While LGBTQ+ media representation has greatly improved over the past few years, one area that is still severely lacking is trans representation, especially non-binary stories. As a young trans person without many adult non-binary role models, hearing from non-binary adults that have made it past their teenage years and are thriving in their communities is incredibly powerful.
Fortunately, a new memoir by a talented writer and illustrator named Maia Kobabe (who uses the pronouns e/em/eir) has shed on being non-binary as a young adult and navigating the gendered world while struggling with one’s own identity. Eir book, Gender Queer, is a graphic novel with gorgeous illustrations and vulnerable stories about eir life and experience with gender. You can order Gender Queer here. You can also find em on line at eir website (www.redgoldsparks.tumblr.com), on Instagram at @RedGoldSparks, and on Patreon.
Reading Maia’s memoir helped me to understand myself and my trans identity in a more complete way, and I am so glad that I found eir book. Recently, I got to talk to em about eir creative process, eir exigence for publishing a memoir, and more.
Eli Bundy: Hi Maia! We are so excited to chat with you today. How are you doing, and what’s been on your mind recently?
Maia Kobabe: Big question – it’s been such a weird year. But I think in a lot of ways, it’s affected my personal schedule less than it has other people. I’ve been working full time as an author and cartoonist since mid 2017, so when everyone else was thinking “how do I work from home?” I was already acclimated to emailing all of my clients and working in my pajamas.
Over the summer, I had a family member far away have a health problem and I was faced with a now-familiar dilemma: Do I see my grandma? Do I not see my grandma? The COVID pressure came down on me more at that time for sure.
I’ve also been headed toward top surgery, which has long been a goal of mine, and I finally was able to have top surgery two weeks ago. Having a voluntary medical procedure in the middle of the pandemic felt strange, but my recovery has been pretty smooth for the most part. It was interesting to be on drugs and napping for the middle two weeks of October.
It will be a long time before I can be out in queer community post-top surgery, so it will be a while before having top surgery will really hit me. It’s been a year of long-delayed responses.
Eli: Congrats on that! I love your book, Gender Queer. How does it feel for such a personal story to be out in the world?
Maia: Mostly it just feels good. It was a little scary in the beginning, but over the course of writing shorter works about gender on Tumblr and online, I’ve become really comfortable talking about very intimate stuff with people I don’t know. I’ve become pretty good at being like, “What is your deepest fear? How do you feel about your body? What’s your relationship like with your parents?”
It’s harder for me to have those intimate conversations with people who I am closer with – including my extended family.
I came out as queer in high school, so that was news to no one. I had started coming out as gender non-binary as I was working on the book. Part of the process of coming out to people was allowing them to read early drafts, so publishing it was not a shock.
I think they heard me say “I’m non-binary,” and that’s one thing, but the stakes are higher when they’re reading a 200-page book about me coming out and being non-binary.
First, I sat down to consider, “How do I say this to someone? How do I get this across?” And that’s why I started working on comics. It started with just little pieces I was putting online. I didn’t know I was writing a book. But it was only until about a year after I started putting them online and was getting very positive feedback, that I compiled all of this into a pitch document.
Eli: Before you were an author, you were a librarian, right? What did you learn from working in libraries, and how did those experiences shape you as an author and artist?
Maia: I love libraries so much. Actually, I was never officially a librarian – I don’t have a degree in library science, but I went from volunteering in my library as a high school student to getting a job at my university library for four years, and then they asked me to come back as a desk manager. I spent a full decade in libraries, but it was mostly helping folks with research or pointing people in the right direction.
I love books, I’ve always loved libraries. Being a reader is really important to me. For lots of queer people, it’s important to find representation in media. It’s always been my goal to be a published author, so I felt like hanging out around books was influential.
Librarians have been so supportive of Gender Queer. It’s available in hundreds of libraries now. They’ve emailed me and said that queer students have reached out about the book, and they’re excited to be able to recommended Gender Queer.
Eli: How has your experience as a non-binary artist been so far, and how can we make publishing and the creative world in general more inclusive to trans and non-binary people?
