By Morgan M Page/Odofemi
Following a series of important publications over the past few years, trans women are finally gaining a stronger foothold in the lit world. And in 2014, four Canadian trans women—Trish Salah, Casey Plett, Sybil Lamb, and myself—all have new books due out, and a major trans literature conference is set to take place in Winnipeg. How does this emergent trans women’s lit scene fit into Canadian women’s literature? I went to poet and academic Trish Salah and emerging writer Casey Plett to find out.
So, what is trans lit? Is it just literature written by trans people, or are there particular themes, concerns, and literary styles that we as trans writers employ?
Trish Salah: Good question, and a contested one, not least because “trans people” is one of those umbrella terms that none of us are ever quite satisfied by or in agreement upon.
Three different kinds of answers come first to mind: one, literature about or featuring trans characters and themes (written by anybody); two, literature by trans–identified people and/or by people with a trans history; and three, some combination of the first two. Which is to say, we can point to the genres, tropes, figures that come up most often in trans peoples’ writing, or which have been identified with trans people. For example, transition, sex work, and show girl memoirs, performance art practices that range from burlesque to gender deconstructive body performance (which is kind of like burlesque in academic or activist drag), political poetry and spoken word.
A fourth kind of answer would highlight the ways in which trans peoples’ (varied) experiences of oppression, body dysphoria, gender as a system, etc., give rise to particular ways of reading the world and the word, and that mobilize trans as analytic or interpretive lens. On that view trans experience produces insights through which one might read any literary text, differently. In Transgender Migrations, C. Riley Snorton gives a brilliant reading of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, arguing its racial plot is also one of transgender becoming; and, at Troubling Tucson, a Trans and Genderqueer Poetry Symposium last spring, Joy Ladin took us through a really rich reading of Emily Dickinson’s poetry as trans. Snorton and Ladin show how a trans optic illuminates ways in which identity, being and becoming are written in literary work marked by many forms of marginalization, erasure, invisibility. Reading trans figures and poetic movements in non-trans peoples’ writings may render a richer and more complex account of what trans literature does, but could also be turned in a depoliticizing direction, if it were too quick to detach the signifier trans from transsexual and transgender subjects. We’re not there yet, and maybe don’t even want to be.
There are parallels to the literary projects and concerns of other minoritized communities. Poetry is a poor person’s form, you can do it at work; porn is a way of making beautiful and desirable that which is abjected, and/or flipping the terms on one’s fetishization; spoken word speaks back to power directly; science fiction lets you imagine the world otherwise, etc.
Casey Plett: I might say displacement? I don’t mean that just in terms of obvious or reductive body dysphoria things: mundane stuff like relationships, houses, cities as well as murkier emotional things—I feel like I see that a lot in our writing.
As for what trans lit is, I like how Imogen Binnie answered this: “Literature that reads like it was produced for trans people.” I’d consider Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still For As Long As Possible to be trans lit, though only one of three protagonists is trans, and that fact is a side characteristic: it’s given similar levels of page time as other stuff in his life. But the book’s very real to me, and reads like someone who knows trans people and is conscious of us as an audience. Meanwhile, Annabel by Kathleen Winter wouldn’t be trans lit to me even if the kid was actually trans (it’s talked about as a trans book but the protagonist is intersex). Parts of it are written beautifully but the protagonist isn’t really a 3-D person, they’re more this blank slate gender-unicorn for the writer to project her points onto. Both of the above books had cis authors, but they’re such worlds apart. So I dunno if trans lit has to just be written by trans people. Then again, if a man writes a decent book with a female protagonist, we don’t go ahead and call it women’s lit. I dunno!
Also, Annabel made it onto Canada Reads this year and that makes me depressed.
Does trans lit as a whole, or even just trans women’s lit, fit within the canon of women’s literature?
Plett: Trans women’s lit does absolutely, though it’s rarely perceived that way.
Salah: Well, the thing about the notion of the canon is that it is always constructed from the point of view of tradition and is composed of the agreed upon, the established, the classics. It is hegemonic, and, well, we’re not. In fact, the question is more of inclusion than of canonicity, even within the counter tradition of women’s writing.
