I was extremely eager to read Invisible Men: Inside the Transmasculine Network by Nandini Krishnan. I am a queer cis woman, and within the queer community we have been aware of the gap in the literature that talks about trans men, and trans men as a group with distinct needs and aesthetics. Published by Penguin India, the book is about transgender men in India, as related by Krishnan . Krishnan speaks to several transgender men and lays out their conversations, in an effort to dispel misconceptions and inform the world about the realities of being trans in a bigoted world. She also seeks to show us a trans community, as opposed to a vision of trans men each in his own space.
But Invisible Men has been controversial. Trans men (some of whom are interviewed in the book) have reacted to the content, and they aren’t happy. Krishnan tells us on her blog and on Twitter that these are her honest opinions, and so she will not apologise for publishing them. But if your “honest” opinion is offensive to the very people you are talking about, then you need to question why it offended them—and maybe you do need to apologise.
Krishnan uses a similar argument to defend Manu Joseph’s incredibly tone-deaf foreword, which fetishises “female” anatomy and gender expression, and a voyeuristic, genitalia-focussed image of what trans-ness means. On her blog, she tells us that women are taught to fear male genitalia, which is a rather broad assumption. (Most of Krishnan’s defences or explanations are summed up in her blog post.) She also tells us she expected Joseph to be honest and to tell the truth whether it was politically correct or not. But when your “honesty” is rooted in prejudice and voyeurism, when you start a book with the agenda of looking for (trans masculine) fault—then that “honesty” is useless, and a lie.
This is a book written by a straight cis woman, with a foreword by a straight cis man. Krishnan tells us in her blog: “Transpeople don’t need a cisperson to interpret transmasculinity. But laypeople do.” Why did Krishnan create the divide here between trans people and laypeople? What is so special about being cis that means that we can speak with authority where a trans person cannot, about trans people?
This belief that she is a necessary medium between the speciality of trans-ness and “laypeople” is at the heart of why Invisible Men fails. Krishnan believes so much that her intercession is necessary that she inserts herself into every narrative, every dialogue. You hear analysis of whether someone looks masculine to her or not. She will tell you it is because she is questioning herself, but the final effect is of judgement, of the man’s failure or success at Being A Man.
Krishnan might be questioning herself and interrogating her privilege, but she never seems to take that questioning to a further, difficult place. She never ponders, finally, where her analysis of masculinity and its subjective appearance comes from. Krishnan uses the power of being a researcher not to reveal her subject but rather to construct them and present them as she feels fit. Was it helpful? Did it help her? Will it help the helpless “layperson” who needs her so much? Does she help that “layperson” answer any questions without taking them to the same problematic places?
With some careful editing and restructuring, Krishnan could have had a very interesting book on her hands. The men she speaks to throughout the book give her a wealth of information, some of it extremely personal, some of it political and academic. Some of them speak of their own research into their religion, and into medical practices in India. Some of them speak of problems within the trans masculine community (in another book it would be interesting to widen some of these questions to the queer community at large) and of support systems for partners and family. These men (and some women) opened up their lives for revelation, and they should have been presented in their own words, without interference.
But in the middle of all that, Krishnan’s feelings. Krishnan’s pain. Krishnan’s sympathy. Krishnan’s doubts. Krishnan’s tears soaking a pillow. Krishan’s cruel anger that someone chose to commit suicide (she never met him, she doesn’t care). Krishnan’s meditations on trans people in Hindu mythology—and no other mythologies from the subcontinent, but a lot of Greek mythology, which is all very interesting but completely irrelevant—why is she talking to all these men if she doesn’t want to know their views and beliefs?
Krishnan’s inability to leave out her feelings from her interviews and conversations removes the book from the realm of research or journalism into an extended personal essay. This essay is set up to frame Krishnan as an ally, as a sympathetic, feeling human being. She wants you to see her as questioning, aware; she has a long segue on veganism, and how queer intersectionality ignores animal rights (though she ignores the intersectional rights of someone who eats beef to stay un-lynched, for example, while she can pick and choose her non-violent food without worry). The reader meanders through a maudlin, mawkish and disorganised narrative about her interactions with trans men and their partners. Krishnan reveals little else of her own self, with nothing to match the raw sharing of her research subjects. Mawkish prose, maudlin free-associations: where were the editors?
This could indeed have been a book comparable to Svetlana Alexievich’s work, or closer to home, A Revathi’s beautiful section given entirely to trans men’s voices in her book, A Life in Trans Activism. (As an aside, that book also has some solid critiques of queer activism in India, and possible responses to bridge the gap.) With careful writing, Krishnan would have to defend herself less in tweets and blog posts, telling us of her rapports, her permissions, and the words of the men whom she represents. (Where were the editors?)
Krishnan’s language is not always respectful, and given that there are several ways in which trans communities have helped construct and remember language (especially in English) it is at the very least showing that she has not done her research or that she didn’t think beyond her immediate reactions. The lack of nuanced language goes beyond politics. We’re talking about simple things, like translating the word “adhu” as “this person” instead of the dehumanising “it”. “Proud” instead of “smug”. (Krishnan seems surprised when trans men are proud of themselves.)
Krishnan protests that she questions herself, that she examines her privilege. But looking at your privilege like a shiny jewel is not the same as changing, evolving, and learning something new. Near the end of her book she says, “For all our discussions on gender as a spectrum, I could not remove the boxes from my mind.” Here she reveals that she knows the work has inadequacies. If she cannot see beyond those boxes, why did she write the book? Why is she surprised that Manipuri trans men are burning her book? (Hint: It’s not because they don’t love books.)
Until we can truly learn to bridge the gaps of knowledge and lived experience, we should go by the protest—Nothing About Us, Without Us. Don’t front a book about trans people that’s secretly a self-aggrandising, unending blog post. Better yet, don’t write it at all.