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Autobiography and Authenticity: Tobi Lakmaker’s The History of My Sexuality 

”Sofie’s cool exterior melts to expose something real—a young person who’s hurt and angry, and grieving in more ways than one,” writes critic Hannah Weber.

Tobi Lakmaker’s debut novel, The History of My Sexuality, was first published in Dutch in 2020 and garnered acclaim in the Netherlands for its witty exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation. Although it’s unwise to hinge your expectations on marketing materials, praise for the book focused on its “honesty” and “unflinching vulnerability”—yet much of what was sold as “unfiltered” very quickly felt superficial.

The book is autofiction, and I’ll admit I mistook it for a memoir for several chapters: the laconic protagonist shares a (former) name, home, and résumé with the author Tobi Lakmaker, a magazine columnist born and raised in Amsterdam. The book details Sofie Lakmaker’s coming of age in a familiar kind of millennial confessional style—her first sexual encounters with men and then women, attempts at academia, a changing relationship to gender, and the long illness and death of her mother. We meet her first partner, Walter, a conservative for whom she tries to drum up desire by leaning into that “connection between horniness and hate.” The next handful of objects of desire /contempt are sandwiched between references to Dutch media personalities, footballers, and observations on class relations between Amsterdam neighborhoods—all of which have likely served Lakmaker well as a culture critic and columnist whose audience is “in the know.” Unfortunately, they fall flat when taken out of their cultural context. (That isn’t to say that none of the jokes land—when she goes to the doctor for tinnitus and the doctor asks about her stress triggers, she swiftly replies, “I’m a lesbian.”)

Lakmaker’s writing is indeed funny and bolstered by sharp observations, but ultimately doesn’t dive deep enough to make an impact. The middle section strays from Sofie’s exes into her academic life. She studies Russian, then philosophy, but is adamant about the disdain she has for the books and people around her. “To be honest,” she says, “I have a pretty low tolerance for people and their feelings.” She draws her own self-comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield but, like him, is prone to self-aggrandizing humor in the name of candor. Neither character can recognize that the “phoniness” they see in others is present in themselves. But Sofie’s pithy summaries of her lessons add to her bank of lucid cultural commentary (“Uncomplicated feminism could be summed up as follows: ‘White heterosexual highly educated women are also allowed to speak.’”), and she spits out lines that will either amuse or depress disenchanted academics:

Do you know how many people actually read the average philosophical paper? Zero-point-four. Zero-point-four people! That means that the paper you slaved over for months will only ever be read by someone’s lower legs.

The novel meanders significantly but it’s aware of its meandering, going as far as to call one chapter “There’s No Novel in Here.” It’s true, there is no novel in here, and that’s absolutely fine (few contemporary readers are sticklers for form or even character), but it’s authenticity that’s missing. In the introduction to Weight, British author Jeanette Winterson writes:

Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. […] There is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.

Dogged by the heavyweight themes of loss, love, and identity, Lakmaker continually outpaces any real introspection that might encroach on another funny anecdote about this or that strange encounter.

Sofie is walking the line between building intimacy with the reader by addressing them directly while maintaining just enough distance to keep real vulnerability at bay. The text is peppered with “You know?” and “I’m telling you”—a conspiratorial tone that translator Kristen Gehrman conveys flawlessly. But this tone, which is overemphatic with its use of italics and rhetorical questions, wants to be spoken aloud at a stand-up night, not read—though even some of the dialogue feels contrived. People speak in sound bites, often saying something profound about the protagonist directly to her: “‘You don’t dance to the beat, you dance to the lyrics,’ people used to say to me.” On the phone to a friend, Sofie hears, “Well, now you’re one of those people whose mum has cancer.” The football team captain shouts, “Lakmaker, get out of that head of yours!”

While some of the book’s style seems born of a genre of Internet-first writing that trades in quips for clout, some moments break through the facade. Sofie’s experiences of being or becoming transmasculine—experiences that are so often shunted to the margins of the media—are particularly poignant:

One thing I’ve noticed is that guys are always so nice to each other. Whether you’re fifteen or thirty-four, you’re always somebody’s bro, which is why I didn’t dare reveal that I was a woman—I’d lose a whole group of friends.

