By Libe García Zarranz
LGZ: It is an absolute treat to interview Lucas Crawford as CWILA’s new critic-in-residence.
Lucas, welcome to CWILA! It has been a few weeks since you were announced as the organization’s 2015 critic-in-residence. Tell us about this period: your first reaction; other people’s reactions….
LC: Thank you so much for the welcome. My first reaction was one of pleasant surprise and delight. I’ve received a lot of support and interest about the news from great people, publications, poets, and friends. I’ll tell you more about reactions later on.
LGZ: I’m very glad to hear that! Yes, more about reactions later. I can see that you have crossed numerous geographical borders, moving from Nova Scotia, to Alberta, to British Columbia. As a critic and a poet, you also systematically cross and transgress the boundaries of genre and gender. Would you like to comment on the productive possibilities of border crossing for poetic and political practice?
LC: I’ve just come back from a trip to the US. While my experience of literal border crossing is not nearly as bad as it is for many people, it is unpleasant. So, at the moment, I might not be seeing the productive possibilities! Like many of us, I despise everything about the security checkpoints. If we could subvert the meaning of “checkpoint,” I suppose we could say that border crossing—in terms of genre, gender, province, etc.—usually leads us to ‘check in’ with ourselves and notice things about what we’re doing. Perhaps the artifice of metaphorical borders can be generative to us sometimes, if they help us locate ourselves (or, maybe, better lose ourselves—or at least our luggage).
LGZ: I’m intrigued about your insights on the politics and poetics of location that you begin to develop here. In this sense, what does it mean for you as a transgender poet, scholar, and critic to be part of CWILA? How do you envision this new position?
LC: I have admired CWILA’s work from afar in the past, including the annual counts regarding the gender breakdown of how book reviews and reviewers are gendered. I admire this strong work, and often wondered just what software might be able to render the microscopic crumb of the pie comprised of trans or genderqueer authors and reviewers. I believe it is special for an organization like CWILA to construe the category of “woman” widely, to include not just transsexual and transgender people but those who may not identify strongly with any one gender, or with gender at all. Because genderqueerness is appreciated in some body types in some portions of some urban queer scenes, there’s sometimes a tendency to think that genderqueer people are understood and welcomed in our culture at large. This is untrue of many or most corners of our culture, even including some nooks of literary culture and of gay culture. So, what it means for me to be a part of CWILA is the opportunity to help create a literary culture where gender, like genre, is a matter in which drafting, revision, and experimentation are (recognized as) modes of survival, not luxury.
LGZ: How would you describe then what transgender literature is and what it does, particularly in a Canadian context?
LC: To me—and I should underline that I speak for myself only—transgender literature might do at least one of four things: first, address gender thematically in a way that undoes heteronormative and homonormative ideas about bodies. Secondly, transgender literature might operate on received notions of form and its relation to content; trans literature knows that genre is performative, and struggles against the stasis of form to instead convey movement. Third and relatedly, trans lit in my view does something to temporality; it changes how time works in narrative. One way of doing so would be, fourth, to reject the form and rhythm of the human life as the exclusive organizer of literature or story. Again, I should say that other trans and genderqueer poeple will have drastically different definitions of trans lit—and I suppose that fortunate state of affairs is a fifth way I’d define trans lit for myself: it resists definition.
In the Canadian context, I am sure that reading the works of other trans authors would give readers a variety of great answers to this question. Trish Salah and Casey Plett are writers who have had a great deal of success. Trish Salah also organized a conference in 2014, Writing Trans Genres (writingtransgenres.com). While I was unable to attend myself, the success of the conference is a great sign of the energy of trans lit and criticism in Canada and beyond. I also think that much of Canada’s great trans “writing” occurs in performance spheres, where words and/or bodies are used to somewhat different effect. In that realm, Morgan Sea and Coral Short are people to watch in Montreal.
LGZ: I would like now, if you are willing, to discuss a particular aspect of your application that really caught the jury’s attention: how is trans literature integral to women’s literature?
