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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Tsunami Caryh-Averlyn was awarded an Honorable Mention in Nonfiction Memoir in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
Well for September, it was a beautiful late summer day as I strolled across campus in a casual summer dress, sandals, my hair pulled into a ponytail and the rugged sound of my Samsonite pull-away luggage on the concrete, filling my ear. I made my way to A-Dorm, on the west side of campus. As I arrived at the building, I took my last deep breath to quell the butterflies in my stomach and proceeded inside.
The dorm building was actually a group of mini dorms. Four girls to each dorm, four dorms on each floor, five floors total. I checked my little piece of paper, “A-2.”I waltzed into the elevator and hit the second floor button. I was running late. A whole day late, actually. Yesterday I experienced my last cold feet. I had never had a problem passing, but I had never lived in such close proximity to nidals before. Or at least not nidals who would not know my deepest held secret. Dare I tell? Dare I share? There could be consequences, both long term and short term. Not the least of which is that I could be kicked off campus. No, no I would just keep my “secret” in for now, and perhaps forever. Besides, once I had enough for the final surgery, it wouldn’t matter, would it? And I needed this experience. I needed on-site, up-close nidal training, without the nidals knowing. So, with final resolve I arrived at A-2 and I knocked. I had been issued my own key by Admissions, but I felt I should knock since I was late.
Knock-knock. Before I could hit the door a third time, it flew open. There stood a very cute Asian girl (I would later find out she’s Korean), wearing nothing but panties and a button down shirt that was completely unbuttoned, her hair partially in rollers. If I wasn’t stunned, I probably would have instinctively turned my head. That probably would have been a dead giveaway, as I later learned that it’s “routine” for nidals, living in close quarters, to be in various stages of undress, at any given time. “Hi, are you Tsunami?” she asked, while extending a friendly hand. “Y-y-yess, yes I am,” I replied, shaking her hand. “Welcome, we’ve been waiting on you since yesterday,” she said, and then called out in the dorm announcing my arrival. Soon, two other women joined us. These two, although dressed thinly, at least had the essential parts covered. I was introduced to Kiang (the Korean); Catnip, a Native American from the Sioux Wavemont Reservation, in North Dakota; and Piper-Mae, a white girl from New Hampshire, who had the damnedest New England accent I had ever heard. We were clearly a diverse group. I’m African-American/Puerto Rican. As we later found out, we all signed the form at Admissions acknowledging that we may be housed with people of different races, national origin, ethnic background, and religions, etc. Our sizes and shapes were just as diverse as our cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Kiang was rail thin, and only 5 feet tall (so she claimed. I swear she looked 4’10” to me). She kept her hair dyed in a rainbow, and her arms were sleeved with tattoos. She had an extensive marijuana habit, I would later learn, and was clearly the most radical of our crew, participating in many, hell even organizing many, campus demonstrations for whatever issue was in the national debate. Catnip was built average, on the busty side, with long black raven hair that reached just below her butt that she generally kept in two ponytails. She had eyes equally black as her hair and long thick eyelashes that you would have thought were fake. Her smile, with those pretty white teeth of hers, was captivating. Indeed, an easy description of her was that she was “pretty”. Piper Mae was rotund. A redhead with freckles on her face and neck, shoulders and upper arms. Jovial and jolly and not shy about her weight. Like Kiang, she was forever topless in the dorm. Her huge pendulous breasts heaving and bobbing in all directions as she moved about or launched into one of her stories that she routinely shared, rosy red cheeks, top and bottom. She was always joking and pulling pranks. She even joked about herself and her weight. She was loud, quite so, and that cockney New Hampshire accent just made everything more funny. As it turns out, she was one helluva cook too. “Jolly” like Santa, is the best way to describe her.
And me, I’m Tsunami Caryl-Averlyn. My mixed heritage gives me cocoa brown skin, my own shoulder length hair, and my augmentations make me voluptuous. Born on the Isle of Puerto Rico, but I had been living in New York City since I was 13. Ah, coming to the mainland, that’s when I began to live full-time. That could be considered the beginning of the second chapter of my life and this, enrolling on a prestigious college campus, the beginning of the third chapter.
