How do we shape the narratives of the dead, when there are so many gaps left in their histories? What does it mean to construct a semi-fictional story about a real, once-breathing person, and what are the ethical responsibilities when that person’s identity was different to ours? There’s an almost inherent risk of sensationalising what we already know from the history books, or creating something overly romantic where there are absences in hard evidence. Ultimately, it’s a question of whether or not it matters – do we owe anything to the dead when telling their stories, or are these narratives free to take, tell, and twist as we wish?
These questions feel difficult to ignore when reading Sydney author Pip Smith’s Half Wild (Allen & Unwin). Smith’s debut novel revolves around the story of Harry Crawford, a transgender man convicted in 1920 of murdering wife Annie Birkett, whose charred body was found in Chatswood three years earlier. Born in Italy in the late 1800s, Crawford was assigned female at birth before moving with his family to New Zealand at the age of two. We’re told he heavily rejected the gender norms presented to him growing up; preferring to work in the brickyards than practice needlework, while fashioning the local butcher boy as a role model. Running away from home, Crawford boarded a ship bound for Australia and soon had a largely estranged daughter, Josephine. Working a variety of jobs, he was married twice – to Birkett in 1913, and in 1919 to a woman named Lizzie.
Smith’s narrative style morphs throughout the book, beginning with an intimate, first-person account of a young Crawford, living in Wellington and going by the moniker Tally Ho. Smith arguably has the most creative liberty here, enunciating the frustration that comes as a child pressured to fit within the binary lines of gender presentation and performance. We see a portrait of a child desperate to be seen rather than looked at – and it creates an empathetic undertone for the later depictions of Crawford, one of few that doesn’t feel like an inspection. ‘And later’, Tally Ho muses, ‘so many people wouldn’t see what was right in front of them’.
We see a portrait of a child desperate to be seen rather than looked at.
From here, there is an intentional distancing of closeness, as Smith shifts to a third-person narrative tableau of Crawford’s various identities, and the people whose lives cross paths with his. As the threads of Crawford’s life unravel through these second-hand accounts, the mysteries of his life – primarily the death of Birkett – are dragged out into the open in a way that feels unsettling. In some ways, this creates a more compelling story, thriving on the tension that slowly builds throughout, but in others, it feels like a somewhat callous treatment of a complex person. In serving the story, do we fail the character, and more specifically, the real life Crawford?
To address the elephant in the room – as a trans person, it can be a somewhat alienating experience to read the imagined Crawford portrayed throughout Half Wild. Obviously, I’m hesitant to assume that I, a trans woman living in 2017, could know the right way to tell the story of a transgender man living in the early 20th century – the two experiences don’t necessarily correlate. Smith herself has acknowledged that this kind of categorisation is fraught, while critiquing ‘condescending’ identity politics. Here’s the thing, though – it’s not really about identity politics, or even necessarily who has the ‘right’ to tell someone’s story. It’s about creating a character and narrative that feels authentic.
It’s worth noting that Smith undertook extensive research in order to get the facts right about Crawford’s life, and many of these details are reproduced on the page, blurring the real and the potential in a way that heightens the intentionally unreliable narration. Given that Half Wild is neither entirely a work of fiction nor a biographical retelling but sits somewhere in between, it can have the disorienting effect of an awkward dramatisation. You can have all the facts right in the world, but without a genuine understanding of one’s experience, we run the risk of obscuring the very things that make someone real.
It’s understandable that to some readings, Half Wild could feel exploitative. After all, there’s nothing new about a cis person constructing the narratives around trans people – films like Boys Don’t Cry and The Danish Girl capitalise on the lives of Brandon Teena and Lili Elbe in ways that, when portrayed by cis filmmakers and actors, feel disingenuous at best. Given the media’s long streak of sensationalising and demonising trans people, often in the same salacious breath, it makes a lot of sense to be sceptical about yet another cis creator making work based around trans identity. Is the intention to shed light about a misunderstood historical figure, or to capitalise on our collectively ingrained fascination with the unknown?
In a recent piece for Kill Your Darlings, Elizabeth Duck-Chong critiqued Siren Theatre Company’s The Trouble with Harry, which ran in Sydney earlier this year as part of Mardi Gras Festival. They argued that the ‘inherent problem found in productions that tell transgender narratives not themselves helmed by trans creators is that they often miss the point of the story they’re telling’. In Half Wild’s case, the book feels like an intense examination process that holds Crawford under a microscope but fails to present the embodied person on the other side. Smith accurately captures the cis and heteronormative culture of the book’s context, but strips the humanity from her protagonist in a way that denies a reading of connection, hope, and understanding.
Half Wild feels like an intense examination process that holds Crawford under a microscope but fails to present the embodied person on the other side.
The narrative that Smith creates is one of multiplicitious identity – the intrigue is created through the construction of Crawford’s multiple ‘lives’, as if each were a distinct and segregated identity rather than the non-linear life course that trans people experience. This perpetuates one of the more common misconceptions that cis people have about trans identity, which is that we ‘switch’ from one to another, when in fact people’s lived experience and gendered identity are intermeshed, not quarantined.
Many of these critiques are not necessarily about Smith’s writing, or even her intentions; there are moments of genuine beauty and empathy and heartache that nestle throughout the novel. As a piece of standalone fiction, or a factual account of crime and injustice, the book largely flourishes. However, the complex issues of identity that intertwine with narrative ownership and objectification make Half Wild a difficult read – and not always in a good way.
As a piece of standalone fiction, or a factual account of crime and injustice, the book largely flourishes.
Smith addresses some of these questions about the exploitation of identity herself in the latter half of the book by recreating the exhaustive public scrutiny Crawford faced while on trial. The arrest and resulting court case was as much of a media circus as one might imagine, with newspaper headlines describing him as a woman murderer ‘in male attire’, and the incident regularly referred to as the ‘man-woman case’. Public opinion was equally hostile and interrogative; Crawford – who pleaded his innocence – was never likely to receive a fair trial, and spent a decade in prison before being released due to his old age and failing health.
A chapter narrated quite literally by ‘the middle-aged women’ serves as a metaphor of our human tendency to gawk. ‘We had been swept away by the thrill of getting to the bottom of things,’ they explain, ‘but at the bottom of things was a woman who was fierce and fragile and beautiful in her own way, too’. Eighty years after his death, we may not owe Harry Crawford all that much, but his inherent humanity deserves affirmation. He, like anyone else, deserves to be seen.
Half Wild is available now at Readings.