Since starting working at The Feminist Press ten months ago, I’ve been reading a lot more translations. Unfortunately, of all the books published in the U.S., only three percent are translations, which means Americans are missing out on a wealth of important global literature. My press strives to publish one book per season (two books per year) that are translations. On March 15th, we’re releasing Beijing Comrades, one of the earliest examples of queer literature to come from Mainland China (it was originally published as an online serial in the 1990s).
As I was in the process of setting up events for the book’s translator, Scott E. Myers, I was introduced to the French novel Sphinx (the wonderful translator, Emma Ramadan will appear with Scott on a panel in NYC on March 22nd to discuss the process of translating books that deal with gender, orientation, and identity). Originally published in 1986, Anne Garreta’s novel is remarkable for being the first book to feature a genderless protagonist and love interest. That is to say, the protagonist (speaking in the first person) never addresses their gender and never identifies that of their partner, who they address only as A***.
What would have been a simple story about two lovers in Paris, one a DJ and the other a dancer, becomes interestingly more complicated once you remove their gender identities and orientations. Garreta is a member of the Oulipo, a France-based literary group that produces work under rigid restrictions (another Oulipo novel is La Disparition, a novel written entirely without the letter “e”).
What I found so fascinating about the novel is how much I instinctually tried to place genders on the characters. Because of the protagonist’s studies in theology and career as a DJ, I kept considering them to be male; because of the love interest’s glamorous life as a nightclub dancer, I kept considering them to be female. But there is no rule that says a theologian is a man and a dancer is a woman. It was my own cultural touchstones and experiences that were forcing these characters into designated gender roles.
At one point in the story, A*** asks the protagonist, “How do you see me, anyway?” It feels like this question is directed right at the reader. This is a whole book about perception. What does it mean for two characters to fall in love without the consideration of their gender or orientation?
By the time I had grown accustomed to the novel’s intricate scaffolding, I started to worry that perhaps its only value lay in the trick it was pulling off, but then (to my great surprise), something tragic happens to A***, and the last quarter of the book shifts into a very dark and introspective book. During the protagonist’s grieving, they reflect, “I am assailed by indifference. I had thought that I would never be able to grow tired of loving, but one night I woke to an absence of love and felt no torture: it was the absence of this torture that truly scared me, that tortured me.”
The final passages of the book are some of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever read. Love and the loss of it are so universal to the human experience, and this book is a good example of how little gender and orientation matter when it comes down to the essence of what love is.