TRANS(per)FORMING Nina Arsenault an eclectic (and beautifully illustrated) collection of material that serves to explore, examine, and explain the experience of a stunning young woman who is her own body of work. Judith Rudakoff has gathered actors, playwrights, professors, critics, and Arsenault herself to dig deep beneath more than 60 surgical augmentations to reveal how and why a young man named Rodney has invested $200,000 in becoming someone who is almost more than woman.
As the book reveals, Arsenault is definitely not your average transgender woman. Creatively subversive, she is very much aware of herself a biological and emotional paradox. While many might call her journey an obsession, calling her unreal, unreasonable, and unnatural, it’s a deliberate expression of her need to physically realise the impossible contradictions within herself.
The chapters are deliberately arranged to contrast one another, rather than to form any sort of cohesive story, but opening with Sky Gilbert – drag queen and veteran of the stage – is a perfect move. His is one of the most accessible chapters in the book, and really serves to begin building an understanding of the subject. Todd Klinck’s reminisces of Arsenault during her sex trade days is a definite eye-opener, but one that paints an important picture of how our desires can shape ourselves.
While it would have been very easy to approach this as either a celebrity expose or a fawning tribute, Rudakoff takes a very balanced (if sometimes dryly academic) approach to exploring Arsenault. Ironically, for someone who has deliberately chosen to retain her penis through all the surgeries, Arsenault often comes across as kind of a radical feminist. She very clearly understands the contrast between the impossible, unattainable image of beauty she has worked so hard to created, and the passionate, determined, proud woman at its core.
Both a work of art and the artist behind that work, Arsenault has made a career out of exploring herself through photography, theatre, and writing. Her own contribution to the text, in which she talks about travelling and performing in the Yukon, is absolutely fascinating. She talks (or rather performs upon the page) about removing herself from the anonymity of big city life, not wanting to become an event, and ultimately finding the freedom to be herself.
A few last pieces follow, exploring theatrical, cultural, and religious thematic threads within Arsenault’s work, concluding with her one-woman play, The Silicone Diaries. The script provides a fascinating glimpse into how all the elements of her life and her work come together. While it can be argued that it should have come first, allowing readers to begin with that very theatrical introduction, Rudakoff cleverly forces us to evaluate the work separate from the woman.
It’s a rather dense text at times, with some arguments that certainly went over my head, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. What’s more, once you read through her play, peruse the photos that follow, and then revisit a few chapters, the experience changes . . . just as Arsenault herself does, time and time again.