Her visible difference means she’s the recipient of women’s out-loud ruminations on whether they’d like to kiss another girl. But it also means she’s locked out of girlhood proper—as a teenager on a trip to Rome, one of Sofie’s peers tells her that all the girls think she’s a “fake girl.” In her mid-twenties and looking for a suit to wear to a funeral, Sofie knows before even trying that the shopkeepers would “look at me like I was a fifteen-year-old boy, or a woman. And at [the tailor’s], they don’t lift a finger for women or fifteen-year-old boys. They would try to send me somewhere else, and if that happened, I was afraid I might explode.” In these rare moments, Sofie’s cool exterior melts to expose something real—a young person who’s hurt and angry, and grieving in more ways than one:

​​I called up my mother to tell her how everyone had misunderstood Kafka. ‘Is that so, my sweet girl?’ she said. It’s lovely really, my mum always called me ‘my sweet girl.’ At such moments, you really don’t feel like explaining that you might feel different, and that the word ‘girl’ doesn’t quite fit.

The final chapter covers the illness and death of her mother when Sofie was just twenty-five. This section was the strongest, and the novel could’ve been distilled into just that—a trim and cutting essay on grief and queer coming-of-age. The narrator admits that she actually wanted to start the book with a paragraph describing lowering her mother’s coffin into the ground: despite the undertaker’s recommendations to alternate their grip between each hand, Sofie recalls that everyone “did it in their own way” and “my mother went down swinging.” She then “realized that it was something that took practice. Which is why it’s a shame that death is such a one-time thing—I was only able to let go of my mother once.”

Sofie barrels out of this loss into an understandable emotional limbo. She can’t quite grasp how sad she is but knows enough that she wants to “make an appointment at the VU Medical Centre, where you can become less of a girl and more of a boy. That’s how I like to put it, you know? More boy.” A coming-of-age story usually hinges on becoming one thing or another, or choosing one path or another. Instead, Sofie makes herself at home in the uncertainty, in the not knowing. These are the moments when Lakmaker allows the writing to cut a little closer to the bone, and drops the artifice—and we finally get a sense of the writer’s vulnerability in the process.

The History of My Sexuality by Tobi Lakmaker, translated from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman (Granta Books, 2024).

© 2024 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.

English

Tobi Lakmaker’s debut novel, The History of My Sexuality, was first published in Dutch in 2020 and garnered acclaim in the Netherlands for its witty exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation. Although it’s unwise to hinge your expectations on marketing materials, praise for the book focused on its “honesty” and “unflinching vulnerability”—yet much of what was sold as “unfiltered” very quickly felt superficial.

The book is autofiction, and I’ll admit I mistook it for a memoir for several chapters: the laconic protagonist shares a (former) name, home, and résumé with the author Tobi Lakmaker, a magazine columnist born and raised in Amsterdam. The book details Sofie Lakmaker’s coming of age in a familiar kind of millennial confessional style—her first sexual encounters with men and then women, attempts at academia, a changing relationship to gender, and the long illness and death of her mother. We meet her first partner, Walter, a conservative for whom she tries to drum up desire by leaning into that “connection between horniness and hate.” The next handful of objects of desire /contempt are sandwiched between references to Dutch media personalities, footballers, and observations on class relations between Amsterdam neighborhoods—all of which have likely served Lakmaker well as a culture critic and columnist whose audience is “in the know.” Unfortunately, they fall flat when taken out of their cultural context. (That isn’t to say that none of the jokes land—when she goes to the doctor for tinnitus and the doctor asks about her stress triggers, she swiftly replies, “I’m a lesbian.”)

Lakmaker’s writing is indeed funny and bolstered by sharp observations, but ultimately doesn’t dive deep enough to make an impact. The middle section strays from Sofie’s exes into her academic life. She studies Russian, then philosophy, but is adamant about the disdain she has for the books and people around her. “To be honest,” she says, “I have a pretty low tolerance for people and their feelings.” She draws her own self-comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield but, like him, is prone to self-aggrandizing humor in the name of candor. Neither character can recognize that the “phoniness” they see in others is present in themselves. But Sofie’s pithy summaries of her lessons add to her bank of lucid cultural commentary (“Uncomplicated feminism could be summed up as follows: ‘White heterosexual highly educated women are also allowed to speak.’”), and she spits out lines that will either amuse or depress disenchanted academics:

Do you know how many people actually read the average philosophical paper? Zero-point-four. Zero-point-four people! That means that the paper you slaved over for months will only ever be read by someone’s lower legs.

