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Read an Excerpt from Candas Jane Dorsey's Moving, Funny, Vivid Story of a Nonbinary Teen Pressured to "Choose" a Gender

Candas Jane Dorsey_photo credit Sima Khorrami

In The Story of My Life Ongoing, by C.S. Cobb (Inanna Publications) the new young adult novel by Candas Jane Dorsey, Corey has something a lot of nonbinary teens don't have: a supportive parent who sees their gender identity as simply part of who they are.

Born intersex, Corey has always been supported by their dad and stepmom in their nonbinary expression. But when Corey's father passes away and they end up in their mother's custody, she isn't nearly as accepting. In fact, she insists that Corey "choose" a gender, and goes as far as having them held in a youth psychiatric ward until they agree to live as a boy or a girl. 

In the ward, Corey bides their time, making friends with a mysterious girl named Kim, and finding unexpected reserves of strength and even sources of humour while they keep living as their true self. 

A thoughtful exploration of life in a binary world, coming of age, and the complications of identity, all written in the smart, fast, spellbinding voice that Dorsey has created for Corey, The Story of My Life Ongoing by C.S. Cobb is a profound story for readers of all genders and ages. 

We're excited to present an excerpt from this vivid, funny, and brave novel here today, courtesy of Inanna Publications. Here we meet Corey as they write a letter to a friend, detailing their experience in the ward. 

Excerpt from The Story of My Life Ongoing, by C.S. Cobb by Candas Jane Dorsey:

cover_the story of my life ongoing

Dear Pat,

Today we studied Setting in English class. Authors are supposed to evoke setting using sensory information from at least six of the many senses. Did you know that there could be as many as sixteen or seventeen senses, before you even get to the wee-ooo-wee one in the movie title?

The six Ms. J wants us to use are sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste, and also something called the “kinæsthetic sense”— you spell that K I N and then that funny linked-up “ae” thing like in the old spelling of “encyclopedia” which was E N C Y C L O P A E D I A. Anyway you probably know about that. The kinaesthetic sense, that’s the sense of a body in space. Like, what it’s like to be in the setting you’re in.

Anyway, because of that I realized that you don’t know what the place here looks like, so today’s topic is Setting.

Unit is really Unit 5-E, and it’s one of the locked units up here on the psychiatric level. It’s not the bughouse ward where they keep you locked up for your own safety and when you go out walking they have someone go along to watch you to make sure you don’t jump over the balcony rail and splat in the atrium in with all the nice trees and benches (which didn’t stop somebody once). That ward’s next door, 5-C.

It’s weird. They design this great hospital, which is like five stories tall with a huge atrium in the middle, and it has these open railings and bridges across this atrium, and all this fabulous sunlight and air, and planter boxes hanging alongside the rails designed for plants to keep the air healthy. In between every floor there are these utility floors, they call them “interstitial”, and which have all the equipment to put negative ions into the air and make oxygen and monitor all the systems and everything, and it’s all designed for maximum environmental health.

Then they put the psych ward on the fifth floor, which because of the interstitial floors is really high up. How idiotic is that? You know somebody will go bugfuck, I mean crazy, I mean crazier, and jump off. Either they think they can fly or they are suicidal for real. So someone did jump off. So they installed these heavy plastic walls above the rails on all the floors above ground level, and you can’t get at the planters any more to water them and besides I heard that there were budget cuts of (quote-unquote) unnecessary nice stuff like real plants anyway, so instead of real plants they have plastic ones that are hugely, really dusty. So air cleaning function has been replaced with another source of bad air. This is pretty silly if you ask me (which nobody does).

So anyway, you come up in these cool glass elevators. They had a system in the summer where one only went up and one only went down, so people could travel faster. Sounds weird, but it worked. I mean, of course the up one came down, and the down one came up, but they didn’t stop on the way. But it’s kind of funny imagining that it’s a different elevator every time and that they all cluster up at the ceiling of the atrium like flies or birds, and somebody has to catch them every night. Or else, the next day all the up ones go down and the down ones that have been running around the basement all go up. Okay, I’m being goofy, forget it. They changed the system back to the regular way anyway, so now mostly you wait twenty minutes for an elevator.

Anyway, so up on 5 you turn right out of the elevator and go across one of the bridges. When you get across the bridge you are right at the end of the big hallway with three locked door on three sides. The school is actually on 5-D but it’s joined to 5-E and 5-C so there is no 5-D sign, just one plain door straight ahead of you that the teachers have the key to. Beside the right or left locked door is an intercom. Painted red. The intercom box that is. The doors are a nice soothing beige colour like a computer, really boring. Yesterday I asked the art teacher if I could paint murals on them for extra marks but he looks at my portfolio and goes, “I don’t think that would be a good idea, Corey. These images aren’t exactly soothing.”

So I go “You mean that suicidal people have to go through these doors at least once, and they might get set off and test out the big plastic walls?”

He grins at me. “I had in mind psychotic people, actually.”

I had to laugh, even though I was trying to be cool because it was in class. 

Of course one of the Hulks mutters, “Fucking teacher’s pet!” but it was fun anyway. The art teacher’s name is Tony Wilson. I know his first name because he signs his art which he does while we are doing ours. He does every assignment we do. He is actually pretty neat for an old guy. Neat. What a stupid word.

