I step across the threshold – is the first line of Incognito. And what better way to introduce Tibor Noé Kiss, an author who doesn’t call herself an author, who is transgender, who says she’d wear a dress everyday if she could (when she’s not coaching the local football team), an author who calls her last work a novel, a thriller, and whose debut was more like a diary, a confession. The one vein that runs through it all, when Kiss writes, she says, the result has to be genuine. It must have weight.
Photo: Gábor Valuska
Incognito – A coming-of-age story
‘One of the best debuts in years,’ writes the blurb, a fragmented, confessional novel about a young football-mad boy, Tibor, in the late eighties to nineties, maturing to discover a female identity inside himself. But this isn’t merely a coming-out story, it’s a coming-of-age story. The first third of the book opens with a child’s obsession with football and develops into a painful account of a broken home, broken parents, a dwindling love of the game, moving in with Granny, hating your coach and leaving your childhood behind. Then slowly but surely, hints of Noémi pop up in the text, I use a women’s razor, makeup in the mirror, buying a pair of women’s shoes, wearing a dress outdoors, learning to walk, until one day friends close to the narrator recognise Noémi too: You look like your Mum in that skirt ... but your bum does look good.’
It’s also not quite a novel but might be closer to an epistolary confession. The text is presented in broken segments like diary entries. But unlike a diary we skip between narratives, one in the past, scenes from growing up in suburban Budapest, the other in the present, languidly smoking a cigarette on the balcony, listening to the football on the TV inside, waiting for the floor to dry. The style in the beginning, similar to the form, is minimalist, bare and clipped. Later as the narrator is compelled to abandon their childhood, the text begins to unfurl, opening up into sensitive observations. Not only does the narrator mature, but the text matures too.
Kiss spoke about the book in an interview with our co-editor Dóra Szekeres for Litera.hu. When asked about the significance of this book as a pioneering text, Kiss explains that initially she had the intention of educating readers but soon dropped it, after all, you can easily read up on these concepts elsewhere. From that point of view this book would be disappointing for readers. Incognito depicts what someone goes through when they awaken to their own transgendered self, but it’s not only the transgender readers who’ll encounter familiar feelings in the text. Readers had approached Kiss who’d felt similarities between their lives and hers, when struggling with completely different identity problems. When we asked if she imagined the foreign readership might interpret the text differently she explained, given that Hungary is a more closed, authority-principled, lesser enlightened country than western states, the western readers may learn something about gaining reocognition as a minority in a more claustrophobic society.
Especially since her second novel, it's clear now that Kiss is interested in representing the peripheries of society; Kiss says that when writing she always tries to get something on paper that's genuine. Incognito happens to deal with her own personal struggle as a member of one minority, and so is often called a confession rather than a novel, but she believes that had it been published under a pen-name, perhaps the same text would have received a much larger literary response. So when asked why she decided to publish this personal work so publicly Kiss replied: "It was always clear to me that I could only publish my book in my own name. For me that’s what gives the story its strength. That’s how I live, I accept my identity every day, it would have been odd to hide behind a pen name."
You could understand how Kiss might become a representative for the transgender community. She gave a powerful speech at the opening of the Budapest Pride Festival 2016, in which she tried to call attention to the relativity of the concepts of discrimination and being discriminated against, reminding us that every group in society feels discriminated against, and of the dangers of self-pity. But although she's happy to give her opinion, Kiss explains that this was not a manifesto, and she's constantly seeing tiny signs that she may not be the ideal public trans-speaker for the transgender community.
You ought to sleep – Longing for what’s lost
Despite expectations Kiss’s second novel had nothing to do with being transgender or football, but turned out to be a Sándor Tar-esque account of life in the forgotten, run-down estates in the back and beyond, slowly decaying since the system change. In fact, Kiss happily explained to us that since You ought to sleep she doesn’t just receive questions about being transgender. And it's easy to see why, this novel deals with entirely different questions—social imbalance, the lack of understanding and communication between different social groups. As a result her public image has become more nuanced.
In a 2014 interview with our co-editor Dóra Szekeres, Kiss described that she’d copied the estate depicted in the book from a real place. The row of houses, the institute, the old mansion are still there today, more or less in the same state, but the characters and the plot are almost completely made up. In her childhood, in the eighties she spent many summers at her grandparents’, then after ‘89 when her father moved back to the estate, she followed from a distance the deterioration of state agriculture and the downfall of the inhabitants there. Kiss explained that that embittering experience has only gotten worse, right across the country. She felt it was necessary to write about this deterioration, this hopelessness.
Photo: Zsófia Tóth
The people on the estate in the book live so much on the periphery they’re barely on the map, in an emptying settlement long-abandoned by its wiser residents. This book depicts the world of a ruinous community longing for what’s lost. A community who also distance themselves from one another despite their mutual isolation. It’s a realist archive of rural destitution, which may be set in the present but harks back to the seventies and eighties.
This bleak atmosphere is only heightened by the structure of the novel. There are no chapters so to speak, but like Incognito the entire text is presented in fragments. The characters’ stories aren’t told in sequence, but are completely jumbled. It often takes a few sentences at the beginning of a section before you recognise which character you are reading about.
Kiss explained to Litera that the one problem her father had who read the book, was that it wasn’t the story of the estate where he’d grown up, because "this novel could take place anywhere in the country". And that although she doesn’t live in this lagging micro-society, it’s visible everywhere. In You ought to sleep characters and stories are almost superficial, irrelevant; the atmosphere which these interchangeable characters share is all that remains, and what Kiss intends to relate.
"It’s as though we won’t recognize and don’t mean to recognize that gradually many millions of people are living around us in utterly impossible financial conditions, in spiritual nihil, without the faintest hope of progress. But even the word progress is a lie, an embellishment of the situation. For those who grow up in the kind of place which the novel depicts, the word progress might not even be in the dictionary. At the most they have unrealistic desires."