Identity Controversy and Music in Jackie Kay’s “Trumpet”

Jackie Kay has created a topic of controversy regarding gender identity in the novel Trumpet. Through the difference in perspectives on the gender of Joss Moody and Millie Moody, the novel contests the absoluteness of one’s identity by proving language’s inability to express it. Kay thus reaches another way of representing identity by a more universal means – music.

It is understandable that Joss as well as Millie’s genders seem undefinable considering their circumstances. Joss Moody used to be a girl, until the passion for jazz led to her pretending to be a man; as time passes, she gets so used to being a man that she (he) forgets her/his original identity – woman – and therefore obtains another identity – man. In that identity, he meets and falls in love with Millie – a woman who always regards him as a man despite his female body. Their relationship is so complicated that no existing category of sex can describe it. To most people, including Sophie Stone in the novel and Ceri Davies in ‘“The truth is a thorny issue”: lesbian denial’, the couple are simply lesbians who try to deny their sexuality by creating an unreal heterosexual family “Lesbians who [adopt] a son; one playing mummy, one playing daddy” (Kay, 170) ; “Millie has to reject ‘lesbian’ because it suggests otherness rather than the normality she wants her life to project” (Davies, 12). In this sense, the gender aligns with the body, and therefore, no matter what the couples do, they will never escape from their bodily sex.

However, it is important to remember that, as in “The Power of the Ordinary Subversive in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet” written by Tracy Hargreaves* “anatomically differentiated bodies need not…be the guarantee of heterosexuality” (3, 4)**. Gender is partly a person’s identity; therefore, it cannot be defined simply through materiality, but rather by other factors such as self-definition, environment… The relationship between Joss and Millie can only be called lesbians if both consider themselves to be women. However, to Millie, they are always husband and wife “I can’t see him as anything other than him, my Joss, my husband” (Kay, 35). As husband-wife indicates heterosexuality, Millie Moody’s insistence on this term shows that Joss is a man – at least in the relationship. Moreover, as gender is shown through one’s behavior, Joss’s behavior in his most private life proves his gender to be man.

However, can he be a man completely, regarding the fact that he used to be a girl and doesn’t deny that identity? Rather than totally eliminating the girl gender, it is possible that Joss has developed multiple genders – identities inside him. It can be seen clearly as Joss regards Josephine – his girl version as a third person “He always [speaks] about her in the third person. She [is] his third person” (Kay, 93). In doing that, he has created a new gender that is analogous to Virginia Woolf’s “androgynous mind”, a mind that is both masculine and feminine, or as Hargreaves writes, “a celebration of the location, within oneself, of the presence of both sexes, a recognition of sexual plurality”(13). Such a complex identity cannot be condemned in a limited range of definitions created by cultural standards. If language cannot express one’s identity, identity should then be expressed through a more universal means, as in the novel, Music. In music, no gender or self is needed: “All his self collapses – his idiosyncrasies, his personality, his ego, his sexuality, even his memory” (Kay, 135). Everything turns to nothing as people falls into the depth of music which is purely aesthetic without any discrimination or concerns. However, only through the non-identity of music can one freely express the multi-identity within oneself. Every piece of music that Joss takes up represents something of his soul, of his gender, of his race that no language can ever express: “Joss’s performance attempts to break free from formal representation… the power of the word, or at least, the narrative gestures towards a mode of representation that exists beyond the constraints of its own linguistic net” (Hargreaves, 13). As in art, every creation of artists belongs to themselves and is a way to express themselves to the world, Joss’s identity has craved in the heart of his music’s listener. This opens a new way of representing identity: rather than restrictive definitions like gender, one’s passion (job, hobby…) that holds one’s soul will allow a more complete expression of one’s identity.

Through the plot of Trumpet, the complexity of Joss’s gender shows the inability of language to truly express one’s identity. This narrative thus suggests a new way of representing one’s genuine identity – through one’s passion and, as specified in the novel, music.

