Lexie Bean is a queer and trans multimedia artist from the Midwest. Their work in film, literature, and curation revolves around themes of bodies, homes, cyclical violence, and LBTQIA+ identity. Lexie is a Lambda Literary Award Finalist and passionate about creating honest and complex trans narratives that "transition and grow" alongside them. Their writing has been featured in Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Ms. Magazine, Them, Logo's New Now Next, Bust Magazine, Autostraddle, and more. The Ship We Built is their debut novel supported with residencies at the Sundress Academy, Paragraph New York, and the Santa Cruz Bookshop. Like the protagonist, Lexie has a deep resonance with water, letter writing, and is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. Their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) were both released in 2019, and their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021.
Years ago, I answered an open call to an anthology that was to be called Written on the Body, a series of piece written by transgender surviviors of sexual violence to parts of their body. The book, curated by Lexie Bean, went on to be a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. While Lexie was putting the book together, they were also creating a series of poems and drawings centered on two children who would eventually become the main characters for their forthcoming YA book, The Ship We Built (May 26, 2002). I recently read the final version of this book, and talked to Lexie about the book and their process of creating it.
Alex DiFrancesco: You're a fellow Sundress Academy For The Arts (SAFTA) alumni! How much of this book did you end up writing there? Were there any parts of the residency that were particularly helpful to you in writing it?
Lexie Bean: Yes! Long live Jayne the donkey! Before going to Tennessee for the residency, The Ship We Built was already a picture book and a series of about thirty short poems following the two kids who eventually became Sofie and Rowan. They were all written during long car and train rides inside random notebooks. I knew they all belonged in the same universe. I used that week at SAFTA to type out what I had, re-arrange them, and add in poems to fill in the gaps. It was the first time I had created an arc following their story - it was also when I realized Rowan was trans.
I loved that I stayed in the cabin, which did not have electricity. This encouraged me to write and draft new sections by writing by hand. It also structured my day around the sun - forcing me to stop working once it got dark. I've had issues in the past with taking breaks and letting myself rest.
AD: The story is set in the 90s. What made you decide to place it there? What research or brushing up on cultural phenomenon in that time period did you have to do to get it right?
LB: I set it in the 1990s because I wanted it to be on the cusp of new technology existing. This is just before the average household had computers and internet access. As a result, Rowan and mostly everyone else in his world had to rely on their immediate communities for representation and access to resources. Of course, more recent technology also changes the language people have to describe themselves and their experiences. One of Rowan's biggest struggles is not having the words - it's one of his main sources of doubt around himself, his relationships with others, and imagining a future. In the book, I lean heavily into the pop culture references because Rowan is the type of person who wants to connect with people and "be normal" so desperately, he has a tendency to overcompensate with what he knows about his 90s world.
Researching was a lot of fun for me. One of my favorite things I did was go on YouTube and watch reels of commercials from 1997 and 1998. I also rewatched every movie, episode of Boy Meets World, and even the 1998 Kids' Choice Awards that I referenced in the text. While revisiting them, I took notes on what I thought would have stood out to Rowan.
AD: The young person voice in this story is flawless. What were some of the tricks you used to achieve consistency of tone with it?
LB: Thank you <3 A few things! I did a lot of my very first drafts handwritten with crayon or gel pen - and went to the extent of holding the writing utensil like I did when I was Rowan's age. On a more personal note, I feel like a part of me stopped around 9 or 10 because that's when certain kinds of abuse escalated for me. I feel some ease tapping into that headspace because a part of me will always be there. At times, I have felt ashamed of this fact. Writing The Ship We Built has allowed me to find a place to let that person breathe.
AD: In your acknowledgments, you describe this as the book you needed when you were young, that you home [typo here I think] someone like you finds. What books that existed helped you when you were young, even if they weren't trans-specific stories?
