s the conversation you do not necessarily want to have on record on a podcast.
What is the Dear Prudence problem that has most stayed with you?
A couple of years ago I heard from a woman who said: “I recently bought my boyfriend a bidet and he stopped buying toilet paper.”
In your book published last year, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, you rewrite classic fairytales, including switching around gender roles.
There is both a lot of gender in that book and in some ways very little gender. It wasn’t so much I wanted to say I could create this space where gender doesn’t exist – it is just unfamiliar configurations. I wanted to write about the experience of being prodded or feeling that you’re disappointed or being pushed into something, a lot of things that both trans and non-trans people can experience. It just felt like gender from different directions, not more or less than we have now.
Just before releasing The Merry Spinster, you came out as trans. Did writing the book help?
I know now that writing fiction is not a good alternative to dealing with your own feelings about your gender! It just ended up becoming two very different prospects. But I got to feel imaginative in ways that feel exciting. I got to come up with a lot of really exciting painful ideas.
Both your parents are Christian ministers. What is your relationship to religion?
Ongoing and complicated I guess are some of the best ways to start describing it. I’ve had a lot of different relationships with religion over the course of my life: you name it, I’ve had it. I now feel it’s pretty much just a part of me, just a part of who I am, a part of how I think about the world, how I grew up, how I relate to things like community or desire or change.
How did coming out as trans affect your parents?
Lots of it was surprising in the sense I had gone into it with the expectation that I might lose my family. They wanted to know me; they wanted to be there for me. And I think oftentimes with trans people, when we come out as trans it’s not our first coming out – we’ve done one or two trial runs before. I’d already tested the waters with one or two other comings out in previous years.
Tell us about your next book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, which is to be released in January.
It is my attempt to re-evaluate my career-long focus on certain parts of the western canon in light of transition. So going back to my relationship with William Shatner, going back to my relationship with Jacob in the book of Genesis. It’s mostly my life in books and TV and religious texts.
What can we learn from the book of Genesis?
Oh man! I think there’s so much in the story with Jacob wrestling with the angel of Penuel. I wrote that story from the angel’s perspective. So much of that story feels like it has a lot of trans-resonance. There’s no explanation about what the figure – the angel – comes for. It ends with this strange touch where afterwards he never walks the same way again. He has a new name. He is no longer called Jacob.
• Daniel Mallory Ortberg is appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 September
Source: The Guardian