Abigail Tarttelin is only 25 but her second novel, released this month, is already on the shelves and you’d have to look pretty hard to find a bad review.
Golden Boy is the story of Max Walker, a 16-year-old with a lifestyle that every schoolboy would envy – the only complication being that he is half schoolgirl.
It is very rare for a novel, TV show or movie to tackle the issue of intersexuality head-on. So GSN caught up with Tarttelin to find out what drew her to the subject, how she views the wider issues raised in her book, and why stories of its ilk are so rare in mainstream entertainment.
‘It was the summer of 2011 and I was thinking a lot about gender roles in general,’ says Tarttelin, on the genesis of Golden Boy. ‘I don’t particularly think men and women are very different.
‘I think there are a lot more differences within the spectrum of one gender than there are between the genders. I was thinking “okay so what does make us different?” and I came to the conclusion that it was our experience of the world, how we experience it through our gender, and how people treat us because of our gender.
‘I thought intersexuality might be a very interesting way to explore why we feel it’s necessary to assign people a gender.’
She clearly isn’t the only person who finds it interesting – Golden Boy currently has a rating of 4.1 stars on GoodReads.com and was graded B+ by Entertainment Weekly.
It is clear from the pages of Golden Boy its author has an impressive understanding of both the biology and the psychology of intersexuality. Tarttelin is joyously talkative about all aspects of her wide-ranging research:
‘It’s funny that there are some cultures and tribes that have like eight genders,’ she says, full of enthusiasm. ‘The native Americans had roles for people who were men or women but didn’t want to be men or women – they had a role for trans people, and I think that’s fascinating.
‘Also, I joined Tumblr and I found a massive community online of teenagers who were so much braver and cooler than I was when I was a teenager.
‘They’re not just saying “I’m trans” or “I’m intersex”, but they’re “genderqueer” or “pangender” or they’d created another new word and I just thought that was so inspiring, and in many ways Golden Boy is a book for those people and about those people.’
It’s easy to see how Tarttelin was able to get chatting with intersex people and gain an insight into their personal thoughts and feelings. She is friendly, cheerful and very approachable, but don’t assume from this that her novel is a smiley and happy affair, because it’s not.
The harsh parts of Golden Boy can bite very hard, very early on, and the story delves deep into the raw anxiety of adolescent gender confusion. It’s clearly an area of study into which Tarttelin has been propelled by her own fascination:
‘I think the question is – where does that confusion and anxiety come from? If you’re just a child and you’re left alone, then you don’t grow up ashamed of your body – that’s not a natural thing, it comes from outside influences.
‘As a young child, when you cannot see another way out other than to assert that you should be the opposite gender to what you are, that’s what you do. I think that we have to be really careful about not filling our kid’s heads with boundaries and gender roles.
‘I think we have to be really upfront when talking to our kids about the spectrum of LGBTQIA and gender roles and be willing to accept differences and say “I don’t care what you want to be in the future, you just be it”.’
If there were to be a recognized genre of ‘intersex fiction’, then Golden Boy would not have many competitors to jostle with. Along with TV and film, the publishing industry very rarely throws up anything thematically akin to Golden Boy, although Abigail cites Lianne Simon’s Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite as having an important role in her creative process.
So why does mainstream fiction so rarely explore the field of intersexuality, when statistics constantly tell us that it’s not that unusual?
‘I feel like a lot of the time we try to box people into a certain narrative, particularly in media,’ says Tarttelin.
‘Someone has to be describable in a few sentences, but the reality is that you can have drag queens that enjoy being really macho guys, but also enjoy singing and being feminine.
‘People are really more interesting than we give them credit for. The idea that people can be really masculine and really feminine at the same time just isn’t portrayed in the media and it’s not something that producers can pull into their pitch.
‘This applies to the media’s treatment of intersexuality, but also its treatment of all genders and sexualities, whether that’s strong women who can also be shy, or drag queens who can pack a punch.’