Here’s the second half of that interview with a few authors of the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, published in 2012 by Topside Press. The Collection is currently a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Fiction and was selected by the American Library Association on their 2012 list of top LGBT books for adult readers.
(Here’s the first half, if you missed it.)
Why is transgender literature important to you?
Casey Plett: Because I love books and I’m trans! Duh!
Red Durkin: It’s actually really simple: every culture has stories. That’s one thing that fundamentally distinguishes us as a species, I think. Literature possesses an incredible power to influence the way a group of people sees itself and is seen by others. I think trans people are at a point where they need this validation. We’ve been maligned and mischaracterized for too long. We deserve a change.
Imogen Binnie: Because it sucks never to see people like yourself represented anywhere! I’ve been reading all the time for almost thirty years and a lot of books have resonated with me for a lot of reasons- for example I have been disappointed with the world and found it reassuring to see that reflected in novels. I have been dazed and had trouble feeling feelings, and it has been reassuring to see that reflected in novels. But very few novels- if any at all- have resonated with me in a way that reflected myself as a trans person with a three dimensional life. In other words, whatever pleasure, joy, frustration or reassurance I have felt in a text has been mediated through the fact that I have rarely if ever been able to directly identify with a text: these texts are for cis people, not for trans people, and so I usually the best I can hope for is to identify as best I can with a cis character. Like, has anyone addressed, in fiction, the subtle ways that being trans can complicate the experience of falling in love with a cis person? Where are the class- and gender-conscious bildungsroman about trans women? Where are the stories in which the trans woman characters are different at the end from who they were at the beginning- not counting those where they’re different at the end because they’re dead?
How do you see your work fitting (or not fitting) in with trans literature?
Casey Plett: I really don’t know. I hope it does fit in in some way and I hope that trans people read my stuff. Beyond that, I dunno.
Red Durkin: It’s hard to say, really. I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that the work I create is trans literature, but I don’t know where that puts me among other writers. I’m not writing for teens, if that makes a difference.
Imogen Binnie: Ideas about being trans among trans people have been evolving really fast for the last, like, ten or maybe twenty years; eighteen-year-olds who grew up on social justice tumblr are a literal generation after of the groundbreaking work of Susan Stryker, Kate Bornstein, and others who put together the original framework for the way we conceptualize ourselves as trans now. It’s amazing and I feel like that body of work- the stuff people are saying about gender and queerness and intersectionality and identity and oppression on tumblr, which seems to have migrated from livejournal, and which also shows up on WordPress and blogspot and places like that- is more relevant to the lives of most of the trans people than, like, John Irving’s last book that probably had a trans woman in it. And while my characters themselves have not tended to be particularly invested in that culture of progressive trans politics, I think my work as a whole, like thematic stuff or whatever, the questions I’m interested in, are very much a part of and in conversation with that body of thought.
What challenges do you see trans writers facing in the writing world? What challenges do you face? Any suggestions to address those issues?
Casey Plett: Besides all the garbage every trans person faces? Maybe I’ll talk about one thing that’s been on my mind lately, which is the very serious pressure trans writers face to conform to particular stories. There is pressure from cis people and the mainstream lit establishment to tell Disney-ified Inspirational Stories that don’t challenge cissexism (if they want any trans stories at all), there is pressure from within ourselves to avoid the stories that are particularly dark or shameful (every writer deals with that but the average trans writer deals with it a lot more than the average cis writer) and there’s pressure from within our own community as well, I think, since most of us (self included) have our own visions for how we wish trans stories were framed. I think the only way to address that is by having more kinds of stories out there.
Red Durkin: Trans people have and have always had a difficult time being taken seriously, getting their work published, and making a living in the writing world. I think this is why so many people see trans authorship as important to trans literature. But really, this is an issue with the business of literature, not the creative process. And the solution is simple: publishers need to start taking trans authors seriously. Of course, that’s not going to happen over night. In fact, trans people are probably going to have to circumvent traditional publishing if they want to get their work out there. Print on demand, e-books, and other advances in publishing are making that feasible for the first time.
Imogen Binnie: I guess I’ve touched on my answers to these questions already, but I think the primary one right now is the question of what role cis people play in the way our work gets read. Are we writing for cis people? Are we writing for other trans people? Capitalist concerns play into this- like, if you’re going to spend a million hours of your time writing a book that’s primarily of interest to trans people… is it worth it, if your mom and brother might not even read it? The flip side, of course, is: if you want to write about trans stuff, wouldn’t it be kind of excruciating to spend millions of hours writing about something else?
I mean, not to talk like a nerd, but I feel like a ton of aspects of trans people’s experience are mediated by normativities. Like, I wear eye makeup and foundation every day. I like wearing eye makeup and foundation. But why do I like wearing eye makeup and foundation? At least in part it’s because they help ensure that strangers gender me correctly. Did I learn to like wearing makeup for that reason, or are there other reasons? I have no idea. The whole thing is a complicated mess and I feel like sorting that question out is like a koan. There’s no answer, there’s no possibility for a purity of motive. And the question of how best to convey trans people in fiction in the context of unanswerable questions like “will cis people get this” and “will trans people get this” and “will radical trans people hate this for being middle-of-the-road” or “will conservative trans people know what I’m talking about,” seems to me to be the same kind of unanswerable question.
