Wednesday, July 18, 2012

INTERVIEW: Veronique Renard (author of Pholomolo)

Good morning, all!

Joining us today is the wonderful and amazing Pantau (a.k.a .Veronique F.C. Renard), author the transgender memoir Pholomolo: No Man No Woman and the auto-biography Pantau in India. If you missed Samuel's review of Pholomolo last week, I urge you to check it out after the interview.


♥ Thanks so much for stopping by! For those who may be new to your remarkable story, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Cheers, I am delighted to be part of this. To answer your question; I was born in Holland in 1965 to a business family. In 2000 I moved to India. As of that time I also became successful as a published writer, and have so far published 5 books in three continents.

Until the age of 16, my parents and I thought I was a boy, but seeing an article about a James Bond-girl, we realised I was a girl too. So, I became the youngest Dutch person to have a sex change, and probably the first and youngest to have her gender corrected on her birth-certificate (1985). Nobody was surprised: they had always thought me to be a little drama queen.  

♥ You have lived an absolutely remarkable (and tumultuous) life. If we can start at the beginning, what was it like to be one of the youngest people in the world to undergo a gender transition?

It was hard at that age at that time, because there was very little information available in the 70s and early 80s. But correcting my gender itself felt like fixing a cleft palette, a birth defect. So getting the information was the hard part, not the transition. The decision and transition were as easy as getting my drivers’ licence a year later at 18. I was too young to think that my condition could cause any problems in my future life. I am glad I was so young when making this life-altering decision. At an older age, I expect I would have been more careful and fearful, just like with driving a car. I drove like a maniac at 18, but I got quite careful at 24 after a serious accident, and never got a speeding ticket since.

Now I am a few years away from 50. People tell me to drive faster these days.

♥ Looking back, were you aware of the significance of transitioning so young? Did the thought of becoming a sort of historical celebrity have any impact in your decision?

At seventeen in 1982, I wasn’t aware of anything. But when I stood in front of a mirror I saw a beautiful girl with long blond hair and a perfect girl’s body with a penis. So I knew my transition would be very easy, easier than transitioning at an older age or with a body that really looked like that of a man. I was also aware that I wouldn’t have much history as a boy, and no history as a man, so there would be no need to lie in the future about my past. My history as a girl would always go back to the age of 17 and I would experience new things as a girl at the right age, just like my girlfriends of the same age who weren’t transsexuals. That felt very natural.

There was practically no information available, and there was no internet. I was a high school kid and I just knew I needed to have an operation so that I could correct my gender and be able to express myself openly as a girl, not a boy. Of course, I didn’t see beyond the point of my surgery, really. There is so much going on in your head, you really live in the 'now' and you are very focused on the transition itself, and you have very little attention for anything else. Children don’t think long-term, and that is a good thing.

I didn’t know my discovery of my transsexualism at 17 and my consequent surgery would be documented, talked about, and written about in lovely manners by people all over the world in many different languages. But if it’s helpful to many people all over the world, my surgery as a child and decades of experiences, good and bad, were worth it.

♥ Caroline Cossey's very public transition had a huge impact on helping to shape and reveal your own identity. Have you ever had the opportunity to discuss that influence, or your shared experience, with her?

I was even named after her. Veronique Francoise Caroline Renard. My mother named me Veronique, so I wouldn’t have to lie about who named me Veronique later on in my life. I was never in contact with Ms Cossey, but I would love to, and I would love to know what she thinks of Pholomolo.

♥ For much of your adult life, you attempted to ignore your history, but other people's fears and phobias continued to haunt you. Had you not experienced the kind of discrimination you faced in the business world, do you think your life might have taken a different course?

Yes, if I had had a jolly good time at work instead of discrimination and gossip and unfair dismissals, I would still be a happy office worker in Holland. However, as I was fired from a string of top office jobs (the last time in 1999 as an office manager) I got the opportunity to further develop my first passion, which is writing novels, not sitting in an office cubicle. (So these days I am not sad I was fired from jobs because they found out I was a tranny.) However, had I known at 17 of all the obstacles ahead of me related to my transsexualism, presented to me in a large, thick dossier with a red ribbon, I would not have had a sex change. I would have killed myself. No, kidding!! I probably would have been one of those people who would transition at an old age, because then you don’t care anymore about other people’s opinion, just like when you’re 17.

♥ Following your depression and thoughts of suicide, you successfully reinvented yourself for a second time, leaving behind the world of big business to become an activist for Tibet, a student of the Dalai Lama, and a Buddhist yourself. How did that change compare with your earlier transition?

