At home with Yves Rees

Dr Yves Rees is a Lecturer in History at La Trobe University and co-host of Archive Fever. Rees was awarded the 2020 Calibre Essay Prize for their essay Reading the Mess Backwards and All About Yves is their memoir and debut.

Rees has a regular history segment on ABC Radio Melbourne and their writing has featured in the Sydney Review of BooksThe AgeArcher magazine, Guardian Australia, Overland, Meanjin, Junkee, Australian Book Review and The Conversation. Rees is trans and uses they/them pronouns. They are the co-founder of the Spilling the T transgender writing collective and volunteer with Transgender Victoria.

At home with Yves Rees


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Yves.

YVES: Thank you for having me, Astrid. It's great to be here. I

ASTRID: I am so excited that you are joining us today. You are a historian and you are a podcaster, but today we are here to talk about your first memoir, All About Yves. Congratulations.

YVES: Thank you. Thanks. Yeah, it's very exciting to have it out in the world.

ASTRID: Now I am one of those readers who goes straight to the acknowledgements in a book, and you made me laugh because you have a little note in your acknowledgements for readers just like me. Why do you go to the acknowledgements first?

YVES: I think I go to the acknowledgements first for the same reason many people do, which is to get a sense of the emotional backstory to the book. I'm curious to know what kind of life took place while the book was being written? Is this person married with kids? How did it work with their home life? I'm also curious to know what kind of mentor relationships do they have? How did they get a publishing deal in the first place? I also think acknowledgements are a bit more of a frank, unfettered place where you get a bit of a more raw, authentic sense of the personality of the author. So I find it fascinating for that reason as well. I also think there's really interesting gender dimensions with acknowledged where I often notice ...

I mean, this is a generalisation, but I think it's true to a large extent, that men often, particularly older white men, often have very brief, even terse acknowledgments, which seems to perpetuate that lone genius model that they are this wonderful, brilliant, talented writer just humming away with words in their study and they don't require any support from the outside world. By contrast, I think women or queer people or femme people, other marginalised and oppressed communities often tend to be much more aware that no person is an island and writing a book is very much a collaborative effort that's so much emotional and intellectual and often economic support goes into writing a book from many different parties. So I loved getting a sense of what kind of author I'm dealing with from the acknowledgement. Is this someone who believes in the myth of the lone genius or is this someone who is aware of their deep interconnectedness with very many different communities?

ASTRID: I absolutely here for the acknowledgements and often I wonder why they're not published right up front, because it is what so many people read first. You are releasing your book in a pandemic, and that means that you wrote part of your book in a pandemic, but because All About Yves has just hit the shelves, can you introduce us to your memoir to kick this interview off?

YVES: Sure. So this memoir is this story of my gender transition loosely. So I was someone who was assigned female at birth, and I believed that for a very long time. I wasn't one of those trans people who at the age of three or five was refusing dresses and Barbies and saying, ‘No, I'm a boy. I only want to play with the boys’. No, I was someone who followed the script of girl, and later woman, very diligently. I'm a rule follower by nature and I tried really hard to follow the rules, but I always had a lingering gender unease, I suppose. What I call gender trouble. I just didn't have the words for it. It wasn't till I was in my late 20s when trans representation increase more generally in culture that I had discovered the words for it.

So when I was the age of 30, I realised quite suddenly that I was transgender and this book sort of starts with that realisation and it maps what happened next over the next three years or so. So I'm 33 now. So it's sort of a process of coming to terms with the fact that I'm trans and trying to work out what that means. What does it mean to be trans I'm not a woman, but am I a man or am I something else? No, I ultimately come to think of myself as just trans. I really liked that word for the way in which it's open-ended and quite freeing. Also, I explore what does being trans look like in terms of social transition. Changing your name, getting new clothes, and hen there's the question of medical transition and do you need to medically transition to be trans? What does it look like to deal with medical gatekeeping? That is a really large feature of trans medicine.

