What Counts As Transgender Literature?
On the Writing(s) of Kai Cheng Thom, and the Elusiveness of Categories
Even before the first page, Kai Cheng Thom’s debut novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016) begins to reveal its lively style from its title. “I don’t believe in safe spaces,” Thom writes in her preface. “They don’t exist. I do, however, believe in dangerous stories: The kind that swirl up from inside you when you least expect it, like the voice of a mad angel whispering of the revolution you are about to unleash.”
Thom’s novel indeed reads like such a delightful and delirious whisper. It is narrated by a young trans girl who grew up as the child of Chinese immigrants in a town called Gloom and who later runs away from home to begin her transition, heading to a legendary placed filled with extraordinary trans women called The City of Smoke and Lights. Here, the novel begins to tackle themes that many of us know all too well: the medicalization of our bodies, the continual murder of trans women, Othering. “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously,” Edwidge Danticat wrote, and Fierce Femmes, in its idiosyncratic way, is trying to do something similar. Moreover, by subverting the genre of the trans memoir in so novel a way—literally—Thom’s text contributes to a conversation about defining the boundaries, if any, of what transgender literature is.
“It’s funny,” the narrator writes in a letter to her sister, Charity, after running away from home, “how every place is kind of two places at once: there’s the glorious imaginary place made out of the dreams they sell in books, movies, and vacation package commercials, and then there’s the real place, where people are commuting to work and taking shit from their bosses and going home to crap family lives just like everywhere else.” The sentiment is vaguely reminiscent of the Calvino of Invisible Cities, but perhaps most of all of the shadow looming over trans literature as a whole: how do the all-too-common, if often well-intended, caricatures in the books about trans people by non-trans writers hold up against, well, reality? What does the imaginary look like against the world?
Thom’s novel, which has no desire to be realism, still manages to show a kind of reality. It’s a fantasy, at times filled with glossed-over images, but one that shows a world in which being trans doesn’t have to hold you back, a world where being trans is so many things: dangerous (a man tries to proposition her at a gas station; trans women are gruesomely murdered, prompting a gang of trans women to violently punish a series of cisgender men in turn; police brutality rears its head; drugs literally distort trans women’s lives), a sisterhood (the baroque trans women of the City of Smoke and Lights, who take the narrator under their wing), awesome. Most importantly, it’s hard not to love a book about being trans called a memoir that is so utterly different from the conventional trans memoir, partly by being a novel, mainly by being so exuberantly experimental and in love with language for the sake of it. Despite its pastel cover, Fierce Femmes has the soul of a rocker: drugs, violence, love, magic, journeys.
Early on, the novel offers a lovely description of sex before transition. Thom’s narrator has bees inside of her; they had come to her one night in a lucid nightmare, drinking up what she had inside of her, then leaving—except for a few. Much like the resonant final image in Robert Haas’s prose poem, “A Story About the Body,” bees here take on a meaning about the body and its discontents with its contents. Yet her narrator, early on, finds a phantom companion who she calls “Ghost Friend” and whose gender is uncertain, and this invisible friend is “the only person I’ve ever met who can make me orgasm.” When they have sex in a cemetery, the narrator relates what sex was like before Ghost Friend: “I had tried sex before, with a few boys and one girl at school. It had always ended badly—with the sensation of dark black bees buzzing and wriggling inside me, wherever I was touched, reminding me of what had happened.”
But her phantasmal friend “was so slow, so barely substantial, so responsive to my direction,” that the “killer bees” stay silent, and she feels happy, during sex, for the first time. I smiled when I read this because I knew what the bees sounded and felt like from experience—and how lovely it is to have sex, as yourself, and suddenly not hear them, because you are suddenly with someone who understands the contours of you, and will not disturb the buzzing ghosts in the sad tomb passageways of your past. There is a Murakamiesque strangeness in this moment in Thom’s novel—Kafka on the Shore, of course, is either famous or infamous for astral sex—but it’s also such a human moment, simple and silly and vast. These bits are wonderful.
As a whole, Thom’s text is protean and amorphous, transmogrifying, at will, into whatever it seems to imagine it needs to be, a formal fluidity that I often enjoy. In one moment, the narrator is telling a grand tale; in another, she is speaking to the reader, almost as if giving advice about self-actualization; in another, a poem blooms; in another, gorgeous, dreamlike, sensual language, ghostly and quick-slow as cigarette smoke. This malleability makes sense. Thom, like her novel, is many things literarily: poet on the page (whose first collection, a place called No Homeland, comes out in April 2017), spoken-word performer, essayist. Fierce Femmes is a kind of extended jouissance.