Equally dramatic, equally fast, equally intense, and equally rewarding and distressing. Both decisions were made with the heart, not the head. But both transitions were successful.

♥ How did you first become interested in the plight of Tibet, and what drove you to become such a dedicated activist?

I was on holiday in India and discovered that the Dalai Lama lived there in exile. Until then I had no idea in what country he lived. I thought he was a nomad travelling the world. How many people actually know that he lives in Dharamsala? Some people think he lives in Paris or San Francisco. But I ended up there in the sky, above the Himalayan clouds atop a mountain, because that is where he lived. In April 2000 he touched my head, my hand, and my chin, in front of his door in Dharamsala, a small refugee settlement atop a Himalayan mountain. It was so lovely and significant a meeting that I decided to stay for a while.

The Tibetans gave me wisdom and they made me a better person, resulting in a happy person and published writer. The program the Tibetans ran on me worked so well, they made me into a happy transsexual, a transsexual who accepts herself and is able to focus on the joys of transsexualism. I needed to do something in return, so I promised the Dalai Lama I would be his servant for the rest of my life and future lives. This I try to do by creating awareness of the Tibetan plight in the media, my books, articles, etc. I always talk about the Tibetans, to everyone. I eventually stayed with the Tibetans in India for 7 years. Then I moved to Bangkok to marry my husband, a Chinese plastic surgeon.

♥ You have accomplished some remarkable work with the Pantau Foundation. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about, and about the children you work with?

On my birthday in 2000, I established the foundation. There are thousands of Tibetan children living in India, many of them orphans. Also, there are children in India whose parents live in Chinese-occupied Tibet, but they have been sent across the Himalayas to live in freedom, in exile. So, these exiled children need help. Many organisations, small and large, already help the Tibetans in many, many ways, but I still found children who didn’t go to school. During my years in India I would find such children and help them to get admitted to the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, or other branches in India, where they would receive education, boarding, clothes, food, toys etc. It’s a lovely school system at 11 locations with many happy children. I would pay for their annual school and boarding fees with money that I would receive from readers and sponsors. It started with one child in 2000, and now we sponsor about 150 children.

♥ Your first biography, Pantau in India, makes no mention of gender. Were you trying to further distance yourself from your past, was it a reflection of how comfortable you'd become with who you are?

To answer the last part first. I do feel very comfortable being me, being a transsexual woman. It feels natural and I do enjoy going through life as a woman.  It’s good. Although I am out, I don’t advertise it. People still need to ask me first. Knowing what lives of men are like, I think I made the right decision. I wouldn’t have liked to act like some sort of man, or girly-boy. However, I didn’t mention my transsexualism in my 2003 autobiography Pantau in India, because my publisher wanted me to write a book about my life with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. I wrote the book and never even thought of mentioning anything about my being a transsexual.

Also, it was a business decision. I didn’t want to become known as a transsexual writer/Tibet-activist. I am a writer, Tibet-activist, painter, therapist, photographer, researcher; my transsexualism isn’t a career, but a birth-defect. Would you put that on your business card? Some transsexuals make a career out of their transsexualism. I am a writer who happens to be transsexual, not a transsexual who wrote a book.

I wanted to put the spotlight on the Tibetans and their plight. No journalist would ask me about the Dalai Lama and his people, they would all ask about my vagina. That would embarrass the Tibetans and me and not be very helpful to me as a Tibet-activist. I was expecting a follow up memoir about the Tibetans, a new book called Pantau in Tibet, but it required me to travel to China. However, Beijing has me at nr 95 on their blacklist and it proved rather distressing to travel through China with a trail of secret police in my wake.

I only got the idea to write Pholomolo after meeting Michael Todd in 2005, someone I met during my winter retreat in the south of India, a gay film maker who convinced me to write about my transsexualism.

♥ If we can talk specifically about Pholomolo for a moment, what is it you hope readers will take away from your story? Is there a key theme or message you're looking for them to embrace?

I hope that they understand that you can only expect other people to accept and respect you if you do so yourself. So as long as you feel any shame about being a transsexual, something you need to hide all the time, there is no chance for you to feel completely happy. So, lose the fear, and use your transsexualism to your advantage because it’s a bonus (unless you live in Uganda or the Middle East). People rather hire and desire a happy tranny than a miserable one. People like to be around happy people. If you’re truly happy as a transsexual, you automatically become enlightened, I think, but I would need a book to explain that in detail. I think it is a splendid state of being but it took too long to get to this point. I wish it had happened earlier in my life.

