I was pretty excited to pick up the anthology The Collection, which brings together quite the diverse group of writers all creating narratives, to paraphrase editors Tom Leger and Riley Macleod, featuring trans characters as protagonists, rather than comic relief, or a character used as a tool to further the plot of a cisgender main character. The Collection aims to present trans characters as agents of their own destiny. This anthology has been a long time coming, and a fantastic venue for up-and-coming trans writers, although MacLeod and Leger are explicit in that they “did not police the genders of the authors themselves, and as of the date of publication have not formally inquired about their chromosomes, their genitals, or how many trucks/dresses they own.” In fact, they argue, interestingly, that “to argue that only actual trans people can write authentic trans narratives is to argue 1) that there is a way of being ‘actually trans’ and 2) that readers who are not trans can not possibly understand narratives of transgender characters.” Both claims, they say, must be rejected on feminist grounds.
I’m not going to offer my two cents here on trans writers/narratives issue, since I’m not trans, but I do feel myself conflicted about this same thing when it comes to cis lesbian writers/characters. On the one hand, I strongly believe that people who aren’t lesbians can understand, enjoy, and empathize with lesbian narratives. That’s one of the things I think literature is great for: getting yourself out of your own necessarily limited perspective. On the other, I have a pretty strong attachment to queer women authors getting the recognition they deserve for telling our stories, and I get pretty pissed off when a) straight authors get more recognition for writing about queer folks than queer folks do (I’m looking at you Lambda awards) and b) when straight authors royally fuck up representations of queer people and have no clue about what the responsibilities are when you’re writing about a marginalized group you don’t belong to (Ian Hamilton, I’m looking at you). I’d be interested to hear how trans readers/writers feel about MacLeod and Leger’s statements.
So it’s a bit weird to be reviewing this book on my site, since it has very minimal Canadian content (only two of the authors, as far as the contributor pages tell me, are from/based in Canada, and one is a woman and the other uses the pronoun they). That said, I’ve really wanted to read fiction or poetry by and/or about Canadian trans women and it’s been really hard to find. Published fiction by trans women anywhere is relatively hard to find, and so I wanted to highlight this anthology regardless of the fact that it doesn’t really meet my Canadian quota. If anyone knows of Canadian trans women writing fiction and/or poetry, please let me know!
I feel like a lot of what I have to say about The Collection is pretty similar to Sally’s review over at Bending the Bookshelf, so you should check that out. Like Sally, I thought this anthology was uneven, and I think that is mostly to be expected from such a wide-ranging anthology. However, The Collection is pretty lengthy, coming in at almost 400 pages, and I think the editors would have done well to cut some of the pieces that just weren’t as lyrically rich and well-written as many of the other pieces. In particular, a few stories had that “this happened, and then this happened, and then this” quality which just makes me cringe. This kind of writing reads like a journal entry that someone hasn’t put the effort into translating into fiction.
But, let’s focus on some of the stand-out contributions, which I think make this an anthology worth picking up. In no particular order, these were my favourites: Imogen Binnie’s “I Met a Girl Named Bat Who Met Jeffrey Palmer,” RJ Edwards’s “Black Holes,” Casey Plett’s “Other Women,” Red Durkin’s “A Roman Incident,” Katherine Scott Nelson’s “Winning the Tiger,” MJ Kaufman’s “A Short History of My Genders,” Susan Jane Bigelow’s “Ramona’s Demons,” Sherilyn Connelly’s “Malediction and Pee Play,” and Riley Calais Harris’s “Entries.” Now that I look at that list it’s pretty long. Here we go.
Binnie is hilarious, and has a talent for uncannily representing a certain kind of voice that says whatever a lot but really does care, the kind of young woman who says things like: “Obviously you can’t just be like ‘OMFG you met Jeffrey Palmer: swoon.’ You’d get kicked off the internet, or worse. I think I posted something like, ‘Oh, cool.’ Still neutral, like neither endorsing him nor disowning him. But I threw up a little.” This woman can write and I’m really excited to read her novel Nevada, which I just got a copy of. Another thing I appreciated about this story is that being trans wasn’t the main plot point. I realize those stories have their place and can be awesome and useful especially for young trans people, but I’m at the point where I want to read stories about LGBTQ people that don’t centre around their respective LGBTQness.
