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My Body is Distant: An Interview with Paige Maylott
In her gripping memoir My Body Is Distant (ECW Press) Paige Maylott invites readers into a world of digital and physical selves, gender, and belonging. Today, Paige talks to us about her new memoir, what it was like writing such deeply personal things, and how digital drag was a safe way to explore her gender.
All Lit Up: Congratulations on the publication of your memoir, My Body Is Distant. Can you tell us a little about your book? Any highlights you would like to share?
Paige Maylott: Thank you for your kind words. My Body is Distant is a memoir about my experiences with gender transition and negotiating late-stage cancer, and how experiencing both of those things relates to the perception of our bodies. I weave those narratives through intimate online virtual worlds. If I’ve done my job right as an author, I hope that this perspective allows the reader to make a judgment call about the importance and potential of virtual spaces in exploring and shaping identity.
If you are familiar with the trans community, you will have heard “born in the wrong body” referenced to describe trans people’s dysphoria, and why they transition. The truth is, people transition for many different reasons, and every trans person’s story is different. In fact, some trans people enviably don’t suffer dysphoria at all. Part of my memoir is about how I decided I needed to transition, but my story is very complicated and probably an unfamiliar narrative.
I like to say that while many people discover their identity in a closet, I designed myself in character creation. For me, the safest place to explore my gender was online. I found myself in video games, in virtual world sandboxes, and even in chat rooms. However, when it came time for me to explore my femininity in the real world, I had a difficult time explaining to my loved ones how I came to this decision. While on the internet and in my mind, I had already transitioned years before, to those who only experienced my physical body, this understandably came as quite a shock.
Simply saying “I play a girl online, and so I realized that I am one” was really dumbing down the experience, but that explanation was usually accepted. However, there were usually accompanying notes of confusion and skepticism. So, while the dominant transition narrative is that we usually discover our gender through drag and exploring our identity through clothing, imagine not only trying on clothing but a whole body in a virtual space. For those unfamiliar with exploring themselves this way, I can assure you that this type of gender exploration is both valid and valuable.
More people explore gender or play with “digital drag” than you probably think. When confronted, some might say something along the lines of “I just like how the female character looks” or “female models are smaller and harder to shoot” but other players don’t know that the player is male. So, others treat that player as if they were a woman, which is a phenomenon that is rarely explored.
Part of my inspiration for writing this memoir was as a method to allow my loved ones to glimpse my private life, and experience virtual worlds with me, and in that way better understand why I needed to transition.
ALU: Memoirs are deeply personal and introspective. What was the experience like of writing about your gender transition and divorce?
PM: Honestly, writing about my life prior to transition, which began more than ten years ago now, was stranger than writing about the transition itself.
Recalling my life as Paul was like remembering the plot to a movie you loved as a kid. There are key shining moments that stick out, the ones you cherish or fear that keep the memory locked in your mind. However, exploring those moments unlocked a lot of repressed feelings.
A method of memoir writing I learned from Mary Karr’s excellent The Art of Memoir was to just sit with a moment. I would close my eyes and try to be back in that time. If I sat with the memory long enough, I could even smell the grass of my back yard, hear my mother’s voice calling to me, and by doing so other memories, ones I thought I had long forgotten began to piece together.
My partner, Sarah, who is also featured in this memoir, could always tell if I was writing one of those chapters. I would become moody, taciturn, and she would eventually ask “were you writing about the before you today?” to which I would give a nod, and she would hug me. Some days I had to stop writing as I mourned my lost years, recognizing that I should have transitioned earlier. To say that writing the book was an emotional journey would be an understatement.
As far as the divorce goes, I did my best to be respectful and honest. Karen, the false name I gave to my real ex-wife, is a strong, independent, and loving person both in and outside of the memoir. She is a person whom I very much respect, and care for, even though we no longer are on speaking terms, and weren’t even before this memoir. Because of that respect I wanted to make sure any time she was portrayed I would take a more critical look at my own behaviour. I think you’ll find that, because of that scrutiny, it is in the chapters with Karen where I am portrayed at my worst.
ALU: As a gamer, what is it about video games that’s different from other escapist activities for you? What sorts of games do you play?
PM: My love of gaming is because of the participatory nature of authoring your own experiences. First person narrative novels achieve this to some degree because they invite the reader to experience the world through the author’s perspective, which is certainly why I chose that perspective for my memoir. However, with television shows, and movies, and even in books, there will always be moments when the participant will say something like ‘I would never have done that, why didn’t they do this?” Gaming allows me to make my own choices.