I was determined to go to college. To literally be the first in my family to complete college. My sister had attended New York University, but never actually graduated. My challenges were many. Although I had been “passing” for years, I had never lived in close proximity to nidals before. A “nidal” is a trans slang word for biological females. Perhaps in some perfect future world, where being trans will either not matter or be fully accepted, I wouldn’t have to operate on pins and needles. Additionally, race does matter. In appearance, I look solely African-American, but once I start to speak, my heavy accent is a dead giveaway that I come from “somewhere” else. Forget that Puerto Ricans are born American citizens, most people just don’t know that. So getting admitted with my skin color was yet another challenge. Fortunately, most of getting tested, accepted, and admitted, takes place on paper and inside computers. By the time I had to actually appear on campus for anything, I literally had both feet in the door. I had graduated from the Rainbow Alternative School in Brooklyn with honors, all while working nights as an underage sex worker. I scored in the top 10% of the SAT and ACT tests. And aced the New York State Scholastic Aptitude test and English is not even my first language. So, I ended up on a lot of colleges’ and universities’ radar. I picked through good grant and scholarship offers and here I am. So while marching towards my degree, and contemplating getting GRS/SRS, I wanted to plant myself firmly in the middle of nidals, to see if this is the life I truly want. Plus, I needed experience living a “square” life full-time. It’s soooo much different than life on the street.
All of the girls came out, introduced themselves, helped me lug my bags to the bed I was assigned. Our mini-dorm had only semi-privacy: four beds in a large enough area, but no walls, only portable partitions like the ones in large office buildings. They were only about 5 feet tall. Even without my heels on, I’d be able to see over them when standing up. So would all the girls except Kiang. I was about to get queasy when they showed me that the full-sized bathroom had a locking door at least. Mental note, all tucks would be done in there. Indeed, I liked our bathroom more than any other room in the dorm. It was spacious. Bath, shower, dual sink, full length mirror behind the door, plenty of storage/vanity space for four college co-eds. Our kitchen (more like a kitchenette) was truly small. Clearly only one person could use it at a time. But it was modern. My four years spent here would end up increasing my cooking skills a hundredfold . Piper-Mae was an excellent cook. Put 10 lbs. on all of us. (Kiang could have used another 100).
We bonded that first night and our bond grew stronger every day thereafter. I note Admissions and Housing did a good job matching us by declared majors: two would be sociologists (Kiang and Piper-Mae) and two would be psychologists (Catnip and me). Thus, we had some classes intertwined and cross over between us, but none with all four at the same time. Three of us (Catnip, Piper-Mae, and me) did have Tues/Thurs Human Physiology 101 with Professor Dipero, an amateur bodybuilder to let him tell it. That body looked pretty good to me, though. Who else would teach human physiology but a Greek god?
We settled into some routines that only seemed to make sense for four college-aged women living together on campus. For example, we established pretty quickly that Piper-Mae was the best cook among us after everyone had a shot in the kitchen cooking for the others. So it just made perfect sense to give her the kitchen. The rest of us pulled from incomes and gave to her monthly to cook one meal a day (dinner) for us during the week, and two more on the weekends. Holidays were planned individually, since most of us went to our hometowns for holidays. For most of us, breakfast was a grab and go. If we all shared any one trait as freshmen, it’s that all of us ran late for our first class. We stayed up too late. We weren’t responsible yet. Piper-Mae actually had a class that started at 8:05 a.m. My conscious is not even awake at 8:05 a.m. I fared a little better. My earliest class was 8:35 a.m. I never was a consistent coffee drinker before college, even though we grow coffee beans on the Isle. But we had a Starbucks on campus and to this day, I love a good latte in the morning to wake me up. Needless to say, you live and you learn. So our sophomore year none of us picked a class that started before 9:00 a.m.
