Wellcome Book Prize reading: #4 Amateur

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

McBee, a trans man, takes on the challenge of learning to box to appear in a charity match at Madison Square Gardens. Boxing, until recent years has been seen as a most masculine sport, and as he trains, McBee examines what makes a man and the interrelations between masculinity and violence. McBee would go on to become the first trans man to fight in the MSG ring, but as he begins his training, he keeps his trans-ness under wraps, not wanting to test the atmosphere and attitudes to it at the gym.

McBee started his testosterone injections in 2011, writing about his transition in a previous memoir, Man Alive. It was after a street confrontation with another man in 2015 that he decided to take up boxing and later to write about it. He will have just five months of hard training to gain the skills to pass muster as a boxer.

Why do men fight? I began to see the question as a proxy, a starting point, for what I initially thought of as a very personal experiment: If I shone a light on the shadowy truths about how I’d come by my own notions of what makes a man, could I change the story of what being a man means?

It’s not just about boxing though. McBee describes how people started listening to him at work when his voice dropped. He finds himself talking over female colleagues more often than male ones, and taking other men more seriously. At the gym, paired with Larissa to spar, he’d been annoyed that she was a better boxer than him. He realises that he is in danger of conforming to chauvinist behaviour. Later he manages to do the same to his sister, who had been boxing longer than him, ignoring her in a boxing chat with his brother. Luckily McBee realised what he’d done and apologised.

He writes with great empathy and clarity in this always thought-provoking memoir, as he edges towards greater understanding of his own masculinity. However it is perhaps in the gym that he sees another kind of maleness, still competitive, but also supportive, less toxic than at the office or out and about:

Boxing breaks many of the binaries that men are conditions to believe about our bodies, our genders, ourselves. With its cover of “realness” and violence, it provides room for what so many men lack: tenderness, and touch, and vulnerability. The narratives we see about boxing matches always start at the ending: two guys in the ring, squaring off. The violence obscures the deeper story, the one about the fighters who see your biggest weakness and teach you how to turn it into an advantage. In gyms all over the world, men are sharing their worst fears, men are asking for help, men are sparring one another with great care.

You may not like boxing, but it is undeniable that many find the camaraderie in the gym and the formal ritual of violence helpful, and that is interesting in itself. Although McBee’s rookie experience is nothing special in boxing terms, his relationships with his two coaches and his growing confidence in the changing room provide some moving moments. Add McBee’s wider questions about gender, and the ever-supportive advice and sounding-board of his girlfriend Jess, and this becomes a fine book indeed. (8/10)


Source: Library.Thomas Page McBee, Amateur (Canongate, 2018). Now in paperback, 224 pages.

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6 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize reading: #4 Amateur

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think I’d enjoy his first book – the memoir of his transition more. But he is uniquely placed to comment on masculinity and this was fascinating, the boxing less so.

  1. I’m feeling like this is the most consistently appreciated book from the shortlist. I think Clare is still working on her review? I only rated it 3 stars, but I can see its merits. 4 or 5 stars from the rest of you.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve very little of this kind of memoir or books about boxing, so it’s all fresh and new for me! I’d like to read his first book now.

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