At times, the novel’s fluidity of form seems a bit messy. Thom’s novel seems an attempt to, like the deftest lyrical writing, become poem or prose at any point as need be, a literary Avatar Korra trying to bend all the elements. Yet the pacing is inconsistent and sometimes rushed, reducing characters and places and ideas to too-brief glimpses; at times, relationships seem a bit like flashes of sitcoms; and the charming lore and mythos-building in the novel’s world unfortunately do not always get developed as fully as I would like. But, then again, this is not a traditional novel. And I can read past many of those concerns because the sheer exuberance of the text, especially in its sultry silky sudden language, propels me.
Transgender literature need not be bound by any strictures of form; it is often subversive, whether or not we want it to be like this, simply to be openly ourselves, and a literature that can be as formally open-ended, as stylistically fuck-you as it wishes, is a fitting one, indeed. Let our books be as conventional or genre-expansive as they like. Thom’s novel, to me, represents the wonderful way that trans literature continues to break boundaries.
Defining transgender literature, though, can be contentious. When I was a judge for the Lambda Literary Awards in 2015 under the “Transgender Fiction” category, we received books by authors who are transgender—but also by cisgender writers who had written about trans people. The latter included some memorable novels, like Ariel Schrag’s Adam, Rachel Gold’s Just Girls, and Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab. Yet it raised old questions for the judges. Is trans literature only literature written by trans people? Is any text centered around trans issues or characters transgender literature? Is a book by a transgender author that has no relation to trans issues still a transgender book? At one level, these questions are technicalities; certainly, the quality of any of these books matters more than their labeling. But these questions also do matter, largely because trans characters are still, in many cases, unfortunately reduced to tropes in texts by cisgender writers.
And the answers differ, somewhat, depending on whom you ask. In a Lambda Literary interview, Tom Leger of Topside Press, which specializes in publishing transgender literature, defined trans literature “by the narrative, not the author,” with Topside “look[ing] for work that has a transgender protagonist.” When I reached out to him recently, Leger offered a larger definition: “transgender literature is a body of cultural work that resonates with or illuminates or otherwise serves transgender communities.” He added that “cis people can theoretically write books that I would include on a bibliography of trans lit, but the vast majority of them don’t know enough trans people to do this well and are using the trans characters as narrative devices (most frequently obstacles).”
In a 2012 Lambda Literary interview, Sassafras Lowrey offered a more restrictive definition: “I consider trans literature,” Lowrey said, “predominantly to be connected really explicitly to transgender authorship. I believe that as trans people we are the most qualified to be writing about our own experiences and that the core of this sub-genre of queer literature should be from our voices and perspectives, as opposed to content featuring trans characters and experiences written from the perspectives of those outside of our community.” For Ryka Aoki in the same interview, trans people should be the ones writing trans literature, though she expressed concerns over being reduced to overly simple labels, like “women’s work” or, more specifically, “trans women’s work.”
When I spoke to Leger recently, he said that he thinks we’ve moved beyond this debate about authorship since 2012, as “there are so many active trans writers, not just writing but writing in conversation with each another.” In 2012, he argued, it was much more common to have trans writers composing what he called “stealth” or “closeted” literature—work by transgender writers that avoided all mention of being trans, a genre he feels is far more “dated” in 2016, given the preponderance of openly transgender authors. Due to stealth literature, however, he added that “it’s important to see transgender literature as not just any book or poem written by anyone who happens to be transgender” but that our literature should instead “grappl[e] with things that matter” to trans communities.
When I reached out to the trans writer Meredith Talusan, who grew up in the Philippines and who has written a number of powerful essays and articles about transgender people and issues for Buzzfeed, the Guardian, and elsewhere, she offered a relatively open definition of trans literature that resonated with me. “Trans literature is any literature viewed through the lens of the set of associations we’ve come to have with the word transgender,” she told me. “It need not be written by or for trans people, and I think many existing works of literature can be thought of as trans literature even if the authors are not trans themselves or don’t consider the work to be trans. Among recent literature, I think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh can be productively thought of within the framework of transgender literature even if they’ve been framed in other ways.” She added that Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which famously features a gender-shifting protagonist, also qualifies as transgender literature, alongside texts like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.
For Mey Rude, a trans Latina who edits and writes for Autostraddle and who has appeared in VICE, on Bitch Magazine’s podcast, and elsewhere, trans lit—including comics, which she often reviews for Autostraddle—should be created by “trans creators” rather than solely being about transgender people to qualify as trans literature. “I don’t consider comics that are only about trans people to be trans comics,” she told me recently. “If we’re not involved, I don’t think it gets to be called trans literature.” She praised Annie Mok’s comics and the webcomic Trans Girl Next Door by Kylie Wu, as well as work by non-binary trans comics creators, like Anna Bongiovanni’s Grease Bats and As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gilman.
Generally, it seems that many of us would agree trans people are usually the ones who will know best what it’s like to be trans, so we should, ideally, be the ones writing our literature, even if it’s possible for someone non-trans to.