I learned that nidals love to chatter and gossip. It’s not a stereotype. Consequently, DQ/TGs pick it up, probably to mimic initially, but it becomes a permanent trait. Ours would start usually at dinner. For the most part, we usually sat at dinner together at approximately 6:00 p.m. like a real family and that’s when the gossip would begin. All the latest campus news, with an overly opinionated twist from everyone. You either agreed, disagreed, or had an independent view from the majority. Some of these talks were quite spirited, to say the least. They were also without normal boundaries. I especially remember a discussion one night, at the dinner table no less, while eating spaghetti and meatballs, about the female menstrual cycle. It seems Catnip was having her monthly and experiencing some particularly painful cramping. This launched the group into a detailed conversation about cramping, thickness and frequency of blood flow, different sizes and effectiveness of certain pads (I didn’t even know pads came in sizes!), and tampons vs. pads. I was a fish out of water. I knew nothing of these things. Moreover, the conversation made me queasy and nauseated. I thought I was going to vomit. I had long stopped eating the spaghetti. I was totally amazed that nidals could discuss such things so casually. And then, while I’m sitting there in semi-shock, I hear Kiang saying, “Well, what about you Tsunami?” “What about me what?” I almost snapped. “Your period,” she continued on. “You haven’t said anything about yours. You do have one don’t you?” she said almost jokingly, but I could have fainted at that point. I literally just wanted to disappear. I had no idea what to say. Fortunately, right at the point where the pause was about to seem awkward, Catnip cut in.
“Oh leave her alone. She’s obviously shy. I mean Tsunami never says too much of anything, haven’t you noticed?”
Followed by Piper-Mae’s conclusion, “besides, you can look at those D-cups of hers and tell she’s a thick flow, low cramper, right, Tsu?” I was saved from having to manufacture an answer by Kiang’s interruption.
“Oh, that’s just stereotyping,” she claimed. But Piper-Mae wasn’t having it.
“I’m not stereotyping. I’m speaking from experience” she said, while lifting her head, and craning her back to display her ever topless glory. But Kiang was insistent.
“Look dear, we all know you’re like a double-E or something, but yours is mostly fat. I mean look at Tsunami. She’s curvy and probably doesn’t have an ounce of fat…”
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know,” Catnip offered. Kiang was never shy about her sexual orientation, and seized every minute to flirt with any one of us, even though she had a steady girlfriend. Kiang offered that we should all get ready because in a couple months we’d be having our monthly visitor at the same time.
To that, I found my voice, “What are you talking about Kiang?” She explained that when females live together, their cycles gradually align, so that everyone is on their period at the same time. To me, that was a shocking revelation. I left that conversation making a few mental notes. First, I had to buy some maxi pads, and leave them out on my dresser as “props” to aid in my passing. Second, I had to practice a dialogue in case that topic ever came up again (it did), so I’d have the right responses, and reaction. Wow, lesson learned and accepted: being a nidal was a lot more complicated than just a few surgical procedures and makeup. But, that is why I decided to do it this way, to get the full experience, or at least as close to it as possible. There’s a big difference between visually “passing” and socially and culturally passing.
And then there was dating. I noted that regardless of race, nationality, sexual preference, religion, or anything else, dating on campus was an obsession for just about everyone. 80% of our time in the dorm was spent talking about who was dating who, who should be dating who, who might be dating who, and who’d we like to see dating who. Mixed into these conversations would be our own dating adventures. Clearly Piper-Mae was the most promiscuous of us, or at least the most known. I suspect that it would be just as shocking for my roommates to learn I was a prostitute and adult film actor as it would be to learn that I’m trans. And a pre-op at that. But I did not do any on-campus dating, despite multiple would-be suitors, until just before the end of sophomore year. And that first on-campus date was more like an ambush, orchestrated by my roommates. e were supposed to be going to a high class restaurant to celebrate the end of the school year, just us girls, but when I climbed into Catnip’s van, guys were already there, including “Jack” who had spent all year in the three classes we shared, vying for my attention. Man, he was quite the charmer, and a good looker too. Star on the college basketball team. In any other situation and especially if he knew I was T*, I would have molested him in a heartbeat! He had all the right moves all year long: notes left on my desk or slipped into my backpack, messages in my inbox in computer class and on my answering machine after coercing my number from Catnip. Cards, little gifts, and flowers left at the dorm door. And he had a clean rep. No womanizing, as far as we knew. I was the only one he had taken any interest in. Too much interest, as it turns out, because of my dire secret and my mission. I had saved up money from prostitution, adult film, live sex shows, and DQ shows to go to college. I was paying my own way, though my roommates thought I had rich parents on the Isle that were sending me to school. And in my junior year, when I bought a car with my royalty checks from an adult film, I told the girls it was a gift from my Dad.
