By Lucas Crawford
Being the Critic-In-Residence for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts was an exercise in paradoxes and pleasures: I’m a writer and scholar who is very much still learning how to do “criticism” in the CanLit mode; it is a virtual “residency” (a virtuality?); and while I am a “woman,” that is only “true” if quotation marks are always heard around those words (which I’m sure is true for some or many of us who are often or exclusively interpreted and/or self-described as women). In this way, the experience has led me to questions, conversations, and conundrums that I did not expect but for which I am very thankful. Below, I reflect on these experiences, beginning with some highlights. Then, drawing from these experiences, I offer a few challenges to all of us who make up this thing we call CanLit. If you’re toggling between this website and your work, (or, say, Netflix) then let me say: please jump right to the second section, which begins after some asterisks. Choose your own adventure!
Reading with former CWILA Critic-In-Residence Shannon Webb-Campbell in Vancouver, BC, was a treat. With the capable facilitation of Sheila Giffen, we were able to chat about the loaded task of writing our various east coast family histories into public text. I left with a greater sense of the urgency of talking about eastern lit and life here on the west coast. An audience member asked a wonderful question about how I might imagine the CWILA post affecting my teaching at Simon Fraser University. I wasn’t sure in that moment, but I can now answer that our conversation that day, and the thinking that followed, led me to use Atlantic Canadian texts in my current course in a new way. For instance, the wonderful Chelsea Rooney, author of Pedal (Caitlin Press, 2014) visited my Masculinities class last week and, to my mind, helped us shake up east and west in a way that was very useful to my students and I. (If you’re into trivia about “emerging” Canadian authors, then I’ll mention that Chelsea and I went to high school together in rural Nova Scotia.)
Writing reviews of “trans lit” as I conceive of it has been fascinating. Because of both the necessary pace of publishing and because of my own odd year of surprising delights (my own poetry book was signed in March and came out in October) and struggles (*examples omitted*), you will see all of the reviews actually appear in text in 2016 instead of 2015. Please be on the lookout for my takes on Ali Blythe’s Twoism (Icehouse/Goose Lane), Trish Salah’s Lyric Sexology, Volume One (Roof Books), Charles Theonia’s Which One is the Bridge, and Lilith Latini’s Improvise, Girl, Improvise (both from Topside Press). Arc will be the home for a combo-review of a several trans-focused zines and chapbooks, and The Rusty Toque will be the home for reviews of Theonia and Salah. Thank you, kind editors with whom I was able to work this year.
Another highlight was having the opportunity to edit a “Trans Lit” issue of Matrix Magazine. Now and then I hear murmurs from dusty corners that thinking about transgender is the sign that we’ve all gone too far – that there’s no way there’s a big enough population of transgender people to “deserve” such attention. While this argument hardly deserves a thorough response, I can say that the many, many splendid submissions I received for this issue can definitely stand as an argument that this notion is simply false. I received over fifty submissions, mostly from Canadian writers, spanning from memoir to comics to poetry to slam texts to fiction and to experimental texts that blend these genres (perhaps in a trans-genre mode). There are many transgender, transsexual, or genderqueer authors featured in the issue, while other authors take on the “Trans” prefix in other ways that aim to change how we conceive of bodies. For instance, you will find many authors who move towards a conception of what is sometimes called trans-race, including: Jane Komori’s graphic narrative about relating to her Japanese grandparents; Kai Cheng Thom’s wonderfully provocative poem, “Sometimes My Body is a Slutty Bitch Bad Girl” (winner of best title award); Cato Taylor’s hilarious and poignant memoir, “My Mother and Princess Diana (Or, Thank Fuck for Kate Middleton) (was also in the running for best title, obviously); and, many more. It is my hope that while transgender “proper” is represented well here, most notions of such propriety, (and propriety and moralist postures are always at stake to some extent when we want to think of queer-proper or transgender-proper), are variously undone, rethought, and left aside. If you’ll allow me a completely earnest exclamation point in this text, then I must say: I can’t wait for you to read this issue!
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Now for the challenges, which I hope will also be evident in the reviews, editing, interviews, and public speaking I have done this year.
First: I received over fifty submissions to the special issue of Matrix. Most of these authors were Canadian. Lots of these authors had at least several publication credits to their names, if not a book. The majority of these publication credits were American periodicals or magazines. Why?
Secondly: two of the most celebrated authors who will appear in the special Matrix issue have won major awards and attention for their literature. Casey Plett won the 2015 Lambda Literary “Emerging Writer” Award and was the regular blogger for the New York Times about Caitlin Jenner’s new television show. A small but mighty transgender-centred press in the US publishes Plett’s book (Topside Press). Likewise, New York’s Roof Books publishes Trish Salah’s sophomore collection (which followed her award-winning Wanting in Arabic). Why?