LB: I was actually a very slow reader when I was in elementary school, and was placed in the "resource room" for the readers who fell behind the class. Still, there were books that were dear to me. I read a lot of Magic Tree House books, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. My rich cousin had beautiful Little Mermaid picture books that I re-read every time I went to her house. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was probably the first novel I read many times. I deeply resonated with the main character, but at the time I didn't have the words for why that was.
AD: They're called "cootie catchers" in Michigan? In PA, we called them "fortune tellers!"
LB: Haha yes! I think it's because it was one of the only ways cis-boys and cis-girls at the time would get so close to holding hands under the paper's folds. I actually never learned how to fold one, which perhaps was a part of my queer foreshadowing.
AD: How difficult was it to write about the sexual assault in the story the way you did? It looms over the whole story, but at the same time, it's never confronted directly until near the end. What was the choice to avoid it while still discussing it so often in the writing like?
LB: Rowan, like myself and most kids in that situation, knows there is danger in everything that's said. His fear of his own voice and the need to write letters to begin with is heavily influenced by violence done to his body. I hesitated to have any sort of resolution around it at the end because I know how rare is to find one. I was 17 when I could finally tell anyone about what had felt normal for too long. This was almost ten years after it started. I decided to allow Rowan to confront it more directly in The Ship We Built because kids (and adults) reading need to know it's possible to ask for help and/or acknowledge openly what's been done.
It looms over the story because it looms over Rowan's life. It elevates his joy, his imagination. He latches onto what he needs to for survival, and that includes the reader's listening ears. I also think it's important for survivors to be able to honor their experiences, let them be real - without the pressure to discuss it constantly or make it the center of their life story.
AD: There is a scene I love in this book, where the young trans person, Rowan, sees an older trans person at the gas station and calls them "the gas station guardian angel." When you go into the world as a trans person, do you ever have the thought that you're this person for someone? Did you ever have a figure like this in your own life?
LB: That scene was somewhat inspired by my own life! My "gas station guardian angel" wasn't a trans person, I am not sure if she even identifies as anything under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. This person was Krystal Harris. She sang the song "Super Girl" in The Princess Diaries soundtrack. She had short spiky hair and a nose-ring, like the character in The Ship We Built. I had never seen someone who looked like that before. I kept her CD under my pillow until the case cracked. She also had a song called "Angel on My Shoulder" and I thought she had the most beautiful voice in the world.
Sometimes I have a hard time imagining that I am that person for anybody, as I don't pass as "visibly trans." However, I know that I am and have been because people have shared their stories with me. I'm thankful for those stories because I always want people, whether they are cis or trans, to know that it's okay to change.
AD: The story ends with the letters, which are meant for a sympathetic ear, and sent out by balloon into the unknown, found by someone even lonelier than the main character, who we can assume has similar abuse problems at home. Why did you choose to end the story with this person who is even more isolated than the narrator?
LB: I wanted to give readers, in particular young cis or straight readers, to see a non-judgmental response to Rowan's thoughts, dreams, and pleas. It shows there are many ways to listen and it's okay to take your time to figure out how you want to respond. Also, Rowan throughout the book assumes this other lonely character has a nice dad. We find out it's more complicated than what Rowan's thinks. It's a subtle cautionary tale of the stories we tell ourselves to avoid what's really going on with ourselves and others.
AD: This interview series is called "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" after one of my favorite songs. That song has the line "Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can't fix" in it, and so the last question of every interview in this series is: if you had to cut one thing in this book, from a word up to a scene or a chapter, what would you take out?
LB: If I had to choose, it would be the Author Afterward. To some degree, I felt like I had to put it in there to explain and justify why I included a sexual abuse narrative interwoven with a trans one. As it is based off of my own experience, it has been some profound internal work to break the character's shell to speak up on behalf of Rowan and all other "Rowans." At the end of the day, I am glad and even thankful the Afterward is a part of the book. I trust it's my responsibility as an advocate to reach people outside of my own community and guide them to new thinking.