Perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Dublin-based author John Boyne has never been afraid of tackling the big issues when writing for children. His latest novel, My Brother’s Name is Jessica, is the uplifting and captivating tale of a young person struggling with gender identity and the impact of revealing their secret to their loved ones and the world…
Interview by Nadia Duncan
Q) You have said that one of the reasons that you write is to explore the lives of other people. How did you prepare to portray the deepest feelings and thoughts of a young transgender person?
I spoke to a number of transgender people when I was writing the novel, eager to learn how they came to understand the truth about their identities and how difficult it was to open up to their friends and family. It was not a subject I understood terribly well at the start and, like Sam, the narrator of My Brother’s Name is Jessica, I had many questions to ask and many preconceived notions of what it meant to be transgender that I had to shake off. As the story is seen through Sam’s eyes though, it wasn’t my job to get inside the mind of his older brother Jason, who becomes his older sister Jessica. Instead, I remained with the viewpoint of someone who, at first, is frightened of what this revelation means for someone he loves very much, for his family and, a little selfishly, for him.
Q)What appealed to you about telling Jessica and Sam’s story to the world?
There has been so much about trans lives in the newspapers, on the internet and over the airwaves in recent years that I felt it would be an interesting basis for a novel. All six of my books for younger readers have featured a child who is thrown into a very adult circumstance way before he should have to cope with such experiences and the same happens with Sam here. As more and more young people feel comfortable exploring gender identities that differ from the traditional male and female roles, it’s important that there are books out there to help them and their loved ones understand the experience better. But outside of the societal implications of the novel, I also enjoyed writing a loving relationship between two siblings who rely on each other and treat each other with kindness. Often in fiction we see fractious relationships between siblings and it was refreshing to write about two people who ultimately are able to help each other.
“Perhaps people feel that they don’t want their children to confront such serious issues at a young age but the reality is that these issues are out there anyway.”
Q) Do you think the world has changed enough since you were Sam’s age, in terms of being supportive of LGBT young people?
Oh yes! When I was in school in the 1980’s it would have been absolutely impossible to come out as gay, particularly in Ireland where homosexuality wasn’t even decriminalised until the early 1990’s. It was difficult to grow up in an environment where there was so much negativity and discrimination shown towards gay people and that took a long time to change. It fills me with pride that my country was the first in the world to vote for Equal Rights Marriage by public plebiscite and that our Prime Minister is gay, the son of immigrants, and no one cares about these issues in the slightest anymore. It makes me feel that a country that was traditionally very conservative and Catholic has become much more liberal, forward thinking and kind. Looking at young people of my nephews’ and niece’s generation, they abhor any form of prejudice and would castigate any member of their peer group who made any type of homophobic comment.
Q) Your novelsfor children highlight the harm caused by prejudice and injustice. Why do you think we sometimes avoid or shy away from talking to children about some of the most important issues in society rather than help them try to understand them?
Occasionally I’ve been told by a parent that they wouldn’t give one of my books to their children to read because of the seriousness of the subject matter and the fact that the stories might upset them. This always surprises me as I think there are strong morals at the centre of each book that we would surely want our children to appreciate. My novels are anti-war and anti-prejudice and steer children towards better ways to solve arguments than through physical violence. Perhaps people feel that they don’t want their children to confront such serious issues at a young age but the reality is that these issues are out there anyway, both in their school yards and on television. There’s no escaping from the truth. So, it seems appropriate to me that we use literature to guide children in the right direction.
Q) My Brother’s Name is Jessicahas been described as a ‘call to arms’ for better empathy and understanding about the complexity of gender identity. Was that your intention?
Yes, definitely. It began as a way to explore the subject through fiction but ended up as a novel that asks the reader to work harder to understand the realities faced by trans people in everyday life. It’s not easy for anyone to stand out from the crowd. The world is filled with unkindness and bigotry and there will always be cowards who prefer to name call than respect the bravery of those who choose to live their lives in the most authentic way that they can. While I think in general the younger generation are more tolerant and empathetic than the generations that have preceded them, I hope that Sam and Jessica’s story will be the subject of classroom conversation and help young people understand that difference is not something to be frightened of, but something to be celebrated.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne is out now published by Puffin, HB £12.99.