The Challenge of Genderless Characters

What a 30-year-old novel reveals about hidden biases

The cover art for Anne Garréta’s 1986 novel Sphinx (Deep Velllum)

In Maggie Nelson’s bestselling 2015 memoir The Argonauts, she describes her partner as “neither male nor female” but “a special—two for one.” That characterization comes to mind when reading the dedication of Anne Garréta’s 1986 novel Sphinx, which states, simply, “To the third.”

Sphinx is the fragmented retelling, “ten or maybe thirteen” years after the fact, of a romance between two characters whose genders are never revealed. It was recently translated into English for the first time by Emma Ramadan. In the book, as in Nelson’s work, gender is both central to the text and completely besides the point. The narrator, je (as Ramadan writes), is a disillusioned theology student who leaves academia for the vibrant Parisian night scene. Thrust by tragic circumstance into the DJ booth of a club called Apocryphe, je discovers both a knack for mixing music and a new hobby in “the contemplation of bodies.”

In this underworld, je meets A***, an alluring African American dancer from Harlem who’s 10 years je’s senior and addicted to sex and television. Across 120 pages, je pursues A***, their relationship crescendos and crumbles, and je struggles to come to terms with the loss by stringing together the very narrative the book comprises. All the while, even though the characters who swirl around the lovers are assigned genders, it’s never made clear if je or A*** identify as male or female or something else. That friends and family draw fault lines across race and age—other ways in which the lovers differ—but never mention gender only deepens the sense that this particular non-biological binary is inconsequential.

Fourteen years after Sphinx’s publication, Garréta became the first female member  of Oulipo, a French literary collective whose members are known for imposing constraints on their own writing to prompt creativity (the name is a portmanteau of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or the Workshop for Potential Literature). Oulipian antics include writing an entire novel without the letter ‘e’; describing the same happening in 99 different ways; and recasting a poem by replacing each noun with another, seven nouns away in the dictionary. A member once described Oulipians as rats who build themselves labyrinths from which to escape, but Garréta’s work feels more political, more intentional, than many other Oulipian works. Instead of creating a constraint and working around it, Sphinx highlights the already limiting nature of language when it comes to matters of gender, and of love.

I talked with Emma Ramadan about the possibilities and limitations of writing without gender.

Stephanie Hayes: So, how did you happen upon and begin translating Sphinx, almost 30 years after it was first published?

Emma Ramadan: A couple of years ago, I read this book written by the youngest (at the time) Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker [Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature]. Having just been inducted into the collective, he’d written about its history and its members—and he’d mentioned Sphinx and Anne Garréta. The constraint of Sphinx was so fascinating to me that I was curious to see how it had been put into English. I was searching and searching and finally realized nobody had translated it—which seemed very weird to me, because, at the time, conversations about gender were starting to become more and more prevalent, and the ways we think about gender were starting to loosen up in really interesting ways. Anne had written something so ahead of her time and maybe people weren’t quite ready to talk about what’s in this book 30 years ago, but they’re ready now. People have caught up to her.

Hayes: Reading Sphinx, I found myself constantly searching for clues as to the lovers’ genders, somehow thinking that might help me better understand or, even just picture, them. A*** was particularly slippery and ambivalent, described at having hips “narrow and broad at the same time,” and a “cat-like or divine” body with “musculature seemingly sculpted by Michelangelo.” This made me wonder if Garréta had certain genders in mind when she wrote the characters or not.

Ramadan: I remember asking Anne this once and she kind of gave me this look like, Are you kidding me? She said she wrote these characters to be genderless—and she certainly does things on the page to mess with perceptions of gender. Like, you know how nouns of body parts have genders that match the nouns themselves and not the person they’re attached to? Well, there are two specific scenes I’m thinking of where Garréta has written the description of A*** so that the body parts alternate masculine, feminine, masculine, feminine. Or, she mentions the head, which is feminine in French—la tête—and the rest of the body parts she chooses to mention are all masculine. The way she crafted Sphinx was very purposeful.

Hayes: While you were translating, did you ever mentally assign them genders?

Ramadan: I gave them genders, because I was able to picture them and they came to life for me. And I think that’s a good thing. But I would slap myself on the wrist when I was talking about one of the characters and accidentally used a gender pronoun. Once you realize that you’re doing it, you think: Why do I think that A*** is a woman? Or, What about the narrator makes me think he’s a man? What is it about me that’s projecting that onto these characters? Because it’s not coming from the book. I think it’s a powerful and necessary thing, this looking inward.

