Small Beauty, Big Ideas: A Conversation with Lambda Award Winner Jia Qing Wilson-Yang

‘Best Transgender Fiction’ winner’s work challenges Can-Lit and the representation of identity.

Jia Qing Wilson-Yang’s award-winning novel Small Beauty is precisely what its title says it is. A slim, elegant volume adorned with an image of Canadian geese rising over a sky-blue backdrop, the simplicity of its presentation belies the powerful and engrossing narrative it contains.

The novel is told from the perspective of Mei, a young mixed-race trans woman of Chinese descent. Her dear cousin Sandy has suddenly and unexpectedly died, and her journey to the small town in which he lived unlocks a complex family history. It also sparks profound reflections on her own life, with its many challenging and contradictory experiences.

Small Beauty was published by Metonymy Press, a small publisher based in Montreal that concentrates on emerging and underrepresented writers, with a focus on queer, feminist and social justice communities. They have an eye for talent — Small Beauty has been grabbing accolades not only in Canada (where it was awarded an Honour of Distinction from the 2016 Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers) but also internationally. In June, it took the US-based Lambda Literary Awards’ prize for Best Transgender Fiction.

Wilson-Yang had previously published poetry and shorter fiction, but Small Beauty was her first try at a novel. Small Beauty drew together story-lines from three shorter pieces of writing she’d been working on, but the thread that stitched it together was Wilson-Yang’s first-hand experience among the people and spaces depicted in the novel.

Wilson-Yang spent most of her childhood and youth in both urban and rural parts of Ontario (along with a few years’ stint in Montreal). The urban parts of the novel take place in a fictional city she says is based on Hamilton, where she grew up, and where she was surprised to discover a strong and vibrant community of trans people. She currently lives in Toronto — and has worked and gone to drop-ins for trans folks there, such as those depicted in the novel — but her research and advocacy work around trans women’s lives has taken her across the country, and allowed her to draw on a national repertoire of experiences.

Working on a research project that focused on trans women’s experiences of sexual violence in Ontario, and later on another project that focused on trans women living with HIV across Canada, she feels privileged to have had the opportunity to learn about some of these trans women’s lives in places as far removed as Thunder Bay, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Montreal, Oshawa, and more.

“Meeting all of these different trans women and especially getting to work with older trans women of colour has been really so… inspiring, but that word almost feels kind of trite. Like when you meet people that are decades older than you and have been trans for decades and decades and you get to hang out with them and talk with them about surviving. In the back of your head, you’re faced with the reality that so often trans women — especially racialized trans women, especially black and brown and Indigenous trans women — just don’t survive. They’re murdered or a number of different things happen. So getting to meet all those trans women in different cities was amazing, and they very much influenced [the book]. At least one character, Connie is a composite of many people for me. They’re just so amazing and vital and important for me as a human, and I really wanted to reflect that in some way in the book.”

For a short novel, the characters are richly and fully developed. They’re also complex — a reflection of the lived realities that inspired them. Diane, an elderly lesbian who turns out to have played a key role in Mei’s family history, is a richly complicated person; someone the reader feels both angry and sympathetic toward at the same time.

“I kind of liked Diane, even though she’s a difficult character, for sure,” admits Wilson-Yang. “I’m a queer woman, I spend lots and lots of time around queer women, and I think growing up I was probably around a lot more queer women than anyone was telling me I was around, if that makes any sense. Like I had a feeling that I was around gay ladies when I was a kid, but nobody was saying they were gay ladies. So there was a familiarity with Diane’s character and I really wanted to speak to the ways that trans women and feminist activists from a few decades earlier interact.

“I’ve found so much allyship from older queer feminists — so much allyship and so much support — but it is often fraught. Like there’s no secret about trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and second wave feminism, and some of the failings of it, but I wanted to have a site where both of those things could exist in one character, because I think that they often do.”

