Teaching Brevity: Torrey Peters’s “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay”
May 20, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Emily Dillon
At 1,789 words, Torrey Peters’s “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” (Issue 49, 2015) is the only essay over 750 words that Brevity has ever published. Editor-in-chief Dinty W. Moore says, “We made an exception because of the power of the essay and the importance of the subject.” While Moore is of course correct that he made an exception, I would not be surprised if Peters intentionally exceeded the word count. After all, her essay, which compiles and arranges details from research on transgender murder, is nothing if not a meditation on excess–excessive violence, excessive hate, and excessive death.
The essay begins, “Brunete was beaten to death with a stick. The victim was shot by two men on a motorcycle in front of a motel. The victim was shot in the head.” This passive voice structure, often devoid of dependent clauses, continues unabated throughout the essay, centering the transgender victim in the first words of each sentence and stirring fear with the omnipresent but unnamed murderer. The repetition of this detached violence through almost 2,000 words simultaneously desensitizes and overly sensitizes the reader; we become immune to the violence but then, just as swiftly, triggered by its personal touches (“her burned body was dumped in a trash bin” or “the victim was killed with an ax”), in much the same way that watching violence on the news sometimes causes us to tune out and then, when particularly gruesome, tune in and rue humanity. In addition, the repetitive use of “the victim,” used to describe the subjects of various reports, tricks the reader into creating a composite character, as if every form of violence happens to one person. In this way, transgender murder becomes larger than any one story, “the victim” a symbol for what every transgender person becomes or fears becoming.
For the classroom–whether focused on creative writing, journalism, or criminal justice studies–this essay is useful but tricky. How can the teacher mine its expert craft and essential storytelling while also respecting the psychological health of students, especially students who identify as transgender or, more broadly, queer? From my experience teaching both secondary and higher education, the teacher’s role is not to censor injustice but to contextualize it and to offer options for student engagement. In a criminal justice classroom, this pedagogical approach may mean a content warning prior to assigning the reading and concurrently offering readings on contemporary queer justice movements; in a journalism classroom, it may mean assigning students to model the essay’s passive voice with a topic of their choice and reflect on that construction’s impact; in the creative writing classroom, it may mean asking students to try the essay’s found form on any subject, with an emphasis on compiling clips until they are surprised by a new revelation. In every case, it is relevant to share with students that the author Torrey Peters is herself transgender and using this litany of murders to explore her own fear, not to create a detached and gratuitious witness of violence. In particular, her personal stake emerges when the language starts to break down, when the repetition is not of similar images but exact wording: about two-thirds of the way through the essay, every other sentence becomes “The victim was a person of color.” When the language breaks and begins to skip like an old record, so too does the speaker’s distance. Suddenly, she is there, reading the reports with us.
In other words, the pedagogical danger is the most obvious assignment: asking students to go find a violent or oppressive topic in the news and to repeat the form. Don’t do it. For one, repeating a form without using it to find a unique revelation is bad copying, not art. The only reason that Amy Butcher’s Brevity essay “Women These Days” (Issue 58, 2018) successfully uses Peters’s form is that Butcher alters the form enough to expose her own stakes in violence against women, ending her litany with a harsh criticism of her male partner. Secondly, using this prompt may do more harm than good for the student, especially if it forces a student to confront current or past trauma without the aid of a psychological professional. If a student chooses to go there when offered choice, great; if we as educators force them to do it, not good.
Aside from the relevant classroom fields discussed above, this essay is also useful for any educator choosing to observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th, as the title of the essay implies. I would not recommend using this essay on the Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31st, as that day was intended by founder Rachel Crandall-Crocker to celebrate living transgender people. But don’t worry about finding stories of celebration–Peters’s has those too. Whether on the Transgender Day of Visibility or at another time in conjunction with her essay, consider assigning Peters’s most recent novel Detransition Baby (2021), published with Random House. Garth Greenwell has praised Detransition Baby as “the smartest novel I’ve read in ages … utterly savage & lacerating while also conveying endlessly expanding compassion,” which is not unlike what we find in the powerful, personal, and exquisitely crafted flash “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay.”
Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from the Piedmont Plateau of Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She seeks honest representations of lived experiences in her work, which ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. She is currently an assistant editor for Brevity.
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