Six Canadian Trans Women Writers You Should Know

This post originally appeared on BCLA LGBTQ Interest Group member Casey‘s blog Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, and is reposted with permission and thanks. 

Six Canadian Trans Women Writers You Should Know

I’m gonna get right to the list in a second here, but I just want to tell you all how excited I am that all these writers are out there creating their amazing art and that publishers like Topside Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Kegedonce Press, and Metonymy Press are putting it out into the world. I could not have written this list when I first started this blog almost five years ago.

Casey Plett

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Y’all are seriously missing out if you are not reading Casey Plett, who hails from Winnipeg. Her debut collection of short stories A Safe Girl to Love is one of the best books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of books). If you’re looking for a writer who really, really, gets people—from twentysomething urban cis, trans, and queer folks to a 7o-year-old cis Mennonite guy to a cat channeling the spirit of an old English dude—Plett is your woman. She’s applied these talents to a book dedicated to relationships between trans women: romantic, friend, and mother-daughter, resulting in a stunning collection that will not disappoint you. If you like Zoe Whittall’s work, especially Holding Still For As Long As Possible, you’ll love Plett. It’s no wonder she won the 2015 Lambda award for trans fiction. This year, you can look forward to an anthology of trans speculative fiction that Plett edited, coming out with Topside Press (who published her first book as well). You should also read this super smart article she wrote for The Walrus about trans novels by cis authors.

jia qing wilson-yang

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I just finished reading wilson-yang’s debut novel Small Beauty and I’m so mad at myself for not reading it sooner! It was so good. Obviously the folks at the Writer’s Trust of Canada, who give out the Dayne Ogilvie Prize, thought so too, as wilson-yang received an honour of distinction last year. Small Beauty is a meditative but engaging novel about Mei, a young trans women dealing with grief and family secrets while taking a break from urban life, staying at the small town house of her aunt and cousin who’ve passed away. What I really loved about this book was it didn’t do any explaining. Mandarin words are presented in pinyin (i.e., romanized letters), characters eat Chinese food—not the beef and broccoli kind, transmisogynist shit happens, people who know and are related to Mei appear, all without any untoward explanation or unnecessary description that would assume any of these things are anything other than totally normal and just life. It felt so real. wilson-yang is a mixed race writer and musician living in Toronto and a new-to-me author I’m very excited about.

Sybill Lamb

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Sybil Lamb—who’s originally from Ottawa—wrote a book called I’ve Got a Time Bomb in 2014 and somehow the rest of the world failed to recognize that a fucking genius had officially entered the literary world. It is truly, truly one of the most unique, weirdest books ever written and it should go down in literary history if there’s any justice in this world. I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I compared it to Tristam Shandy and Joyce’s Ulysses in my review. It follows a character also named Sybil, on a rambling journey in a modified ice cream truck through post-Katrina / post-apocalyptic “Amerika” after surviving a hate crime. The entire novel is a hallucinatory, fever dream, full of Lamb’s stunning, poetic and impressively fresh writing that is not the least bit show-offy. It’s also funny as hell and you will grow to love Sybil the anti-heroine. To top it all off, the book is full of kooky, evocative illustrations that Lamb did herself (see the cover art for an example). Am I ever excited to see what she does next.

Kai Cheng Thom

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Kai Cheng Thom has suddenly appeared on my radar these last few months or so, which probably means she’s been working away for years on her art and I just didn’t notice. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, came out in November 2016. The blurb describes it as a “highly sensational, ultra-exciting, sort-of true coming-of-age story of a young Asian trans girl, pathological liar, and kung-fu expert who runs away from her parents’ abusive home”; she finds her true family of trans femmes, who band together to form “a vigilante gang to fight back against the transphobes, violent johns, and cops that stalk” their part of town. This sounds delightfully like Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa but also like its own brand of trans femme magic. If that isn’t enough, Thom also has her first book of poetry coming out this year, A Place Called No Homeland. It interrogates body, land, and language, pulling from traditions of oral storytelling, spoken word, and queer punk. You should also check out her great book reviews and interviews on Autostraddle.

Gwen Benaway

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I have Kai Cheng Thom to thank, actually, for introducing me to Gwen Benaway’s work. Thom’s thoughtful review of Benaway’s poetry collection Passage and interview with Benaway had me completely sold. In Passage, which just came out last month, two-spirit poet Benaway (Métis and Anishnaabe) writes about survival, violence, colonization, and trans femme gender and desire. It’s a book rooted in Benaway’s ancestral homeland around the Great Lakes and Northern Ontario and one where Benaway “seeks to reconcile herself to the land, the history of her ancestors, and her separation from her partner and family by invoking the beauty and power of her ancestral waterways.” If you know (and thus love) the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Islands of Decolonial Love), you’ll be excited to know she blurbed Benaway’s book, saying “With equal parts warm light and raw bone, this stunning collection burns away the legacy of erasure and upheaval. If the lake could write poetry, this collection would be it.” Benaway writes: “nothing is more beautiful / than a woman who knows / exactly what she wants / and what I want / is myself.”

