TOAre the early 2000s distant enough to be considered a bygone era? If so, journalist Paris Lees What That Feels like a girl it is a work of archeology. She drags the bones of cheesy garage tracks, green-backlit Nokia phones, Bacardi Breezers, Gap jeans, retired lingo, Nike Air Max sneakers, and Walkman, taking you into a world of pre-internet nostalgia. These ketamine-filled coming-of-age memories, riddled with jagged wigs and puppy love, fluctuate between the libertine and the monotonous; from gay bars to call centers, from Debenhams to the crown court, toilet cubicle sex with “dirty old men” for ten coins to heating up molasses pudding and custard. The details of Lees’ formative years, when he lived life uncomfortably as a boy named Byron, are a rare portal to the British trans experience.
Written in a Midlands dialect and in a chatty tone, What it feels like to a girl tells of Lees’ life in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, an “incredibly boring” town, where “the people are mean and the streets are paved with dog shit.” His relationship with his father, Gaz, and his mother is deeply strained. Gaz, the local tough man, is constantly testing his “masculinity”, while his mother, although more emotionally available, makes a “Shirley Valentine” and moves to Turkey for three months to be with a boy. Lees finally finds his true family with “the Fallen Divas,” a queer circle of people that includes Sticky Nikki, Fag Ash, and Lady Die (who hasn’t been home since 1999).
This is where the actual architectural plans for Lees’ future are laid out, where she accepts that she is not only dressing in girlish clothes, but that she is being herself. It is the story of someone who wants to be extraordinary. “Bastards. Someday I’m going to be rich and famous,” she yells at her bullies. As a teenager, she dreams of being “the first transsexual on the moon,” and although Lees has accomplished great things (she was fashionfirst transgender columnist), his ambition has come at a cost. He served a stint in an institution for juvenile delinquents for theft from a client, after emptying his bank account at gunpoint. However, his time indoors is primarily transformative; She decides that she wants to study for her higher levels and go to university, and she survives practically unscathed because she entertains the prisoners with rude poems. “They love me here,” he smiles.
What it feels like to a girl remember being in a nightclub where you can still smoke and the euphoric music plays non-stop. The title and chapters take their names from classic songs from the 2000s, by Missy Elliott Get Ur Freak On to Modjo’s Lady (Hear Me Tonight), giving readers a tailor-made soundtrack. However, it rambles in some places, while racist slurs directed at Black and Asian people are overlooked in a way that makes you question why it was brought up.
But from Lees’ observations of his harsh environment to his criticisms of heteronormativity and his honest account of sex work, It feels… is a dark comedy from a little-known perspective. Even when there is blood dripping onto the page as a result of bullying, Lees manages to make it read like a sketch. When the kids who call her “bender” and “poof” smash her face against glass and dog shit, she humorously recounts how the woman who came to rescue her noticed her Vengaboys pencil case and said: what if you are ” .
One of the most impressive things about the book is the way Lees evokes the memory of light: the square of sunlight on her mother’s leg on a bus trip that makes her feel safe; the glow of daylight after a night out when she and Lady Die’s makeup are “rotten”; the gloom of a relaxing night trip with Gaz. “When you go down those country roads and look behind you, everything goes black. It’s like there’s nothing. “Very powerful.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism