“My bindi tells me where I’m from / my bindi reminds me of my mom”: A Review of Vivek Shraya’s Gender-Diverse Picture Book THE BOY & THE BINDI

Hey guess what! This my very first review of a picture book on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. The book, fully deserving of this honour, is The Boy & the Bindi written by Vivek Shraya and illustrated by Rajni Perera. You might know Vivek Shraya as an artist jill-of-all-trades. I’ve reviewed her poetry book even this page is white and talked about her novel She of the Mountains as one of the great Canadian bisexual books you have to read. (I’ve also got the audiobook of her latest non-fiction book, I’m Afraid of Men, queued up next on my audiobook app). You might also know her as a musician and artist in various other visual mediums. Since she published The Boy & the Bindi in 2016, she can also add picture book author to her long list of artistic ccomplishments.

The Boy & the Bindi is about, well, a boy and his fascination with his Ammi’s (mom) bindi. It’s a sweet story about a gender non-conforming kid who is curious about Ammi’s bindi. He asks “Ammi, why do you wear that dot? What’s so special about that spot?” Readers can learn along with the little kid that it’s called a bindi. But more importantly, we hear about what its deeper meaning his. The boy’s Ammi explains:

My bindi tells me where I’m from.

My bindi reminds me of my mom

And when she gave me my first one.

In this way, Shraya explains how the bindi is a specifically feminine cultural tradition for South Asian women, one that links mothers and daughters to each other. Where, then, does the little boy in this story fit? Easily. When he asks his Ammi for a bindi of his own, she doesn’t hesitate. She reaches into her drawer and says “Ta-da! This one is yours!”

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Just like for his Ammi, the boy finds that the bindi is much more than a pretty adornment on his forehead: “As soon as it’s on, I feel so calm / Like all the noise around is gone.” Even under the scrutiny of white kids at school who don’t know what the bindi is, he derives strength and peace from imagining the bindi turning into a star, his forehead turning into the sky, and his whole being feeling light and free. The bindi helps too when feeling “small like a dot / And sometimes ugly like a blot.”

The Boy & the Bindi clearly shows Shraya’s finesse with music and poetry, with its rhythmic rhyming lines very much like a song or poem. She also uses repetition for stylistic effect beautifully. The musicality of the words is matched by the gorgeous lush colours of Rajni Perera’s painted illustrations. The richness of the brown boy and mother’s skin tones is especially striking. I also loved the bright colours in the boy’s imaginative scenes: the blue-purple night sky the boy flies away to and the green jungle growing around him and his Ammi.

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When you’ve finished reading the book (for the first time), definitely check out the multiple resources and different ways to experience the book on Vivek Shraya’s website. There’s an audio recording of the author herself reading the book with soothing music playing in the background. There’s a video of Catherine Hernandez (whose name you might recognize as the author of Scarborough, a debut novel I reviewed last year) doing an amazing storytime (complete with songs before and after) featuring The Boy & the Bindi. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, you’ll also be interested to know that there’s a teacher’s guide resource available for free there in PDF form. It’s developed by educators Robin Phillips and Meghan Park. It’s got stuff like learning outcomes, activities for before and after reading, and discussion questions.

Stay tuned for more picture book reviews on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Next I’d like to read Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea. In the meantime, go forth and share The Boy & the Bindi with the kids (and, hey, adults!) in your life.

Posted in Canadian, Fiction, Kids, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 1 Comment

A Dark and Humorous Look at the Life of a Lesbian Stay-at-Home Mom: A Review of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ADULT ONSET

If you were expecting Ann-Marie MacDonald’s third novel Adult Onset (published in 2014) to be similar in scope and drama to her first two sweeping, epic historical novels — including the massively popular Oprah Book Club pick Fall on Your Knees (my review here) — you might be disappointed, at least initially. I think reading this novel with those expectations, however, would do a disservice to MacDonald, who is after all attempting to write a different kind of book. Moreover, I think if you scratch beneath the surface of this week-in-the-life-of-a-stay-at-home-lesbian mom, you’ll find that despite its differences Adult Onset shares a lot with MacDonald’s previous novels.

I, for one, loved this novel. I thought it was fascinating and riveting. I listened to the audiobook, and there were many times when I could barely bring myself to take out my headphones and pause the story. Which is probably not something you’d predict about this type of book set and taking place over the course in a regular week in the life of a married middle class lesbian mom. But there’s also something to be said about the urgency and immediacy of a piece of fiction set in such a short time frame. Especially for the context of this book, in which the weight of motherhood and domesticity are claustrophobically suffocating and swallowing the main character, the pressing atmosphere of the condensed time felt very appropriate.

The lesbian mom in question here is Mary Rose, aka MR, aka Mister. (I love how the completely different nickname comes from this unusual place, and how it represents MR trying to move away from the heightened femininity of her given name to what she calls “a calculated androgyny”). I said the book takes place during a week in her life, which is in the Toronto neighbourhood The Annex. This is true, but it also skips back a bit occasionally to the child- and young adulthood of MR, sometimes inside her own head and memories, and sometimes reaching outside what she could possibly know and remember about her own young life. There are also excerpts from MR’s autobiographical YA series.

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Ann-Marie MacDonald / image by Guntar Kravis, via annmariemacdonald.com

Adult Onset is a psychologically rich and complex novel. Barely suppressed underneath the mundane details of MR’s days caring for her toddler Maggie and her Kindergartner Matthew — without her wife Hilary, who is away for work — is a surging sea. This sea is made up of so many things: the myriad stresses of motherhood; struggling to keep up with domestic tasks; MR’s longstanding problem with anger; maintaining a relationship with her mother, who appears to be in the early stages of dementia; supporting her brother who is going through a break-up and dealing with anxiety; remembered trauma of childhood physical illness and familial homophobia; the challenges of sustaining her relationship with Hilary long-distance; and the pressure for MR to write the third book in her immensely popular YA series. It’s A LOT.

The result is an often painfully real book, at times not unlike the last book I reviewed, Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Weekend. Both novels also have the effect of making you feel less alone amidst all the shit of life you are wading through. But one key difference is that MacDonald’s book has a lot of humour in it, albeit often dark humour (my personal favourite kind). It had me laughing about the same amount as it had me cringing. One of my favourite lines from the book that had me laughing out loud was “Mary Rose having approached heterosexuality rather like math: she worked at it until she achieved a C then felt justified in dropping it.”

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As I said earlier, I listened to the audiobook version of Adult Onset. I would highly recommend experiencing the book this way, even if you don’t normally do audiobooks! Ann-Marie MacDonald herself narrates it, and it is incredible. Often author-narrated audiobooks aren’t very good, because even though an author has written the book, it doesn’t mean they’re good at performing it. An audiobook is nothing less than a performance by a voice actor, after all. But MacDonald is also a trained and accomplished actress, in addition to a gifted author. She is absolutely fabulous narrating this story. She has a wonderful expressive voice, really embodying MR’s state of mind.

Her narration added a lot of value for me. There were certain passages I think I might have interpreted differently or found less interesting had I read the print book. One sentence in particular stands out in my memory. MR is falling into a sleep-deprived angry spiral about her relationship with Hilary, inside her own head, and she somehow gets onto the topic of how Hilary identifies, queer wise. She thinks, “Hilary, of course, refused to identify specifically as anything, which was just so typical of a bisexual.” (This is a paraphrase, as I didn’t write down the exact sentence–it was that memorable that I still remember it now, weeks after finishing the book).

MR’s voice is so infused with, well, her crazed mental state. The pitch of MacDonald’s voice goes higher and higher and the words are strung together closer and closer as the sentence nears its end until her voice is shrill. It sounded just like the kind of silly, petty thing you might think about your partner while mad at them for, oh, say, being away from home and leaving you alone to parent your two children under five. Acted out in MacDonald’s voice, I found this line very funny. In print, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been uneasy about this jab at bisexuals.

MacDonald also did great unique voices and accents for different characters: the rural Cape Breton twang of MR’s elderly parents was especially great. I will also confess now I’ve always had kind of a crush on Ann-Marie MacDonald (even though she’s old enough to be my mom) and something about the way she did MR’s brother’s voice was so sexy to me I couldn’t handle it.

In short: I loved Adult Onset. Read it. In particular, listen to the audiobook.

Posted in ann-marie macdonald, Canadian, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Toronto | 1 Comment

Viscerally Real Queers, Dyke Processing, Kink, and Disability in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel WEEKEND

Oof. You know when a book feels almost too real? That was my experience with Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel Weekend. I don’t know if I’ve read a novel about queer relationships that felt so viscerally authentic, ever. This is a testament to Hamilton’s sheer writing talent, of course, as well as technical finesse in the careful character and relationship development throughout. But Weekend is also a great example of a book that speaks to the power of #ownvoices writing.