“I think that Diane, in my mind, is someone who worked in women’s shelters, who’s queer, 20 or 30 years ago she was in a mixed relationship. And in her heyday, while probably not being the best person to be in love with, she was politically quite radical. But her trans politics aren’t so awesome. But then there are all of these other things that she did. I didn’t want to discount that, I didn’t want to dehumanize her for not being awesome with trans folks, but I did want to highlight that that really sucks. And I also wanted her redeemed — I think selfishly, just because I want to have that connection with older feminists.

“Right now I’m doing a student placement at a sexual assault centre and it’s amazing. I’m learning so much and I think that there are so many amazing things that trans women can learn from feminism and there are so many amazing things that feminism can learn from trans women. And sort of selfishly, I wanted to create a spot where there’s redemption and Diane figures this stuff out. And she realizes ‘Oh no, wait, that wasn’t cool.’”

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The Power of Intergenerational Relationships

Another unique element to Small Beauty is its focus and impressive depiction of intergenerational relationships. Where other books often feature protagonists whose key relationships are with those of a similar age range, Wilson-Yang consciously spun a web of important and complicated intergenerational relationships around her narrative.

“All my life intergenerational relationships have been so important to me,” she reflects. “I was really close with my grandparents on both sides of my family and they were super important to me. I also grew up seeing the way my parents related to my grandparents and that was really important. And also working with different trans women across the country and throughout Ontario, meeting older trans women of colour — it’s just so grounding, I can’t even begin to explain. And it creates this possibility of a future, while it also gives me an indication and understanding of how trans women exist in the way that we do in the world right now. It gives me a sense of my history and that is something that I really think is so important for trans folk, especially younger trans folks.

“As I was writing it I was counting myself among younger trans folks, but I don’t think that I can do that anymore — I’m 34, and there are so many younger trans folks that I’m meeting. So I wanted to speak to that history.”

“I think that because of Mei’s isolation, I think that writing things around her where she could place herself within a history, both as a trans person and as a Chinese person in Canada, were ways for me to think about breaking that isolation that exists when maybe you’re not meeting people in real time that are awesome or making you feel supported. But having some knowledge of how you got to where you were as a trans person, or as a Chinese person, or however you got here — that connection to your ancestors, both ideological and blood-related — is a way to combat that isolation. So the intergenerational relationships were a huge part of the book and are a major focus of the book.”

What’s also striking about Small Beauty is its contrast of urban and rural settings. Wilson-Yang says it was her conscious intent to write against narratives of trans and queer folk which often place them exclusively in urban settings. Mei, the book’s key protagonist, alternates between both.

“I spent a lot of time throughout my life going up the Bruce Peninsula and going to Georgian Bay, pretty well every summer at least,” says Wilson-Yang. “And most of my friends in high school lived more rurally because our high school was right on the edge of farm area, and I know that there’s queer folk there. Every time I went up there I would feel like I was getting inklings of queer people being there. I really wanted to highlight that it happens and it’s a real thing, and to emphasize that so much of what we think of about trans people happens in urban settings — and I think there’s good reason for that — but I also wanted to highlight that we’re definitely in rural settings. There’s definitely lots of homos in rural places. I wanted to speak to those two settings in Ontario that are so familiar to me.”

Photo credit: Jackson Ezra courtesy of Jia Qing

The Symbolism of Geese and Fire

The rural settings in particular resonate, drawing on Canada’s bountiful landscapes to depict a natural world replete with symbolism. The Canadian geese depicted on the book’s cover recur throughout the novel.

“I like that the geese can have lots of different meanings. One person described them to me as a kind of intergenerational embodiment of trauma. Other people have described them in different ways, as some kind of haunting relationship of the space that Mei’s in. I think that they can be all of those things.”

“The geese just kind of came as I was writing it, and for a while I couldn’t quite place it. Then I went to visit my grandfather’s grave shortly after I finished the writing of the book. His ashes are interned in Hamilton and I was standing there, and pretty much right beside where his ashes are there’s this hydroelectric tower — it’s amazing that it goes through a graveyard — but there’s this hydroelectric tower, this little pond, and all these geese! And I realized, ‘Oh, right.’ This is just so much of how I understand Hamilton, and a big part of southern Ontario: hydro towers, weird little ponds, and tons and tons of Canadian geese. Like they’re just everywhere!

