Set to a soundtrack of 00s hits, What It Feels Like For a Girl is her heartbreaking and hilarious memoir-novel hybrid
“I feel hugely nostalgic for 2001,” Paris Lees tells me over a phone call on a characteristically bland Tuesday afternoon. “It’s been my means of escapism from where we’re at in 2021 where everything feels like a huge argument all the time.” Lees’ book, What It Feels Like For A Girl, is a hybrid memoir-novel set amongst the clubs and pubs of early-00s Nottingham and based on Lees’ own teen years.
At the heart of the book is Byron, Lees’ fictional surrogate self, abused because they’re queer, bullied because of their gender nonconformity, and hurtling along a path of revelry and destruction. Set against the soundtrack of the early 00s with each chapter title named for a hit song from the era, Lees has created a masterfully evocative work that is as joyous as it is tragic, something that’ll have you crying at the discotheque, if you will. I caught Paris in a “rare moment of calm” to chat about the book.
How does it feel to see What It Feels Like For A Girl out in the world?
Paris Lees: It just feels really surreal, to tell you the truth. I’ve been writing it for seven years but now it’s a product that you can walk into a shop and buy. It’s very bizarre. I’ve basically made my life into a product. It’s very, very weird but it’s amazing as well.
The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, is the form it takes. It’s very hard to actually categorise the book because it’s a memoir but it’s novelised and you’ve decided to write it in a very distinct Nottingham dialect too. What led you to creating such a hybrid work?
Paris Lees: Well, really and truly, I don’t think I’ve always had the vehicle to express myself creatively in the way that I’ve wanted to in my career. I often get put into this sort of news-y space where I’m arguing with people or I’m banging on about trans rights which, obviously, I do care about, very passionately, but when I got this book deal with Penguin (hello!) I decided: okay, why don’t we have some fun with this!? I just love fiction, that’s my thing, I did literature at university, I felt there was so much to my story, so much life, such vivid memories and experiences that I was like, I think I can turn this into something really colourful that will read like a novel and that was really important to me, I really wanted the reader to enjoy it.
In much the same way that the book rages against form and convention, your main character Byron rages against so much, they rage against gender, they rage against society.
Paris Lees: Well, it’s a scary time really to be putting myself out there because it feels that we are living in an increasingly hostile world for trans people at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see how people react to the book and how people frame it. But let’s have a conversation about the reality of what it means to grow up feeling the way that I felt.
“I didn’t feel safe going to school. Why are we not having a conversation about that? Because it’s still happening” – Paris Lees
Paris Lees: I’m so upset today because I read this story about a 12-year-old boy who’d been homophobically bullied relentlessly and he killed himself because he didn’t want to go back to school. I don’t want to live in a world like that. I don’t want to live in a country like that. We’re getting it wrong, we’re still getting this wrong. In my mind it’s this gender-based bullying and violence that anybody who expresses their gender differently experiences. Nobody should feel unsafe to go to school. I didn’t feel safe going to school. Why are we not having a conversation about that? Because it’s still happening.
Do you think your book will help start that conversation?
Paris Lees: I don’t know because, in many ways, I’m all out of ideas. But if people sit down with this book and are not outraged by the way that I was treated growing up… I’ve literally got nothing more to say. It is just so obviously wrong.
Would you say there was a sense of catharsis in writing the book?
Paris Lees: Um, not necessarily the writing of it, which has been really difficult, I won’t lie, but I think that being heard is cathartic. (The book) was like a process of un-gaslighting myself because I grew up feeling that I wasn’t who I said I was and that other people forced their version of me onto me. I know so many people over the past ten years in similar situations to me who haven’t made it through, they’ve died. I’m not going to have that. I will tell my story. I’m determined to be heard and I think that ultimately will give me closure on all of this. I couldn’t accept the story that they told about me so I’m speaking for myself now and that is very powerful.
“Why did I include all the fun stuff? Because I refuse to be beaten down by this society and I refuse to offer up a misery narrative for cisgendered society’s consumption” – Paris Lees
The book is very joyous as well, however. It is a celebratory throwback to a past era with all the chapters evoking the music of the early 00s. Why is music so important to the book?
Paris Lees: Because music is really important to me. We often tend to remember things in detail when it’s a very traumatic time for us and I remember (the early 00s) in detail and I just feel like, culturally, it’s a great time to revisit. Why did I include all the fun stuff? Because I refuse to be beaten down by this society and I refuse to offer up a misery narrative for cisgendered society’s consumption. I think the purpose of transphobia is to rob us of our joy so I was absolutely determined to have fun when I was younger, it got me into a lot of trouble, but I absolutely insisted on it being reflected in the book.
It is interesting that the book is coming out now because it really seems like this year is going to be a watershed moment for trans lit.
Paris Lees: I have quite conflicted thoughts about this because, on the one hand, this is going to be an absolutely unprecedented year in terms of trans people getting their voices heard in publishing and we really need it after years of the conversation about our lives being conducted over our heads. But on the other hand, I feel frustrated in a sense because I feel that as a trans person you are only ever seen as a trans person. Obviously, I can’t write a book in which I’m not trans and I am talking about those experiences in it but I don’t really see my book as being part of a moment, if that makes sense.
Can we finish up by just talking about how cool the book actually looks?
Paris Lees: When we were designing it I was like: it needs to be bright, it needs to be bold, it needs to be gobby, it needs to be attention seeking, it needs to be Byron, in a word. I wanted it to be luminous and look at the final copy, how fucking bright is it? It literally looks like it’s glowing. I wanted it to scream at you and I was thinking of that really loud visual style that had a lot of movement in the early 00s if we look at the sort of artwork for bands like Moloko and Basement Jaxx and photographers like Elaine Constantine. I think (the designer) Tom Etherington has captured it perfectly and it gives the book a real flavour and identity. I think it’s a really tasty book.
What It Feels Like For A Girl is out now via Penguin