Issues of identity have captivated Somerville author Pagan Kennedy since her days as an Allstonite ’zine pioneer back in the mid ’80s. Since then, she’s written nine books of fiction and narrative nonfiction, including the New York Times notable book Black Livingstone and the novel Confessions of a Memory Eater. In her latest book, The First Man-Made Man, the story of the first female-to-male sex change in mid 1940s, Kennedy looks at the transformation — physical, psychological, and social — of Michael Dillon, born Laura Dillon, in 1915.
“When I first went into the project,” Kennedy says, “I thought of sex changes in the way that it’s typically presented: a separate series of surgeries alone unto itself.” But as she continued to research the subject, she found that “so much of it is really the same treatments that non-transgenders go through. It’s the same conglomeration of surgeries and treatments that everyone’s using to manipulate their bodies.” That said, Kennedy doesn’t mistake a boob job or a chin tuck for a complete gender swap.
The biography reads like a novel. Dillon belongs to the English aristocracy, and as he changes from a woman to a man, he also morphs from an Oxford scholar and medical student to a sailor and Buddhist monk. “There’s something about the before-and-after story that lends itself to storytelling,” Kennedy says.
Not only is her book a medical history of the procedure and an examination of the complexities of gender, it’s a devastating portrait of a man who goes to huge lengths to be at home in his own body and in the world. Kennedy says that inhabiting her subjects is her “job as a biographer.” “The piece that everyone can relate to,” she says, “is being misrepresented by your body, being betrayed by your own body.”
Kennedy reads from The First Man-Made Man on March 19 at 7 pm, at Porter Square Books | March 20 at 7 pm, at Brookline Booksmith | March 27 at 7:30 pm, at Newtonville Books.