That said, Jan Morris, who has written over forty books, was named by The Times as the 15th greatest British writer since World War 2, and Rachel Pollack won the World Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, two of the most prestigious prizes for fantasy and science fiction writing; one certainly could say that Pollack is a canonical feminist science fiction writer, and that Morris has been canonized. And while Morris wrote a memoir, Conundrum, and Pollack has certainly been open about her history, it is as writers of works that have little to do with being trans that they have been recognized. The current wave of self-consciously politicized writing by transsexual and transgender folks is another matter, and I think that directly confronting the question of social erasure and cultural marginalization is some of the work we are doing collectively right now.
A lot of trans women’s literature that’s been picked up by publishers has traditionally been within the world of memoir and autobiography. I’m thinking here of everything from Jan Morris’s Conundrum to Janet Mock’s excellent Redefining Realness. Only a few out trans women seem to have gotten fiction, poetry, and other forms of writing published with any amount of attention until very recently. Why do you think this is? Do we need to push for more recognition of our work outside the realm of memoir?
Salah: Viviane Namaste talks about the autobiographical imperative, arguing that when non-trans folks approach trans people, not only are they only interested in hearing our autobiographies, but they feel free to discount everything we might have to say that isn’t about autobiography. And on CBC this morning, Janet Mock remarked that the media’s treatment of trans people hasn’t changed significantly since the early 1950s press coverage of Christine Jorgenson. Mock framed her own memoir and media interventions as attempts to push back against the narrowness and othering that has come of treating trans people as if we are solely defined by our transness (as opposed to other aspects of our identities, histories, experience, expertise and interests), and also as if we are curiosities to be known about as opposed to being people one might engage with. This relates to a point Julia Serano and Talia Bettcher make, that cis folks feel entitled to especially scrutinize and doubt trans folks’ self representations, positioning us paradigmatically as imposters or deceivers. In autobiography we appear as singular beings, at best as exceptional individuals who have triumphed over adversity to actualize ourselves, but more often as curiosities, outliers among humankind, who confirm the normalcy of the non-trans reader.
All that said, yes, it is a problem that there has not been either a critical apparatus or a broader public for our creative work, and that is tied in some ways to Viviane’s critique of the idea that the only or primary reason we might possibly have for writing is to satisfy the curiosity of, and/or educate, a non-trans public.
Plett: As someone who got her first publishing break writing personal essay/memoir stuff, it’s been fascinating to see how people react to non-fiction versus fiction. I like memoir a lot and think it gets a bad rap, but I do think reading fiction or poetry requires a more heightened interest, honestly, for what an author has to say?
When performance artist Annie Danger reviewed The Collection—a fiction anthology of 28 trans writers that I have a story in—she made a point that really stayed with me. She said, “Read this book because it’s an amazing and deeply variegated survey of what 28 trans people were thinking about. When do we ever get to hear what trans people are thinking about? All we hear is what trans people are.” Which is a power that non-fiction doesn’t always have, because with a personal essay you’re (loosely) restrained in your material by what’s actually happened. But fiction and poetry, to me, reflects what’s in an author’s mind in the middle of the night, when they could write about anything in the world. It’s so intimate.
So to bring this around and answer your question, I think it’s easier for trans people to get memoir published because cis people can still hold othering and condescending views about trans people and want to read the salacious details of our real lives. You can be interested in what a person is and what they signify—which of course is super-othering—without being interested in their thoughts, opinions, fears, etc (and of course memoir sells better than literary fiction on the whole—maybe in part for this reason? I dunno!).
I mean, look at that recent Piers Morgan interview with Janet Mock (whose book, yes, is great! I just finished it). He wanted her on his show but he wasn’t actually interested in what she had to say.
To want to read trans women writing fiction and poetry, you have to actually want to hear what’s on our minds. And I am honestly not optimistic that we live in a world where cis readers are clamoring for that! Like, I work in a bookstore, and when people come up to buy books like Annabel or For Today I Am A Boy sometimes I say like, oh, you should check out this novel or this collection if you’re interested in this subject—and they nod very politely and buy Annabel and go away. And not that I’m the world’s best saleslady, but. I don’t know, I think that will take lots of time to change.
