I’m on the road for a lot of this spring, touring my new novel Little Fish. All my dates below are as follows, with links as necessary, etc.
Some of these gigs will cost $ to come to. If you’re trans and that’d keep you from coming and you’d like to come, please e-mail me? casey dot plett at gmail.
April 14: Hamilton, ON, gritLIT Festival (https://www.bruha.com/event/2963) – A master-class on writing and self-promotion ($20)
April 15: Hamilton, ON, gritLIT Festival (https://www.bruha.com/event/2944) – A reading with Kevin Hardcastle and Nathan Ripley ($8-$10)
April 25: Winnipeg, MB, McNally Robinson (https://www.facebook.com/events/1560495753998421/) – A reading with Amber Dawn and Joshua Whitehead (Free)
April 27: Montreal, QC, Blue Metropolis Festival (https://www.facebook.com/events/1622514131118441) – The Violet Hour – A reading with Kamal Al-Solaylee, Amber Dawn, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Joshua Whitehead, hosted by Christopher DiRaddo ($5)
April 28: Montreal, QC, Blue Metropolis Festival (https://www.facebook.com/events/796262327227010/) – Outside The Margins: Community, Representation and Resilience – A panel with Amber Dawn and Catherine Hernandez, hosted by Leila Marshy (Free)
April 29: Ottawa, ON, Ottawa International Writers Festival (http://www.writersfestival.org/events/spring-2018/this-is-us-with-casey-plett-amber-dawn-and-joshua-whitehead) – A panel with Amber Dawn and Joshua Whitehead, hosted by Amanda Earl ($20)
May 3: New York, NY, Bluestockings (https://www.facebook.com/events/610393959307010/) – A reading with Amber Dawn, Megan Milks, and Joshua Whitehead (Free)
May 8: New York, NY, McNally Jackson (https://www.facebook.com/events/1829583774011182/) – A reading with Cat Fitzpatrick and Jeanne Thornton (Free)
May 23: Vancouver, BC, Vancouver International Writers Festival (https://www.facebook.com/events/180760762652838/) (Free)
May 31: Toronto, ON, Glad Day Bookshop – A reading with AMAZING PEOPLE TBD (Free)
Hi everyone. I just did a talk at Drake last week and I promised I would post my notes of it on my blog later. So that is what I am doing now!
I just want you all to know—when I was a student and I went to lectures like these, I had such a hard time paying attention. I’d go see someone speak and I’d think like wow, I’m really interested in what this person is saying—and then I just couldn’t stay focused and I’d forget it all. I saw Jennifer Egan speak when I was in grad school and I was like wow, that was fascinating, a week later, I couldn’t remember a fuckin’ word she said. Anyway, the point is, I’ll be posting the notes of this talk up on my blog later, so if that’s useful to you, there it’ll be, it’s just caseyplett.com
First, a story. I recently re-united with an old and close friend from when I was younger, whom I hadn’t spoken to in many years. We were talking and catching each other up on all the shit that’d happened to us since we’d been estranged. As we were talking, she brought up a memory from about a decade ago, which was before I started taking hormones, and when I identified at the time as a genderqueer boy who liked to wear girl clothes, and nearly 100% of people perceived me as a cisgender man. In my friend’s memory, we were taking the light rail transit together and I was in a skirt. There were these guys on the train who started giving me shit, pointing and laughing and jeering, calling me names and shit. And I just stood up and quietly said “let’s go over here” and moved to the other end of the car and she followed. My old friend, she’d brought up this memory, years after it happened, and she said “I always felt bad about that, that I didn’t say something, I didn’t stand up for you.”
The thing is: I don’t remember this happening. It doesn’t even jog a memory or anything. It’s just not up here.
But of course, I completely believed my friend—because this would’ve been such a common experience for me back then. (Including the part about a friend saying nothing.) It was a formative experience for her, but I think such individual moments of garden-variety harassment have blended together in my mind, such a part of daily life it didn’t warrant registration in my memory for future use. Have you ever had a boss who always loses it and yells at people? So often you can’t remember every single instance? It would’ve been like that. Yet: when someone harasses me today because I am a transgender person, and I’m very blessed that it happens much less, it really eats at me.
My old friend told me about this a year ago. I’ve thought about this a lot since she did. I’ve realized that for a long time, my prime fear when I went out in skirts or dresses was that I was going to get physically hurt for doing so. A mixture of luck and systemic privilege meant it didn’t happen, and every it didn’t happen, I filed that as a win. No matter what guys on the train were saying to mark me, no matter how scared I felt. I even wrote a couple years later in a column for McSweeney’s “I was able to do this without much worry for my safety.” But honestly, while that might have been true in retrospect, at the time I just felt scared and lucky.
So for a long time, the pointing and jeering didn’t necessitate any entry into my long-term memory. And I think hmm, I probably don’t really understand what that’s done to me. Furthermore, I feel like I my memories of that period of my late teens to early 20s are less vivid, murkier, less available then, say, when I was in high school. Because I have more journal entries and photos from high school, and I had more friends in high school. That period is farther away in time but it’s less lost.
So why am I bringing this up? Because I can’t help but wonder what else I don’t remember. What used to be so commonplace that I don’t recall, both trials that I braved and trials I whined about and needed a shitty hand-hold all the way through. When memory fails in a non-linear fashion—what does that mean for a writer?
Turning to another topic. Imogen Binnie, author of the novel Nevada, talked once on how a book’s stasis might be particularly powerful in the world of the Internet. She said:
I have this idea for something I want to create, and I think, will this work best as a poem, as a song, as a short YouTube video… there are so many media that you can do things in, and I think that books have really specific strengths … Nevada came out like two-and-a-half years ago, and people keep discovering it, but it keeps on being the same book, and so somebody who read it two-and-a-half years ago can talk to someone who read it today.” She said this isn’t the case with the Internet, because“you’ve got the timeline, and stuff falls to the bottom”.
The Internet’s an irreplacable venue for writing and reading, and I definitely grew up learning to write on the Internet to a large degree. But to take her point further, a person who interacted with a book in 1969 is interacting with the same book fifty years later. There are lots of static art forms like movies and albums etc, but for writing…I think of ephemeral blog posts that can be taken down or the creator just can’t keep it online anymore—which has happened to a lot of trans writing, like the Questioning Transphobia blog, or the Transactivisty blog, or the Trans Girl Diaries comic, or even just LiveJournals that have by now been deleted or locked for very understandable reasons. Thank God the Wayback Machine exists, which archives a lot of the Internet’s lost material, but still there’s so much that’s hard to find and often not in its full form. If you’ve got the luck and privilege to get a book out there, there is still something more lasting about it. I’ll also say, you know, like—with a book you can’t take it back? You can’t edit it, you can’t delete it, you can’t go back and attach caveats to it, if you fucked something up it’s just out there.
Similarly, though, no one else can take it away from you.
Speaking of Imogen’s book, the novel Nevada. It came out five years ago—five years ago this month, actually. It’s about a young trans woman named Maria in New York City who has a life that’s a little bohemian, a little boring: Working retail and in a stale relationship. Then suddenly, her girlfriend breaks up with her and she gets fired. So Maria steals her girlfriend’s car, blows her savings on heroin, and then drives out West.
And there, Maria meets this young guy named James who she’s sure is a closeted trans woman, but their connection doesn’t go as she plans, her efforts to mentor this young person blow up in this raw and awful way.
