Chilled author transcends gender

Rhonda Dredge

Permafrost is ostensibly a short story collection with disparate settings and different narrators but this could be a ruse used skillfully by the author in a first-person point of view.

The author S J Norman identifies as transgender and goes by the pronoun of “they” on the book’s cover.

“They” could be used as a powerful metaphor in this book for the collection of narrators.

Each story has a different one, but the sensibility and style remains constant, with neither the biology nor biography of the narrator foregrounded.

The exception is the first story Stepmother, where the narrator is a young girl trying out the things of her stepmother in secret.

“I’d noticed her toiletries bag earlier. She’d left it gaping on the dresser. I had glimpsed into it briefly but didn’t have the courage to stick my hand in,” the narrator said, almost in a message to spur herself on.

In Secondhand, the narrator works in a bookshop and plays tender games with the literary desires of customers while commentating on the pleasures of the industry.

“Every time a new load of books comes in, usually from deceased estates or library sales, they all have to be cleaned and processed, and sanded at the edges if the pages are oxidised (‘Foxing’ is the sexy term booksellers have for this).”

In Whiteheart the narrator describes a sex scene in rural England, leaving the reader to figure out what is happening.

“He was fantastically hairy. Remarkably, the hair that covered his body was as white as the hair on his head.”

The writing is coded, descriptive and strongly connected to place. Permafrost tells of a journey to meet a friend in an icy region of Japan.

“It’s the kind of deep, frostbitten sadness that you might find inside a Russian novel,” the friend said. “You might read about it, growing up in the dusty antipodes and think it’s beautiful. So, when you’re all grown up you run away to the north of Japan, hoping to get a taste of it. Then along comes the first winter and you realise what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

To use a pun, the writing style and sensibilities of the narrator are refreshingly chilled. S J Norman seems to be saying that letting a story unfold slowly without a prescriptive end is the way forward.

“I think I write for myself,” they told an audience at the Blak and Bright festival. “I write for parts of myself, for parts that have been systematically erased.”

Norman read the sex scene, describing it as between a trans queer and a sis queer. “It’s something you don’t see every day.”

The novel can be read on two levels. The first sees it as a witty take on contemporary subjectivity, one that feels at home globally, finding solace in an existentialist connection with random encounters.

The second sees it as part of a radical political movement aimed at straight culture which continues to use terms such as “unprecedented” to describe the COVID pandemic as if the HIV one never occurred.

S J Norman said the book aimed to look under the surface of everyday things and explore certain complexities.

“The narrators are distinct characters. They’re purposeful but not really explicit,” they said. “The point of view has a filmic quality I’ve been told.”

That, after all, is the pleasure of fiction, as opposed to the catastrophising impulse of politics, and this book exemplifies the distinction.

Permafrost, S J Norman, University of Queensland Press, 2021 •

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