Kiran Dass reviews the memoir of an author born with a female brain in a male body

Being born with a female brain in a male body, writes Kyle Mewburn in her memoir Faking It, is like being put in a wrongly labelled can. In an awkward comparison, Mewburn says, “I was strawberry jam in a can marked spinach.”

Faking It is award-winning children’s book author Mewburn’s account of growing up as a boy in a conservative family in Queensland, the slow process of coming out, undergoing facial feminisation surgery in Buenos Aires, and the complexities of navigating life post-transition when she can finally move through the world as her authentic self full-time.

The book opens with a “prelude” where Mewburn hands over $30,000 in exchange for the surgery. She says that while the idea of the surgery, which lasted seven hours, may seem horrific and extensive from the outside, in many ways it was superficial. She describes the procedure in a prosaic way as “just a lot of cutting, grinding and stitching.”

But it is the psychological effects and the social and family dynamics leading up to the procedure, and navigating the complexities of life post transition that are clearly more challenging. We get a sense of how the strangest thing about transition is the fractured perspective: For her looking out, the world looks exactly the same but she reminds us how it can be difficult to remember that for everyone else looking in at Mewburn, things look decidedly different. She admits, slipping into the third person, that the newly emerging Kyle was “ill prepared for the tidal waves of loneliness and desolation that suddenly washed over her”.

Evocatively detailed in Faking It is Mewburn’s recollections of growing up in the 1960s/70s in the “two block universe” suburb Banyo. She vividly describes it as a bountiful oasis “awash with cheap meat”. I loved the descriptions of the Mewburn’s banal suppers: T-bone steaks, pork chops and rissoles “encircled by pastel palettes of mashed or over-boiled vegetables in pools of dark gravy made from meat drippings, flour and Vegemite”. Mewburn and her brothers were expected by their parents, particularly their unreachable policeman father, to figure life out for themselves, and it is this dynamic from which much of the tension in Faking It stems.

It’s in a matter-of-fact, almost offhand style that Mewburn describes their volatile father. Prone to sudden and unreasonable outbursts of rage which leave a young Mewburn, aware of her “otherness”, fearful that perhaps some kind of errant movement had betrayed her as the black sheep of the family. It is likely here that Mewburn honed her skill for clocking the threat of confrontation, of being singled out in public. The feeling of constantly assessing risk in any public situation is palpable. Whenever she steps outside without incident, it’s some kind of minor victory. The sense of this is an exhausting thought, the emotional labour of being on high alert all the time.

The father was controlling. There’s a small incident which is an explicitly telling insight into his character. When he once changed the kitchen range plug and accidentally installed it upside down, one might expect he would be able to simply fix his mistake. After all, before he joined the police he had been an apprentice sparky so it should have been an easy task. But instead, he left it, insisting the family must all adapt to the wonky switch where confusingly not to mention dangerously ‘on’ really meant ‘off’ and vice versa. And he didn’t budge, even though the switch confusion heightened Mewburn’s mother’s anxiety. Every journey the family ever went on was delayed by her anxious multiple checkings that the switch was in fact off.

Mewburn remembers her older brother Cameron, whose fear of disappointing their imposing father was so strong that when his foot was sliced open by a blade-tossed stone while moving the lawn, he simply kept on mowing, too scared of his father’s wrath to stop, leaving the lawn with “a Pollock-esque collection of blood splatters”. It’s another revealing scene that illustrates their father’s overbearing presence. While she shares personal details like this about her family, Mewburn’s tone throughout the book is unfailingly respectful. This is a hospitable book.

She never writes resentfully about her father even though it would be understandable if she did. We can only imagine the culture of the Australian police force in the 60s and 70s that he was a product of. She diplomatically says that for much of her life she tried to convince herself that he simply meant well. Mewburn is the bigger person here and has reconciled any personal grief or differences.

Mewburn finds her father’s suicide note … She  clings to the way that her name is the only name in the letter written all in caps.

