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How Do You Define the Genre of Trans Literature?

In the late ‘90s there was an explosion of politicized art – film, video, and performance art – by trans artists. What we're seeing in literature today is a move to a much broader scale.

Trans literature has come a long way in a short time. As recently as 2010, an article in Lambda Literary could pose the question “Is there, or should there be, such a thing as ‘Trans Lit’?” Five years later the question would seem redundant. Annual round-ups and top-ten lists of the best in trans literature are ubiquitous; college courses like the University of Arizona’s ‘Trans and Genderqueer Literature’ are becoming more common, and in November 2014 Transgender Studies Quarterly published a special issue focusing on trans cultural production – much of it centred on literature.

In the midst of this burgeoning field, Canadian writers, scholars, publishers and audiences are making a name for themselves at the forefront of the genre’s cutting edge. This year, no less than 17 Canadian authors were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards, several of them in the Transgender Fiction category. The national organization Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) selected trans scholar and writer Lucas Crawford as its 2015 critic-in-residence. And last year saw the groundbreaking international conference ‘Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism’ at the University of Winnipeg.

At the heart of this vibrant maelstrom of cultural production, however, fundamental debates still swirl. How do you even define the genre of trans literature?

“Variably and contradictorily,” replies Canadian scholar Trish Salah with a laugh.

Salah is a professor in the Gender Studies Department at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. An accomplished poet in her own right – her collection Wanting in Arabic won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction – she’s also working on the federally funded research project ‘Towards a Trans Minor Literature’. As she points out, trans literature has differing, and complex, definitions.

“Trans literature is importantly distinguished from literature by non-trans writers. It’s thinkable as a mood of inscribing experiences, stories and analyses that are largely unarticulated in non-trans people’s conversations about trans folk.”

That being said, there are important and emerging differences in approach and style within the genre. An important recent trend, Salah says, is that a growing body of work features “the representation of trans people as audience rather than objects of representation.”

“A lot of the time trans people’s writing is written as if for a non-trans audience. It runs in an explanatory direction and can entail some self-othering. I would distinguish trans literature from that, as literature that imagines trans people as audience. I think about it as literature which engages the idea of trans people as a reading public. Literature is often thought of as a way of expressing the values or history of a community and in order to do that in a way that is not reductive, one needs to be writing towards other trans people.”

Casey Plett is a writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, whose short story collection A Safe Girl to Love won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction in 2015. In addition to other published work, she published a regular column on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency from 2010-11, and most recently has been publishing an erudite intersectional critique of Caitlyn Jenner’s reality series I Am Cait for The New York Times’ Artsbeat site. Earlier this year, she published a fascinating and provocative article in The Walrus, examining the rise of the ‘gender novel’ and critiquing the remarkably similar – and one-dimensional — ways in which cis authors depict trans lives and characters.

“Some people have taken that [article] to mean that I don’t think cis people should write trans characters, and that’s not true,” she says. But it is a critique of how those characters have often been written.

“Trans people have historically always been written in certain ways to serve certain interests by cis people. And I think that’s boring and dumb. Basically my argument is that a lot of these novels which have storylines written by cis people tend to put trans people on pedestals and make them like one-dimensional Disney heroes. When they put a trans character in, they’re always alone, there’s only one of them. Sure, trans people are alone a lot of the time and it sucks, but I’m really interested in what happens when you have lots of transpeople together… what happens when trans people talk to each other? When there’s only one of us we can only be presented as an anomaly.”

Daze Jefferies, a poet and folklorist working out of Canada’s east coast, also shares concerns about the phenomenon.

“A lot of these filmmakers and writers and people who work with trans people and write about their lives — where are they coming from? What are their methodological ways of creating this story, and for whom? Who’s going to be reading this? Are you trying to make money, or are you trying to give a valid representation of a trans person’s life? And trying to do something for the amelioration of trans lives? Protect trans lives with your literature, don’t try and make $150,000 off of it.”

Jefferies has just published her second collection of poetry, Seesaw With the Spear. An ardent community activist, she notes the importance of considering issues of representation in literary work.