Before then, I’d never read a novel by a trans woman that was about being a trans woman. To me, it was a very painful book, filled with realities about how you can be a trans woman and transition and think you’ve figured your shit out, but being trans can still fuck up your life in ways you don’t understand. Most intimately, it’s about how two people who have been marginalized in similar ways are just completely unable to speak to each other. It’s also just conversational and easy and such a fun fucking book to read. An excerpt:
So they became friends, they ate lunch together, it was a new relationship, even though it wasn’t
supposed to be a make-out relationship. They talked about stuff, he explained stuff to her—he loves to
explain stuff—and she was like, oh my god, here is a person who knows the real smart truth about
transitioning! Gender truly is a construct!
Eventually you can’t help but figure out that, while gender is a construct, so is a traffic light, and if you
ignore either of them, you get hit by cars. Which, also, are constructs.
They fucked in a Burritoville bathroom.
He managed to kind of fuck her with a packer in a tiny, dirty yellow bathroom downstairs in the
Burritoville on Second and Sixth. She managed to keep her skirt on the whole time and not let her touch her junk. She certainly didn’t come. Maybe he did. There were greasy patches on the mirror and since the bathroom was so small she pressed her face against it while he kind of fucked her, and then when they left there was grease all over her cheek. It was hard to wash off. She was like, cool, punk rock, degradation, kinky sex, how queer and great. That was her sleaziest moment. It seemed like, from then on, she’d be building a body of work about the interesting sex she’d had, but those stories never really materialized. That time at Burritoville, that was pretty much it.
She’s thinking, I think I just don’t get sex, while she shoulders her bike and starts climbing stairs.
Maria’s life was both not my experience and totally my experience. (Also, sidebar: Though the passage of Nevada I read earlier might indicate otherwise, Maria identifies as a dyke and dates and mostly sleeps with women.) I cry every time I read it. And I got to read Nevada early on, a few months before it was published. It was an intimate, lone experience I’ll always carry with me, feeling like I was understood in a way I hadn’t thought, of a need met I’d never been able to verbalize. Then, some months later, it was published, and among a small group of trans women there was a burst of excitement and amazement that a book like it was possible. This basically all took place on blogs and social media. There was even a Facebook group called “People Who Need to Talk About Nevada by Imogen Binnie.”
If you go to Goodreads, many of the top reviews are trans women from early 2013, saying things like
imagine my delight when people on the message boards I belong to started talking about a new book that finally “got” it. Words written from the heart of an eloquent trans woman who was able to finally express all of the things we’d been struggling to get across… (Chloe)
It’s a pretty intense feeling when you start reading a book, and you realize that for the first time in your life you can relate to the narrator in a way you’ve never related to one before. … to see such an integral part of my identity reflected in a character, to have her say/think things that made me feel jubilant, pensive, or just completely fucked up, was an amazingly powerful experience for me. (Joey Alison Sayers)
Reading usually makes me fall asleep, even when I’m really into it. I stayed up until 4:30 in the morning reading this book and I’m too wound up to sleep even though I finished it. I’ve never liked anything the way I liked Nevada. I swear I’m not being paid to say that. Holy shit. (Red)
And I also, bee tee dubs, wrote on my blog:
I spent most of [two days] reading the book in bed, lots of it drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or grinning and giggling like a dumbass. … It’s a weird feeling to read shitloads of fiction all your life, and then read this book, and realize it’s the first book written specifically for someone like you to read it.
There is more than available. So much of the response after Nevada was published, the violent-feelings-explusion this book prompted is, perhaps relatedly to Imogen’s earlier point, lost to locked and deleted Facebook groups and accounts and Twitter feeds. One reaction that did get put in a book, two years later, was in Jamie Berrout’s Otros Valles where she talked about how this chorus of praise generally came from white trans women. So I also don’t wish to say either that communal response in 2013 was some perfect all-inclusive wonderland for all trans women, and I do want to emphasize the following personal sections of this talk are only meant to speak for myself.
There was a strange point not too long ago where if you went looking for books about transgender people, you would find them, and there were dozens…but they were near-universally either a) books by cis people or b) memoirs that were by trans people but hewed to a fairly normative line, that they were born with this Terrible Thing, and then they transitioned, and it was Hard, but Worth It, and now they’re just a nice Normal Person. An exception that comes to mind is Leslie Feinberg, whose book Stone Butch Blues is a very meaningful novel. But generally, if you went to seek out books on trans subjects specifically written by trans women, the cisgender authors and the normative memoirs were literally the only things there.
A lot was messed up about that huge body of writing—and for the first kind particularly, I’d recommend Trish Salah’s Lyric Sexology No. 1 for a creative and incisive response to it. But what affected me particularly about that huge body of writing was the absence of what it meant to be a trans woman attracted to women. For a long time, it was decreed by psychologists, academics, doctors, radical feminists (who we would now call “TERFs” or trans-exclusive radical feminists) that transsexual women attracted to women were at best, not really transsexuals and just cross-dressers or something, and at worst, were rapists and perverts. For a long time, if you wanted to get medical treatment, they wouldn’t give it to you if you didn’t tell them you were only attracted to men, you were invalid from the get-go. For a number of significant years, I believed my attraction to women meant I couldn’t be one, and I can’t begin to tell you how doorless and lonely that felt.
By the time Nevada came out, I’d transitioned and I’d realized that was all bullshit. I knew, at that age, that trans women were unquestionably women, and trans women could sleep with women regardless of the state of their genitals and still be unquestionably women. I knew that smart and well-intentioned trans women could also do really shitty things, and I knew they could be kind and pissy in the same hour, and I knew that just like any other person going through their day they had their own plethoric array of beauty and weirdnesses and faults. I knew that trans women didn’t have road maps for their lives the way many other people did, and that as a trans woman, I would have to create a life for myself that the world wouldn’t understand or give me precedent for.
Intellectually I knew all that. But it was still deeply powerful and wrenching to see similar experiences presented in a novel. Though I’d written plenty about being trans at that point, nothing about Nevada had occurred to me as possible. I didn’t realize a creative and beautiful and sad book about transsexual stuff could exist in the same way as my other favourite books. And furthermore, the point I really want to make, is that I never consciously thought that to myself “Gee Casey, books are great, and you should be a writer, but this deep dive into messed-up trans women shit is off-limits for novels.” Reading Nevada was not like a repudiation of barriers I had previously and consciously denied myself— unlike, say, the actual act of transitioning—Reading Nevada was more like a Plato’s cave moment. Now, in 2018, there are plenty of corners of literary culture echoes these concerns, that understand why literature that speaks to different marginalized experiences can have certains kinds of power. But this was the first time this had personally happened to me.
Imogen wrote the first draft of Nevada in 2008 and years later re-wrote it in 2012 before it was published in 2013. That summer, she did an interview with Dan Fishback, who asked her:
Even though you have a real community of trans women in your life, did you experience the process of hiding out to write Nevada as a form of, like, imagined community-building? Like – did you conjure, in your mind, a sense of trans woman community beyond what you experience IRL, and did your relationship with that community change as you wrote?
Part of Imogen’s response:
If I’d been thinking ‘Man, wait til the community sees this, this is really gonna shake shit up,’ I never would’ve been able to finish it. I would’ve sat in my basement garage bedroom in Oakland where I did most of the work on this book, listening to Converge albums and fantasizing about being smarter than I am and getting rewarded for it. [thinking about an audience] just makes me feel self-conscious and like somebody else could probably do a better job so maybe I should just be quiet and wait.
I empathize with Imogen on this. For me, when I’m alone in my room, trying to put truth on the page in an interesting and emotional way, I’m not thinking about the ways writing might be able to “build community” or “change the world” or whatever. I’m just trying to put some truth on the page in a way that I can live with myself afterward.