LC: One answer is that transwomen and genderqueer women are women to the same degree that anyone else is a woman. So, those who concentrate on women’s literature ought to, one would think, read widely in the literatures of transwomen and genderqueer women. I think with the huge success of Janet Mock’s book, and Laverne Cox’s flourishing acting career, mainstream society is certainly starting to understand this in a new way.
As someone who is frequently interpreted and experienced all over the spectrums of transgender and genderqueer, I think that trans people assigned “female” at birth can also feel attached to “women’s literature” when and if one feels comfortable with that—and I do. (This runs the risk of being misinterpreted as having one’s cake and eating it too. However, “men’s literature,” if we want to call it that, is neither open to genderqueers and trans folks nor, at least in my case, even desired. Also, without going into my life story, suffice it to say that long before I changed my name to Lucas, “womanhood” was sure not having me!) Perhaps transgender literature can be about writing without a base, or writing with only a fleeting sense of belonging. For me this has been the pleasure and the pain, the blessing and the curse….
A broader answer is that if feminist/women’s literature has, at its heart, a desire for those affected by gender injustice to have more options, more of a voice, more authority in literature and elsewhere, then surely this also includes the option for a woman to stop being a woman, a woman to become a different sort of woman, a man to become a different sort of man, a person perceived by others to be a man to assert that they would like to be perceived differently, etc. We could say that if women’s literature as a movement wants more of ‘a voice’ for women, then it (and this “it” is difficult to pin down) ought to be ready for those voices to actually speak. So, we might say that trans literature in some ways shares, in some ways continues, in some ways revises, in some ways rejects, in some ways exceeds, and in some ways reflects the larger goals of women’s literature in really special ways.
LGZ: We have talked about some of the negative reactions you have encountered from certain sectors in the literary world towards the appointment of a transgender poet as CWILA’s new critic-in-residence. In your opinion, can this kind of controversy be conducive to dialogue and change? Do these tensions signal instead the rupture or loss of coalition between feminist, queer, and transgender groups in the literary world?
LC: At the end of the day, I think that if you’re up to anything remotely interesting, some corner of Twitter will be angry with you, and taking on this role as a person of inscrutable gender was no exception. The negative reactions I faced online were from folks who we in transgender studies might call TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). This is a fringe movement that polices genitals and sexes assigned at birth, in an attempt to weed out transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, and otherwise gender non-conforming people. My attitude towards angry strangers on the internet is usually “don’t feed the trolls,” but, you know, sometimes you get home after a long day and look at the internet before you’ve adjusted your blood sugar with a snack, and you try to explain yourself to these folks before realizing that they are not interested in dialogue and that one owes them neither an explanation nor an iPhone crotch-shot of one’s junk in order to prove your “real sex.” (Don’t worry, I didn’t do that!) At the very end of the day, it might be most appropriate to sum it up with the poetry of one Taylor Swift, who writes, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate; hate! Hate? Hate!” But we can move beyond that for a moment.
When a trans or genderqueer person pops up where we’re not expected, there can be an adjustment period—so, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some folks struggling to understand my appointment. That’s ok. We all have a lot of emotion invested in gender and sexuality. We all have a lifetime of gender experience and beliefs with us, including or especially if we’re rather fine with mainstream ideas about gender. If I can help generate dialogue, or encourage people to examine their attachments to gender, then I am happy for the chance, with the usual caveat that the work not be done at my expense or the expense of other trans or genderqueer people.
I think that some of the potential anger out there can be traced to a limiting slogan that trans circles have (for good reason) been using in recent years. Honestly, I think we are forced to explain our lives and earn our rights through easy-to-digest sentences and instantly circulatable ideas. One of these is the “trans men are real men” or “trans women are real women” meme. In a strict sense, it’s true and is useful for speaking to certain cis audiences who need things to be very simple and need their ideas of “man” and “woman” to remain entirely intact. However, there are very complex and heavy ideas presumed in those equations, including the very idea that gender “reality” is simple and obvious. It’s not (or, not always). When we are on the sidewalk confronted by strangers, or are being excluded from a washroom, then yes, we need gender reality to function more simply and obviously in that moment. But in our own minds and lives, we don’t need to limit our conceptions of gender, genderqueer, or trans to the ideas that work strategically in moments defined by cis ignorance and exclusion. I like to point out that realism is not the only genre through which to do gender. Realism is not a non-genre; it is not un-constructed; it is not a non-narrative; it is not necessarily more noble, harder to live, or more honest; and, it shouldn’t be required. A trans woman, like any woman, should be allowed to orient to “woman” however she wants and still access women’s resources; a trans guy shouldn’t have to perform masculinity in any particular way to use a men’s bathroom with safety.