“They’re so much a part of how I remember this landscape, and how I imagine this landscape, in southern Ontario. They’re just kind of always present. And they will fight you, they gang up on you, they’ll stop traffic, like they’re incredible. I don’t know how I could have written something about this part of southern Ontario without having geese be a central character, just based on this landscape.”

Another symbolic presence is that of fire. In a complex and ghostly dream sequence near the end of the book, Mei’s friend Connie says to her “You’ll always find someone to help you stoke that fire, to help you direct all your rage away from the things you need to deal with to be able to keep your heart… you’ll always find someone to help make the fire bigger, but what we need is people who can help us control it.”

Small Beauty is hardly a moralistic tale — if anything it challenges overly reductionist and simplistic notions of right and wrong — but passages like these convey important and deeply personal messages. For Wilson-Yang, the message is one that speaks to her experience working with trans and racialized folk.

“I think that lots of people that I know and love — especially trans folks and racialized folks — I think we have so much justifiable and real anger. It’s super useful and makes so much sense and we should be angry, we should definitely be angry. But I think for myself and some of the people that I’ve met and I’ve worked with in my life, I also see the ways that that anger just breaks us. It really just breaks people, being so angry all the time. And again, for such good reasons. And I think anger is so useful, and anger tells us so many important things, and I would never wish it to go away, but I’ve also seen it really affect people, really hurt us. I’ve seen the long-term effects of that rage. You need to find a way to control it and direct it and use it. Otherwise it just eats you.”

“I think that especially for trans folks, and especially for racialized trans folks, we don’t always see tons of awesome examples of ourselves. We don’t often see ourselves reflected in positive ways. So there needs to just be some intense focus on yourself. And on knowing yourself and loving yourself and paying that attention to yourself, because it’s not really coming from other places. I think more broadly when you’re hurting, it’s okay to spend some time taking care of yourself and to focus on yourself and how those things are affecting you. I think that in long-term participation in the community, that is a great part of healing.”

Challenging Underrepresentation

Wilson-Yang says that while narratives about Chinese identity in Canada have become quite prevalent over the years, trans stories and stories that reflect intersectionality of identities have been less prevalent.

“I think trans stories in general are very underrepresented — especially trans stories about trans people of colour, and trans stories written by trans people of colour. They’re all sort of underrepresented, that confluence of identities. And having stories that are not focused on sensational aspects of transition but are about our lives — those are vastly underrepresented.”

“I think that increasing the visibility of books by trans folks of colour is really important, and I think also counting it as literature — counting it as writing that’s worthy of reading in its own right, not only because it speaks to this marginalized experience but because it’s a worthy story in its own right. I struggle between the two, where I’m so stoked that there are things specifically for trans writers like Lambda, and to be recognized I think it’s amazing and very much needed. But on the other hand, I’m like, ‘Oh, am I just a trans writer? Is that what my writing is? Is it only for trans people?’ And maybe it is, and I’m totally fine with that, but I just think something that will help to bring the stories more forward or to put those stories in a place where they’re taken more seriously is to view them as more than just a story about trans people, as more than just a story about trans people of colour.”

Wilson-Yang says there are a variety of ways those involved in the literary and publishing fields can work to confront underrepresentation, and present a more vibrant and complete representation of Canada’s diversity.

“From the standpoint of publishers and magazine editors, [they should] start publishing people’s work. As someone who’s been lucky enough to be a reader and judge for different writing contests, something that comes up for me is if I see a narrative that’s about some identity that’s not a normative white identity — if I see a story about a trans person of colour or a person of colour in general — I’m really curious about who wrote it. If you’ve got someone submitting a story about being trans, then are they a trans person? And if they’re not, maybe don’t publish it. Publish stories about trans people by trans people. Or at least before you start publishing stories about trans people by cis people.”

At the same time, Wilson-Yang warns that we ought to think about the broader cultural and political we’re implicating ourselves in when we reinforce the construction of arbitrarily delineated genres such as ‘Can-Lit’, as contemporary Canadian literature has come to be known. If we’re going to call something ‘Canadian literature’, she warns, it becomes irrevocably associated with the broader political project of whatever ‘Canadian’ is and has been constructed to mean. In Canada, that means literature — and other forms of popular culture — become inflected with a settler-colonial narrative that has long been contested by Indigenous peoples.