There’s just no way an outsider who didn’t have deep, personal experiences with the intricacies of gender and sexual identities, kink, and disability the book is representing could ever write something that felt this real and complex. The book is not conforming to the “we’re-the-same-as-everybody-else” theory of queerness and it’s certainly not concerned with portraying queer people in a flattering light. What it does do is unflinchingly reveal us at our worst in some ways that all humans can be in relationships with each other and at our best in some ways that are very specific to the queer crip politics of the novel.

Weekend is, according to this review in The Vancouver Sun, a take on Raymod Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I admittedly haven’t read Carver, but judging from its description as a “grim mediation on love,” that sounds just about right.

Hamilton’s novel is a snapshot of two queer couples spending the weekend in side by side cabins in that specifically Ontario construct of what Ontarians call “cottage country.” The two halves of each couple who own the property, Logan and Elliot, are—unsurprisingly—long ago exes, each there with their current partner. Logan’s partner is 10 years their senior, a woman named Ajax who has come out from BC to spend quality couple time. Ajax and Logan are still in what you might call “the honeymoon phase,” which means they’re having constant amazing sex but still don’t know important things about one another. Joe and Elliot are a long-term couple who have just had a baby together and are struggling not only with the daily exhaustion and effort of caring for a newborn but also deep buried relationship troubles.

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Jane Eaton Hamilton / image via vancouversun.com

There’s a lot to revel in in Weekend, just purely from a representation angle. When was the last time you read a queer novel about people in middle age, let alone a novel that has extended sex scenes featuring queer people in their 40s and 50s? Older queers getting it on feels revolutionary in and of itself, but Hamilton also features a character who is disabled and black (Ajax has a heart condition and grew up in the Bahamas), a trans masculine character who uses they pronouns (Logan), a masculine-presenting polyamorous character who uses she pronouns (Elliot), and a kinky couple (Logan and Ajax). None of this feels forced or for the sake of diversity itself, but simply a portrayal of some real people with various intersecting identities.

As you’re probably guessing, this is a highly character and relationship driven novel. You know at the beginning that shit of many kinds is going to hit the fan for both couples. Hamilton takes you there slowly while letting you get to know all the characters, their dynamics, and histories. The only other work I can think of that has so much authentic dyke processing in it is Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Logan, Ajax, Joe, and Elliot talk about their gender and sexual identities (I found Ajax’s ruminations about her lesbian identity in the face of Logan’s in-flux gender identity particularly fascinating), sex, feelings, their exes, illness, and relationship practicalities. They talk, and talk, and talk.

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Another gorgeous cover by Arsenal Pulp Press–can you see how the topography looks like a body?

Ajax was the most interesting character for me, as she’s negotiating multiple marginalized identities that she doesn’t share with her Logan: she’s disabled and black, as I already mentioned, and also grew up poor/working class and has lived an adult life living mostly as a kind of starving artist. She has to decide how much and what and when to tell Logan, especially because their relationship is new. At one point when Logan stumbles upon a tangle of race and class assumptions they hold based on their perceptions about the Bahamas, Ajax has to outright tell them: “There is some awful something happening right now, right here, that I am just going to cross out because I don’t want to get into it with you. Not this weekend. Can we defer?” She thinks later: “Quintessentially, she and Logan had almost nothing in common. Which had essentially no bearing on love.” As a side note: I think I also liked Ajax the most because I deeply identified with her, a Vancouverite, thinking this about Lake Ontario: “Ajax keeping her lips pressed tight about the lake’s basic wrongness (pretending it was an ocean).”

Weekend is a deeply thought-provoking novel. It doesn’t shy away from the sometimes harsh realities of the characters’ lives in the same way it exposes unflinchingly but compassionately their sometimes massive imperfections. It’s not the kind of book about relationships that will “make you believe in love.” But it will, I think, make many readers feel less alone and affect many readers greatly, on both emotional and intellectual levels. Weekend is perhaps the queer book you didn’t know you needed so much.