There is such an underrepresentation of trans women’s lit. Do you ever feel constrained in how and what you can write about as a result? Do you ever feel like you have to dumb things down or present a more positive narrative because people might hold your work up as the one voice of our communities?
Plett: I’d like to think not anymore? Towards the end of writing my McSweeney’s column on transitioning, a well-known trans woman who I had looked up to tweeted that I was “creepy,” “annoying,” and “unhelpful.” I wrote her this email asking what she meant, and she actually wrote a very nice long thing back apologizing for being slapdash and then elaborating on her criticism. But basically she said she felt my column was giving trans people a bad name and that “the more you can make us seem like thoughtful, complex, sweet hearted people, the better.” Now, I have a couple regrets about my column, certainly, and she and I went on to have a good exchange, but it really made me decide for good: God fuck that. Before I finally transitioned in late 2010, I felt all fucked up in part because of the positive narrative thing. I didn’t feel like a thoughtful sweet-hearted person, I felt like a stupid gross sweaty pervy fuck-up boy who couldn’t possibly be anything like these nice normal women who were visible to me at the time, i.e., the ones that met the positive narrative tests.
So I came out of that exchange feeling okay, whatever’s burning a hole in my mind, I’m just going to write it, and if some jerk takes that to be some bad representation of trans women, then whatever. That was around the time I wrote the story that made it into The Collection, which I felt freaked out about at the time… but then got really warm responses to. So I’ve tried to never look back at the pressure-to-represent thing after that. And publishing with Topside (who’s putting out my book of short stories this summer) is nice because they share that mentality, I think.
It’s still hard though. In a certain sense it’s not different from how all women characters and authors have trickier bars to meet with respectability, but it’s also different because of how trans politics is hitting the mainstream right now. Like, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada got a bad review in Publisher’s Weekly because the reader didn’t “ultimately stand to learn much” from the main protagonist, or when I’ve talked about disliking Annabel, cis people always—always!—say “well, but it will help educate people.” Books about trans people aren’t allowed to be measured as literature the way other books are, they have to be part educational tract first. But then of course things are still super shitty for trans women and it does matter who and what is being held up. Obviously the solution is multitudes of trans women out there all telling unique kinds of stories, but it still does feel pressuring sometimes, for sure.
Salah: As a poet I’m often not working in a narrative mode, and when I am, more is left out than put in. Which is not to say that I aim for obscurity, but the thing about poetic language is that it creates effects that are not about conveying meaning in straightforward ways.
Even so, my poetry, especially in my new book Lyric Sexology, does work with narratives, figures and discourses that are messy, sexually violent and sometimes toxic in their representation of trans lives. Some of those very ambiguous and problematic discourses, figures and narratives are drawn from trans people’s self representations, some come from the transphobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, erotophobia and racism of the broader culture. So there is, for instance, racist language as well as whorephobia written into the text. My hope is that the book’s deployment of whorephobic and racist discourses operates both to witness their violence and to generate affective dissonance by implicating the reader in eugenic rhetorics written across both historical and contemporary discourses on trans (and) gender.
Doing this kind of work does feel like a risk, and an important one to take, precisely because the burden of representation you mention (positive representation) is one of the techniques power uses to enlist minoritized people to police themselves and assimilate to hegemonic culture. It can also produce pretty programmatic and uninteresting writing.
Were there or are there trans women writers who’ve inspired your own work? Who are they?
Salah: When I wrote my first book of poetry there wasn’t a lot out there that I knew of. Rachel Pollack’s science fiction, which I read as a teenager, and still love today, let me know I could be a writer. Later I was inspired by Xanthra Mackay’s satirical serial novel, Tse Tse Terrorist, that appeared in gendertrash and Mirha-Soleil Ross’s brilliant performance monologues, as well as by early essays by Viviane Namaste, Sandy Stone and Susan Stryker. Memoirs like Beth Elliot’s Mirrors: Portrait of a Lesbian Transsexual, Alexandra Highcrest’s At Home on the Stroll: My Twenty Years as a Prostitute in Canada, and punk goddess Jayne County’s Man Enough to be a Woman all communicated important lessons about how to live a transsexual life, and offered political analysis of the situations we face as trans women. I’m looking forward to Janet Mock’s book for the same reason.
