‘Have You Read Nevada?’

Imogen Binnie’s first novel became a staple of trans literature. Nine years and one new reissue later, what has changed?

Photo: Eva O’Leary
Photo: Eva O’Leary
Photo: Eva O’Leary

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Nevada opens in New York sometime immediately post–Great Recession. It follows Maria Griffiths, a conflict-averse, often inebriated trans woman who sucks at communicating in every aspect of her life except when she’s blogging. After her girlfriend dumps her and she loses her job and apartment, Maria does what any of us would do: She steals her ex’s car, snags a bunch of heroin, and road-trips out West — where she meets a small-town Nevada Walmart clerk named James H. He’s intrigued by Maria’s rock-star vibe; she becomes convinced that he’s actually a trans woman in desperate need of saving from his dissociative male façade. “I’m gonna go talk to that girl and tell her that she’s a girl,” Maria decides shortly after they cross paths. “We’ll talk, and she’ll cry, and I’ll set her up a Livejournal so she can sort through all her feelings and then I’ll leave and totally learn something about myself, too.” Maria is not wrong to assume this about James, exactly — the duck is quacking and walking — but you can’t just tell someone she’s trans before she comes to that conclusion herself, or she’ll steal your drugs and ditch you in a casino.

Nevada, one of the first releases from the now-defunct trans-run and trans-lit-focused Topside Press, barely caused a blip on the broader literary world’s radar when it was released in 2013. Its author, Imogen Binnie, never intended to write a novel that would cause more than that. She imagined for the book, which she wrote over four years, an audience like herself: trans women who craved fiction about trans women that didn’t make them regret learning how to read. Nevada sold nearly 10,000 copies, with fans embracing it for its agile storytelling, punkspeak verbiage, and irreverent portrayal of trans life. Jackie Ess, the author of last year’s cuckoldry epic Darryl, recalled a kind of “cult of Maria Griffiths” forming in the wake of Nevada’s release, transforming its protagonist into “a little bit of a punk hero.”

Topside folded in 2017, pushing Nevada out of print, but devotees continued to share their dog-eared copies and digital scans. Someone started a website called “Have You Read Nevada?” with links to free PDFs of the text. There was a discussion-based Facebook group called “People Who Need to Talk About Nevada by Imogen Binnie.” Writers including Ess, Lammy Award winner Casey Plett, and Torrey Peters, author of last year’s best seller Detransition, Baby, have cited it as a foundational influence. This month, FSG is rereleasing Nevada thanks in part to that same word-of-mouth buzz. Concurrently, Picador will be publishing the novel in the U.K., giving the book its first international release. How does Binnie feel about this development?

“I’m fucking stoked,” she tells me. “Are you kidding?”

In late March, I drove to rural Vermont to meet her. When Binnie wrote what she calls Nevada’s first “fucking fiasco” of a draft in 2008, her life was like a gritty live-action adaptation of Jem and the Holograms: She was pink-haired, fronting an all-female band, depressed, and barely making rent at her bookstore job in Berkeley. Now she’s a 43-year-old therapist at a community mental-health organization who sometimes moonlights as a TV writer, most recently as the executive story editor on Freeform’s Cruel Summer. She lives with her two kids and partner, who works as a home-birth midwife, in a clapboard house at the top of a hilly residential street, just off a one-lane highway that snakes along a river. Her natural light-brown and gray hair feathers past her chin in loose, unfussed-with waves, and there’s a swipe of white liner across her upper eyelids. “Whatever fucking quibbles I might have about this book, it, like, does a thing I still feel stoked about, you know?” she says from across a picnic table in her yard. “Nevada is about a trans woman constantly making terrible decisions. It’s not good trans representation in the sense of what ‘good trans representation’ would’ve been in 2008.”

Subverting conventions — particularly of memoir, the most widely read form of trans writing at the time Binnie began drafting her novel — Nevada doesn’t hinge on a character’s transition. It’s about a trans woman who hasn’t transitioned and a trans woman confronting the inevitable What now? that comes after having done so, with Maria’s pre-narrative transition recapped in a disinterested half-page that concludes, “Whatever. It was a Very Special Episode.” It challenges the assumptions of many readers, cis and trans, and it somehow manages to do that without being didactic, saccharine, or worse — boring.

I first read Nevada on a friend’s recommendation shortly after I transitioned. I was taken in by Binnie’s conversational tone and the punch lines you don’t see coming. (An oft-quoted banger: “Eventually you can’t help but figure out that, while gender is a construct, so is a traffic light, and if you ignore either of them, you get hit by cars. Which, also, are constructs.”) The second time I picked it up, two years later, I barely made it halfway. Suddenly, I hated Maria’s myopic takes and what I interpreted as her habit of framing her own life as the transgender experience. I reread it again this year and soon realized Maria’s myopia is the point. She’s supposed to be kind of a dumbass, and Nevada’s a masterful work of irony. Much like Maria when she encounters James, I had spent my earlier readings projecting onto this fictional trans woman character, embracing her when I thought she was like me, rejecting her once I realized she wasn’t.