And finally: this challenge has to do with my experience of being the Critic-In-Residence. I enjoyed such strong support from the CWILA team of Sheila Giffen, Erin Wunker, and Libe Garcia Zarranz, as well as from many other wonderful folks who reached out to me. Being Critic-In-Residence put me in touch with people I now consider friends, like the inimitable Alex Leslie and the community dynamo Elee Kraljii Gardiner (whose debut collection shall appear soon). If I’m going to be honest, however, I must add that I also experienced an amount of sustained online hate and harassment about this gig. Why?
I have the beginnings of answers to these questions, but I hope you will have the opportunity to think further than these. Here are some thoughts, in reverse order:
About my experience: in this moment of the “transgender tipping point” (ie. greater mainstream awareness of, and desire to profit from, thumbnails of transgender existence), gender binaries and stereotypes seem to be re-entrenching rather than unsettling. In our haste to give to trans people who strive to be normative men or normative women the respect they deserve, we tend to steamroll others. I’d never have thought that speaking publically as a (and in relation to the concept of) “woman,” would entitle others to talk of me so clearly and insistently as a man. While nobody deserves any exploration or explanation of anyone’s body or their orientation to it, I want to say one thing clearly here. My entire “gender transformation” consisted in ceasing to try to accomplish normative femininity. In our culture, that can be enough to appear to others as not just trans but as a Macho Male Man Dude Bro Penis Taint Guy. That should take us very far aback.
In this context, what are your body modifications, your gender transitions? Why do you think these might “pass” as minor and obvious, while leaving one’s facial hair (for instance) can spark massive assumptions about one’s psyche and one’s genes (!!!)? What kind of feminism are we interested in if we understand a fat bearded woman/genderqueer guy in such ways? What are our gender pains if we feel anger at the slash in the previous sentence? To what version of permanence are we so committed, and what is the emotional payout we earn with it? What baggage sits beneath our long-outmoded desire to dismiss as decadent and unserious any trans person who does not ascribe to the currently approved model of unchanging, inborn, gender identity? Do we see the irony in cherishing others’ gender identities while refusing the possibility that people do not have one, or want one, or need one, or act it out in the mode you or others may deem proper? What are we doing when we want to force all trans or gender-non-normative people into boxes marked “transman” or “transwoman,” aside from throwing a prefix onto our age-old policing of bodies who reject the pains and fictions of normative gender? Do we want a world in which someone who feels forced to navigate between genders can be punished for not being enough of a woman, or the right kind of woman, at the right times and in the right ways? We like to think we are far beyond the second-wave tendency to cast out those who “look like” lesbians or men. Are we?
Though I write the preceding paragraphs for my own sense of peace, I want to underline how very wrong it is that we demand such explanations (particularly about matters that non-trans people get to experience as “private”). If we want these explanations, we are voyeurs. We demand and extract from trans people a juicy explanation of who they are, what their body was, what their body is, and how they feel about it. We assert that trans people have something for which to answer. We do not. We assert that genderqueer people should begin with an apology. We should not. We assert that those who do not achieve normative femininity but have “self-identified” as a woman (sometimes or all the time, in some ways or all ways) are suspect. We are not. If we would prefer that anyone who has or does appear masculine no longer have a right to appear feminine (and vice versa), then we assert that feigned purity and stability are more important than people, creativity, or change. They are not. If we view “transgender issues” as so very distinct from “women’s issues,” then we assert that people who have been women, are sort of women, may be women, have become women, may become women, have not always been understood by others as women, etc., do not quite qualify as relevant. We are. If we think that all masculinities, all femininities, all genders, or all members of any selfhood-species mean the same thing or have the same social impacts or cultural cache, then we reassert a most basic form of sexism. I wish we would not.
To the other two challenges about why Canadian trans writers seem to look (or need to look) outside of Canada in order to publish, I say the following. We like to think that oppression and violence are done through acts of exclusion and hatred. On the contrary, the most pernicious ones are accomplished through happy acts of inclusion and love. That is, I’m sure there are very few, if any, editors and publishers in Canada who would explicitly dislike a manuscript because it addresses trans issues or is written by a trans person. However, we might ask: does CanLit have a special fetish for cis-gender literature? For literature that upholds gender norms? For literature that upholds standard ideas about victimhood, pain, and diversity? Why do we include, and include, and include, and love, and love, and love literature that relies on stale or harmful ideas about bodies? What part of us gets off on these ideas? Why does it turn us on? What is the psychology of the straight- or cis-literature fetishist?
