Casey Plett's debut collection of short stories, A Safe Girl to Love, features 11 young trans women who are carving out lives for themselves. Some are navigating old relationships in new bodies; others are dealing with harassment and broken trust.
These are stories of love and lust, sex and violence, well-meaning parents and neglected cats -- all rendered in Plett's unflinchingly direct prose. "Gritty" has almost become a literary-review cliché, but A Safe Girl to Love is certainly unvarnished in its truth.
Write what you know, so the adage goes -- and Plett knows what it's like to live as a young trans woman. Before A Safe Girl to Love -- which will be launched locally at McNally Robinson with Trish Salah's Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 -- started to take shape, the Winnipeg author was wrestling with a memoir, inspired by a column she had written on transitioning for the website McSweeney's Internet Tendency in 2010/11.
"I wanted to try turn that into a book and write more about stuff that had happened in my life in the past, my pre-transition life," she explains over coffee at a West End diner.
Around that time, Topside Press -- an indie imprint that publishes transgender fiction and the publisher of A Safe Girl to Love -- put out a call for submissions for an anthology called The Collection: Short Fiction From the Transgender Vanguard. Plett was inspired. "I hadn't written fiction in years, but I enjoyed it."
She submitted Other Women, the short story that opens A Safe Girl to Love. "I felt super scared by it," she recalls. "It was really explicit and talked about partner violation and how that plays out with trans women and I felt super terrified. A lot of people ended up responding warmly to it."
She found herself writing more fiction, about things that were happening to her and the trans women she was becoming friends with. Plett became less interested in writing about her past; there was too much to say about the present.
Her experiences, as well as those of trans women she's met along the way, informed the 11 stories that make up A Safe Girl to Love. "There's lots in the book -- probably easily half -- that comes from my life, but the other half comes from my friends' lives or people I've known," she says. "Individual actions are the work of fiction, but as far as what it's like to be a 20-something trans woman in this world? Very little of that is plucked from thin air."
The title comes from a passage in Michelle Tea's coming-of-age memoir The Chelsea Whistle. "I was flipping through books for inspiration -- I hate titling stuff -- and it stood out to me," she says.
"I liked the title A Safe Girl to Love because a lot of what I wanted to talk about in the book is the idea of what it's like for trans women to try to love people and to love each other -- and for trans women to be loved."
Plett was interested in telling stories that didn't pander to the burden of positive representation so often thrust upon writers from marginalized communities. In particular, she was inspired by Imogen Binnie's Nevada, which, "in contrast to a lot of trans women's lit out there, it's very bleak and it ends in a tough way that I really appreciated, after I was done crying," she says. Nevada showed her that nothing was off limits, and Plett gave herself permission to dig deep into topics she previously hadn't allowed herself to explore as a writer.
"I think we're at a very exciting time in trans literature now where we're sort of allowing ourselves to do that a little bit more, where previously, most, if not all, trans lit was written by cis people, or it was written by trans people explaining ourselves to cis people," she says, referring to individuals whose experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. "A lot of it had this inspirational, happy sort of ending. Which you can find in a lot of minority literature; the dominant group really wants to be left with the feeling that, 'Things are getting better,' or 'Things are on the upswing.'"
She's encouraged by other transgender writers -- such as Janet Mock and her game-changing memoir Redefining Realness, to name one high-profile example -- who are rejecting those positive representation narratives so often bound up with respectability politics, which The Nation once defined as "the idea that one can overcome oppression by presenting one's self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards."
"We're in such a different time now," Plett says. "Even compared to when I was starting to write in 2010, you can see awesome trans women on TV and in the media and publishing books who are not just pushing the same old white, middle-class, nice little lady narrative -- 'And I thought I was a girl since I was three years old, and then I became a nice, normal woman and had my surgery and now I have a husband' -- which was the only thing even remotely visible, if it was visible at all, when I was growing up."
Now that more trans women's voices are being heard, Plett feels less pressure to offer readers "a way in" by universalizing her experiences.
"When I was in grad school, it was always 'Oh, you know, you have to write this so that people can identify with your situation' -- which is great and all, but in a way, it's still an oppressive tactic to use in literature," she says. She points to the one-size-fits-all tagline that populates the jackets of late-'80s, early-'90s memoirs: "'Everyone who has ever felt different will identify with this book.'"
"I think that's starting to break a bit. You can talk about and write about these kinds of things and it is possible to have books like this, which is so cool," she says. "I can't believe I get to write a book like this and it's real. Even five years ago, I would have been too scared to write about trans women who drink too much, and who are mean, and who are hurt and wounded and are going through all this shit and aren't the greatest people because of it. I don't know if I would have been totally honest with myself. "