A perplexing image of a young teenaged boy kept popping into Sonia Tilson’s mind. The boy was alone. His head was down. He was paying no attention to other boys playing near him. “I thought what could be wrong with the boy to make him close himself off like that.”
At first, Tilson thought the boy was gay. But that didn’t seem right. Finally, Tilson realized the boy was bedevilled by a transgender issue; the person he knew as his mother was actually his biological father.
And that was how the Ottawa-based Tilson came to write The Disappearing Boy, a novel aimed at children of middle-school age and into the early teens. Transgender issues are increasingly in the news these days, before the courts and in literature. Thus, Tilson’s book is timely.
Neil, the boy in the book, only discovers at age 13 his mother is transgendered. He is confused and angry and runs away from his Ottawa home to a grandfather he has never met on a horse farm near Saint John, N.B. Neil loves his grandfather’s horses but he is appalled at the insults his grandfather hurls at his mother for being transgendered. Neil begins to accept his mother and returns to live with her.
Many readers will know Tilson as the author of the adult novel The Monkey Puzzle Tree in 2013. The story about a girl who was sexually molested during the Second World War was nominated for the Ottawa Book Award.
The Disappearing Boy also started off as an adult novel, but was being written from three points of view – that of the boy, the transgendered mother and the boy’s grandmother. Tilson says she had no problem writing from the boy’s and grandmother’s point of view. The transgendered mother was more complicated so Tilson ended up crafting a children’s book focussing on the boy and his reaction to learning his mother’s true identity.
Tilson, now in her 80s, says she has always been interested in “human sexuality and the borderline between the two sexes.” As far back as the 1950s, while living in Britain, the Welsh-born Tilson read a great deal about Jan Morris, a well-known transgendered British author.
Many years later in Ottawa, after retiring from a career as an English teacher, Tilson took a few creative writing courses at Carleton University from Ivan Coyote, who is perhaps Canada’s best-known transgendered author. One day Tilson accompanied Coyote and some other transgendered people to a meeting involving a very heated discussion on pronouns and the transgendered.
“It was very scary,” says Tilson. “The depth of the anger was shocking.”
Tilson, a self-described cis woman has not mastered the tricky issue of pronouns in the transgendered world, sometimes calling Coyote “she” and sometimes “he.” Actually, Coyote has used both pronouns over the years but today prefers “they.” But that is a pronoun Tilson simply can not bring herself to use to describe just one person. “I can’t do it. I’m an English teacher.”
Lacking in-depth knowledge of transgendered people, Tilson admits to some nervousness about getting that topic right in her book. She also has a few concerns about being accused of appropriating a transgendered voice. However, the vast majority of the book is not the voice of the transgendered parent, but the voice of the boy and other people reacting to the transgendered character.
Tilson’s publisher, Nimbus, gave a copy of an early manuscript of The Disappearing Boy to a transgendered mother of a young boy to read and to offer comments. That reader suggested a few changes, which Tilson said she made, but otherwise the mother approved of the book. That gave Tilson more “confidence” about the book.
The seemingly growing acceptance of transgendered people in society, at least in Canada, pleases Tilson. The U.S. is a different kettle of fish. What does Tilson think of the attempt by President Donald Trump to keep transgendered people from serving in the military? “Appalling. Absolutely appalling.”
The Disappearing Boy
Sonia Tilson (Nimbus)
In Town: The author will launch her book at the Rio Vista on Oct. 2 from 5 to 7 p.m.