Posted in BDSM, Black, Butch, Canadian, Caribbean, disability, Fiction, Lesbian, Non Binary, Queer, Trans, Trans Masculine, Transgender | 2 Comments

“You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit”: A Review of Joshua Whitehead’s Debut Novel JONNY APPLESEED

What a damn fine book Jonny Appleseed is. That’s my eight-word review. Here are some more words:

When I finished reading this debut novel by Joshua Whitehead (an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of the Peguis First Nation [Treaty 1]), I remember thinking about first person narratives. I haven’t been reading a lot of them, and some of the ones I have read in the last year have grated on my nerves a little. I think novel-length stories told from an “I” are very hard to pull off. It’s hard to successfully represent an authentic-seeming individual’s voice and have a narrative that makes sense in terms of the information that limited perspective has for the plot. This is especially true in my experience when an author also chooses to tell the story in present tense. Done well, I am often incredibly moved by first-person narratives and remark on the artistry of representing the world from a particular person’s perspective. Not done well (which seems like the case more of the time, perhaps attesting to the difficulty of getting the voice right), I find them tough to get through or even unbearable.

Jonny Appleseed is the most poignant reminder I’ve had in a while about how powerful and effecting a first person narrative can be. Jonny, the Two-Spirit main character, carries the book with his raw, hilarious, and insightful voice. In a character- and relationship-driven novel devoid of a lot of what is conventionally considered “plot” (this is not a bad thing in my mind), the voice of Jonny is what holds the story and the reader along for the ride. Jonny Appleseed is one of those seemingly infinitely quotable books I found myself frequently underlining. Jonny has so much to say and you just want to share his words.

Some of my favourite quotes from Jonny were:

“Humility is just a humiliation you loved so much it transformed.”

“I texted him back with a simple ‘No.’ I made an emphasis to punctuate my text. In the digital universe, a punctuated sentence is as powerful a slap as slamming down the landline.”

“Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.’”

“But I just laughed and I think he got mad—I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.”

“I never had to tell him, that was how I knew I love him—I never had to tell him.”

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Joshua Whitehead / image via talonbooks.com

The story technically takes place over a week, but in reality it spans a much larger time period as it meanders through Jonny’s memories. It’s a non-linear book that feels very much like the way a mind goes to and fro from the past to the present and from topic to topic. Jonny thinks about his kokum, mom, his great first love Tias, coming out, and growing up. In the present Jonny is preparing to go back to the rez for his mom’s boyfriend’s funeral, hence the predominance of the past in his mind. He’s been living in Winnipeg, living his urban “NDN glitter princess” and scraping by by doing cyber-sex work. Now he’s set to go back to where he grew up, a prospect that is complicated emotionally and practically for him, not least of which is how difficult it’s going to be to scrounge up the funds to pay for a ride. He never even liked his mom’s boyfriend anyway.

A lot of the novel focuses on the women in Jonny’s life and the impact they’ve had on him. One particularly memorable story is about his aunt, and how she reacts to a black bear they find in her backyard, eating out of her garbage can. Jonny recalls:

She was fearless, that woman; she walked outside barefoot and marched right up to that bear and struck him on the nose with her broom, once, twice, bam. And then that great bear stood up on its hind legs, its claws the length of scissors, and grunted; but my aunt, tough as nails, smacked that bear again on its head and yelled at the top of her voice, ‘Git! G’wan you, out, out, git!’ The bear stared at her quizzically for a few seconds, then lowered himself and jogged back into the bush. My aunt came back inside, her feet red as the beans she cooked in her chili, and dusted herself off as if it were nothing.

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He also thinks often of his kokum (grandmother). One lovely story is her reaction when he nervously comes out to her on the phone. Through his crying and hiccupping, she tells him “You done, m’boy, or what? … Heck, like I didn’t even know, Jonny. Why you think I gave you them earrings last year? … your kokum old but she ain’t dull. You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit.”

These are just some snapshots of this book that I loved. It was one of those reads that sucked me in right from the first page and didn’t let go. Joshua Whitehead writes elegantly and exactingly about Jonny’s state of mind and his journey, to moving and profound effect. Jonny Appleseed is funny, on-point, and heart-breaking, often all at the same time. Don’t believe me? Did you know it was on the 2018 Giller Longlist and a finalist for the GG’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction? Now get reading Jonny Appleseed! Find it from the publisher Arsenal Pulp Press here.

