Trans Joy: Award-winning trans author Ely Percy on overcoming adversity and queer, working-class joy

Trans Joy: Meet award-winning Scottish author Ely Percy

Every week, we try to share some hope, happiness and humanity through our Trans Joy series.

Today we’re spotlighting Ely Percy, a Scottish, trans, working class author for whom the past year has, unexpectedly, been a series of joyful moments – some of which were a very long time coming.

The joys of 2021 started for Ely with their second novel, Duck Feet, winning Book of the Year at Scotland’s National Book Awards.

Having finally been published 16 years after they started writing it, the book was a runaway success, selling out multiple print runs and leading to invitations to speak at literary festivals that Ely never dreamt they would receive.

Funding for their third novel has followed that success and industry recognition, with Ely matter-of-factly describing these events as “life-changing” and “phenomenal”.

“I’m pretty ecstatic every day,” Ely tells PinkNews from their home in Scotland. “I just feel like I’m happy most of the time. This has been a really great year for me. At a time where trans people are still being demonised, people have really come out in support of my writing this year. It’s so important for cis people in particular to get behind trans folk and amplify their voices.”

Ely Percy had to relearn how to read and write after a traumatic brain injury

Ely Percy, who is agender, had to learn to read and write for a second time after suffering a brain injury when they were 14. Diagnosed with retrograde, anterograde and post-traumatic amnesia, they were sent to an adolescent psychiatry unit as an inpatient in 1993 – and it was here that they began to write “for catharsis”.

A year later, their first poem was published in 1990s teen magazine Big!. In their twenties, Ely read their work at open-mic nights, experimented with a one-person drag show called Transverse, and published a memoir, Cracked, in 2002. Then, Ely went to Glasgow University to study creative writing.

“My first day at Glasgow uni, my tutor said that it doesn’t matter how much talent you’ve got, it’s not talent that makes you write a book – it takes perseverance to write a book,” Ely recalls. “I will go one step further and say it also takes self-belief. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, then nobody else will.”

In recent years, trans authors have had increasingly high-profile literary success. Notable books by trans authors are being published by ever-bigger publishing houses, including Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby and What It Feels Like For A Girl by Paris Lees.

But it doesn’t take much to notice that many of the trans authors who have found the most backing for their work share some attributes that commonly appeal to publishers: they are often white, young, attractive, middle-class women – sometimes ticking all four boxes.

Ely Percy is working class and neurodivergent, two identities that have historically been excluded from the publishing industry.

“I suppose one of the positives about being working class was I have this kind of grit, this determination,” Ely reflects. “Most of the working-class people that I know are grafters. It doesn’t matter what life throws at you, you just keep going. If an obstacle comes into my path I don’t try to climb over it, I try to go round it. I cut a different path. Or I go back and start again – there have been so many times that I’ve just had to start again from scratch.”

Ely also writes queer, working-class characters – who are still underrepresented in today’s LGBT+ books offering – who live multidimensional lives, with joy very much included. This is, Ely says, deliberate.

“I think a lot of the working-class stories that are published – and there’s no disrespect to them – they are a lot about hardship, and life being hard. And that’s fine, if that’s what you want to write about – that’s what I was seeing being published – but I didn’t want to write about hardship,” Ely says.

They continue: “I wanted to write about joy. I wanted to write about the strength of being working class.

“I wanted it to be a celebration of working-class life, and although there are hard things that happen, I think that the sort of brightness and the joyfulness is what shines out of it.

“I hope so, anyway.”

The runaway success of Duck Feet

Duck Feet is a coming-of-age novel written in Scots dialect, which quickly brings readers in to the teenage world of Kirsty Campbell and her friends at school in Ely’s native Renfrewshire. The story follows the group through school, exploring the dark and sometimes light messiness of teen crushes, family abuse, heartthrob boybands and homophobic bullying.

Ely says they “genuinely always believed” that people would read Duck Feet, which they began writing as they graduated from Glasgow in 2004. “I just knew that there were people out there that would like this book, because I hadn’t read a book about my hometown,” they add. Ely was convinced – and always got glowing feedback when they read bits of the novel, which began as a series of short stories, at open-mic nights.

But it wasn’t only this novel that languished, mostly unread: for the almost two decades since Ely graduated from Glasgow, despite writing nearly non-stop, their work was rarely published.

But Duck Feet was finally released in March 2021 and became a smash hit: selling out within weeks after being published by Monstrous Regiment and winning both Best Fiction Book and Scottish Book Of The Year at Scotland’s National Book Awards. Duck Feet was also nominated for the Scots Book of the Year at the Scottish Leid Awards.

Their third novel, Kingstreet, will be a Scottish crime drama, and its protagonist is trans masculine. To write the book, Ely has been funded by Creative Scotland, the country’s public arts body, and they were also the inaugural recipient of the Curtis Brown Creative Agency’s John Le Carre scholarship.

“I’ve been wanting to write Kingstreet for years and years,” they admit. “And Creative Scotland have just said like, oh, OK, yeah, we’ll give you all the money you’ve asked for and they’re actually going to pay me for my time?

“This is the first time… the validation, knowing that they actually believe in me, and that other people are saying, we support you, we love you? That gesture, to me it was just everything.”