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.
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.
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.”
“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