Friday 24 January 2020

'Creating stories was my way of living as a girl' - author James Dawson

In 2015, the award-winning YA author James Dawson hit the headlines when he announced he was transitioning into a woman. Maggie Armstrong meets the activist and former teacher

Class act: Juno Dawson says the struggle of her life has given her a unique perspective. Photo : Eivind Hansen Photography
Class act: Juno Dawson says the struggle of her life has given her a unique perspective. Photo : Eivind Hansen Photography

The first time the author Juno Dawson ever wore a skirt - denim, with Doc Martens - she found herself running for her life.

She was stepping out of a train station in west London when the van driver wound down his window and said: "Legs."

Fairly unexceptional, to anyone who ever was bold enough to wear a skirt out there. But for Dawson it was a new and rather horrifying experience.

Born James Dawson, she had not long been living as a woman. "It freaked me out," she recalls. "I'm so dubious of women who say they like being wolf whistled. Because in that situation it is a man lording his power over you.

"I thought, if this guy clocks that I'm trans, he'll get out of his van and kill me. We know this happens to trans women." She hid behind her hair extensions and then she ran.

In Dublin promoting her latest novel for young adults, Clean, Dawson is a flurry of such tales, told in the first cut-glass Yorkshire accent I've ever heard. She is prim in a tea dress and heels, with dark bangs. She sips hot chocolate, exuding an untouchable star quality we don't associate with authors.

At 32, Clean is her 11th book - her seventh work of fiction - and it has already been optioned for a TV series. Her YA books are fresh and sharp and easily devoured, but it is her strident public voice as a trans activist that really sets her apart.

Her life has been a "struggle", she admits. But that struggle seems to have given her a special angle on the world. She notices things.

Take wolf whistling. Could we not just take it as a compliment, smile and move on?

"No. It's a flexing of power. When a man leans out of a window and just says 'Legs', that's not a compliment. That feels like it's designed to intimidate me, and to objectify my body.

"We need to teach very young boys that that is not okay, to try and press on them how intimidating and horrible it is for women."

Her novel Clean has caused a stir - its 17-year-old protagonist, Lexi Volkov, is a heroin addict, part inspired by the life and death of Peaches Geldof. The book documents Lexi's rehab in the fictive 'Clarity Centre' where she befriends other misfits such as an anorexic trans girl named Kendell. This gritty account of injecting, withdrawals, sexuality, suggests teenagers have grown up since we read Gafa for the Leaving Cert.

Dawson was out of contract with her publisher, feeling "constrained" by the YA genre, even though her books have been more on the "adult" side of "young adult".

"Even as I was writing it, I thought, you'll never get away with this. But they haven't changed a thing."

The book is worth dipping into for its parody of the super-rich. Lexi, a Russian-born Londoner, is a spoilt heiress to a hotel fortune who buzzes around pretentious fashion parties. "As someone who's never had a £20,000 handbag, it is morbidly fascinating to spend a year imagining what it would be like to own a Birkin," Dawson admits.

Her own upbringing was "quite poor", growing up in a council house in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Her parents separated when she was young and she had an unhappy childhood, badly bullied by boys at school. She had known since the age of three that she should have been a girl, but had learned to stop asking questions that were upsetting her parents.

Settling in Brighton, Dawson became a primary school teacher. As James Dawson, she wrote YA novels that sold well, including All of the Above, Cruel Summer and Hollow Pike. She was even crowned the 2014 Queen of Teen. Interestingly, her protagonists were all girls.

"People used to ask me, how did you write such good girl characters? I've written stories since I was about 10. Creating stories was my way of living as a girl."

She played in a band and had boyfriends and was relatively happy in her 20s. "I was working out in the gym all the time, and I finally looked like someone I would want to date."

But something felt wrong on "a very, very fundamental level".

"You know when you have a spot on your tongue and you're like, this feels huge."

Then, in 2012, when she was researching a non-fiction book of testimonials, This Book is Gay, she spoke for the first time to trans men and women. "I said tell me your story. And their story was my story. And I was like, 'fuck'." Then came a year of therapy and "interrogating" herself. She samples, for our benefit, one of her self-interrogations. "If the world was fair and just - and we know the world is not fair and just - you would have been born a girl. So what are you going to do about it? You could grin and bear it, and go through life wishing and knowing that there is this other life. Or, do you take this bold step, to do something that is still so misunderstood and so frowned upon.

"There was only one choice to be made. Do I endure life, or do I live life?"

In 2015, James came out as Juno. She has been through three medical procedures, with help from her father and from the NHS, but the "very strange, singular experience" of becoming a transgender woman will continue through her life.

"One of the misconceptions is that you turn up at the hospital and say 'transition me!' on day one. It's an ongoing process. I'm going to be on medication forever." Now, she looks a lot like someone she could have looked up to as a teenager. At the book signing at Eason, she was greeted by crowds of Dublin's LGBTQ community. Meeting these kids - with their parents - has been among her happiest experiences as a writer.

These days she lives by the coast in Brighton, writing every day in her local coffee shop with her chihuahua dog sitting in her handbag. She writes - as well as YA novels with lots of LGBTQ characters - punchy columns for Glamour and Attitude, and a big part of her life is blocking trolls. Caitlin Moran is among her great friends.

Is she enduring life or is she living it? She smiles and breathes relief: "It's been a blast."

We exchange an air-kiss and she gets up to catch her flight - but first, a book signing at the airport, where more fans await.

Clean by Juno Dawson, published by Quercus, is out now

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