In terms of poetry, which is the medium I spend most of my time in, after my first book came out, kari edwards, who was an extraordinary talent, and whose early death is an enormous loss for all of us, reached out to me and I got to know kari’s books. Iduna and A Day in the Life of P. are just genius. A little later I met Trace Peterson, whose book, Since I Moved In, is exquisite and very smart. The last few years have seen a sea change though—through Trace’s efforts at her journal, Eoagh, and the book she co-edited with TC Tolbert, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, there is a wealth of stunning poetic work by trans people and specifically trans women available. Joy Ladin, Lilith Latini and Micha Cárdenas are three of the women whose work in that collection I find really powerful.
Obviously I’ve also been significantly influenced by, and in dialogue with, writing by some masculine spectrum folks, particularly Julian Talamantez Brolaski, and Nathanaël, and lots of non-trans writers, such as Gail Scott, Gloria Anzaldúa, Phyllis Webb, Ammiel Alcalay and Dionne Brand, to name a few names.
Plett: I didn’t find a lot of work in my earlier years—which, to be clear, is not to say women weren’t out there making it. Elena Rose blogging as little light was probably the first woman I encountered making writing that connected really hard, that was free of bullshit and visceral and beautiful and real. It doesn’t do as much for me these days but Jenny Boylan’s first memoir was important to me when I read it.
And in the last couple years, a lot more: Imogen’s Nevada rocked me personally in ways I still don’t know how to describe, but as a writer I think it made me feel like nothing was off-limits. I’d never imagined talking about that stuff in like, a book that people would read. A bunch of Collection authors: Red Durkin, Alice Doyle, Katherine Scott Nelson, Ryka Aoki, Susan Jane Bigelow. Katherine Cross continuously amazes me with the smartness and empathy of her essays. Janet Mock, obviously. Julia Serano’s success made me feel like it was okay to write from a place of being really fucking pissed off. I have complicated feelings about Kate Bornstein’s work but I liked her memoir. Also Trish, I am reading your book right now and really really loving it; you write beautifully.
What has the reception been like for your work so far, Casey? Has it been easy to find support and get published? Or have there been struggles?
Plett: I’ve mostly been really fortunate. I won my McSweeney’s column in September 2010 when I was both beginning to transition and submit work, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to be published ever since in indie pubs. A few mainstream editors and agents have reached out to me having read my column, then weren’t into the stuff I sent them, and I’ve certainly had my share of rejects coming back from the slush pile—but mostly I’ve been really fucking blessed in this department. Of course, I’m also a white woman with a master’s degree.
One thing that does make me wonder. When I began classes for my MFA—this was in New York in 2009—there was this one professor who explicitly told me he wasn’t interested in that trans stuff I wanted to write about, that it was material I shouldn’t touch and that I should concentrate on other things instead. This guy was also a head editor at one of the big publishing houses, and like, as a prof he taught gay stuff, he taught stuff with graphic sex, he wasn’t a prudish conservative. But he was just like nope, don’t do it. Rejections come to me like every writer—and lordy, that seems recent but it was five years ago already!—but I do think about him still.
Trish, I know you’ve been an established writer for a long time now. Have things changed for the way people handle your work over time?
Salah: I’m not sure what it means to be an established writer, or if I am one. My first book came out over a decade ago, and I began publishing poetry and short fiction in magazines and journals back in the early 90s. During the mid-nineties the proximity to my transition and the lack of a broadly known trans political discourse were probably both at work in how people responded to my work—there were sometimes questions about whether my writing was women’s writing, whether it really belonged in women’s journals, etc. And it took me quite a long while to find my publisher for my first book… I’m very thankful Rima Banerji pointed me to her publisher, TSAR. Wanting in Arabic did receive substantial support from non-trans avant-garde, feminist and queer writers, like Margaret Christakos who reviewed it for the Globe and Mail, Rachel Zolf who reviewed in it Herizons, and Richard Vaughan, who wrote about it in Xtra. It was launched at Counting Past 2, the trans film and art festival Mirha-Soleil organized, and I feel like Anju Gogia, May Lui, and the folks at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore did a lot to promote that event and the book itself subsequently. So, I would say that in a certain way, my work has been very well supported, perhaps precisely because it appeared at the intersections of some overlapping communities, and was interested in both activist and experimental poetics. Over the last decade there has been some really lovely critical engagement writing on Wanting, and it has been taught in university classes a fair bit, for which I am really grateful.