♥ What was the initial reaction to the book from friends, family, and colleagues? Did it open any eyes, or change any of your day-to-day interactions?

If you mean my friends, family and formers colleagues in Holland, I must say that I haven’t received any reactions. I didn’t tell anyone in my home country that I published this book back in 2007 in the United States. It wasn’t a planned stealth-job, but by living in Bangkok and publishing books in the US, I had lost all contact with my home country. I did receive two emails from former Dutch lovers who happened to be in the USA when they discovered copies of my book at Barnes and Noble. That is how they found out I was a transsexual. They responded surprised and became very supportive since. I have both met them in person again and we were all very friendly. What I also appreciated was that they weren’t secretive about having dated a transsexual girl. They told their friends and family and the partners they married.

In Asia I have become rather popular so most of my current friends are Tibetans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and a lot of gays and kathoeys in Bangkok. I am out to everybody. In Thailand they admire transsexuals, so that feels good. To them I am as good as Princess Diana…..or Madonna. In the West people have opinions about me, in Asia they respect me the way I am and they won’t speak bad about me. Speaking bad about people is not a Buddhist thing to do, you see. Gossiping Asians lose face.

I decided to end my connections to Holland. I just have a small bungalow there where we stay when visiting European cities. We also have a camper in Europe so it’s always pleasant to change the tropics for different climates when travelling around Europe.

♥ If we can impose upon your personal experience for a moment, what advice would you give to a young man or woman struggling with their gender identity? Is there anything you've done that worked exceptionally well, or something you wish you had done differently?

I have great difficulty answering this question. With hindsight I was glad I didn’t know enough because I would have gone too scared to go ahead. But I can’t advise transgender children to stay ignorant. So I must say that you should gather as much information as possible, all the good and bad, meditate on both for a while, and be very realistic about it. You may feel good walking around in a skirt, but if it brings you a lot of misery, you will be a woman but not a happy one. My surgeon told me: "You have a problem now and you will have a problem after surgery. Surgery won’t make you happy. You are like a paralyzed person. You can’t walk. I am not the surgeon who will make you walk again. I will just give you a wheelchair."

He was right. You just change the type of problem you have. So, do you want to be beaten up for looking like a queer feminine homo, of do you want to be harassed and discriminated for being a transsexual woman? Would you be able to carrying on living like you are now, or do you expect to feel more joy as a transsexual woman? If you understand that you will never be a non-transsexual woman, you’re okay. And if you are smart and lucky, you may go through life as a very content, perhaps even happy transsexual with very few problems related to her gender status.

♥ I know you've had several novels in the works over the years, so is there a chance we may get to see them printed in English sometime soon?

I wrote my first fiction novel at 17. I wrote about 12 novels since. I wrote all my novels in Dutch. I started to write in English after moving to India in 2000 and only then did I become successful.

No, I don’t think they will be published in the USA - they are not commercial enough. I write different books now. Books that sell. Writing is my day job. I am quite realistic about things, you see.

♥ Finally, before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?

Yes, for the moment I am done writing about myself and my current experiences in Asia and Europe. I like to keep them private. But I have been working on a novel for a while now. It required many years of research and I am still researching, as I had little knowledge of the subject I wanted to write about. It was also difficult to acquire all the information needed to write the story. During my years with the Tibetans I actually grew a great interest in Chinese history, culture, art, food, as well as Chinese people, and felt like writing a story set in China with a male protagonist (for a change), a military officer with the Communist PLA, a commander during the Tiananmen Square massacre. He is the commander in the first tank that spearheaded the tank regiment that was stopped by a student, captured on that iconic photograph by Jeff Widener.

I always wanted to know what went on in that particular tank. So I investigated the matter in order to use this info in a fiction novel. I made this tank commander a closeted gay with a wife and a gender dysphoric son who is expected to become a fine soldier. I am not sure when I will finish the book but as I want it to be an exceptionally well-written book that will stand out, it may take another few years to get it perfect.

With kind regards / Tashi delek / Met vriendelijke groeten


A huge thanks to Pantau for so graciously agreeing to join us today. I think you'll agree, she is a rare human being, so well-spoken, and with such a thorough understanding of human nature, that it's a joy just to share her thoughts.

Like I mentioned earlier, you can check out Samuel's review of Pholomolo from last week, and if there is the opportunity to give her  Tiananmen Square story a read, I will definitely be there.

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