Casey Plett: What Does It
Mean to Belong?
The Author of Little Fish in Conversation with
Madeleine Thien and Avi Cummings
Sacrifice, belonging, and the deferrals inherent to the experience of becoming are among the ideas at the heart of Little Fish, Casey Plett’s irreverent and heartfelt first novel. It is the story of Wendy Reimer, a thirty-year-old Mennonite-raised trans woman in Winnipeg, Canada, who finds herself at a dead-end, uncertain about the possibility of a future. Money is tight, work is hard, housing is uncertain, harassment is routine, friends are struggling, each day is more or less the same, it seems, and the question at the front of her mind is, Can I continue?
As the novel opens, Wendy visits her devout Mennonite family in rural Manitoba for her Oma’s funeral where she receives, by happenstance it seems, the outlines of a secret about her Opa, her grandfather, who has been dead for many years. The nature of this secret, and the motivations of the messenger are hazy to Wendy. Was her grandfather gay, was he trans, or what language would he have put to his existence? And what could this mean for Wendy? Her search for a truth, from relatives, from photographs, from friends, from a search within herself, leads her to profound ways of seeing what it means to belong—what is kept, what is lost, and what is given.
Avi Cummings: I laughed when I read the opening pages of Little Fish, when Wendy and her friends are at the bar talking about trans age and trans time. It was so immediately familiar. This conversation, these friends, the layers beneath what was being said… it was thrilling to begin a novel that seemed to say, I’m speaking to us. So, I wanted to ask you about how you were thinking about this, about the tensions or the possibilities of addressivity and representation.
Casey Plett: When I was in my early- mid-twenties, I did an MFA. There were many good things, but the idea of writing about trans stuff in a way that assumes preexisting knowledge or community knowledge was not part of that. Afterwards I met trans writers who felt you could just write with the same amount of preexisting knowledge as any other small community or group of people, and be really unapologetic about that. One could just do this. And that felt very powerful to me.
During the MFA, I worked at the Strand and I was very into selling Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness. It’s set in the early 80s, about a teenager in a very conservative Mennonite community in Manitoba. At the Strand, I sold it to all these areligious-seeming downtown Manhattanites. People read it and came back and told me they loved it.I always feel a little bit disjointed when I read realist fiction that does not have even a little bit of recursiveness to it.
If you’re honest, if you write the thing as well as you can and it feels alive and it feels truthful, then what I like to call the fear of proper nouns… it’s okay. I was writing Winnipeg in this book. If you know the city, you’ll get some part of it, but it would be sort of like an aesthetic sadness to take breaks in the book to explain what they mean. I wanted to write about it as if somebody in the city was talking to somebody else who lives in the city. There’s no such thing as a book where every single person understands every part. My book has to do with trans women, and Mennonites, and Winnipeg, and there’s a very, very small Venn diagram of people who are intimately acquainted with all three of those communities. But I really do believe it’s a phantom: this idea of a book that everyone understands every aspect of. And there’s kind of a beautiful thing about that.
AC: I can think of many contemporary trans writers who are writing in other genres, non-realist genres, so I was wondering about your choice to run into the fire and write in the realist mode.
CP: It was intentional. It certainly feels like there is room for tougher or bleaker stories about trans people than there was when I began looking for them, which was over a decade or so by now. I’ve always felt very like uninterested in, or even I would go as far as to say harmed by these bifurcated stories that you hear about. Really happy-go-lucky, I transitioned and now I’m happy and now I’m living my truth and everything’s great, and on the other side, these really sad, mentally twisted people all die early deaths. I felt very conscious about being surrounded by those two kinds of stories that felt very detached from reality. I think that consciousness made me particularly unapologetic about, say, depicting some of the uglier realities that exist in the book.
So there were scenes that would write where I would be like, do I even really want to put this in there? This feels painful to write and this feels painful for the characters themselves. And then, well, this is probably what would happen in this scenario, so I’m just going to trust that.
