Armchair Book Club: Annabel a thoughtful insight into gender identity

Cover of Annabel by Kathleen Winter - Submitted
Cover of Annabel by Kathleen Winter
— image credit: Submitted

Rae Spoon, a transgender musician who recently played in Kelowna, has given up using the term he or she when self-referring – preferring to use the gender neutral term “they.”

Using this pronoun helps those who don’t fit neatly into a male or female category to define their own identity.

Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel is a complex and compelling story about how choosing a male or female identity for a child with gender issues can ruin a life.

In the novel, Wayne is an intersex baby (known at the time the book was set as a hermaphrodite) born in Labrador in the late 1960s. With the aid of surgery and hormone therapy, Wayne’s parents make the difficult decision to raise Wayne as a boy.

They keep his intersex identity a secret, believing there is no room for ambiguity in their rural community.

As Wayne grows up, oblivious to his true identity, he is tormented by the feeling of a female presence within. He doesn’t fit in.  He is confused. And finally, when Wayne reaches puberty, he winds up being rushed to emergency, where the secret of his female side must be acknowledged.

Annabel is a beautiful but heartbreaking story of people who, out of love, believe they are doing right and yet cause immeasurable harm.

The secret has created a distance between mother and son, and the father, a hunter and outdoorsman, loves Wayne, but can only see a black and white solution to the identity question.

Although Wayne is intersex and not transgender (which is a brain/body discrepancy and not a physical issue), you can’t help wonder whether, if Wayne had been allowed to carve out his own identity like Rae Spoon has, his life could have been better for him, his family and his community.

Annabel is a fitting selection to be one of the five books showcased on the CBC Canada Reads debates, taking place in early March. Winter’s book is being championed by actor Sarah Gadon, in a contest that aims to pick the one book that could change our nation.

Also on this year’s list are Esi Edugyen’s Half-blood Blues, championed by sprinter Donovan Bailey, Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, defended by comic Samantha Bee, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, defended by journalist Wab Kinew, and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which will be championed by activist Stephen Lewis.

This year’s list is varied and strong.

Most likely the strength of the person defending the book will be what decides the winner.

Heather Allen is an avid reader and contributor to the Western News.


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