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.