*From now on the source will be written “TPOTOS”

** The quote is based on “Gender Trouble” written by Judith Butler.

WORK CITED:

1. Jackie Kay: (1998) Trumpet, London: Picador

2. Ceri Davies: “The truth is a thorny issue”: lesbian denial

3. Tracy Hargreaves: The Power of the Ordinary Subversive in Jackie Kay’s “Trumpet”

4. Virginia Woolf: (1977) A Room of One’s Own, London: Granada.

5. Judith Butler: Gender Trouble

Authenticity in Trumpet

Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet depicts characters who naturally challenge the conventional perceptions of race, gender, identity, and other socially constructed aspects of humanity. The text is set in the United Kingdom in the early to mid twentieth century, a time when being unconventional in these respects was particularly taboo. Kay’s novel establishes that many facets of identity cannot be viewed through an essentialist lens, and Kay uses the believable authenticity of her characters to exemplify this idea by pitting authenticity against societal norms.

The main characters of the novel exhibit a variety of unconventional characteristics. Joss Moody, for example, is the biracial offspring of a Black man and a White woman, and the text frequently alludes to the inevitability of his parents’ marriage creating tensions and obstacles during his youth, even without directly depicting much of his childhood. Joss also marries Millie, a White woman, despite everyone perceiving him as incontrovertibly Black; Millie’s own family is reluctant to accept the aberrant relationship that she cements with Joss. Above all, though, the most pertinent challenge to societal norms is the fact that Joss is biologically female and living as a heterosexual man. This challenge is compounded by Joss and Millie adopting a son, Colman, to satisfy Millie’s yearn for a child. Even adopted children are faced with the life of being inherently unconventional, simply because they are raised by guardians other than their biological parents.

With regard to the very unconventional characteristics depicted in the text, though, Kay makes a point to balance them against a conventional perception in such a way as to prove that these conventions are not fixed. Rather, conventional observers erroneously fail to consider perspectives that society has marginalized. For example, Kay bothers to mention several times that Colman actually favors his father, especially in his youth; consequently, many people make the mistake of claiming to see a resemblance that biologically is not present. On a more significant level, everyone in the text believes unquestioningly that Joss is a man until it is found out that he is biologically female. Joss lives as a man in every aspect of his life, even in ways that would not be necessary if he were only doing so to be a Jazz musician (i.e. courting, dating, marrying, and having frequent sex with Millie); this lifestyle points to the authenticity of Joss’s masculinity given that the very idea of “authenticity” is left undefined and undisputed.

Even after learning that Joss is biologically female and still consenting to marry him, Millie only questions her relationship with Joss relative to having a baby; even then, she does not question the validity of the relationship. She genuinely asks herself, “Why can’t he give me a child? He can do everything else. Walk like a man, talk like a man, dress like a man, blow his horn like a man. Why can’t he get me pregnant” (Kay 61). Millie refers to Joss with masculine pronouns and describes the several ways in which Joss is every bit the man she wants. The only aspect of manhood she cannot find in him is the biological one, a factor that speaks to the authenticity of Joss’s gender challenging his sex.

Late in the novel, Millie describes part of her and Joss’s morning routine after they had been married for a while, and what she describes further establishes masculinity as Joss’s authentic persona. It also alludes to her love for the man that Joss was as opposed to any attempt to delude herself into believing he was a man in order to facilitate some counterfeit love. She says, “I wrapped two cream bandages around his breasts every morning, early. I wrapped them round and round, tight. I didn’t think about anything except doing it well. […] I don’t remember thinking much. I had to help him get dressed so that he could enjoy his day and be comfortable. […] He was always more comfortable when he was dressed. More secure somehow. My handsome tall man. He’d smile at me shyly. He’d say, ‘How do I look?’ And I’d say, ‘Perfect. You look perfect’” (Kay 317-8). In this passage, Millie says multiple times that she didn’t think about anything other than ensuring that her husband was comfortable. His security was her primary concern, and after Joss was dressed and secure in his manhood, they were both at ease. She is even able to admire the man she helps to build, an admiration which makes nothing but sense in light of the cliché school of thought that every good man is a man that a good woman helped to build.

