A Review of Kathleen Winter’s Annabel: A Failed Effort to Explore the Complexities of Intersexuality

UntitledI was optimistic yet skeptical when I picked up Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel, which features an intersex protagonist from Labrador.  On the one hand, I was excited to be able to read and feature this book on my blog, since intersex characters are so rarely explored in literature and this was the first instance I had come across in Canadian fiction.  On the other hand, I knew that the possibility was probably relatively high that this exploration by a (straight cisgendered) writer who isn’t intersex might be disrespectful and/or inaccurate.  After slogging through this nearly 500-page novel, I have to say: it could have been worse, but it certainly could have been better.

For the most part, Annabel resists the temptation to sensationalize the life of Wayne/Annabel, the main character.   Winter does a great job depicting the joys and terrors of being a gender non-conforming kid; she delicately and insightfully deals with a lot of the issues of shame about the gendered and sexual body that her protagonist has to confront.  These are intersex experiences that I think will resonate with many trans and queer folks, especially women, and Winter depicts them thoughtfully and skilfully.

The theme of secrets and shame is explored in avenues other than intersexuality–for example, in the marriage of Jacinta and Treadway, Wayne/Annabel’s parents.  I really appreciated this approach and how the novel emphasizes that it’s not only intersex folks who deal with shame (about their bodies or otherwise).  The book doesn’t fall into the trap of contrasting Wayne/Annabel’s shame/secret with so-called normal people’s self-assurance.  Winter also confidently provides a critique of the non-consensual medical procedures that many intersex people have been forced to undergo, as well as a feminist argument about the right to control one’s own reproductive health.

So it’s not that Annabel doesn’t do anything right.  For me, though, where it failed felt significant enough to mostly erase where it succeeded.  Let me explain: Winter regrettably introduces a medical sub-plot where Wayne/Annabel ends up impregnating him/herself.  I cringe just thinking about it.  In an otherwise realist and perceptive book, this sensational and implausible plot device is not only unnecessary but offensive.   I was really disappointed that Winter chose to include a physiologically impossible pregnancy instead of exploring some of the actual complexities or realities of intersex folks’ lives.

kathleen winterLater on in the novel, after having taken hormones for most of her/his life as a result of Treadway’s decision to raise his child as a boy, Wayne/Annabel decides to stop taking them and deliberately pursue a different gender presentation.  Shortly after beginning to appear more feminine, [trigger warning] Wayne/Annabel experiences a sexual assault.  I couldn’t help but read this assault as some kind of marker of “essential femaleness.”  Throughout the novel, Winter uses only the name Wayne and the personal pronoun ‘he’ to refer to her protagonist; understandably it might be difficult for some readers to visualize this character’s later feminine gender identification and presentation.  Because of this, I saw the sexual assault as a way to convince readers of Wayne/Annabel’s femaleness.  The implication that only women are sexually assaulted and that this kind of assault is somehow proof of the female nature of the character readers have known as ‘Wayne’ up until this point is deeply problematic.  It honestly doesn’t really matter to me whether Winter intended this or not; as a feminist I find it very offensive.

Here’s to hoping that the next time a book featuring an intersex character gets so much praise (the year it came out Annabel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Giller, and the Governor General’s Lit Award among others) it’s written by someone who can resist this pattern of sensationalization; is it too optimistic to wish that this next book might actually be written by someone who’s intersex themselves?

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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19 Responses to A Review of Kathleen Winter’s Annabel: A Failed Effort to Explore the Complexities of Intersexuality

  1. I remember being disappointed by this one, but I do not remember the pregnancy plot! That is awful. I do remember the rape scene as being unnecessary and what really made me not like the book as much as I wanted to.

    • It’s too bad, because both of those awful plot devices don’t come into play until later in the novel and it feels almost like it tricks you into thinking it’s not going to fall into bad patterns.

