The Trans Author Bringing Diversity To Teen Readers

Brighton's Juno Dawson is a leading young adult author whose readers voted her the 'Queen of Teen' in 2014. She's also contributed to The Guardian, Woman’s Hour and Newsnight, and represents LGBT charity Stonewall as a School Role Model. When she began her career, Juno was still living and writing as James Dawson, but announced her intention to undergo gender transition and live as a woman in 2015. As she publishes her latest novel Margot & Me, Juno talks to Refinery29 about her life, writing and activism.

You've called Margot & Me your most 'epic' book. What do you mean by this?
I wanted to write an intelligent weepy, a bit like The Notebook or Love Story. Margot & Me is meant to make you feel a bit melancholy but ultimately, quite triumphant. It's about a girl in the '90s called Felicity who goes to live with her grandma while her mum's recovering from cancer, which means moving to the middle of nowhere in rural Wales. Her grandmother Margot is a real tyrant and when Felicity stumbles across her diary, she thinks she might find something incriminating which could help her get sent back to London. But actually she discovers that Margot's diary is her childhood diary from the Blitz and contains a big family mystery which has connotations in the modern world. If you look at the bigger picture, it's really about the shifting role of women and the LGBT community over the last 60 to 70 years. Margot was a very modern young woman who was confined by her era, so in a way it's about feminism as well.

Margot is obviously a formidable character – is she based on anyone specific?
Margot's voice actually came to me quite immediately. She's slightly based on both of my grandmothers, but she's much more fierce than them! I wanted her to be very cool and stern but with a sense of humour, too. Felicity took longer to come to me, but I found her voice by immersing myself in '90s culture and looking back at Cher Horowitz in Clueless. That's a phenomenal example of a character who's never an airhead – she's actually very intelligent – but at the same time, seems quite sheltered and innocent. Felicity thinks she's incredibly streetwise and cultured because she comes from London, but of course she hasn't really lived yet and she has some growing up to do.

Do you ever make a conscious effort to include strong female and LGBT characters, or does it just come naturally?
I just think I could never not feature female characters or LGBT characters. I guess at the beginning of my career, there was an element of wish fulfilment – I wasn't living as a woman, so the way I could live as a woman was through my characters. But obviously that's less of an issue now. You know, I always try to write the world as I see it, and the world is diverse. And where it's not diverse, I think it should be and so I've always included a nice spread of characters. I hate the idea of living in a monoculture.
It's so great that readers are being introduced to this kind of diversity at such a formative age.
But I actually think young adults are incredibly switched on anyway. Even young adults who aren't reading fiction are on the internet, on Tumblr and on Instagram, so they understand that the world has lots of different types of people. They understand that a lot better than many people in my mum's generation, I think. So for young adult writers, it's a chicken and egg thing, because in a way, young adult readers actually demand diversity, and so we respond to that.

You wrote books as James Dawson before you announced you were transitioning. Was the publishing industry always fully supportive?
I've actually been published by various publishers, but they've all been wonderful. It raised some practical issues, but there was never any kind of philosophical issue or any attempt to say, 'Well, shall we just keep your name on the books the same?' There was just the practical question of whether I wanted to scrap my existing stock, or to wait and reprint with the name Juno. Pulping books feels ridiculous, so we decided that as each title was reprinted, as and when that happened, the books too would transition into Juno titles. And obviously all future titles will be Juno.

You also work as a School Role Model for Stonewall. Is that something you ever felt nervous about?
I just see it as a way of paying back, really. Having lived in my previous incarnation as a gay man, and now living as a trans woman, I've benefited from what has gone before: through the activism and hard work and visibility of people in the media. Obviously we've seen a huge rise in trans visibility post-Caitlyn Jenner, but I owe a great debt of gratitude to the trans people who were out before Caitlyn: Rebecca Root, Paris Lees, even Nadia from Big Brother. All of these people made it possible for me to figure out my identity and paved the way for me to have acceptance. Do you know what, I look at the world, I look at fucking Donald Trump and Brexit, and I can't do shit about that. But I can go into schools and make sure that a thousand kids have met and chatted to a trans woman. And that might make it a bit more normal and a bit easier for trans and LGB kids in that school. It's just about showing kids that trans people like me are a part of their world.

What do you see as the next step for trans visibility?
I think there's still a lot of misunderstanding about trans people because there's still a lot of myths and nonsense in the press about trans children. I think we need to see a lot less of this debate, this idea of 'we need to talk about trans kids'. The NHS is on top of it, parents are on top of it, there are charities like Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence helping people out. There's no debate with trans people. It's happening, deal with it. So it's possibly a case of moving the narrative on from this debate because I don't think there's anything left to talk about.

Margot & Me, published by Hot Key Books, is out now.
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