This week I interviewed one of the people I most admire on this planet—my BFF and partner in world domination, Talia Johnson. She recently came to terms with acknowledging that she is a spoonie (One of us, one of us!) and I’m glad she’s part of the SpAN. Read on to see what she brings to the table! Spoiler: it’s a lot!
(Please note that responses to my questions are minimally edited, to preserve the integrity of the author’s answers.)
You are many things at once: educator, spiritual leader, academic, editor, short fiction writer, and poet. Whew! Are you equally as passionate about every one of these roles?
The level of passion varies depending on what I have on the go at any given time. Overall, however, I am equally passionate about all of them. There is overlap because my work in each area influences and inspires work in the other areas. For example, my poem, Holy Love, came from an inspiration in my training to be a Kohenet Hebrew Priestess. In my work as a sensitivity editor I bring in my experience as an academic, educator, spiritual leader, and activist to provide the best possible feedback on a story. I get particularly excited when my work can bring together the various things that I do and connect with people.
On your website, you often write about injustices to the queer and especially the transgender community. What are the issues you find yourself discussing the most?
“Help, help, I’m being repressed!”
“Bloody trans person!”
“You saw it, didn’t you? You saw them oppressing me?!”
— Paraphrase of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Political Peasant sketch.
In my blog posts I find that I write about what is current in the overall situation for transgender people, as well as what is particularly striking me as important when I am writing. It’s important to me to talk about oppression and problems that people face in a way that provides ways to improve the world, rather than just venting and ranting. Having posts already written allows me to reply with a link rather than a full new argument when topics I’ve already covered come up again, often for the 2^16th time.
Combining my own experiences with the experiences of wider community is an important part of my blogging process. It’s not just about me. If something is impacting me in one way, odds are that it is impacting many others in similar ways, or in more harmful ways. My goal is to demonstrate that there is more at stake than one person’s experience.
As an academic, you’ve written papers about what it means to be transgender and a person of faith. Many people often forget that religious people can also be found in the LGBTQIA2+ circles. Have you been met with surprise over this when presenting your papers?
When I’ve spoken and presented on this topic, I have encountered some surprise, some “of course,” and many others who have not thought about it at all. I discovered early on in my own transition process that in faith communities we don’t talk about LGBTQIA2+ topics, and in LGBTQIA2+ spaces we don’t talk about faith and spirituality. Yet, over the years I have had many conversations and provided support to those who are struggling with the intersection of their spirituality and being part of the broad LGBTQIA2+ spectrum.
Religion has caused, and continues to cause, a lot of harm to LGBTQIA2+ people in the world. The messages of hate abound. Most recently a post on an event page for an LGBTQIA2+ Jewish event was deleted because it was full of hate. I missed the comment, but saw some of the response to it. There are a lot of harmful faith groups out there. At the same time, there are many affirming faith communities that support and affirm their LGBTQIA2+ siblings.
In LGBTQIA2+ spaces saying that one is Jewish, Christian, or part of another faith is often met with criticism and harshness. This is particularly true for those who are LGBTQIA2+ and Christian. These responses are usually a direct result of the harm caused by conservative, fundamentalist faith communities and sects have perpetrated against LGBTQIA2+ people. Most notably was the recent Nashville statement. It is a document put forth by fundamentalist Christians that consolodates what they have been saying for years about LGBTQIA2+ people. People in LGBTQIA2+ spaces read this, or read about it and want nothing to do with Christianity or those who are active, practicing Christians.
One group that is doing particularly good work on this is TransFaith based in Philadelphia, PA. They hold regular events and provide education and resources. I have presented at Transkeit, a conference for Jewish trans people and allies. Closer to home, I have worked with churches and faith communities providing talks, sermons, and workshops on trans and LGBTQIA2+ topics. In June I led a Pride Shabbat service and gave a d’var/sermon. Both the sermon and the service were well received.
There is a thirst for the work that I do in this area.
On the creative side, you have been writing poetry for years, and have even done spoken word. Why are you drawn to this vehicle of writing?
I find poetry can be short, concise, and can get the point across quickly, particularly emotional content. Most of the poetry I write is intended to be spoken; this allows for a wider reach and can convey the message more effectively than just having the words on paper or a screen. Ideas for poetry can come from many places and often feels like a form of prayer. As a liturgical geek I see good prayers as a form of poetry in action, connecting the person and people participating with the divine. One of the items on my “want to do” list is to try putting some of my poems to music, or chant.
When I work on short stories and other longer works, the content tends to be somewhat different from the poetry. It’s more about a character and their struggles, conflicts, etc. It is more of an exploration of possibilities and interactions than poetry. They can, and do have emotional content, but the feel and delivery is different.
It was recently announced that your poem, Holy Love, will be included in an anthology. Can you tell us what that poem and the anthology are about?
