Jamie Berrout is a Mexican trans woman, writer, translator, and editor at the Trans Women Writers Collective. She is currently working on publishing Portland Diary: Uncollected Writing and has a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds she needs.
Portland Diary will be the “first book of literary short fiction ever published by a Latina trans woman in the U.S.,” as stated in Berrout’s Kickstarter. Below is a Q&A session held with the author.
_____________Q1: You’re from the Rio Grande Valley. How does being from the borderlands influence your writing?
A1: My family moved around a lot between the border when I was a kid – we’d be in Durango with my dad’s family one year and then in Los Fresnos another, a year or two in Matamoros and then on to Brownsville, where I mostly grew up – so I think this whole sense of the borderlands and living between cultures and trying to reconcile the tensions that causes is in a lot of my writing, even that which takes place outside the border. The borderlands come into my writing by making me at home in contradictions and situations full of irony and uncertainty. In Otros valles, my novel, which was only released as an ebook, I wrote about different aspects of a trans woman’s life in Brownsville in those fluid terms, where it’s hard to pin down what’s real and what isn’t, where a trans woman can know her identity to be true while her parent’s traditional/colonial values invalidate her existence, where violence and pleasure show up in unexpected places or even together.
Q2: At what age did you discover your passion for writing? What helped you discover it?
A2: I studied English in college and became really interested in poetry writing at that time. But I never took publishing seriously until I had no other choice. I dropped out of law school when it became intolerable and unsafe for me to be transitioning there and I ended up moving back home to the Valley. I couldn’t do much else at that point except write a blog since I had left school with a panic disorder and depression and could barely go out of the house. So I wrote and shared my poetry and fiction writing on my blog. When I left the Valley a year and half later, my mental health wasn’t any better, but I at least I had written a poetry book, my novel, and most of my next book – not that I had options at that point, but I finally felt ready to be whatever an actual writer might be.
Q3: What is Portland Diary about?
A3: Portland Diary is about trans women on the edge of a nervous breakdown, to borrow from Almodóvar, which makes sense because I started writing them when I returned to Portland last year, the place where I had studied law years before and had my own breakdown. The stories are about trans women in impossible situations who have no room to act and yet are forced into action, and under all this pressure, which is the same pressure we face every day of our lives, the trans women in my stories use violence to get revenge or break the law to protect others or betray themselves and the people they care about.
Q4: In the chapter “Mansion,” you talk about “Human Rights Campaign-esque” organizing. What do you mean by that?
A4: I think it’s a very common experience for queer and trans people of color who deal with those kinds of organizations to have the same strong sense of disappointment and suspicion as the main character of “Mansion”, even if they’re not able to articulate why. I feel like the worst thing about these organizations isn’t even that they fail to support and protect us, it’s that they lie to us so much. They claim to represent all LGBTQ people, but they’re run by white cis people. They ask us to volunteer for them and they raise money in our names, but then they focus on issues like gay marriage which are irrelevant for those of us who are struggling to survive. Right now those organizations are finally speaking up about the rampant murders of black trans women, but haven’t they been doing nothing to help black trans women all these years? Those kinds of distortions are damaging to us, they make us doubt ourselves and our perceptions of reality, they make us feel like we’re beneath them, just bodies they use to get the statistics they need for more funding and discard.
Q5: As mentioned in your Kickstarter, you might be the first Trans Latina to have your work in print. How does this make you feel?
I want to recognize that Dane Figueroa Edidi is a trans Afro-Latina who has been self-publishing novels in print for years. What I was pointing to as being new about Portland Diary is that it’s a collection of stories with distinct characters and themes. So as I share individual stories from this collection online – because I want my work to be accessible to trans women – I get to hear back from readers the same day and have them be a part of my writing process, rather than work on a novel in isolation for a year. But yeah, it’s not a distinction that I’d proud of if I was the first trans Latina publishing a book in this literary genre. Actually, I’m not even sure if there are any trans women of color who have published this kind of book before, but I know several white trans women who have, so it’s not an honor. It’s depressing and isolating. And it’s rough thinking about all the other literary firsts that are left for trans women of color to reach: first romance novel, first book of sonnets, first book of critical essays, first graphic novel.
Q6: You also mention that it is challenging for trans women of color to find a publisher. Have you personally experienced this?
The problem for trans women of color isn’t so much that publishers hate us and want nothing to do with our work, it’s more subtle than that. It’s that they operate in a different world and they don’t care about us enough to dismantle the oppressive systems they’re invested in, which serve to shut us out. It’s typical for magazine editors to ask me to write new work for them for free or almost free, which they might publish, for a magazine I can’t even afford to read. This is an everyday thing for trans women of color writers. I don’t bother to submit my writing to literary magazines anymore. Not even publications and presses led by people of color or by trans people because they still play by rules that essentially make publishing impossible for trans women of color. For example, if I wanted to publish Portland Diary with the support of a publisher, which is infinitely easier than doing it on my own, I’d have to find a way to pay rent for the next few months while finishing the book and then I’d have to submit it to different publishers and book contests and hope that I could sign a publishing contract and get paid an advance before I get evicted or starve to death. That kind of publishing system might work for cis writers who can count on having support systems or safe employment while they do their writing, but for me it would take a miracle for that to work.
Q7: How can people follow your work?
A7: Follow me on twitter (@jamieberrout) or on tumblr (@desdeotromar) where you can find a lot of my previous writing. You can also go to my Patreon page to read three stories that will be included in Portland Diary, and if you support me as a patron there you’ll get to download all my previous work and receive emails whenever I share new work.