“It depends on where [the writers] come from. Do they come from an activist base, do they come from a place where they’ve known trans people their whole lives, are they fascinated by trans people and their lives and their bodies or are they not? Do they respect them?. There are many ways to work with people, so think about what’s most respectful. And how are you representing lives?”

Diversifying Forms

Salah has observed the emergence of a greater diversity of trans literary forms in recent years. In the late ‘90s, she says, there was an explosion of politicized art – film, video, and performance art – by trans artists that were key to building community, and to sharing stories within those communities. But what she’s seeing today is a move to a much broader scale.

“It’s only really in the past ten years that we’ve seen that spread to print publication, beyond some community publications and chapbooks. The late aughts are when we see the emergence of trans literature conferences, poetry readings, symposiums, collections… which take trans people seriously as both writers and readers.”

One of the catalysts in the emergence of a distinctly trans literature was the work of artists and scholars “who were critical of trans discourses that were collapsed into queer discourses. That fed a conversation across North America among trans people about the importance of trans forms that didn’t take queer as the reference point.”

Salah cites video and performance artist Mirha-Soleil Ross and Concordia University professor Vivian Namaste as important examples of these critics.

“[Other] Canadian writers to watch include Aiyyana Maracle, Syrus Ware, Casey Plett, Sybil Lamb, Gein Wong, Oliver Pickle, Tom Cho, Morgan Page, Kama La Mackeral, Lucas Crawford, S. Bear Bergman, Merrit Kopas, and Kai Cheng Thom, among many many others.The fact of the matter is though that there is such foment of trans writing at the moment it is difficult to know what the field will look like in five years, let alone fifteen.”

Jefferies agrees, and notes that the emergence of a distinctly trans literature echoes the emergence of a distinctly trans activism.

“Trans activism had to emerge on its own a little bit because the work wasn’t being done that needed to be done,” she explains. “A lot of the really radical queer literature that then was coming out was written in trans and lesbian circles but it wasn’t getting the same reception. I mean if you’re told that your work is less important than someone else, or if your work is not good enough, or that you’re too radical or you’re too this or you’re too whatever, you just have to try to make it happen anyway.”

“People say ‘no, we’re not ready for you yet,’ and we say: yes you are. You’re going to get us, anyway.”

In addition to trans literature moving beyond the queer umbrella, Salah notes the genre itself has witnessed the emergence of tremendous diversity that’s challenged the marginalizing and invisibilizing of other communities and identities.

“Racialized, black and/or indigenous trans and Two Spirit writers have increasingly made space to write ourselves into intelligibility and existence, against the overwhelming social violence that manifest through institutional erasure and incarceration, and as well as through murderous violence. I’m thinking of the work of Olympia Perez, Andrea Jenkins, Luna Merbruja, Micha Cárdenas, Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán, Syrus Ware. Trans sex worker writing in particular makes innovative forms that sidestep and counter precisely normative delegitimations imposed by literary and middle class ‘good taste,’ i.e., aesthetics. I think in particular of the very different kinds of formal innovation in Ceyenne Doroshow’s memoir cookbook, Cooking in Heels, and Mirha-Soleil Ross’ Yapping Outloud: Contagious Thoughts of an Unrepentant Whore.”

Changing Audiences, Changing Styles

In addition to shifting audiences, the forms of trans literary production have been changing as well, Salah says.

“The two forms which were really privileged until the end of the late ‘90s were memoir and various types of performance art. Certainly trans people wrote poetry and wrote fiction [and] in the early ‘00s there were anthologies, but they mixed up first person narrative with creative work and polemic. There wasn’t an idea that you’d have a literary collection of poetry by trans people.”

Shifts can also be noted in the themes with which trans literature deals, Salah says.