Through instances such as the morning routine, Trumpet uses Joss’s authenticity to challenge the conventional views of gender in the early twentieth century. In doing so, Kay’s text parallels this major challenge with several other ancillary challenges to societal norms. The purpose of this pervasive trope is to show the variability of identity that the most rigid traditional conventions refuse to acknowledge.

Challenging Binary Gender: Woman on the Edge of Time and Trumpet

Examining the concept of binary gender proves valuable when exploring gender and sexuality within literature. This essay will examine this notion by focusing on how key novels relating to gender and sexual challenge the fixity of a gender binary, focusing specifically on how far Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Jackie Kay’s Trumpet challenge this idea in their textual depictions.

Trumpet criticizes binary gender by its inclusion of issues relating to gender identity in a context of a contemporary society that fails to approach gender as anything but binary. In the novel, when considering the fact that recent widow Millie had been married to Joss – a woman who lived as a man – journalist Sophie asks herself ‘why?’, proceeding to ponder that ‘it’s all weird […] a woman who slicked her hair with oil’.[1] This example is one of many in the text representing that the bulk of in response to Joss’s identity came after his death, in the form of others opinions, and was not indicative of dissatisfaction on his part. This contrast highlights the narrow-mindedness of Sophie’s viewpoint regarding the dismantling of a fixed gender binary, suggesting that the text is criticizing this standpoint.

Woman on the Edge of Time furthers the criticism of binary gender by use of a science fiction component to the novel, introducing a future world that exists without gender binaries. This element allows for the notion of non-fixed binary gender to be explicitly presented, contrasting against the gender binary that exists in the present day of the novel, and with the preconceived beliefs of main character – Connie – herself. Next to the definitive displays of gender binary critiques in the future setting, more subtle criticisms of gender binary are seen in the narrative of the present timeline of the novel. This represents the inherent obliviousness to the damage caused by binary gender in the present day.

The second world, Mattapoisettis, is able to highlight the issues that present-day Connie misses, by its introduction of a perfect, harmonious world that is bred from the dismantling of gender binaries. The fact that Connie initially disagrees with – and is shocked by – the non-binary elements in Mattapoisettis is ironic, as she is presently living a life as ‘Consuelo […] silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. […] who managed to get two years of college – till Consuelo got pregnant’,[2] thus a victim to her binary. The use of non-gendered pronouns in Mattapoisett identify that issues caused in the present would be eliminated if people were not considered to adhere to a binary. In Connie’s case she is a victim of sexism – due to the expectation of her to fit inside a female binary – which would not exist in a genderless society. The challenge of the fixity of gender binaries is a constant presence in the novel, implied by the contrast of the binaurally gendered world next to the genderless one.

Both Woman on the Edge of Time and Trumpet explore the effect of binary gender in regards to parenthood. In Woman on the Edge of Time, many of Connie’s hardships stem from her being a mother.[3] As a woman she is expected to be the primary carer of her child, causing strain on her due to her position as a single parent. When her child is then taken away from her the experience is heightened in severity due to her being a woman, leaving Connie feeling she failed as a mother, and thus as a woman. In contrast, the futurist community of Mattapoisett introduces the idea of co-parenting between multiple individuals who are all considered mothers, regardless of sex. This setup is depicted as harmonious due to the lack of polarized or fixed gender identities being able to eliminate biases in parental responsibility (‘”The way we do it, no one has enough alone, but two or three together share breast-feeding”’[4]).

In Trumpet, being unable to conceive a baby causes conflict in Connie and Joss’s relationship (‘He can […] walk like a man, talk like a man, dress like a man […] Why can he get me pregnant like a man?’[5]). Connie’s frustration is in part due to Joss not being able to fully conform to the binary of a male, due to not being able to be an impregnator. A factor that is seen to be eliminated as an issue in Woman on the Edge of Time’s genderless Mattapoisettis. Trumpet further identifies tension in the family unit due to the inclusion of transgenderism in the family. Colman’s discontentment regarding his relationship with his adoptive father is due to the realization that his deceased father was born a woman. This confusion is not simply due to his father being transgender, but due to a failure to reconcile the man and woman as one person. Colman ponders why this father shaved; ‘how [did] the hair [get] there. Or was there never any hair. Did he just pretend? Did he take hormones to make himself hairy? Fucking Jesus’.[6] This example fixates on the importance Colman applies to his father to have introduced him to masculine experiences. He renders the experiences he did have with his father buying him his first shaving set as tainted and invalid as it was not really a man guiding him through the experience. Colman’s conflict exists due to the societal expectation of binary gender, his conflict a result of attempting and failing to fit his perceptions of his father into the constraints of this preconceived binary.