There’s a part in Nevada where Maria talks about the way that, unless you’re a straight white cis man, you don’t really get to have, like, a true self, a true face. Only straight white cis men get to frame themselves as normal; everybody else has to worry about these questions. I mean, almost any kind of purity is a weird and false construction, unless you’re talking about, like, chemicals, but it seems like straight white cis men are the only people who get to believe the lie that their motives and believes are pure.
But I mean, questions of audience and intent, they have been flummoxing authors for as long as there’s been literary theory, right? So it’s not like this is the most unique position. In fact it’s just a specific version of questions that are normal for any writer.
I think we as trans people have a history of defaulting to telling our stories in ways that are so accessible to cis people that they alienate other trans people, and I’m interested in flipping that over. I don’t know if it’s entirely possible- almost everything I’ve ever read or watched has been made by cis people for cis people and about cis people, and it’s not like you can just make up a whole new paradigm. But it’s something to work toward.
Do you write about trans characters? When you write about them, do you write for a cis or trans audience?
Casey Plett: Yes to the first question. For the second question, that to me divides along fiction/non-fiction lines: When I was writing my McSweeney’s column about my first year of transition, the audience I ended up developing in my head (in terms of how to deal with jargon/vocabulary/perspective) was that of a young trans kid who wasn’t out yet and didn’t really have any connection to a queer/trans community. Myself at 19, basically. Enough so that there’d be enough explanation so a kid like that could follow along without feeling dumb, but not so much that the explanation would devolve into throat-clearing and hand-holding for jumpy cis people. I don’t think I succeeded in doing that all the time, but that was the idea I had and one I still want to stick to when I write non-fiction.
As far as fiction, for me, my first inclination is to say fuck audience. Most of the fiction I really love trades in voice and a close-in camera lens, where the characters and events are so powerful they make up for the references and perspectives I’m not “getting”. I had no reference points for most of the proper nouns in Portnoy’s Complaint when I read it in 8th grade, but I didn’t need them. So when I write fiction, I just wanna burrow into whatever the characters would think and do and say. Of course, what that’s meant in practice is that I’ve tended to write for a trans audience, since I write about trans people. And I guess in other parts of my work, like when I write about Mennonites, I tend to explain stuff for non-Mennonites, even in fiction. So maybe I’m not as anti-audience in reality as I am in my head. Come back to me in a year and maybe I’ll have figured that out?
Red Durkin: I do write trans characters and they’re definitely intended for a trans audience. What that means to me, though, is just that I don’t have to bother working trans 101 stuff into my work. A lot of authors do that, but I’m not interested in having to explain what a trans person is to my readers. That’s what the Internet is for.
Imogen Binnie: We’re only talking about fiction here, right? In my fiction I write about trans characters, yeah. And while theoretically I’m writing for a trans audience, in practice, explaining what it’s like to be trans does slip in. At least in part it’s because as a trans person, I don’t really get to stop thinking about that stuff, and so as trans people my characters don’t either.
But it’s interesting, I’ve been writing a column for this magazine Maximum Rocknroll for a little over a year and I just explicitly came out as trans in I think the March issue. But before then, I’d talked about feminist stuff, and I’d mentioned things like the racist prison industrial complex’s treatment of CeCe Mcdonald. You know. I wrote about queer, trans, feminist, and anti-racist stuff, but I didn’t out myself explicitly as trans. I was interested in using that column as a space where I could be trans and I wasn’t denying it but I also wasn’t centering it. And it went really well! I really liked doing it. And it was interesting to think about my audience for that column- mostly the people who read that magazine are punkers, right, so that’s already a really specific slice of the population. But even without saying “I am trans,” I’ve been aware in every column of the fact that there’s probably some dumb trans punk kid exactly like me, at some stage of transition or pre-transition, reading my column somewhere. And that was who I was writing it for: somebody who’s trans but who’s interested in things other than Being Trans, who’s interested in being Trans And Punk, or being Trans And Crusty, or whatever.
Do you feel that your work is coherent within the trans community? How about outside of it?
Casey Plett: I don’t really know if there’s a way for me to truly know that, but I hope so on both counts. I want to be read, dammit!
Red Durkin: I hope my work is coherent to anyone that reads it. I’m not interested in telling stories that feature faultless, heroic trans people. Not every character I write can be considered a positive representation of trans people and I think some people will have a hard time with that. But I’m more interested in pursuing truth than spearheading a PR campaign. I think there are plenty of trans and cis people who understand that.
Do you connect your literary work to a social justice and/or spiritual struggle? If yes, how so?