In March of 2015, the Canadian trans writer Casey Plett published a striking essay about transgender literature entitled “The Rise of the Gender Novel.” Plett, whose engaging collection of stories, A Safe Girl to Love, won a Lammy a few months later, decided to focus on a specific kind of novel: what she called “the Gender Novels—books about Gender with a capital G,” a category that included Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy, Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. These books, she argued, which were written by cisgender authors, “join a very 21st-century sub-genre: sympathetic novels about transition by people who haven’t transitioned.” More to the point, Plett declares that these novels, while different on the surface, all end up doing the same thing: turning their trans figures into tropes rather than individual human figures that trans readers would more likely recognize. “Their portrayals of gender-identity struggles are ham-fisted,” she claims, “and despite the authors’ apparently good intentions they often rehash stale, demeaning tropes: a coy mix-and-match of pronouns; descriptions of trans women as fake and mannish; the equation of gender with genitalia and surgery; a fixation on rare intersex conditions that allow for tacked-on, unrealistic transition narratives.” The characters across the books even share similar familial and social trajectories, despite their superficial dissimilarities. “So what does it say that four very different authors set out to write four very different people,” Plett asks, “and came up with the same non-person? And why are cisgender readers so moved by such one-dimensional characters?”
The mere fact that a trans person writes a novel does not mean that that novel will reflect the experiences of another trans person, necessarily. It is often cringe-worthy and can feel insulting to have pronouns switch in a novel about a binary trans character, yet there exist situations when there is a reason for this switch, like showing a character who does not fully accept or understand their own sense of gender because they do not even as yet know that being transgender is possible—something that defined my own experience for many years. It’s a cliché to write about trans characters by reducing our journey to one of getting this surgery or that, especially considering that not all trans people can get or even wish to have gender-affirming surgeries; all the same, some of us do feel like we’ve completed a journey by getting something we yearned for. Experience is complex—which is precisely why trans people are generally the best persons to write about ourselves.
The key to writing trans characters, whoever you might be, is remembering what you must for any character: that we are individual human beings, not stereotypes. Make us unique humans. Make us live on the page. Make us react the way we really are likely to react to the real things we really are likely to experience. Ask us what it is like to be us. Remember that how you depict us can even translate into how some of us survive in the real world because we live in a world where dangerous depictions of us loom large: just look at the monstrous way we are portrayed in countless Republican ads opposing our right to use the restroom that corresponds with our gender identity.
And, above all, if you are not a trans writer, ask yourself why you wish to write a trans character. There is nothing wrong with writing a trans character as a cisgender writer; but you need to be aware of how pernicious the clichés about us are, as well as the power dynamics of writing about a group that is still widely reviled and relatively little-known. And this can also go for trans writers, as well. Our identities are important, but we should not be forced into the idea that we must write about them exclusively, either. As Stephen Ira, one of the editors of the trans journal Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry and Poetics, told the Huffington Post, “Read a lot of poems and don’t orient your trans poetics around the correctness of your gender.”
A dangerous lure is to write fiction that, at its core, is indistinguishable from agitprop. Fiction shows us people, and people are not propaganda; the best political fiction gives us people and places alongside its politics, as well as adding in ambiguities. Mistaking fiction for propaganda pamphlet was perhaps the greatest flaw of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a similar issue of which underlay James Baldwin’s famous condemnation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in his 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” I believe strongly in securing the rights of trans people, legally and otherwise; all the same, I do not write fiction purely with such a purpose in mind.
Certainly, as Alastair Sooke argued in 2014, there are grand works of art that had what we might call propagandistic intentions, like the Parthenon Marbles, but when this message becomes too simple—you must do this, you must do that—we are losing the curious shadows that live in the lights of art. Liberation can come in many forms—Harvey Milk’s mentor, Cleve Jones, reveals in his new memoir, When We Rise, that his own epiphany about the possibility of joining a pro-LGBTQ movement came in 1971, when he read a Life article memorably titled “Homosexuals in Revolt!” about “the new gay liberation movement,” which featured a then-revolutionary photo of a wedding cake with two queer couples atop it—and art can be one of those forms, but when simple activism takes over a novel completely, it loses the nuance of great art and becomes more akin to a political pamphlet.
Visibility works best for us when we are portrayed honestly: as people just like anybody else, yet also as people who, often, must endure struggles that can seem alien to those who are not transitioning.
And the stated aim of Thom’s novel is to revel in the ever-expanding possibilities of what trans lit might look like. “I decided,” Thom says in her preface, “someone had to write us girls a dangerous story: a transgender memoir, but not like most of the 11,378 transgender memoirs out there, which are just regurgitations of the same old story that makes us boring and dead and safe to read about. I wanted something kick-ass and intense with hot sex and gang violence and maybe zombies and lots of magic.” Towards the end of the novel, one of the titular femmes tells the narrator that “[h]unger is a story you get stuck in. Love’s the story that takes you somewhere new.”
A fierce and fabulous femme, indeed.