And as for Imogen, my guess is she couldn’t have predicted the ways that her book would mark a turning point, that it would come out on the precipice of this cultural shift in mainstream notions of transness—not only because it happened to get published at a time that people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock suddenly became famous and were unapologetic and incisive in the politics they brought with them, but also because it coincided with a time where a LOT more trans women were coming out, many of whom took value from a book like that and went looking for cultural objects made by trans people.
So it became a bridge in this way I doubt, in 2008, Imogen could have understood as she was writing. I know she did hope it would do some of the work it did, but I don’t think she could have imagined it being a part of the world we have now at all.
You know, I wrote this story once called “Other Women” for an anthology called The Collection: Short Fiction From the Transgender Vanguard, which on its release was the first thing I’d ever written to end up in a book. Towards the end of the story I wrote, the main character has sex her high school best friend, and that sex turns non-consensual, and eventually she leaves in a fight and goes and sleeps with her friend’s roommate. I’ve since had trans women come up to me and say that story did something for them, and I’ve seen that story talked about in the context of trans women experiencing sexual assault. Those trans women readers telling me this means the world to me, it really does. It really does.
But, I didn’t write it thinking that would happen. I just had this story I had to get out and I felt so alone writing it but I just had this force in me telling me I had to do it. From wherever the fuck my own mix of experiences and creative inspiration comes from. And when I did think of how the story might be received? I didn’t imagine good things, I thought trans women readers would hate it, I’d thought they’d think that I was giving us a bad name.
Now, like I said, it means the world to me that it didn’t shake out like that. But my takeaway from that experience wasn’t to focus on how my writing could be good for the world, my takeaway was that focusing on that wasn’t helpful.
The point I wish to make is that so much of the exciting stuff books are capable of, the cathartic and intimate and world-changing power that specifically fiction and personal essays and memoir might hold—to me that power is not necessarily harnessable or predictable in the act of writing. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but thinking of how my writing might collide with the world doesn’t help me, and maybe it doesn’t help you either, and if it doesn’t that’s okay.
Thinking about a reader—a person alone in a room who feels like I do, that helps me. Thinking about “the world” is like ahhhhh! No.
Now, this is not to say that when we are publishing work, we shouldn’t consider how the world will react. I do believe publishing work is not free of moral considerations, I do believe in sensitivity reading, and I do believe in being conscious of politics and ethics when one is finishing a work and preparing it for publication. So maybe this is all just a larger and me-specific rant on that old Stephen King line he got from an editor, which is: “Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” I do think there’s a lot of truth in that. So I guess what I’m trying to share is that for me the course of writing something relies heavily on itinerary. That whether I’m writing a short story story or an essay or a novel, that for me the first parts of that journey involve shutting out the world, and the last parts involve letting it back in.
Again, maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but when I’ve tried to figure out how to write out the weird messed-up stories and dreams and pains that come from my head, that’s the only thing that’s worked for me. And further, I think one of the most exciting things about being present in your writing, about writing what’s burning inside of you, getting out the things you don’t understand, that trouble you, that excite you, that keep you up at night in ways both horrifying and delicious, is that, like Imogen Binnie in her basement in 2008, you don’t understand how your writing might end up a bridge, a marker of what was happening in a certain point in time. You have no idea what your writing might do, and I think that’s lovely.
Which brings me back around to where I started, about my own failures of memory, and what that might have to do with being a writer.
So I want to make one last point. When I was younger, I often heard young people needed “experiences” to write, which was basically a way of the speaker expressing that the experiences they found younger people writing about inadequate. Or some such bullshit. I’ll take as an example Michelle Tea, one of my favourite writers, a queer woman who’s written a lot of memoirs and autofiction. It’s wild to go back and read trade reviews of her books from a couple decades ago, like Valencia and The Chelsea Whistle and see them slag her, but then see that they love her current stuff like Black Wave and Against Memoir. On one hand, from a craft perspective, sure I can see how her more recent books are more tightly composed, on the other hand, she’s in many ways still talking about the same things!
So in some ways I’m just bringing that up to kind of shake my fist against the curmudgeons who told me the “young people need experiences” thing years ago. But to bring it back around to what I began talking about, about getting harassed with my friend on the train: If you’re old enough to come to a lecture hall of your own volition, you’re old enough to not be able to fathom all the shit that you’ve got forgotten. Amnesia isn’t linear. I wish I’d written more in my late teens when I was twenty-twenty-one, even if it never got published, whatever, I wish I had those insights now into what I was experiencing then. Like had I done that then, it would be helping me write stuff and make sense of my world today, in a smarter, kinder, and more accountable way. I hope that makes some sense. I promise there are worlds of beautiful words inside of you, and you don’t know what they’re going to mean, and that’s okay, and I hope you write them.
Ok, that’s all for me.
Of all the turbulent, dreading, apocalyptic thoughts I had in the immediate weeks following last year’s November 8, one very weird one kept crystallizing out of nowhere: I hate cocaine. I do. I hate how I can literally see the empathy drain out of a person’s brain as they do more of it, and I hate what it provokes in myself: Not just the compassion-decrease, but the stomach-lifting turning of night into day, how it makes three in the morning feel like three in the afternoon. It was looking at the picture in this article of that awful man’s shitty fucking mug that made me think this. For as much as I hate coke (and I guess maybe one of the understandable draws of it to many?) it always gave me the feeling of a world opening up to unlimited ersatz possibilities—it’s just that that scares and terrifies me, I guess; when I imagine unlimited possibilities it’s rarely any of the good ones. ETA: I don’t hate people who partake; I’ve got vices others hate for good reason myself. I just feel this way personally about the drug itself, for me.
I was working part-time in a porn shop during the election, and across from the counter where I sat were the dildos: Huge big honkin’ dildos up to 18 inches with unabashed hypermasculine ad copy. One of the huge ones was called “THE GREAT AMERICAN CHALLENGE” and a lot of them had “BUILT IN U.S.A.” with big American flags on them. BUILT in U.S.A, Not made, BUILT. Like made was too wussy a term but BUILT meant a hard-working average Joe in a factory personally assembled this 18-inch polyurethane cock with his own damn God-fearing American hands.
When I stared across the store from the register at these enormous flourescent-lit dicks in the initial wake of the election, they would always lead my thoughts back to Trump. Look, I’ve worked on all sides of the sex industry, and I’ve been a sex worker, and I have a lot of mental tune-out armour against misogynistic whorephobia and transmisogynistic junkphobia and the swarming rapey wall of male want every woman has to navigate…and yet, in November 2016, these dicks I had to look at for hours every day just etched things in me I can’t quite articulate or comprehend. The hypermasculinity, this aggressiveness, these slabs of plastic just immediately transported me to a world of bright 3 AM teeth-grinding sun of being sure you are right, about everything, about everything being subservient to a man’s cock, about banging more hot girls, more hot skinny pretty fucking girls, everywhere, about more and more and bigger and bigger and bigger in a long unlit night that feels like the day, the cold feeling like warmth, other people meaning nothing, the wind meaning nothing.
One of the last shifts I worked, in January, an older man called to tell me, in the most sober-sounding, unprank-ish voice, that he was coming down to the store in 20 minutes to put his huge penis in my mouth. Of course he didn’t follow through on this, but I hated what I immediately knew: That I would be jumpy for a bit anyway, that fear would reawaken and bubble things that have happened to me, and also soon enough that bubbling would quiet down and go away and I’d forget about it. Which is what happened. I’ve been sexually assaulted by a stranger, funnily enough he didn’t alert me on the phone beforehand.