Vivek Shraya

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In case you missed it, I wrote a review of Vivek Shraya’s debut poetry collection Even This Page is White a few weeks ago. “Spoiler”: I loved it. Beautiful, accessible, smart, and playful, Even This Page is White is the kind of book you want to re-read right after finishing and then go out and buy a copy for a friend. Tackling racism in its many insidious forms, the book is both educational and healing, even while Shraya plays with different poetic forms and visuals on the page. Like so many talented artists, Shraya is at home in many formats, including different kinds of visual art and music. She also published a novel called She of the Mountains in 2014, a lyrical novel of two narratives: a re-imagining of Hindu mythology and a contemporary story about an unnamed feminine protagonist exploring bisexual identity. In addition her first book of poetry, Shraya also published her first children’s book last year, The Boy and the Bindi, about a young boy who’s fascinated by his mother’s bindi. A hard-working, prolific artist as she is, I’m sure we can be excited about whatever new work she’ll be putting out in 2017.

Interview with Leigh Matthews

BCLA LGBTQ member Casey Stepaniuk brings us this great interview with Vancouver-based author Leigh Matthews. A big thank you to both Casey and Leigh!

A little while ago I talked with my friend and Vancouver-based author Leigh Matthews about her journey as a queer writer, her contemporary lesbian pulp series set in Vancouver, her must-have LGBTQ+ books, and what an LGBTQ+-friendly library looks like to her. Check out her website if you want to more information about her books and all the other cool stuff she does, including freelance medical writing and website development. I’ve reviewed her (awesome) books on my blog, if you want to check that out too. She had loads of interesting things to say, so here’s the interview!

1

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career as a writer?

Aside from brief periods when I wanted to be a professional soccer player and a forensic pathologist, I always wanted to be a writer. I used to make up character profiles for the people who populated the childhood games I played with my brother. I would write stories about them, which then progressed into attempts at writing novels, peppered with a little poetry that was praised far too highly!

After being involved in a youth writing initiative in the UK in my late teens, I stopped writing for a little while, for a variety of reasons, including devaluing my creative nature. Then, when I moved to Canada in 2010 and started working as a freelancer, I made a commitment to myself to nurture that creativity and start writing fiction and poetry again. It took a while to clear out the creative pipes, and I found the challenge and boundaries of National Novel Writing Month very helpful in rediscovering the joy of writing with my inner editor turned off.

The novel that emerged from NaNoWriMo 2011 became The Old Arbutus Tree, my first full novel, published in 2012. I’ve tried to do NaNoWriMo every year since, and have also done the 3-Day Novel Challenge. These are such fun ways to just get the words down and get the story out. It’s so much easier to work with existing material than to stare at a blank page every day. And, seeing that word count ticking up every day is incredibly gratifying and has taught me to be less precious and more focused on pacing and plot as a scaffold for my work.

I’ve recently begun writing poetry again, but I mainly focus on novels and short stories, with some creative non-fiction. I am also a medical copywriter and journalist, which helps pay my bills and is a great way to learn new things and meet interesting people.

I’m really interested in people’s motivations – how others’ brains work and how they experience life. It’s such a privilege to work as a writer and have the time to get inside a character’s mind and create a realistic portrayal of someone who might think very differently to me. I think this is one of the reasons why readers have been found to have a higher degree of empathy than those who don’t read regularly. The ability to consider how someone else sees a situation and how they might respond to it is so important and yet we don’t teach it directly to children, we have to rely on literature to do that.

Do you think of yourself a “queer writer,” or as just a writer who happens to be queer?

I’ve identified as bisexual since I was a teenager, but only adopted a queer identity after moving to Canada. I feel like it’s a good fit for me in many ways, given my interest in shaking up standard forms of discourse and not just colouring outside the lines but questioning the very purpose and existence of those lines.

If you’re a queer, polyamory-inclined, vegan, feminist, immigrant, it’s all too easy for your accompanying bio to end up longer than the poem a journal wants to print. My queerness isn’t simply about my sexuality, though; for me, queer is more a verb than a noun, so it definitely influences my work as a writer.

For instance, I made a choice to self-publish my three novels (one of which is YA/NA) and one work of non-fiction. This was partly because I knew it would be difficult to get a contract with a good publisher, but also because I wanted to retain full creative control. I don’t like the idea of writing novel after novel that look exactly the same. Of course, self-publishing means I have to play the unfortunate game of respectability politics and am not eligible for a variety of awards or grants. Given that there are so few publishers willing to take a gamble on a new writer in a market seen as being small and difficult, I gather that this is rather a common source of ire for queer writers.

My queerness also has an impact on my work as a medical writer and journalist. Unless gender is central to the piece I’m writing, I do my utmost to be inclusive or to entirely avoid gendered terms. Instead, I aim to focus on biological facts so as not to exclude people who are trans, genderqueer, and/or intersex, and to avoid heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions.

So, yes, I absolutely think of myself as a queer writer.

2

The second book in your All Out Vancouver series came out earlier this year. Can you tell us about it? And what made you decide to set those books in a very recognizable Vancouver?