“Cool,” Binnie says when I tell her about my evolving relationship with her book. “It would’ve been fine if you’d stopped at hating it, too.” She welcomes most reactions. “So many people still say things like ‘Holy shit! This book made me realize I could be trans in a way I wouldn’t have figured out without it!’” she adds. “Like, of course you would have figured it out on your own eventually, random person who …” She stops, redirects. “That sounded mean.” Her eyes flit away as she reassesses how she might otherwise approach this interaction with a person who doesn’t exist. “I’m sorry, random person. I didn’t mean it in the way that it sounded. I meant it in a much more compassionate way. Point is, you would have figured it out on your own.”

There’s only one reading of her book she patently rejects: “It’s wildly infuriating when people assume it’s autobiographical. It feels like the subtext is that trans people can’t write.”

Raised in a “very red” part of western New Jersey, Binnie majored in English at Rutgers, where she honed her craft in writing groups. “I still wasn’t good at it,” she says. She transitioned in 2005 after moving to New York (“I told myself I was never moving to someplace rural again,” she explains) and began reading Michelle Tea, Dennis Cooper, Audre Lorde, and Daphne Gottlieb, who sharpened her thinking and politics — as did the trans women Binnie met at Camp Trans, the long-running gathering begun in protest of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival policy that barred trans women from attending. Binnie first went to Camp Trans in 2006 and served as lead organizer in 2008 (though she admits she spent most of that time “depressed in my tent, doing a very bad job”). Later that year, she moved to the Bay Area. She was still writing, developing her voice on Livejournal — “It was all new and terrible and embarrassing, but also a cool time to be on the internet. We basically invented subtweeting” — and soon began writing, and rewriting, the earliest versions of Nevada. “It wasn’t my first attempt at a novel,” she says, “but it was definitely my first completed draft.” In 2012, the editors at Topside published one of her short stories in an anthology and asked Binnie about doing a novel. She sent them Nevada.

Reading the book, you can clearly see that Binnie’s online experiences informed the way she wrote her protagonist. Ess describes Maria as suffering from a trans-specific variant of poster’s disease: whenever she gets close to having a genuine insight, she retreats into the kind of abstract gender spiels that serve as endless fodder for her blogs, allowing her to carry on with the dishonest narratives she has been clinging to for years. Maria might have driven from New York to Nevada “trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with her,” Binnie writes, but just as she nears an epiphany, she veers off an intellectual cliff. She makes James her project: “Maybe what Maria needs isn’t staring at her own navel. Maybe what she needs to do is to look the fuck away from the mirror for twenty minutes and pay attention to someone else.” Why fix yourself when you can try to fix someone who literally never asked?

“It captured something that is truly sad about transitioning,” Ess says. “When you do it, you become really good at it and do it exactly once. While Maria’s transition is not narrated in the book, she can’t stop reliving it, spinning up these theories about it, trying to get someone else to do it. It’s a really horrifying picture of a trans woman who’s stuck.”

After publishing, Binnie mounted a North American book tour, crashing on friends’ couches as she drove from city to city. Topside had paid her $1,000 for the book — not in cash but in the form of four boxes of author’s copies to sell at readings. She began to earn some influential fans: In 2013, Joey Soloway sent her the pilot for what would become Transparent and asked if she might be interested in working on it. Binnie declined, though now she says she might have accepted “if I had understood how much fucking money they pay you to write for TV shows.” Three years later, Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, a producer duo–slash–married couple who had read and loved Nevada, brought Binnie on to write for Doubt, a short-lived legal drama starring Laverne Cox and Katherine Heigl. Binnie reunited with Rater and Phelan for the 2020 drama Council of Dads, which is where she met Bert V. Royal, who would go on to create Cruel Summer.

Still, she has hung on to her day job as a therapist. “If I were going to write full time,” she says, “I’d have to live in Los Angeles and constantly hustle for work, and I don’t feel like always hustling for TV work.” This stems from a desire to avoid becoming too mercenary about her craft and the trans stories she’s trying to tell, not out of some reluctance to “sell out.” After all, she did sign a contract with a big-five publisher. “With there being no ethical consumption under capitalism, I’m stoked to publish with FSG,” she says.

Riley MacLeod was one of Nevada’s original editors at Topside. He says he’s happy for Binnie but remains generally suspicious of the corporate spotlight. “Have the cis people noticed us? What does it mean?” he says, faux-panicked. “So far, it’s good. We’ve seen so many cool books. But sometimes I wonder, How long can that last?” It’s undeniable that the unprecedented media visibility trans people enjoyed throughout the 2010s has given way to unprecedented state violence in the 2020s. Then again, if we’re talking about mainstream publishing and trans-authored novels, we can’t possibly be talking about more than a handful of books a year, which makes me wonder if the spotlight has really even found us yet. Binnie’s just happy that readers will still be able to get their hands on a physical copy of the book. “It’s less about the money and more about keeping Nevada in print,” she says. I ask if she’s worried about the big-five reissue making her book less accessible to the readers she wrote it for; she notes that free copies of the text remain as torrentable as ever.

While a new generation is introduced to her first novel, Binnie is focused on her next, one she’s been tinkering with for a decade. It contends with a theory held by some Nirvana fans that Kurt Cobain might have been a trans woman. “In the last year or two, I’ve been trying to make it work, and it just doesn’t yet,” she says, echoing the problem that held up Nevada for years. “There’s that 17-year-old self inside of me who’s like, I wanna be a writer and show the world how smart I am! But nobody fucking cares how smart I am, right?” She says, laughing. “When they’re reading my story, they care about whether it works.”

‘Have You Read Nevada?’