Introduction by Jackson Howard
Most queer people remember the moment, or moments, they first experienced a piece of art that accurately, and honestly, reflected their own life back at them. It can be both deeply unnerving and extremely affirming, a recognition of being included in a community bound by shared experience beyond rainbow flags. For me, it was James Baldwin’s explanation of the significance of eye contact between queer men in Giovanni’s Room and Jonathan Groff attempting to prepare for gay sex in an episode of Looking (I know, leave me alone). For a disproportionate amount of my trans friends, it’s Imogen Binnie’s Nevada.
Originally published in 2013 by the brilliant, and now-shuttered, Topside Press, Nevada shattered whatever expectation of what trans literature “ought” to do. Since then, despite going out of print, worn copies of its iconic orange cover have been passed, and lost, between thousands of friends, lovers, and frenemies. I encountered the novel in 2018 on the recommendation of Torrey Peters and was captivated from the first page, which is excerpted here along with the novel’s first three chapters. Nevada’s opening pages sum up everything that makes it so special: it’s a sex scene that finds our disaffected narrator, Maria, being choked by her girlfriend, Steph, as she disassociates and neurotically contemplates the perils of domestic life, her frustration with her genitals, and the right way to fake an orgasm.
This is literally the first three pages of the book.
I love Maria for so many reasons, mainly because she is simply over it, and her narration–sardonic, cynical, unpredictably poignant–is at its best when digging into what it’s like to actually be trans, from her point of view:
People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men—at least, until they save up their money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point they become just like every other woman. Or something? But Maria is like, dude, hi.
Being queer is, like being a human being, often mundane, and yet impossible to essentialize. I love Nevada for the way it allows transness to be boring, funny, and imperfect yet free of melodrama or self-seriousness, despite the undeniably painful subject matter. As Maria says in this excerpt,
Trans women have the same exact shit that everybody else in the world has who isn’t white, het, male, able-bodied or otherwise privileged. It’s not glamorous or mysterious. It’s boring. Maria is totally exhausted by it and bored of it, and if you’re not, she is sorry. Terribly, appallingly, sarcastically, uselessly and pointlessly sorry.
Nevada is so many things: a punk send-up of late-stage capitalism; a love letter to New York; the great American road novel sprinkled with heroin and hormones; a wrenching exploration of identity, youth, and community; a celebration of trans life. Nine years later, it’s coming back into print on June 7th. We still have an orange cover, just with a new spin. There’s never been a better time to discover, or reread, Imogen’s novel, a classic of queer literature that hits as hard today as it did nine years ago. Welcome to Nevada.
– Jackson Howard
Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and MCD
Dumped at Brunch and Too Jaded to Care
She’s choking me. She’s really in there, fingers on cartilage, mashing my trachea and I can’t breathe, Maria thinks. She truly can’t breathe, but she can’t bring herself to care. There was a time in her life when this was new, when she was at least as hot for being choked as Steph was for choking her, but now they’ve got an apartment together—a cat, good lighting—and Maria can’t even muster a shiver.
She acts like she’s into it. She’s thrashing, hands at Steph’s wrists, pulling. Not that hard, although Steph is probably stronger than Maria, so it’s not like Maria could physically make Steph stop if this were for real. And Steph is turned on. She’s pressed up hard on Maria’s leg. Then one of her hands is off Maria’s throat, at her own crotch, and Steph is getting herself off.
Obviously, there’s an art to faking it. Anybody can tell that a parade of porn star squealing and panting is just acting, but convincing somebody who loves you, who you definitely at least used to love, that you’re present and choking and hot for it, you kind of have to make yourself believe it. So Maria does.
Her attention is on Steph’s fingers at her throat, Steph’s substantial hips against her own bony ones. On Steph’s face.
Now Steph’s eyes are closed but you can definitely still fuck this up. You can try to fake it but if you don’t convince anybody, nobody gets off, and then you spend the afternoon talking about your relationship. The end part is great, the wine and cuddling and stuff, but the hours of insecurity and tears and feelings leading up to the reconciliation are totally not worth it.
Steph is coming. She doesn’t really say anything when she comes, or yell or make noises or anything, but you can feel her shoulders tense and then untense. They tense up really hard. The first time they fucked, Maria was scared that Steph would pull a shoulder muscle.
Then it’s Maria’s turn. She already knows she’s going to fake it. Maria’s relationship to her body, it’s a mess, she can barely get it together to be naked in front of anybody, much less get off with someone in the room. You’d think it would be impossible to fake it, with junk like Maria’s got, but you can. Maria knows some stuff about faking it. One time somebody told her that when she came in their mouth, they could tell she’d come be cause when that pre-come stuff turned into regular come, it got saltier. But nobody told Steph, because as soon as she’s been going down on Maria long enough for an orgasm to be plausible, Maria tenses up her own shoulders for a second and then releases them.
