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Written by Victoria Joss
The most important theme in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet is how she portrays gender. Through having many different perspectives, it allows the reader to witness reactions to the changing perspective on transgender individuals, across the whole of society. These viewpoints range from the uniformed, to educated, or downright vulgar. On one end of the spectrum, we have Albert Holdings and Sophie Stones. Albert believes that gender is determined by physical sex, whilst Sophie calls Joss a ‘transvestite’ rather than transgender. She names him as someone who only dresses as a man, not someone who lived their whole life as one; she knows as little as the reader does about Joss’ decisions behind the choice, and it creates her as a vulgar character. Therefore, Kay fundamentally presents that gender and sex are not the same concept. Yet, despite this strong assertion, it is not the most important message of the novel. It is that gender makes no difference to whom you love, and how you make an impact on the world. This is emphasized by Millie’s perspective. She is the only character aware of Joss’ choices, and she only ever sees him as a person she loves, and is not dependent on defining their relationship in terms of conventional gender.
Identity and Naming
Names and naming is an important act in Kay’s novel. The most obvious aspect to this theme is the change of Joss’ name from his previous Josephine. Whilst this is an important event that allows Joss freedom to appear as a man to society, it occurs before the start of the novel. Therefore, the reader is first introduced to the late protagonist as Joss. To then discover he was previously Josephine places this name as secondary to ‘Joss’, as the man himself most likely felt. A further impact of names is on Colman Moody, Joss’ son. He was adopted by Joss and Millie, meaning that he questions what it means to be a Moody, when he could have belonged to a different family and different name. He not only feels a pressure to live up to his father’s life achievements, but also is disgusted at Joss being transgender. He therefore considers how life as William Dunsmore, his birth name, would have changed his upbringing and thus identity. A less obvious significance of naming lies in Sophie Stone’s indecision at naming the book she is writing about Joss. This presents her own insecurity with her identity compared to her more successful sister, and the importance of this name that will potentially shape her future.
Despite Kay’s exploration of gender, whenever the perspective returns to Millie in Torr, it is a heart-wrenching account of a grieving widow. And for Millie, the public reveal that Joss was biologically a woman does not change the grief she feels for his loss. It might prove a nuisance when trying to continue the grieving process, but it is almost a pinprick to the huge sadness she feels at Joss’ death. In Torr, Millie can only sink in to the depths of grief and begin the process once she is alone. During this process, the only comfort she can gain is that her grief is the same as everyone else’s, and that many other widows feel as she does. In one passage, she states that ‘many women know the shape, the smell, the color of loss’, suggesting it to be an all-encompassing experience. Traditional novels end with death. In beginning with death, Kay allows the reader to witness the repercussions of loss, the painstakingly long process to even begin to heal.
Within a novel where a man’s gender is discovered to be different, there are inevitably questions also arising about Joss’ sexuality. As Joss is biologically female, his relationship with Millie is technically a lesbian partnership. However, Kay refuses to place any labels on their relationship, and focuses on their deep love for each other, rather than if it is technically classed as hetero- or homosexual. Whenever Kay describes any scenes of intimacy between Joss and Millie, the focus is always on love and pleasure, and she never specifies female or male anatomy. The questioning of Joss’ sexuality has a large impact on Colman, who took his example of masculinity from his Father. Colman feels almost cheated that Joss lied to him, and mocks the masculine things he did for Colman, such as buying him a shaving set. It also prompts Colman to aggressively re-affirm his own sexuality, which he does by imagining himself with larger genitalia and dominating Sophie Stones in intercourse. Therefore, sexuality is not only about categorizing who someone is attracted to. For Colman, it is intrinsically connected to gender, and he feels threatened as all he originally associated with masculinity has been taken away from him.
Family and Community
The concept of family and community is connected to the novel not only thematically, but structurally also. Kay uses the different chapters to present Joss’ friends and family in their individual points of view. This helps to build a sense of community throughout the novel, as it presents Joss as a passionate individual who was liked and respected by many. A particularly poignant example is Big Red McCall, who accepts almost immediately that Joss was transgender, and will not allow Sophie Stones to mar the memory of a talented musician. Family is also an important theme, and the reader often sees the Moody’s earlier family life via flashback. This technique provides a background history to Millie, Joss and Colman, whilst also suggesting that a group need not be conventionally related to be classed as family. Ultimately, the community that Joss did build creates a circle of trust, that makes Sophie Stones even more the intrusive outsider for attempting to penetrate.
Throughout the novel, Joss is attributed as such a talented musician through his passion for jazz, described in one chapter as Joss completely tearing himself apart to then put himself back together again. Similarly, Millie and Joss’ love for each other is based on a passion that transcends the boundaries of conventional heterosexual relationships. This novel therefore rewards those with genuine passion, and punishes those who lack it. For instance, Sophie is never convincingly passionate about writing, and Colman duly snubs her before the research is even finished. Again, Colman is punished for a lack of direction in his life, buckling under the pressure of being Joss Moody’s lackluster son. He is rewarded with clarity of sight at the end of the novel when he transforms his drunken rage in to passion to preserve his Father’s memory.
The act of writing
Throughout the novel, the reader encounters different acts of writing, predominantly Sophie Stones, the journalist. We, as readers, are only actually privy to a few pages of her narrative on Joss. Therefore, Kay perhaps suggests that it is not what is written that matters, but the act of writing that speaks volumes. Sophie is a journalist, yet focuses more on money to spend on designer clothes and bettering her superior sister. She is thus unaware of the power that words have, especially about Joss. Her ignorance makes her dangerous, as does her insensitivity in thrusting the more vulgar label of ‘transvestite’ on to Joss’ identity. It is also important that Joss’ memoir is predominantly written by a complete stranger. Instead of giving a voice to the late musician, it mutes him in the act of writing the wrong words about him. In comparison, there is an act of writing that reinstates the authority of Joss’ voice, his letter at the end. Whilst it offers Colman no words of Fatherly advice, the narrative about his Father coming to Scotland on a ship allows his history to become important, rather than his gender.
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