Storytelling Can Change Lives – Musings of a Transgender Man
By Liam Klenk
Storytelling can change lives. Twenty-seven years ago, I walked into Sec52, a small bookstore in Zurich. I was bored during my summer job and needed some reading material to keep my mind occupied. So, I bought a book which ended up changing my life forever. A book which opened a door and sped up a process which might otherwise have taken a good ten years longer.
At the time, I had no real grasp as to who I was. I only knew something was very much upside down and out of sync in my life. My logical conclusion was that something must be wrong with me.
This was a status I had come to accept as a given: I was strange. Most likely damaged. Not normal. But, to some extent, I had accepted my circumstances and had accepted myself.
Nowadays, we are flooded with information. Whatever question we have, we type into Google, and some sort of wisdom is there to be found amongst several hundred thousand entries.
In 1994, this wasn’t yet the case. Thus, it never occurred to me that I might not be alone.
It never occurred to me that information might exist which would illuminate why I felt the way I felt.
The internet was still non-existent. And whatever other mass media existed at the time, magazines or talk shows, I usually didn’t pay much attention to.
Then, in 1994 a book with the title “Messer im Traum” (Knives in our Dreams) was published. To be honest, I picked it for the same reasons I would pick a bottle of wine. Because I liked the sound of the title. And the cover looked nice.
Also, somehow, the pain expressed in the title resonated with me.
When I finally sat at my workplace, a kiosk inside a cinema, which in the summer had incredibly slow business, I opened the book and began to read.
It was about transgender people in Germany. There were about a dozen short portraits of these individuals, written in their own words. It was the first time I ever heard the word “transgender.” Yet, as I read with massive speed through each short life story, I realized that even though I hadn’t heard of this before, I had lived it every day of my life.
All of a sudden everything fell into place. I knew this was what all my experiences added up to. What feeling so uprooted all my life had tried to signal to me: I was a male individual who had gotten trapped in a female body.
Imagine, I hadn’t by accident picked this book. It opened my eyes. And possibly just in time. Because my depression and anxiety had been mounting with every single year. I was strong. But I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to spend another ten years not knowing what was going on with me.
Through reading “Messer im Traum,” I was able to make the first step towards becoming who I really am. I began hormone therapy and embarked on a road to uncover the real me underneath my ill-fitting skin and far too many societal stereotypes.
Then, this year, 2021, twenty-seven years later, I returned to the bookstore Sec52.
It still looked the same. The owner still stacked his books all the way to the ceiling and had no real cataloguing system. There were still jewels to be found here. Stories, which could change the world for someone. Literally.
I said “Hello” to the old owner and offered my own book to him which I had written five years ago. And I said, “Twenty-seven years ago, I bought a book in your store which made all the difference. I thought it might be nice to close the circle by bringing you this book of mine which can potentially also make a great difference for someone.”
He looked puzzled.
So, I elaborated. “I was lost back then, trapped in the wrong body. Then I browsed through your store. And, for some reason, you had one copy of “Messer im Traum” which caught my eye.”
“I bought it on a whim, read it and, all of a sudden, the jumble of mosaic pieces which I had held in my hands for so long began to form a decipherable picture. In many ways, this book and with it your bookstore became my birthplace.”
The owner looked at me for a long moment and honestly said, “I don’t even know what to say right now. Your words are something I’ll have to ponder and digest for a while. But you show me once more why I opened this bookstore so many years ago. Books and storytelling have the power to transform lives.”
He accepted my book and put it on one of his shelves. The corners of our eyes twinkled as we both smiled behind our masks and waved goodbye.
Maybe, someday soon, someone will pick my book on his shelf. Maybe they’ll be drawn to it. Or, like me, they’ll just be intrigued by the bright turquoise cover with no idea what revelations will be waiting for them inside. Maybe they’ll take the book for no special reason. Simply because they enjoy a well-written story. One more literary trophy to place on their shelf.
Whatever happens, within the small universe of Sec52 the circle has closed. I found something precious there all those years ago. Now, I have given something precious back.