Posted in Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, Queer, Rural, Sex Work | 2 Comments

A Trans Novel to Break You, and Build You Back Up: A Review of Casey Plett’s LITTLE FISH

Look at the opening of Casey Plett’s debut novel Little Fish, and how it unabashedly centres trans women talking to each other about trans stuff:

The night before her Oma died, Wendy was in a booth at the bar with Lila, Raina, and Sophie. It was eleven p.m., and they were all tipsy. Sophie was saying, “Age is completely different for trans people. The way we talk about age is not how cis people talk about age.”

“You mean that thing,” said Wendy, “where our age is also how long we’ve been out or on hormones or whatever?”

“Or do you mean that thing,” said Lila, “where we don’t age as much. Because we die sooner.”

“Both those things, yes!” Sophie said, “But there’s more! There’s much more.”

Yes, there is, much, much more. But from the very beginning, Plett shows us that this novel is going to dive deep into relationships between trans women, and it’s not going to shy away from the darkness and the complexities. It also insists, with its incisive insider voice, that this is not a trans book written with a cis audience in mind.

Little Fish is about a 30-year-old trans woman named Wendy. Wendy lives in Winnipeg. It’s a slice-of-life novel that follows Wendy’s life for a few (significantly, Winnipeg WINTER) months amidst some monumental events in her life. Plett says in a Q&A with Arsenal Pulp Press that “given the rapid-fire events Wendy deals with in Little Fish, it seemed right to me to also set the book during that season, when life in some way has that tinge of not being part of the world.” I’ve never personally experienced Winterpeg, but I feel like reading this book might be as close to the real experience as you’re gonna get.

The narrative begins with Wendy’s Oma’s death, recounting just what Wendy was doing before, during, and just after her grandmother died in that way that we always look back on the seemingly mundane events in our lives retrospectively after something major has happened to disrupt the normalcy. It’s fitting that we are introduced both to Wendy’s Oma and her tight-knit group of friends in the novel’s open, because this is a book about family: both Wendy’s Mennonite family of birth and her chosen family of trans women peers.

The crux of the novel’s plot is Wendy discovering her traditional Mennonite farmer grandfather might have also been trans—something she discovers in a chance phone call from a family friend when she’s back at her Oma’s house after the funeral. It’s a thread in the plot that falls and gets picked back up numerous times, as Wendy assesses how importance and relevant this information may even be, given that her Opa passed away years ago and that there are a lot of other pressing issues happening in her life. In this way, Little Fish is just as much about other issues like alcoholism, sex work, friendship, suicide, and being poor as it is about searching for your trans and queer history within your family and culture.

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Casey Plett, photo via quillandquire.com

Little Fish is a hard-hitting, beautiful, and thought-provoking novel. It refuses to simplify any of the complex, thorny issues it is dealing with; no one is a saint, no one is a villain. It refuses to ignore the darkness in the lives of Wendy and her friends, but it also refuses to downplay the warm-heartedness, love, and community at the heart of their relationships with each other. Fellow trans woman writer Zoey Leigh Peterson (author of Next Year For Sure, reviewed here) says it perfectly in her back cover blurb:

There is a dark place most novels don’t touch. If you’ve ever been there, maybe you know how exhilarating it can be to read a book like this, a book that captures the darkness so honestly, so accurately, that you can finally begin to let it go. Fearless and messy and oozing with love, Little Fish is a devastating book that I don’t ever want to be without.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to even think about Little Fish and write this review without crying, both for how heartbreaking and dark it is, but also how human and real and full of love and hope it is. Near the end of the story, Plett writes: “However easily she might have abandoned or ruined her prospects, Wendy still did believe she would have love.”

Speaking of human and real and full of love: take Wendy and her dad Ben’s complicated relationship. Ben obviously fiercely loves and supports his daughter, and there are many very real, touching scenes of father-daughter hang-outs in the novel. Like when Wendy recounts her dad telling her it’s okay to drop out of university after a terrible first year: “Look, you don’t need to piss yourself into debt to be miserable … You can do that for free.” You can see there that Ben is a wonderful voice of humour in the book. But there’s also the ways that poverty and mental health have resulted in Ben being an absent father and the way that their drinking get-togethers are clearly part of Wendy’s alcohol abuse.

Ben is just one example of Plett’s amazing, complex, authentic characterization; I love how she isn’t afraid to make her characters messy. As I also wrote in my review of her first book, A Safe Girl to Love (a collection of short stories), Plett just seems to get people, a lot of different people. It’s an keen insightfulness on her part to be sure, but it’s also a kind of fiercely honest generosity that sees people in all their fucked-up complicated glory.

