Book Review: Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Published in 1998, Trumpet is a novel written by Jackie Kay that examines some of the aspects that form a person’s identity. The most prevalent theme in the book is that of gender identity, but by identifying her protagonist, Joss Moody, as the son of a black father and white mother (the same as the author herself), issues of race are also relevant in the book.

The character of Joss Moody was based on a real person: Billy Tipton. He was a successful American Jazz musician and bandleader popular during the 1940’s. He was also born a woman. Like Tipton, Joss Moody is genetically female but lives his life as a man, with his natural gender only being discovered after his death. Trumpet opens after his death and explores the reactions to this revelation from the media and the people in his life.

Billy Tipton was born in 1914 and began pursuing a career in Jazz during an era when society’s gender expectations were far more rigid. But interestingly, Kay chooses to set Trumpet during the ‘swinging sixties’ – an era of free love and social rebellion when supposedly anything was possible in the world of show business. Moody would have found it far easier than Tipton to follow his musical ambitions as a woman during the 1960’s, which suggests that his masquerade as a man was more to do with his own feelings rather than a practical or social reason.

With less access to information about his condition available even in the 1960’s, Moody would have found it difficult to understand why he felt like a man but looked like a woman. There was no internet or search engine optimization that would have led him to discover that he was in fact suffering from Gender Identity Disorder, which theorists define as a feeling of discordance between the biological characteristics of the body and the inner feeling of being male or female. Today the condition is far more documented and society is generally much more accepting.

The story is presented in 35 short sections, each dealing with a different person’s feelings about Moody’s death and recent exposure as a woman. It opens with Millie Moody: Joss’s wife and the only person who knew the truth. She is being hounded by the press and is upset at being labelled a lesbian fraud – to her Joss always felt like a man, just with a different body to other men. Whilst their union may raise difficult questions about sexuality, throughout her monologues and flashbacks Millie portrays their relationship as man and wife as very happy.

Moody’s adopted son Colman, however, has a much less accepting attitude to the revelation that the person he knew has his father was actually a woman. Admitting that ‘I’m so embarrassed I could emigrate,’ Colman is angry at what he sees as a huge betrayal. Colman, like his adopted father, was also the product of a mixed race relationship and seems to share his father’s feelings of ‘non-belonging’, albeit because of his race not his gender. This again calls into question all of the many aspects that create a full and unified gender.

Other characters include Moody’s band mates who are shocked at the news but insist ‘only the music mattered,’ Moody’s mother who misses what she still believes to be a daughter and a tabloid journalist who labels Moody as ‘pervy’. It also follows the authority figures who deal with the formalities of Moody’s death, such as doctor who can only focus on the physical connotations of Moody’s sex due to a career of dealing with biology and the human body. The registrar who registers Moody’s death, however, spent his career dealing with people and personalities and therefore has a more liberal approach to identity. Interestingly though, each person close to Moody mourn the same individual whether they see him as a man or a woman, father or daughter, husband or band mate. This undermines the importance of gender difference and places more relevance on the importance of individual characteristics and personality.

For Moody himself, embracing his identity and being a ‘free spirit’ is something he is able to do through his musical career. He sees his musical performance as an art form with no boundaries or structures that is outside of the oppressive restrictions of society. Through the phallic symbol of the trumpet he is able to embrace all of the differing aspects of his personality and identity. This is demonstrated when Kay writes ‘He is a girl. He is a man. He is everything, nothing. He is sickness, health. The sun. The moon. Black, white.’

This acceptance of the binary opposites within himself really forms the basis of the novel: that identity is not a fixed notion and can be made up of several, differing components. Gender and race are both demonstrated as fluid concepts in this novel and cannot be defined with singular characteristics. Kay has therefore succeeded in producing a novel that seeks to encourage readers to accept all of the aspects of their identities instead of feeling that they have to fit into certain stereotypes or fulfill certain expectations.

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