Casey Plett: Oh boy. I dunno. My knee-jerk reaction is to think that whenever I try to imagine “what effect might this piece have on a social justice level” it often ends up with me producing self-censored writing that’s muddled and half-assed, and it’s when I drop that and I think “okay whatever, this thing is just eating at my fucking soul and I’m gonna have to write about it if I want to do this piece, and if writing that thing happens to play into some jerk’s ugly idea of trans women, then that’s gonna be what it’ll fucking be,” it’s when I do that that I end up producing work I’m a little more proud of. I’d actually say that applies pretty strongly to my story in The Collection.
Conversely though, I hate the idea that literature should be apolitical or somewhat apart from social justice and I think that ethos is actually very present and powerful in the mainstream literary world and there’s pressure from that world—especially in fiction—to present “balanced” work that “takes into account all sides” and “look isn’t everybody tainted and isn’t everybody to blame for the sorrows in this world” blah blah blah and it’s furthered by white/straight/male people who are resistant to having their privilege disturbed and basically fuck that with a fucking hammer. I think I look up to David Foster Wallace, actually, on a score like this. Not that I know if social justice specifically was on his mind, but morality was, explicitly so, and to me he wrote complex, tough, beautiful work* that burrowed dankly into the humanity of every person who showed up in either his fiction or non-fiction…yet his stuff has morals and arguments in them.
(*Well, except for the transmisogyny with regards to a couple characters in Infinite Jest. That totally marred for me what was otherwise such an awesome book. It was like eating a huge, amazing cake where every twentieth bite was soaked in motor oil.)
Red Durkin: To me, writing well-developed trans literature is inherently subversive. It can’t help but counteract the normalization of straight, white, cis male experiences as the only stories worth writing or reading.
Imogen Binnie: Yeah. I had this wild moment where I realized that my story in The Collection was, like, pretty invested in spirituality, and that Maria in Nevada has apparently read at least a little bit about Buddhism. In real life I am legitimately stoked on, like, feminist spirituality stuff; I just re-read Starhawk’s Dreaming The Dark, which rules- and I’ve been reading a lot about occult philosophies, initially because they are metal as hell but then because they are also fascinating. I guess I’m interested in some sort of spirituality, but I was kind of surprised to find it leaking into my work.
As for social justice, definitely. I mean, that term gets a bad rap because people whip it around at each other on the Internet in the same way that people on the Internet bludgeon each other with everything else, but social justice is really important to me. I had my feminist click moment reading This Bridge Called My Back when I first moved to Oakland, where all this stuff I sort of knew about started cohering. And I don’t know if anybody is better than bell hooks at taking complicated, important stuff and laying it out in a way that anybody can understand. I feel really lucky that I had access to a social justice lens through which to view all the stuff that sucked about transitioning. Like, oh, I’m not hideous, I just live in a culture with a really weird concept of beauty! That kind of thing. Of course, at some point you stick your head up over the fence and realize, oh yeah, this isn’t just a useful lens for me to have, this also comes with an awareness of how much work we’ve got to do, and how responsible we are for doing it. So.
I’m not sure whether that’s explicit in my work but it’s central to my understanding of the world and so I’m sure it is at least influential on my work. Not to mention, I mean, writing about trans women as three-dimensional human beings who have problems and aspirations and interests beyond, y’know, being good at being trans- sadly, that is still a political thing to do in 2013. It’s inherently a social justice issue. Representation is political! Especially when the representation we do have tends to boil down to either “transsexuality is pathology” or “trans people are just like cis people.” I’m like, I get that trans people are as valid as cis people in terms of being human. I don’t need to have that conversation- somebody else might, but I don’t. Going over that ground, explaining that stuff again, it’s boring. I want to talk about the things in trans women’s lives that are different from things in cis women’s lives. I want to talk about the ways that trans women’s lives are different from trans men’s lives. And until we can have those conversations without having to pause for a trans 101, and having to pause to acknowledge cissupremecists’ perspectives, and having to pause to ask whether our literal lives are even appropriate to be depicted in all their honest complexity, this kind of writing will in my opinion necessarily be connected to a social justice struggle.
Casey Plett grew up a kid in Southern Manitoba, Canada, and a teenager in Eugene, Oregon. She was the author of “Balls Out,” a column about her first year of transition, for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and has published essays in Line Zero, Anomalous Press, and Cavalier Literary Couture. She is currently at work on a memoir.
Red Durkin is the managing editor of PrettyQueer.com. She is a writer, comedian, and vlogger. She has toured extensively as part of the Tranny Roadshow, performed at Camp Trans and the Transgender Leadership Summit, and was a member of the Fully Functional Cabaret. She has written nine zines and was featured in the final issue of Punk Planet magazine. Her work on Youtube has been shown in college classrooms, played at various events internationally, and translated into German. http://www.reddurkin.com
Imogen Binnie is the author of the zines The Fact That It’s Funny Doesn’t Make It A Joke and Stereotype Threat. She is currently a monthly contributor to Maximum Rocknroll and has previously written for Aorta Magazine, The Skinny, and PrettyQueer.com. She writes about books at keepyourbridgesburning.com. Her first novel, Nevada, was published by Topside Press in April 2013. http://www.imogenbinnie.com