Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet depicts characters who naturally challenge the conventional perceptions of race, gender, identity, and other socially constructed aspects of humanity. The text is set in the United Kingdom in the early to mid twentieth century, a time when being unconventional in these respects was particularly taboo. Kay’s novel establishes that many facets of identity cannot be viewed through an essentialist lens, and Kay uses the believable authenticity of her characters to exemplify this idea by pitting authenticity against societal norms.
The main characters of the novel exhibit a variety of unconventional characteristics. Joss Moody, for example, is the biracial offspring of a Black man and a White woman, and the text frequently alludes to the inevitability of his parents’ marriage creating tensions and obstacles during his youth, even without directly depicting much of his childhood. Joss also marries Millie, a White woman, despite everyone perceiving him as incontrovertibly Black; Millie’s own family is reluctant to accept the aberrant relationship that she cements with Joss. Above all, though, the most pertinent challenge to societal norms is the fact that Joss is biologically female and living as a heterosexual man. This challenge is compounded by Joss and Millie adopting a son, Colman, to satisfy Millie’s yearn for a child. Even adopted children are faced with the life of being inherently unconventional, simply because they are raised by guardians other than their biological parents.
With regard to the very unconventional characteristics depicted in the text, though, Kay makes a point to balance them against a conventional perception in such a way as to prove that these conventions are not fixed. Rather, conventional observers erroneously fail to consider perspectives that society has marginalized. For example, Kay bothers to mention several times that Colman actually favors his father, especially in his youth; consequently, many people make the mistake of claiming to see a resemblance that biologically is not present. On a more significant level, everyone in the text believes unquestioningly that Joss is a man until it is found out that he is biologically female. Joss lives as a man in every aspect of his life, even in ways that would not be necessary if he were only doing so to be a Jazz musician (i. e. courting, dating, marrying, and having frequent sex with Millie); this lifestyle points to the authenticity of Joss’s masculinity given that the very idea of “ authenticity” is left undefined and undisputed.
Even after learning that Joss is biologically female and still consenting to marry him, Millie only questions her relationship with Joss relative to having a baby; even then, she does not question the validity of the relationship. She genuinely asks herself, “ Why can’t he give me a child? He can do everything else. Walk like a man, talk like a man, dress like a man, blow his horn like a man. Why can’t he get me pregnant” (Kay 61). Millie refers to Joss with masculine pronouns and describes the several ways in which Joss is every bit the man she wants. The only aspect of manhood she cannot find in him is the biological one, a factor that speaks to the authenticity of Joss’s gender challenging his sex.
Late in the novel, Millie describes part of her and Joss’s morning routine after they had been married for a while, and what she describes further establishes masculinity as Joss’s authentic persona. It also alludes to her love for the man that Joss was as opposed to any attempt to delude herself into believing he was a man in order to facilitate some counterfeit love. She says, “ I wrapped two cream bandages around his breasts every morning, early. I wrapped them round and round, tight. I didn’t think about anything except doing it well. […] I don’t remember thinking much. I had to help him get dressed so that he could enjoy his day and be comfortable. […] He was always more comfortable when he was dressed. More secure somehow. My handsome tall man. He’d smile at me shyly. He’d say, ‘ How do I look?’ And I’d say, ‘ Perfect. You look perfect’” (Kay 317-8). In this passage, Millie says multiple times that she didn’t think about anything other than ensuring that her husband was comfortable. His security was her primary concern, and after Joss was dressed and secure in his manhood, they were both at ease. She is even able to admire the man she helps to build, an admiration which makes nothing but sense in light of the cliché school of thought that every good man is a man that a good woman helped to build.
Through instances such as the morning routine, Trumpet uses Joss’s authenticity to challenge the conventional views of gender in the early twentieth century. In doing so, Kay’s text parallels this major challenge with several other ancillary challenges to societal norms. The purpose of this pervasive trope is to show the variability of identity that the most rigid traditional conventions refuse to acknowledge.