Like many readers, I first encountered Elliott DeLine’s brand of acerbic yet affecting wit when his essay “Stuck at the Border Between the Sexes” ran in the New York Times’ weekly Modern Love column in May of 2011. I remember being impressed by his ability to articulate the complexities of desire—particularly, in this case, for a transgender man interested in other men—without veering into either the maudlin or didactic: “For about two years,” he writes in that essay, “I’ve lived a cerebral and celibate existence. As a pathological Morrissey fan, I find it suits me. Still, living in your childhood bedroom just isn’t a sexy situation.”

I wasn’t the only one who took notice of the then-22-year-old writer’s talents. DeLine, who’d self-published his debut novel, Refuse, the month prior, says he saw a significant jump in sales after the piece ran in the Times: “The next day, definitely, more people started downloading the e-book. I had a Facebook page for Refuse and it started getting fans, people were messaging me.…I would say the response doubled.” Refuse soon developed an active online following and, in December of that year, was named a finalist in the 2011 Rainbow Awards.  

But at least one part of his experience with the New York Times must have validated his decision to self-publish in the first place. He didn’t choose the title of the Modern Love essay. “That’s kind of driven me crazy,” he now acknowledges. “I don’t think I realized that until the day it came out.

“I stumbled upon a lot of criticism of that essay,” DeLine tells me, much of it objecting to the reductive title. “But similarly, a lot of people really loved the essay and looked me up.”

Those who did found their reward in Refuse, a forceful, searing and—yes—often laugh-out-loud funny coming-of-age novel in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The fictitious memoir of Dean, a transgender college graduate once again living with his parents, Refuse tells the story (often in third person) of his near-romance with his college roommate and best friend, Colin, another transguy, amid so many misdirected affections that the term “love triangle” doesn’t begin to suffice. Dean also expresses a strong sense of dissatisfaction with other members of the transgender community, who, he complains, are affirmative at the cost of more honest and critical conversations about transgender experience.

Dean is a provocative, irreverent narrator, not afraid to criticize much of anything—whether transgender support groups, the academic discipline of queer theory or “trashy transgender autobiography.” In one moment of desperation, he quips: “Heck, I’d even look to Jesus if I weren’t so envious of his international success.” Dean, it has also been widely noted in reviews and interviews, is DeLine’s alter ego of sorts. Mark Simpson, author of Saint Morrissey, has used the portmanteau word “novoir” to describe the hybrid genre of Refuse, which blurs the line between novel and memoir. In addition to the book’s formal elements—it is purported to be Dean’s memoir, though Dean often writes about himself as if he were a character in a novel—the parallels between DeLine and his protagonist are difficult to ignore: both are from Syracuse, NY, for one, not to mention their shared obsession with Morrissey.

“A lot of things in the book didn’t happen, but it was definitely inspired by my experiences,” says DeLine, who described Dean as “more me than I am” in a recent interview with Lambda Literary Review. What DeLine says he means by that cryptic line is that he sometimes has trouble saying what he’s really thinking for fear that he’ll be misinterpreted. “I felt like I was much freer with Dean because I could make him say things that could be potentially very rude; he’s bolder than I am,” he admits. “I got a lot of letters from people saying the book was really validating because it said so many things they always thought but never were able to say—which is funny, because it was that for me, too.”
Elliot Deline Cover
DeLine’s newest work, a novella entitled I Know Very Well How I Got My Name (after the song by Morrissey), follows Dean’s story further back—from  early childhood to the agonizing throes of adolescence—and “is actually more autobiographical,” DeLine says. I Know Very Well How I Got My Name also has a distinctly different tone; here, the performative bravado of Refuse is replaced by straightforward, childlike observation.

“I really wanted to do it in the voice of someone that age,” DeLine says. “Otherwise people have a tendency, when transgender people are telling stories about growing up, to focus on things that fit the narrative—maybe you won’t remember the time you played with Barbies, only the time you played with trucks.” DeLine decided that writing in the present tense would ensure that the novella is “less likely to project tropes and stereotypes.”  

The result is one of the most nuanced, well-written transgender origin stories on the market today, showcasing DeLine’s impressive range as writer. I Know Very Well How I Got My Name fearlessly re-enters the pain and confusion of childhood to tell a story that’s at once specific to transgender experience and a universal exploration of how we come to form our identities, from the playground games insisting on “boys vs. girls” to the pitfalls and perils of first love.

Though DeLine is only 24, with Refuse and I Know Very Well How I Got My Name, his is already a major contribution to queer literature. Like so many of the classic gay and lesbian novels from the earlier part of the 20th century, these works are sure, years from now, to enjoy wider readership and recognition as pioneering examples of transgender writing. Moreover, DeLine’s well-crafted storytelling and skill at cultivating voice prove that, far from being a niche genre, transgender narratives by transgender authors are a welcome and still underrepresented presence in contemporary fiction today.

Jameson Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer and poet living in New York City, where he is the book columnist for Next Magazine and an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU.