Culture Trips

What It Feels Like for a Girl by Paris Lees review – rebellion and resilience | Autobiography and memoir

When Paris Lees was seven years old her school called her mum to complain that her child was wearing tights. Back then, Lees was called Byron and the world saw her as a boy, though she knew different. Her mum phoned her dad, Gaz, who took her to a doctor. “An’ I told ’im. I’m a girl. I sez, ‘I’ve always known’,” Lees writes. The doctor referred her to a child psychologist, but Gaz declined to follow it up. “I don’t think he din’t take me coz he din’t believe me. He din’t take me coz he did believe me, an’ he din’t wanna face the truth.”

What It Feels Like for a Girl chronicles Lees’ teenage years and her struggle to be herself. Smart and exuberant, the book is written in dialect – think Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, but set in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, where “the streets are paved wi’ dog shit”. Her gender nonconformity is just one aspect of an adolescence that features violence, drug abuse, prostitution, robbery and a spell in a young offenders’ institute. But the most persistent problem for Lees is Gaz, a former boxer for whom humiliating her – for her sexuality, her appearance and her refusal to stand up to school thugs – is a daily sport.

While what happens to Lees is bleak, her telling of it is darkly (and sometimes uncomfortably) funny. She locks herself in a cubicle in a public toilet after school one day and, by accident, finds she can make money providing sexual services to middle-aged men. When one offers her a tenner, she notes: “I’m worth at least fifteen. A pound for every year, plus one for luck.” While the 14-year-old Lees doesn’t clock the gravity of grown men paying children for sex, the reader is left in no doubt.

Lees immerses herself in the underground club scene and falls in with a crowd of drag queens called The Fallen Divas, who have names like Sticky Nikki, Lady Die and Fag Ash, and who cocoon her in friendship and laughter. They get dressed up together, fight off bullies, take drugs, dance, laugh, bicker and go on day trips to the country. The narrative is steeped in the pop music, clothing, creaking technology and bigoted attitudes of the early 00s, and underlines how music and fashion evolve but people are harder to change.

Lees’ story ends with her arrival in Brighton to study English literature at university, where she delights in the sea view and having a room of her own. By excavating her painful past in her memoir, she has crafted a vivid story of trauma, rebellion and astonishing resilience.

What It Feels Like for a Girl is published by Penguin (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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