Stupid, yeah. And immature. Maria has told Steph that it’s easiest for her to get off from getting head, but the main reason she told Steph that is that when Steph is giving Maria head she can’t tell the embarrassing kinky stories she thinks Maria likes. Which also actually are kind of Maria’s fault.
This kind of makes Maria sound like an asshole, this manipulative, lying control freak who needs to be in charge of everything, doesn’t have any feelings, hates her girlfriend. But it’s just honesty. You fake orgasms because you want your partner to feel like she’s doing a good job fucking you, because you feel self-conscious about how closed off from your body you are and how hard it is for you to have a real orgasm. You pretend you’re into being choked because she’s into it, and besides, four years ago you established a precedent. And it seems like Steph is still into it. Although, of course, who can tell.
The short version is that Maria feels hopeless about herself and she’s trying to protect Steph from that. Maria can’t get off with other people. The moment her pants come off, she stops being in her body, and when she’s off in the clouds desperately trying to make an emergency peace with her own junk, trying not to think about how bad her junk has fucked up so much of her life and what can she do about it. Plus, Maria likes Steph’s junk but on some level she kind of hates Steph for just automatically getting that kind of junk just for free. How do you tell your girlfriend that? How do you make that okay? More specifically, how do you make that okay enough to calm down and get off?
Maria doesn’t know, so she fakes it. She collapses, puts on the relieved face. She says, Oh my god, baby.
Steph smiles. Crawls up the bed to put her head in the crook of Maria’s shoulder.
You’re so fuckin hot, Steph says.
Hold on, Maria says, trying to give the impression that she’s so far gone into the sublime that she can’t even talk.
Trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there. Although, of course, Maria may be biased.
She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men—at least, until they save up their money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point they become just like every other woman. Or something? But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.
This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in lower Manhattan. It is a terrible place. The owner is this very rich, very mean woman who is perpetually either absent or micromanaging. The managers under her have all been miserable under her for twenty or thirty (or forty or fifty) years, which means they are assholes to Maria and everybody else who works there under them. It’s kind of a famous olde-timey bookstore that’s been around forever.
Maria’s been working there for something like six years. People quit all the time, because not everybody can deal with the abuse that comes from this job. Maria, though, is so emotionally closed off and has so much trouble having any feelings at all that she’s like, well, it’s union, I’m making enough to afford my apartment, and I know how to get away with pretty much anything I want to get away with. I’m not leaving unless they fire me. But when she started working there, she was like, hello, I’m a dude and my name is the same as the one that’s on my birth certificate. Then, when she had been working there a year or two, she had this kind of intense and scary realization that for a really long time, as boring and clichéd as this is, but for as long as she could remember, she had felt all fucked up.
So she wrote about it. She laid it out and connected all these dots: the sometimes I want to wear dresses dot, the I am addicted to masturbation dot, the I feel like I have been punched in the stomach when I see an unself conscious pretty girl dot, the I cried a lot when I was little and don’t think I’ve cried at all since puberty dot. Lots of other dots. A constellation of dots. The oh man do I get more fucked up than I mean to, every time I start drinking dot. The I might hate sex dot. So she figured out that she was trans, told people she was changing her name, got on hormones, it was very difficult and re warding and painful.
Whatever. It was a Very Special Episode.
The point is just, there are people at her job who remember when she was supposed to be a boy, who remember when she transitioned, and who might at any point tell any of the new people who come to work with her that she is trans, and then she has to do damage control because, remember, how is she supposed to know what weird ideas these people have about trans women?
Like, what if they are a liberal, and want to show how much compassion they have? ‘I have this trans friend’ instead of ‘Hey trans friend I like you, let’s have a three-dimensional human relationship.’
That’s what it’s like to be a trans woman: never being sure who knows you’re trans or what that knowledge would even mean to them. Being on unsure, weird social footing. And it’s not even like it matters if somebody knows you’re trans. Who cares. You just don’t want your hilarious, charming, complicated weirdo self to be erased by ideas people have in their heads that were made up by, like, hack TV writers, or even hackier internet porn writers. It just sucks having to educate people. Sound familiar? Trans women have the same exact shit that everybody else in the world has who isn’t white, het, male, able-bodied or otherwise privileged. It’s not glamorous or mysterious. It’s boring.
Maria is totally exhausted by it and bored of it, and if you’re not, she is sorry. Terribly, appallingly, sarcastically, uselessly and pointlessly sorry.