ASTRID: I'm a cis woman and I learned a great deal in your memoir. I also want to say, for the record, it is a really well written memoir. The content and the way you show me as a reader and remind me as a reader how important language is, how it is changing, how each of us can contribute to the changing language that we all have at our disposal to understand the world around us. Look, it's been the highlight of my recent lockdown, so thank you as a reader. I want to explore how you wrote it. You mentioned three years, three years since coming out as trans and three is essentially to write this book. That is really quick in terms of publishing a memoir. So can you unpack how you decided to write your memoir, how you wrote it and also had an edited and published in what is essentially a global pandemic? Because well done on being able to.

YVES: Thank you. Yeah, it has been a really quick process. A few years ago, I started writing some short memoir life writing pieces, some short essays, really to make sense of my experience. As you jested to a few minutes ago, my day job is a historian, I'm an academic, so I'm really someone who apprehends the world through language. So I had really come to understand my trans identity through reading other people's trans writing and then I tried to understand myself through doing my own writing. I'm published a few short essays and then I sort of entered into conversations with a really important mentor of mine, Clare Wright, the historian and public intellectual who is my podcast co-host and a colleague at La Trobe University. She sort of first planted the seed, I suppose, of writing a full length memoir.

I was really intrigued by that idea because I've always loved reading memoir. It's probably my favourite genre to read. I think it can be a really powerful instrument of social change if it's done well. Then things really exploded when last year I won the Calibre Essay Prize awarded by the Australian Book Review. I entered that prize not having published much on academic work and thinking that there wasn't a chance in hell I would win it. I really just entered it because it was a deadline to finish a piece of writing I've been working on. I finished it late one night and sent it off and thinking, ‘Well, at least I've finished that piece of work’, and I was quite staggered when several months later I found out I'd won it. That was a really extraordinarily life changing experience.

I already had a book agent by this point, but the attention that came with that prize really piqued the interests of publishers, so I secured a book contract shortly after winning that prize. Yeah, then that was in mid 2020 and then spent the rest of the year finishing off writing the book. There has been quite a quick turnaround with the editing, with the publisher. There was a strong desire to get it out by the end of 2021 because this is such a timely issue at the moment. There's been so much needed discussion about trans representation and trans rights throughout the Anglophone world in recent years, but that's been accompanied by quite a frightening backlash from transphobic voices so there was a real sense from the publisher that we needed to grasp the moment and get this book out quickly.

So it's been quite a whirlwind and I must've admit I did think by this point that lockdown would be over, we would all be out frolicking with the flowers and the sunshine and other people and I'd get to do a lot of physical events. I mean, that's looking less and less likely, but it's still such a thrill to have the book out in the world.

ASTRID: We are all still in lockdown, so many of us in Australia and around the world, and I think we all did think that 2021 was going to be different, but one of the most powerful things I find about reading memoir in this time last year and this year is that it is a reminder that there are other things we need to care about as well as COVID-19. There are many things on our plate, not just a global pandemic. You were obviously writing this during 2020 and that does mean that like so many of us who spent time in Melbourne's lockdown. How did that affect or impact or influence how you wrote your memoir?

YVES: It's a complicated question. I think on one level for me, and I think this is true of many trans people, lockdown to some extent was a reprieve from the constant gendering and mis-gendering of the world. Being at home alone with only my cats meant that I didn't have to be so conscious of my female assigned body and how it was being read as female and the distress and discomfort that causes. So that was actually quite a freeing state to be in. It enabled me to feel more at ease in my transness, more empowered by it and to perhaps write in a more unencumbered way because I wasn't getting all this data from the world, all this noise saying that I was a woman. But on the other hand, I think, lockdown did actually make the writing quite challenging because of the sensory deprivation we all experience in lockdown.

It was hard to write vividly about things that had happened outside of lockdown when I felt just so starved of human interaction and stimulation and spontaneity and all the wonderful things that characterise non pandemic life. It felt hard to remember just what those things felt and smelled and tasted like in a way that I wanted to write about them vividly and in a way that was engaging. So I did feel a bit like I wrote this book in a sensory deprivation chamber, and that had a numbing effects, which I tried to fight back again. So I was conscious of at the time, but it was definitely a challenge.

