The Arty Semite

When Getting Girl Means Pretending To Be Transgender

By Michael Kaminer

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Photo: Chloe Aftel

Call it a boy-meets-girl-who-thinks-boy-was-born-a-girl story.

In “Adam,” the debut novel from cult graphic memoirist Ariel Schrag, an awkward California teenager named Adam Freedman parachutes into an alien landscape of subcultures and identities when he joins his lesbian sister in Brooklyn for the summer. (Full disclosure: Schrag was featured in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” a traveling exhibition which I co-curated and the Forward sponsored.)

Obsessed with scoring — with women, not sports — he finally meets the girl of his dreams. The fact that she thinks he’s transgender — a boy who was born a girl — becomes a temporary stumbling block once Adam realizes he’ll get much further by playing along.

Like her great graphic novels “Awkward,” “Definition,” “Potential,” and “Likewise,” “Adam” balances Schrag’s ruthless eye and scathing precision with beautifully humanistic and generous portrayals of complex, conflicted characters.

Schrag, who has also written for the Showtime series “The L Word” and HBO’s hit “How to Make It in America,” spoke to the Forward from her home in Brooklyn.

Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to draw a straight line between Adam’s predicament and the moments throughout history where Jews have had to hide their identities?

Ariel Schrag: I thought about all forms of hiding your identity while I was writing the book. I also considered the amorphousness of identity. What does it mean when we say someone’s a boy or a girl? Is it body parts? Is it in the mind? Is it a collection of experiences?

It’s also interesting how often identity has to do with how you’re perceived. There’s a great device in “Maus” where Art Spiegelman shifts between the mouse face, for Jews, and the cat face, for Germans, when one camp inmate stars insisting that he’s German, not Jewish. It switches back to the mouse face. In that moment, you see that difference. But the person behind it is the same.

Did you watch “Yentl” before you wrote “Adam”?

I totally watched it. There’s also a plethora of books about people hiding identities and gender swaps, all the way back to “Twelfth Night.” “Yentl” didn’t have a particular influence, though “Boys Don’t Cry” was a movie I thought about a lot while writing “Adam,” and [trans activist Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 novel] “Stone Butch Blues” as well.

What’s interesting about Yentl is that her primary reason for becoming a boy was to be able to study Judaism. Adam’s primary goal is more base — to get a girl. But he starts the novel with very little to define himself, and after getting exposed to all of these experiences, decides he wants to study science and gender. So it wasn’t just, “Oh, he did this to get laid.” It’s a key moment when we become interested in things outside ourselves. Adam crosses that bridge.

This book has young-adult themes and teenage characters, but raw sex. Did you ever hesitate to include those scenes?

Never. The book is all about gender and bodies, so I couldn’t be coy about what body parts were doing. “Lolita” is one of my favorite books. That book doesn’t use words like “penis went in vagina,” but it’s very clear what’s happening.

One thing that initially brought me to comics was the idea of using this medium that people thought was for kids, especially 20 years ago. I was interested in “Maus” or R. Crumb’s comics, work that took the medium into graphic or dark subjects. I wanted to do that with my comics. And with “Adam,” I took a classic summer love/teenage boy story, very much in a young-adult voice, but into places where I thought the story needed to go.

You’ve mentioned you dated a trans woman, and that a lot of your friends were immersed in a trans scene pretty early. How much of the book is drawn from real experiences?

The world Adam enters is very much the real world where I lived in my early 20s, in early-2000s New York City. The book has a lot of autobiographical elements. I did go to a club called the Hole, to sex parties, and to “L Word” viewing parties. The places Adam goes are real. But the characters, conversations, and scenarios are all fiction.

Adam’s also Jewish, right?

Adam is half-Jewish, as I am. A lot of the book reflects my own feelings about being a “half” of something and feeling in between both identities. My mom is not Christian at all — she never related to it — whereas my Dad’s side of the family was very culturally Jewish. Jewish holidays were always a big part of my life. I’ve always felt very Jewish, but knew that when it came down to it, I was the wrong half — a bizarre feeling to carry. So when it came to the gender divide, and living in that in-between state of gender, I sort of related to that.

The Orthodox landlord character reappears in Adam; we’d first seen him in your cartoon “The Chosen.” Was he real too?

In my real life, I had an encounter with a landlord — drawn in “The Chosen” — who asked if I was Jewish, got excited for about five seconds, then heard I was half-Jewish and walked away. I thought it was so interesting that I wanted to put it in Adam. It felt so apt.

The Forward recently did a series on transgender Jews. It seems a lot of transgender people get rededicated to Judaism. Why do you think that is?

I don’t want to generalize, but some trans people are drawn to professions that are very gender-binary. It’s a way to feel more established in your chosen gender. I could see that if a trans man wants to be in a role in Judaism traditionally reserved for men, that would make sense. I have seen that predilection for either masculine jobs or very feminine jobs.

Will we see a sequel to “Adam”?

No sequel. I’ve written a children’s book about two sisters, and I’m working on watercolor drawings for that. I missed drawing. I worked on [acclaimed 2009 graphic memoir] “Likewise” for something like 10 years. I was like, “get me away from here.” Now that I’ve done “Adam,” and also written a pilot, I’m ready for the drawing board again.


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