CONTINENTS and years may separate Adam Kashmiry and Jo Clifford, but their lives share commonalities – so much so that his story is a companion piece to hers, both tales of transition, Susan Mansfield discovers
A young woman in Alexandria sits at a computer, the pale light from the screen catches her face. She is not quite 19, and the conservative society in which she has grown up has given her no tools to understand what she is feeling; she only knows that something is wrong. Looking over her shoulder, hands shaking, she types a question into Google: “Can a man be trapped in a woman’s body?”
When I looked in the mirror I didn’t really know that person I was seeing. It wasn’t me. I can’t describe how horrible that is
To her amazement, the screen fills with information. She stares at it, her head full of new questions. Suddenly, she is no longer alone. “You find out you’re real, that you’re not the only one,” says Adam Kashmiry, sitting in a table in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Rockvilla, where he is rehearsing the play which tells his own story.
In the seven years since that day, this calm young man with a soft Scottish accent has forged a new identity in a new country, and is about to make his debut as a professional actor. With him is veteran playwright Jo Clifford, whose new work, Eve, the story of her own transition, is something of a companion piece to Adam. Both will premiere at the Traverse as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Though they span different continents and several decades, it’s striking how much the stories have in common. In Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, when Clifford was growing up, as in Egypt in the noughties, there was no information for a person who thought they might be a different gender on the inside.
For Clifford, the eureka moment came reading a book about Native American cultures. “It mentioned that among these people when an adolescent boy had a certain dream, they were able to go to the elders of the tribe, renounce manhood and take on women’s clothes and women’s roles,” she says. “It saved my life in a way, because for the first time I understood that there were people like myself, that there were societies in which they were accepted, even honoured, and freely allowed to live.”
Growing up in Alexandria, Kashmiry says he suffered “daily harassment”. “Women normally get that, but my harassments were a little bit different. There was groping sometimes, and kids touching and running and saying, ‘Oh, it’s a girl’. People would swear at me, follow me. Friends said things that scared me. I had to kiss some guys because they would always comment on how boyish and masculine I was. Someone got the idea that I was a lesbian, because that’s the only conclusion they could come to. In a country where reputation is really important, that would ruin everything.”
At the same time, he is careful to say he was lucky: others in similar circumstances have been beaten, raped or even killed.
When he was 18, his mother urged him to leave the country. “She said that I should get out, that she would give me the money she inherited. I think until then I had a little bit of hope that something could be fixed. I knew I wanted to be a guy, I just didn’t know how that was going to happen. That was when it was really laid down to me that this is not going to be fixed. I was thinking, ‘Go where? Do what?’ I just wanted to die.”
“There is such terror, such humiliation in the sense that your body is not your own, that it doesn’t correspond to who you are,” says Clifford, who began to transition in her fifties. “When I looked in the mirror I didn’t really know that person I was seeing. It wasn’t me. I can’t describe how horrible that is.” At an all-male public school, she enjoyed playing female parts in the school plays. “But it was very, very dangerous. There was a real danger that people would understand that I actually loved playing these parts. I had to hide that for my own safety.
“There was nothing else for me to do other than carry on as if I was normal – even though I wasn’t. I was lucky, because I knew I was going to be a writer, so I could take refuge in my imagination. I was even luckier that I met a woman, (my late wife) Susie, who loved me, and who I loved. It caused us both immense pain, but we stuck together for 33 years, and brought up our daughters together. Writing and my love for my family are the two things that kept me alive.”
With the money his mother gave him, Kashmiry travelled to the UK and fought for asylum-seeker status. Trying to break his isolation, he got involved in Here We Stay, a piece of theatre for Refugee Week at the Citizens’ Theatre in 2013. Director Cora Bissett (Room, Glasgow Girls) heard his story and began developing an idea to put it on stage with music by Jocelyn Pook and a “virtual choir” of trans singers from all over the world – a sound picture of the community Adam discovered in his Google search.
But Bissett struggled to find a young transgender actor from an ethnic background to play the part of Adam. Meanwhile, Kashmiry got a full-time job with a fast-food chain and his confidence grew. One day a friend challenged him: they’re looking for someone to tell your story – why don’t you do it? Unable to shift the thought from his head, he texted Bissett: “Please don’t feel pressure to hire me just because it’s my story, just audition me as you would anybody else.” After an audition and a development week, he was offered the job of starring in the story of his own life.
But it hasn’t been easy. He says he has to distance himself from the most upsetting parts of the story: “For a lot of the time, the real Adam is something and the character Adam is something else.”
Clifford, who is working with playwright and theatre-maker Chris Goode on Eve, agrees that distance is important. “Writing about my life brings up all the feelings of low self-esteem and shame and fear I was living with when I was an adolescent. You have to use some of the feelings but at the same time keep detached. Every now and again I get overwhelmed.”
As an award-winning writer, and the first openly transgendered woman playwright to have a play on London’s West End, she speaks of wanting to create a “repertoire of work about the trans experience”. “There are lots of plays about being gay, and almost nothing about being trans.”
Kashmiry hasn’t forgotten the young woman sitting at the computer. “At times, what kept me going was seeing YouTube videos of people who, they were the light at the end of my tunnel. If we can do that for just one person in the audience, we give them that light.”
• Adam is at the Traverse Theatre, until 27 August (times vary). Eve is at the Traverse Theatre, until 27 August (times vary).