ASTRID: So you finished writing your memoir, but then, of course, the editing process happens. I imagine that was remote, via Zoom, via a phone call, et cetera. But having someone read and edit your draughts is exposing for any writer. How did you approach the editing process? I guess, what was that like for you, particularly as you were living like all of us, the sensory deprived world at home alone?

YVES: I actually think my work as an academic had set me up quite well to be edited. I mean, anyone who has any contact with academia knows it's a pretty brutal world in some ways. Your work is constantly getting ripped to shreds really. I've been peer reviewed, I've been critiqued so many times over the years that I had built up a level of a thick skin to some extent. I mean, obviously this book was different in the sense that it's so personal and it's a creative piece as opposed to a piece of my academic writing. I was nervous going into the editing process, but I actually found it incredibly pleasurable. I actually love being edited well. I find it such a privilege to have someone, a skilled editor, really meaningfully engaged with your work and trying to make it better. It's just an exciting conversation, I think.

For us writers who are so fascinated by language and we agonise over punctuation and each word, to have someone actually care about this as well, to enter into that minute detail with you, felt like a gift in many ways. So it was a strange editing experience in that I never met my editor. All our contact was via email. Even my publisher, Jane Paul Freeman, we've only met a few times in person because of the pandemic, but I did feel actually incredibly nurtured and supported by the publisher. I think they were also conscious that all the editors are cisgender people. They recognise my experience and expertise in the matter of trans issues. So it was quite a light edit, I think, in some ways because of that, because they didn't want to try and intervene too heavily in something that they didn't really know about to some extent.

ASTRID: Not everybody has such a pleasurable editing experience. You mentioned that your academic writing set you up to be edited. I do have a question about academia and you go into this in your memoir, the idea of academics who changed their name. You have changed your name and that means your long history of publication is not necessarily tied to you, and you still publish under your former name. I guess for those listening to The Garret who haven't yet read your memoir, and for me actually working in a university, a higher ed university that does not necessarily talk to its staff about these things, what is the problem with academia and how we reference and track a researcher and writer? Secondly, how can people like me and the people who listen to The Garret help to force a change in terms of names and referencing?

YVES: That's a great question. So to answer the first question, the problem is that for any academic researcher, their research outputs, their publications are the backbone of their career. We have that catchphrase publish or perish and it is really true in academia. So it's so important that you, A, published a lot, but B, that your publications get cited, get circulated, are publicly listed and so on. Because I was working as an academic, I was publishing for about 10 years before I changed my name, I had quite a long list of publications under my birth name. So I was in this tricky situation when I changed my name of on the one hand wanting to move holistically and comprehensively to my new name Yves, but also feeling like I couldn't quite afford to get rid of my birth name because it was adorning this long list of publications.

This strange thing started happening where I recognise that some very supportive academic colleagues were like, ‘Oh, Yves has changed their name. They're Yves. This publication they wrote in 2012 when they were a different name, let's cite it, but as Yves’. That alarmed me because I thought, ‘Well, that's not actually how that publication was released in the world. Will get picked up by all these publication metrics? Will it be counted?’ I mean, it can seem technical and obscure if you're not in academia, but it does actually really matter how much you're being cited when those citations have encountered. The issue is that there's no straightforward way for publications to get altered in retrospect. I know other trans academics around the world have gone back and tried to modify the name under which their name publications came out with really mixed success.

Sometimes the journal in question or the publishing house is really wonderfully understanding of the situation and very quickly make the change. But other times more conservative. Publishers and journals are very reluctant. So this one key problem is you've got your publications out there in your dead name, it's very hard to change it. One positive sign in this front though is the increasing prominence of what's known as the orchid ID. That's a numerical signifier that is attached to academics, and that stays the same no matter how much you change your name. So trans academics who are concerned about this issue are increasingly hopeful that there'll be a shift towards academics primarily identifying through this number rather than they're shifting names. So this issue with name changing and deadnaming will abate a bit, but it's a slow process.

