We’re so pleased to bring your poignant story “Drowned Best Friend” to our readers. Can you tell us how this story came about?
“Drowned Best Friend” began with an idea I had while half-asleep. I imagined a kid ghost in a swimsuit, soaking wet and shivering, haunting the best friend who blamed himself for her death. I knew that the ghost was a secret, and that the living kid—the one who considered himself a murderer—felt the terrible weight of it.
What was your biggest challenge while writing this story? Was there any part of it that came easily?
This story went through almost ten drafts, changing significantly each time, over the course of two years. Part of why it took so long is that I wasn’t ready to tell this story. I was deeply insecure about being accepted by my relatives and peers at that point in my transition. I was too close to Joseph to actually take a step back and assess what the story needed.
The hardest thing for me to nail was what the story was about—not the chronological events, but the deeper themes. The link between transition and death came late in the process, because it felt too raw to look at head-on in those early drafts. It was the kind of big truth that I couldn’t process until I was happier with who I am, and much less worried about outside opinions on who I’m becoming.
The opening image was easy, and was probably the only thing that stayed the same through iteration after iteration: Lesley in her swimsuit, dripping water onto Joseph’s kitchen floor.
With the juxtaposition of death and transition throughout the story, it was notable that Joseph uses the terms “old name” and “birth name” instead of “deadname.” How did you come to that decision, and what does it tell us about how Joseph views his own transition?
I don’t use the term “deadname” for two reasons. The first is that it felt too obvious, like I was bludgeoning the reader over the head with the link between transition and death. The second is that I don’t personally love the term.
In my experience—and this is something I’ve tried to get at with “Drowned Best Friend”—a lot of cis people frame transition as a form of death, but I don’t see it that way, and neither does Joseph. I see transition as a life-affirming evolution. I’ve cast off some older parts of myself, but those parts of myself aren’t dead, they just no longer serve me. Joseph sees his old name as outdated and hurtful, but that part of him hasn’t died. There is nothing to mourn—and how could there be, when he’s so much more vibrant in the present? He hasn’t died; he’s become more thoroughly alive.
I do feel the need to specify that I don’t have anything against folks who use the word “deadname.” Maybe I’d feel differently if I changed my own name! But for the above reasons, it’s not a term I see Joseph using.
Lesley is the only person who doesn’t acknowledge Joseph’s transition. What does it mean for Joseph’s understanding of himself to let Lesley go?
Trans people have all kinds of experiences when rolling out new names and pronouns, but here are three responses that I think are pretty common from well-meaning people:
- The recipient of the coming out takes it in stride and uses the new name/pronouns going forward.
- The recipient of the coming out occasionally fumbles the new name/pronouns, but responds to correction over time, and eventually gets to a point of only addressing the trans person correctly.
- The recipient of the coming out glosses over the new name/pronouns under the assumption that the change doesn’t apply to them. “I’ve known you since you were in diapers!” they say, or something similar. “You’ll always be [birth name/gender assigned at birth] to me!”
It’s the third response that’s the hardest. It puts the trans person in an impossible position: how do you stand up for yourself in front of someone who isn’t interested in doing the work of changing how they see you? Moreover, how do you hold a boundary when doing so could jeopardize the relationship? It’s heartbreaking to make ultimatums about how you deserve to be treated, and no trans person should have to.
Lesley falls firmly into that third category. She’s not receptive to Joseph’s transition, but she doesn’t see this as malicious—it’s just that she’s always seen him as a girl, and doesn’t care to see him as anything else. By letting Lesley go, Joseph affirms that he doesn’t have space in his life for someone who won’t acknowledge this key and crucial part of his identity. Frankly, I wish I were as brave as him.
What are you working on now, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
My next project is Plant Girl Game, a ttrpg about a family of plant children working together to thwart ecological disaster. It’ll be crowdfunding in June, and I’m super excited to get to share this game after some delays. You can find more info at dominiquedickey.com/pgg.
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