Don’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.
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]
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