An Unpublishable LGBTQ/Transgender Manuscript

A.T. Steel
Trans-Woman | São Paulo, BrazilMatteus Bernardes

I’ve written an urban LGBTQ, period-specific, literary fiction romance novel that follows ethnic characters, includes 236 hard curse words, underground Ballroom House Culture-specific terminologies like banjee cunt and trade, and does not shy away from depictions of sex and violence.

It’s been tough to convince literary agents and traditional publishers of its commercial viability and I need to be realistic about my prospects.

I’ve carefully submitted this to several appropriate companies and the consensus is clear:

The subject matter of this project is not a good fit for our firm.

I’ve been a little confused by that response because every agent and firm that I’ve queried has specifically mentioned that they are looking for LGBTQ or gay-centric literary fiction.

After some reflection and market analysis, I’ve concluded that sophisticated transgender-focused works of literary fiction are scarcely produced and often deal with an abstract interpretation of the term as opposed to its more literal meaning (a person whose gender identity does not correspond to the sex assigned at birth). They are often white male/female-driven narratives and are usually written from the angle of an observer. My novel, The Life Of Alma, is told from the POV of an Afro-Latinx, transgender woman who is the Nuyorican, Bronx-native child of a Puerto Rican-born immigrant mother and a hard African American father from Striver’s Row. Hardly what an agency or publisher seems to mean when they say that they’re looking for LGBTQ stories.

We are living during a time of unprecedented transgender awareness and emerging trans-focused art.

Highly successful television programs like FX’s Pose and HBO’s Legendary, and documentaries like Sara Jordenö’s Kiki and Vice’s My House have brought to the public conscience an underground world of transsexualism, pageantry, and sexual liberation. There is a yearning in the transgender and non-binary communities for representation in sophisticated literary fiction where the characters and settings are contemporary, relevant, urban, and ethnic.

In a desperate bid to hook an agent with a bite-size pitch, I wrote the following:

Imagine an LGBTQ literary fiction novel from the POV of an Afro-Latinx transgender woman that is so New York that you can trace her steps through the city and so honest that it could be an autobiography from any number of young, queer, African American, and Latin youth living on the piers and struggling to find love and a place for themselves in a world that is not prepared to accept them. Stop imagining. Read this book.

I thought it was alright, but I realize now that it doesn’t actually matter.

My unpublishable manuscript is unique in the way that its transgender and homosexual characters are portrayed — not as gimmicky caricatures, but as complex, flawed, and blisteringly human.

I do a lot of reading, and I love LGBTQ-centric stories. Sadly, I have realized that transgender characters in the literary world that are relatable and honest are far and few between. There are definitely some fantastic works of fiction out there that meet that criteria, but not nearly enough to satisfy a hungry, marginalized community. I believe that this novel has the potential to help fill that artistic void.

Here is a small excerpt from the eighth chapter:

To enhance this strange sense of melancholy, she took a few deep pulls off of a marijuana cigarette and went carefully through the memories of her life, starting with what she considered to be her true birth — the day that she was kicked out of the family home and had settled herself to present as a woman without apology or reproach for as long as she lived. It was shortly after that, in a public library, at a corner table far enough from the busy section that she was seldom disturbed, freshly beaten and robbed for what little possessions that she had retained in a flimsy trash bag, and clad in filthy clothes that she had tried to wash in the restroom sink, that she found herself. On the twenty-fourth page of an encyclopedia of names, between Allure and Almanza, rested four simple letters whose meaning struck her to the core: Alma. In the English world, it meant “the child that lifts the spirit”, in Latin “Nourishing”, but in Spanish it referred to the “soul”. She repeated it to herself while grinning through a busted and scabbed lip, over and over, like a special secret. She had not been prepared for the tears, because they irritated her eye which was swollen shut, but she embraced their emotion with earnest and delight. Alejandro died that day, and the woman that remained, her soul, for he had only been a fragment, was called Alma. Some years later, she would make the change legal. But on that afternoon, on the ground floor of the library, Alma became whole. She stole the book but lost it on the train the next day while counting her begged change. It did not much matter anyway, because she had memorized the name’s meaning in every listed language.

You can find a lengthier excerpt and gather an idea of the tone and dialogue below.

There is a new and emerging Trans Literary Canon.

As suggested by Princeton Ph.D. Candidate RL Goldberg in an article titled Toward Creating A Trans Literary Canon for The Paris Review in 2018. The world is opening up, and those previously oppressed and silenced communities now have an opportunity to tell their stories. It is an ambition of mine that The Life Of Alma will be a worthy entry alongside blistering works of fiction like Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor.

I’ve considered compromising my artistic vision by reducing the number of curse words, nerfing erotic scenes, and eliminating more potentially controversial plot points, but then it would no longer be an authentic portrayal of a world and culture that deserves impartial visibility.

Transgenderism in black and brown communities is not an in-vogue fad that can be censored, plastic-wrapped, and delivered to the public with a pretty pink bow. It is complicated, often difficult to mitigate, and painstakingly human.

As a childhood and teenage sufferer of severe gender dysphoria, I uniquely empathize with Alma.

Many of her childhood memories of identity struggles are my own, slightly altered to fit her narrative. I did not have the opportunity like so many others to explore my gender dysphoria in a way that would have been healthy or fair. These options were not available to me and have left a void inside of me that I can never fill. This cathartic labor of love gave me the opportunity to explore, deify, and raise up that part of me that was beaten and shamed away. The woman in me was killed a long time ago, but I like to think that a part of her lives on through Alma.

I read that it is important for a writer to write what they know, what they’re passionate about, and what they love. For me, The Life of Alma is a bit of all of that.

Now, if I could only convince someone that a story about a lovable, uncompromising, minority transgender woman with a checkered past comes with a hungry, built-in audience … 🧎🏽‍♂️🚶🏽‍♂️🏃🏽‍♂️

For a lengthier excerpt from this novel, check here ⤵

The Life Of Alma | 15k-Word Excerpt

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If you know anyone with something like this on their manuscript-wish-list, send it to them! This community deserves impartial visibility!

You can also check out my personal blog, Metallically Black where I talk about life, LGBTQ issues 🏳️‍⚧️🏳️‍🌈, writing, dying, and what have you.

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