I guess this man hated women so much that making this call to a stranger did something for him? Like I guess it scratched an itch. He had a reason and it must have been satisfied, I guess. I don’t know. The shop got a LOT of prank calls, uniformly from dumb kids thinking it was hilarious to ask about dildos, but this guy was different, I felt that sense of it right away.
He did not remind me of Donald Trump, of grabbing women by the pussy, but now that I think about it, just typing this, he makes me imagine the coldness of a Bannon or a Miller, whispering one calm threat over the phone, unseen, making malevolent calculations I couldn’t figure while in this warm Canadian winter void of natural light a distractedly brightly lit 18-inch cock proudly built in America burned a hole in my eyes.
Even when I love your book more than anything I’ve read in months, I immediately skip the piece you dedicated to Adrienne Rich.
“My mother’s answers to potlucks was invariably a giant vat of chili made with a pound of ground beef seasoned with pepper from a shaker, a giant tin of tomatoes, and a couple of tins of pork and beans. Add cayenne, stir, serve. That, however, is the wrong kind of food domesticity for the queer/feminist crowd—failures again, my mother and I. The last time that I attended a Women’s Studies department potluck, I lost my mind with anxiety, went into some kind of altered insane state, and spent hours making fortune cookies, one at a time, burning the pads of my fingers pressing the hot edges together to make them stick. I filled them with tiny pieces of paper on which I carefully copied out quotes from feminist artists, poets, and theorists. They were a big hit. One prof held up her little feminist fortune and said, “Chandra, the paper is so beautiful! Is it rice paper?” The answer was that no, it was not rice paper. It was regular old computer paper, taken from my printer tray and cut into strips with my daughter’s safety scissors. It only looked like rice paper because the cheap margarine I’d used in the cookies had soaked through everything, making the paper translucent with grease. “Yes, of course,” I said, smiling, toying with my blistering fingers, shame and failure rising up inside. “Rice paper. Lovely, isn’t it?” And I vowed: never again will I try to be this kind of woman, for anyone.”
I used to have this friend Sara. She was quiet, she was an alcoholic, she loved drugs, she loved really weird stuff; she kept dead animals in her freezer. She was obsessed with dead things; she wished she was dead so she could be pretty. She was a little older than me, I forget exactly how much. Five-ish years maybe.
I met her in the fall of 2007, when I was re-trying to come out and make moves toward transition. I was 20. Sara’d moved up to Portland and in with a friend, which is how we met, and the first day we did I was wearing a skirt. She thought the skirt was pretty. She was animated about it. She squealed in a way that would have had me eye-rolling years later but back then was like water.
She worked at Victoria’s Secret downtown in the mall. The next time I saw her she said: “I have something for you!” And she put in my hands a pair of girl underwear. They were cotton white with red webbing on the sides, and pictures of apples sliced in half on them. I loved them. I hugged her. She squealed again. And that was it. And the next time I saw her she gave me another pair. Which she did sporadically every time she saw me for well over a year.
It’s hard to think clearly about that point in my life. I’ve started and deleted a few sentences that seem representative. I don’t know. I’ll try. I was living with my old dudely best friend from high school, going to classes, smoking a lot of weed, and feeling really sad. Sometimes I talked about being trans; no one was kind to me about it. A lot of people were mean, many apprehensive and condescending—and there were some people who were nice. Which I cherished. But there’s a difference between nice and kind. That’s semantics I guess, but it’s how I feel: Nice is the thing that won’t hold up against meanness and coldness and cruelty; kind is the thing that does. It’s not always proportionate to the effort a person puts in either, though sometimes it is. Apply that however you like.
I’ve written elsewhere about this period (my essay in Untangling The Knot, mostly) and I don’t know what good it does to type it all out again here. Let’s just say that even in Portlandia it was still not popular or cool in any liberal or gay circle to like trans women, let alone actively support and think about trans women, and there were literally no trans women I would meet and befriend for a while, none, period (Though that fall I would see Elena Rose perform this piece, which was so powerful and I will never forget it.)
I did know and befriend a lot of let’s-end-gender AFAB type folks, and they didn’t really know what to do with me crying about wanting to be “seen as a girl” or “just wanting to be a girl for a little bit”, which was the language I had at the time. Those folks were trying to get away from that—Imogen’s MRR column of a bit ago about it touches on this exactly. (Queer Community’s still like that in a lot of ways, of course, but trans lady culture is easier to find now in a way that just was so, so much harder back then.) Whipping Girl had just come out, it definitely wasn’t close to penetrating my crowd; the idea that trans women would always be men had a lot of currency and the idea that trans women were women, unconditionally, full stop, was an idea virtually no one but trans women were espousing. It just wasn’t a thing. And I didn’t know any trans women, wouldn’t have an actual conversation with a trans woman until 2009. So. You know.
My other group of friends were high school hometown folks from Eugene, young Democrat types who were down with the gays but still weirded and grossed out by trans girls. I could run around in skirts and that was fine to a point (and I felt blessed for that freedom—still do, really), yet no one wanted me to transition and a lot of people I desperately loved said that loudly and meanly and nobody was there to tell me anything else.
It’s hard to speak plainly and unsentimentally about your womanhood being so unloved—I so badly, and not unconsciously, just wanted someone to tell me that I could be a girl and that being a girl was ok. I did a good job (for the most part) of acting bouncy and happy during that time but I was dying inside. That period of 2006-2009 was my own version of a James H time, I guess—I knew I was trans but I also believed I could never be a woman. I’m grateful it only lasted three-ish years! Yet I’ve still got a lot of bile and crud built up in me from living like that.
Whenever I talk about this point of my life, I usually do so in the context of being disillusioned with queer community and the pervasiveness of transmisogyny in liberal/queer circles/etcetc. But I’ve rarely talked about Sara. What she did for me was so kind, it was a kindness and love and validation I received nowhere else and I can’t begin talking about what it meant to me. I don’t know. It was never a production when she gave me new underwear, it was never creepy or condescending at all, it was always just “Hey, I got these for you.” Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, even in my emotionally blanked-out state, it was. She stole underwear for her cis girl friends too. (Which, it probably goes without saying, never slipped my mind for a second.) She wasn’t a gregarious or a performative person, and in public especially she was quiet and shy and nervous, she wanted to be dead. And I doubt she intended it to be this big a deal but she did this thing I’ve never forgotten. She vanished from social media years ago and I don’t talk to the people who knew her anymore. The one trace of her on Google is a student art show she did last year in another state; it’s nice to see she’s both making stuff and alive.
I’ve been thinking lately about social justice Internet discourse and the way we’re supposed to be allies/showing solidarity/etc. I’ve been thinking about the obsessiveness of *We’re Doing It Wrong Here’s Another Way We’re Doing It Wrong* articles and posts and tweets. I’m not thinking about toxicity or rage or judgement, though like you (I’m going to guess) I’ve felt call-out culture breed enough cruelty to want to Never Discuss Anything Again—see any of a dozen wise pieces from Katherine Cross but especially this one and this one. And I’m not thinking about performative politics, though like you (I’m going to guess) I’ve felt political posturing both offline and on get so gross and meaninglessly unproductive. And I’ve taken part in my own share of rage and posturing.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is how social justice Internet discourse promises a nourishment, gives us a goal and something to work towards, gives us a feeling of purification when we discover more things to cut out of our lives, more things to toss aside for being Wrong. It always reminds me of a feeling that a lot of secular people never understood about the intense religiosity I was raised with: The yearning I used to feel for purity, the desire for clear markers on how to be clean, holy, how to live a Godly life, a yearning by no means unique to religious people. It wasn’t born of rage nor posturing but genuine desperation.