Maia: I feel very lucky and privileged in that my work has always been very welcomed. I’ve sometimes had opportunities specifically offered to me because I was an out queer author. One area that is still lacking is intersectional queer stories – people who are BIPOC and Queer or BIPOC and trans. Many trans and non-binary stories that have been published recently are by white authors, which isn’t bad, but we need more non-white representation in that genre for sure.
Also, a lot of stories have been about people who are between 28 and 35, like me. What about people who have come out as non-binary or trans in their 50s and 60s? I haven’t seen as many of those stories.
There’s also a trend of throwing a non-binary character into an ensemble cast. While I like that as a concept, it often means that it’s a more shallow representation. I’d love to see the non-binary character be more the main character and have the cis friends be the B cast.
Eli: What advice would you give young artists about making our voices heard and sharing our stories?
Maia: Start making work. Whatever you’re called to – whether doodling in your sketchbook, making a digital book. Just make things. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they are, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they look like.
For me, I started posting little comics online. And one thing that inspired me was frustration – I was having all of these conversations with people that didn’t convey my total message. When you haven’t articulated your identity fully to yourself, it’s hard to convey that to other people too.
Anyone can sign up for an Instagram or a Twitter account, and there’s a hunger online for stories that are honest and on the vulnerable side. Things are opening up, but there are still so many more niche stories that we need to tell.
I don’t think anyone who has any type of minority identity should be required to divulge things or be more vulnerable than they’re comfortable with. For some people, sharing those pieces is not cathartic. Sometimes it’s just retraumatizing. But if it does feel good to write about them or draw about them or write songs about them, it can be so wonderful and transformative to create work about that. And I promise, if you share that, you will find an audience. People respond to honest, human stories. Offering that kind of work is a gift to the world. It can sometimes feel like you’re doing a service to your community, although hopefully it’s good for the artist as well.
Part of what I love about comics is that it’s a very low-budget hobby. They can be just as good when made from simple materials as from really expensive materials. Saying something – having a very clear message – and working on the timing is very important. Far more important than using a fancy brush set.
Eli: I feel like a lot of folks are good at starting projects but struggle to finish them. How do you sustain your work and keep yourself going to finish the projects you’re working on?
Maia: I am a Taurus, and I have a lot of Earth signs in my chart. So it’s actually easier for me to finish things than start things. I find the first 10% of the project the most intimidating when it’s very amorphous and it doesn’t have any form, when I can’t make a timeline or an outline. I often have to push myself – there’s sometimes that resistance to beginning something. I have to remind myself that it’s OK to not know what it is yet.
There are so many ways to do creative challenges – some people do InkTober or Comics November. There’s NANOWRIMO going on right now, where writers try to finish the first draft of a book in the month of November.
Maybe do a little something every day, and by the end of a month, look back on it and you can see what you’ve done. Is it an album? A poetry collection?
For me, working on comics, the first stage is sometimes the hardest: Coming up with the writing or thumbnailing – a lot of left brain thought. When I switch over to the right brain parts of the project, the coloring and illustration, it’s easier for me.
Sometimes you just have to go for it – pick a subject that you already think about every day. I thought about gender every day of my goddamn life. As I talked to people more, I could collect these little conversations, and that helped the ideas flow more easily.
I had some anxiety because, at 28, I felt I was too young to write a memoir. Before I started writing, I felt like nothing had happened in my life. All I do is read 100 books a year! That’s my life. But then when I started writing, I was able to reflect more. Maybe my life had more internal conflict than external conflict, but that doesn’t mean nothing was happening.
I’ve never had to fight against my environment or have fights with people. I thought maybe there wasn’t enough narrative tension. But now, I think anyone in the entire world has a story in their life that’s worth telling. Not everyone is ready to tell it or wants to tell it, and I respect that, but I think everyone who is inspired to has a story worth telling.
If anyone thinks they’re too young or not qualified or their life is not interesting enough to write a memoir, please don’t think that. If you’re feeling a pull to write it, please do. Humans like reading about other humans. I really like reading memoirs, there are so many ways that people’s lives go and different experiences that they have and different wisdom. All of it is valuable and all of it is needed!