Maria and Steph get brunch. It’s a Sunday morning and they definitely can’t afford brunch. Maria has been on hormones for four years but she still flinches at best and dissociates completely at worst if somebody touches her below the waist, and she still has to shave every morning. But still, what’s twenty dollars for vegan huevos rancheros and a mimosa?
Steph is in some kind of bad mood. She’s nervous about something or sad about something. Maria is trying as hard as she can to pay attention, but she’s tired. She can’t stay asleep at night. She wakes up grinding her teeth, or worrying about something totally productive like whether she’s really a straight girl who should be dating straight boys, or else she just wakes up because there’s a cat on her face, purring. Whatever. There are pictures of her from when she was five with bags under her eyes.
There’s a waiter on the other side of the restaurant. He’s not Maria and Steph’s waiter, but he looks familiar. Maria is trying to place him. The only place she might know him from is the bookstore, but it’s not clicking.
The tone of Steph’s voice changes and Maria tunes back in. I fucked up, she’s saying.
You fucked up, Maria asks back.
I did, Steph says. Do you remember Kieran?
Maria does remember Kieran. Often.
Yes, she says, I remember Kieran.
Remember is kind of a weird word, since he works at the bookstore and Maria sees him most days.
Steph takes a deep breath, like, I’m just gonna let this all out, and says, I fucked Kieran three nights ago in a broom closet at the Gay Center.
Three nights ago, Maria repeats.
Yeah, Steph says.
Maria still doesn’t feel anything except maybe a little glint in the back of her head that’s like, hey, maybe you can break up over this. She doesn’t acknowledge it. Instead, she’s on autopilot. She can fake it. She’s trying to remember what that waiter bought. Was he in history? Art?
She asks, You fucked him three nights ago, but you came home and didn’t let on at all for three nights, and you even fucked me this morning without a second thought?
Look, Steph says, but she doesn’t say anything else.
Then Maria’s brain goes into full shutdown in this way where she’s still there, still watching, wishing there were something to say, but really all she can think is, okay, whatever. Maybe Irish history? She thinks, maybe I need to leave. But she can’t leave, you can’t just bail on your girlfriend in the middle of brunch. She’s kind of wishing she were on her bike, about to be hit by a bus, swerving heroically out of the way at the last second. She knows, though, that she’s supposed to be thinking about Kieran and Steph in a broom closet.
A broom closet, she says.
Are you okay, Steph asks. You’re just being quiet, you’re not even making a face.
Maria’s brain is shut down because she knows that there are things she’s supposed to be thinking and feeling: betrayal, anger, sadness—but it’s like she’s just watching herself, thinking, hey, you stupid boy-looking girl, why aren’t you having any feelings?
It’s a familiar sense of removal that has bothered the hell out of every partner she’s ever had. I’m sorry, she always thinks, I learned to police myself pretty fiercely when I was a tiny little baby, internalizing social norms and trying to keep myself safe from them at the same time. I’m pretty astute with the keeping myself safe.
Steph is staring at Maria, Maria is staring at her plate, Steph takes a sip from her mimosa, Maria sips from her own, and then Maria is tearing up, which is new. It’s about self-pity, though, not about caring about Steph cheating. She could give a fuck who her girlfriend fucks. It’s herself she’s sad about. Mopey ol’ lonely Maria, the little kid with the bags under her eyes, the lonesome romantic bike fucker, the girl who likes books better than people. It’s an easy automatic go-to to characterize things as boring but it is boring to have the same exact things come up whenever anything comes up: poor me. If she were a goth she’d tell you about how broken she is, but since she’s an indie-punk DIY book snob, like, here we are.
A tear drips down her nose and then that’s it. She wipes her eye near the tear duct, where there isn’t any eyeliner, and asks, Okay, so what do we do?
What do you mean, Steph says.
I mean, you boned Kieran, Maria says, enjoying Steph’s flinch.
Yeah, Steph says.
Well, do you want to date Kieran? Do you want to be with me? Do we work this out between us?
You’re so weird, Steph mutters loudly enough that Maria is probably supposed to hear it.
I’m so weird?
You’re so weird! she says again, louder. Are you upset? I know, oh, you don’t have access to your feelings, you’re all shut down, if you were a goth you’d say you’re broken—I know you, Maria, but it still freaks me out, the way you deal with things.
So you’re mad at me, Maria asks.
I am mad at you! I’m sorry I fucked Kieran but it would be nice if I could get a response to that. It would be nice if I felt like you cared at all.
Cool, Maria says. You fucked Kieran and you’re mad at me about it.
She lines up five black beans in a row on her fork and puts them in her mouth. That waiter was definitely in Irish history. He’s sitting at a table across the restaurant, folding forks and knives into paper napkins.
Steph is crying and Maria is eating. Calm.