At the same time, there certainly have been moments where references to either my personal history or my embodiment have made their way into reviews and critical writing in ways that have been troubling to say the least. As well, there have been, inevitably perhaps, times in which I’ve wondered if my work was solicited in order to “increase the diversity” of an event or a publication, but also kept to margins, as if it wasn’t really understood or entirely welcome. It is easy to be paranoid, because at least some of the time that shit is going on.
Why do you think it is that trans-masculine writers’ work is often placed within women’s literature (such as Leslie Feinberg, Patrick Califia, and Ivan E. Coyote) but trans women’s literature is absent or underrepresented?
Salah: I think there are two or three things at work in that dynamic. One, some trans women’s writing may be included as women’s writing, but not be especially visible as trans—which may be just fine. Two, the writers you mention spent a fair bit of time living as queer or butch within queer women’s communities, over a period of time in which trans women were actively excluded, and I think that both for reasons of proximity, emotional investment and shared culture, they have been more readily available for uptake. But that makes it sound accidental, when in fact the social relation that results in the privileging of their writing is a structural effect of transmisogyny. Julia Serano describes this as a consequence of an overvaluation of masculinity coupled with a particular species of misogyny that targets trans women, within queer and feminist communities in particular. I think that there is also the dynamic that Henry Rubin described as “queer-paradigmed transgenderism,” which is to say that queer and feminist spaces have been quicker to give visibility and legitimacy to those trans representations which reproduce the theoretical and political conventions of queer and feminist cultures. That may sound innocent enough, but it is complicated by the extent to which both queer and feminist cultures have a substantial history of transmisogny.
Plett: There are a bunch of long answers to that and I have already talked a lot! But a couple quick thoughts: 1) The weird way masculinity is privileged in the queer community, and 2) the fact that many trans-masculine folks come out of pre-existing lesbian and women’s communities and we generally don’t, and they are often still allowed access to women’s space while we are excluded either implicitly or explicitly. It’s the same reason why trans-masculine people have played MichFest while trans women are not welcome to attend.
Maybe also just the general greater economic factor? I mean there’s lots to go into there about the economic divide between trans men and trans women, and it’s maybe silly to grab onto one statistic, but when they did the National Trans Discrimination Survey down in the States, trans women reported getting fired for being trans at double the rate that trans men did. It’s probably not surprising that fewer of us have the resources to complete and publish books?
The past few years have seen a lot more work coming out from trans women, and a great deal of rallying around Imogen Binnie’s acclaimed debut Nevada (Topside Press 2013). Where is trans women’s literature going?
Salah: I love that we are seeing the emergence of trans centred literary presses like Topside, which published Imogen’s novel Nevada, and Trans-Genre, which published Ryka Aoki’s collection of poetry and prose, Seasonal Velocities. Both are just brilliant, and speak to a changing landscape in terms of what stories we can tell, who we imagine as our audience, what we are interested in our writing doing. I think those books both show we are in a moment wherein it is possible to make work whose intended audience is trans first, if not exclusively.
Speaking to Nevada specifically, there are so many good things that could be said about it, but I think part of its genius, and its success, is that it gives us a protagonist who is punk and a mess and beautiful and unlikable in some very mundanely human, North American white girl ways. She appeals to a certain narcissistic identification in other words, without being impossible to live up to, because she’s a bit of a darling fuck up. And the book also does some very crucial and precise work in voicing some critiques and some preoccupations that we may talk about to one another but that don’t often get heard beyond our secret societies. Which kind of reminds me of a poem in Ryka’s collection, “Indigenous.”