This is all to say that I’m sure there are folks out there thinking, “Hey! What about all those posts I see on Facebook telling me that I need to treat trans guys as real men?!” Well, we didn’t all ask for that, many of us don’t care that we could never pull it off, and many of us spend our lives querying the status of this mysterious genre called“real men.” (I in no way critique trans people for whom this or that quick one-liner resonates, but I do wish that more cis allies did the work of thinking about gender and transgender in ways that move beyond these; it would allow us to define transgender without the pressure to be pithy and entertaining.)
In the end, I’d say: if we live in a culture where we are angry that a rural lower working class dyke maritimer ended up with a big scholarship to study transgender and then got some temporary/precarious employment at a university, then we’ve got some reevaluating to do. If we are more angry that this or that type of trans/genderqueer person gets a gig than we are that 99.9999% of all gigs go to cis (white/able-bodied/etc.) people, then we are missing the bigger picture, including the bigger picture of who that dyke maritimer might be, what else they do in life to ensure that access is widened across many lines of class, race, gender, etc., and how that person’s views and experiences of life might exceed and even contradict the limited ways in which they are represented to us.
While we all have our various pieces of resources or fortune in life, hardship for the many varieties of trans and genderqueer people is one thing that does not operate via an economy of scarcity: some have more of it (though there’s no foolproof formula that can determine in advance who, how, or why) and there is more than enough pain and hardship to go around. We don’t need to take it away from each other to feel that our own hardships are ‘real’ or heard. I love to think of trans and genderqueer life in a way that moves beyond attachment to pain (ressentiment) but doing so requires so much emotional labour that it is very difficult not to resent that we have to do it. In conclusion, then: I really feel for people who are angry about my appointment; it reflects where transgender has been led as a loosely defined ‘community’ and shows just how far we have to go in terms of our culture at large.
LGZ: I agree with your comment about the need to generate dialogue as an integral part to feminism and its multiple ramifications. On this note, I would like to ask you about your plans for the following months as CWILA’S 2015 critic-in-residence. Any upcoming reviews or performances that we can look forward to?
LC: I am very honoured to be reviewing a poem from Amber Dawn’s new collection in SubTerrain this month, and to have one of my own poems reviewed there as well. Shortly, I’ll begin the process of putting together trans lit folios for Canadian periodicals. In October, I’ll be reading at Vancouver’s Twisted Poets Series. I hope to set out on a mini-tour to launch my own Sideshow Concessions that same month. And, the first review I’ll be doing is of Trish Salah’s Lyric Sexology, Volume One. Go pick it up today!
LGZ: Thank you for your answers, Lucas. To conclude, how do you envision CWILA’s future?
LC: I can’t wait to see all the great work CWILA will do in the future. I hope that I am just the first of a long line of genderqueer, transgender, or otherwise unexpected critics-in-residence. I am especially looking forward to reading the writing you’ve received in response to your recent call for work by Indigenous women and two-spirited people. I think that because CWILA construes its constituency broadly, its futures are wide open. I’d be interested to delve into questions of social class. What are the class trajectories of reviewers, of authors, and so on? I’m excited to keep learning from CWILA’s work, so thank you all.
Lucas Crawford is the author of three forthcoming books: Transgender Architectonics (critical essays, from Ashgate), The High Line Park Scavenger Hunt (poetry, from Transgress Press), and Sideshow Concessions, which was recently awarded the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. The latter will appear with Invisible Publishing in October 2015. Lucas’ work is also currently nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. He attended the Banff Centre Writing Studio in 2012 and won the Atlantic Writing Competition (Poetry) in 2005. Lucas grew up in rural Nova Scotia and now lives in Vancouver, where he’s currently the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowment Lecturer in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.