So on the way out of art class, Franklin pretends to stumble right by my desk, and puts his ham hand right in the middle of my clay sculpture project, which is no great loss really but a pain in the ass because we get marked on these things. But Mr. Wilson sees him so he gets a detention so that’s fun too. So anyway the school is in the middle with no sign on the door, and the psycho/suicidal teenagers are on the right, and our side is the left side, which I think is funny—left-wing, get it? Or else, they’re right and we’re what’s left over. Both funny.

And you buzz the red intercom and you hear the tinny little nurse voice which always sounds the same whether Geoff or Mathe or Grethlyn or Mario are on—well, not Mario, he’s a lot louder than the others—and you get buzzed in and you are in Unit.

The walls in here are brighter and we’re allowed to put up artwork beside the art from the hospital’s art collection (which their art is all bolted to the walls and covered in Plexiglas not glass in case of theft maybe or more likely suicides and self destruction).

Anyway, you go down a little hall with the doctors’ offices on either side, and then there’s a T intersection with the nurses’ station right in front, and you go left to turn down the girls’ corridor and right to turn down the boys’. The girls’ corridor is hot pink—get it, pinkwashing—and the boys’ is kind of purply blue. No wonder my mother loves this place.

The bedroom doors go off the outside of the corridors and the corridors join up at the end to make a big squared-off O shape, and inside the O is the little prep kitchen and the big dining room, which means as far as invoking the sense of smell that it usually smells like food or detergent when you go down the hall, except sometimes on the girls’ side by the bathroom it smells like Eleanor’s bubble-bath, and sometimes halfway down the boys’ side you get a whiff of Desoto’s room, where he has a habit of hoarding food and also his personal habits are not so great, no bubble bath for big D.

At the end, off the outside of the corridor is a sunroom and rec room, and opposite the rec room, on the inside so no windows, there’s a “media room”—which means two plastic-topped tables and a few chairs, two tapped-out old computers with Internet access limited by Parental-Controls software up the yin-yang (yes, that’s a joke, rude, sorry but not so sorry), and one old printer that’s always out of ink. And my room is at the end too, with the door opening between the media room and the family visiting room, off the inside of the corridor opposite the sunroom.

I have a room to myself which I think is pretty wicked but actually it’s supposed to be a punishment in a way. I’m missing out on necessary socialization or something, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since I’m here for refusing necessary socialization. But to let me share they would have to decide whether I’m a boy or a girl. Or, as Sister Anne once said, “a young lady or a young gentleman”.

I offered, pretty politely, to show her what I’ve got down there and let her (and God) decide, but she declined. Pretty politely, despite how red her face got. Sister Anne is a nun (duh) on her psychology internship, but she is no spring chicken. She went back to school after being the assistant laundry nun in a Catholic girls’ school for thirty years, and she is about two months from being Doctor Sister Anne once she gets back from this missionary thing she is doing right now. But at the time she was new. She wears a sort of half-habit which looks like a brown suit until you get to the bib and the hood, and she’s wrinkly and kind of sunburned-looking. She’s okay—I actually like Sister Anne and I wasn’t meaning to be any more flippant than I have to be in here, and I think she gets that.

Anyway she recommended that they give me the single room at the end of the hall that has its own bathroom and just forget about the rest, for which I thank her (and maybe God, though I’m not as sure about that as she is) every day. She is not one of those nuns with old habits. That’s a joke, right. Old habits? Like those Flying Nun reruns you used to watch in Hong Kong when you were a kid?

To get to my room, or to get out of my room for that matter, I have to walk down one corridor or the other. Because I am exactly at the upper point of the big O, right? Anyway, so in the interests of gender parity I try to walk down each corridor an even number of times, but I have to be practical.


Excerpt from The Story of My Life Ongoing by C.S. Cobb by Candas Jane Dorsey, a young adult novel published by Inanna Publications. Copyright 2021, Candas Jane Dorsey. Reprinted with permission.

Candas Jane Dorsey is the author of several novels, short story collections, and books of poetry. Most recently, her series of postmodern mystery novels, the Epitome Apartments series, has been published by ECW Press: The Adventures of Isabel (2020; with a 2021 Pushkin Press edition); What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? (2021); and He Wasn’t There Again Today (forthcoming 2022). Dorsey has been a publisher, editor, public speaker, communitybuilder, advocate, activist, and teacher of writing and communication studies. She has edited and co-edited several anthologies, and her stories, poems, reviews, critical essays, and rants have appeared in many anthologies and magazines (both in print and online). She has won a number of literary awards, and, in addition, she was a YWCA Woman of the Year, was awarded the Alberta Centennial Gold Medal and the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime* Achievement [*so far] in the Literary Arts, is in the Canadian Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Edmonton Arts and Cultural Hall of Fame, and has received two human rights awards. The Story of My Life Ongoing, by C.S. Cobb is her first YA novel.

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The Story of My Life Ongoing by C.S. Cobb

It’s not easy “choosing not to choose,” especially for a nonbinary teen in 2007.

Corey was born intersex, but their father and stepmother didn’t make a big deal about it. Then Corey’s dad dies suddenly. Now Corey’s disapproving mother wants Corey to “pick a side”. Corey’s old enough to say no to medical intervention—but not old enough to avoid being held in a youth psych ward when their mom makes an issue of Corey’s refusal to conform to the gender binary.

In the psych ward, Corey makes friends with Kim, a teen girl diagnosed as anorexic—or is she? As they work to unravel their pasts, they discover that Kim’s situation is even more dangerous than either of them had ever imagined.