If rage is one side of call-out culture’s coin, the other side is the promise of How You Can Be Better. The promise of easy guidance in this hopelessly shifting monster world of Hydra-like evil. The titles of those Everyday Feminism articles, so well-intentioned, always read to me like the worst magazine articles that prey on insecurities, or like the preachers my grandmother watched: “Popular Foods You Need To Stop Eating” “Turn To This Bible Verse In A Time Of Need!” “Oppressive Words To Remove From Your Vocabulary.” Right. Now.
My point is not that social justice Internet discourse is bad! (I think it’s easy to forget how much good it’s done, actually, but that’s another post.) And my point is not that cis people just need to stop reading Everyday Feminism and start blanketing their local trans woman with stolen panties (as fun as that could be for a week). I’m not sure if I know what my fucking point is. I just keep thinking about how, in our day-to-day personal messy-as-fuck human lives where we have to interact with other messy-as-fuck humans, where people are fucking and yelling and working and dying, it’s so easy to overlook who is not receiving kindness and why. And that lots of this “How To Be An Ally To Trans Women” stuff that has sprang up in the last couple years sometimes leaves me feeling really empty, feels so disconnected from the problem every human with a conscience is faced with: of how to be good to the complex people you come face-to-face with in your every day life. Does anybody else feel this way about stuff written about them? Anybody who sorts through People Are Trying To Ally At Me, not just trans women? I don’t want to be a 20-year-old in 2007 anymore—God, I don’t. But 95% of the time when people Ally at me, I still feel myself floating away behind glass until they stop. In the best case senario.
“It’s horrifying!” said the cis gay dude employed as a youth programmer at the LGBT non-profit who brought me in to do a workshop last year at a youth camp. He’d done some training thing in Toronto about trans women. He had the most concerned face. “I didn’t realize all these things about transmisogyny!” This was the summary of his thoughts on the subject. I would love to be gracious about that in an objective sense, think it was a net good he went to whatever that training was, that he needed something like that, that he was gonna be the guy working this job whether he was trying or not—and hey, maybe he’s doing good things for young trans girls right now and a minimal amount of harm. And maybe neither of those things is the case in a serious way—I wish I could be starry eyed about it, but knowing from the previous two years volunteering there how ignorant everyone in that organization was personally about trans women (and where, of course, no trans women worked) He said some nice and correct things but I still left it just feeling so oogy.
But regardless of thinking in the context of community, personally I was sick, realizing how little this man who was paid to watch out for us knew about me or my sisters, how little the specifics and intricacies of my stupid life would mean to him in this context, how anything I might tell him about myself or my experiences would only serve to plug into something from a workshop, what he thought he had carefully learned, as opposed to the fullness of one stupid breathing weird human in front of him, with her own unique sets of shittinesses and talents and needs.
“Check it out!!” Sara said one night at a party at our place (we had a lot of parties). “I got you gay dancing sailor underwear!”
Yeah she did.
“Light, medium, or strong?”
“Strong.” She was such a tiny girl.
I don’t know if I’ve really expressed myself clearly here. Eight years ago I was a sad mess crying out to be a girl but nobody knew how to deal with that. And then another fucked-up mess of a girl didn’t try to talk about it (even if she wanted to, she couldn’t have) and instead did stuff like give me gay dancing sailor panties. I will remember her more than many other people. She was just really fucking kind to me in the most unassuming and beautiful way. I miss her. I miss people like that.
Last night I went to Cari’s house for Game Night. It wasn’t unusual till the end. I put on a green sundress that I almost never wore. I hadn’t eaten dinner. Alex was going to come but she forgot and went to the beach instead. I hung out with Cari and Stella and their roommate Faith. Cari’s one of the register managers, Stella works in children’s. On the walk to her building, someone behind me yelled, “It’s a maaaaa-a-a-a-a-a-an!” I turned around and two guys were gawking in lawnchairs and the others around them were all hooting. Cari made us Dark and Stormys and we played poker, not for money, for fun. More Dark and Stormys and then wine. A lot more wine. We played BS too. I said I should leave by midnight, which didn’t happen. I’m going home next month, back West, to write and live with my mom after three years in New York. I’d never been away from her before this. I came out to her years ago and she didn’t like that but we’re better now. I miss her so much. I want to be a good daughter to her as much as I was any kind of son. I think by now she wants that too—I hope by now she wants that too. I want to come home. I miss her so, so much. Hanging with Cari and Stella was fun but somewhere it turned not fun. There was more wine and more wine and I mentioned the guys who yelled at me and then I asked them if they could walk me to the subway. Then we got started on trans stuff and I ended up being angry and bitching. I’m angry all the time these days, not angry as in blind-rage angry—testosterone angry—angry as in bitter and cold and cracked angry, Debbie Downer-angry. There was more wine. More and more and more wine. Cari and Stella walked me to the train. They said Please stay at our place but I wouldn’t have it. I was so drunk and I should’ve stayed but I had work the next morning and when I thought about waking up on their couch gross and sweaty and unshowered and ugly—so I hugged them goodbye. “One more time. Please stay at our place,” Cari said. The train was coming. Goodbye sorry! I blacked out on the Q all the way to Times Square. When I got there to transfer I really really really had to pee. The next train was coming in twenty minutes. I went up and up and tried to find a place to piss—Times Square all of places—but it was Tuesday and 2 AM so it wasn’t that crowded. I went into the entrance alcove of some office building on 41st Street and pissed. It was so stupid. Was it stupid? I was so tired by then. I got smart and took a cab home.
Lying in bed, sweating in the summer heat, my room gently whirlpooling around me, streetlight and car sounds fluttering in through the purple curtain over my window, I couldn’t remember faces. I was thinking of Cale, a manager at work, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t picture him. I knew the traits, I remembered blond hair, light eyes, but nothing. I tried Liz, the head floor manager. Nothing. Same thing. I tried my mother. I tried to picture my mother’s face. I couldn’t. I was too drunk. I was so drunk I couldn’t remember what my mother looked like. I was so drunk I couldn’t think.
Hey folks! A lot has happened since I came around to this place. For one, I took an oatmeal bath tonight and it was great. Like, GREAT. I was hoping it would help with my winter itching. It’s helped a little.
I also released my book, helped put on Writing Trans Genres, protested Germaine Greer at the CMHR, got two new tattoos, taught in New York for a few weeks, ran my love life through a blender, and went on two book tours, one of which literally went around the continent. I am back in Winnipeg now and have been pretty quiet (writing-wise anyway) for the last few months. I am working on another thing, and hopefully by the end of the year the thing might become a Thing. We’ll see. I have started reviewing books for the Winnipeg Free Press. I have an article in The Walrus coming out in April that was a blast to work on. I just published a short story in Rookie.
It hasn’t been as cold as usual here in One Great City, though it is -15C right now (-20C with the windchill). I’ve now been back in Canada for two years as of last Friday. What a time. The Wailin’ Jennys were my constant throughout 2014. Here, have a pretty song: If folk-y stuff and lady harmonies are your thing anyway.
I don’t have a lot else right now. I’m itchy again. Fucking oatmeal.
Ok I keep meaning to write this post and not doing it BUT like, uh, I have a book coming out! It’s called A Safe Girl To Love and it’s a collection of eleven short stories about young trans women. Four of them have been published before and the rest haven’t.