The books in the All Out Vancouver series are, in essence, the books that I wanted to read but that just didn’t exist. There’s a dearth of queer fiction that isn’t about coming out, and I wanted to go beyond that and write about people living their lives, be they bisexual, trans, genderqueer, and/or polyamorous. Thanks to increasing awareness and acceptance, many people now in their late twenties and thirties have been comfortably out for a long time and have been able to build chosen family and repair any rifts they might have had with their families of origin.

There’s a large queer community in Vancouver, which offers wonderful benefits but also some interesting politics to explore. I want to write about the community I know and love, with a dash of intersectionality and politics, but mostly just engaging stories about characters who readers can identify with or recognise in their own lives.

Go Deep is the second novel in the AOV series and was released in April 2016, following Don’t Bang the Barista!, which was released in October 2014. I’ll be sitting down to write the third in the series shortly, with plans to explore some of the newer characters more thoroughly while keeping in touch with the core characters who seem to have won over many readers.

3

What advice would you give to libraries looking to create meaningful, inclusive LGBTQ+ library collections? Are there any titles that you would consider must-haves?

There are so many fantastic lists now available online of LGBTQ+ books written by authors who themselves identify as LGBTQ+ (including those written by Casey!). I think Autostraddle, the Lesbrary, Book Riot, and other sites are a good starting point, especially for libraries looking for books by queer people of colour and trans folks whose small publishers may not have a large marketing budget.

I’d be happy to see librarians eschew bestseller lists when building collections as these lists are less an indication of what readers like and more a reflection of what straight, white, cis gender critics and publishers deem worthy of promoting. This is especially true for books written about LGBTQ+ folks by people who are straight and cis. While some of these books have literary merit, it’s important that priority is given to LGBTQ+ authors to tell our own stories.

It’s also nice to see libraries taking steps to highlight books that include diverse representations of bisexual characters and trans characters, as well as queer people of colour. The focus is normally so heavily on m/m romance or lesbian ‘chick-lit’ style narratives that it can be hard for other authors and books to find space on the shelves.

Lambda lists can also be helpful, especially now their award categories have expanded to include trans poetry and bisexual fiction.

As for must-have books, that’s a tricky one! Classics like The Colour Purple, Giovanni’s Room, The Well of Loneliness, The Price of Salt, Howl, and Rubyfruit Jungle might be considered essentials. Lesbian pulp fiction, such as by Ann Bannon, and books and plays like Confessions of a Mask, Dhalgren, Funny Boy, Blood Child, and The Normal Heart would help round out a collection. More recently, books by Shani Mootoo, Zoe Whittall, Michelle Tea, Maggie Nelson, David Levithan, and Vivek Shraya help build diversity. It’s so hard to choose!

What about making sure library spaces are LGBTQ+ friendly? What makes a space LGBTQ+ inclusive for you?

One thing I’ve noticed a lot in bookstores and libraries is how LGBTQ+ collections are typically sorted into ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ sections, with everything sort of lumped together as if LGBTQ+ is a genre. Having an LGBTQ+ section can be helpful for readers who are deliberately looking for these books, but I also think it essential to include books by or about LGBTQ+ people in general fiction or in the relevant genre sections of a library. This helps to avoid the ghettoization of these books, meaning that they make their way into the hands of new readers. It also helps out those people who might be nervous about standing in front of a giant ‘LGBTQ+’ sign.

On a more obvious note, having a rainbow decal somewhere visible can be very welcoming, and having all-gender washrooms is a must. Librarians themselves play a big part in making a space feel safe and welcoming, of course; educating staff to overcome any heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions about readers’ habits is essential. And, hiring librarians who have a good knowledge of LGBTQ+ books and who read diversely across genres means that it’s more likely readers will have a wider range of books recommended to them.

Not all writers like to do readings or books signings, but making space available to local authors who are LGBTQ+ and who want to hold an event can help, as can making sure to purchase local LGBTQ+ authors’ books. Hosting a queer book club, movie nights where the movie is based on an LGBTQ+ book, and taking part in Pride celebrations, Trans Visibility Day and Bi Awareness Day are also good ways to build community. Even creating a display of relevant books for such events can help library users feel safe and welcome in the space.

Top Ten Books by Trans Authors Featuring Trans Characters

Here’s another potential resource for collections development and/or reader’s advisory with a focus on trans-themed materials for young people: Britain’s The Guardian newspaper has released a top-10 list of YA/middle grade books featuring trans characters and written by trans/gender neutral/non binary authors. As the article’s author, teenage writer John Hansen, explains,

Cisgender authors can write great trans characters, but trans authors live the experiences of their characters every day and their voices need to be the loudest on trans issues..

The author goes on to argue that there is a considerable lack of literature for young people featuring trans or non-binary characters, and that much of the literature that does exist, including the more visible titles like Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal, is actually written by cis authors.

Many of the titles listed in the article are published by small presses and may not be widely available, but they might be worth seeking out online for your library’s patrons or to add to your collection.

You can see the list in its entirety on The Guardian’s website here.