Around this time last year, I read an amazing debut short story collection by Nancy Jo Cullen that I raved about, saying it was the best fiction I’d read all year. There must be something in the air in late July, because I just read Winnipegger Casey Plett’s book A Safe Girl to Love—also a debut short story collection—and I just fucking loved it. In fact, both books share a keen sense of place, an authentic, diverse human (and non-human) cast, and a liberal dose of fun, bitterness, heartbreak, sex, misery, and love.
Above all else what I feel like Plett really excels at in A Safe Girl to Love is that she really gets lots of different kinds of people. This felt like a book about people I know in the same way that Canary did. There are the twenty-something urban queers, cis and trans women and men. Plett does this just as well as Zoe Whittall in books like Holding Still For as Long as Possible, except her fiction includes a key omission: trans women.
Some of the queer characters include a cynical, funny trans woman who hates “dyke everything” and goes on a rant about her cis ex: “Oh my Gooooooood … transmisogyny! How can I be a chaser if I can’t read my fucking Post-it marked copy of Whipping Girl at the dance nights where all the trannies go?” Her girlfriend is the kind of bad-ass who yells “FUCK YOU ASSHOLE DON’T TRY SHIT YOU FUCKING PIECE OF FUCK” to a transphobe on the street. Another character is a deluded cis dyke who thinks equality is sameness and considers herself a “gigantically huge trans ally”–phrasing that speaks for itself. Barf. Other characters are a polyamourous guy-girl couple, both trans, who take in LGBTQ kids who don’t have anywhere else to go.
The thing is, Plett also gets folks like a 7o-year-old cis white Mennonite guy. She channels the spirit of a middle-aged English dude in the form of a cat. And a tough working-class dad defending his queer kid. Like, pretty much all of the people I know—the good and the bad—are in this book! Well, except for Gulf Islands hippies, who will probably be in Plett’s next book.
What lots of the stories in this book do that I’ve never seen before in fiction except in The Collection (reviewed here) is focus on relationships—romantic and otherwise—between trans women. “Lizzy & Annie,” the story featuring the cynical funny dyke and her girlfriend I mentioned above, is so sweet and hot and sad. I’m looking forward to reading lots more stories like it! Two of my favourites,“Winning” and “Not Bleak,” focus on a friendship and a mother-daughter relationship. “Not Bleak,” as Amber Dawn points out in her review of Plett’s book, is a traditional homecoming story, where the transformed urban dweller goes back to their rural hometown. The perspective of two trans women, the one returning and the other accompanying her and pretending to be her girlfriend, make this familiar kind of story totally new and shiny. The rise (and fall) of their friendship is as much a focus of the story as the homecoming.
“Winning” at first spoke to me because of this gorgeous and knowing description of the Pacific Northwest: “It was mid-November when … the panorama of clouds stopped flirting with the sky and moved in and set parking brakes until May. A soft mist-patter of rain was coming down…” Like “Not Bleak,” “Winning” is also a home-coming story, but to a different kind of home: a small-town liberal Oregon that Zoe, the protagonist, nevertheless felt she had to leave to become the woman she is. Her coming out as trans is a shock to her mom Sandy, but in a much different way than for most parents: Sandy is trans too. One fascinating thing that the story investigates is the generational differences between the ways that Sandy and Zoe see gender and being trans, like in this conversation:
Oh, well, I … Sandy muttered, oddly flustered all of a sudden. You just tend to get more trouble in groups, that’s all.
Don’t you know that?
Oh, said Zoe, well yeah I read that somewhere once but I didn’t really—
Dammit it’s true, Sandy said, suddenly aggravated. And I’m glad we’re out doing stuff but Zoe, you can’t be so cavalier. You can’t.
The sky was breaking outside and cylinders of sunlight were lighting up mist like specks of silver. Sandy said, you can’t just sail through the world all charmed and oblivious anymore, all right? It sounds depressing but it’s true, alright?
Mom I do okay, Zoe said, feeling tiny.
Sandy concentrated on traffic but she looked pissed. Zoe stayed quiet.
Being pretty won’t always protect you, said Sandy.
Zoe looked out of the window. Stop it, Mom.
I’m serious! said Sandy. They’ll find out you used to be a man!
Mom! Zoe cried. I don’t! Want! To have this conversation! And I was never a fucking man, okay?
I’ve talked elsewhere about two of the other stories included in Plett’s book, “Other Women” and “How to Stay Friends”—where she brilliantly harnesses the power of the imperative tense throughout, instructing a heart-breaking response of “‘You’re right. It’s totally fine, thank you for telling me and being honest.’ Mean it a little, hate yourself a little, die a little.” This is to your ex’s telling you that your lipstick makes you look like a drag queen and that you look ridiculous. Plett has such a gift for subtly but fiercefully depicting the shit trans women put up with when a transmisogynist world has taught them to have such low expectations.
I keep trying to pick a favourite in this collection but there really isn’t a bad apple in the bunch. If you haven’t read Plett’s story from The Collection and Plenitude’s third issue, you can find them in A Safe Girl to Love (for more motivation, see my review of Plenitude here). Every word of Plett’s writing is understated but packs a walloping, forceful impact, just when you’re not expecting it. I think Plett has gone well beyond the call of The Collection editors to feature trans characters as agents of their own destiny–although she certainly has done that. She has written trans women as complex, fascinating but regular human beings–in both the good and the bad ways–with humour, passion, and intelligence. That’s the kind of people I want to read about and the kind of author whose work I look forward to.
(Oh yeah, did I mention one story has a TALKING CAT in it? Just in case you weren’t sold already.)