“Black Holes” sounds like a super weird story if you describe it, but Edwards totally pulls it off: it’s about quantum physics and a relationship between a trans man and a genderqueer person. Just read it. It begins with one character asking the other “What do you think it would feel like to die in a black hole? … Not being morbid.”
Casey Plett’s story is about a trans woman coming home to Winnipeg from Portland, and the first thing the main character Sophie and her mother do is eat donuts at Tim Hortons, which is pretty awesome. How Canadian. What’s not so awesome is that for most of the story Sophie keeps finding that no one gets her and sees her as she sees herself. The story is full of that benign, everyday, well-meaning stuff that people do when they think they’re making an effort or being nice—when they have no idea what they’re doing is reinscribing transphobia and cisnormativity. Things like “Mom’s been trying to call me Sophie, but it’s hard for her.” Things like, oh, Sophie, shouldn’t you be grateful for the obvious lie your grandparents told about why your aunt and uncle weren’t at Christmas dinner when you’re the real reason they didn’t want to come? So what Grandpa called you his grandson while saying grace? Even her old friend, in the end, wants Sophie to be something that she’s not and the direction she takes at the end of the story stuck with me for a few days. You can check out another story by Plett in the latest issue of Plenitude Magazine. I am really grateful to have discovered her writing in The Collection and to have encountered more of it so soon! I’m super excited to see what she does next.
Red Durkin’s story is hilarious, and makes me really pumped to read her cleverly titled novel Ready, Amy, Fire (side note: both Durkin and Binnie’s novels are being published by Topside Press, founded by the editors of The Collection, which is the Press’s first book). “A Roman Incident” is about a competitive eater’s competition, and one woman who is hoping it’s her ticket out of small-town Alabama. It’s weird and real and intensely readable. I wanted to know more when it was over! Like Binnie’s story, it’s also not focused on the character’s gender.
Katherine Scott Nelson impressively creates a memorable and authentic portrayal of a couple, both non-binary trans people, in a short snapshot story that has an awesome, bad-ass ending. It takes places at a fair. Someone wins a tiger. You’ll have to read it to find out more.
MJ Kaufman’s short piece is beautifully written, revelling in the complexities of gender and sexuality. Consider this opening:
My brother’s fourth grade drag name was Henrietta. He and the kid next door kiss in the tree house hanging from the question mark while I sit in the tiny hole at the top. After school we walk to the store on the corner where we buy semi-colons for separating ourselves from ourselves while I mark his makeup in the tiny upstairs bathroom.
“Ramona’s Demons” is a great example of good, solid, old-fashioned storytelling by Susan Jane Bigelow. It’s a fun, smart, fantasy story that does some really cool things imagining being trans in a magical world. I had a lot of fun reading it.
In “Malediction and Pee Play,” the main character’s open relationship is falling apart—her girlfriend is spending an awful lot of time with her new love interest whereas her “efforts at extracurricular dating had largely been non-starters.” The two women are, strangely, brought back together because of a Craigslist ad looking for a woman to pee on stage in a bucket wearing a nun’s habit in some kind of performance art. It’s pretty weird, but also kind of awesome, and I found it fascinating to hear about a facet of San Francisco’s queer community—these Satanists (whom the narrator insists are quite similar to Buddhists), sex club frequenters, and performance artists–that I otherwise would never have thought about. If this doesn’t sound like your thing, I think you should read it.
“Entries” by Riley Calais Harris made me laugh out loud about four times, which is about as high of a recommendation as I can give. The main character’s voice is really interesting, and lively, and entertaining, and real. For example:
I think I had always expected bisexuality, but didn’t think it would ever really be relevant. I just thought it would be something I would identify with for the political association, and would leave at that. Oh well. Some are born gay, some achieve gayness, and some have gayness thrust upon them. That’s probably not true, but it would make a good bumper sticker.
Also: “I’d say [my depression] was a ‘catalyst for change,’ but I don’t want to be the kind of person who says things like that.”
Check out a copy of The Collection. Despite some misses, I think the hits in this anthology make it more than worth your while. I’ve been introduced to many authors here that I’m going to watch out for in the future. I’m excited to see what Topside Press publishes next!