Holy Love is an example of a poem that was inspired by an experience. It examines what it means to be a being of love, a representative of the Lover priestess archetype when one is a trans woman. I was somewhat surprised by the reception it received.
The anthology Resiliance is an anthology of poems, stories, and essays written by AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) writers. It is being published by Heartspark Press this fall. The purpose of the anthology is to center and highlight the voices of AMAB people that are underrepresented and not heard. Information about Resiliance is at http://www.heartsparkpress.com/historic-anthology-resilience/
As an author and editor myself, I have come to appreciate this new arena of “sensitivity editing.” You are a sensitivity editor who specializes in evaluating how queer and transgender characters are written. What are the biggest pitfalls cisgender and/or straight writers can fall into, with tropes and misrepresentation?
When transgender people are written about, the range of voices and how the stories are portrayed tend to fall into narrow narratives. Writers get all troped up and fall into old tried and true clichés about the experiences of transgender people. The most common narratives are ones that are tragic, that the trans person always knew [they were trans], that transition magically solves all their problems, etc. One of the most tiring narratives is the “trapped in the wrong body.” I wrote about it in my blog post Trapped in a Standard Narrative: The Wrong Body. The blog post came out of my frustration reading, yet again, about that narrative. Another common trap is to portray trans women as a trap. That we exist only to trick people and trap otherwise straight men into being gay.
Sometimes authors go the route of having a trans character that blurts out everything about their being trans, deadname, surgical status, etc. Most trans people only talk about these things with trusted friends, and even then it can be quite rare. For far too many trans people their deadname is something that is dead. They don’t want to have it used or known at all. Deadnaming me is a good way to get introduced to The Voice, and I don’t mean my poem of that name. Think Benne Gesserit, earth shattering voice. While some trans people will share photos of themselves pre-transition, many don’t. If one is doing any of these things with a character, it should be clear that it is part of the character. That said, because these things are prevelant in stories about trans people, fiction and nonfiction, I strongly advise against doing this with characters.
This summer you had an interesting experience with receiving critiques on a short work of fiction during a writing-prompt contest. Can you share with us the positive and the negative of the reviews you received?
As a challenge to myself this summer I thought I’d try a writing-prompt contest. The premise was interesting and I tend to work well to deadlines. I only submitted one entry. This was due to a combination of health, and the feedback I received to my entry. There were four judges. One judge provided excellent feedback that was both uplifting and contained solid suggestions to strengthen the story. One judge had good comments. The two other judges, however, totally missed the point of the character.
One judge in particular came across as transphobic and ableist. The character in the story is neurodiverse, likely on the autism spectrum. The problematic judge said that the character needed to get overthemselves and just accept who they are. When I complained about that judge, I was blown off. I will not recommend that contest to any own-voice author because I think that it is a contest that will be harmful to own-voice authors. I was just a wee bit irked by it all.
Big plug time! Where can we learn more about what you write, the workshops you do, and all the other things that comprise being Talia?
Next month I will be part of the Empowered Transwoman Summit being interviewed on mental/spiritual health and possibly on a panel. The panel details are to be determined.
I will be at Can-Con in Ottawa as a panelist the weekend of October 13-15, 2017.
I may be in Ottawa providing training for peer support volunteers, details and dates to be determined.
My blog is at https://taliacjohnson.ca. I write when I can, lately my energy is focused on my health and some other stressful that I’m dealing with. My poem, Holy Love is available for purchase on my site and includes an audio recording of me reading it.
I have a Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/TaliaCJohnson. Supporting me on Patreon will allow me to continue my free work for trans, LGBTQIA2+ and faith communities. This work is stressful and often undervalued or expected to be free. Further, many who access my work are unable to pay as they are struggling to meet their own daily needs.
If you would like to have me speak, facilitate a workshop, or provide education I am available! Please see my workshops page for more information. https://taliacjohnson.ca/services/workshop-facilitation/
For sensitivity editing please see https://taliacjohnson.ca/services/queertrans-sensitivity-editing/
If you are looking for coaching, mentoring, spiritual support, etc, please see https://taliacjohnson.ca/services/coaching-counselling-and-mentorship/
Last question: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?
Same thing we do every night Pinky, try and take over the world. Or, more likely, rest and replenish energy, and try to have spoons for tomorrow. Oh, and eat cupcakes, because we always should have cupcakes, right?
Editor’s note: Well, duh. Cupcakes are an essential part of self-care. NARF!
Talia Johnson is a multi-faceted woman who is transgender, autistic, Jewish, queer, and more than the sum of her parts. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. Her work centres on bridging faith and queer communities, facilitating workshops, educating, speaking, writing, and one-on-one coaching, counselling, and mentoring.
She is an academic, poet, and short story writer.