So maybe that is some of what our work might do now, move beyond existing narratives by enacting conversations between trans women in ways that can be overheard by others. More broadly I think our writing is also intervening in how we are written, without necessarily being all about that.
Plett: Amazing places, I think! Nevada was a genuine independent success (am I an asshole for using that phrase?) and Redefining Realness is a NYTimes Bestseller, and they’re both fucking great books. I doubt we’ll ever sell as much as the average cis author who wants to write about us, but we are out there and being read and selling books and that is so fucking cool. (I guess this is the flipside of my above cynicism, haha.) And I’d like to think anthologies like Troubling the Line and The Collection have made it impossible to ignore the volume of us out there writing. There’s so much great stuff on the horizon. I’m excited to read your book, Morgan. Laverne Cox has a memoir coming out, Ryka has a novel out this year. Red [Durkin] has a novel in the works. Trish’s new book in March. And of course there’s zine-makers and comic artists—I collaborated with Annie Mok on a thing last year. I love her work to death and am excited to see what she continues to make.
I think we’ve seen a small shift, honestly, not only in literature but in the larger culture of what trans women are allowed to be in the world. The Positive Narrative stuff is maybe starting to give a bit, so we can get into deeper and uglier things that historically we’ve had few platforms to talk about. I think the success of Redefining Realness is a great example really: as Janet writes about growing up, she breaks down every step of the One of the Good Ones narrative the world pushed on her, talks about how she internalized it, and why it’s crap, and how it hurt her as a poor trans woman of colour and continues to hurt the most marginalized in our community. She’s so inspiringly unapologetic about it and tons of people are buying her book.
Can you tell us briefly about your upcoming projects? Trish, I’m especially interested in hearing about your upcoming Writing Trans Genres Conference in Winnipeg.
Salah: Thanks Morgan! I’m so jazzed about the conference, which is bringing an amazing group of trans and two spirit writers, critics, and activists together to think about, well—really a lot of what we’ve been talking about here. The conference is part of a larger SSHRC funded project I’m working on, on the emergence of trans literatures, and is co-hosted by the University of Winnipeg’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and our Institute for Women and Gender Studies. Our keynotes are all extraordinary writers and have made major contributions to trans literatures, performance and scholarship: Aiyyana Maracle, Jay Prosser, Nathanaël, Rachel Pollack. As well, a number of writers from Troubling the Line and The Collection will be reading and speaking at the conference, including Imogen Binnie, Max Valerio, Trace Peterson, Ching-in Chen and, of course, Casey (whose upcoming fiction collection is just gorgeous, I must say), and there will be a wide range of readings, academic panels, workshops, and public talks as well as a cabaret. The conference itself is sliding scale, and the keynotes and daytime readings will be free and open to the public, as well as streamed live on the web. We’re trying to make a space that is accessible to a broad public but also conducive to the serious work of theorizing the politics and aesthetics of trans literatures. It runs from May 22-24, and readers can learn more about it at www.writingtransgenres.com.
I’d like to mention again Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1, which is my new book out with Roof this March. Really it is an attempt to excavate and play with various archives of trans representation, many of them quite fraught, phobic and strange.
Plett: I have my book of stories coming out from Topside this summer, then there’s a couple non-fiction projects in the freezer I’d like to work on afterwards. But who knows. One day I’d really like to write a novel. I’d like to write a YA thing too someday. Unless my book becomes a colossal bestseller in which case I’m going to drink Forty Creek in my penthouse all day, so long, suckers. In the short-term though, I’m super excited for the Conference here in Winnipeg as well.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights with me!
Born in Halifax, Trish Salah is a writer, activist and assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg, where she is organizing a conference on Trans Literatures and Criticism for May 2014 (writingtransgenres.com). Her recent writing appears online at The Feminist Wire, and in the anthologies Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. She has two poetry books, Wanting in Arabic (TSAR 2002, 2nd edition 2013), and a new collection, Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1, which is out with Roof Books this March.
Casey Plett wrote a column on transitioning for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, was a contributor to the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, and her first book, a collection of short stories, is forthcoming in 2014 from Topside Press. Her work has also appeared in Plenitude, Two Serious Ladies, the Manitoban, and other publications. Casey lives in Winnipeg.