One of the ways this quality really emerges in Little Fish is the way Plett deals with the character of Anna, the Mennonite family friend who initially tells Wendy that her grandfather was “like her.” Throughout the novel, Wendy is trying to connect with Anna over the phone, attempting to get little pieces of who her grandfather was and to find out what Anna really meant with this monumental revelation. At the same time, because of the Mennonite community’s transphobia, Wendy is trying to hide who she truly is and how she fits into her family tree.

Eventually the quest to find out more about her Opa leads Wendy to visit Anna in person. This final culmination, where Anna, who we have up until this point thought of as an elderly traditional Mennonite woman, is revealed to be absolutely NOT what you thought she was. I don’t want to spoil anything, but WOW. I finished the book months ago now, and I’m still thinking about how her character made me think differently than I ever have before about queer history and religion and the choices we make to be ourselves.

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Sybil Lamb’s art on this cover is phenomenal, right?

ALSO: have I mentioned how talented Plett is at dialogue. I can only DREAM about writing dialogue scenes like hers, where I always marvel at how her characters sound like real people in such a deceptively simple way. Take this exchange between Wendy and one her friends Lila:

 “Oh—right. Ernie. Haven’t heard from him yet.”

“Bummer, girl.”

“Yeah. Well. Thanks for asking.”

They were silent for a second, then Lila offered:

“There’ll always be more d.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

And then there are pieces of Wendy’s inner dialogue that are so real and hard and beautiful, like a punch to the guts:

And she learned right then: you always had to be on your guard. It didn’t matter how often you passed, it could always be taken away. Always. She’d never be little, she’d never be fish. It could always be taken away.

Most days, Wendy felt that eight years after transition, she had made her peace with trans stuff. Whatever she hadn’t made peace with, she’d made peace with the fact there’d never be peace, so to speak.

I haven’t even got to talk about Wendy’s amazing, authentic friends: Sophie, her fellow Mennonite who’s like a sister to Wendy; Lila, a Métis woman with a sharp tongue and quick wit; and Raina, a sweet, maternal Puerto Rican dyke who calls Wendy “Wendy-burger.” You’ll just have to read the book and get to know and love them like I did, okay? I also haven’t gotten into the sapphic relationships in this book, especially the really special one Wendy has with an out-of-towner Aileen, a fellow trans women. But look forward to that, okay?

Little Fish is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in Can Lit, in all the wonderful and heartbreaking ways that I’ve described; but at the same time it’s so authentic and real and of a specific piece of this place currently known as Canada that it’s impossible for it not to be familiar. It’s books like this that show where Can Lit should be going. (By the way, Wendy slyly harkens to the likes Miriam Toews and Heather O’Neill in some of her observations, which is fun Can Lit touch).

All this to say: make sure you read Casey Plett’s novel Little Fish. It will break you, and build you back up. In the words of a fellow lover of this book, Tess, on Twitter: “It’s so good, and so hard. And so good.”

Content warnings: suicide, violence against sex workers, transmisogynist verbal, sexual, and physical assault

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Casey Plett, Fiction, latina, Lesbian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender | 1 Comment

Interview with a Queer Reader: Julie Rak Talks Women’s Bookstores, Gay Biker Books, Finding Your Own Queer History in Books, and More!

Julie Rak describes herself as a “cisgender white settler-supporter lesbian.” She came out later in life, leaving her Baptist minister husband of ten years. This ended her life of faith as she was stripped of membership in the Baptist Union of Canada. She’s now married to a life partner, but doesn’t “think that marriage or monogamy need to be the only or even are the most important ways to show that we are connected to those we love.” She also shares her home with two cats!

Julie is a Professor in the English and Film Studies department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her research and teaching here is centred on non-fiction and Canadian literature. Outside of work, Julie is a keen amateur poker player. At her level, she’s one of the few out cis queer women players! Other interests include gardening, the outdoors and of course reading, both print and online! Julie’s been a reader since age five. Reading is part of Julie’s job, of course, but it’s also just an important part of her life generally!

This next part I’d like to quote directly from Julie, because it’s a fascinating and heartfelt description of the past and present of queer culture from someone who’s seen a lot of change:

I am from a time in North America when we most of us had to be closeted and when it was really dangerous to be who we were in most places. It’s amazing to me to see how much things have changed and I think it’s for the better, but inevitably mainstream life means that we are losing some of the great institutions that helped us make alternative culture. I’m sad to see those go (I miss women’s bookstores, GLBTQ+ creative protest like ActUp, gay clubs and bars where all the freaks could just be themselves, pride parades without corporate branding). But if the price of amazing subculture is continuous oppression, I don’t want that for my community.