“The stories that were initially most welcome were stories of transition or stories that engaged the horizon of the non-trans person’s imagining of trans persons’ lives. I think we’re moving from that place to a place where our lives can be understood as ordinary if complicated, and fiction can have a function which does the political work of thinking about the ways our lives are complicated and fraught, but might also provide an analytic for thinking about the vagaries of desire. I think that we’ve gone from a politics of representation that centres the non-trans cis audience member to thinking about the conditions of our lives and their complexity [to] producing literature that isn’t bound to a representative function.”

For writers like Jefferies, a profound sense of place remains an important foundational theme. Jefferies hails from a small rural island off the coast of the island of Newfoundland, along Canada’s east coast. And although she’s left her rural roots, it continues to shape her work.

“It’s in everything I do. I’m really bound to my roots in rural Newfoundland, and the physical environment that I grew up in there. It touched my life — the names of places, the sights you would see, certain smells and feelings and faces that you’d see. I spent so much time there just getting used to all those sights around me. They’re etched in the back of my mind, but they’re also bound to the experiences that I had in that place, and the growing that I did in that place.”

“I knew I needed to transition and I couldn’t do it there. So when I moved to [the province’s capital] St. John’s, is when I started to really physically transition, and live freely and comfortably and openly and with a name that I had chosen and with pronouns that were mine and resonated with me and not the pronouns that other people were used to or a name that they had known me by for sixteen years. I was free. But I was too free. And so I started writing about home again. When I go away to different places, I find myself missing Newfoundland and missing smells and spaces and poses and faces. I can’t get away from this place.”

Moving Forward

In 2014 Salah organized the ‘Writing Trans Genres’ conference at the University of Winnipeg. Although other smaller scale literary events have taken place in the US, she says the conference was the first of its kind in Canada, and the largest international event of its nature yet.

“It was not trans exclusive but centred transsexual and transgender artists and critics. The idea was that we needed space to have critical conversations about what the function of our literature was. If you ask any individual trans writer or reader what the function of the literature is, you’ll get different answers. As with feminists or queering of colour writing communities, it was important for us to come together and articulate for ourselves what we were doing and what we were trying to do.”

“I think that there was a real emphasis coming out of the conference on the value of intergenerational dialogue between writers and critics, because the conditions under which we produce our literature has changed radically in the past twenty or thirty years, especially in terms of recognizing that there are multiple histories. And every moment we see progress in some areas, we see difficulties in others.”

She warns that as trans literature emerges into more public context and becomes centred in social media discourse, there’s a real danger of some of those earlier histories being forgotten.

“There’s value in maintaining public histories and not resolving what trans literature is in one direction or another. [Insist] on the importance of conflict in our definitions, and recognize there’s always an element of conflict and power there.”

She points to the growing appearance of trans categories in literary prizes, as well as the emergence of new journals engaging with trans writing. Oral storytelling and video gaming, she says, also offer important future directions to keep an eye on.

“As much as I dislike the idea that there is a moment and that this moment is more important than other moments — I don’t subscribe to that idea — I do think that the means to produce our literature is more readily available to trans people than it has been at any other historical moment, and I do think that we’re doing that even at the same time we’re contending with really intense exclusion.”

Plett is excited,too. She’s also intrigued by the potential offered by video games, and flags the spread of trans cultural production from literature to other media forms as a significant and exciting trend.

“Movies and TV, I think that’s what’s going to be a big thing coming up in the next few years, and I’m really excited about that. Trans actresses, trans writers, trans directors, I think these are harbingers that similar to this literature boom in the last few years I think we’re going to have a boom in movies and TV. And I think a lot of people want trans writers on their staff, which was not the case a couple of years ago.”

Still, the saturation of American cultural production gives her pause for thought.

“There are a lot of young trans Canadians who are more familiar with American trans history but know very little about Canadian trans history,” she warns. It’s partially for that reason, says Jefferies, that there’s a greater need than ever for more trans writers to come forward across the country.

“I’m here doing my thing on a little island in Canada, and if I want to be doing these things then I have to do them. It’s no good for me to wait. So: all trans writers, please publish your work! For your geographical area. Just make it known, the more the better. Don’t lose hope. We have a long history of resistance. We try our hardest. We make things work. So we just have to keep that in mind and move forward from here.”