I Asked Her

I asked her if she had a favorite perfume and she replied “Chance, by Chanel.”

When Josie was a boy, and drought was cracking the surface of the land, Josie’s mother would save precious rainwater so they could wash their hair together. Josie’s mother knew how sensitive her son was, but she thought he would toughen up as he grew, so she turned a blind eye to his girlish charades, and she stayed silent as he raided her cast-off stockings, though she couldn’t help pursing her lips a little. Most of all, Josie’s mother hoped that her tender son would grow up to be just like her brothers, who she had doted on, and she prayed he would not take after his father. She certainly admired her husband for his faithfulness, but she feared his temper. She paled when he bullied his children, or when he mocked her desires for smart clothes and a fashionable house, or when he beat his sons with flashes of the kill instinct that had served him better in the coastal battles of New Guinea.

By the time Josie had grown to be a lanky young man, the Vietnam War was in full swing. As she waited to hear if the military lottery would summon her to serve her country, she was seized by restlessness. Inspired by the beat novelists she adored, Josie hit the road. She headed north in a second-hand bread van belonging to a crew of boys who happily made space for her and her beloved typewriter, and who let her brood in silence, which they assumed was the prerogative of a young, self-proclaimed writer.

Near Alice Springs, Josie and the boys found construction work, building some kind of satellite tracking station, on a desert site known as Pine Gap, so-called for the spindly native pines growing by a dry watercourse. Fine red dust hung over the site and a low range of purple hills spanned the distance. Josie refused to wear a hard hat at work. She didn’t like the way it messed with her almost-shoulder-length black hair. She wanted to look like a Navajo brave. She was part of the steel gang and she wore the steel-fixers’ uniform: short shorts, work boots, a broad leather belt with slots for wrenches and spikes. Her chest was bare and the desert sun scorched her skin a deep, deep brown. It was only when work knocked off that she would deign to throw on a white t-shirt, a concession to the formality of the beer garden. After all, women might be present.

When they tired of laboring in the desert, the boys moved on to Uluru, where they slept on gritty sand beside the van. A British barmaid there set her eye on Josie. She leaned heavily over the bar, bosom forward, offering insights from the vapid novel she was reading. Josie redirected the attention with a smart remark, mocking a truckie who thought he’d been making progress with the lass before Josie showed up, sparking a bruising fistfight. Nursing a welt on her jaw, Josie drifted into the night, relieved she had escaped the overtures of the barmaid, just as she had evaded advances before, from lusting women and flirtatious men, and once, from an impossibly tall man-woman with black eyelashes like fluttering insects, who purred “Welcome to my soiree!” while around her a confusion of men sprawled, hands exploring, in the back room of a hairdressing salon, not far from the gold and copper mines of Tennant Creek.

Josie left the boys in Darwin. She needed to concentrate on her calling. Moist air raised beads of sweat across her back as she sat on a mesh chair, in a room with louvred glass walls, trying to write. Each evening, she hammered away, crafting a tragic love story, but what she concocted was truly crap. With echoes of the bad temper of her father, she threw her inky pages away. Next, Josie set to work on a seductive fantasy about a shadowy man who woke each morning with blood on his hands, but she soon recognized it as a pale re-writing of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nothing she could come up with seemed original. But still she persisted.

After one particular evening of typing so intense that she needed to walk it out, Josie found herself standing by a clothesline, outside a block of flats some distance from her rundown bedsit. A woman had hung out underwear and slips and stockings, and Josie felt a skin-tingling urgency to reach out and touch the silk and draw it to her face. A light came on. A man and woman started shouting. “A fucking pervert at your washing. I’ll kill the bastard!” Josie ran into the empty night. From a phone booth, she called her lover, who had known her only as John, and rallying all her testosterone, Josie told her lover that she needed her, and please, please, come live together.

Not too long after the lover moved in, Josie sensed that she had begun to write in a voice that no longer imitated others. The first time she was aware of this was reading back a story that opened with the line: The night touches me softly, like the woman in my bed with her hands folded in sleep.

