Updated: May 24, 2021
There’s plenty of trauma in Kaya Wilson’s story: a nearly fatal surfing accident, a father’s death, a body needing to be reclaimed, including from the sometimes destructive gaze of others. As a trans memoir, it opened up this cisgender reader’s eyes to the complexities of identity. As a memoir of trauma, it provided a framework to think about the body as a map onto which is outlined not just our personal experience but the gaze of others too, not just the markers of the pain we have stored there but the pathways to surprising reserves of strength.
The sharing of trauma is a gift to those who are suffering in silence or in secret, alone in their pain or healing. It’s a gift to communities whose collective trauma from enduring stigma, once shared, can bring people together and galvanise them into action. It’s a gift to society at large, able to learn from its mistakes once their devastating effects have been reflected back to us.
It’s also bloody hard, and can only be undertaken after having covered significant ground into that introspective journey of processing, confronting, articulating and healing.
Kaya Wilson is a brave writer whose youth betrays not just a wealth of experience but a remarkable maturity in understanding trauma – his own as well as the shared trauma of the communities he belongs to. The generosity with which he shares what he’s learned along the way is something I’m thankful for. Those perspectives are not commonly held, nor commonly shared, but their ability to enrich the way we think about identity and culture are very valuable.
As Kaya transitions, for example, he has to recalibrate his position in the world as a transgender person, and negotiate the recalibrations of those around him, including his mother’s. He also needs to define his position in society as a man, understanding his place through a new lens. What he learns from this is unique to someone who’s experienced the gaze of others through the perception of both genders. It’s fascinating and eye-opening.
Having grown up as a third-culture kid in a variety of different countries and cultures, Kaya has already had to inspect his exceptionalism. He's practised in observing the world around him, in questioning the self, in centering other perspectives. This mix of introspection and worldliness equips him to unpack his queerness with analytical clarity and compassion. We're just lucky he chose to write a book about it.
As Beautiful As Any Other eschews sentimentality and resists the self-help narratives of inspiration and empowerment. It withholds the directions, instructions and advice that make so many books about trauma insufferable. Instead, it provides a rich and thoughtful take on lived experience through a variety of lenses – confessional, intersectional, philosophical, scientific, political, auto-ethnographic – inviting the reader to think their own way to a connection, and meet the author halfway. The insights feel earned rather than dispensed or stolen.
There are digressions into wider topics – feminism, gay rights, sexual violence, climate change – but they all serve to weave the wider story of how personal and social traumas are tightly connected. The chapters are organized around themes – home, education, inheritance, etc. – rather than chronology. This creates repetition as various life events are revisited in different chapters, but rather than grate, the effect is akin to having successive conversations with a friend over time, each revealing new facets of a life known only in segments.
The sharing that happens as part of this intimate conversation with the writer is not a zero-sum game. Kaya’s father taught him to “read our way forward, to use stories to connect with the inner world of others”. The author applies this lesson for our benefit, telling a story we can all connect with and learn from so as to make our own wise way into the world.