Sex change letters

Ruth is the story of an intersex person, defined at birth as Raül, a boy. The mother passionately wanted a son, but her child feels she is a girl, lives as a young woman, Ruth, and has sex-change surgery.

Ruth’s wealthy father and sister are sympathetic to her sex change, while her mother mistreats her. A sculptor finds her perfect as a hermaphrodite model, but rejects her after her sex change. When she (as Raül) is called up for military service and attends her interview dressed as a woman, she is treated to sexist abuse by soldiers, but then unexpectedly granted exemption by a sympathetic captain. Thus, the author poses the various responses of family and friends to an intersex person and, in Ruth’s words, the “labyrinth of contemplation I find myself in” (p.58).

Ruth is an epistolary novel, consisting of 37 obsessive letters that Ruth writes to a middle-aged person she met at an art exhibition about her struggles to be free in her gender, choice of sexual partners, language and artistic creation. The distance of this sympathetic ear, whose replies if they exist the reader never sees, allows Ruth to express her uncensored feelings and thoughts. Ruth’s voice is intellectual, too. She is constantly analysing her situation, not swept away by her own stream of consciousness.

Alongside the complexity of Ruth coming to terms with herself, Viladot poses a parallel story of artistic creation. Art (sculpture in Ruth’s case) is about making something beautiful from disparate materials. Just as Ruth can create her sex (Viladot’s word; he does not use ‘gender’), so a sculptor creates the figure he/she wants. Ruth herself, though the sculptor she poses for finds her beautiful as she is, wants to change, i.e. to become fully a woman. Her conundrum is that she does not wish to be defined by her gender, but by her art. But everyone, whether hostile or (the majority in this novel) supportive, sees in Ruth her body, not her desires or achievement as an artist.

Some critics question the right of a heterosexual man to write about gender transition. I do not know whether Viladot deals with the question adequately, but I am convinced that he has the right. Ruth’s voice, fluently translated by Sheffield academic Louise Johnson, is at times lyrical, sometimes humorous and always emotionally and sexually explicit. Viladot makes her letters gripping, though the ending is out of tone with the rest of the novel, displeasing many due to Ruth’s mental instability. But why is that illogical? Sex change is no easy process. In Ruth Viladot wrote with sensitivity a trailblazing novel about a tough choice.

book review

Ruth Author: Guillem Viladot Translation: P. Louise Johnson Pages: 127 Publisher: Fum d’Estampa (2022) “Viladot is a rebel: insatiable and untiring.” Àlex Susanna

The Sharpshooter from Agramunt

The publication of Ruth in English translation was part of the centenary celebrations of the birth of Guillem Viladot (1922-1999) in Agramunt. One of the last of his 25 novels, Ruth was first published the year after its author’s death.

After studying in Barcelona, Viladot inherited the family pharmacy in Agramunt in 1949. Never part of literary circles in the city (“I was a sharpshooter - franctirador - from Agramunt,” he wrote), most of his writing in the 1950s and ’60s was concrete (or visual) poetry. Highly original but uncommercial, this was published in small magazines. Prolific writer of poetry, newspaper articles and novels, his best-known work is from the 1970s: Memòria de Riella.

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