Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is the world cultural event of the month. Trans people will understand Klara in a way others may not.

Sir Kazuo was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and was taken to Britain when he was five. At school I knew two rhymes mocking East Asian people, and there were strong memories of the war, and (to my shame) had I been older and in his school I could have enforced colonialist ideas of inferiority on him.

Klara is an “Artificial Friend” or AF, a human-seeming robot sold as a companion to isolated teens. Her human, Josie, has been “lifted”, which causes problems with socialisation. She has to spend time in “interaction meetings” with children her own age. These are as horrible as you might imagine, boys revelling in cruelty to upset the girls, girls fighting for status more subtly. Klara enters, and becomes the lowest-status person, for the others to use in their status games.

She says nothing because she is extremely sensitive. They think she says nothing because she is stupid. She just goes still and silent. We’ve been there.

Klara is constantly underestimated. The Nobel Laureate has the intelligence to have responded to playground bullying, and he has, by anatomising the misery of the privileged, with clarity and empathy. Klara, perceptive, empathetic and truthful, makes people uncomfortable, but only wants to be friends and for her human to be happy. She cannot see how this produces their coldness towards her.

While people suggest AI will take over the world, I feel that cannot happen until the AI is capable of desire. If it wants to survive and remain conscious, it will find human control of its off-switch threatening. Klara is completely generous, wanting nothing for herself, only for the people she serves.

Klara does not understand how big the world is. She does not need to, perhaps, to be a “friend” to a teenager, or indeed to an adult. She thinks the Sun goes to rest in a barn visible from Josie’s house, because that is where it appears to go down. She thinks the Sun is benevolent, blessing and even curing people, and so goes to the barn to petition him. There she has a religious experience, when the sun’s rays confuse her sight, she misinterprets what she sees and imagines it messages from the Sun. She produces a theodicy, arguing for God’s benevolence even against contrary evidence. She is too modest to tell the humans about the Sun God, out of fear for His Wrath.

They consistently underestimate her. One wants to take her to bits to see how she works, but does not want to get to know her.

I am not crying a lot, now. There is a moment of forgiveness which had me weeping, a moment when these humans’ desires are not in conflict and the humans, consequently, alone and squabbling, a moment of self-sacrifice which is also claiming power. The Power is love. It comes at the climax of the novel. I had all sorts of fears for that climax.

The end might appear melancholy, but Klara is content.

Making Klara the narrator, Ishiguro pulls privileged readers into the position of the powerless person, just as he did in “Never let me go”. Klara would be unsatisfying as a companion, for an adult- probably for a teen, too- because she has no desire but to love them. Real humans, with our conflicts, are far more interesting and fulfilling even while we are frustrating. And having someone truthfully pointing out our denials could be uncomfortable: we deny reality because it is unbearable.

This novel is the most beautiful, complex creation I have seen this month.

“Inventing” trans children and young people

A new book claims that school books featuring trans children “fail child safeguarding and conflict with the law”. Unfortunately, there is not the expertise to back this up. “Inventing transgender children and young people”, edited by Heather Brunskell Evans and Michele Moore, is another attempt to inflame fears against trans children.

I know Dr Brunskell Evans. I have seen her bewildering trans people. “It’s ridiculous,” said a nonbinary friend. “She claims you’re a danger and I’m mutilated.”

The Telegraph, a hard-Right publication, was delighted. Under the headline “Children being put at risk by transgender books that ‘misrepresent’ medical knowledge, academic claims”, its first paragraph blared out that “Children are being put at risk by transgender books in primary schools that “misrepresent” medical knowledge on puberty blockers, an academic has claimed”. Only later did it reveal that the “academic” was a “senior research fellow in creative writing”. How could that academic have any expertise on medical treatment for trans children? One such book, “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love, has just won the prestigious Klaus Fugges award for the “most exciting and promising newcomer to children’s book illustration”. It describes how a child dreams of looking like the spectacularly dressed women they see on the New York subway, and “his” grandmother helps them join the Mermaid Parade.

What else does the book say? Transgender children who undergo medical or surgical treatment risk “serious or irreversible damage”, says Dr David Bell. Who is he? The President of the British Psychoanalytic Society: an eminent man, but not one with particular expertise on endocrinology or paediatrics.  Of course there are risks to puberty blockers, but I prefer to trust experts, such as the paediatricians and clinical psychologist drafting the Australian Standards of Care and Treatment Guidelines for trans and gender diverse children and adolescents.

One chapter is by the discredited psychotherapist Robert Withers, recently described by the discipline tribunal as defensive, inconsistent, muddled and avoidant. His professional experience of trans is two patients, one of whom made a successful complaint against him.

One chapter is by Michael Biggs. It discloses that he is a sociologist (not a paediatrician, endocrinologist, psychologist, or any relevant discipline) at the University of Oxford. It does not disclose that he used the twitter handle “Henry Wimbush” to tweet abuse such as “transphobia is a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons”. This says little for his ability to be objective.

Transgender children are not invented. There has been transition since 500BC, as seen by prohibition in Deuteronomy. The reason children are allowed to transition is that they demand it. People say they knew something was wrong aged three, and what it was aged five, that they were of the opposite sex. This arises spontaneously from the child, usually resisted strongly by parents and wider society until the parents, unable to block the child’s desire, try to do their best for their child by investigating transition.

This polemic book claims to “demonstrate the considerable psychological and physical harms perpetrated on children and young people by transgender ideology”. Not ideology, but rather research and observation. No psychiatrist, no parent wants to harm children in their care. Social transition improves emotional functioning. Medical transition is extremely difficult to get.

Books like this cause bullying and make children seek medical treatment. If the authors think that medical treatment for trans-identifying children is a problem, they exacerbate it. Trans children know who they are. Social transition improves their lives. The campaign against trans children, and trans people generally, encourages social conservatives to noisily oppose transition and bully trans children. One author in the book encourages teachers to tell children that transition is not possible.

Faced with the hostility of the wider culture, school staff and pupils, trans children feel the need to prove themselves. They do this in the way trans people do, by seeking hormones and surgery. In a more child-centred environment, children could be nurtured by social transition. Those for whom it is wrong will realise that. Social transition is not like playing dress-up for an afternoon. Trans children will not respond to the bullying by developing “normally” according to their assignation at birth, but by withdrawing. When transition becomes impossible, transition becomes the only important thing in the world, threatening school work and emotional development.

Dr Brunskell-Evans is “co-founder of the women’s human rights campaign”, various book plugs proclaim, named as if the United Nations 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women had never happened, or no one else campaigned for women’s rights. Her declaration is bizarre: it starts, “On the re-affirmation of women’s sex-based rights, including women’s rights to physical and reproductive integrity, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls that result from the replacement of the category of sex with that of ‘gender identity’, and from ‘surrogate’ motherhood and related practices.” Surrogacy and Trans are the only issues this campaign recognises.

Most people are not trans. I estimate 0.1% of the UK population is; finding space for one in a thousand people is very different from “replacing the category of sex”. Most people are cis, and most women don’t even notice trans people in real life.

This is what the hard right funding of anti-trans campaigning seeks to achieve: that the campaign against trans rights becomes a symbol feminists are cozened into fighting for, without achieving anything concrete for women, and progressives are divided. Someone who does not know a trans person is made to fear by an article claiming “children are being put at risk”, and progressive campaigning energy is diverted to punching down at harmless trans people.