The novel meanders significantly but it’s aware of its meandering, going as far as to call one chapter “There’s No Novel in Here.” It’s true, there is no novel in here, and that’s absolutely fine (few contemporary readers are sticklers for form or even character), but it’s authenticity that’s missing. In the introduction to Weight, British author Jeanette Winterson writes:

Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. […] There is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.

Dogged by the heavyweight themes of loss, love, and identity, Lakmaker continually outpaces any real introspection that might encroach on another funny anecdote about this or that strange encounter.

Sofie is walking the line between building intimacy with the reader by addressing them directly while maintaining just enough distance to keep real vulnerability at bay. The text is peppered with “You know?” and “I’m telling you”—a conspiratorial tone that translator Kristen Gehrman conveys flawlessly. But this tone, which is overemphatic with its use of italics and rhetorical questions, wants to be spoken aloud at a stand-up night, not read—though even some of the dialogue feels contrived. People speak in sound bites, often saying something profound about the protagonist directly to her: “‘You don’t dance to the beat, you dance to the lyrics,’ people used to say to me.” On the phone to a friend, Sofie hears, “Well, now you’re one of those people whose mum has cancer.” The football team captain shouts, “Lakmaker, get out of that head of yours!”

While some of the book’s style seems born of a genre of Internet-first writing that trades in quips for clout, some moments break through the facade. Sofie’s experiences of being or becoming transmasculine—experiences that are so often shunted to the margins of the media—are particularly poignant:

One thing I’ve noticed is that guys are always so nice to each other. Whether you’re fifteen or thirty-four, you’re always somebody’s bro, which is why I didn’t dare reveal that I was a woman—I’d lose a whole group of friends.

Her visible difference means she’s the recipient of women’s out-loud ruminations on whether they’d like to kiss another girl. But it also means she’s locked out of girlhood proper—as a teenager on a trip to Rome, one of Sofie’s peers tells her that all the girls think she’s a “fake girl.” In her mid-twenties and looking for a suit to wear to a funeral, Sofie knows before even trying that the shopkeepers would “look at me like I was a fifteen-year-old boy, or a woman. And at [the tailor’s], they don’t lift a finger for women or fifteen-year-old boys. They would try to send me somewhere else, and if that happened, I was afraid I might explode.” In these rare moments, Sofie’s cool exterior melts to expose something real—a young person who’s hurt and angry, and grieving in more ways than one:

​​I called up my mother to tell her how everyone had misunderstood Kafka. ‘Is that so, my sweet girl?’ she said. It’s lovely really, my mum always called me ‘my sweet girl.’ At such moments, you really don’t feel like explaining that you might feel different, and that the word ‘girl’ doesn’t quite fit.

The final chapter covers the illness and death of her mother when Sofie was just twenty-five. This section was the strongest, and the novel could’ve been distilled into just that—a trim and cutting essay on grief and queer coming-of-age. The narrator admits that she actually wanted to start the book with a paragraph describing lowering her mother’s coffin into the ground: despite the undertaker’s recommendations to alternate their grip between each hand, Sofie recalls that everyone “did it in their own way” and “my mother went down swinging.” She then “realized that it was something that took practice. Which is why it’s a shame that death is such a one-time thing—I was only able to let go of my mother once.”

Sofie barrels out of this loss into an understandable emotional limbo. She can’t quite grasp how sad she is but knows enough that she wants to “make an appointment at the VU Medical Centre, where you can become less of a girl and more of a boy. That’s how I like to put it, you know? More boy.” A coming-of-age story usually hinges on becoming one thing or another, or choosing one path or another. Instead, Sofie makes herself at home in the uncertainty, in the not knowing. These are the moments when Lakmaker allows the writing to cut a little closer to the bone, and drops the artifice—and we finally get a sense of the writer’s vulnerability in the process.

The History of My Sexuality by Tobi Lakmaker, translated from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman (Granta Books, 2024).

© 2024 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.

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