First published on Vice, April 25, 2015. Read the original here.
In this retelling of J. M. Barrie's classic, the lost bois are trans kids who've banded together after being abandoned by their parents or failed by social services. Pan is their leader, their savior, and the "dom" to their "subs." Hook is an old-school top, the kind who talks about ritual and etiquette and doesn't allow any of his "pirates" to go into "battle" without having their leathers perfectly shined. The Mermaids are tough-as-nails femmes who live on a boat named the Lagoon. And the Croc? That's heroin, the deadly addiction that's always snapping at Hook's heels.
Like many characters in the book, Lowrey is trans. Ze prefers gender-neutral pronouns, but isn't fussed by any particular language so much as the intent behind that language. I've known Lowrey since we worked together on an art show in 2014, and was intrigued when I heard about Lost Boi. It seemed to fit into a growing body of literature that was literally remapping America through the experiences of trans / genderqueer punks, exploring our society from a marginal position that until recently, rarely had access to the machines of publishing (like Sybil Lamb's I've Got a Time Bomb or Lowrey's first novel, Roving Pack, which won Lowrey the Dr. Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award in 2013). These books follow in a long tradition of newly empowered communities' renaming and reclaiming mainstream places and cultural touchstones, and represent an important part in the growing transgender civil rights movement.
I sat down with Lowrey for bubble tea on St. Mark's Place, a hallowed street in the history of punk, to ask why Ze chose Peter Pan and what it takes to reclaim a classic.
VICE: Why Peter Pan?
Sassafras Lowrey: Why not Peter Pan? It's amazing. It's a classic story that has so many themes that come up within pop culture and especially within queer culture. The big thing that stood out to me was how dark it was. I grew up with a VHS tape of a stage performance of Peter Pan, and I saw the awful, racist Disney version. But I had no idea how dark J. M. Barrie's Peter was, so incredibly seductive and unlikeable and cruel in this way that felt very appropriate for dynamics that exist in our world.
Your Peter, the eternal child, is much more grown-up than most versions I've read or seen. What was it like to write him?
The image of Peter was one of the things I felt most clear about before I started writing. There is this caricature that exists in queer culture of "the person who hasn't grown up." They're hanging out with 19-year-olds and everyone thinks that's cool and they're super hot and super popular, and they go to every punk show and live in every squat. And they're still doing it somehow at 45. I wanted to complicate that.
I love J. M. Barrie's version, even just on the level of the language of his sentences. But there's a lot of fucked up stuff in there. How did you decide what to keep and what to lose?
I used his original text as a guiding outline, and then thought about what was important for the story I wanted to tell, which was trying to rectify some really fucked shit that [Peter] does. One of the Easter eggs in Lost Boi is that it aligns chapter for chapter with J. M. Barrie's work: Every chapter corresponds to one of his. The biggest change was that I got rid of the "Indians." The Urban Primitives were my reference point to what would have been J. M. Barrie's Indian characters.
I was also really interested in separating gender and care-taking. So Wendi is this very important femme, caretaking presence. It's an intentional relationship dynamic role that she's taking on, but it's not inherent to her femininity. Her counterpoints are the Mermaids, who are hyper-feminine and super-femme, and not caretakers. Or they're caretakers of each other in their own house and community, but they're not caretaking the bois, and they're definitely not caretaking Pan. I didn't want to write a book that [said] "This is who all femmes are," any more than I wanted to write a book that [said] "This is who boys or butches or trans guys" are. I wanted there to be difference there.
You obviously put a lot of thought into how you want to communicate with your community in writing. Why is that important to you?
I'm trying to write queer books for queer readers. I don't have an MFA. I'm never going to get an MFA. You don't need an MFA to write books. The big thing is figuring out what you want to write and who your niche audience is. I knew I was not going to write the next Harry Potter. I'm not trying to write the next Harry Potter.
My biggest hope is to write stories that give queer folks a chance to see our lives and our relationships and our bodies in print, without a glossary and without definition, and without having to explain or justify ourselves. The biggest reward of doing this work is getting letters from readers that they see themselves or their world in these characters.