Participating in roleplaying games is another way I chase this high. When I was eleven, I was sleeping over at a friend’s house, and he dragged an iconic red box of Dungeons & Dragons from under his parents’ bed. I’ve been hooked ever since. I think RPGs currently offer the most unrestricted avenue to realize your wildest fantasies, but you need to assemble a group of like-minded people, set a gaming schedule (that never seems to work) and explore your storyteller’s world. Video games are close to that kind of experience, but we’re currently limited by our technology.
Still, with video games you drive the pace, you design how you look in the world, and it’s you who are beholden for the actions of your character. Even in very restrictive, narrative-driven games, the game only responds to your input. In the end, you are the one who reaps the consequences of poor decisions or celebrates the victories of your successes. In these virtual worlds your character is an extension of yourself, after all. And while some might suggest exploring our real world to discover new experiences, I challenge anyone to find me another way to explore undiscovered galaxies, or ways that I can take a self-guided tour of another country while I’m drinking my morning coffee before work.
After explaining all the above, I suppose it’s not a surprise when I say that my favourite games are ones with robust, and diverse character creation systems, and possess sandbox elements that allow me to shape my experiences. While I’m looking forward to Bethesda’s Starfield, which is a space exploration game, my current obsession remains Cyberpunk 2077. In my memoir I explore a lot of sandbox-style virtual worlds, primarily Second-Life. Part of my memoir begins to explore how I moved away from that, and I no longer feel I need that kind of experience anymore. That said, I am certainly eager to experience future virtual communities when VR leaves the virtual aspect behind and feels more like reality.
ALU: What was it about the game Zork that had you obsessed as a child?
PM: I’m so glad you asked this. Zork was my first roleplaying experience, and my first sandbox or open-world style game. While Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as “Adventure”) preceded Zork as the first text-based interactive world, Zork was the first I ever saw, or played, and as I reveal in my memoir, it really opened my eyes to the possibility of potential alternate realities. And what is reality beyond what we perceive in our minds anyway? The fleeting present swiftly becomes the memories of our past, so what is reality other than a memory of an experience?
Here’s another extremely cool thing about Zork that probably only ultra-geeks like me might know. Did you know that the main character in Zork is never named and never described (to any large degree other than looking scruffy), and more importantly, never gendered? The whole game is written in the second-person imperative (you do this, you see that), and all potential mentions of the player’s gender are purposefully avoided. This was an intentional choice by the designers back in the late 1970s because they wanted a game where anyone could lose themselves in the world and never experience that static when an inappropriate pronoun was used. In fact, when alternate box art was created for a re-release on Radio Shack’s version featuring a moustachioed barbarian, the designers were extremely upset because it forced an impression about how the main character should be perceived. How cool is that?
ALU: Aside from gaming, what kinds of books do you read? Is there a book you recently read and loved?
PM: I will read almost anything that allows me to be swept away into another world. Because of my love of getting deep inside worlds I’m exploring; I often prefer first person narrative stories. I end up reading a lot of young adult novels, which frequently use this perspective because of that, but I’ll read just about any well-written sci-fi or dystopian book, especially if it also features a female protagonist.
My absolute favourite books usually are the above, but also feature humour or wit. Douglas Adams is a god, of course, but I’m currently re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which is a book from the ’90s and an amazing Cyberpunk novel. It’s both an amazing, thrilling story, and a hilarious tongue-in-cheek commentary on the genre.
While this seems contradictory to what I have just said, I’ll also read anything Margaret Atwood cares to write. I find her prose so poetic. Whenever I read Atwood, part of me is dying of jealousy at her writing craft, and the other part is falling in love with anything she sets her sights on. I’m currently rationing her short story collection, Old Babes in the Wood.
And of course, I also take in the occasional memoir to get a voyeuristic sneaky peek into other people’s lives. The current memoir I’m reading (yes, I’m currently reading three books, and you can’t stop me) is Superfan by Jen Sookfong Lee, who is also the editor of My Body is Distant. I’ll tell you this much about her book, it’s heart wrenching, and funny, and I’ll never see Anne of Green Gables the same way again.
ALU: Lastly, what are you hoping readers take away from your memoir?
PM: My dearest hope for My Body is Distant is for people to read this memoir and realize that trans people aren’t the nefarious them talked about in the sensationalist media. I want people to realize that every trans person has their own story, each motivated by unique desires. That we’re just trying to survive, just like they are, in this sometimes-cruel world. I hope that by reading my memoir, more people realize that, just like they are, trans people are just looking to be loved and live authentically.
Paige Maylott is a writer, gamer, and explorer of virtual worlds based in Hamilton, Ontario. She is a 2021 Hamilton Arts & Letters Award winner for Creative Non-Fiction, and a recipient of the 2022 Canada Council for the Arts grant.