AC: At the same time, I felt like your novel has a lot of affection for the characters, and is protecting them.
CP: Something I think I felt early on is that I didn’t want to write characters that I didn’t love in some way, even if I didn’t necessarily like them. It always leaves me very, very cold when I can feel the detachment that the creator has for the characters. And I don’t even necessarily say that you have to like love bad characters. Although in this instance I would say I do love all the characters in Little Fish. I feel very lonely when I consume work where you can tell the creator at an emotional remove from them and doesn’t really love or hate them.
And that’s just a personal aesthetic thing. I don’t want to make any sort of judgment about whether those are good or bad artistic choices. For me personally, that is not what I’m interested in.
Madeleine Thien: There’s a line that I love near the end of the novel, where Wendy says, “And if Anna had been a woman Wendy could talk to, what would she have said? If Anna could have joined her wisdom to Wendy’s truths, what would she have to tell her?” It’s so hard to write for a community, write to a community, represent a community, critique a community, and also make art. You know there’s so many difficult parts of that act. Did you have the feeling of standing at the crossroads of many, I want to say, inheritances, literary traditions, images, ways of telling, that you had to either bring together or overturn? I feel like first novels are sometimes a rebellion against the world that the novel is writing into.
CP: I really love that you used the word “inheritances.” I also think that feels—there’s something about that that feels more true than the word community. Especially because trans communities, Mennonite communities, are just as disparate and fractured, and almost infinitely so, as the human population itself. But inheritances feels very true to how I felt. I don’t know that I necessarily felt that I was a proper representative or missive from a certain community. But there was a literary or communal inheritance there that it was appropriate for me to attempt to speak to.
In my first book, there were two stories that feature trans women from Mennonite backgrounds, and I was very struck by how many people responded to that, both people who knew Mennonites and not. I think that the fortune of having had that feedback made me feel like whatever is here it’s worth going to the very, very end.
MT: That urgency, that sense of urgency… I remember this, when writing my last book, it was like, at a certain point, I felt a loyalty to my characters. I felt like I had to… we had to go through—I had to see what continuity would look like. Do you know what I mean? The characters are both creations and not creations.
CP: I do, yeah.
MT: Yeah, and it’s almost like as artists, we’re doing this—there are many beliefs about what art does, how it transforms, how it changes, how it can educate, how it can create empathy, all these things, but in the moment to writing of it—it’s just you and them, in a way. Did you feel that?
CP: Absolutely. And did it feel for you that once you were at a certain point you knew that if in some altered reality you just, whether by circumstance or by your own wishes, if you walked away from it you would always feel that there was always some unfinished business there?
MT: Totally. Can I push a little further on that urgency?
CP: I don’t think I necessarily mean urgency in a political sense. I don’t mean in the way that sometimes critics will talk about a work in a political sense, and if it turns out to be that, that’s wonderful and I don’t want to say that’s untrue about anything I’ve made. But I sort of feel that’s a separate question. But in the moment of writing it, as you say, there’s a sort of unnamable thing. I think there’s something really seismic. At a certain point with the work, where I have to finish it because I also want to know, I also have cared about them so much that I want to find out what happens to them.
MT: You’re getting at something I find really profound, which is literature as a form of knowledge. I mean, yes it’s about knowing what happens next, but it’s about the way a novel is about to reveal something to us—as the writer.
CP: Yeah. That’s exactly it. There’s sort of a point where I as a writer I know I have somehow become close to something that I know is really, really important, or at least it’s very important to me, and if I were to stop and not see through and discover what’s important about it… and it’s so difficult from an aesthetic and craft perspective, but also from an emotional and feelings perspective. There’s something that is about to be revealed if I can figure it out. And I want to know what that thing is.
