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

An exuberant memoir of a troubled childhood tells one girl’s story of danger, drag queens and a struggle to be herself

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.

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