I came to the prestigious school for a lot of reasons and finding someone like Jack was not one of them. Nor could I let him distract me from my goals. First, I came to truly educate myself on my own and on my own terms. Second, I wanted to solidify my identity as a woman. Up to this point in my life, my identity as a woman had only centered on two things: appearance and sex. And finally, to see if not only could I function as a nidal I had been living full-time and passing since age 13, but I wanted to know if I could I actually be a nidal and be accepted as one as I leaned more and more towards GRS/SRS.
This all had an exceptional purpose in my life. Not to mention that I was becoming the first in my family to be college-educated. But I had already mastered “passing” in the general public. I had already received acceptance in the GLBTQ community and I already enjoyed a sisterhood with my trans sisters. But being accepted as a transwoman by nidals is totally different than being accepted as a fellow nidal by nidals. I had good mentors, some of them were post-op T*s. Very few complained of physical dissatisfaction, as modern science has reduced pain and recovery time, and even increased post-op physical pleasure during intercourse. But a chief complaint was rejection by nidals as not being a “real woman.“ You have to have some shared experiences. You have to have more in common than just a physical appearance.
As it turns out, I enjoyed Jack’s company too much. I started hanging out with him, not so much going out, usually in very crowded public places around campus so he wouldn’t get any ideas. We did have an open discussion about sexual relations and I told him I wanted to stay celibate until marriage, after college. He respected that and we were cool, but he would steal a kiss or cop an ass feel every now and then. Little did he know I was going to disappear after graduation. He would never see me again, unless he looked at porn that features trans women.
Piper-Mae had so many boyfriends that we couldn’t remember their names, or by the time we did learn one, he’d be exchanged. She had no picks; white, African-American, Asian, Latino, the neighbor’s dog, whatever. I was honestly more choosy when I was prostituting. She took them tall, short, fat, skinny, age 18 to 80. One guy had no legs (she claimed he was “quite capable”). She also didn’t respect our boundaries. We’re in a mini-dorm setting, with cardboard partitions for privacy and a communal bathroom and she’s in her area making out on her squeaky bed with whoever. Eventually we would just gather up our things and leave for an hour or so. I remember one episode where she kept one overnight and we didn’t know he was still there. We heard Kiang scream about 6 a.m. Mr. Boyfriend was in the bathroom, door open, ass-naked. This would be one of the few times we actually had an argument. Kiang told Piper-Mae she was surprised she wasn’t having pups, United Benetton pups at that.
By junior year, I had found my comfort zone in all areas it seemed. The girls had dubbed me the “shy one.” I was still the only one who none of the others had seen topless, much less nude, as occurred from time to time. I always did my tucking in the bathroom, but the rest of my preparation was done in my room. One day, I was rushing while running late. Kiang must have planned this. I had my back to my room opening and was putting on a front hook bra when she ran in, snatched it, and took off running through the dorm. Without thinking, and operating on instinct, I took off after her. I caught up to her in the living room, and snatched my bra back, oblivious to Catnip sitting there on a chair staring at me mouth wide open. I thought “sh-t, I’m exposed!” I had never been in front of nidals with just a thong-panty on before (unless they already knew my status). A short silence fell before Catnip asked, ”What is going on?” And Kiang responded,
“I’m just confirming something I’ve suspected about Tsunami all along.”