I once had an accomplished Canadian writer tell me that I might want to rethink “how many” poems that admit to my trans existence I might want to include in my book. (He also thought it would be best as a self-published volume – shortly before it won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, which I hope you’ll allow me to say here for the purposes of this point.) This is a country in which complete collections about wharves, trees, divorce, weather, church, etc. are published and celebrated regularly. We do not pause when every single poem in a book relies on absolutely standard descriptions of parenthood, of romantic love, of the death of a parent. We see these matters as universal and mattering to many. We do not see considerations of bodies, genders, or sexuality in this way – even though these shape ALL of our lives. This makes our literature suffer. This sends our magazines into the hands of some and not others. This sends money, submissions, and subscriptions elsewhere. This is part of why many writers do not feel able to respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault in our literary circles and scenes. This has caused what I’m calling a massive queer and transgender “brain drain” in our literature. This is what sends award-winning books printed in multiple editions to American presses. This makes our literature – and probably most of us, in some way – suffer. And let me be clear: I do not think suffering is moral, or cool, or a fetish object, or what earns one a voice. I wish we could all experience it less, full stop.
Changing this is hard work. Special issues, attempts to be “diverse,” “diverse” hiring practices, and so on, can do some of this work. I suspect the bulk of the work to be done is in the incredibly subtle personal investments and habits that live deep in our flesh and guts and tell us when something is interesting or not, worthy or not, trustworthy or not. So, my challenges to editors and publishers are these:
- What are your deep investments in gender? Where are your tender spots, and what have you built to protect them? Can queer and trans people get past whatever you’ve built? (And let’s be clear, we all build lots of these things. That’s selfhood. We can also try to keep them moving, bending, and breaking. That’s queering selfhood.)
- What is gender-normative about the seemingly neutral “tastes” we have?
- How do you know a piece of work is “good” and why?
- Do you aim to “include” diversity, or to undo the “exclusions” by which people are placed outside in the first instance?
- Do you see the point of intervention as inhering in others, in manuscripts, or in yourself?
- Do you voraciously keep up to date with queer and trans popular culture and art? (If not, how could one ever expect to have the skills to professionally appraise queer and trans texts?)
- If we’re uncomfortable in this very moment, we might also ask: have we ever had a transgender person get formidable with us about gender (and publishing)? Why not? Why does it feel weird? If it feels weird, can we even imagine the extent to which trans and queer people are frequently questioned about ourselves, our bodies, and why our tastes are what they are?
- Do you picture transgender readers, queer writers, weirdo markets, freak subscribers, gender-pained customers, buyers who know all about sex work, readers who are on the search for texts about sexual assault, or would-be lit-fanatics who are bored by everyday bodies? Do you prefer to picture an “average” or “general” reader who seems to have experienced nothing interesting or urgent with regards to bodies?
- How is your journal, press, or project hurt by gender norms or by investments in maintaining them or by the exhaustion of trying to cast them off? Is there relief or release to be found in a non-judgmental observation of one’s own gendered practices and their potential outcomes for others? Are there ways to feel better and to do better unto others and ourselves?
And, finally, the questions that may underlie those posed above:
- What is “straight literature”? What is “cis-gendered literature”? What are their conventions? Do you like these genres? When did you learn these genres? Are these genres your press’ mainstay? Why? If so, what limits and struggles might you unwittingly create and accept for your press/magazine? What have you missed out on? Which incredible books were not submitted to you?
- What authors do you see as worthy of mentorship? How do you view your role as a mentor? Do you know the texts and ideas that would allow you to be a decent mentor to queer or transgender people? Do you avoid queer or trans people at industry events because you’re not sure “what to say” or are “afraid of saying something wrong”? Do you view texts about (queer) desire, (trans) bodies, sex acts, sexual violence, or bodily change as “niche” texts?
Lest these challenges sound stern, let me end by affirming my hopefulness. Working with Leigh Nash at Invisible Publishing and with the whole crew at CWILA tells me that change is afoot. I believe many publishers and editors want to be more “inclusive.” The intentions are great! I just don’t think we have been equipped with the right questions, or at least enough of the right questions. So, I leave you some above. May we calmly set aside questions of whether or not we are already “good people” and proceed to the real work. May we feel invited to change rather than defensive and attacked. May we set aside our pride, moral posturing, and selfhood-panic long enough to let ourselves consider how we are living gender and sexuality in our lives and literature.
Those of us who may feel fatigued by the cultural project of “inclusion” have another path available here. Nobody wants to force anyone to publish books by anyone or about anything. I would never want or expect every or even most presses in Canada to want Plett’s book, Salah’s book, or my own. This is not about force or morals. I want editors, writers, publishers, and marketers who live in such a way that they are capable of wanting us. How will you build your literary, cultural, and intellectual capacities in such a way as to be able to read, enjoy, and fairly consider trans texts? While I’m no neoliberal optimist looking for our shared traits ad nauseum, it’s fair to say that the desire for others to be capable of wanting us is something that we should all be able to understand, to feel, and from which we can learn.
Thank you to the many people who are capable of wanting unique, hard, troubling texts of all sorts. Thank you to everyone who cares enough to try. Thank you to both of you who managed to read this entire tract. Thank you to CWILA for your work and for giving me this opportunity. Thank you to the editors, readers, audience members, journalists, and lit-lovers that animated my time in this position. Thank you.
Let us write, publish, read, and do things that we cannot, presently, imagine.
2015 CWILA Critic-In-Residence