A Quiet, Unassuming Book of SMALL BEAUTY: A Review of jia qing wilson-yang’s Debut Novel

small-beauty_cover_rgbDon’t you just love when a book that you had little or no expectations for blows you away? This is what happened to me with Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang.

I first heard of this book when it won an honour of distinction last year from the Writer’s Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize for emerging LGBT writers. The jury of the prize had this to say: “A concise jewel weaving in and out of time, wilson-yang’s Small Beauty is a gorgeous debut. ” So I guess I had an idea that it was a good book. But I really had no idea how good.

Small Beauty is a quiet, meditative, introspective book. I read a lot of it when I was in the bath, and that seemed like the perfect place. The novel invites you to be in that kind of space, because that’s exactly where the main character Mei is. Mei is a young, queer, mixed-race trans woman dealing with some big stuff: her cousin—who was like her brother—recently passed away and now she has to deal with all of that aftermath of a relative’s death, including leaving the big city she lives in and going to the small town where her cousin and aunt (who had passed away previously) used to live, living in the house she has now inherited. (The locations are interesting, in that as far as I can remember, they’re unnamed, but the big city is quite clearly a stand-in for Toronto and the small town is obviously also in Southern Ontario).

While Mei is at her cousin’s house, she is slowly unravelling some of the details of his and her aunt’s life, including unearthing some secrets that show she’s not the only queer person in the family. She spends a lot of time alone, and this space allows her a lot of time to think about herself and her family, including her aunt and cousin as well as her mom who has left Canada to go back to China. She especially reflects on being trans and on having Chinese and white ancestry. Flashbacks also take us to her city life, where scenes with her friend Connie, who’s also trans and Chinese, were some of my favourite in the book.

If I had only one word to describe this book, it would be authentic. I don’t mean authentic in that the author shares gender and racial identities with the main character, although it is significant to have trans people of colour especially telling their own stories. It’s more that every moment of this novel felt like real life, in a way that felt both unremarkable and extraordinary at the same time. I really loved how wilson-yang doesn’t explain anything to her readers, instead just baring Mei’s life for us as if every detail were just … normal. Cis white straight dudes get their stories told like this all the time and it was so refreshing to see it done with a character like Mei. From everything from little things like how exactly new characters are related to the protagonist to details about Chinese food to Mandarin words to the big and small occurrences of transmisogny Mei has to contend with, wilson-yang presents Mei’s life just as it is, no explanations necessary.

jia-qing

jia qing wilson-yang, image via plenitudemagazine.ca

Characters are likewise allowed to exist as real people, some likable, others unlikable, everyone with their flaws. Even one character who initially appears to be family—in more ways than one—who ends up being a TERF (a transmisogynist “feminist” who thinks trans women aren’t women) isn’t an unequivocal villain. Mei’s cousin Sandy, an all-round great guy, has some issues that he lets out in ways that are not cool.

All this to say: Small Beauty is a quiet, unassuming book won me over so hard. Oh, and yes, there is significance to the geese on the cover, in addition to them looking very pretty and Canadian. You should all read this book.

(If you like the sound of this book, you should check out my other post on Six Canadian Trans Women Writers You Should Know, where I featured jia qing wilson-yang).

[Trigger warning: one scene of transphobic physical assault and some transmisogynist so-called feminist rhetoric]

Bonus! Did you enjoy this review or find it useful?  Consider supporting me on the Patreon for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian that I launched last month! Patreon is a site where creators of all sorts of things can make some money via subscription payments from their readers/etc. It can be as little as a dollar a month! Help me continue to be able to devote time to this site and you can win stuff like queer books and postcards with personalized book recommendations! Click on the link for more details and to sign up. I’m currently at $46 a month, which is so close to my goal of $50!

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Asian, Fiction, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A Quiet, Unassuming Book of SMALL BEAUTY: A Review of jia qing wilson-yang’s Debut Novel

  1. cweichel says:

    I want to read this right now!

  2. This sounds so beautiful, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in the UK yet. I will be keeping an eye out for it!

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  4. This may be a stupid question, but…when women (are they always feminists?) say that trans women aren’t women, do you feel like they don’t know what trans means? That’s how I feel. I mean, there’s a reason you don’t say, “She was born a boy and then became a woman.” From what I’ve learned, it’s always, “She was identified as a boy at birth, but is a woman.”

    • Woo boy this is a big issue. I think a lot of “feminists” who have long defended the idea that trans women aren’t women don’t really believe that being trans exists? Like they think trans men are women and trans women are men. It does often seem to be “feminists” who say that, but it’s likely cis women who aren’t feminists probably just don’t talk about who’s a woman very much?

      • Ah, okay, we on the same page then. When I started Grab the Lapels, I specified women only. Then, the more I thought about how my message may not be clear, I updated it to folks who identify as women. I’m not sure if that language is offensive, but what I mean is trans women are women.

      • I like to say women and just explicitly say my idea of woman is trans inclusive. Because there are an unfortunate amount of feminists who even sometimes use the “self-identity” language who are trans exclusive, I think it’s best to be super clear you include trans women when you say women. I mean, women should speak for itself but unfortunately it doesn’t.

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