The emphasis on the ritual of shaving in Trumpet is an example of what Judith Butler describes as ‘gender performativity’. In Gender Trouble, Butler defines performativity as ‘the way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self’.[7] This performativity is practiced repetitively during one’s life, meaning that one is constantly attempting to simulate the attributes associated with one’s binary gender, rendering displays of gender unnatural. In Trumpet, Joss can be read as explicitly exemplifying gender performativity, due to his submission to fit a binary, even if it is not the one he was born under. Despite Joss’s predisposition to adhere to a male binary, his subconscious, which is portrayed when playing jazz, is portrayed as living outside of either binary (‘It all falls off – bandages, braces, cufflinks, watches, hair grease […] He is himself again. […] It is liberating. To be a girl. To be a man’[8]). In this description, we can see that, despite living comfortably as a man, Joss feels most liberated and true to himself when not tied down by the constraints of adhering to one binary. This is reflective of Butler’s assertion that ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender’.[9] And with the inclusion of many instances of other characters in the novel similarly displaying gender performativity (‘I buy up the shop. I don’t shop for pleasure. A wardrobe thick and dense, black skirts with slits, gold mesh halter neck tops […] is a wardrobe of the woman I’d like to be’[10]), it can be deduced that the texts representations of performativity serve as criticism of the binary gender system, due do the failure of characters to naturally fall into it.

Butler also considers that, as a result of performativity, it is ‘never possible finally to become a woman’.[11] In Woman on the Edge of Time, the introduction of the character Gildina prophesizes a reality where performativity could reach an outcome. Gildina represents the outcome of rigid gender roles if they continued to be adhered to with progressively rigid application – her heightened femininity (and her unawareness of its unusualness) blurring the lines between performance and an inherent binary. Gildina’s physical appearance is described to adhere to a ‘cartoon of femininity’, and she appears as if she could ‘hardly walk for the extravagance of her breasts and buttocks’.[12] Gildina also lives in a future where women fall into submissive roles, much more so than in Connie’s time period (‘You look me in the eyes, unlike a fem’[13]). The extreme setting of this second potential future is able to add another layer of illumination to the criticism of binary gender in the text, the dystopian, totalitarian society contrasting with both the present day and the Utopian Mattapoisettis, highlighting the disturbing reality of what gender binary could progress towards.

To conclude this essay, whilst Kay explores gender identity in depth in Trumpet, her challenging of the fixity binary is heavily represented by a concentration of the two binaries. Woman on the Edge of Time, however, challenges the fixity of the gender binary further by introducing a fictitious world that runs efficiently and harmoniously as a result of the non-incorporation of a gender binary.

[1] Jackie Kay, Trumpet (London: Pan Macmillan, 1998), p. 133.

[2] Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (London: Penguin Random House, 2016), p. 129.

[3] K. Rudy, ‘Ethics, reproduction, utopia: Gender and childbearing in Woman on the Edge of Time and The Left Hand of Darkness’, NWSA Journal; Baltimore, 9.1 (1997), 22-38 (p. 25).

[4] Piercy, Woman, p. 143.

[5] Kay, Trumpet, p. 35.

[6] Kay, Trumpet, p. 109.

[7] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002), p. 179.

[8] Kay, Trumpet, p. 120.

[9] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 33.

[10] Kay, Trumpet, p. 204.

[11] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 43-44.

[12] Piercy, Woman, p. 314.

[13] Piercy, Woman, p. 327.