Whether Mewburn’s father meant well or not, he had his own demons to contend with – at one point Mewburn finds a suicide note, neatly typed by him on foolscap paper. There is a final note to each of the Mewburn children and Mewburn seems to grasp at any clue or insight within these suicide note pages that would suggest she is loved by her father. She observes and clings to the way that her name is the only name in the letter written all in caps. Looking for hidden meaning. It comes as a sharp relief when he admits on paper his love for Mewburn. It’s even tender when he writes that out of the whole family, he thinks Mewburn would be the most affected by his suicide. It feels significant too, that the note to Kyle is the only one that asks for forgiveness. However, her father’s plans of demise didn’t go ahead, and estranged, Mewburn apparently doesn’t know if her father is even aware of her transition.

Mewburn writes that she once pitched a futuristic gender satire to a publisher, only to be told that New Zealand isn’t ready for such a thing. Surely New Zealand is now as ready as it will ever be? In the meantime, Mewburn is a generous storyteller and Faking It is an open book told in an unfussy and direct way. It is frustratingly lean on details of dates, so it can be hard to follow the chronology of events. Even the photos in the book are undated. Small details like this matter.

Mewburn writes that while she never felt excluded from family activities she never felt a valued part of family life, feeling instead like the “unwanted third son, occupying extra space”. It’s heartbreaking to read. This feeling of otherness is a thread that continues throughout Faking It, as it goes on to shape and warp Mewburn’s friendships over decades. In the classic tradition of the outsider, books provided welcome escapism for the young Mewburn, even if those pages depicted alien “unbreakable family bonds”.

Puberty for Mewburn is described as a hotbed of confusion, physically being “entombed in an increasingly male body” and feeling like a “planet ejected from the orbit of its feminine sun”. Some respite, however, is found in a spree of shoplifting, and the door-opening fluidity of glam rock. The thrill of seeing androgynous singers like Marc Bolan and David Bowie offered the first hint that the lines between gender weren’t as rigid as they seemed. Mewburn happily takes advantage of long hair for boys being fashionable.

She itemises the numerous small barbs and rejections that add up to create indelible childhood heartbreak. When Mewburn was in a schoolyard brawl, her brothers were cheering from the sidelines – in support of the other guy. Mewburn hasn’t forgotten these small slights, and many others like this are catalogued in Faking It. But rather than being bitter, Mewburn only ever comes across as sensitive, never casting blame and somehow always remaining bouncy and good-natured in tone.

Motivated to meet new people and learn about different ways of living, a young Mewburn buys a one-way ticket to Europe. It is here that pre-transition Mewburn meets Marion, a German girl. The two hit it off and are married in 1987, moving to New Zealand in 1990, settling in a tiny off-grid home in Millers Flat, Central Otago. It’s a relief when they finally make their way to New Zealand because the detail of their bicycle tour through Europe is too laboured. Less travelogue and more relationship dynamics would have been interesting here. Marion is a reassuring, patient and calming presence throughout the book – always staunchly by Mewburn’s side. They come across as a loyal and steadfast couple, Marion sticking by Mewburn when she eventually comes out in 2011, and offering unwavering practical and emotional support through Mewburn’s transition.

The post-transition period brings moments of fragility and vulnerability. But in addition to learning to live inside her new physicality in public, Mewburn also points out the extra concentration required to become accustomed to reversing the many daily mundane things committed to muscle memory, like buttoning blouses from the left rather than the “manly right”.

“I’ve had enough of faking it,” Mewburn writes. “It’s time to be fully, wholly, unapologetically me.” For anyone wanting an insight into the trans experience, Faking It is an invaluable personal account. Spirited and triumphant, Mewburn is an inspiration to embrace living an authentic life, free from going through the motions.

Faking It: My Life in Transition by Kyle Mewburn (Penguin Books, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Kiran Dass was convening judge of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and a winner of the 2021 Surrey Hotel-Newsroom writers residency award.

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