Being an aspiring writer was deeply rewarding for Josie’s ego, but not profitable. Flat broke; she sold her copies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and pawned her classical guitar. But when poverty threatened her typewriter, she swallowed her pride and, on a tip-off from her mother, applied for a job as a technical assistant, measuring experimental forestry plots in the mountains near Canberra. Josie dressed consciously for the role. Brown leather boots, a hip-length coat, a roll-neck sweater. She strove to emulate the look of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen, even though she secretly longed to look more like Faye Dunaway.

Josie studied the way the men at the Forestry depot moved and talked, and practiced being more laconic than them, more economic in her movements. The mountain air was crisp and the calls of lyrebirds pierced through fern-choked gullies. It was there that Josie learned how to hone an axe, how to get a Landrover through a bog. The forests were also the dumping grounds for household and romantic litter: lunch wrappers, crumpled cans of rum’n’coke, tissue boxes, condoms. One autumn day, at the edge of a clearing, Josie stumbled upon several cardboard cartons. One had burst apart and she noticed a satin gleam. A lace nightgown. Satin slips. A full cup brassiere. Josie’s heart beat a touch faster. She took the nightgown home and, with her lover working in another city, Josie took to sleeping in soft white lace.

When the lover discovered Josie’s yearning to be dressed in women’s clothing, she said “You shouldn’t have shown this side to me. It gives me too much power.” The lover began to treat Josie as her pet, her toy. She clothed Josie and bought her lingerie; she teased her and mocked her. Josie took to writing dressed in her lover’s discarded dress and a padded bra. Her stories began to attract attention. She was praised for her masculine realism, for her characterizations, for her ability to convey the solace and the violence inherent in relationships between men and women. In a story titled “The Good Life,” Josie wrote, “He sat back disappointed. It was a measure of his optimism that he hoped, one day, to find a new joke, a new obscenity, or a new piece of misogyny, on a shithouse door.”

The years passed and the writing accolades amassed and Josie got married in a hippie wedding with flowers and marijuana and sitars. She sold movie screenplays and wrote television crime. In the public eye, she wore Hugo Boss pants and a tweed Armani jacket. She wore them consciously, like the signature costume of an actor in a series that keeps getting renewed, even though the cast desperately wants out. But as her marriage soured, Josie took to keeping a locked wardrobe in her office, and a makeup mirror. With the guidance of a Buddhist psychiatrist, she drew horizon lines with crayons, meditating on who she was and how she felt. She began to accept the very real possibility she might be transsexual. Josie suggested this to her new lover, but took care to assure her: “Even if I lived life as a woman, I would still be the same person inside.” The lover waved her hand dismissively. “You’ve already changed. Your energy is different. You used to look at me with love. Now you look at me speculatively.” The lover left, and Josie’s life as a man moved towards a close.

As soon as Josie’s boss learned that his gun hire wanted to become a lady, he called Josie to a meeting with the HR Manager and CEO. The HR Manager cleared her throat. “John, you need to know that the organization has a commitment to support equity under all circumstances. The organization is bound to support you.” Josie suppressed sobs and the CEO handed her a box of tissues, wryly observing, “You know, our workforce is predominantly female, so you’ve just ruined my grand plan for gender equity.”

Josie signed up for estrogen and made an appointment to have her hair styled and blow-dried in soft waves. She glued on false eyelashes, dyed her eyebrows and carefully applied make-up. She bought calf-length skirts and soft, black coats. She had an operation to remove her testicles and reform her penis into vaginal walls and a functioning clitoris. And she lay for hours upon hours at the mercy of an electrolysis operator, who stuck probes into her beard follicles—nearly 20,000 in all—until each one had boiled in its own juice. But still, small children and drunken men and confused taxi-drivers would ask: Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a sheila or a fuckin’ bloke? You seem a nice lady, but you speak like a man?

One afternoon, when Josie was browsing the Internet, taking a break from the disappointing perverts responding to her online dating profile, she stumbled upon a Thai clinic that offered facial feminization surgery. In online forums, there was a vocal anti-surgery camp, made up of Christians and First Wave Feminists and gender theorists, who argued that people like Josie had a duty to challenge patriarchy by making everyone aware of her transitional status. They wanted Josie to fight the gender war on their scholarly behalf. But there were no transsexual women speaking out against feminization. So Josie withdrew her savings and flew off to Thailand.

