“I am a happy heterosexual male,” said William T. Vollmann, a writer whose most recent work collects self-portraits of his female alter ego, Dolores. Vollmann was at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn last Thursday to promote The Book of Dolores, published by powerHouse Books. He wore jeans and an olive utility shirt, and his sagging jowls gave him the slight appearance of a bulldog. He looked very much like a middle-aged dad.
“My relatives and their friends socialized me as a mid-20th century boy,” Vollmann explained — aesthetics weren’t a masculine concern. He remembered his father telling him, “You’re like me. When I shave, I can hardly stand to look in the mirror.”
Dolores is Vollmann’s attempt to try on womanhood. The idea struck him when he was researching Kissing the Mask, a book on Japanese Noh theater, a genre of classical musical drama where men, often wearing masks, play both male and female roles. He wanted to write a novel about a transgender prostitute named Dolores — but Vollmann’s preferred literary strategy is to throw himself headlong into foreign situations and then report his way out. In order to imagine his character, he had to become her.
Like Vollmann, Dolores has an astigmatic left eye, awkward gait, and low, slow voice. She’s multifaceted, at least to a certain degree: sometimes childlike and “greedy for gaudy earrings”; sometimes a geologist, a party girl, or a housewife. There’s the shy, reticent Dolores who just enjoys the company of friends at home. Then there’s the one in a red-and-black corset with a whip in hand.
“I, who have loved and admired women, and who wished to know what a woman feels, have learned much from wearing women’s clothes,” he told the crowd at powerHouse. “Some of my education has been in shame and fear.” Dolores experienced the kinds of daily aggression that most women encounter: street harassment, slights about her appearance, even violence.
“I know that femininity is in part a performance,” Vollmann said. “The woman who makes up her face before going out into the world, who holds her handbag in a certain way, and takes mincing, echoing steps in her high heels is expressing one category of femininity.”
This is a simplistic strategy, of course: wear a wig, strap on some heels, and you, too, can discover the trials of womanhood. Indeed, during the Q&A, one woman asked Vollmann what right he had as a straight, white man to represent the experiences of a transgender Mexican prostitute. “Why would you choose to privilege your experience over theirs?” she asked.
Vollmann seemed to anticipate such criticism. He said that he was planning to compile an oral history of the transgender women (or “t-girls,” as he calls them) he has met throughout the years. But in response to the woman’s question, he shrugged: “All I can do is try and possibly fail. In this case, make myself maybe a bit vulnerable and ridiculous and pathetic in the attempt to show my sincerity.”
The results of the experiment are undeniably transfixing, a mixed-media look at a raw and intimate transformation. Click through to see Vollman’s photographs, watercolors, and sketches of Dolores.