Why Soula Emmanuel’s Wild Geese is your must-read trans book of the summer

Author Soula Emmanuel' and her book Wild Geese.

“Sometimes, in liberal trans narratives, trans women represent this future, cutting edge of gender. But trans women are also people,” says Irish author Soula Emmanuel.

Emmanuel’s debut novel Wild Geese, which won the 2024 Lambda Literary Award Winner for best transgender fiction, and just won a Society of Authors award, too, is a quiet reminder: away from headlines, panel show debates and political discourse, trans people are living their lives.

The novel follows Phoebe Ford, a 30-year-old Irish woman and PhD candidate living in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. She’s three years into her gender transition, and after moving away from her family and complex relationship with her pre-transition life in Ireland, is seeing the world and her place in it for the first time.

Now that Phoebe has become Phoebe, she’s savouring the small life she’s created for herself. She’s chopping vegetables for dinner. She’s watching TV in the evening with a glass of wine. She’s keeping her skittish dog, Dolly, alive. 

That is, until her ex-girlfriend Grace, who she’s not seen for some years, shows up for an impromptu visit.

As they revisit old ground over one weekend, they bring up new feelings, and Phoebe is forced to question whether, in sheltering herself away in her new-found freedom, she has also cut herself off from living life to its fullest.

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Wild Geese is meditative, funny, intrinsically detailed and brimming with heart.

Emmanuel spoke to PinkNews about the novel, why she couldn’t have written it before her own transition, and why arguing with transphobes is “boring”.

PinkNews: We were shocked to learn that Wild Geese is your debut novel. It’s a beautiful, meticulous piece of prose. How did you write like that, straight off the bat?

Soula: It was difficult for me to write into my own feelings when I didn’t really have a grasp on them myself. Before I transitioned, I don’t think I would have been able to write something like this. I started transitioning at age 28, and I started writing fiction aged 29. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I do look at it as a novel of trans adolescence, a novel of a second adolescence. It is very focused on what it feels like to finally be alive in that respect. It’s also a little bit self-absorbed. It has that sense of Phoebe’s living in her own world, but she’s also really observing things for the first time.

This is of course a novel about the trans experience, but is there part of Phoebe’s journey that you feel is the crux of the novel?

The whole point of this novel was to establish the interiority of a trans woman in particular.  So often, trans women are objectified, not just in terms of transphobic coverage, but also sometimes in liberal trans narratives, trans women represent this future, cutting edge of gender, but trans women are also people. They have inner lives, they live in their homes, and they have hopes and fears. I wanted to reflect that too.

I didn’t want it to just be the trans woman as a social symbol, but also the trans woman as a human being. Capturing that interiority was important to me. As someone who was quite early in her transition when I started writing this novel, I didn’t feel I had the right to talk about trans women in a social sense. I felt: “OK, I can write about what I know,” which is this inner life of a trans woman at the beginning of her transition.

There is very little in Wild Geese about the external world view of trans people, or reference to the toxicity surrounding trans rights, was that intentional?

Nowadays, if you’re a trans woman writing – and certainly when I started writing this book –  you’re like: “Here’s why the transphobes are wrong,” and you want to write a whole book that’s arguing against things like that. That is kind of what this novel started out as. A lot of that got taken out because arguing with transphobes is just incredibly boring. It’s a difficult balance to make [Phoebe] self-aware, but to not make her too self-aware that she just becomes somebody who lives in narratives about trans women. I wanted to write something that was more personal and that wasn’t too much focused on what it means to feel under siege all the time, which is obviously part of the trans narrative as well.

When you go into a novel, you’re looking to understand the lead character’s perspective and sense of self. It sometimes felt that even Phoebe’s inner monologue was guarded. How would you describe Phoebe and the way she feels about her life?

In a lot of ways, Wild Geese feels like a study in self-delusion, so to speak. It’s a very particular narrative of a trans woman who transitioned as an adult, who struggled with life in a very overt way, but then transitioned at a relatively mature age, when she had some degree of economic independence. She was in her late twenties. The central narrative of the novel is that she’s struggling to trust herself. I think she recognises that she spent a lot of her life lying to herself, and she’s struggling to really connect to herself and trust herself again. That’s why there’s that tendency to study and to overanalyse, a tendency to say: “Can I really trust my perception of this?”

As someone who transitioned at roughly the same age as Phoebe, did you have to go through that experience?

I’m naturally an anxious person. I’m naturally a person who maybe runs away from things, which is true of both of the main characters in this novel. You reach a point in your transition where I was struggling with the difference between how I was perceived, and how people perceive me, and that sense of discomfort I have within society.

At some point, you’re going to sit there and think: “I have to try [to] figure this stuff out, or else this transition is not actually going to work.” There’s a lot of that with Phoebe. She’s made these steps, but she hasn’t made all the steps she needs to make. That’s where Grace comes into her life and helps her to find the balance that she needs in order to exist as a human being.

Wild Geese has just come out on paperback, but you finished writing it several years ago. In the future, do you think you’ll feel differently about it?

There’s no doubt, I’m sure I will. I kind of already do. But not in a negative way. I love the novel for what it is. I’ll stand over it for what it is but it’s probably not reflective of where I am now. You transition and you suddenly become awakened that way, and you suddenly realise that there’s a world around you and you are part of it.  It’s such an important part of personal development, and coming together as a human being. It was such a wonderful thing to write about. I look at it now and I’m like: “Phoebe, please leave your apartment. Please do something with your life,” but at the same time, it was so reflective of what it feels like to be in that environment. It jives a little bit with all the people who transitioned during COVID-19. I feel it reflects that era well, and I find that really interesting: how it connects with this particular era of trans people.

The reception to Wild Geese has been pretty wild. It’s won an award and is adored by those who’ve read it. How does that feel?

I’m enormously proud of it. I’m so proud of getting something that is so uncompromising, so difficult and so challenging. It’s unapologetically about what it’s about. It isn’t pandering to a cisgender gaze.

Wild Geese is out now.

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