‘Love the World or Get Killed Trying’ is an exquisite portrait of a trans woman’s suffering 

REVIEW: Swedish author Alvina Chamberland’s prose is relentlessly inventive

One of the questions wrestled with by trans authors today is who our writing is for—many writers from the community want to write books that resonate with other trans people, but publishers often push said writers to create stories that will resonate with the vastly larger cis population.

Torrey Peters broke ground for trans writers by daring to write books in which she puts her identity as an author first, and as a trans person second. To paraphrase the words of trans journalist Freddy McConnell, she ceases to think of herself as politicized and instead assumes total creative freedom. This is an uncommon thing among trans writers, who are still widely expected to represent our community with didactic stories for a cis audience. But in an interview in The Guardian with McConnell, Peters made it clear that her 2021 novel Detransition, Baby was written without any such expectations: “I had the freedom to imagine trans people as just quotidian, boring, flawed people. I wasn’t engaging with trans people as an embattled group.”

Peters is among a short but growing list of trans storytellers who dare to tell our lives to the depth of our humanity. With the arrival of Alvina Chamberland’s debut English-language novel (following two works of autofiction in Swedish), Love the World or Get Killed Trying, we can add another name to this list. To quote the author herself, this book immerses itself in the trauma that “stubbornly refuses to fit into singular incidents with simple storylines that make it easy for everyone to sympathize.” It is one of those novels that propels itself forward less by the mechanics of its plot than by the charisma and fascination of its voice. And Chamberland’s voice is often quite compelling.

Love the World or Get Killed Trying announces its peculiar sensibilities right from its opening pages, which are a depiction of a near-rape of the book’s autofictional narrator in a manic, sardonically comic stream of consciousness. Consider it a quick acid test of whether you, as a reader, will want to continue. Those who find this opening compelling will continue to experience the narrator Alvina’s turbulent stream of consciousness as she maunders her way through a trip to Iceland, one in which she intends to lick her wounds and see if she can overcome her immense sense of loneliness and otherness as a trans woman.

The time Alvina spends in Iceland—roughly the book’s first half—is a beautifully wrought evocation of a core feature of the trans experience: that endless sense of unsteadiness when it is never quite clear if you are fitting in or not. During some evenings at clubs in Reykjavik, Alvina has several encounters with men who seem to be into her—she continually gets her hopes up until the men realize she is trans and deliver a series of crushing rejections. “I quickly grow uncomfortable, afraid of being looked down upon with patronizing sympathy and scapegoated as the freak of the evening. I am wary of the Scandinavian brand of reserve that has my brain traveling straight to the thought that everyone hates me, that I am dirty, that I should be swept aside even when I am not in the way.” It is a common enough experience, to seek acceptance by the cis world, and even to receive it to an extent, only to eventually realize that you have been othered by your transness.

 

Chamberland can write set pieces, and she can do morbid comedy all day. The Icelandic portion of Love the World or Get Killed Trying makes for a delicious travelogue in which Alvina visits glaciers atop volcanoes, gorgeous waterfalls, perfect beaches. Even amid the splendours of a Game of Thrones-esque landscape, her thoughts continually drift back to her plight as a trans woman. “The last century was a psychopath. This one is still a teenager. In the city I’m forced to be an object, and my rebellion: a flood of tears. I am: a crying object; crying, screaming to survive her own life. Bloodied by their belief that we do not share the trait of breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide.”

What happens in Love the World or Get Killed Trying’s second half, when Alvina returns to her home in Berlin, will likely divide readers: essentially, Chamberland doubles down on the plaintive wail of bitter otherness and isolation. Where another book might have given Alvina some reason for hope, or at least balanced out her cry of pain with some form of catharsis, Alvina just continues to experience the same tortures. It is a rough thing for a reader to experience, and Chamberland knows it. As she aphoristically screams at us, “IT’S NOT FAIR THAT THE MORE HORRIFIC SHIT YOU’VE LIVED THROUGH THE LESS PEOPLE WILL WANT TO HOLD YOU!”

In my read of Detransition, Baby, what made that book such a remarkable success was how Peters gave her trans lead, Reese, two foils: Reese’s close friend, Ames, who has recently detransitioned back to male, and Ames’s lover, Katrina, a cis woman who may ultimately form a family with Reese and Ames. Although we sympathize with Reese, she is an extremely flawed person, and the sharper edges of her unbalanced personality are softened by Ames and Katrina, who help Reese grow as a person. Thus Reese’s character escapes the threat of solipsism because she’s forced to look outward and consider the experiences of others. For me, this made Detransition, Baby remarkably complex and truthful, saving it from falling into complaint-porn.

We get no such other voices in Love the World or Get Killed Trying. Alvina’s complaints against the cis world continue stacking up, her stories of mistreatment continue unabated and the book becomes darker, more pessimistic and more closed. Chamberland herself recognizes what she’s doing when she writes, “I know, reader, I seem to be obsessed with repeating these anecdotes to you. It’s not my intention. If it gives you a headache to read, what do you think it’s like to live?” Unlike with Detransition, Baby, there is no point where Alvina experiences anything resembling transcendence. The book just becomes more and more grim, more and more isolated in and unto itself.

As an elaborate portrait of a trans woman’s suffering, Love the World or Get Killed Trying is exquisite. Chamberland’s prose is sharp, surprising, often funny, aphoristic and relentlessly inventive. It is absolutely distinctive from other novels I’ve read on the trans experience. 

My hesitation is that I’m not sure that it was the right choice to fixate so deeply on Alvina’s suffering. It’s clear that Chamberland means to conjure the sensibility of her literary heroine Clarice Lispector (whom she names in the book’s afterword), and she does a sort of Lispector impression in lines such as this: “She taught me not to fear pain, so I learned to sit with it, endure it alone, observe the multicolored darkness, feel the quivering vibrations, and then … a transformation: the form of euphoria which glows in lives that have made love to death and been impregnated with the alertness of a birth-scream!” In the tradition of the great Brazilian, such writing is purposely overwrought and overdramatic, and that helps it carry a powerful sense of truth that less heated writing could not. At the length of a nearly 300-page novel, however, the relentlessness of Chamberland’s vision does come to feel bleakly excessive.

The challenges around Love the World or Get Killed Trying bring up complicated questions regarding trans representation in literature. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we have reached a place where a book like this can exist—a stream-of-consciousness prose poem of raw and unadulterated trans experience, much of it shockingly abysmal. But on the other hand, one wonders if our nascent genre—and the trans people who will read it—are best served by such a catalogue of rejection, dejection, condescension and threat. Yes, this is very much a part of the trans experience, but there are other sides as well.

Veronica Esposito (she/her) is a writer and therapist based in Oakland, CA. She reports regularly for The Guardian and KQED, the NPR member station for Northern California, and has written for dozens of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. She speaks English and some Spanish.

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