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Keep reading to hear Julie talk about finding a gay book about a priest and a biker in her high school library, finding out about her own queer history through books, what losing women’s bookstores has meant to her, and more!

What was the first LGBTQ2IA+ book(s) you remember reading? How did you end up reading it?

When I was about 15, I read a paperback coming-out story about a gay priest and his first affair with a leather jacket-wearing biker. I have no idea what the title was. The book was in my high school library on one of those wire carousels and now, I have no idea if it was actually in the library or had just been put there. I was fascinated with it, but I never checked it out. I just went and read it in the library. I never told anybody I was reading it. Because it was about gay guys, I did not realize at the time that this could be about me too!

What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: because it’s such an interesting book and I love comics.

Nicole Brossard, Mauve Desert: Brossard for style style style.

Daphne Marlatt Ana Historic: because she showed me possibilities from the past.

Sara Waters Tipping the Velvet: because it’s so much fun and the historical material is great.

Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: because I needed to know my own history.

Extra shout-out to Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal (Winterson because she told my story too) and Gayle Rubin, anything she ever wrote, because she’s genius and badass and uncompromising.

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?

Probably the collection From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life, for obvious reasons!

Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?

Queer mountaineering memoirs. Where are they all? I was a climber and I write about it as an academic, but I want to see some creative work out there.

How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?

It’s harder to find things now, because I used to just go to my local women’s bookstore and everything would be there. Bookstores don’t have enough edgy or artistically interesting material where I can actually find it. There’s the internet…and that’s not queer specific enough. I rely on the excellent advice of Casey and other bloggers now.

Do you know other LGBTQ2IA+ readers or participate in any LGBTQ2IA+ reading communities (in person or on the Internet)? What’s it like? Why or why not?

I know other readers because of my job and my interests, mostly in person. I’m older (born in 1966) so ALL the lesbians I know in my age group were and are readers, so it was a given that everyone read everything. I am not part of any official reading communities because I don’t have time for that, but I just participated in a UK queer theory reading group, and it made me miss GLBTQ+ book clubs and groups.

Thanks so much for sharing with us Julie, especially for mentioning more than one older Canadian lesbian classic, which I think don’t get enough attention. (I’m talking about Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard). Anyone out there a queer mountaineer? Get on writing that memoir!

Posted in Canadian, Daphne Marlatt, Fiction, Interview with a Queer Reader, Lesbian, Queer | 3 Comments

“I believe in dangerous stories”: A Review of FIERCE FEMMES AND NOTORIOUS LIARS by Kai Cheng Thom

There aren’t many books in my lifetime that I’ve read that I would truly consider a work of genius, the kind of book that feels timeless and like it should be read and discussed far into the future and that is really doing something unique and ground-breaking. But debut novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom is one of those books. (By the way, I also loved Kai Cheng Thom’s debut poetry collection, A Place Called No Homeland, so you can count me among her top fans now, eagerly awaiting whatever she does next).

Fierce Femmes is a funny, dark, innovative story that completely takes apart the genre of the trans memoir. The subtitle, A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, is only the first clue that you are about to read a mind-blowing breakdown of genre and gender.

I can’t introduce the book any better than it introduces itself:

I don’t believe in safe spaces. 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. Stories that bend and twist the air as they crackle off your tongue, making you shimmer with glamour, so that everyone around you hangs on your every intoxicating word… The kind of story that doesn’t wait for you to invite it to enter, but bursts through the doors of your rat-infested house like a glittering wind, hungry, hungry, to snatch up the carpet and scatter your papers and smash every single plate in the kitchen…Where are those kinds of stories about trans girls like you and me?

A few things are clear on this first page (which, honestly, I wanted to copy in full, but that just seemed excessive): 1) Kai Cheng Thom’s writing is the kind of beautiful that grabs you by the throat; 2) She’s writing explicitly to trans femmes; 3) It’s completely, wonderfully unclear how the book you’ve just picked up might fit into conventional book genres.

