Back in the day, I read McSweeneys all the time. Not just the features or short stories, but even the web-only stuff, like their annual column contest. It’s been years since I even visited the site, but I vividly remember reading one column whenever it updated: Casey Plett’s.
Her column was simple: a series of personal essays on being trans. They certainly resonated with me; I can’t remember any of the other column contest winners. Over the years her work has popped up here and there: an essay in The Walrus, a short story in a collection published by Topside Press. Last year, the same press published her first collection, A Safe Girl to Love. It’s a knockout.
In just a handful of stories, Plett’s fiction goes across the country, from hip bars in New York to snow-buried apartments in the Canadian prairies to cloud-covered neighborhoods in Oregon. Her characters all struggle in some way; sometimes they get it together, but not always. Things get dicey, but I never got a feeling like they were hopeless. Indeed, there’s always a glimmer of hope, a recognition that life keeps going on.
A little while ago, at an award ceremony in New York, Plett said it was time for trans people to share their stories. Depending on where you’re coming from, it seems like either an obvious statement or a rallying cry. After all, there are novels with trans characters, but they’re largely from cisgender authors, who clumsily turn transitioning into a lazy metaphor or a clichéd plot. (Indeed, Plett’s written a whole essay on this trope and offered several, better reads on trans characters).
Such tropes are never in Plett’s collection of stories, A Safe Girl to Love. Instead, this is what happens after: coming to grips with things, the bonds between people, figuring out relationships now work and, most importantly, how life goes on.
Her stories are about people who are sometimes cruel, self-absorbed or haunted. In other words, they’re people, living like any of us do. Sometimes it means doing sex work on top of a regular job (“Portland, Oregon”), sometimes it means a messy relationship (“Lizzie and Annie”) and sometimes it means taking the first nervous steps (“Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success”). But these are all people who leap off the page, their lives generally mundane in a way that feels real. They go to work, have sex and eat at Dairy Queen.
My favourite story here is “Not Bleak,” which follows two women on a trip up to Mennonite country in rural Manitoba. Plett vividly captures the setting and attitude and even the language of the prairies. At times, it felt almost cinematic. But it also captures a feeling of being out of place; Zeke comes from a world that doesn’t disapprove of trans people, but can’t even process they exist; in the absence of understanding is a void of recognition. Or as Plett writes:
“Zeke opened the door and I jerked face up from my hands.
Woah, I said.
Her face, so naturally calm, suddenly moved into an expression of glumness. Yeah, she said.
She was in shirtsleeves and grey cotton pants, and her shoulder-length black hair was neatly slicked back. Zeke was on the pale side to begin with – which is saying something for our stupid corner of the world – but with her soft girl-body, already so unassuming, and now passing for a boy, she looked truly ghostly. Like she was a wraith, something you could put a hand through.” (pg 145)
Like most of what happens to her characters, the trip is a mess: lies are exposed and people are hurt. But the most interesting stuff is what isn’t said: there aren’t any long conversations about transitioning between characters. They just speak like anyone else does. Which seems to be the point.
At the same time, there are moments of levity. Between the larger stories are smaller changes of pace: a guide to buying female clothing, a funny manifesto on true literary equality (“Sarah Schulman next to David Sedaris!,” shouts the narrator) and a talking cat.
To paraphrase Plett’s line, this is only part of the first salvo of trans people telling their stories. There are other voices, but Plett’s stands out among the crowd. You should be listening.