On the surface, Meredith Russo’s debut novel “If I Was Your Girl” could read like a multitude of other young adult romance novels: Teen Amanda Hardy starts her life over as a senior at a new school, and grapples with new friends, new love and finding acceptance.
What separates this book from others is that Amanda Hardy, like her creator, is transgender.
“It’s the Piper Chapman effect,” Russo said with a laugh, referencing the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” and its protagonist. “You’ve got a cute skinny white girl, and oh, she’s trans! I got you with this cute, skinny white girl.”
Russo joined The Washington Post on a livestream chat, where she fielded questions from young viewers about what it’s like to come out as transgender and weighed in on the bathroom debate, male privilege and finding your tribe.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To see the video interview from The Post’s Q&A show, “It’s Lit,” go to our YouNow page here.
I like that this book isn’t just romantic love. It was a book full of young hope instead of the angst you see in a lot of young adult novels.
I was kind of reacting to finding positive portrayals of trans people. I remember in the ’90s finding out about “Boys Don’t Cry” and I was like, “Oh, there’s a movie about a trans character, and it’s friendly, let’s watch that,” and then at the end of it I was like “I’m going to die!” Even the stories that are friendly to trans people are still really toxic in a lot of ways . . . kind of like prophecy [and] tragedy in the lives of every trans person, and I just wanted a book where good things happen to a trans person.
How much of your book was autobiographical?
I know what gender dysphoria [when someone feels they are not the gender they appear to be] feels like. I know what going on hormones feels like. I know what it feels like to go out as a girl for the first time and having anxiety about it and anxiety about passing. But I didn’t transition until I was 26. I definitely never had the rural experience, and also I don’t pass very well. So for Amanda, I had to do a lot of research.
Do you ever feel pressured to write a story that reflects what people think is the transgender experience?
There’s definitely an element of everything you do has to be Minority 101. I address this in an author’s note . . . that kind of goes through the compromises I had to make to make the book sellable and make it marketable to cisgender [a person whose gender identity matches their biological sex] people so people don’t take this and use it as dogma.
You wrote an op-ed for the New York Times recently about “bathroom bills” and being forced to use the men’s restroom. Is this something you’ll continue to advocate against?
I think it was worth it to chime in once. But the response was nasty . . . to a degree I had trouble handling. I turned my Twitter off for a whole week. It was funny, just, I don’t want to do it again.
Something I found interesting was watching Amanda experience the male gaze for the first time and how uncomfortable it can be.
That’s kind of the joke of being trans is like if you’re a trans guy, you know you’re passing if suddenly people start treating you better, if you’re a trans woman you know you’re passing because everyone starts treating you like garbage. The sudden loss of a male privilege and having to grapple with that reality is kind of a startling experience, and I wanted to have at least some of that in the book.
This book grapples with the fears of not fitting in. Do you have advice for how to cope with that?
It’s kind of depressing, but you’re going to die someday. When you’re on your deathbed or when you look up from texting and driving, which you shouldn’t be doing, in that moment you’re not going to be like, “Man, I wish I fit in more. Hey I’m so glad I fit in!” But I know that doesn’t make it easier in the moment when you’re being shunned by your peers. I think a big part of it is finding your tribe, which is a lot easier now than it used to be. The LGBT movement, the queer community, has always been somewhat of an invisible minority, but the Internet has allowed us to find each other and become aware of each other and especially if you’re in a small town, that can be an invaluable tool.