It’s $16.95 US and you can pre-order it at the link above and it’ll ship out in the next few weeks. If you’re in Winnipeg, we’ll have copies at the Writing Trans Genres conference I’m involved with (http://www.writingtransgenres.com) May 22-24, and I’ll also be doing a co-launch with Trish Salah at my work, McNally Robinson, on June 20. I’m also gonna be doing some touring in early June around the American Northeast with some pretty incredible other Topside ladies like Sybil Lamb, Imogen Binnie, and Red Durkin. Info on that is here: http://topsidepress.com/tour/ There’s a couple NYC dates and also Philly, Providence, Brattleboro VT, Hartford, Baltimore, and Cambridge (though I won’t be around for that last one, bummer). If you feel like pre-ordering one (and/or the other books Topside is releasing y/y?) it’ll help us fund the tour, so that is cool.
And then we’ll be doing a bigger tour in the fall! Around, like, the whole continent and stuff. September 2nd is also when the book’ll be available on Ingram and through distributors to put in stores.
Ok! Done my “I wrote a book” blog post! Phew.
There are some kind of cool things I’ve been doing lately, and I will be posting about them in a semi-maybe-kind-of official capacity in a bit. But in the meantime, I just did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time…write a list of Canadian cities and their American equivalents.
Banff = Aspen
Calgary = Dallas and to some extent Phoenix
Nelson = Boulder
Edmonton = Denver
Victoria = Honolulu
Saskatoon = Omaha
Regina = Fargo
Lethbridge = Cheyenne
Timmins = Marquette
Thompson = Williston
St. John’s = Portland, ME
Vancouver = every major American West Coast city rolled into one
Montreal started out as our New York but ended up our Boston
Toronto started out as our Buffalo but ended up our New York
Winnipeg started out as our Chicago but ended up our Minneapolis
Well, I’m drunk, I can’t sleep, I have to work tomorrow, and I finally picked up and started reading Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God today, and all of this made me want to talk a bit about short stories. Part of this, btw, is because I’ve been finishing a book of short stories in the last few months, and am (HOPEFULLY HOPEFULLY) really close to soon saying “I finished a book of short stories.” So they’ve been on my mind a lot.
A few stories into reading Keret, I thought that it reminded me a lot of when I read Miranda July’s collection of stories. It reminded me so much of how I felt reading her that I Googled “Miranda July Etgar Keret” and it turns out they’ve done a collaboration together. Wowserz! So I guess it’s not just me. I liked July’s book, and I’m liking Keret so far, but neither of them (so far) have really struck me in my heart all that much? (with the very notable exception of July’s story “Something That Needs Nothing,” which really gets me every time for a few different reasons). And I like both their books, maybe it’s like they tickle me in every part of my body except my heart.
It’s not that they’re clinical like the way some super-talented writers are, where the story feels overproduced. I feel this way, say, about most of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair (though I love most of DFW), and George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation (haven’t read any other Saunders though). I guess the weird thing is about books like Keret’s and July’s, is that even though I really enjoy reading them, like really! I’m digging Keret and I dug July! They also remind me of books I love more?
A few months back I read All The Pretty Girls by Chandra Mayor (if you have never heard of her, just get the book now so your reading life can get better). I loved it to fucking bits and it took my heart out for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it portrays the city of Winnipeg in a way that was very visceral and real to me, and particularly speaks to the world I lived in when I was a kid, which, until I moved back here, I had little else but my memories to relate to. But anyway, in Chandra’s book, the protagonists in her stories seem to be more or less the same woman. And it made me think: I love collections of stories like that. Hell, I just love authors like that. I thought about this a lot too when I read Amy Hempel, which I did very slowly and deliberately for a lot of last year. The voice of her narrator doesn’t really change that much, and I absolutely love that. I really don’t mind. It’s the collections of stories that span all gamuts of characters and internal people that honestly never quite hit home for me, that always feel to me a bit detached. As much as I love the above David Foster Wallace, for instance, his fiction only pushes on my heart in very specific and rare moments, and I wonder if maybe for this reason.
I also get to read with Chandra Mayor in a few weeks at McNally Robinson (I dunno if anybody from Winnipeg will read this blog but HERE’S THE EVENT PAGE JUST IN CASE) so that is kinda stupidly cool and exciting.
I thought about this especially when I re-read Miriam Toews’ Swing Low a couple months ago, her spare, dark, beautiful book about her father’s suicide, told through his eyes in first-person. Her father, as a character, is so obviously different from Miriam’s usual fictional protagonists: a mid-century Mennonite schoolteacher from Steinbach, Manitoba struggling with bipolar, as opposed to the desperate broke sad apostate girls that make up the protagonists of her fiction. But her writing voice, somehow, to me, is the same. Like I can hear her voice behind the keyboard at the same time that I hear her father speaking. That book hit really hard and close to home the first time I read it (being in my grandfather’s basement in Blumenort, Manitoba at the time probably didn’t help). I cried again reading it this time, though not as much as the first time.
I suppose what I’m trying to say here, though it’s not really that revolutionary a thought, is that I never really connect as much with books when the authors have such a level of wizardry that no story feels the same from one to the next? When there isn’t a voice. That’s how I felt when I read Girl With Curious Hair. While the opening story’s ending just killed me, and the title story absolutely was genius enough to push beyond the Cleverness Mountain, the rest of it was like…it was good, very very good and I liked reading it…but I couldn’t really pick out a voice. Like it was a blast and it was thoughtful but it didn’t move me. I couldn’t really hear him as an author speaking to me (which I do when I read his non-fiction, I should say, which I mostly love quite a bit). And I wonder if that’s why I didn’t love it, like I do his non-fiction, or I love Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Another good example here is Junot Diaz, whose short fiction I finally read this past year, both Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. I mean, he’s done the thing where he’s just put the same dude, Yunior, as the same narrator for every story, but to me it works the same as Amy Hempel or Chandra Mayor: You can hear their voices so strongly and clearly. I love that. So who cares if a dozen stories with ostensibly different names and faces and descriptions swirl together into a mass. (Lorrie Moore is another good example of someone who pulls this off, I think.)
Why am I bringing all this up in a fit of whiskey haze and insomnia at 2:30 in the morning? *scrolls up* Etgar Keret, right. I guess I should really just finish the book. In the meantime, it’s -30 and balls-ass freezing here in One Great City y’all, and my radiator is overheating and I am sweating bullets, so I may actually crack a window. In the meantime, g’night.
Hi everyone. God I’m really bad at updating this. But hi everyone!
I wrote a couple pieces of flash and they’re here and here The collaboration between Annie Mok and I for this story I wrote isn’t going to be a zine anymore, but it’s still happening and going to be, like, an existing thing.
I’m still trundling away here in Winnipeg writing and working too much and doing dumb things. I just discovered Erika Lopez, who’s awesome! I found one of her books in the basement of my bookstore about to get oblivion-shelved into a storage box. In some ways it’s kinda crappy being the only one working in my bookstore who actively likes gay shit and stuff written by women, but on the other hand, it does means I always get first pick on the cool stuff.
It’s been raining a lot here in One Great City. Or, as the official motto of Winnipeg now calls it, the Heart of the Continent.
(Note: I tried to write this without spoiling stuff and completely failed, so, uh, this has spoilers?)
