ISAAC CAMERON HILL by ammi keller

Inspired by the recent #translit chat on Twitter, I decided to review my favorite piece of trans literature from 2015.  The short story “Isaac Cameron Hill” by Ammi Keller was originally published in American Short Fiction, but I discovered it in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015.  As a trans-identified writer myself, I have often searched for stories with main characters who share my identity, only to find the same tragic, transition-centric novels (usually written by cisgender authors).  Keller’s short story is not that.  Keller’s short story allows the transgender characters to be more than their identities and yet not completely unchanged by them.

Over the course 13 pages, Keller paints small brushstrokes of the main character, Isaac, ultimately building to a larger portrait of who Isaac is today.  We see Isaac reading erotic novels as a kid, moving through the US and Europe in his twenties, and coming to terms with his gender identity in San Francisco.  Over time we are able to piece together the glimpses we receive of Isaac to fully understand his character and the narrator’s character in relationship to him:

“Being a man is a rougher life, but it’s far easier to be left alone and this suited him.  Having been raised a girl caused Isaac to act in ways that seemed, for a man, gracious.  On visits to the city, in his truck stinking of motor oil and whiskey and mud through so many layers of army canvas, he was more beloved than ever.”

What Keller does here (as well as in other parts of the story), shows a true expertise on the subject of trans identity.  Too often when writing about marginalized characters, authors will listen to the stories on the news rather than the voices of people within the marginalized group they are writing about.  This leads to the bulk of trans literature looking like this: characters who are rejected by their families, characters who are unable to maintain a relationship throughout their transition, and characters who are almost always portrayed as being physically or sexually assaulted.  While these stories are unfortunately very common and by all means important to discuss, the trans literary community needs a diversity in subject matter that reflects the diversity in our community.  Keller’s descriptions bring out the mundane yet unique aspects of being transgender, creating a balance that allows Isaac to feel distinctly trans and yet does not force his identity to permeate every single one of his actions.

In addition to journeying through Isaac’s gender identity, the story also takes us to various places in the US and Europe.  We watch the characters’ attitudes change towards themselves as they simultaneously change their attitudes towards the places they live in:

“I told him America did not want us, that we should go to Barcelona or to Mexico City, which I still had faint, fond memories of, notwithstanding my current estrangement from my parents.”

Keller gives us a lot to think about by the end of this piece.  There are themes of sexuality and attraction, gender identity and isolation, and threaded through everything is the question: what does it mean to find home?  Do we find home in our bodies, our lovers, or the places we live in?  “Isaac Cameron Hill” looks at these universal concepts through a lens that is not often celebrated in the literary community which is why this story quickly became one of my favorites from 2015.




2 thoughts on “ISAAC CAMERON HILL by ammi keller

  1. This sounds like a story I need to add to my to-read list. I don’t read many short stories, and I really want to start reading more. Also, thinking about the genre of book reviews, I really like this post. I feel like I got enough of the plot but not too much, and a good feeling of the theme, tone, and language of the story form what you’ve written. You should definitely continue to write reviews like this, I’m a fan!


  2. “Do we find home in our bodies, our lovers, or the places we live in?” MMMM so good! To echo Courtney, you did a nice job on this review and I’m definitely interested in reading this story. I’m also glad that you continue to bring up the importance of accurate, complex representation of marginalized groups. Bringing light and attention to the stories that get it right is so important because they are often hard to find!

    It’s also very interesting to me that society expects certain types of stories from certain groups of people. (Mostly because I’m interested in how humans understand their lives/their worlds through the narratives they create about themselves and others. It’s how we create meaning out of chaos.) Perhaps this is a reflection of our reliance on stereotypes, general laziness, and liking narratives to follow an expected pattern (at least some people do). It’s hard to fight against those expectations and wide-held assumptions because to be a “successful” writer means to produce something that other people deem to be marketable. As stereotypes remain pervasive, the certain kinds of stories that are marketable are limited. (Not that I think we’ll ever get rid of all stereotypes, but that slowly we can knock down/complicate the ones we have even as new ones arise.)

    Anyway, didn’t mean to be a downer. I’m so glad this story is out there and represented in The Best American Non Required Reading! It’s a sign that things are changing. It’s our job to help that change through our own writing and drawing attention to stories that complicate our understanding.


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