In terms of your second question about what can allies do to support this issue? I think often the most important thing is to respect the wishes of individual trans people, because I have my way I like things to be cited and done, but that's just me. All trans people are different and I think well-meaning allyship or effective allyship often recognises the individuality and humanity of the people you're trying to be an ally to. So rather than treat them like a group and think, ‘Oh, this is how we be nice to trans people or how we be nice to disabled people or people of colour’, to recognise that this is an individual, this is a human who has their own human needs, and actually just ask them. ‘I have this conundrum about citing your work’, or, ‘I'm worried about offending you by using your dead name. Is that a concern?’ Just actually ask the question I think is always the most humane and the most respectful thing to do.

ASTRID: Thank you for that response. Now that you have published your memoir, All About Yves, where does that sit within academia and the whole publish or perish? I know it's not an academic work, but publishing is important. It's how you get promotions, it's how you go up the academic pay scale. Where does it live?

Yves Rees:

So technically my memoir is a non-traditional research output, or an NTRO as they are called by the universities. So it exists as an entity in the metrics of the university, but it is not on the same standing as an academic monograph. I think these works and the broader work I've done on trans questions, it does have a bit of an uneasy relationship with my academic work in the sense that universities are obviously very imperiled at the moment by COVID and all the loss of international student income and associated job losses and competition for student income. Being an academic with a public profile is good for universities because it becomes a form of branding and promotion for individual institutions. So my university has been very supportive of the work I have done in the space of trans advocacy and life writing.

I think in part because they are committed to gender equity, but also in part because it's useful for the university to have academics with public profiles and be out in the world. La Trobe in particular has a very strong history of being a home to public intellectuals, so I think the university's keen to perpetuate that history. So individuals like myself and Clare Wright and Judith Brett and Dennis Oltman, who are all affiliated with La Trobe and are out there talking about a whole range of issues, which might not be directly linked to our particular area of research expertise, is very much a part of La Trobe's vision of what a university is about and what an academic does.

ASTRID: I'd like to explore language with you. Now, this is your memoir, this is your story, and one of the areas that you explored throughout your memoir is language terminology, what works, what doesn't work, where the gaps are, what people understand, what people don't understand, what your preferences are. I guess I wanted to ask quite a broad question. What is the role of memoir and non-academic writing in helping to produce a new language for us all? Now, you are writing in the trans and space. I'm a person with a disability, I am disabled, and the same thing is happening in literature in terms of the term disabled and disability and reclaiming words. I guess I'm just throwing out a broad question to you, Yves, why does it matter and how can we get there quicker?

YVES: It matters for so many reasons. I think one of the biggest ways it matters is that normative language, governmental language, ways of seeing and knowing, it just often raises all sorts of marginalised and oppressed communities, like they literally don't exist in the official language and official vision that we're taught to take for granted as the way of seeing the world. I mean, just one small example of that was the census in early August, which literally erased the entire LGBTQIA+ community. There's just no way to register those members of society. It's quite staggering that we're still in this position in 2021. I mean, that has symbolic effects of erasure, but it also has very real practical effects in terms of funding allocations and so on. I think that that erasure also happens with other oppressed communities as well.

So on one level, the writing is writing back against the erasure. It's saying, ‘No, we are here, we exist. We are real. We are valid. We are complex. We have real human lives and we're going to insist upon our reality in the face of that erasure’. That's very much what writing this memoir felt like for me. I think another reason that ... Well, a related reason that the memo writing matters is that it's taking control of the narrative about ourselves instead of being talked about by other people. It's saying, ‘No, this is who we are. This is the language we want to use’. Even I think quite apart from questions of erasure, well-meaning allies can often, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, de-humanise the oppressed groups by generalising about them and infantilizing them by talking about them as victims.

So it's important to have life writing to speak back against that, to say, ‘No, we're not just people you feel sorry for and one homogenous group. We're complex messy, autonomous humans’. I think that humans are story telling creatures. We live in the world, we operate in the world. I think the personal, intimate narrative qualities of memoir as a genre can really, to invoke a cliche, change hearts and minds in a way that I think just pure factual statistical writing can struggle to do. It's one thing to know statistics like trans people are 11 times more likely to attempt suicide than the average Australian, or half of trans and gender diverse children have attempted suicide. I mean, they're shocking statistics, but they're numbers.