“And what is that?” Catnip asked. I was slipping into mild shock, when Kiang replied, “She has the most perfect tits I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Then, from behind me, I hear Piper-Mae, “Damn good looking ass too, and I ain’t even gay.” I was wholly surprised. Apparently my tuck was perfect. No one had said anything. Indeed, when I got back to my room, Catnip showed up at the door and asked me “with a bangin’ body like that, why are you so shy?“ I told her I’d try to loosen up some. But I felt really good after that day, to have my body stamped “approved” by nidals, even though it was surgically altered and enhanced. I made it a point to purposefully parade around topless or in just my thong-panty every now and then, from that day on, as the others did, from time to time.
My confidence level was up. I was especially surprised that they didn’t know I had breast and hip implants. This was three years before so-called “ass shots” would enter pop culture. I also decided to run for representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council my junior year and won. I was a skilled debater and joined the debate team, which was an intellectual pursuit, not a civic one. I was operating as a full-fledged nidal without doubt or contradiction. It felt glorious. Kiang always organized some type of protest on campus about some cause or another. I started participating in those more.
Jack was a member of Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity, also known as “Q-Dogs,” one of the “divine nine” historically African-American Greek letter organizations. Through Jack, the Q-Dogs invited me to become a sweetheart. The sweethearts were the fraternity’s helpmates on community projects and when planning parties. Through the lens of 2021, the sweethearts might seem silly and retrograde. But when I was in college, students delighted in pretty girls in tiaras wearing bedazzled sashes. I even made the campus newspaper and the local newspaper. Can you imagine how good this felt as a T*? Victoria Beltran and Julie Newmar eat your hearts out.
With my campus profile raised, I decided to try out being a soror. Soror is a Latin term for sister. The root word of sorority. A soror wields her poise like a spear; she can make sisterhood feel like a bomb threat. All of the sorors on campus had a certain air about them. Not the silliness often portrayed in T.V. shows and movies. Trust me, it’s serious. I saw the Alpha Kappa Alphas (AKA) do a step at an event on campus, and I was sold. I pledged AKA. Catnip, who became a member her sophomore year, was my sponsor. AKA, founded in 1908, has a proud but complicated history. In its early days, it was plagued with colorism. Once in the ‘80s the sorority sent out a flyer inviting women to an event: “Come with your hair flowing.” I remember my BFF once told me that hair is political. With about 300,000 members word-wide (including Vice-President Kamala Harris), AKA, with its signature pink and green, is represented in virtually every corner of culture.
So let’s pause and look at some of my firsts, which will probably never be known. I’m most likely the first Afro-Latina Trans to be elected on a renowned campus to be on the Liberal Arts Council, the debate team (and travel the country debating, some televised), and to become a full-fledged member of a national sorority. Wow! If they only knew, huh.
In finding my comfort zone, I also began to display more of my wealth in my junior year. And besides, I wanted to help Kiang, Catnip, and Piper-Mae out more. All of them were on a budget. Kiang had the job at the pizza parlor, and we had pizza on a regular basis as a result; Catnip did all types of things for extra money, baby-sitting, and arts and crafts (i.e. beading, crochet, leatherwork, etc.) with Native themes that she sold; and of course, Piper-Mae cooked and sold dinner plates. All of them received money from their parents. I was not fortunate in that arena, but I did have savings that were supplemented by royalty checks I received. In my first couple years, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to myself, I kept a low profile, which included a wardrobe that was 90%sweat suits. Every now and then I would pretend to receive money from my “parents” when the others did. I would also purposefully leave the newspaper on the coffee table, with certain job offers circled, like I was on the job hunt. I would even have Catnip drop me off at the Greyhound Bus Station, under the premise I was going to ride the bus 20 hours back to NYC, when we were on class breaks, and soon as she left I’d hop a cab to the airport, fly into JFK first class, get my Jaguar out of storage and drive into the city.