Pretty much the day after I finished reading Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, I decided I had to write about it. The two days before which I spent most of reading the book in bed, lots of it drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or grinning and giggling like a dumbass. That was six months ago. I got an advance copy early in November from Topside (which only felt slightly cooler than how I imagine getting an early copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 would’ve been) then I read it again a little more slowly and thoughtfully in January. I have a Word doc with like a page of notes of what I wanted to say about it, and a pitch to a magazine about it that didn’t go anywhere, but mostly when I’ve tried to write about it I’ve ended up doing something else. For…like…six months.
There’s lots of reasons the book is fucking great so maybe I’ll say a lot of those things and then get to what’s been bugging me. So here we go: The book is funny, it reads super fast, the main character Maria is insanely loveable and hilarious even as she’s self-destructive and is kind of a jerk to her friends and generally just does a lot of stupid dumb shit. Imogen has this amazing ability to lay bare what’s driving Maria totally bonkers and give pages (and pages. and pages.) of her inner monologue in a totally real and twisted way but it never feels overly sentimental or frustrating to read or anything. My unfeeling asshole-gland gets easily activated when I read that stuff, even if I identify with all of it (like Lorrie Moore on her off days) where I go “Fuck girl, yeah I’ve been there but GOD STOP WHINING.” But it never happened here; Imogen’s writing voice is so conversational and fluid while always totally fucking uncompromising and smart, I just fucking loved Maria all the time, through everything.
And, duh, I love how it’s a novel specifically about trans women, for trans women, written by a trans woman (any of which has rarely existed let alone all three at once) and that it talks about shit that probably only trans women know about and in a totally real and unbullshit or snow-covered way (see above re: experience drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or dumbass giggling). I love how Imogen doesn’t give a fuck about her audience before she gives a fuck about trans women, we’re the primary audience and Jesus Christ that’s cathartic to have that as a reader. It’s a weird feeling to read shitloads of fiction all your life, and then read this book, and realize it’s the first book written specifically for someone like you to read it: “Gender may be a social construct, but so are cars, and if you ignore them, you still get hit.”
I love how Big Awful Shit in Maria’s life, like breaking up with her girlfriend of a million years, getting fired, etc, will take up lots of page time and then following it taking up lots of page times will be stupid little trans bullshit that nobody else gets or cares about but you spend hours of your day thinking about anyway, about your body, about sex, about fear of the world, about fear of still acting and thinking like a dude, about never being present and dissociating (that was one of those words that especially exploded for me on the page when it was first used like, “YUP that’s exactly how to put it WHELP”) about if relationships are ever going to work and if you can ever connect with anybody ever AND YOU KNOW CHEERFUL STUFF and how that intermixes with all of the Big Awful Shit like if anybody will ever hire a silly transsexual like you for a job that starts out paying you more than single digits an hour.
(There’s also the fact that lots of the book’s first half takes place in a fictionalized version of the bookstore where Imogen worked and years later so did I, and all of which is totally fucking hilarious and true and sometimes kinda eerie (there’s a scene where Maria gets hit on by some rich dude and I swear to you it was a videotape of a million moments I worked there and all the shit I thought about afterward and it was probably in the same aisle.))
I love the secondary characters (not including James, though I love him too, but he feels more like a shadow protagonist or something than a secondary character. Is shadow protagonist a term?). I love Steph, Maria’s girlfriend-turned-ex, who’s funny and mature but can’t seem to help Maria with shit, even though it seems like she’s smart and caring and wise enough to do so. I love Piranha, who’s this antisocial trans girl cashier in South Brooklyn who puts up with Maria’s crap and gives it back to her when she needs it and is a genuinely wonderful friend even as her own life turns progressively shittier. Piranha’s one of those rare people who’ll be the best and most loving person to you even when you totally don’t deserve it, but who’ll never let you walk on her either.
I love Maria’s coworker Kieran, who’s this overenergetic bouncy trans guy who’s kind of a dick and also kind of alright. He’s not as developed but there’s something there about that coworker relationship I dig, where it’s like, well, on some levels we get along, and some we don’t, but we’re going to have to coexist for a lot of our daily lives, so… Or at least it seems that way from Maria’s perspective. Kieran seems to think they’re best buds.
Lots of terrible and frustrating shit in the book is punctuated with the one-word sentences “Whatever.” and “So.” Amy Dentata mentions her reactions to the “Whatever.”s and I think I agree: “the word “whatever” is just shorthand for when it hurts too much to say how you feel. But trans women who transitioned sometime after four years old become teenagers all over again because of it, and we tend to hurt a lot, so you’re going to get a lot of whatever’s in this book, whether you like it or not.” And parallel to those lines, I totally love how Imogen can somehow move the narrative forward from said jumbles of terrible and frustrating shit just by concluding with “So.” No summaries, just like a little nod that the previous paragraph of inner-monologue has no wise conclusion but we’re going to keep going. “So.”
I love how much of the book is about sex, like in a deep, explicit, inner-shit, “I am REALLY REALLY fucked up about this” way.
I love how distant Maria and James are (who’s a sort of crypto-trans woman, as I heard Imogen put it once, who meets Maria as she’s road-tripping and trying to figure out her life). I love how after everything Maria has gone through and everything she knows, and with how damn obvious it is that James is proooobably a girl…that Maria can’t help him and that James doesn’t like her, even though it seems like he REALLY wants to like her and be helped by her.
I love the ending. I fucking love love love the ending. I love the ending because it stops abruptly and doesn’t resolve anything, because at the end of the day Maria is stranded in Reno, broke, single, jobless, and basically no further from figuring anything out than when the book started, and James isn’t a whole lot further either. I love how the last sentence is about James wanting head from his girlfriend, because that way he can imagine himself as a girl and it’s the only way he can get off. I love how Imogen doesn’t remind you of that explicitly at the end. (see above re: writing for/about/by trans women.) I LOVE books where lots of crazy shit happens and yet the protagonist is still just as fucked when they started, because, well, some shit is hard to move. I guess maybe it’s similar to how I felt at the end of After Delores, where (MORE SPOILER ALERTS) even though all sorts of crazy fucked up shit happens, including the unnamed main character avenging a girl’s death by shooting a guy through his apartment door, the book’s about this woman who desperately misses her lover and it ends with her still missing her lover. Or like Mrs. Bridge, I guess, where this sad housewife who’s really trying to make a good life for everyone sees her husband die and her kids grow up but she’s still kinda the same person at the end.
ANYWAY. So there’s a bunch of reasons why Nevada is brilliant and you should probably just order the book now. Here’s the link again.
But there’s something too about bleakness, and hopelessness, in the book, that in this last month especially I’ve been able to articulate as a reason why I’ve had zeeeeeeero compunction to write about the book, even though in person I’ve gushed about it to a lot of people, Imogen included. It’s weird talking so bubbly and animatedly about a book that made you feel so messed up. And I’ve thought about the book a LOT since those two days in November in bed drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or giggling like a dumbass. Like as in, I got out my copy of the book to write this post, but so far I’ve written all of it from memory without opening it once, and the last time I read it was January. Nevada dovetailed with an increasing realization that my world outlook has gotten bleaker in the last year or so, and I’m less of a hopeful person than I used to be. When I started transitioning, I wanted everything in my life to stay the same. I thought I could orchestrate it perfectly and flawlessly, and keep the same family, the same friends, the same personality even, just, y’know. Girl-version. Cool. Well, that didn’t really happen, though I do have (some) of the same friends, some closer and some not, and I do have (some) of the same family, some closer and some not. I wanted the perfect ending and I thought that stuff would be hard but that I could get it.