After this perplexing and gorgeous introduction, the voice of this young Chinese Canadian trans woman brings you right into the story, although perhaps not without your doubts about her reliability in a traditional sense. In a description that seems a thinly veiled picture of Vancouver, she tells us “I grew up in a crooked house in a placed called Gloom, where the sky is always grey and the rain is always falling. Gloom was built on the edge of the sea, on land that was once inhabited solely by several Indigenous nations.” She doesn’t stay there long, however; the name of part one, indeed, is “Runaway.” She heads east. She heads to “the City of Smoke and Lights.”

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Kai Cheng Thom / photo via http://www.carriejade.com/a-woman-speaks

But it’s not too far into her story that she suddenly breaks the narrative abruptly, and says “Wait. Sorry. That’s not what happened. Here is what happened:”

This is the first time of many where Thom playfully dangles that idea of truth in front of the reader. Not only does the protagonist contradict herself in the main narration, we also see different perspectives in the letters to her sister and the poems she writes for herself that are included. What kind of ‘trans memoir’ is this? It’s not the one that going to satisfy anyone looking for ‘what really happened,’ nor is it going to satisfy cisgender readers looking for a simplified, exploitative tell-all about the sensationalized details of transgender life. You are, however, going to love this if you want a book to complicate the ideas of truth and selfhood:

Sometimes, to become somebody else, you have to become nobody first. You have to let go of your mother and father, the crooked starving house you grew up in that wanted to devour you and digest you whole. Forget, if you can, all the promises you’ve made and the lies that you’ve told. Forget the scars you left one, two, three times on your left wrist. Forget flowers and killer bees and everyone you’ve ever known…I’m going to find the place where my shadow ends and my body begins. Close your eyes. I’ll see you there.

She arrives at the Street of Miracles, she falls in fast with a group of trans sex workers. Mentors Kimaya and Rapunzelle—a great and complicated power lesbian couple—in particular help her find her first little crappy apartment:

Little cocoon apartment, I love how you rattle and shake in the wind. You are mine like nothing has ever been before. Someday you’ll tear open, and I will fly out with the wings I have grown inside you. Still shimmering. Still wet.

Oh my god, isn’t Kai Cheng Thom’s writing amazing?

In this new external environment, our confabulous trans girl has time to confront some of her internal demons, most of all: “why I hurt people when what I really want is for them to love me.” She also becomes involved with their girl gang the Lipstick Lacerators, which rises up to strike back against the violent transmisogynist men.

At first, this girl gang is nothing but success. And I can’t deny that there is something so deeply cathartic and just plain fun in part three of the novel, “girl gang.” It’s so satisfying to read about / watch women beating up shitty dudes. It was a bit like watching a particularly great episode of Buffy. But, of course, this fever dream of ass-kicking and empowerment can’t last. And it’s then that our protagonist realizes things can’t go on like this. But neither can she go on another path of privilege, which is briefly offered her by a rich trans guy who wants to date her. (What ultimately convinces her that she can’t live in his fancy apartment that his parents pay for is that the toilet paper is so soft and luxurious. It finally hits her: “I don’t belong here.”)

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The novel has a fascinating blend of magic and gritty realism; I guess that makes it magical realism, but this is a magic whose ways are both unpredictable and powerful and a realism that doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of transmisogyny, racism, and anti-sex worker violence. It’s the kind of magic that might make the corrupt police officer chasing them disappear, but not the lingering trauma that rears its head in the form of anxiety and paranoia. At one point, our protagonist has this conversation with a magical healer:

“You will be able to stop hurting people when you can stop hurting yourself.”
“But how do I do that?”
“If I knew that magic, I wouldn’t be here anymore.”

Magic helps, but it doesn’t solve everything, especially the really big stuff. For that, she must escape again; that is where the book ends.

In the way it deals with magic, as well as others, Fierce Femmes reminds me a lot of Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa but it’s also very much its own thing, particularly as an ode to trans sisterhood and an interrogation of the trans memoir. If you like Amber Dawn’s writing, as well as other fiercely strange and wonderful writers like Sybil Lamb and Megan Milks, definitely pick up this book. It’s also simply one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Here’s to many Fierce Femmes readers today and far in the future, as this brilliant novel takes its place among other books of sparkling genius.

Content warnings: self-harm (cutting), police brutality/violence, suicide, transmisogynist violence.

Posted in Asian, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fiction, magic realism, memoir, Queer, Sex Work, Trans, Trans Feminine, Transgender, Vancouver | 6 Comments