And I think it’s very similar feeling from when I read a book that particularly moves me. I can feel that tangle and snarl of emotions, and I’m reading rapidly toward the end where I know something will be revealed to me. On a deep, felt sense of it, I’m not sure if it’s different from reading something that you really enjoy. Do you ever have times where you’re dreaming, and in your dream you’re reading a book, and you wake up and you realize that you don’t have the book to read, and you’re upset of course because you realize, well, I didn’t…
MT: I know, it’s like your dream wrote the book. I mean, it existed. The structure of the novel is almost like a lattice, like where you grow the roses, there’s this structure that’s very strong but it’s so fragile too, and there’s so many gaps in it, too, but the gaps are its structure.
CP: I find myself often so moved both in books and film when there’s a line and the line might seem on a pure plot perspective the line is innocuous, and yet it is moving to linger on that line for just a minute or two. A line that isn’t necessarily the most important plot point in the scene, but there is something—sort of visually or sonorally—which is the proper thing to consider for the five or eight more beats before we go into the next frame. And maybe there’s something else, too … there’s so much that is, kept under wraps, like layers under layers under layers. Wendy often doesn’t internally process or react to things immediately. But these [gaps, pauses] were very intentional in asking the reader to linger something, again, just for six or eight beats or so.
MT: There’s a musicality to it.
CP: Sometimes I think being a listener or performer of music has in so many ways taught me about word and sentence structure and writing almost more than anything else. This is also a Mennonite family thing. I grew up being in choirs and playing the piano, and any mode of artistic training I had when I was growing up would have been music. And I feel that I rely on that guidance actually just as much as I do what I have learned about writing and books over the years.
AC: There seems to be a circular sense of time. It’s only two months, but it’s a crowded two months, with so much happening, and there’s a constant movement between present to past. Wendy lives through an event and comes back to it, or remembers events in a more distant past, in her grandfather’s past, and we move with her through these loops of time.
CP: I always feel a little bit disjointed when I read realist fiction that does not have even a little bit of recursiveness to it. From a craft perspective, I need just a little bit of that recursiveness for it to feel like a life, for it to feel like I have sort of a window into another human’s existence.
MT: In some ways, it’s the recursiveness, too, being able to see it, that sets the ground for a possible future.
CP: In some ways, the most difficult thing about the book was asking myself: this happened, so why? What are the things that makes her get there? A lot of the nominal answers for that just felt false. For example, I tried to consider possibilities of her finding out more concrete things about her grandfather, and that felt false. And I tried to think about what would happen if more material or objective improvements in her life occurred and that also felt false.
She has these realizations about him [Henry]. She doesn’t have answers. She turning over what her life could look like. I could do these things but would it make me happier? I don’t think so. It’s not joyous exactly, but a place of understanding, and it doesn’t foreclose the possibilities for her. She ends the book drinking as much as she did, well, more actually, than she did when she started, but she has posed the question, What if I stop doing this? She says no. But she has posed the question to herself. And that’s a meaningful thing. You know? So, that’s is what I think I can answer about Wendy in the future.
And then for myself as a writer… when you say, liberating, that’s completely how I felt absolutely. I remember the first time I held the physical copy feeling like… I felt very rested. I think is the word I would use. When I finally held it in my hands.
AC: Sounds amazing.
CP: It felt that way. That was two and half, two years ago. And I am writing another book. A book of short stories. A novella and a bunch of short stories. And you know, it’s funny, I have that feeling again, I have no idea what I can think of writing after this. And maybe that’s a nice thing.
Casey Plett is the author of Little Fish and A Safe Girl to Love. A co-editor of Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy From Transgender Writers, she has written for The New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Maclean’s, and them, among other publications.
Avi Cummings has an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College. He lives in New York City.
Madeleine Thien’s essays can be found in The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, Brick, Granta, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, won the Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for The Booker Prize, Women’s Prize for Fiction and The Folio Prize.
Our sincere thanks to the Rapid Response Honorarium Program, the Ethyl R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, and the Office of the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College CUNY.