Trish Salah’s Six Debut Novels by Trans Women

How can I begin to talk about exceptional writing by trans women authors when, to a certain degree, any trans woman’s published work is exceptional inasmuch as it has somehow made its way into existence? In the hands of cis authors, trans people’s lives and identities are so routinely erased, stereotyped or idealized that publication at all might be considered both a political and a literary achievement, one that revises our imaginations simply by representing that which is otherwise barred. The grace with which the authors on this list dispense with stock figures and clichéd narratives is the beginning of what distinguishes their work, but only the beginning.

Quebec scholar Viviane Namaste has written about what she calls the “autobiographical imperative,” which describes the routine assumption that the only story trans people have to tell is the story of how and why we are trans. Likewise, poet and memoirist Max Wolf Valerio and performance artist and activist Mirha-Soleil Ross have argued that, in more politicized contexts, trans writers are tokenized at best and ignored at worst—especially when our work does not conform to feminist and queer political and aesthetic norms. Then there are the normativities of white supremacy and racism, middle class respectability and ‘taste,’ and the pervasive fear and hatred of sex workers, which inevitably condition discussions around which trans stories get told, and how.

All of the below debut novels contend with these pressures, and each produces its own solutions. Some don’t focus on trans characters or themes, at least not explicitly, raising the shocking possibility of thinking of trans writers simply as writers. One takes place in a world that seems at times almost entirely trans, where cis people appear as mostly unremarkable exceptions. Many focus on relationships and conversations among trans people, presenting trans lives and worlds that are subtly and complexly drawn. In some, being trans is neither the primary or most salient aspect of a protagonist’s identity or of the plot. In different ways, all of these books speak back to and/or undo discourses that would speak for trans people.


1. Ryka Aoki, He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song

Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song is a gorgeously rambling ensemble tale of postcolonial living in Hawaii, which is by turns meditative and sorrowful— but mostly comic, verging on hilarious. In fact, Aoki had me laughing before I’d even begun to read the story proper, with the Mahalo! that welcomes the reader, not without irony: “Use the Glossary at the back of the book and soon you’ll feel like a local!”

Harry was kicking it at the store when he met Mr. Yates. Actually, he didn’t know it was Mr Yates at first, until he was invited for coffee and found out that yes indeed this man was Mr. Steven Yates, the very high mukka-mukka computer guy who went just buy one huge chunk of Hamakua coastline.

Written in and out of Settler/standard and Hawaiian Pidgin English, Aoki’s book at times troubles the distinction between the two. With a backdrop of conquest, trade, settlement and mixing on the islands, Aoki problematizes contemporary economic, politic and indeed metaphysical/epistemological arrangements while weaving a tale that nests many stories within one. Is He Mele a Hilo a story about the sudden arrival of a powerful tech billionaire, and the effects, both good and ill, he has upon on a community? Is it the story of Noelani Choi’s Hula troop, her desire to make a performance about the life of Jesus Christ? Or about Nona Watanabe’s perfect tasting chicken, the envy it inspires and her longing for more from her widowed boyfriend, Harry? Yes and yes and yes, and really that is just the scratching the surface. He Mele A Hilo proffers a view of the world that is historically and metaphysically rich as well as joyfully, if not uncritically, optimistic.


2. Jeanne Thornton, The Dream of Doctor Bantum

‘Do you ever think,’ asked Tabitha, ‘about what it would be like to get outside of time?’

Julie blinked at her.

The Dream of Doctor Bantum, Jeanne Thornton’s debut novel, is one of the more occultly and lushly melancholy books you are likely to fall into obsessive love with. How could you not? It is a fantasy novel in which the fantastic seems entirely immanent to the grist of small town life and first (or is it second?) love. In it, a young Texan girl, Julie Thatch, falls into desperate love with a woman who very nearly incarnates Tabitha, her recently and mysteriously dead older sister. Within the romance that ensues, which is also a struggle to the death with a mysterious cult, Thornton plunges us into desire’s strange temporality, one laced with both premonition and echo, and encompassing an impossible, inevitable confusion of familiarity, loss and discovery.

Ultimately, The Dream of Doctor Bantum is a meditation on the power and limits of magical thinking and the indiscernibility of perception from desire and belief. What lover doesn’t wish time could stand still, or hasn’t yearned for the return of a lost beloved? Who has suffered and not wished to be free from the violence encoded in memory?


3. Sybil Lamb, I’ve Got a Time Bomb

Sybil… had at least almost 20% more mind powers than when she’d climbed up here. It had been well over a year now since the hospital. She’d been dead well over a year and she was doing amazing! It was time for her to find whatever city Cake was in and destroy it so they could be together.

Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb has its origins and inspiration in Lamb’s self-published zines (including How to Kill Queer Scum and Detransition Now) and her visual “of North American Travelling Strippers and… Freight Train Culture.” Set in an alternate post-apocalyptic/post-Katrina reality, I’ve Got a Time Bomb begins when protagonist Sybil D’Lye sustains brain injury after being bashed on her way home from a gay wedding. From that point, it unfolds as a dreamily baroque, trashy and picaresque auto-fiction across an “Amerika” and “Canadia” almost entirely populated by trans women who also happen to be punks, strippers, mad scientists, anti-capitalist protesters and squatters. Lamb’s book is poetic, sexy, hilarious and scathingly on point in its translations of our dystopic present into something that passes for fiction—and it is also a stunningly illustrated, lucid dream of contemporary discourses on the human, gender, race, and capital. Fans of Lamb’s work are prone to saying there is nothing else out there like it, and they’re pretty much right.


4. Jia Qing Wilson Yang, Small Beauty

Awarded an Honour of Distinction in the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2016 LGBT Emerging Writers competition, Jia Qing Wilson Yang’s Small Beauty is quiet and beautiful like the Ontario countryside in which it is largely set, and is similarly rough-hewn, remorseless and haunted. Abjuring dominant representations of trans lives as urban, white and all about transition, Wilson Yang crafts the intricate, compelling and elliptically unfolding story of Mei, a young mixed race woman pulled between rural and urban allegiances, as well as obligations to her relations, living and dead, blood and chosen. Evocative of classic Canadiana, Wilson Yang’s book offers a fresh revisioning of the settler/colonial gothic, with one foot in a magic realist lyric and the other in regionalist gritlit.

‘Hey Sui Mui, you got big shoulders from before hormones. You gonna help me move this week?’ Connie grins at Mei, egging her on at the drop in. Mei could swear Connie is deliberately offensive around her, especially when she’s bored. There is no programming at the drop-in tonight, and dinner is late.

Beginning with her arrival in the home she inherited from her recently passed cousin, Mei’s narrative is a waking from the numbness of past grief and a movement into a reckoning with both grief’s pain, and the inevitability of its recurrence. Moving with her memory—one step forward for every two steps back—the book is both difficult and moving in its portraits of taken-for-granted racisms and explosive forms of transphobic violence, as well as in its unwavering attention to Mei’s uncertainty as to how to live. It is a beautifully designed and exquisitely written novel, one with stolen boats and ghosts; trans women who don’t take shit from anyone, except when they do; transgenerational traumas; and one surprisingly overdetermined goose.


5. Torrey Peters, The Masker

Given Torrey Peters‘s conviction “that the publishing industry doesn’t serve trans women,” it is perhaps unsurprising that she self-published her first book, The Masker, and gives it away to other trans women for free on the Internet. This is despite her having bona fides from McSweeney’s, Best Travel Writing and WaveForm, as well as a stint as an editor at Topside Press.

‘Look at that,’ she says, ‘that’s some Silence Of The Lambs shit!’

She’s looking at a very tall, older trans woman dressed like a dominatrix on the other side of the room.

Even if Peters clearly writes for other trans women first—and committedly and brilliantly—positive representation this is not. Rather, her novella is a wickedly canny interrogation of what we might like to think “positive representation” means, and the lengths we might go to make it so. Gorgeously and creepily illustrated by Sybil Lamb, this short, sharply drawn novella is set at the intersection of MtF cross dresser, transsexual and fetish feminization cultures. Like I’ve Got A Time Bomb, The Masker reads the world askew and from below, skewering respectability politics through their soft underbelly. The view afforded is at times both hemmed in and slightly feverish as Peters’s set piece plays desire against identity, putting a new spin to Kate Bornstein’s famous maxim, “Never fuck anyone you wouldn’t want to be.” And though we’re all—all of us trans women, that is—familiar with how that story is supposed to play out, Peters’s tale goes its own wryly awry way.


6. Imogen Binnie, Nevada

When you are trans, you are supposed to know everything about men and everything about women and the ways they interact and the important differences that lubricate the dating book market and how ultimately everybody is fundamentally the same but also fundamentally different. And when you first transition? For the first couple years, you totally think you do…

White, punk, dyke, fuck-up Maria Griffiths is nobody’s prop for deconstructing gender, learning a valuable lesson about fluidity, or reassuring themselves of their own cis-certainties. Instead, she is an utterly convincing, entirely likeable—if highly flawed—twenty something (post)punk who is pretty aware she is slacking her way through her job, and her relationship with her girlfriend, in favor of being in a primary relationship with her own impatient narcissism. She is bored with being trans, and even more bored with explaining transness to cis people, and she is hilarious and smart ass as she tells you so.

Of course that is just the pregame show. The real fun starts only after she’s driven halfway across the country in the car stole from her ex-, and finds someone she mistakes for an avatar of her younger, pre-transition self.

It is hard to talk about Imogen Binnie’s Nevada as anything but a game changer. A recipient of the Dr. Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award and shortlisted for Lambda’s Transgender Fiction Award, Nevada is the first novel I read in which trans women were depicted believably and on our own terms. I should put quotations marks around the last part of that sentence because I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard it, or something very much like it, from other trans women.


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