Book Review: The Girl in the Garden by Sapphira Olson
“Coming out as trans is a scary, daunting, stomach curdling moment.”
-Sapphira Olson, The Girl in the Garden
The Girl in the Garden, by Sapphira Olson is a poetic journey of transformation. Filled with personal struggle and triumph interwoven with an unforgettable story that centres around discovery, deep within the garden of self. These poems pull from personal experience of the author’s own transition and are brought to life through the introduction of Celtic myths and legends as she tells the story of the girl in the garden. This powerful collection tackles difficult themes and gives a glimpse into the challenges of transformation.
When the Stranger is You
“I am she.
I see through her eyes.
I am standing in front of the fire
and eating cake.
The cat loves me,
I don’t like rain,
but I really like this cake.
I am she.
In the darkness I walk this earth.”
–A Stranger Calls, Sapphira Olson, The Girl in the Garden
The beginning of this poem tells us that it is ‘thirty five years later’ and as I read my heart sinks. It is sinking because I know that this girl has been hiding out in the body of the man she was born into for at least three decades. As the poem unfolds, it becomes clear that the girl inside the body has been forgotten and she appears to be angry. I can’t blame her, who wants to be forgotten? There is the edge of the thread of longing picking out of this poem that threatens to unravel like an old sweater until we are left with nothing but a shapeless string of yarn in our hands. It is a survival tactic to forget who you are, when the world tells you that it shouldn’t be so, when your life depends upon it. And society has made the transformation of individuals into something sinister and criminal, instead of the re-birth that it should be.
I think of my own son and his coming out to me as a trans man. He was just graduating from university and with a big sigh declared he had to tell me something. Already, he had spent two decades being groomed to be female. At that point, it was most of his life. My heart squeezed in on itself because I knew the truth of it when he told me, and I also knew that those twenty-ish years must have been unbearable. In that moment, I didn’t lose a daughter. I had a son and I loved him as much as I had the moments before his declaration of truth. This poem makes me think of him and wonder how hard it must have been for him to pull up the courage to tell a truth that he was so scared to share.
“When I was born,
the seed of her was implanted
into my essence.
Human infants are the most
fragile of creatures,
their brains fluid like a mountain spring
as they begin.
There is no finite time window
to learn new things.
For some of us it just takes a little
longer to settle in.
Our roots grow deep
before we display our flowers
and our fruit is ready to eat.”
–My Imagined Womb, Sapphira Olson, The Girl in The Garden
As a cis-gendered person, I believe it is my responsibility to listen to the experiences of transgender people and exercise compassion. In this poem, Olson takes us all the way back to the womb where she ‘births’ herself. Of course, this makes me think of the literal birth of a baby and how we choose to define it from the start. The most common question asked of an expecting mother is: “What are you having?”. The obvious answer is: a baby. But this is not good enough for a society that must construct boxes and make rules. After all, if we don’t know what the sex of the baby is, how on earth will we know what colour sleeper to buy for the baby shower? Enter gender reveal parties and pastel gender markers.
I try to imagine a world where I shop for a friend’s baby in a place where there are no boys or girls sections for clothing. Why does colour have anything to do with gender? It’s simple. Humans have made it mean something. But, if we have made it, can’t we ‘unmake’ it, too? I have another daughter, who is not transgender. She loved to play in the dirt with dump trucks and hot wheel cars. Her twin sister chose Barbies. Neither one of these things defined them for me.
Birthing is a painful experience, but the outcome is one of wonder and awe. I get the sense of that throughout this book as the girl in the garden is brought forth. There is intense pain, but this pain feels unnecessary. The only reason there is pain is because other people have made it painful. I often see people online sharing their transition stories and their bravery stuns me. They put everything on the line to give birth to the person they have been incubating inside for many, many years. What would that look like if we could pull away the fear and celebrate the transformation of a person finally coming into themselves, without stigma? Humans have the power to do that, but do they have the heart?
A Message of Hope
“There is within you whilst in this skin
a cycle of life, death and rebirth.
The keeper of the forests and woods
embodies a power of hope for the rebirth you seek.
Await the rays of spring.
For on that day, my beautiful friend, you will
once again find the voice to sing.”
–Epilogue, Sapphira Olson, The Girl in the Garden
It is incredible to read this last passage of the collection and feel the bud of hope blooming. This semi-autobiographical story is brutal in places, not shying away from exploring past traumas. This girl in the garden is a survivor. And like a lot of survivors she wants to share her message with others, wants them to know that they can have their authentic selves and a beautiful life, too. She will not let them believe what her detractors have tried to gaslight her into believing her whole life. She will be herself, no matter what and when her time is right, she will choose rebirth. I know nothing about the experience of gender transitioning except what I’ve learned from others. I am grateful to poets like Olson who take the time to probe into what must be excruciating wounds to give me a partial glimpse into reality.
The Girl in The Garden, by Sapphira Olson, should be required reading for the cis-gendered. It challenges the notions that anyone can define a person outside of the person themselves. Aside from the message of transformation and finding of the self, Olson is a powerful storyteller. She effortlessly weaves myth and magic through the story of a girl in the garden and her ultimate blossom into woman. Each poem pulls back the curtain so the reader can have a glimpse of this remarkable story.
You can also find a review of her poetry collection Stanley Park here on Mookychick!
About the Author
Sapphira Olson is the pen name of author, artist and poet Sapphira Olson French.
Born in Cornwall she now lives in Luton. Faithfully LGBT she is a trans woman with 6 published novels including An Android Awakes, Fictional Alignment and The Dandelion Trilogy. Nominated for the Galaxy British Book Awards and the Arthur C. Clarke Award she has been a literary magazine senior editor and has interviewed people like Julian Barnes, Iain Banks and Markus Zusak.
She also has a short story collection published by Elsewhen Press called Parables which was born out of her experiences and deconstruction and ‘escape’ from a strict evangelical church stream.
When not writing she loves watching Audrey Hepburn movies and listening to Dido and Caravan Palace.