But for lots of complicated reasons (some of which might be obvious, I guess, depending on who you are) that never happened, very little went the way I thought it would since I started HRT in October 2010, and I’ve done lots of stupid shit and lots of stupid shit has happened to me. And reading Nevada in some ways was a big articulating hurtling train-wreck of OHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUCK. Like FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK. And definitely it’s occurred to me in the last few months like shit, I really don’t want to write about how bleak and depressed and hopeless I’ve been feeling for a good chunk of the last year and a half, and how this book covers a lot of why that’s the case. The fact that that time period coincides with right about when I finished my McSweeney’s column makes me really not want to write about that, because while I’m proud of (most) of that body of work, and everything I wrote in it was true for me at the time, it was also a little more of an optimistic period for me and represents such a different place in my life (though I do still feel very close to the last one I wrote). I’ve been re-reading those lately and thinking about how I felt back then. Every now and then I’ve gotten an e-mail from people who’ve just come across the column and they’ve said, “Hey, I hope things are going well for you.” It’s weird and tough responding to those people. Especially in the months since I left New York in August, when lots of my life was up in the air and I was living in the town I went to high school in and really coming to terms with how transitioning changed everything, how I didn’t have much faith or respect anymore for people and institutions that I used to. (the non-private manifestations of such are boring, and the non-boring ones are, well, private.) In smaller-scale stuff yet somewhat related, I hooked up with crappy dudes, lived in my parents’ house, drank a lot, and hit a brick wall on the big writing project that I’d uprooted my life to attempt to finish.
Anyway, so I read Nevada in the middle of that weird little period. Later at the end of March, when I’d been settled here in Winnipeg and had had a job and an apartment for a good month, and was thinking a little more out of my sad fog, I read this review of Nevada. I’m gonna post the last paragraph of it:
“You know how the last episode of Angel is kind of controversial? Like, it all ends with them in an alley, ground down to nubs, gearing up for yet another end of the world battle royale? & some people complained that there wasn’t any closure, any resolution or truly final Armageddon…while everybody else said, “duh, exactly, that is the point.” As much as Buffy was a meditation on being a teenager, Angel was about being an adult, & the point of the finale is you have to keep going. You keep on living. There is no end to the fight. It keeps going. That is pretty much how Nevada ends. Sometimes stories just don’t end, & in a story about being trans, where the usual cultural message is all about crossing some rubicon, whether it is coming out or getting surgery or whatever, (or that life ends, suddenly & violently, which is all to prevalent a fate for trans characters, & how messed up is that, that transgender characters are largely just plot points, props, & not even characters in the least) the notion that life goes on is pretty punk rock.”
Okay, now, I never finished Angel (though now I am getting through Season 2 thanks to this review, natch) but I loved Buffy to fucking bits when I was a teenager, so this kinda got me. The concept of Nevada having to do with being an adult never crossed my mind before, though now that I think about it Maria spends a lot of the book feeling fucked up about not really being one.
Something I’ve only realized today as I write this: As a reader, my inner reaction to a book usually tends to be that the end is the end. When you finish Nevada, Maria is broke and sad and jobless and friendless and single, thousands of miles from anyone she knows in a sad casino in Reno, having fucked up with the person she just really tried to help, who btw also stole a bunch of the heroin Maria had in her car. So to me, as a reader, Maria is now forever broke and sad in Reno etc etc, till the end of time. James is forever in that car driving back to his awful small town, wanting head from his girlfriend. These two characters are forever fixed there. Like how Mrs. Bridge is forever stuck in the garage trying to get out of her car, like how the narrator in After Delores is forever missing Delores. Fin, motherfucker, total Fin.
Usually that has no effect whatsoever on my emotional state, because most of what I read is stuff that doesn’t bear too heavily on my daily reality (despite the fact that I read a lot of contemporary realist fiction by sad women in their 20s and 30s.) Even when a book hits me hard, and I have to sit with it for a bit, eventually I kind of internally place it somewhere and then go devote mental energy to something else.
But for all the reasons above (well, plus the fact that Nevada possesses that undefinable quality that separates plain ol’ great books from books that in the apocalypse you would save over pictures of your loved ones) Nevada had a really, really big effect on my emotional state. And mordicai’s review made me think explicitly a bit about what probably happens after the book ends. I realized that I assume James ends up transitioning, but it probably takes him a few more years and a lot of more shit then what he confronts in the actual book. Thinking about Maria, I realized I assume that she calls Steph crying about how she’s fucked everything up, and Steph probably yells at her for like ten minutes but then wires her money to come back home because Steph too seems genuinely like a good person who wouldn’t fuck her ex over that badly, especially when Steph herself has money. Or maybe not, but anyway, somehow Maria gets back in touch with her friends, who help her get back to New York, and, well, stuff goes on. Or maybe not, maybe other stuff happens and Maria fucks around in California for years with Steph’s stolen car, who knows.
But the point is, no matter how bleak or sad life gets, the difference between life and a book is that in life MORE STUFF WILL HAPPEN. I guess that’s blindingly obvious, but with how I see now that I react to books’ endings, combined with how deeply this book spoke to my life, it wasn’t obvious to me till recently. I think because I’ve been feeling so sad and bleak this last while, that the ending of Nevada made me really examine and feel around in this place where it seemed like nothing new would ever happen again. That’s kind of a shitty place to be, though it’s also made me search around and let me grab on to stuff I can say without bullshit is genuinely solid and good. For instance, while I’m often not happier about my personal life per se, and I’m often angry and sad about stuff in the world, I’m internally more peaceful and calmer in a way I never was in my pre-transition life, and I can say that definitively. Or, for example, I’m better about articulating what I need from the people I love, which I was always terrible about especially in pre-transition life but now am a little better at. There are lots of other good things that, even, I wouldn’t have even imagined about my post-transition life back when I started. Anyway, point is life looks different in a really strange way, and I do pretty alright in the end, but there’s a lot I’ve needed to work through that I wasn’t expecting.
There are probably only two other novels that have sucker-punched me as much as Nevada: Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Both of those books—besides being unspeakably beautifully written and all that—talk to me about stuff in my life that no other fiction’s ever been able to. Gilead ends peacefully, with a seventy-six-year-old pastor about to die. A Complicated Kindness ends somewhat phoenix-like, with a sixteen-year-old girl who’s lost everything but is about to leave a world that’s suffocated her. Neither of them have shit to do with gender, they’re both about family and religion and small-town prairie life and trying to be a good decent person when the question of heaven and hell and redemption take up everything. And ACK is about Mennonites, which in some ways is its own thing altogether. ANYWAY, point is, Gilead is about life ending for good, whereas A Complicated Kindness is about life actually starting to begin, and I always finish those books…not exactly feeling hopeful or happy, but not bleak either, which is where Nevada left me. Part of the reasons I find those two books so beautiful and nourishing, maybe, is because they do come to their resolutions organically and without shortcuts, and converge on their endings in ways most writers just can’t pull off. But even my ladies Toews and Robinson get assists from the larger world, because there are pointers society has in place for what happens afterward in those two books, as we do for kind old Christian men about to die and teenage girls setting out for the city after losing everyone who’s loved them, and they couldn’t have written those books that way if the world wasn’t set up accordingly. And Nevada doesn’t have any of that. Because it’s about a queer trans woman in her late twenties dealing with Stupid Trans Lady Shit on top of Regular Adult Shit six years after her first estrogen pill and there are no ready-made pointers for that. And the book doesn’t pretend it can make them. There’s more to it than that, there’s so much about this book I have left to think about and I’m still going to be thinking about. But the book can only leave Maria to figure her own shit out.