      • Right? It was going so well…

        It was especially because the main character had already gone through so much, and then they were raped. It just seemed over-the-top, like being intersex meant there was no hope for a happy life.

  2. M-E Girard says:

    Very insightful points were brought up here. I haven’t read the novel but I really agree with you on the sexual assault coming across the way you described. Whether the author realized it would appear this way or not, it really puts a damper on what the author was trying to show.

    It’s tough figuring out who can get an LGBTQ “right.” Sometimes I wonder if the lesbian/queer stories I tell are painted accurately, and I’m a lesbian/queer person! I read a great YA book about a transgender teen (BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN). It felt so real to me, not that I’m transgender, but I just saw a teen and not a “trans teen dealing with trans issues”–and it was written by an adult hetero woman. I guess no matter what, you have to take a step back from your story and examine what you’re trying to say, and then think about what readers are going to take away from it–might not be the same thing.

    • I certainly don’t want to start policing who can write about what and I absolutely have read books about lesbian/queer characters written by straight people that I, as lesbian/queer woman, thought were very well done. I don’t think Winter was doomed to fail because she’s not intersex and is cisgender and straight. But I did read an interview where she discusses doing research about intersexuality but not doing any interviews with actual intersex folks and then following her ‘artist’s intuition’ when she wrote the book. This is upsetting to me, because she isn’t taking into account that her writing about this character has a connection to a real group of marginalized people; it’s her responsibility to try to do justice to and to be respectful of these people.

      • Cass says:

        “But I did read an interview where she discusses doing research about intersexuality but not doing any interviews with actual intersex folks and then following her ‘artist’s intuition’ when she wrote the book”

        Yes, this this this. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book after I saw that interview. I am so sick of folks exploiting minorities for their “art”–and then, of course, getting more recognition than actual minorities who are producing art.

      • Yes, Cass, exactly! I’m really hoping an intersex author writes some fiction soon to counteract books like Annabel (and Middlesex as well). I’m excited about the books being put out recently by Topside Press by trans (particularly trans women) authors featuring trans characters and this gives me hope!

      • Are the books called the Collection edited by Tom Léger & Riley MacLeod and Nevada by Imogen Binnie on your reading list (both by Topside Press)? I think they might renew your faith and help with the ‘disgruntled reader’ experiences you’ve been having lately!

  3. Widdershins says:

    I was deeply involved with this story until the self-impregnation thing. I remember throwing it against the wall (figuratively speaking) on several occasions thereafter. Apart from the wonderful points made here, it’s also lazy storytelling.

  4. Widdershins says:

    Lazy storytelling is when something is incongruent to the flow of the story. It’s the WTF? moment. It’s when an author wants to portray an event/emotion/experience/character growth, and falls back on a trope, cliche, stereotype, etc, (like the rape, self-impregnation) in order to get the characters to the other side. Sometimes it’s blatant and sometimes it’s so subtle you don’t realise it’s been the itch you couldn’t scratch once you finish the story.

    I wish I could be more specific but it’s been a while since I read the story. Most of it wasn’t lazy, but as it got closer to the end it shifted out of tight almost surreal storytelling and fell into … the author not really knowing what to do next, so she shakes a magic ‘8’ ball and goes with what came up. The final scenes of the rapist and the father bugged me for the same reasons.

    • I see what you mean and definitely agree. Instead of actually investigating and writing about any of the multitude of complexities and realities that different intersex folks experience, Winter (lazily) just falls back on sensationalist tropes.

      Also, the self-impregnation made me want to (literally) throw the book at the wall. I probably would have except it was a library copy.

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  6. Riel says:

    Thank you so much for this website and comments!! As a transgender person I was horrified and disgusted when I read this book. A completely ridiculous and impossible self pregnancy happens for which the author did not even bother to set up conditions to make it plausible at least as crappy fiction.
    Yes its good to have more stories out there about people who don’t fit the little box that many fit in. But turning it all into a freak show for everyone’s entertainment is NOT ok!!

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