“I think so much of Can-Lit is rooted in the omission of Indigenous peoples and that intentional forgetting. When you think about something like the Group of Seven, there’s just no reference to Indigenous people in any of their paintings. They went out and painted the country like it was this empty land full of beauty and they totally romanticized it that way. They made really beautiful paintings of the landscape, I think they are aesthetically pleasing, but they also contributed to this idea of an empty land that’s just waiting to be settled.

“So much of Canadian literature — and this is the thing that I remember from growing up — talks about that and if there is any mention of Indigenous people they’re always this disappearing or dying people. Even Skin of the Lion which I think is one of my favourite books ever by Michael Ondaatje that talks so eloquently about the building of Toronto, doesn’t speak to Indigenous people at all.”

Wilson-Yang acknowledges that her book doesn’t really speak to Indigenous peoples either. But she points out that distinguishing literature as ‘Canadian’ by definition contributes to the settler-colonial project with which the Canadian state is complicit.

“I think if literature was speaking to that more broadly it wouldn’t be something that’s centering Canada as this settler-colonial state, so much as perhaps just talking about what’s happened on this land. When I think about what Canada means and what a Canadian perspective is, it is really colonial and it is really violent, so it’s hard for me to imagine anything that is Canadian actually considering Indigeneity and colonization in a way that would seem true to me, because so much of what Canada is — like the basis of Canada — is settler-colonialism and ongoing genocide. So if Can-Lit would address that, then no it wouldn’t be Canada, because it wouldn’t be forwarding the Canadian project.

“So much of our art is different ways of forwarding this settler Canadian project, you know? Like the Group of Seven is one example, but there’s other writing that is really romanticizing Canada. As a kid, I remember there always being on the CBC different discussions about like what it meant to be Canadian or what Canadian art meant or what is the Canadian consciousness — always trying to find this national identity. And that you know, finding this national identity for Canadians — which is absurd in itself, because Canada’s so huge — so much of that seems to me to be advancing settler colonial narratives in some way.”

While reminding us to think critically about the language we use, she also notes that literature has a positive role to play in challenging unrepresentative, one-dimensional discourses about politics, society, and identity.

In Toronto, where Wilson-Yang lives, Pride Week 2016 made national headlines when Black Lives Matter Toronto brought the parade to a sudden stop with an action demanding more space and representation for queer people of colour, and also an end to uniformed police presence at Pride. Toronto Pride agreed to the demands, which were implemented for 2017. While radical acts like these take place in the public, political sphere, literature in many ways makes possible and then responds to, such political acts.

Literature plays a critical role in helping us understand the variety of ways people experience the present, says Wilson-Yang.

“Literature reflects the political climate that it’s in. I talked about knowing history and having a connection to where I came from, and something that literature does is that we can record and consider past present and future events, that may not otherwise be considered more broadly. When we think about police in Pride, or when we think about the amazing, amazing work that Black Lives Matter has been doing — especially in Toronto — and you think about how it gets framed, like ever since Black Lives Matter did that amazing interruption of Pride, if you weren’t someone who was concerned about what was happening for black folks or folks of colour who were also queer, you probably wouldn’t be as connected to it. And the things that people were publishing about Black Lives Matter and the racist things that were coming out in the media and the way that people were talking about what Pride is — all that discourse that’s getting produced — literature has an opportunity to create a different discourse, right?

“One of the things that I love about literature and writing is that it gives us an opportunity to create alternate discourses, other discourses; but it also gives us the opportunity to do it with beauty and imagination and metaphor. I think that as a way of passing on knowledge, that is really magical and is also a really great way to be learning. I learned so much from fiction and I really see literature as playing a role in creating a variety of discourses about what’s happening, or what could happen.”

“I think literature’s role lies in creating a variety of discourses, so that there isn’t one specific way that these political moments are remembered. Because there’s not one specific way that these political moments are experienced.”