A little side note, because I think you’ll find this interesting. So, as you might’ve gathered, I thought A*** was a woman. And when I was translating, I was trying really hard not to insert any “hers,” but there’d be moments when my advisor would find a “her” in the translation. And funnily enough, when I got the final proof, I suddenly found a “her” still in the text that nobody had caught. Like five people had read the text at this point and not one had caught it because they had all thought A*** was a woman, so they glossed right over it.

I was worried that my reading of [the characters] would seep into my translation and that everyone would think A*** is a woman because I had and I’d accidentally slipped in descriptions that were more in keeping of my idea of what is female or something. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The majority of people I’ve talked to have thought they were both men, which surprises me. Someone invited me to a book club about Sphinx in New York, a couple of months ago. I went in and sat in on their discussion and they were all so convinced that the narrator was a man, because at the beginning the narrator was talking about being in theological studies and how he or she didn’t want to go down the road of being in the church. And they all read that as women don’t study to become part of the church, that’s not how it works, only men do that, so therefore the narrator must be a man. I never read it this way, but that might be because I know Garréta was a DJ, like the narrator, and a lesbian.

Hayes: As you explain in your translator’s note, French has grammatical gender and English has semantic gender. Can you explain some of the specific challenges and tricks of translating a French genderless novel into English?

Ramadan: When you’re writing in the first person in English, it’s easier to avoid gender. It would be almost impossible for a narrator to reveal their gender without stating it explicitly. And aside from that you mostly have to avoid personal pronouns and possessive adjectives. In French, I think it’s much harder to write a story about people without genders—it requires gender agreement with verbs in the past tense and with adjectives.

The reason this book was so difficult was because, in French, one of the easiest ways to describe people is by describing bodies—because the gender agreement happens with the noun of the body part, not the person it’s attached to. So, this book is all about bodies: the narrator watching A*** dance, the narrator watching A*** sleep, the narrator remembering A*** … there’s just a lot of bodies!

There’s a whole page in the book where the narrator is thinking about the ghost of A***’s presence, A***’s body, touching A*** … There was just an entire page where I was like, Oh god, what am I going to do? Body parts need possessive adjectives in English. You say “his arm” or “her leg.” Someone might write a novel in English now using one of the many gender-neutral pronouns we can use these days, like I’ve seen the letter ‘x’ or the letter ‘z’, and different riffs on this, to avoid it altogether. But that approach just seemed very out of place for this book, because these aren’t people who are choosing not to discuss their gender, they’re just people whose genders we happen not to know.

What I ended up doing was alternating between using A***’s name, or pluralizing—saying something like “our thighs touching”—or just taking every pronoun out and making A*** a jumble of body parts. A*** is already, in French, just a jumble of body parts and the narrator even talks about that. In English, A*** becomes even more so. At first I thought that was really unfortunate, that I was changing the tone of the book or the character. But later it sort of clicked to me that it makes a lot of sense for A*** to be a collection of body parts, because A*** never once speaks in the novel, because of the constraint.

Hayes: Right, but because of the novel’s constraint, you can’t attribute character traits like those, or problems in their relationship, to gender. One difference that is offered as a problem again and again is race—do you see Sphinx as a musing on race or on difference more broadly?

Ramadan: Right. When the narrator is trying to get A*** to sleep with him or her, the language becomes sort of militaristic, words like “conquer” come up. And, we can’t say it’s gender driving this.

And it’s not only race that’s emphasized, it’s their age difference, the fact that A*** is American and the narrator is French, the fact that the narrator is in school and doing intense studies and A*** is a dancer … There are all these differences between them—race probably being the most prominent—that seem to throw up these walls. And when gender’s not there, it sort of leaves room for us to focus on these other differences—and most of them end up being insignificant, too.

Ultimately, their relationship falling apart has nothing to do with what gender or race or age they were. It really boils down to the fact that one of them is very intellectual and wants to study and resents the other person for watching too much TV and not being interested in going to these museums with him or her. They just fundamentally have different personalities.

Hayes: So what’s next for you?

Ramadan: I’m translating another Garréta book, Pas Un Jour, or Not One Day in English. This book has a constraint, too, but this one doesn’t affect me. Anne sat down in front of a typewriter or in front of her laptop everyday for five hours and wrote each chapter in here in that time span without editing or erasing anything. Each chapter is about a woman in her life that she had loved or that had loved her, it’s a reflection on all these sexual or amorous encounters. They’re all autobiographical, except one, which is fiction—and she doesn’t say which.

Anne got really excited about me translating this book and, as opposed to Sphinx, she was very gung-ho about being more involved. So we’ve been Skyping about it. It’s been more collaborative this time around.