Celebrated Novelist and Transgender Rights Activist Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan — named a 2022-2023 Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellow on May 17, 2022 — is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard; serves on the board of trustees of PEN America, the nonprofit advocating for authors, readers, and freedom of expression; and is a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times. She is also preparing for a book tour this fall to promote the release of her latest novel, which is scheduled to be released in October 2022. The book, Mad Honey, is a collaboration with bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult. Boylan has a lot going on, all the more reason she is so grateful for the Harvard Radcliffe fellowship.

“A fellowship at Radcliffe is an opportunity to step away from usual routines and dive deeply into a project,” Boylan said. For Boylan, that project is a novel about American pioneering aviator and author Amelia Earhart. Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, disappeared during a daring flight around the world in July 1937. This phase of Boylan’s project requires her to conduct an in-depth investigation of the very real, very enigmatic Earhart before she can create her fictional project. Here, Boylan describes why this historic figure fascinates her and what it means to research historical fiction.

What does the Harvard Radcliffe fellowship mean to you?

The fellowship will give me the chance to devote myself to a project I care about and also to be part of a cohort of scholars, scientists, and writers for a year. The main thing writers need is time, and that’s what Radcliffe will provide. But the other thing we need is community, and it’s hard to find other writers and scholars with whom to build community because so many of us are, well, if not loners, then certainly isolated. Doing creative or scholarly work so often means that you are alone — no one else can really live inside your head and understand the path you are trying to blaze. And so, having a cohort of other like-minded individuals means that this lonely work is less lonely and, in fact, that you are part of something bigger. We will gather once each week, the 40 or so members of the ’22-’23 cohort, and share our work and talk about our lives as creators and researchers. 

Photo Credit: Dan Haar

What is it about Amelia Earhart that has inspired you to write a novel about her?

What I’m interested in is what we talk about when we talk about Amelia Earhart. Why aren’t people haunted by Fred Noonan [her navigator, who was also on the Lockheed Electra when it went down]? She’s a symbol, but of what? Some people — women, I guess — see her as a symbol of feminism, of fierceness, of the urge to explore. I think many of us also cherish her independence and the way she got away from the world of men on wings. And yet others — men, maybe? — have this kind of moralistic tone when speaking of her. Like, “You know there’s a way she could have not wound up dead, honey. She could have stayed home like she was supposed to.”

There’s an exchange with a reporter just before she left. He asked, “What will you do after you finish circling the globe?” She said, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just be a woman, I guess.” That still gives me the chills. 

What kind of research? goes into writing a novel, generally and specifically for you?

It depends on the novel. Usually, though, unless it’s a place I know well, I have to go to the place where the story is set and just breathe the air and look around. My friend Richard Russo once finished a book about his hometown of Gloversville, New York, and after he finished the first draft, went back to Gloversville to check out a few details for the story. When he got back, I asked him how it went. “Pretty good,” he said. “For the most part, they have it right.” 

You are an important voice addressing gender identity. How can the arts, and specifically literature, serve the trans experience?

Well, there’s an old cliché in creative writing — “Show, don’t tell.” And I think this has a practical application for how we win people over and, in some ways, how we teach others about our lives. You can lecture folks about trans identity, and you can even engage in a whole explanation of the neurology of trans individuals; you can even display pictures of, say, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis of the hypothalamus, which in trans women have the same structure as that of natal women and suggests strongly that trans identity — whatever it is — is soundly rooted in brain structure and our deepest sense of self. You could do that, but I don’t think anyone would be moved by it, and to be honest, the medical approach to trans identity is problematic in other ways.

Or, instead, you can live your life with dignity and pride and a sense of humor. You can tell stories in which people recognize the humanity of trans individuals. You can do all this, and sometimes hearts will open and minds will change. Show your humanity, your kindness, and your truth. Don’t talk about it. Be it. That’s how you change the world. 

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