But now my profile was raised on campus anyway, and no one suspected that I was anything but a nidal co-ed. So every time I came back from NYC, I would slowly but surely bring back more of my real clothes and jewelry. My closet and trunk started filling up with Ralph Lauren, Polo, Coogi, Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Manalo Blahniks, Red Bottoms, etc. I went back to getting my hair done, switching the styles, length, and color up, a lot of which the girls attributed to Jack. “Oh girl, he’s really taking care of you, ain’t he!” to which I would just smile and not respond directly to.
Giving clothes to Catnip was easy. We are about the same size, so I would just get her to wear something of mine then tell her to keep it, drawing from the lesson she taught me about how in Native culture, when someone offers you a gift, you have to accept it or it’s a sign of disrespect. But for the other two, it was complicated. Piper-Mae was bigger than me, yet shorter. Kiang was way smaller, yet I’m taller. So, when they were out, I would sneak in their rooms and get their sizes. Then I would go to the mall, get some clothes in either one’s size, and when I got back, try them on and pretend they were the wrong size for me, and get them to try them on. ”Oh, well isn’t that something, they fit just right on you. Go ahead, keep them. I bought them on sale, with a no return/no refund rule.” When Catnip’s van broke down we needed transportation. She was 70% of how we got around. So, I bought a Beamer, and told them it was a gift from my Dad. I snuck and had the van fixed too. I told them one of Jack’s friends wanted to work on it for the experience.
By senior year, we were known as “the chicks with the Beamer.” It was a good year. Everyone was taking shape, including me. Jack was going to the NBA. Perfect. I told him I couldn’t be an NBA girlfriend. After graduation, I was going to another college to pursue my master’s. This was actually my true plan. Halfway through senior year, I got bitten by the “continuing education bug.” The college I was transferring to offered me a legitimate job as a research analyst while in attendance. I liked that Jack and I were going to part amicably. He had been a good friend and I often wonder to this day what would have happened if I came out to him. Older now, I can say that sometimes that has been acceptable to suitors, sometimes not, and sometimes it’s even dangerous. I would recommend this to all my T* sisters, even those who were sex workers: it’s better to come out to our male encounters early, especially if you’re anticipating any physical contact, no matter how mild. Otherwise, guilt and anger can result if the guy feels like his “manhood” is in question for being attracted to the “same sex.” Even more so if it becomes known that you’re pre-op.
The build up to commencement was the most single charged event in my life. I’ve never had so much anticipation, anxiety, and happiness all rolled into one. Both of my biological sisters were coming two days early, an unusual show of support for me. I rarely got family support for any of my actions. Though my sisters were always supportive of me, even in my childhood, when I came out as “gay” initially, my first step on the path to transition other than walking across stage to get my degree. I wasn’t a part of the commencement program. But my sisters were coming two days early to hear me speak at events the day before (the all scholars luncheon, sponsored by the Liberal Arts Council) and that night (AKA’s graduation banquet). I killed it. I never went off topic, though my biological sisters were disappointed I didn’t seize either moment to unveil. But I felt my mission was accomplished. I was ready to move on to the next phase of my life.
Our keynote speaker was a congressman and alumni, boring, through and through. But I did enjoy one of the guest speakers, Bishop Norman L. Wagner, who challenged us to go forward and be the generation to build diversity and foster acceptance of all mankind. We manipulated the seating to make sure we all sat together in the audience, with our families directly across the aisle from us. And although many reunions were planned, they never really panned out. So this would be the last time all four of us; Kiang, Catnip, Piper-Mae, and I would be together, to date. I thank those sistas for their sisterhood. I thank them for their lessons in nidalism and allowing me to be a part of the “majority” for a change. I thank them for the memories, wherever they are. And I thank them for their frank, unvarnished, straight talk. I’m reminded of them every time I engage in one of my fiery hermeneutics. The “Tsunami” would not be what she is today, were it not for them. And before I bring this missive of indulgence to a close, I need to thank two other people, without which this pen would have never struck this paper: My BFF, “Bertie” (Roberta) who has been encouraging me to, and trying to get me to write for three years. And author, actor, and activist, my T* sista, Janet Mock, whose book, ”Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, and Love,“ which could have easily been about my own life. There’s just so many similarities. Thanks to both of you, for the inspiration.