You need the human story. You need the individual human story that you can relate to, I think, to really feel it and feel moved by it at a human level. So that's why I love reading memoir and fiction as well. Obviously fiction can fill that function and that's why I was so motivated to write a memoir. I thought I could write all the academic work in the world about trans lives, which does exist and is very important, but I felt like this was a way that you can reach more people and awaken empathy in more people, hopefully.

ASTRID: The last few years in Australia have seen a blossoming, if I can use that word, of memoir from a range of different voices, Own Voices. If it's not too early to ask you this question, Yves, where do you see your memoir All About Yves in that contemporary literature? What was your goal?

YVES: My goal was really to have my memoir regarded as a quality piece of writing in and of itself, not just as a worthy, we need to be nice to the trans people and give them a platform and book. There is, particularly internationally, a large number of trans memoirs and other Own Voices memoirs that I think are not taken seriously as writing. Perhaps the publisher's just ticking a box. ‘We've thrown a bone to this marginalised community’, and they tend to just, in my experience, attract audiences within that community. They're not read by a general audience. So my ambition and my goal was really for this to be seen as just a quality memoir in its own right, not just as a worthy trans story, and to be read by people beyond the trans and gender diverse community.

I mean, obviously I want to be read by trans people as well, because for me, reading trans writing really saved my life and I'd love to give some comfort or solace to other trans people. But yeah, I wanted to reach bigger audiences and like you, I've been noticing this blossoming of memoir in Australia and have been really excited by it and have read most of the books that are part of it and really, I suppose, had ambitions to be part of that cannon.

ASTRID: Thank you for that answer, Yves. I'm going to put my cards on the table. I asked you a leading question because I wanted to know what you think. I have multiple sclerosis and eight years ago when I was diagnosed, I ordered every single multiple sclerosis memoir that I could find on the internet, and they meant a great deal to me. A great deal to me. But they were written for people with MS and often they're not very good pieces of writing. They serve a different purpose. Your memoir is an exquisite piece of writing, and I cannot wait to see your book go into second, third reprint and sell out everywhere across Australia and hopefully around the world.

YVES: Thank you. Thank you. I hope that happens as well.

ASTRID: I have one final question for you, and I guess memoir can be an exposing way to share yourself with the world. I teach and many, many students enroll in writing courses because they have a story to tell. They have a very personal story to tell. The very act of publishing memoir is a rebellion. It can be political, but it can leave you open to the horror that is the internet. What advice would you have to someone who is thinking about writing their own memoir, putting their story out there?

YVES: A few things. I think I'd say first, remember that you have complete control over the story. You are the author, you are choosing every word, you are choosing what you put in and what you leave out. We often, I think, make the mistake of thinking a memoir, because it has some intimate content, that it tells everything, that it's naked and revealing. I know I, and I think a lot of memoirs, there's a lot of things we leave out. There's a lot of things I didn't say that I could have said. I was very, very clear about what I wanted to share and what I wouldn't. So I'd say to any emerging authors to remember that, that you have that agency and that power and don't give it up.

Secondly, in terms of reception from readers, I'd say the internet is full of noisy, angry people. That's, unfortunately, part of doing business in this world, that you'll get backlash online, but I think it's useful to only care about the opinions of those who you respect. So I have got a lot of trolling online and will doubtless get more in the future. But if it's from people who are just clearly transphobes or just trolls in some ways, I don't actually find it gets to me that much because I don't respect their opinion in the first place. It's when the opinion comes from someone I know is a real person in real life and if they have problems with my work, that's much more upsetting and I take it much more seriously and hope to learn from it.

So, I think, yeah, the takeaway there is to expect unlovely criticism and trolling, but to try and tune out from it a bit because it just becomes exhausting and does damage to one's mental health and boundaries are important. Step away if you need to.

ASTRID: Well said. I'm giving that advice straight to my students, Yves. I have had a great pleasure reading your memoir and speaking to you today. Thank you so much and absolute congratulations on publishing All About Yves.

YVES: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.