In an elegant clinic, she accepted recommendations from a softly spoken surgeon to have a brow lift, rhinoplasty, forehead recontouring, Adam’s apple removal, and a scalp advance that promised to move her hairline to a more ladylike position. The clinic was filled with transsexual women from around the world. It was the first time Josie had been amongst peers. Around the dining table, she traded ribald anecdotes with a master mariner and a commander in the U.S. Navy and a whole flock of IT specialists, their faces in plaster casts.

Back home, Josie slowly healed and her bones reknit, revealing a pouting mouth and button nose. She found to her delight that she was now accepted as part of the female tribe. Women opened up to her about their ex-husbands’ indiscretions and exchanged complicit glances at the supermarket checkout. Small children perceived her as a motherly figure and turned to her for comfort.

Years earlier, Josie had paid off her marital house with a screenplay for a road movie, in which a disillusioned lad leads police in a high-speed chase across South Australia, driving a Porsche stolen from an ex-girlfriend’s sugardaddy. Josie had titled the screenplay “Freedom: Grab It While You Can!” Now, in a small cottage on the outskirts of a quaint Victorian bush town, with Chinese watercolors on the walls, Josie settled in to master a new genre: the chick flick. Thelma & Louise meets Ghostbusters. Rebecca’s on a road trip to her dying mother with the unasked-for aid of a mismatched pair of aliens. They take on her boyfriend’s new lover, trash the malls, free the dolphins, and discover universal love and understanding. Josie titled her new work: “Into the Light.”

Based on excerpts from: John Emery, Summer Ends Now, University of Queensland Press, 1980; John Emery, Freedom, Rigby, 1982; John Emery, The Sky People, Rigby, 1984; Josephine Emery, The Real Possibility of Joy, Pier 9, 2009; Josephine Emery, Into the Light: Draft 2, unpublished, 2010; Josephine Emery, Maiden Voyage, unpublished, 2011; and conversations with Josephine Emery, 2012 – 2013.


I met Josie when I signed up for a writing class at a small community center. She was our formidable tutor, an accomplished author with little patience for meandering narratives. At the time, I was preoccupied with editing as a method of drafting paintings and texts, and as a way of thinking about subjectivity and identity; a framework for tracing the incremental re-phrasings a person makes as they continuously evolve the persona(s) they present to the world as their authentic self. Josie encouraged my writing approach, and was receptive when I asked if I could turn my hand to a story crafted from her published and unpublished works and our informal conversations. I was drawn to Josie as a subject because I admired the economy and affect of her short fiction, and I was puzzled by the lurching shifts in the critical reception and interpretation of her writings pre- and post-transition: how her early fans were so enamored of her masculine voice, but after her visible transition, peers and public alike seemed to fear and resent any masculine traces. I exhibited the story at an artist-run gallery, where I had been invited into an all-women show. I asked another friend—also a student of Josie’s writing class—to read the story at the opening. This friend, Kate, had been a famous TV actress, but had ceased being hired for roles since being confined to a wheelchair. Scheming together, we thought that if Kate could deliver this oration in a gallery that could only be reached by an awkward, twisting staircase, it would prove that her capacity to perform had not been inhibited by the changes in her mobility. Several years have passed since then. Kate is now an acclaimed founder of a theatre company that embraces diverse embodiments, and Josie’s life has moved on too. When I asked her if she was happy for the story to be published now, she agreed, but asked that I include this postscript:

“I just re-read your story. Congratulations. It reads well. It is odd to read about your own self in such a way. The screenplay at the end has been long abandoned. I went through several years of silence—writing nothing. I found that, to survive, I needed to re-engage some old masculine habits and skills. As a result I became more centred [sic], more at one. I took up furniture making—something my father had taught me, along with a love of making music. A man came along who found me curiously irresistible. I flourished. He bought me a new guitar and insisted I play it. One day I began to hear song lyrics in my mind. I wrote them down. I took singing lessons. I began singing my songs in public. Some people liked them. Some thought I was crap. Life moves on. Maybe attach my blog site when you submit?” —Josephine Emery,